Friday, September 24, 2021

Does Art Have Intrinsic Value?

The question is pertinent, more so at a time when “value” has become a casualty of wokeness. Does artistic value exist? Are some composers, painters and writers really that much better than others? Can we ascertain who is great and who is mediocre?

In an age of identity politics the last remaining standard for judging much of anything, certainly anything that does not have a basis in objective fact, seems to be racial or ethnic identity. A work is pronounced to be good because its creator belongs to this or that victim group. There are no standardized tests to evaluate art, so the art world, in a spasm of wokeness-- we can hope that it’s a death spasm-- has now decided that the greatest art was produced by those who belonged to this or that oppressed group.

At which point there is no such thing as intrinsic artistic value. Everything is relative. One remarks, with regret, that the lame reasoning behind this movement derives from practices like book burning. The Nazis-- that is, the real ones-- burned books, not on the basis of their intrinsic merit, but on the basis of their author’s ethnic identity. In effect, it resembles the current practice of having college admissions officers downgrade the test scores of Asian students, only because they are Asian. It’s the equity that counts, not the mental competence and aptitude shown objectively in standardized tests.

If our culture no longer recognizes objective test results, consider how skewed the process of evaluating art has become. This is moreover the case when we consider that one’s contemporaries, for example, are not always the best placed to judge the value of a work of art.

Tom Wolfe-- bless his soul-- once pointed out that at the turn of the twentieth century, the grandees of the Paris art world got together to predict which of their contemporaries would, a century later, be considered to have possessed true greatness. 

The winner of the poll: William Bouguereau.

Perhaps this merely demonstrates that it takes time to judge greatness in art. After all, it took quite some time for Shakespeare to become Shakespeare. On the other hand, much of what passes for great writing today is-- to anyone who knows how to read-- unadulterated crap. In fact, today’s writing, to take an obvious example, has become even crappier under the influence of wokeness.

Nowadays, pronominal usage has become, at the least, controversial, so writers are contorting and convoluting their prose in order to avoid offending some inchoate self-proclaimed victim group.

Take the example of Adam Gopnik, an excellent writer, to say the least. Thus, one was somewhat optimistic when one saw that Gopnik had chosen to address the question of whether we could determine artistic excellence objectively. One should have known that an article written for a magazine called Town and Country was not likely to be especially profound, but one likes to keep hope alive.

Before launching into Gopnik’s arguments, I offer up one of his sentences, as evidence that wokeness can even ruin a good writer’s prose. I would like to think that some idiot millennial editor had a hand in producing this sentence, but here it is, from the text of the article:

The man or woman of real taste is to us known not by the firmness of her insistences but by the subtlety of her affirmations. 

Incoherent grammar, someone should have noticed. After opening with the de rigueur usage of “man or woman” the sentence slides into using the generic she. One does not want to opine at too much length over the stupidity of it all, but simply to point out that this, according to the rules of English grammar, an error. If his editors did not know any better, Gopnik should have.

As for the thought, whether or not one insists firmly is more about rhetoric than judgment. Being subtle in one’s affirmations might be more persuasive, but it does not necessarily tell us whether the speaker is right or wrong.

And the other infelicity, the phrase-- “to us known”-- is poor sentence structure. It should be “known to us.” Yet, if you have the normal distaste for passive constructions, the sentence should have opened: We know (or recognize) the man or the woman… and so on.

When it comes to grammar, there are rules. They cannot be changed at whim in order to avoid offending someone. The rules of grammar and of English language usage evolved over centuries. They did not arrive where they arrived because of a vast right wing conspiracy, but because correct usage facilitates communication and thought. Obscure and ambiguous locutions tend to melt away because not enough people understand them.

In a world where people cannot even agree on pronominal usage, how can we decide on the intrinsic value of a work of art? Or better, we might ask the question of whether or not artistic value functions like the rules of grammar, and whether some people know them better than others. Do those who know more about art can have a better sense of artistic value? Does their experience allow them to know artistic value when they see it? Does the man who spent his life looking at painting have a better sense of artistic value than the man who is seeing a painting for the first time?

If we can, pace Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, know that a work is pornographic when we see it, why can we not say the same about a work of art?

Anyway, Gopnik, perhaps because he is writing in Town and Country, reduces it all to a question of taste. He opens his essay with the famous Latin expression: De gustibus non est disputandum. It means, there is no arguing with taste.

Since taste is highly individual, we can imagine that your taste in oysters might not correlate with mine or that your taste in decor is not the same as mine. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a bad oyster-- it will make you sick, regardless of your taste-- or that a hoarder’s hovel is not generally repugnant-- because the question is not taste in decor but offense to human sensibility.

Of course, if you take the contents of a hoarder’s hovel and dump them in a museum, you can confidently assume that some well-heeled individuals, filled full with their pretense to know something about art, will declare it to be a great leap forward in art history. Or some such.

One suspects that judging art is not a matter of taste. After all, great art cannot merely appeal to the taste of a single individual. Great art becomes great because it speaks to large groups of individuals over long periods of time. That is, it transcends time and place. It even transcends, dare we suggest, taste.

When it comes to artistic value, we all know, even if Gopnik fails to mention it, that there is such a thing as the art market. Need we say that any market can be corrupted. The art market in particular is subject to all manner of deception and corruption. It has always been easy enough for a dealer who possesses a slew of works by artist X to hire two auction bidders who will bid up the price of a work by artist X, thus jacking up the value of the dealer’s stash.

Of course, market pricing of art is not quite the same thing as market pricing of pork bellies or wheat. We do not, at least under normal circumstances, consume art the same way we consume bacon or Wheaties. We might say that we do, but, strictly speaking we do not.

Since art is bought and sold, and since it is not consumed, its value will probably be established over time by a series of market events. In this way the value of art is determined roughly as English grammar is set.

In the end we like to assume the best art will be recognized. But, there is no guarantee. The longer people look at a work, the more people who look at and experience a work, the more likely it will be that we will discover something like intrinsic value. Or should we say, people in the know, experts will have an inordinate influence on what we do or do not value.

Needless to say our woke intelligentsia is having none of this. They reject the market value of certain artistic works because they do not like the message and because they and their friends refuse to be judged against the standards established by, for example, Homer or Dickens. Those who reject the verdict of the art market, a free market-- though not quite as free as the market in language usage-- are forced to conjure vast transnational, transhistorical conspiracies. This makes them sound paranoid, but that is not our problem. Not believing in markets exacts a cost, in mental health terms.

Of course, giving credit to markets saves us from the tyranny of experts. But that does not mean that experts do not matter. We all love democracy-- at least we say so-- but the value of great art is not normally determined by the hoi polloi. 

Here Gopnik introduces an amusing sidelight. 

Gopnik loves Mozart. In that he is not alone. One day he discovered that one of the great musical geniuses of our time, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, was not quite as enamored of Wolfgang. I was not too surprised. Some people of my acquaintance believe that there is a jejune quality to Mozart, one that does not exist in the greatest composer ever, that would be the GOAT-- Johann Sebastian Bach.

Of course, Gould was an expert, an expert’s expert, if you will. And yet, Mozart’s work has certainly endured, for centuries now. It continues to fill concert halls and it sells CDs. As opposed to painting and sculpture, music provides a direct experience to far more people than does, for example, a fresco painted on the wall of an Italian church.

Music has a larger audience, but that might mean that it appeals to a lower common denominator. Great paintings and sculptures grace museums and perhaps grand homes. Beyond the aesthetic satisfaction of gazing at great art lies the simple fact that the world of fine art is inexorably elitist. 

Anyway, Gopnik did not mention Bach, so we are left with Mozart:

Given that we think that, or try to, I was all the more shocked to discover, during a recent late night grazing of YouTube, a video in which the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould goes after Mozart as a mediocrity. Mozart! Truly. There is Gould, in 1968, indisputably a great musician, the author of two of the best renditions of Bach ever recorded, lashing into Mozart and those of us who love him. He plays a heartbreaking passage from the C Minor Concerto and then rips it apart: “Listless scale runs,” “predictable chord changes.” He compares Mozart’s composition—really!—to “interoffice memos,” the email of that time. He concedes it no more credit than “a few wistful themes.”

 Gopnik then defends Wolfie by attacking Gould-- for lacking emotional maturity. A strange charge, one that could easily be turned against Gopnik, saying that he loves Mozart because he suffers from emotional immaturity. Then again, the ad hominem against Gould ignores his analysis of the music. So, Gopnik believes that emotion is more important than, say, structure. While we would admit that emotion has a say in our taste in art or music, the truth is, there must be more to art than its appeal to emotion.

What we would answer to Gould is not that Mozart is great, but that your critique, however intelligent, is limited in its horizon. It is apparent, listening to Gould, that he was indifferent to, even made uncomfortable by (in what we would now call a “spectrumy” way), the extraordinary emotional immediacy of Mozart’s music, its replication of a human being wandering in and out of melancholic and affirmative moods—by, in short, the implicit romanticism of the sound. Great melodic music, after all, is made from repetition as much as variation. Mozart makes music by rote and repetition? Well, Rococo art delights us in general not because of the profundity of its architecture but the shimmering variety of its surface.

Unfortunately, Gopnik has obscured the question of whether Mozart is great. Or else, is he as great as Bach? And yet, if there is such a thing as intrinsic artistic value, those are the questions we want to answer.


Sam L. said...

I wonder why the Asian peoples, being looked down upon by colleges and universities, have not started up their own colleges and universities. They believe in learning and in working hard. It could be a long hard road to do that, but they'd beat Harvard, Yale, and the others...

Sam L. said...

"The man or woman of real taste is to us known not by the firmness of her insistences but by the subtlety of her affirmations." If I were an English teacher, I would FLUNK the person who wrote that sentence.

370H55V said...

@Sam L

They already have plenty of high quality institutions. After all, you don't think American schools have the capacity to take on millions of Indian and Chinese students, do you?

And at the rate higher ed costs keep increasing here, it wouldn't surprise me if many of our best students take part in "educational tourism" there in the years to come.

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to that $91 million Jeff Koons "Rabbit"?

Sam L. said...

Who is this "William Bouguereau."? Being a man of the hninterlands, I've never heard of him.

Bubblegum Crisis said...

"Who is this William Bouguereau? Being a man of the hninterlands, I've never heard of him."

He was pretty good, indeed better than most artists today. But he was old school and didn't define what came to be modernism. He produced at least one masterpiece.

He was certainly better than Hunter Biden, that's for sure.