Wednesday, June 29, 2022

What Is Art?

At the risk of repeating myself, the public discussion about art and the art world is missing a basic component. That is, the intrinsic aesthetic value of an artwork. See previous post here.

So, if a lot of savvy people think it’s art, does that make it art? If the art market says that it’s art, does that make it art. Is there anything more to the value of the artwork than a consensus opinion? To be precise, when it comes to the art market, the experts decide. Fine art does not yield to the vagaries of the popular mind. Deciding what is and is not art is not a democratic process.

If that’s all there is, then the question for collectors and curators and critics will become-- how best to manipulate the market. At that point, art market dealings become pure speculation, even to the point of enacting the greater fool theory. You do not want to be the last one holding the sculpture when everyone figures out that it’s a pile of trash. 

Obviously, if we have been conditioned to think that a certain kind of work is art, any artist who deviates will at first be overlooked. But then, tastes change; history changes; and something that looked like slop suddenly starts looking like genius. To be clear, the problem is, the process does not mean that the object is really genius. It takes time and effort to discern the difference.

So, Louis Menand gets it precisely wrong in his recent New Yorker essay. He concludes that art is what a lot of experts think is art. This error, basic to contemporary thinking, gets extended to the point where people think that if we can convince enough thought leaders, or philosopher kings, that something is true, then it is necessarily true. So, we can change reality itself by persuading enough people to see it differently. If you are paying attention you will notice that this reasoning can very easily lead to mind control and other totalitarian monstrosities.

Anyway, here is Menand:

The art world isn’t a fixed entity. It’s continually being reconstituted as new artistic styles emerge. Twentieth-century fine art, in Europe and the United States, passed through a series of formally innovative stages, from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, and each time art entered a new stage and acquired a new look the art world had to adjust.

At the most basic level, the art world exists to answer the question Is it art? When Cubist paintings were first produced, around 1907, they did not look like art to many people, even people who were interested in and appreciated fine-art painting. The same thing was true of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings (around 1950) and Andy Warhol’s soup cans (1962).

But you don’t know it’s art by looking at it. You know it’s art because galleries want to show it, dealers want to sell it, collectors want to buy it, museums want to exhibit it, and critics can explain it. When the parts are in synch, you have a market. The artist produces, and the various audiences—from billionaire collectors to casual museumgoers and college students buying van Gogh posters—consume. The art world is what gets the image from the studio to the dorm room.

But, if that is the case, why bother to look at any artwork at all? Does this explain why modern collectors fill their homes with junk because they think that other people will thereby think of them as sophisticates, as intelligent people who possess excellent taste. Which is different from buying art because it speaks to you. This latter issue, doubtless the most relevant, has been obscured by the need to show oneself to be a sophisticated collector.

But then, how do we know that these so-called artists are not producing junk, calling it art, finding critics to call it art, having dealers sell it as art, put it in museums as art-- the better to make complete fools out of collectors. As we have noted, when someone shells out $90 million for a blown up chrome plated toy bunny, the joke is probably on him. 

Otherwise, consider this. Perhaps said collector has allowed himself to be the object of contempt, the artist’s contempt for people who have too much money, the dealer’s contempt for people who have no idea what they are buying, the curator’s contempt for those who are paying him to show junk works. So, collectors open themselves up to derision, thanks to the art world.

If you ignore the intrinsic value of art, you arrive at the Menand reduction, mindless as it is:

It was therefore possible to feel that the monetary value of a painting correlated with its art-world value. Pollocks were worth a lot of money because museums displayed them, critics argued about them, art historians assigned Pollock an important place in the story of modern art, and so on. The art world could continue to perform its gatekeeping function in much the way it had in Alfred Barr’s time.

And then, Menand arrives at the ultimate modern swindle, called non-fungible tokens, which are purely digital, and which some collectors believe to be works of art:

But the Internet does not suffer exemptions. Nothing may go undigitized. Today, many collectors do not buy physical works of art. They buy art works (among lots of other stuff) in the form of N.F.T.s, which are purely digital products. They don’t need the physical work, because they’re not assembling collections; they’re speculating.

Absolutely. They are speculating. And they are manipulating the art market, as though it were a casino where the games are rigged. Then again, if the art world decides what is or is not art, if there is no intrinsic aesthetic value, why not speculate?

It’s not that people have never bought art on speculation (although, historically, you’d be better off in a stock-market-index fund). It’s that the art world has started to come apart. Curation and criticism are increasingly detached from the rest of the mechanism. The market today is driven by dealers and collectors, neither group appearing to care whether museums and reviewers have validated the work they are buying and selling.


Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, ART!!! Reminds me of the upside-down urinal on a which I say, the STUPID is STRONG in some of these...

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the upside-down urinal on a wall. It was "art", or so we were told. I did NOT "believe".

Frank said...

One needs only to watch Roger Scruton's "Why Beauty Matters" to understand why modern art, music and architecture is soulless, ugly and dispiriting. Beauty is no longer a key element of art and it shows.

Randomizer said...

Having talked it out with a number of artistic people, I'm willing to accept that if you call it art, then it's art. It may not be good art.

Menand is not talking about art, but the art world, art market, something. Art is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. If the billionaires are willing to pay a thousand bucks for an insubstantial N.F.T., then what do I care?

Ares Olympus said...

I'm reminded of E.F. Schumacher's opinion who wrote most art fits into two categories:
1. If art is designed to primarily affect our feelings then it is entertainment.
2. If art is primarily designed to affect our will then it is propaganda.

But he then said "great art is a multi-faceted phenomenon, which is not content to be merely propaganda or entertainment; but by appealing to people's higher intellectual and emotional faculties, it is designed to communicate truth. When entertainment and propaganda are transcended by, and subordinated to, the communication of truth, art helps develop our higher faculties and that makes it great."

I like this because it recognizes the lower aspects of art - entertainment and propaganda pull people in, but there may be higher levels available if you make the effort. And we know profundity has some illusionary aspects, but mainly I'd call great art as something that is capable of drawing out awareness of a tension of opposite pulls, like the individual and collective, the small and large, the simple and complex, and the homely with the beautiful, where both are needed to hold its structure together, and if either fully dominates something vital is lost.

And wisdom or the art of living isn't about finding ONE truth, but finding the highest truth you can hold that is robust enough to carry all the divergent smaller ones, and probably that's in part what religions try to do. They use art in this service.