Saturday, August 13, 2016

on good versus bad art

I'm a stodgy elitist when it comes to art. I don't say "everything is art," a claim that sucks all meaning out of the term art. For me, good art demonstrates talent and effort.

Here are two like-minded YouTube videos—one ranty, the other more sober in tone. Do you think it's possible to speak of good and bad art, or is all art basically the same?


Rhesus said...

If any statement about value is just an expression of an arbitrary, negotiated group narrative, then it's hard to see how anything intelligible could be said about art at all. If I want to say some art is "good" I'm establishing a hierarchy and possibly oppressing you if you don't happen to agree with me, and who wants to be an oppressor?

Some materialists might go further and assert that all ways of understanding art derive from genetic and environmental determiners. The content of art might be useful in identifying those determiners, but it would be absurd to talk about such content having value, except maybe it term of evolutionary survival strategies.

Vulgar nihilism is always sexy, too. Just look at how hugely successful Damien Hirst has been.

Anyway, as far as I can tell the world of contemporary art couldn't be more elitist and hierarchical, even more than the classical institutions it replaced. The understanding that animated those institutions points to something outside of metanarratives or biology, but I'd better stop before a lurking philosophy TA looks over my shoulder (I live in graduate housing after all).

Kevin Kim said...

[Part I—my reply spilled over 4096 characters]


Establishing hierarchies is all we do as human beings—a fact well-known to Aristotle, per his Nicomachean Ethics. Every choice we make involves hierarchization. Will it be pizza or Chinese food for dinner tonight? Will we have the meeting at 7PM or at 8PM? Do I drive to school via Broad Street, with all its traffic lights, or via the freeway, with its unpredictable traffic jams? At dinner, do I start with the green beans, the mashed potatoes, or the roast chicken (assuming pizza and Chinese food have been forgotten)? When I see my wife tonight, do I first kiss her or hug her?

Because only one state of affairs can obtain at any given moment, reality forces us into particularity: we must choose, if that's not too paradoxical a way of putting it. Hierarchy is inscribed in ontology. Ask any med student, who studies the human body's various systems, whether that's true. Of course it is, she'll say: the human body is a hierarchy of interlocking systems.

Hierarchies are natural, and I wouldn't say that establishing hierarchies is necessarily oppressive—unless the explicit goal is to force others to think and act as I do. There's nothing oppressive about declaring an opinion—even a strong opinion. When I say, "There's good art and there's bad art," I'm not making a brute, hegemonic claim; I'm merely stating my point of view, even if I haven't prefaced my claim with an "In my opinion..." or an "I think that..." If, however, I went on from there to say, "There's good art and there's bad art...and you'd better agree with me," then at that moment, yes—I'm being oppressive or imperialistic or hegemonic (pick your pretentious grad-school term).

If you're using a term like "metanarrative," I assume that grad school is filling your head with a lot of postmodernist dreck. I used to be a PoMo firebrand right out of grad school in 2002; my close encounters with Derrida, Foucault, et al. came primarily through a scriptural-hermeneutics course, but PoMo also showed up in comparative ethics and feminist christology. PoMo tends to be anti-hierarchical—something of an irony, given that the de-valuing of hierarchy is itself a form of hierarchical thinking (PoMo also tends to be self-subverting, nullifying itself at every turn). I eventually snapped out of my PoMo fugue, but it took a few years of being away from grad school before that happened. And I've written down many of my thoughts on PoMo here at the Hairy Chasms.

Kevin Kim said...

[Part II]

Anyway, having voiced where I disagree with you, let me turn to where I agree with you. If anything, despite my having red-flagged "metanarrative" as a PoMo buzz word, I actually agree with most of what you wrote.

Your second paragraph sounds a bit like Sam Harris's materialist position, although Harris (and Steven Pinker along with him) would argue that reality has a material substrate that nevertheless gives rise to value. The proof, in Harris's case, is that Harris still feels that talk of morality is not meaningless despite his two-pronged contention that (1) free will is nonexistent and (2) human action always traces back to material causes. In Pinker's case, the proof can be found in a video exchange he had with Robert Wright regarding the notion that morality may indeed be inscribed in the fabric of reality, given how it expresses itself so similarly across different life forms: mutuality, cooperative strategies, reciprocity, kin selection, and so forth. Again and again, different life forms recapitulate behaviors that point at values—with, of course, survival and reproduction being the most fundamental.

"the world of contemporary art couldn't be more elitist and hierarchical"

I couldn't agree with you more. This may have been, obliquely, the point that the gent in the first video was trying to make: when a pile of wood, dirt, cloth, and shit is thought of as high art, this is the very summit of pretentiousness.

Can we ever reach an objective standard by which to judge art? I'd say no. But believing that good art—the ancient-Greek notion of techne—requires skill and effort is not that outlandish or elitist a stance to take. (I used the word "elitist" jokingly in reference to my own attitude toward art; if anything, my tastes are pretty pedestrian, pretty much in line with the those of the hoi polloi.)

Kevin Kim said...

Oh, and: Damien Who?

I'll have to look that guy up.

Kevin Kim said...

Aha—I recognize this guy's work. I like it; it's rather Hannibal Lecter-ish.