Goodness in Art (1989)
Unpublished paper given at a seminar at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan, March, 1990.
I'd like to talk briefly about the idea of goodness, value or quality in art and then ask you to ask me questions about what I have said or about the idea generally, with the hope that something new and constructive may come up.
I approach the subject tentatively because not much ground has been laid. It has not been worked very hard. Because there is so little conceptual framework, and because I feel that what little there is unhelpful and more-or-less outdated, I'd like to proceed cautiously, in a foundation-laying way, trying to shape ideas according to my experience as an artist.
My view as an artist is that art and the experience of art are the vehicle of the idea of esthetic value and that the benchmark in any consideration of esthetics is the experience of art. Although reasoned analysis of ideas is indispensable to progress in esthetics the enterprise will run off track unless constant empirical reference is made to an individual and personal knowledge of esthetic experience. This means, of course, that we are presented with a subject for observation which cannot be observed, existing objectively only through testimony and evidence, and, presumably, through shared experience. This may be the root cause for the skimpy state of esthetics, amid the great and varied richness of both art and philosophy in western civilization.
We can, however, say sensible things about art, and what art is, by taking a clear look at what we do with it. Art is an invention of human culture and is sustained entirely within human culture. A work of art is a thing put before taste; it becomes art when it is declared and accepted as art and exposed for a judgment of value based on apprehension of its properties rather than usefulness. This apprehension, in its simple state, can be called the unconditional esthetic attitude. Certain types of things are evolved by cultures as art, as things to be put before this attitude, for example, painting and sculpture. There can be objects which evolve from usefulness into art, or which become seen and utilized at art, such as photographs or clay pots. An artifact of one culture, whether or not it is considered art in that culture, can be taken up as art by another culture.
Goodness as such is not identifiable. It is not substantive; it has no characteristics. Artistic goodness is a result of particular judgment and has life or existence only within a setting of that judgment. With the exception of esthetic judgement all judgments rest on assumptions of value, and these assumptions, whether or not they are openly declared, like criteria, or lie hidden in the unconscious, revert, finally, not to proof but to self evidence. Art, as art (and I repeat "as art" to forestall the inevitable misunderstandings) because it is valuable in itself, depends on no prior assumptions of value. A thing made to be valuable in itself cannot, by definition, look for other means of support. It cannot be "good for" or "good because". Art has been developed to exclude explicit measure. That is the kind of thing it is. There are no standards of reference, only experience, acculturation, development of taste and other preparations for judgment. Outside of that judgment all art, good or bad, or new, is not art, not good in itself, but strictly speaking, objects identified as art waiting to be art.
The unconditional esthetic never operates purely and perfectly and it no more encompasses the actual art world than the idea of a deity encompasses the reality and exercise of religion. (In fact, there are interesting comparisons along the lines of art as the "religion of humanism" - but I cannot get into that here). In the past several hundred years modernism has brought forth the idea of the unconditional esthetic at the same time it has encouraged esthetic relativism.
Value is easier to recognize and harder to resist in a highly structured system with a clearly stated aim. Any art system which suppresses objective standards of judgment in favor of individually conditioned judgments of value will naturally encourage a messy multiplicity of forms and claims, a kind of esthetic anarchy, which will eventually challenge the authority and practice of the unconditional esthetic itself. We are in the middle of this stage of modernism right now, and no more evidence is needed than the nearest art magazine or the kinds of questions I get when I give a talk of this sort before a student audience. The idea and the practice of the unconditional esthetic is fairly neat and simple. The situation in which it operates is certainly not. In fact I think we have come to a point of art as a game of value, just as monopoly is a game of capitalism, but with nothing in the way of explicit rules or delimitations. I think this idea could be developed further.
The modernist notion that everything came before the unconditional esthetic is very easily confused with the idea that one thing is as good as -- or "artistically valid" or whatever -- as anything else. This is unsupportable. Anarchy or not, the notion of a limiting esthetic stands behind the whole of art activity as it is practiced in all of its phases at all times. The objective evidence for this continuing activity is the consensus. The consensus is real and it tells us what we are doing but does not in itself offer proof of what is best in art. It comes down, in a mysterious way, as an accumulation of opinion, as the residual matter of the culling process. It is both a convenience and a cop-out. It is taken as an authority, and it has some claim to authority, but it remains in fact only the echo of experience. Unless it is challenged, refreshed and sustained by the application of the unconditional esthetic, it will wither and die. The function, of the consensus as I see it, is to help us get to the best art quicker.
By the nature of the procedure each judgment, or appreciation or enjoyment of a work of art is, like a vote, or a laugh, absolute. One's reaction, or what forms one's reaction, can be refined, or debased, or improved with practice. One's reaction to a particular work can be changed, but it cannot be objectified. Esthetic experience itself must be gained personally and intuitively. Like any other subjectively gained experience the esthetic experience is comprehended in a way which is different from the fullest accounting of its characteristics. The lack of specificality has no effect on the experience or the judgment, just as the apparently impossibility of objectification does not preclude the possibility of an objective good, but only qualifies it in a way which we haven't figured out.