Transcribed for newCrit from a talk given at Emory & Henry College, November 2002.
It may be that the most interesting thing about art is that we have it around at all. As Oscar Wilde said, art is quite useless. We can't eat it or drive it. We can't live in it. And yet pound for pound some of it is the most valuable thing we have in terms of the most measurable term of value: money.
As cultures evolve they tend to take art very seriously, even so-called primitive cultures. There is no way the cave painters of Altamira and Lasceaux could have made those paintings without some sort of art training. Those beautiful pictures did not happen by accident! The craft of painting has evolved in our culture for hundreds of years, and, as we know, some people did it better than others. But why does this matter so much to us now? Why do we spend more on a highly regarded painting than we do on a large house?
It is hard to answer that question. But even if we do not understand why we value art so highly we can certainly see how it has been used for everyday purposes of basic representation: religious, political, personal. Before photography, for example, we needed paintings of saints, patrons of the church and patriotic subjects. The nature of art and artmaking always correlates with the character of the society it comes up in, and the way we relate to art has changed as much as society itself. We learned how to paint in the Renaissance, five or six hundred years ago. By the nineteenth century, with the rise of the industrial revolution, more people had more money, and academic painting, now very highly developed technically, fell into a routine of tightly painted sentimental and heroic subjects in sober browns and grays in keeping with a newly-rich middle class which needed pictorial equivalents for its sense of importance.
But at the same time new freedoms were coming about. In company with the growth of prosperity the old aristocratic structures were breaking up, and bit by bit individual freedom infused the population. As painters began to feel the intrinsic power of their craft painting began to demand its own identity.
A century and a half ago a painter like Manet demanded more from art than conformity to bourgeoisie taste. He looked out on all these "stews and gravies", as he called those big brown heroic paintings the newly rich people liked, and decided that, as paintings, they were dull. Not finding much to please him in his own generation, he reached back in time to the bravura paint and rich color of Velasquez and Goya. Although these artists had the obligation to paint portraits of the aristocrats, the aristocrats were more sure of their status and let painters figure out how to paint for themselves. They were content to see who did it best and then they hired them and let them do their thing.
Manet's going out of his time to borrow, to be influenced, was his originality, and this approach came to be called Modernism, art influencing art. Modernism is an attitude, not a time or a technique. Any improvement of craft or learning from the art of the past can be said to be modernism. The emergence of sophisticated modelling, the invention of perspective, the development of tube paints and stretched canvas - all these are modernist in spirit. Modernism is often less something new as such than a way to recombine something old to make something better.
The Impressionists made common subject matter acceptable and broke high art from the academy, forcefully declaring that painting is its own boss. It seems odd now, when we look at a painting by Manet, to hear that his paintings looked shockingly ugly to the art audience of the time. Their patchy surfaces and bright colors were very different from the smooth, perfect, subdued pictures of heroic subjects they were used to.
But, as Modernism progressed, no sooner did people get used to one innovation than another came along, each as shocking and hard to take as the last: the divisionism of the Post-Impressionists, the protoCubism of Cezanne, the reductive abstraction of Cubism and the out-and-out rejection of all subject matter by the Abstract Expressionists. The attitude that painting had its own agenda and that new art was shocking became more and more popular with artists and then with the art public. Through the first half of the 20th Century, with the writing of Fry and Greenberg and others, Modernism was set forth and made clear in words.
About a decade after the end of WW2, when I was looking at and learning from the great Abstract Expressionist painters, a new general attitude about art started up which got a big boost from our post-war prosperity to bring about something new. I call it Big Culture. Abstract Expressionism became world-famous, we had a huge increase in prosperity, the rise of a new rich class and a new middle class, college art departments, new art museums, lots more art galleries, media coverage, pop art, art as investment, the National Endowments, etc. Culture became a big deal on a large scale.
Visual art had a certain edge on literature and music and theatre because it was so easily available; if you wanted to use it to get the prestige benefits of culture fast you didn't have to waste a lot of time reading or going to concerts and theaters. With enough money you could quickly buy yourself into it - listen to the experts, go to shows and auctions, read magazines and catalogs and get out your checkbook. In no time at all you could be a "major player" amidst a blazing display worth millions, courted by museums, caressed by dealers, envied by friends and associates. In the 50s and 60s art-making and the art business literally exploded in size.
But Modernism, in the broad sense in which I have defined it, had just spent several hundred years making changes to enable art to free itself from the very kind of corruption Big Culture brings to it. Big Culture needs to dumb down high standards because these are by nature self-limiting; if there is such a thing as the "best" it will be, by its very nature, narrow and limiting. Big Culture, like big government, needs a huge structure: artists, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, foundations, publishers, academics and the much larger and less active constituency of those who enjoy the warm glow of art's glamour. It could not feed this crowd on the paltry pickings of Modernism, whose purpose was to strive for the best in any way possible.
There are problems. Art is subject to judgements made by the art market - and by market I mean the whole thing, not just the dealers and collectors but the critics, academics, museums, magazines and all the rest. Postmodernism can say that anything goes all it wants to, but that will have no effect on the uncompromising choices the market makes, all the more so in an atmosphere which disdains value judgement. As a result we have a generation of artists happily paying lip service to freedom and "everything is OK" and "no boundaries" - even the Ford Motor Company advertises "no boundaries" these days - while the market keeps right on making those brutal, narrow, limiting choices. It is a wide-open fashion game. Variety springs eternal and lasts for a season, and choice becomes political and public instead of esthetic and individual. And this points to a deeper problem.
Much more serious than the market dilemma is that the value-relativity of Postmodernism diminishes the expectations we have for art and consequently the pleasure we get from it; the pleasure, after all, is the recognition of the value. We should have something we can look to which we believe can represent the best of ourselves to ourselves, especially when we can experience it rather than "learn" it. This has always allied art to religion, in spirit, so to speak. And anything which diminishes this ideal is, to my mind, something which needs to be discredited.
Value judgement is built into all life. Every living thing makes value judgements constantly. We could not function without it. Experiencing art is an act of pure valuation. It is all value, the one thing we have which does good without any "why", without any criteria except our own experience. Art is beyond words, carried on in a "deep contact" mode, made by the artist and perceived directly through the intuition of the person comprehending it, from feeling to feeling. There is no cover, no forethought, no verbal encasement. This is part of the reason why it is so valuable, and it partially explains why we get all screwed up about it.
The great physicist John Archibald Wheeler contends that our experience is all we really have of so-called reality, and I don't disagree with him. Art is entirely a matter of experience and the value we put on that experience. For Postmodernism values are relative no matter how strongly your experience supports them. It asks us to suppress that which gives us pleasure in order to check that experience against an exterior agenda, saying that no one can prove that these judgements are "right", that indeed, they are solely inventions of a certain time, class, race and gender, a kind of moralistic cover story to hold up the fiction that postmodernist relativity is actually a good thing.
While it is true conventions are culturally determined they certainly can be learned by any normal human of any culture, race or gender. If I am trying to explain how good Mozart is I would rather have a New Guinea tribesman with an ear than a tone deaf New Yorker. This may imply an elite of sorts, but it is an elite which is not culturally determined and is denied to no one. It is belittling to any human to be denied the art of any other culture on the basis of learned convention and habit. To my mind this is a continuation of ancient prejudices, not a criticism of them.
Postmodernism gets to wear the freedom label because it is a relativistic philosophy, acting as if it would never tell you what to do or what to like. However, by its very relativism it denies freedom, because it asks us to question what we have determined by our own experience rather than value and try to objectify it, to suspect our reactions, not enjoy them, believe in them and put them forward as true.
All this begs the question of "good and bad" art. Is there such a thing and how do we account for it? If, as I have said, value in art is and must be derived from individual experience, and can only be validated by that experience, how can we demonstrate that Mozart is "better" than Salieri or, for that matter, better than Elton John? Well, we can't. I think these "levels" exist but I don't know why and can't say how. Once again, all I have is my experience. Mozart thrills me. I like that. That is good. Elton John does not thrill me. I don't care what anyone else thinks. I am very grateful for Mozart and I am grateful for the people before me who decided he was worth listening to because they made it possible for me to hear his music. I suppose all we really can have is a Mozart fan club, which will grow or diminish with time. But that's enough for me.
It's time to turn away from work that tries to replace experience with explanation. As the old anti-drug slogan said: "just say no." Good art is a very mysterious and complicated thing; it can and should have everything you need to know about it in the work, not on a wall label. Art is there to take us beyond language. We agonize over what is good and not so good because we value art so much. We have strong opinions about it and we want to externalize those opinions. We can't do it. All we can do is enjoy the art we like, point to it, tell others about it, look for more and hope it keeps on being made.