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"It [abstract art] should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed – after a while you may like it or you may not." Jackson Pollock
March 5, 2011 5:31 AM   Subscribe

“My monkey could have painted that.” 1 in 3 Art Students Can’t Tell Famous Paintings from Paintings by Monkeys. Take a look at the two images in this post. Can you tell?

ANSWER: The painting on the left was by a 4-year-old named Jack Pezanosky. The one on the right is Laburnum Hans Hoffman.
posted by Fizz (308 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Monkeyangelo.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:37 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Once again, art students exceed my very low expectations for them.

Some of the smartest people I know went art school, asshole.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:37 AM on March 5, 2011 [13 favorites]


The question wasn't which one is painted by a four year old, but which one is of higher quality. The particular quality being rated isn't mentioned. Isn't it kind of the whole point of art that it can't be ranked by a single overall quality?

The authors should provide an appendix sorting all art by whatever quality they have in mind.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:38 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


That's actually not the most interesting result. See this:

While art students gave the same ratings to professional works no matter the condition, psychology students gave higher judgments of quality to pros when correctly labeled than when unlabeled or incorrectly labeled.

But the whole question is silly. What's next? Asking people to compare Picasso's crayon drawings with childrens' drawings? In Picasso's case, "My child could have painted that" would be the highest possible praise.

"When I was their age, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them." (from Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work)
posted by honest knave at 5:39 AM on March 5, 2011 [11 favorites]


no disrespect to the poster, it's a great post, but criticizing art because it might have been done by a child or an animal misses the point twice over. first, the artist may have in fact been aiming specifically to free her or himself to exactly that degree (i.e. that might be a huge compliment); second, instead of bringing the artist "down to the level of" the child, why not flip it around and say, "wow, this art by children/animals is frickin amazing"! the whole criticism is thoughtless on several levels.
posted by facetious at 5:42 AM on March 5, 2011 [20 favorites]


while I'm not looking to point out the way toward greater indistinguishability between these abstract styles of art and the artistic explorations of children or the random motion of animals, it's clear in the comparison between the two pictures above which is which, and that the college students in question weren't really motivated to say, perhaps in the interest of squewing the result to make a point.
posted by nervousfritz at 5:48 AM on March 5, 2011


I figured the one on the right was drawn by an adult human simply because of the rather regular circle in the top left.
posted by doop at 5:52 AM on March 5, 2011


@Fizz: your "post" link takes me to a picture of Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn. I am going to go with Charlie Sheen cause of the glasses. Did I win?
posted by SNACKeR at 5:52 AM on March 5, 2011


Yes.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:55 AM on March 5, 2011


SNACKeR: That's because Gawker broke all the links for Canadian users. Their new redesign adds a "ca." to the beginning of every URL for Canadians. Remove that and it works fine.

Stupid Gawker.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:56 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Stupid Gawker.

My apologies.
posted by Fizz at 5:57 AM on March 5, 2011


Also, monkeys write Shakespeare. Ten thousand of them. At typewriters. For a very long time.

Or so I've been told.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:03 AM on March 5, 2011


I believe the Gawker re-design was also done by a monkey.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:08 AM on March 5, 2011 [17 favorites]




"My four year old son could've painted that."

"You mean Tim? But I thought he drowned in Lake Geneva because you..."

"SO TO SPEAK, JOHN! SO TO SPEAK!"


(Stolen from Gummbah)
posted by mahershalal at 6:18 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Somebody trots out this cheap stunt every few years. Letterman did it back in about 2003.

Listen, I collect art by both humans and animals. I have a painting of an elephant that was painted by an elephant. I have a glorious abstract by Cheeta, the chimpanzee from the Tarzan movies. And I love them. But they exist outside the complex, and often prankish, aesthetic choices made by human artists.

With the exception of minimialism, which deliberately sought to make art that had no subtext or metaphoric meaning, but just was whatever it was (and, ironically, is one of the types of art that my non-art loving friends get in the greatest huff about as well), most contemporary art doesn't exist in a vacuum, where you can just look at a piece on a wall and intuit what is mean or what is being shown. Contemporary art demands engagement from the viewer. It is, as John Waters once said, a bit like a bike gang, where you need to know its language and hand signals to get entry. And it's usually not hard to get that stuff -- most artists provide statements, and most galleries will discuss the art with you. But if you refuse to do any of that stuff, you're on your own. The art isn't for you. And that should be okay, but some people get offended by that fact. Just don't go to the galleries!

Let's take this as an example. First of all, his name is Hans Hofmann. Secondly, he is identified with the school of abstract expressionism. This is a movement whose painting is frequently defined by a sort of expressive freedom in generating images, plus a deliberate rejection of representation. Many of the artists in the movement, Hofmann included, were relentlessly experimental, and so there is an incredible variety to the work they produced -- but, no, this particular test went ahead and chose the example of his work that seems most childlike. What if they had chosen this piece? Would we still wonder if it was by a child, or by a monkey? How about this one? And knowing that he is capable of creating the other two, we might be lead to interrogate why art artist so concerned with structure and the relationship of color would create something that seems so chaotic. Or, we would if we were actually interested in art, rather than mocking it without further investigation.

You know what a child or a monkey could have created as well, from a visual perspective? This one. That's right, it's a blank sheet of paper. It's by sculptor Tom Friedman, who also did this, and this, neither of which are the sort of thing a monkey or child is likely to have produced. So why a blank sheet of paper?

Well, it's title is a clue. It's called "1,000 Hours of Staring." And you're either going to appreciate that, or your not. It might seem like a joke to you, and maybe it is. Maybe Friedman hung a blank piece of paper in the wall and just claimed he stared at in for 1,000 hours. There is, as I said, a lot of prankishness to contemporary art, and some people don't like being pranked. And you might say, well, so what if he stared at it for 1,000 hours, it's still a blank sheet of paper. Although Friedman is not a conceptual artist, this is a piece very much in line with conceptual art, that posited that the idea of a piece of art was the art, and that whatever is produced is just a document of the idea. And if one thing gets people in more of a tizzy that minimalist art, it's conceptual art. And I am sure there are valid criticisms against both.

But here's the thing that's germane to this discussion: Neither a monkey not a child would have produced any of this. This is a world of ideas. And the fact that the ideas are sort of irritating, for my tastes, means that they're successful in challenging us. Some art should look like a money or a child could paint it. We should get angry at art. That's one of the functions of art -- to challenge its own function, to challenge what it should look like. And if you like art, and spend time with it, and spend time thinking about it, you often discover the pieces that irritated you the most when you first saw them become the ones you love the most. That is, if you can be arsed to engage them in any way.

For the rest of you, well, there is no law that says you must look at any of this stuff. If it just pisses you off, or if you just consider it a joke made my artists who don't have the talent god gave a primate in the wild, then maybe galleries are the night the right place for you to be hanging out. There is a lot of art out there that doesn't challenge in this way, and much of it is very good. That might be a better match for you.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:22 AM on March 5, 2011 [177 favorites]


Oh, goodie. More ignorant hate for abstract art. Strawmen included at no additional charge.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:32 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Who says a 4 year old can't be an artist?

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso
posted by Lanark at 6:34 AM on March 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


On preview, this touches on some of the same points that Astro Zombie does ... but goes in a slightly different direction, which he might even disagree with. So I am posting it, damn you all.

Does anyone with access to the paper know how they selected the pieces of art?

If we are comparing the lesser works of Hoffman to BoBo's one-in-a-thousand masterpiece, then I'm not really sure what the study proves.

It might also be interesting to see a study that compares bodies of work, where I'd suspect someone's skill would become readily apparent.

I think of this within photography's framework. Anybody can take a phenomenal photograph: you literally just have to be in the right place at the right time. A skilled, experienced photographer is able to take that phenomenal photograph more often: they have a knack for recognizing the right place and the right time, and when it hits they are more likely to read the situation in a way that optimizes their photograph's quality.

Artists, especially in areas where the barrier of creation is low, earn and retain their professional status in some part because of their dependability.
posted by pokermonk at 6:34 AM on March 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


My post was not intended to preferentially rank a particular work of art over another (be it monkey or man), simply a link that provides a space for discussion on the suject of art.
posted by Fizz at 6:36 AM on March 5, 2011


Thanks astro zombie. That was great! IANAA, but I have been trying to define art for a while for myself. I started with "art is something done with intent", but I have now expanded it to "art is intention, concept, and context".

And I like your suggestion that the art itself is just an artifact of the process.
posted by SNACKeR at 6:38 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I wasn't accusing you, Fizz. I just think this experiment is hideously misconceived.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:38 AM on March 5, 2011


Reminds me of the story where Zappa faked an entire performance which seemingly went unnoticed (or at least unacknowledged) by the audience.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:39 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, I wasn't accusing you, Fizz. I just think this experiment is hideously misconceived.

No worries and you are correct. This type of "study" does pop up from time to time. It doesn't matter to me whether or not a monkey created a work of art or a human. What matters is my appreciation and enjoyment. Of the ability of that work to provoke something in me: feeling, thought, something.
posted by Fizz at 6:41 AM on March 5, 2011


Oh, goodie. More ignorant hate for abstract art. Strawmen included at no additional charge.
Are you referring to the article, or to comments here?

If the article, could you please explain what's ignorant about it? What's hateful about it? What strawmen are included in it?

And before you do, I just want to make sure: Are you aware that, based on the results of the study, the article says that "it seems evident that, most likely, your pet monkey could not have painted that"?

I guess the final thing about being able to fool art students about a third of the time is a bit snarky in tone, but I'd be surprised if someone actually thought it was "hateful" to any significant degree. And it's explicitly labeled with "If you're looking for a cynical take on the art world, however", after having presented the main thrust of the article's conclusion: No, your monkey probably couldn't have painted that.
posted by Flunkie at 6:42 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree. That's why I own both my animal paintings. Seeing a painting by a monkey movie star, and seeing a representational painting of an elephant that was painted by an elephant, creates a greater sense of wonder than any other painting I own, and I have a Warhol.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:43 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Astro Zombie, that sounds incredible. Pics?
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:44 AM on March 5, 2011


I found this "Ape-Stract" fine art.
posted by Fizz at 6:46 AM on March 5, 2011


Also: C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary, Inc.
posted by Fizz at 6:47 AM on March 5, 2011


Here is my Cheeta. By the way, anybody can buy one, they're cheap, and they support the primate preserve where he enjoys his retirement.

Here is the elephant painting on my girlfriend's blog (she bought the item). Those paintings likewise support an animal sanctuary, and her blog entry has info about how to buy one.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:49 AM on March 5, 2011 [24 favorites]


I shall keep on declaring my distaste for abstract expressionism and related gimmickry. Take it as one more voice in a chorus pleading to any prospective artist who's unsure of what her or she should do with his or her life: Please do your best to gain an understanding of significant phenomena in our shared world use your skills to tell us something of this world as powerfully as you can.

Random blotches of paint have nothing to do with that.
posted by Anything at 6:49 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm tempted to purchase one now, just because I like the idea of something created by an animal.
posted by Fizz at 6:50 AM on March 5, 2011


So ... they picked a painting by Hans Hoffman ... and they picked *that* painting by Hans Hoffman. Didn't go with Kandinsky, didn't go with Pollock, didn't go with Mondrian, certainly didn't go with Picasso or Warhol or Duchamp ...

So they searched and searched until they found the painting that resembled the monkey's painting absolutely as closely as possible, and then flutter their handkerchiefs with shock that the two paintings are similar.

Oh, I'm sorry, I mean that the monkey's painting is indistinguishable from "modern art". Because that one painting they selected not exactly at random sure does represent all of modern art, boy howdy.
posted by kyrademon at 6:50 AM on March 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


Please tell me that the elephant painting was painted on elephant dung paper.
posted by sciurus at 6:50 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Please do your best to gain an understanding of significant phenomena in our shared world use your skills to tell us something of this world as powerfully as you can.

In my opinion, abstract expressionism does precisely this.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:53 AM on March 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


... and use your skills...
posted by Anything at 6:54 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please tell me that the elephant painting was painted on elephant dung paper.

Maybe. Looks like normal paper to me, though.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:54 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


kyrademon, they showed thirty pairs of paintings, not just the one pair in the picture at the top of the article. And, yes, of course they were matched up; the article even says they "were matched on superficial attributes such as color, line quality, and brushstroke". No one ever claims that a monkey could fake a Picasso, and it would be utterly worthless to bother testing the proposition.

And, again, are you aware that the main conclusion of the article is that a monkey probably could not have painted the things that people say a monkey could have painted?
posted by Flunkie at 6:55 AM on March 5, 2011


@Anything - assuming there are lots of artists that you are satisfied with, why do you allow no room for abstract art? Must any music that you do not like also die?
posted by SNACKeR at 6:57 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was going to post a screed raging against the navel-gasing pretension of abstract art, but Astro Zombie managed to talk me down. Thanks for that, AZ. Your point about viewing art within its proper context is well taken, and I'll try to remember it the next time I feel the urge to tear something off of a gallery wall.

Also, that elephant painting Freaks Me The Fuck Out! (In a really great way.)
posted by JeffK at 7:01 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Random blotches of paint have nothing to do with that.

Don't you feel claustrophobic when you are confined to such a small corner of the universe like that?
posted by b1tr0t at 7:04 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


In my opinion, abstract expressionism does precisely this.

And in my view, its relation to the world is intangible and its power is negligible. I've never been touched by or gained any understanding from a piece of that style.
posted by Anything at 7:04 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Please do your best to gain an understanding of significant phenomena in our shared world use your skills to tell us something of this world as powerfully as you can.

Random blotches of paint have nothing to do with that.


Must a work always be pleasing to the eye or ear? Can it not also just be a gesture that takes a work and transforms it into something else. I find much of abstract expressionism to be a bit pretentious and full of itself but that doesn't mean that I cannot see the social value in it as a movement, at what it is trying to do for the larger medium.
posted by Fizz at 7:04 AM on March 5, 2011


I could link to some art that is guaranteed to cause people to want to riot in the streets. I love that sort of stuff, but recognize that its appeal is limited. If it's to your tastes, though, I recommend John Waters and Bruce Hainley's "Art - A Sex Book."
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:05 AM on March 5, 2011


And in my view, its relation to the world is intangible and its power is negligible. I've never been touched by or gained any understanding from a piece of that style.


Clearly you have been touched. Look at how passionate you are in defending your judgement and value of this particular style of art. It has caused something, even if that something is critical of the movement.
posted by Fizz at 7:06 AM on March 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


One was painted by flinging poo, the other by monkeys.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 7:09 AM on March 5, 2011


The pieces themselves don't do that; it's the expectation that they be appreciated. And I personally could live with that but I feel strong pity for the art student who has to pretend to care.
posted by Anything at 7:10 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


And in my view, its relation to the world is intangible and its power is negligible.

Well, that's fine. Maybe it's just not for you. But you're sort of arguing for its extinction, and that's a pretty big argument to make based on you superimposing your own artistic preferences on the entire world of creativity.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:12 AM on March 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


The pieces themselves don't do that; it's the expectation that they be appreciated. And I personally could live with that but I feel strong pity for the art student who has to pretend to care.

You haven't spent anytime around an art school. Contrary opinions flow free like wine.
posted by device55 at 7:14 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't care who you are, this is art.
posted by JeffK at 7:16 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am a security guard in an art museum. One of the sometimes interesting, sometimes infuriating aspects of the job is that you get to overhear all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds talking about the artwork and their opinions about it. I learn things and notice things I didn't before, and get a better feel for how people approach artwork and what excites them about it.

But sometimes it seems like every single goddamn day I have to listen to somebody exclaiming about how their three-year-old son/niece/granddaughter/godchild/yorkshire terrier could have painted that Jackson Pollock. And they think they are being brave and iconoclastic for pointing this out. Here's a hint: if cranky old men were already writing letters to Life magazine in 1949 to state that observation, it's probably not nearly as brave or iconoclastic as you think it is.
posted by bookish at 7:18 AM on March 5, 2011 [27 favorites]


Anything: If I thought it would make a difference I'd recommend you read Barnett Newman's essay "The sublime is now". Abstract expressionism is anything but "random blotches".
The intent is to provide the same sublime response in the viewer as a fine piece of realist or other non-abstract art, without the actual representative 'picture'. To boil the image down to the sublime basic. It's a rare artistic skill, and IMO only a few artists have been able to pull it off.
I hope you someday open yourself to experiencing it.
posted by rocket88 at 7:19 AM on March 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Maybe people aren't exposed to enough fingerpainting, but it seemed clear to me the left-hand painting was by a child. It's a lot more simplistic than the one on the right, and has a lot of the characteristics of child-done art. (I like abstract art casually, but I'm not familiar with Hoffman.)

I'd probably do less well with monkey art. I have no idea how monkeys paint! :)

I was watching the Simpsons one day and thought to myself, "It's so odd that we consider these two-dimensional, bright-yellow, eyes-on-one-side-of-the-head cartoons that only look vaguely like bipeds to represent humans, and -- OHHHHhhhhhhh, I think I suddenly understand Cubism." That was seriously, honest-to-God my entry into appreciating modern and abstract art.

I was at the Tate in London and there was this painting, maybe five or six feet tall, of a big red stripe. There were different shades of red in it, but it was basically a giant red stripe. And it held me transfixed for seriously half an hour because IT LOOKED LIKE IT WAS ALIVE. How do you make a red stripe look alive? I can still picture it totally vividly in my mind's eye even though I have no idea who painted it or what it was called. It was intensely powerful. And it sort-of makes me sad that people are walking past it going, "Pfft. Some idiot got paid thousands of dollars for painting a red stripe, my five-year-old could do that." DON'T YOU SEE THAT THE STRIPE IS ALIVE?

Another thing I wonder is how much early exposure to art affects our later taste; I grew up going to the Art Institute of Chicago, which has significant modern and contemporary collections, as well as a great Impressionist collection, but isn't so strong on Renaissance art, and I've always been curious as to whether my taste for modern art and the Impressionists is due to years of exposure on field trips and family outings at the Art Institute, or whether it's something innate about my taste. (And I've always found Renaissance art a bit boring. Feel free to throw tomatoes, I know I suck.) I also wondered where my taste for mid-century modern furniture and design came from, since I never SAW it in anyone's home, until it finally dawned on me that you had to walk through the furniture gallery at the Art Institute to get to one of the galleries we were always having field trip presentations in, and I'd actually been seeing the cream of the mid-century modern crop my entire life.

As is probably clear from my horribly muddled and probably misused terminology, I don't actually KNOW very much about art. I just like looking at it. So I apologize for all the stuff I got wrong or called by the wrong name.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:21 AM on March 5, 2011 [23 favorites]


And I've always found Renaissance art a bit boring

That's a perfectly legit opinion (so is Anything's, if a bit extreme)

A lot of art from that period existed to show rich and powerful men how rich and powerful they were, or to further entrench religious dogma. Kinda dull subject matter.
posted by device55 at 7:27 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Astro Zombie, that stuff on elephant painting is the most mind-blowing thing I've seen on MeFi in a long time. The implications are staggering - not to mention the thought of what people have done to them over the years, as if they were dumb animals. So much for art being what makes us human; apparently, it also makes elephants elephant.
posted by rory at 7:31 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Flunkie, I guess the study just seems pointless to me. I cannot understand either why this is an interesting result.
posted by kyrademon at 7:31 AM on March 5, 2011


"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso

That is a fuckin' ACE quote! That is one enlightened little piece of wisdom right there. Thanks for posting it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:31 AM on March 5, 2011


Flunkie, I guess the study just seems pointless to me. I cannot understand either why this is an interesting result.
That's fine; you don't have to. Just like people don't have to appreciate the art that you appreciate.

But in any case, "it's not interesting" is a very different statement than your original take on it, which seemed very heated to me, and which, no offense, also seemed based upon erroneous assumptions about what the article must have said.
posted by Flunkie at 7:40 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I must preface by saying that I'm not attacking abstract art here.

I've always wondered if it really is possible for a person educated in art to identify a real Pollock from one generated by algorithm. If not, then presumably the artistic value of the computer generated work is going to be identical to the artistic value of the actual Pollock.

While I'm not a fan of abstracts, obviously other people are and see value therein. But if the fan of abstracts can't distinguish between the "real" thing, and a procedurally generated thing, then wouldn't it make sense to vastly increase the artistic value in the world by mass producing new art in the style of Pollock?

To me this seems to be related to the issue of duplication. Assuming perfect, atomic scale, duplication is possible, then we can mass produce Stradivarius violins and thus make the musical world a better place by providing the entire strings section of every orchestra with a Stradivarius. Unless, of course, the value of a Stradivarius is not in the sound it produces, but in the scarcity, in the IDEA of a Stradivarius rather than the actual thing.

Or am I missing something big here?
posted by sotonohito at 7:40 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Art is subjective. Stop trying to argue in an objective manner about it.
posted by dougrayrankin at 7:42 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have spoken.
posted by dougrayrankin at 7:42 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think Eyebrows McGee has it in "how much exposure to art affects us"; only in my case I'm not so sure that art exposure affected my taste so much as it just pointed out "hey, these museums can be cool."

I sometimes say that I may have had the perfect amount of exposure to art, by simply browsing through my mother's Gaugin and Van Gogh coffee table books when I was bored as a kid. I didn't get saddled down with art theory to the point that my left brain was always trying to puzzle out the "meaning" of things -- instead, it was just enough to spark my curiosity that "hey, art can be pretty cool." And today, I go to museums as a way to switch on my right brain and let it explore. I'll admit it's a naive impression of a lot of things -- I have only the barest grasp of symbolism and color theory -- but I have loads of curiosity to make up for it, and so armed with no other yardstick than "hey, that looks cool" I have found plenty of fantastic stuff that just stopped me in my tracks, from a Russian art work that looked like a spectacularly eerie cave painting from an alternate universe to something by Balthus that captured something for me about what it felt like to be only thirteen; I've fell in love with things by 4th Century Japanese brushwork and with Duchamp's readymades, I found a series of "trees" in a Candian gallery that looked like something straight out of Dr. Seuss; and I always, always get sucked in to the 360 painting of Versailles they have at the Met.

Modern and abstract art has always been just something else to react to from the right brain. There are some things I've seen that, even after knowing the symbolism, I still was unimpressed by (Damien Hirst's "Physical Impossibility of Death...." is always going to look to me like a really lame Natural History museum display), while others just made me grin because there was just something so damn cool about them -- like the work I saw in the National Gallery of Canada that I think was called "The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse"; it was a Trans-am that had been spray-painted black, and the artist had etched the complete text of the book of Revelations into the paint, and then hung a pair of neon-green fuzzy dice on the mirror and put a copy of "Bad To The Bone" in the tape deck on a loop.

Knowing the theory and history behind things can help to an extent, but you're still always left with "but....is it cool? Yes? Then it's okay to like it." And if you like what a kid or a monkey does, from an aesthetic sense? Then good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:45 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't know how most people work, but when I go into a museum or a gallery or an art space, I don't look at the little card next to the artwork first.

I look at the artwork first and see what grabs me, what interests me, what I find beautiful, or provocative, or fascinating, or clever, or intriguing, or whatever else.

Then I look at the little card and find out who created it. This is how I've gradually determined which artists I particularly like.

I have found my preference tends towards modern and contemporary art, but is by no means limited to it; I've also found everything from Roman sculptors to Renaissance painters that I admire very much as well.

But this makes me doubtful that I am admiring things because of my expectations about an artist, or a style of art. Because I usually don't know the artist, and know the style only broadly, when I first see a piece.
posted by kyrademon at 7:54 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A monkey could have written that.
posted by Artw at 8:02 AM on March 5, 2011


i can't believe there isn't more outrage that you called 4-year-old Jack Pezanosky a monkey.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 8:05 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Astro Zombie: Contemporary art demands engagement from the viewer. It is, as John Waters once said, a bit like a bike gang, where you need to know its language and hand signals to get entry.

I'm sorry, AZ, but you sound exactly like an audiophile.
posted by Malor at 8:07 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, he wasn't a monkey? (Re-reads.) Yup, you're right. I assumed he was a four year old monkey. The title of the piece threw me off.
posted by kyrademon at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2011


Everybody's got something to hide, 'cept for me and my Abstract Expressionist.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:17 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am an art-lover with a very different relationship with art from Astro Zombie's. Which doesn't at all mean that I think he's wrong. I don't believe a relationship-with-art can be right or wrong. AZ's is clearly pleasing to him -- as mine is to me.

Over the last 35 years, I have tried relating to art in a variety of ways: I've tried learning about the artist's intentions; I've tried learning about history and context; I've tried learning about works as an utterances in a big conversation (e.g. how does a particular work relate to its movement or respond to previous movements?)

What I've found is that, for me, while art can sometimes spark interesting ideas, it doesn't seem to be a very good medium for doing that (for me). If I want to think about intent or context (or theme), I can do that better with, say, history or philosophy books.

For me, art is best at sparking immediate sensation. It is sensual, and I respond to it most profoundly in a hedonistic way. (By "immediate," I don't mean I glace at a painting, feel something, and then walk away after two seconds. I might stand and look at a painting for hours. Still, what I respond to the most -- during however long I look at it -- is how it tickles my "lizard brain.")

I don't see much difference been my relationship with art and my relationship with and food or pornography. And I don't want more from it, because I can't think of more profound sorts of experiences than those I get when I'm having an orgasm or biting into a really good pie. (Well, there IS one feeling that competes with those -- that can, like fucking, eating or fleeing-from-danger -- take over my whole mind and body: that feeling of enlightenment I get when I'm reading a really good history, philosophy, mathematics or science book, but art never seems to be able to exicte that part of me as profoundly as non-fiction does. On the other hand, I've never been filled with lust or terror while reading Steven Jay Gould.)

I love both figurative and abstract art. Abstracts affect me a lot like music does. I respond to the colors and shapes -- often passionately. It always puzzles me when other people claim they don't like abstract art, because some of those same people DO like abstract patterns on clothing or wallpaper. Some of those same people will say "I don't get abstract art" and then expound on the beauty of the stripes on a tiger. (Presumably they are not trying to "get" the tiger's stripes.)

I think, often, people's disdain for abstract art comes from over-schooling. School taught them that when they look at a painting, they should be trying to figure out what it MEANS. It taught them that paintings contain some sort of secret message or intent. And they look at, say, a Pollack painting, can't figure out the secret, and suspect the artist is bullshitting them. Which pisses them off. To them, abstract art is like trying to solve a Rubic's Cube is for me. I can't do it. It's frustrating. And if I hadn't seen other people do it, I might suspect that Rubic was hoaxing everyone -- wasting their time with a puzzle that has no solution.

What some people are not doing is just letting the colors, lines and shapes flood into them. These same people could probably have a fantastic time staring out at the sea. They wouldn't try to figure out the MEANING of the sea. They'd be free to just respond to its vastness and its explosion of color.

What's interesting to me is that this (learned in school) habit of intellectualizing art ruins the experience for some people (at least when they're looking at certain kinds of art) and makes the experience more profound for others, for people like Astro Zombie. (Though I'm not implying that AZ doesn't also love art for its sensual effects.)

I disagree with him that "most contemporary art doesn't exist in a vacuum, where you can just look at a piece on a wall and intuit what is meant or what is being shown." Well, maybe I do agree with him, but I don't care what "is meant." What I can say is that I've been profoundly, profoundly, profoundly affected by a lot of contemporary art, without giving a second though to "what is meant." So the only thing I disagree with AZ about his his absolutism. I respect his relationship wit contemporary art, but it isn't the only possible relationship that can work. (Though maybe it IS the only possible one for someone who has been through school and who took the lessons of school to heart. Maybe someone like that can't STOP looking for meaning. So if he's going to ever like contemporary art, it's going to have to be via its meaning. To me, this is a bit sad. It means that person has lost something valuable he had a child. Most children love art without spending a second thinking about context or meaning.)

I have purposefully avoided learning much about the life and intent of artists like Pollack and Kandinsky, and yet I ADORE their work. I can't tell you how much their paintings mean to me. They have enriched my life beyond measure. If this is odd to you -- that I love Pollack's work without knowing anything about Pollack -- think of how people often respond to, say, a Beatles song or a Beethoven symphony, even if they're completely unschooled in music theory -- even if they're only five and know nothing about the history of the Beatles.

People often tell me that while I appreciate the paintings now, I'll appreciate them even more if I learn about the artist's history and intent. I disagree. First of all, I don't care about "appreciating" art. I don't even know what that means. It sounds boring. I want to be RAPED by art. I want to EAT art. I want art to stab me in the eye.

I agree that it's likely my relationship with Pollack's work will be CHANGED if I learn about his intent. Presumably those ideas will be stored in my brain alongside the sensual data, and one will affect the other IN SOME WAY. Maybe my experienced will be enriched; maybe it will be cheapened. I think most people have experienced both effects. Many people like some art more after learning stuff about the artist. Many people also like some art less after, say, learning that the artist was a Nazi sympathizer -- or a chimpanzee.

As you might expect with someone who responds to art sensually and prizes that response above all others, I really don't give a shit whether a work "could have been painted by a five-year-old" or was painted by a chimpanzee. Whatever. If it affects me, it affects me. So thanks, chimp! Thanks, five-year-old! Thanks, Jackson Pollack! In fact, thanks universe (for making oceans and sunsets)! It's all good!

I also don't really care that much about what I think of as the circus-feat aspect of art: how difficult or easy it is to make. I admit, it can be kind of fun to think about: when someone takes ten years to paint a gigantic mural, I DO enjoy thinking about their skill and whether or not I could do what they did. But, in the end, I respond to their work or I don't.

And that event -- the event of making the art -- is over. It's not like Michelangelo is repainting the Sistine Chapel over and over again. As it exists NOW, it is the same work whether he labored over it for years or whether space aliens came to Earth, fired an "art blaster" at the ceiling, and created the work in ten seconds. I'm not saying it's wrong to enjoy thinking about skill and craftsmanship. Whatever floats your boat! I'm saying that there's another sort of connoisseurship -- one that is more childlike: you look; you respond.

This "naive" approach IS malleable. I didn't use to like minimalist music and watercolors. Now I love both. But not because I learned anything about intent, theme or context. My new-found love came through repeated exposure to those sorts of works. I gradually learned their inner language. And, as I did, my heart started beating faster when I looked and listened to them.
posted by grumblebee at 8:19 AM on March 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


I'm sorry, AZ, but you sound exactly like an audiophile.

Only if audiophiles are prepared to argue that Mp3s listened through crappy headphones might be as valid a listening experience as any.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:19 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Malor, a bit yes but what's wrong with stuff that needs education, exposure, thought, etc to appreciate?

Anything with any degree of sophistication or complexity requires some engagement. Hell, you can't appreciate a simple cup of coffee without going through a long and not particularly pleasant period of letting your taste buds get over the gaggingly bitter flavor (something I have yet to do and thus I can't appreciate the coffee).

I've got nothing against art, whether audio or otherwise, that requires engagement and thought. I do worry about whether the art in question has value in and of itself, or whether it only has value because it was created by a person who was in the club. I'll admit I still hold the opinion that stuff like Fountain seems to be "art" only because it was created by someone who was in the club. I may be wrong about that, but it looks that way to me.
posted by sotonohito at 8:20 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Art is all over.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:21 AM on March 5, 2011


Art is all over.

That's true. Again, referring to John Waters, he says one of the best things about going to a museum is that when you leave, for a while, you start seeing everything as being art. But this only lasts for a short while, and so he keeps going back to galleries to get the sense again.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I wonder how much the presence of identifiable motifs (for example, in the picture on the right there is a colored-in cross and two tightly controlled squiggles that suggest an adult artist- or perhaps an elephant, I was impressed by AstroZombie's link). I'm more from the Eyebrows McGee school of art - I like what I like, and I often have to see the piece in person to really "get" what makes it amazing - I'll be that red stripe isn't nearly as awesome on an LCD screen, and I never understood the power of Guernica until I saw the chaos in person. I'm less a fan of art that requires an art school degree to understand - I see how it can be important, but I just can't work myself into being interested about art for artists. Though I put art that makes relevant social commentary in a different category.
posted by fermezporte at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2011


"I've never been filled with lust or terror while reading Steven Jay Gould."

Hen's teeth turn me on, but horse's toes turn me off.
posted by kyrademon at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2011


Only if audiophiles are prepared to argue that Mp3s listened through crappy headphones might be as valid a listening experience as any.

I don't understand what a "valid listening experience" is.

If I listen to Mozart through crappy headphones and good ones, and I enjoy the crappy-head-phone experience more, just-as-much or in-a-different-way, how is that experience "invalid"? It's a bit odd (most people will wind up enjoying the good-headphone experience more), but invalid?
posted by grumblebee at 8:24 AM on March 5, 2011


how is that experience "invalid"?

Somehow, you seem to have gotten the opposite meaning from what I intended.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:31 AM on March 5, 2011


The other painting at the top of the article is not by a monkey, but by a child.

And it's also a better abstract painting than the one by the trained artist.
posted by jb at 8:33 AM on March 5, 2011


Somehow, you seem to have gotten the opposite meaning from what I intended.

Well, I can be dense sometimes. What meaning did you intend?
posted by grumblebee at 8:35 AM on March 5, 2011


That I prefer listening to Mp3s through crappy headphones.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:36 AM on March 5, 2011


Ah, okay. So we're in agreement on that point. The reason I thought you meant the opposite is that, in your much favorite (and fantastic) post, above, you made a claim that certain works "demand" to be engaged with in a particular way.

Which, to me, seems similar to "the only valid way to listen to Mozart is through good headphones."
posted by grumblebee at 8:39 AM on March 5, 2011


That's right, it's a blank sheet of paper. It's by sculptor Tom Friedman, who also did this, and this, neither of which are the sort of thing a monkey or child is likely to have produced.

For one thing animals and children don't try to scam people out of money...
posted by 445supermag at 8:40 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Certain works do in fact "demand" to be engaged with in a certain way, in the sense that the artist made various decisions contingent on the assumption that the audience will engage in a certain way.

That has nothing to do with whether it's "valid" to engage with the work some other way.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2011


For one thing animals and children don't try to scam people out of money...

I could comment on how only somebody unfamiliar with art would make this statement, but I am more struck by how unfamiliar you are with children.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2011 [25 favorites]


For one thing animals and children don't try to scam people out of money...

Well, regardless of what Tom Friedman may or may not have been trying to do, the blank piece of paper isn't trying to con anyone out of money.

And when I look at the paper in a museum, my bank account balance doesn't decrease -- unless you're talking about the tiny percentage of my museum-admissions fee that goes towards offsetting the purchase of Friedman's work.
posted by grumblebee at 8:45 AM on March 5, 2011


My hatred of abstract art is part of a lifelong performance piece, a tableau commenting on the rich human capacity for cynicism. Who are you to say that my art is less worthy than Hoffman's?
posted by Riki tiki at 8:47 AM on March 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


Certain works do in fact "demand" to be engaged with in a certain way, in the sense that the artist made various decisions contingent on the assumption that the audience will engage in a certain way.

This may strike you as pedantic, but I think the distinction is important: in the cases you're talking about, the ARTIST, not the work is making the demand.

Some people care about that. Others don't.
posted by grumblebee at 8:47 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've got three children and they would pay for the opportunity to make art. In fact, they sometimes do choose to spend their own money on supplies. They have never charged anyone for their art, maybe I don't know the right children.
posted by 445supermag at 8:48 AM on March 5, 2011


Who are you to say that my art is less worthy than Hoffman's?

Nobody is saying that. Jesus. But you have suggested a motivation for abstraction and performance art: cynicism. Can you back that up?
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:48 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Saying that a work "demands" something is a lot like saying it "makes you feel" some way. It's not quite saying what it means--feelings are reactions; the artwork doesn't do anything to make them happen--but it's rather difficult to hold a conversation while maintaining that sort of distinction, especially when one's perception of art regularly produces the illusion (often deliberate) that the artwork IS a conscious agent.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2011


You're being overly literally, LogicalDash. I am not suggesting that the art has some sort of separate intelligence and is making conscious demands.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2011


Aslo, artist can be very wrong about their "demands."

I've made works with the hope that audiences would engage in them in a particular way. I hoped this, because my assumption was that if they engaged in the way I wanted them to, they would have a particular experience.

But reality is much more interesting and complex than my hopes.

Sometimes people engage the way want and have exactly the experience I want them to. (I've come to the point where, when this happens, it bored me a little. But that's just me.)

Other times, they engage the way I want and DON'T have the experience I want to have.

Still other times, they engage in a different way and -- surprisingly -- still have the experience I want them to have.

And of course, sometimes they engage in a different way and have a totally different experience from what I wanted them to have -- but they still get a lot out of the experience. (Or not.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:53 AM on March 5, 2011


Astro Zombie, I was replying to Grumblebee, who in turn thought that you were suggesting something to that effect.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:54 AM on March 5, 2011


All ways of experiencing art are fine. You don't actually need to learn anything more about an artist to like them or to hate them. And your reactions are perfectly okay.

But, then, you could also read a book upside down and backwards and still have a totally legitimate experience of it. But it is fair to say that this is not what the author anticipated, and that there was a way of approaching their book that they did anticipate, and your experience of the book might be dramatically different if you were to attempt it that way.

Astro Zombie, I was replying to Grumblebee, who in turn thought that you were suggesting something to that effect.

My apologies. I read your comment upside down and backwards.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Saying that a work "demands" something is a lot like saying it "makes you feel" some way.

Well, I can say that a work makes ME feel a certain way, but I can't say how it makes you or anyone else feel.

I can certainly talk about what demands I personally need to fullfil in order to get the feelings I want out of a work. For instance, I might only be able to get those profound feelings I get from Bach if I listen to his music in complete silence. So though I'd be employing a bit of metaphor, it might make sense for me to say that Bach demands silence from ME.

But I would never say "Bach demands total silence from the listener," because that sounds universal, as if YOU can't enjoy Bach without total silence. I don't know that's the case. You might be able to enjoy it in a different (but profoundly meaningful) way from me, even if you're talking while the music is playing. Maybe you can even enjoy the music in a similar way to me if you're talking.
posted by grumblebee at 9:00 AM on March 5, 2011


Contemporary art demands engagement from the viewer. It is, as John Waters once said, a bit like a bike gang, where you need to know its language and hand signals to get entry. And it's usually not hard to get that stuff -- most artists provide statements, and most galleries will discuss the art with you. But if you refuse to do any of that stuff, you're on your own. The art isn't for you. And that should be okay, but some people get offended by that fact. Just don't go to the galleries!

This is all fine stuff and very well said. In fact it makes me feel better about my own dislike of the stuff, and not going to galleries or art shows. I think when people get mad about contemporary art its because they've been told that art is capital-A important, and that they're missing out on something huge. But those days are over now, and that's okay.

Not to totally dismiss the art. Obviously it strikes a chord with some people. It simply isn't one of the Three Pillars of Humanity or nonsense like that. Everybody should just do what they dig while occasionally challenging themselves; we're sort of past the age of anything being capital-A important. I like doom metal and pulp and David Milch, and there's a dozen reasons why anyone would hate any of those things. The problem is when people take others tastes personally.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:00 AM on March 5, 2011


But, then, you could also read a book upside down and backwards and still have a totally legitimate experience of it

reminded me of A Humument

and your experience of the book might be dramatically different if you were to attempt it that way.

Yeah, we don't have a word that means "I assume you're approaching my work this way, so if you aren't, we can't have a conversation about it," and so we say the work "demands" to be approached somehow or other.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:01 AM on March 5, 2011


Perhaps "asks" would have been a better word choice on my part. Although, with some artists, "expects" would be more precise. I mean, Keith Jarrett will walk out of his performance if you cough.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:03 AM on March 5, 2011


Yeah, we don't have a word that means "I assume you're approaching my work this way, so if you aren't, we can't have a conversation about it," and so we say the work "demands" to be approached somehow or other.

I understand what you're saying, and I agree that it's sometimes hard to be precise when discussing this stuff, but it's not THAT hard. You can pretty easily say, "In the following post, when I talk about 'Gone With the Wind,' I'm discussing the experience of seeing it on the big screen in a theatre, not on a television at home."
posted by grumblebee at 9:04 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee, that approach works when the context that you expect of the reader is a simple context like "on the big screen in the theater". It does not work so well when the artwork is some deep-genre piece that expects you to be familiar with the techniques of its creation, and the criticism surrounding it, and the history, and the distinction between Death Metal and Black Metal... in that kind of situation, an arm-wavey approach to specifying context makes more sense, because actually unpacking the whole context would be an altogether different sort of work.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:06 AM on March 5, 2011


Art and Nascar.

Art: but it's just a bunch of random paint.

Nascar: but it's just a bunch of left turns.

Not if you actually bother to sit down and learn about the stuff. Art can't really be understood without a knowledge of it's content, context and form. The art in a painting isn't just whether or not you think it looks cool. The art comes when you examine the the thought behind a painting, the techniques that have been developed to make it, the time period it was created, and so many juicy tiny details. Similarly with Nascar, if you think it's just a bunch of left turns, then you're doing it wrong. Those cars are packed with technology and those left turns are impossible if you don't know a million little highly refined rules of the track.

It's like college all over again. Listening to people hating on something they haven't taken the time to understand. Read the fucking book before you form an opinion on whether or not it moved you.

Conversations about whether art is valuable make me want to fight people express myself.
posted by pwally at 9:07 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gone with the Wind is an interesting example. I suppose you could enjoy the film if you didn't know about slavery, about the Civil War, and about carpetbagging, but it would be a dramatically different experience for you if to watch the film, it would be different than the filmmakers anticipated, and would limit your discussion of the film, and your understanding of it, to what you can glean from just observing whatever is on the screen. And imagine you have never seen a film before, and so don't know what an edit is supposed to mean, or why a soundtrack is used, or that the people on the screen aren't performing live somewhere and this is the only time you will ever see it, and they're making it up on the spot.

Valid? Sure. Typical? No.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:08 AM on March 5, 2011


Unpacking the Zeitgeist via cstross
posted by LogicalDash at 9:12 AM on March 5, 2011


"My hatred of abstract art is part of a lifelong performance piece, a tableau commenting on the rich human capacity for cynicism. Who are you to say that my art is less worthy than Hoffman's?"

An art critic. And my review of Riki Tiki's hatred of abstract art finds that it is both heavy-handed and derivative. Frankly, Riki's hatred of abstract art was done before, and better, by John Ruskin in his seminal "defense against a legal action brought by James Abbott McNeill Whistler regarding a critical review of Nocturne Falling Rocket; a study in cynicism and tempura." What does Riki Tiki's hatred of abstract art add to a performance art field already flooded with hatred of abstract art pieces? Riki is neither innovative in his use of medium nor content. Posts critical of abstract art made on an internet website! This *might* have been innovative in 1993; in 2011 we wonder why Riki hasn't moved on. This piece gets my lowest rating ever -- seven thumbs up.

(Note: I am not actually an art critic. I have no actual opinion on Riki Tiki's lifelong performance piece. I probably do not even exist.)
posted by kyrademon at 9:16 AM on March 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Perhaps "asks" would have been a better word choice on my part. Although, with some artists, "expects" would be more precise. I mean, Keith Jarrett will walk out of his performance if you cough.

To me, this is where social expectations come into play. I'm not prepared to say that it's more valid or better to watch a performance of "King Lear" while keeping your eyes open. But we're certainly all brought up to watch plays instead of just listening to them. The directors expect this, and so they might inject info into their production that is purely visual.

The thing is that this "rule" (that you're supposed to listen AND watch) is generally known by everyone, director and audience. It's not "right" or "what you're supposed to do," but it is reasonable to DISCUSS the play as an auditory and visual experience, and it's reasonable to assume most people in the conversation experienced the play this way.

So it would be a bit odd if I went to see a play, kept my eyes closed the whole time, and then criticized the production for being confusing. At the very least, when discussing the play, I should be open about the way I "viewed" it: "this is a bad play if you keep your eyes closed during a performance."

When we discuss a production of "King Lear," it's reasonable to assume that everyone participating in the discussion kept their eyes open, watched the whole play (didn't walk out after the first two minutes -- unless they're honest about this), etc.

There are some general expectations that museums and painters can reasonably hold about their audiences. They can assume that people will look at the whole painting and not just its left edge, etc. But there is a VAST gray area beyond that sort of thing.

We're NOT all brought up to believe we must learn about history, context, etc. before going to a museum and looking at the paintings. Those things are not part of the entry-requirements.

I also think that LogicalDash is onto a really important distinction. There's a HUGE difference between personally experiencing a work and participating in a conversation about it. When experiencing a work, it's really odd to talk about validity. But in a given conversation, there may be ground rules: there may be the assumption that all participants share some common knowledge or prejudices (or aesthetics). If not, it becomes and apples/oranges discussion. One person is talking about "King Lear" as a visual experience, assuming that everyone else is discussing it similarly. Meanwhile, another person in the same discusion is talking about the play as a radio play.
posted by grumblebee at 9:16 AM on March 5, 2011


Art can't really be understood without a knowledge of it's content, context and form.

I don't understand what "understood" means in that sentence.
posted by grumblebee at 9:19 AM on March 5, 2011


There's a HUGE difference between personally experiencing a work and participating in a conversation about it.

I guess I feel experiencing a piece of work is participating in a conversation. It's a conversation with the creator of the piece.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:19 AM on March 5, 2011


But then, I'll actually email or call an artist of I like their work. And, if I can, I'll go out with them for drinks. Because they're usually a lot of fun drunk.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:20 AM on March 5, 2011


I'd comment on how one-sided a conversation artworks tend to be, but I just noticed I linked to a blog where a popular science fiction author spends his free time discussing the themes and content of his work with his readers.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:21 AM on March 5, 2011


I guess I feel experiencing a piece of work is participating in a conversation. It's a conversation with the creator of the piece.

Except you're not having a conversation with him. He's not in the room with you.

Certainly, you can FEEL like you're talking with him. And you can enjoy that feeling. And that's great. But it's an illusion.

I aslo don't see how this is unique to art in any way. The "conversation" you're talking about "happens" because a person left something he made in a public place. You are reacting to it. But that also happens -- or can happen -- when you see a manhole or stop sign. A person left something in a public place. You are responding to it. If you want, you can even research stop signs and learn what their makers intended. Or you can mine that from their context.
posted by grumblebee at 9:23 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Har har har har har .... an art thread. Seriously, what next, arguing over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin? Just teasing, keep your shirt on.

I wrote a longish screed about art, but deleted it before posting*. I think y'all pretty well have this in hand.

*I have text file where I save all the things I write and never post. It's getting pretty long.
posted by Xoebe at 9:23 AM on March 5, 2011


I've rarely been to a gallery opening where the artists wasn't there and eager to babble on about their work. Sometimes it can be a bit much, actually, but, hey, they bought the wine.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:23 AM on March 5, 2011


sotonohito: "Or am I missing something big here?"

You're missing context. Context is huge. Context is absolutely crucial to getting anything out of any art piece beyond its surface attributes. Saying things like "anybody could do that" or "this is just a huge scam" is like going to a baseball game when you don't know anything about the rules or the teams or the athletes, then saying that people in the crowd should pay to watch you throw a ball and run around at random.

On preview, what pwally said.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:24 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I kid, of course, but I think you're overly dismissive of the skepticism here. This word, "art", already has a very flexible meaning for most people. It can be a painting, it can be a sculpture, it can be a well-designed building or a delicious meal. It can be a play or a movie or a video game, or a truly brilliant physics equation or a photograph.

The problem with the abstract is that it so broadly defines the word that it becomes meaningless. You're willing to praise a blank sheet of paper simply because the "art" is really Friedman's "intention of art" while (supposedly) staring at it for a thousand hours. Why isn't the "intention" of skeptics to insult and mock abstract art itself art for the same reason?

What this comes down to is that people want to put a value on the things they call "art". It's not always so crude as monetary value; many parents would cherish their kindergartener's finger painting over The Last Supper. But that at least has the obvious underlying value of sentimentality. People have limits to what they can consider a valuable contribution to our culture. If I pick up ten pebbles off the ground and arrange them in a circle on a table, why does my twenty seconds of work with at least some semblance of form get ignored by the world, while 1,000 Hours of Staring (which very possibly took less time than my circle) causes people to "ooh" and "ahh" and probably sells for thousands?

Is it at least possible that there's truth in people's skepticism, that much of modern and abstract art serves better as an excuse for people to wax pretentious and pretend to draw meaning where no such meaning exists? That it may primarily be an elitist cultural institution, that grants wild success to a few people based on strategic schmoozing rather than any sense of merit? I ask this, in all seriousness, as someone who actually quite likes many modern pieces.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:26 AM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


But then, I'll actually email or call an artist of I like their work. And, if I can, I'll go out with them for drinks. Because they're usually a lot of fun drunk.

Cool, but that's a different experience than looking at the painting. Not more or less "valid," just different. Of course, you are free to define the boundaries of a work however you want. To you, maybe a particular painting = "the work itself plus what you've read about it plus what the artist said to you when you had drinks with him."

One of the reasons conversations about art are so tough, unless they're free-association riffs (and everyone participating agrees that this is what they are) is that we tend to come at them with very different baggage. AND we don't tell each-other about that baggage. So you and I might be discussing a painting, but we're really not discussing the same object if to me it's the rectangle of canvas and to you it's the canvas, some books and your personal relationship with the artist.
posted by grumblebee at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2011


I don't understand what "understood" means in that sentence.

To understand the artists intentions.
posted by pwally at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2011


I don't understand what "understood" means in that sentence.

To understand the artists intentions.

Okay, but why is that something I should care about? (It's totally cool for you to care about it, but I don't. Yet I would claim that I "understand" the art just as well as you do. I understand what it means to me.)
posted by grumblebee at 9:29 AM on March 5, 2011


Why isn't the "intention" of skeptics to insult and mock abstract art itself art for the same reason?

Actually, it is. I know you think you're on to some devastating critique here, but you're just showing you haven't investigated the subject enough to know that this sort of mockery and critique is actually embedded in the art world itself. You'd be surprised at how much art makes fun of other art.

So go ahead and dislike art. Make fun of it. Create something that does so. You might get a gallery show.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:29 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


__     ______  _    _            _____  ______            _      _      
\ \   / / __ \| |  | |     /\   |  __ \|  ____|     /\   | |    | |     
 \ \_/ / |  | | |  | |    /  \  | |__) | |__       /  \  | |    | |     
  \   /| |  | | |  | |   / /\ \ |  _  /|  __|     / /\ \ | |    | |     
   | | | |__| | |__| |  / ____ \| | \ \| |____   / ____ \| |____| |____ 
   |_|  \____/ \____/  /_/    \_\_|  \_\______| /_/    \_\______|______|
                                                                        
                                                                        
__          _______   ____  _   _  _____ 
\ \        / /  __ \ / __ \| \ | |/ ____|
 \ \  /\  / /| |__) | |  | |  \| | |  __ 
  \ \/  \/ / |  _  /| |  | | . ` | | |_ |
   \  /\  /  | | \ \| |__| | |\  | |__| |
    \/  \/   |_|  \_\\____/|_| \_|\_____|
                                        

posted by everichon at 9:30 AM on March 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


You're missing context. Context is huge. Context is absolutely crucial to getting anything out of any art piece beyond its surface attributes.

There's no single context. Everything you see naturally has a context. It's context, to you, MIGHT have to do with the history of the work and the artist. Or it might have to do with associations coming purely from your own brain. Or both.

And it's impossible will say which will be more meaningful to a particular viewer.
posted by grumblebee at 9:31 AM on March 5, 2011


Okay, but why is that something I should care about?

I am really curious as to why you wouldn't care. I have never heard such an earnest defense for willful ignorance before. What else in your life do you have a profound appreciation for, and that appreciation never extends to any additional curiosity about the subject.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:31 AM on March 5, 2011


bookish,

In the past few years this has happened to me a few times at museum exhibits: An agitated middle-aged guy walking briskly will decide that his critique is best shouted to all the other patrons in the gallery. It's usually something like "I don't think this is art. Do you?" Like he was expecting the rest of us to suddenly wake up, the scales fallen from our eyes, and shout back "No!" and then storm the admissions counter en masse to demand our refunds.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2011


much of modern and abstract art serves better as an excuse for people to wax pretentious and pretend to draw meaning where no such meaning exists

Meaning doesn't exist. It's not a substance. You can't weigh it or measure its barometric pressure.

Our minds have the curious ability to associate things with other things, put things in categories, and use that information to make inferences, predictions, and definitions. That's meaning.

Some kinds of meaning are basically necessary if you want to have civilization; I think the concept of public and private property might be an example. It's a good thing we made those meanings. But they are arbitrary.

So, to suppose that one sort of art has meaning, and another doesn't, and to get them confused is the mark of a fool... well, it all smacks of Platonic idealism, this notion that meaning is the Real Thing and all these stupid measurable things like weight and location are manifestations of it.

I can't tell if that's what you really believe, but if you're going to have a conversation about meaning, you'd probably better make sure everyone knows what you're talking about.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


That being said, I would particularly suggest minimalism to you. It literally is not intended to mean anything more than what you see before you. There is no metaphor. There is no representation. The artist requests and does not require any additionally context. The thing before you is exactly what it is.

My father has a minimalist piece of art. It's a huge canvas, painted pink, with a single light colored line drawn across it. There is nothing he owns that causes people to fly into a more perplexed rage.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am really curious as to why you wouldn't care. I have never heard such an earnest defense for willful ignorance before. What else in your life do you have a profound appreciation for, and that appreciation never extends to any additional curiosity about the subject.

My guess is that you defend willful ignorance (or would, if it comes up). Presumably, you care about your computer. Do you care about what particular factory it was made it? Do you care about the sex life of the clerk at Best Buy who sold it to you?

I don't care about the artist's intentions because I've found that, for me, knowing them doesn't improve my experience of his work. It's totally fine for your experience to be different.

As for the willful-ignorance thing, yes, I agree, it's good for me to have cultural-literacy knowledge. It's good for me to know something about Rodin, because he's part of history. It's also important for me to know about WWII and Abraham Lincoln.

But that -- to me -- is totally different from being turned on by the color red.
posted by grumblebee at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2011


Some abstract art is/was specifically presented in terms of being a criticism of realist art -- an attempt to ask question such as, what is the function of realistic painting in a world that has developed photographic technology? Why would anyone pay big money for what is essentially a handmade postcard? This kind of critique can cut both ways.
posted by kyrademon at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2011


I know the one on the right is the Hoffman, but I just like the kid painting better. Something about the red.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2011


Do you care about what particular factory it was made it?

If there is something cool about the factory, yes. I visited the Pixar studio a few years ago, which is sort of the factory where they make the movies. I recommend it.

Do you care about the sex life of the clerk at Best Buy who sold it to you?

I suppose it depends on how hot the clerk is.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:38 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


What I'm reacting agains, AZ, is statements like "If you don't know what the artist intended, you don't understand the painting."

I have no problem with anyone's way of relating to art. But I violently reject rules. To me, the fun of art is being able to come at it from your own way. From the way you talk about art, I can tell it's deeply important to you. It's also deeply important to me. It's my life. And you care about intent and I don't.

Which to me is fine. I love Stephen Sondheim in a different way from the way his lover loves him. It would be strange to say that I'm being willfully ignorant of him because I don't want to have sex with him. I have my own relationship with him. His lover has HIS relationship with him. Both are passionate.
posted by grumblebee at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


That elephant painting makes me wonder - did the elephant pick the motive on its own, or has it just been trained to paint those shapes?
posted by ymgve at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2011


I'm not well steeped in the art world, but it seems like what used to be considered important art would take years to make, and years mastery of technique, while now such things seem irrelevant. I don't like baseball, but I can appreciate the mastery of the skills displayed in it. For art like in the post...
posted by cheburashka at 9:41 AM on March 5, 2011


Astro Zombie, grumblebee has a point.

Plenty of people enjoy art without consciously seeking out the stated intention of the artist. In fact, many believe that a work should be able to speak for itself.

This doesn't mean that searching for context beyond the work itself is an unacceptable way of enjoying art, but it certainly isn't a requirement.
posted by kyrademon at 9:41 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have no problem with anyone's way of relating to art. But I violently reject rules.

Rejecting rules does make it difficult to have a conversation. You might want to at least conditionally accept some rules some of the time in order to participate in an event. I observe that you've already done this and accepted the necessity, so maybe you should come up with a better way of specifying what it is that you reject.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:41 AM on March 5, 2011


Yet I would claim that I "understand" the art just as well as you do. I understand what it means to me.

So if I have seen a painting and I understand it's history, why it was made, what materials it was made with, all of the techniques it was made with, it's reason for being, what that art contribuited to culture and the movements it sparked, and you just walked by and stared at it for ten seconds, all of a sudden our understanding of that work of art is on equal footing? That is anti-intellectual bullshit. Give me a fucking break.
posted by pwally at 9:42 AM on March 5, 2011


That being said, I would particularly suggest minimalism to you. It literally is not intended to mean anything more than what you see before you.

If this was intended for me, you really don't understand my point-of-view, which is fine.

ALL paintings are like this for me. I don't care what was intended. I don't think about what was intended. And yet, somehow, I managed to LOVE paintings.

Your experience is very different, and I respect that.
posted by grumblebee at 9:42 AM on March 5, 2011


What I'm reacting agains, AZ, is statements like "If you don't know what the artist intended, you don't understand the painting."

Well, that's fair. The truth is, I don't even care about understand art. It is to me, like it seems to be to you, primarily an experience, not some exercise in sussing out truth, like there is some hidden meaning that, if only we stare at the piece long enough, or read the right artist's statement, we'll get it.

I investigate further because I enjoy the experience, and, for me, this deepens the experience. And sometimes I get to have sex with the artist. Although if it's Sondheim, I'll pass. He's just not my type.

did the elephant pick the motive on its own, or has it just been trained to paint those shapes?

I have been curious about that as well. I'd like to believe the elephant just likes painting elephants, but it is possible he has been taught to do so. That being said, the elephant consistently makes one side of his his painting thicker than the other, as though shadow is falling on it. This doesn't seem like it would be easy to teach, and hints that the elephant is actually drawing what it sees.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:43 AM on March 5, 2011


"... it seems like what used to be considered important art would take years to make, and years mastery of technique, while now such things seem irrelevant."

Are you serious? Making good abstract art is freakin' HARD.
posted by kyrademon at 9:44 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


If this was intended for me, you really don't understand my point-of-view, which is fine.

It was intended for you. Not as an intention of telling you that this is the only sort of art you might like, or that there is anything wrong with how you experience art. Just that these artists approach their art much in the way you do, so you might have a particular appreciation for it, which others may not, because they expect art to mean something.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:45 AM on March 5, 2011


Rejecting rules does make it difficult to have a conversation.

It's already difficult, because in most conversations, people aren't explicit about the rules. One person is playing football and the other is playing hockey. They THINK they're playing the same game but they aren't.

I am totally into conversations with rules. For instance, if AZ said, "This is a conversation about art for people who care about intent," that would be great. I would probably opt out, but at least I would have a meaningful way to gauge wether or not it was a conversation for me. Maybe, even though I don't care about intent, I could participate as if I did: "I don't care about intent, but if I did, a logical conclusion is that I'd do X or Y..."

But there aren't usually rules like that. So here we have AZ and I "discussing" art without even having a very basic tenet in common. What can we meaningfully say to each other about a particular painting. And this is a rare case in which the AZ/grumblebee discord is explicit. In my experience, it's usually not. And everyone is confused.
posted by grumblebee at 9:47 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not fond of abstract paintings for whatever reason, but abstract sculpture is pretty badass.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2011


"So if I have seen a painting and I understand it's history ... and you just walked by and stared at it for ten seconds, all of a sudden our understanding of that work of art is on equal footing?"

Your understanding? Perhaps that is not on an equal footing, no.

But if you think you necessarily have a deeper appreciation of the art, this may not be the case.
posted by kyrademon at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2011


It was intended for you. Not as an intention of telling you that this is the only sort of art you might like, or that there is anything wrong with how you experience art. Just that these artists approach their art much in the way you do, so you might have a particular appreciation for it, which others may not, because they expect art to mean something.

The older I get, the more I like minimalism, but it was actually a difficult learning curve for me, even though you feel its aesthetics gibe with mine. (My own art is pretty minimalist, but what I create tends to be a bit different from what I consume.)

My knee-jerk tastes run more towards the baroque and the operatic. I like explosions of unruly color that run all over the canvas and make the whole work teeter on the edge of chaos and ugliness. I much prefer Pollack to Mondrian.
posted by grumblebee at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2011


But if you think you necessarily have a deeper appreciation of the art, this may not be the case.

Please explain how that could be true.
posted by pwally at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee, I still don't understand what you meant when you said you violently reject rules. Maybe you meant, if you have to follow rules in order to appreciate an artwork, you're not interested in appreciating it that way? Well, okay, but there are vast swathes of performance art (eg: Fluxus) where the rules are the artwork, or an integral part of it, and you can't engage with the art any other way, at least not without doing the equivalent of watching the film version of Lord of the Rings and then claiming you've read the book.

I'd argue that game design is another art like this, but this isn't the Games Are Art thread.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:52 AM on March 5, 2011


Are you serious? Making good abstract art is freakin' HARD.
Well, what do you mean by "good"?

If what you mean by "good" depends in some way upon what people think or feel about it, then the article says that people often (but not usually) think that specific abstract art made by monkeys and children and such is more "good" than specific abstract art made by people who consider themselves artists.

Certainly making "good" abstract art can be freakin' hard, in that the artist can expend a lot of thought an energy and time. But it doesn't have to be, unless you think that the people who judged monkey art to be more "good" than professional human art are, somehow, "wrong".

Or, I guess, if you think that making the art was freakin' hard for the monkey. Perhaps it was, but I doubt in the same sense that you were implying.
posted by Flunkie at 9:55 AM on March 5, 2011


And perhaps I should be clear about a couple things:

First, the reason that I was putting "good" in quotes is not that I don't believe that abstract art in general, or even the specific abstract art shown in the article, is "good". Rather, I was putting it in quotes because it's not entirely clear to me what you mean by it, other than in a "I can't tell you what pornography is, but I know it when I see it" sense. This is also why I said "more 'good'" rather than "better".

Second, I forget what the second thing I was intending to be clear about was.
posted by Flunkie at 10:00 AM on March 5, 2011


Oh, yeah, the second thing was that it's not just that the article says that people often find specific monkey art more "good" than specific professional human art, but also this thread, and my own personal experience, has also shown examples of monkey art being, somehow, "good".

So, back to my point, I don't think that "Making good abstract art is freakin' HARD" is an accurate statement. Certainly it can be, but it obviously doesn't have to be.
posted by Flunkie at 10:03 AM on March 5, 2011


"Please explain how that could be true."

OK.

I am a playwright and theatrical director. I know plays. I have studied plays, and taught playwriting and drama. In the course of learning my craft, I have taken on pretty much every possible position it is possible to have on a show. I know the history of theater. I am familiar with the stated intentions of most major playwrights, if such statements exist. I know the current movements in the field. I understand what makes plays work and fail on a level that I can express in fairly concrete terms.

When I go to see a play, I *understand* it very well. I can tell you what the playwright did that worked and where the playwright went wrong in any identifiable way. I can see what is the result of good or poor direction. I can see where the actors add, and where they detract. I understand how the lighting, sets, costumes, props, make-up were being used, and what the designers intended. After any show I see, I could write you an essay on the historical context and influences.

Not infrequently, I will go to see a play with someone less well versed in the theater, or not particularly familiar with it at all. And if it's a bad play, even if they can't explain exactly why it's a bad play, they'll almost always come out saying, "Ugh, I hated that." And if it's a great play, even if they can't explain exactly why it's a great play, they'll almost always come out raving about how awesome and amazing it was and we'll stay up until dawn talking about all the things it brought up or made us think about.

My understanding of theater is crucial to my profession on the other side of the stage. As an audience member, however, while it enable me to articulate certain things, it doesn't really much seem to add to or subtract from my *appreciation* of a work. How much I like it. How much it makes me think. How much it makes me feel. As far as I can tell, most other people have the exact same reaction. I'm just better at explaining what caused that reaction to occur.
posted by kyrademon at 10:05 AM on March 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


While art students gave the same ratings to professional works no matter the condition, psychology students gave higher judgments of quality to pros when correctly labeled than when unlabeled or incorrectly labeled. (79% vs 66% and 63%, respectively.)

Wait, was this secretly a study about peer review?
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:05 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


To frame it another way, it seems like that for all the other artistic areas there's some baseline at which more or less everybody can agree that something is bad or just isn't art. But here it feels like there's no such line at all, certainly that seems to be what a lot of people in this thread are saying. When I look at the paintings like those reproduced in the article and am told that it is highly valued art, I'm sorry, I get the feeling that I'm being swindled.
posted by cheburashka at 10:06 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee, I still don't understand what you meant when you said you violently reject rules.

What I mean is that I violently reject any statement of the form "you are relating to art in the wrong way."

I have NO problem with "you are relating to art in the wrong way FOR THIS CONVERSATION."

I have NO problem with "you are not relating to art in the way the artist intended," though my response would be, "Maybe not, but I don't care."

I only have problems with absolutist statements about how art is MEANT to be consumed. I have problems for two reasons:

1. Meant by whom? Who is the god of art who gets to say the right and wrong ways to relate to it? If you say, "the artist," I counter with "according to whom?" He's not the boss of me. (I'm an artist, and I'm definitely not the boss of anyone.)

This objection is a logical one. To me, the statement "are is meant to be viewed this way" is logically ugly. It's ugly in the same way that "people are meant to believe in God" is ugly. It's a meaningless statement.

2. But I also reject rules on a deeper, more personal level. If I told you I wanted my hamburger without mustard and you said, "No! It's meant to be eaten with mustard," I would laugh. Food, to me, is about enjoying sensation. What I "should" do is whatever makes me enjoy food more. And you should do whatever makes you enjoy food more.

Now, obviously, if we're at a Hamburger With Mustard convention, and I'm not playing by the rules, I should leave. It's not fair to the other participants.

So I agree with you about specific conversations with specific ground rules. But I have almost NEVER been in a conversation about art with ground rules. (Which is too bad, because conversations about aesthetics can't be meaningful -- except in a free-association way -- unless there's at least some common ground.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:06 AM on March 5, 2011


Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was absolutely furious when he found it was being taught in high school literature classes. He thought it deserved to be considered a pulpy heartstring-tugger drama, fit for airport book stands and not for literature.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:07 AM on March 5, 2011


it seems like that for all the other artistic areas there's some baseline at which more or less everybody can agree that something is bad or just isn't art.

This is very, very wrong.

There are works where there's SCHOLARLY consensus about whether the work has merit. In other words, a bunch of professors and students agree with each other. And there are works, like "Star Wars," that are very popular with lots of people. But that's very different from what you're claiming.
posted by grumblebee at 10:11 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


it doesn't really much seem to add to or subtract from my *appreciation* of a work.

Sure it does. This is what the phrase "deeper appreciation" was turned for. If you and your friend who knows less about plays both go and see a play that you both enjoy, you will have a deeper appreciation for that play because you understand why it was great on so many different levels. Levels that your friend can't appreciate, because your friend doesn't know shit about plays.

I think you're confusing appreciation with impact. The play could have a bigger impact on your friend. It could change their life. But you can't conflate appreciation and understanding with impact.
posted by pwally at 10:12 AM on March 5, 2011


What I mean is that I violently reject any statement of the form "you are relating to art in the wrong way."

What form is that, though? How about:
  • Batman Begins is nothing like the old Batman movies (does it imply that if you see similarities you're watching it wrong?)
  • It works as a summer flick but not as a serious drama (if you see something in it that I don't are you a plebian?)
  • It's just a bunch of random splotches of paint (it means nothing, if you think it means something you are stupid)
It is VERY HARD to have a conversation about art without assuming, temporarily, just for convenience, that there is a correct interpretation for the present purposes. So everyone basically needs to pick an interpretation and stick to it. Some people are less flexible about that interpretation than others; some people are in denial that their interpretation is a subjective matter; but everyone assumes an interpretation, there's no way to avoid that.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2011


"Well, what do you mean by 'good'?"

All right, Flunkie, I will rephrase.

Learning the techniques and nurturing the talent required to enable yourself to consistently create works of abstract art which are of a sufficient level of skill to pass most or all of the tests usually thought to be the hallmark of quality art -- such as generally positive audience response, longevity, originality, and the ability to provoke a strong emotional or intellectual reaction -- is, with admittedly a few rare but notable exceptions, freakin' HARD.
posted by kyrademon at 10:15 AM on March 5, 2011


it seems like that for all the other artistic areas there's some baseline at which more or less everybody can agree that something is bad or just isn't art.

This is very, very wrong.

I'm not talking about Star Wars. I'm talking about, say, taking lines from this thread at random and putting them into a book and saying it's a work of fiction. Or a book of "bloopity bloop tip dap doop." At some point it's no longer a novel.
posted by cheburashka at 10:16 AM on March 5, 2011


pwally, I am confused by what "appreciation" means to you.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/appreciation

1. gratitude; thankful recognition: They showed their appreciation by giving him a gold watch.

2. the act of estimating the qualities of things and giving them their proper value.

3. clear perception or recognition, especially of aesthetic quality: a course in art appreciation.

4. an increase or rise in the value of property, goods, etc.

5. critical notice; evaluation; opinion, as of a situation, person, etc.

6. a critique or written evaluation, especially when favorable.

I don't see how a non-specialist couldn't match a specialist on any of those definitions. You might choose to trust of the opinion of the specialist more, but that's your choice.

I am not a musician, but I can have gratitude, an estimation of value, a perception of aesthetic quality a critical opinion (which I can write down) just as profoundly as a musician can have when we both hear the same Chopin piece.

I am "just" talking on the level of profundity of feeling.
posted by grumblebee at 10:18 AM on March 5, 2011


At some point it's no longer a novel.

It sure is interesting when people try and find what that point is, though.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:18 AM on March 5, 2011


"Novel" is the name of a format. Like the way "program" refers to a block of time on a television station, even if it's an infomercial. Or "story" refers to a section of a newspaper, even though they often fail to qualify as stories by the standards you'd expect of an author of fiction.

Of course it's still a novel if it doesn't make sense. It may not be any good, for your purposes or anyone else's. But it IS a novel.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2011


All right, so you're talking about learning the trade, rather than the effect on people, and consistency, rather than specificity.

That's not what I mean when I think of a work of art as being "good", but YMMV.
posted by Flunkie at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2011


It is VERY HARD to have a conversation about art without assuming, temporarily, just for convenience, that there is a correct interpretation for the present purposes.

I don't think the conversation is meaningful if you make assumptions and those assumptions are wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2011


you're just showing you haven't investigated the subject enough to know that this sort of mockery and critique is actually embedded in the art world itself. You'd be surprised at how much art makes fun of other art.

You wouldn't be arguing here if you didn't yourself believe that some criticism is more meritorious than others. You called this post a "cheap stunt" and compared it to Letterman. Why is criticism from within the art world considered a counterpoint to my comment, but my criticism or that of the OP is cheap? I ask you honestly, if you believe art to be so subjective and broadly defined, why are you making judgements of anything at all?

Do you think I'm being glib? I'm not. I chose my words carefully for both my previous comments. It's not Dickens but it's literary nonetheless. It has as much of a claim to art as a "prankish" blank sheet of paper, and yet you value the latter and seem to think I'm a philistine.

Meaning exists, and much art carries meaning. It's often misinterpreted, and sometimes the misinterpretations are more interesting than the original intent. And as I mentioned, I even have some appreciation for a niche of art that comments on the nature of meaning, such as by intentionally lacking any. But I honestly believe there's a level of focus on that type of art that is wildly disproportionate to any cultural significance it may represent.
posted by Riki tiki at 10:20 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not talking about Star Wars. I'm talking about, say, taking lines from this thread at random and putting them into a book and saying it's a work of fiction. Or a book of "bloopity bloop tip dap doop." At some point it's no longer a novel.

I don't think you finished the your sentence. (At least not in a way that makes it meaningful to me.)

At some point it's not a novel TO WHOM?

Now, before you say "Oh, come ON," I agree that most people don't consider a collection of random words a novel. But if someone does, the most I can say about him is that he's eccentric. I don't see how it makes sense to say he's wrong.

Because there's no cosmic, writ-in-stone rule about what a novel is.
posted by grumblebee at 10:21 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee, an expert simply has more things to appreciate. A musician is going to be able to appreciate Chopin better than you can because they understand all of the working parts, and they can appreciate each individual part, and you cannot.
posted by pwally at 10:21 AM on March 5, 2011


Of course it's still a novel if it doesn't make sense. It may not be any good, for your purposes or anyone else's.

Well, then we're not really disagreeing. There's some threshold at which works in other artistic media are not any good by everyone's standards. That line seems to be missing for the kind of art under discussion.
posted by cheburashka at 10:22 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee: Do you think conversation about art can ever be meaningful, then? You're prevented from saying anything about the artwork as such, so all you can do is discuss your reactions to it; critique of the technique or whatever can't happen that way.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:22 AM on March 5, 2011


Some of the smartest people I know went art school, asshole.

You sound pissed.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:22 AM on March 5, 2011


cheburashka: The line to which you refer is subjective and personal. That is to say, finding it might be fun for you, but don't expect anyone else to care.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:23 AM on March 5, 2011


cheburashka, I personally think it is almost always more interesting and useful to discuss whether a piece is good art or bad art than to discuss whether or not it is art at all.
posted by kyrademon at 10:23 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Meaning exists, and much art carries meaning. It's often misinterpreted, and sometimes the misinterpretations are more interesting than the original intent.

WHERE does the meaning exist? Is it made of matter? Is there a way to detect it? How do you know it exists?

If it "exists" as patterns in human minds, that's fine. But then how can a particular person's pattern be a misinterpretation? Is the person misinterpreting what's in his own mind?
posted by grumblebee at 10:24 AM on March 5, 2011


Do you think I'm being glib? I'm not.

No. I think your uninformed. And while I don't think you need to do any research to experience art, I am an art critic, and think uninformed criticism is valueless.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:24 AM on March 5, 2011


Actually, I would consider the Voynich manuscript to be an impressive piece of art, even though my best guess and anyone else's is that it's random letterforms with meaningless illustrations.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:26 AM on March 5, 2011


Would you consider the Voynich manuscript to be a "novel", though?

Finnegans Wake is perhaps a relevant example.
posted by Flunkie at 10:27 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee: Do you think conversation about art can ever be meaningful, then?

Yes, but I think such conversations are rare.

I DO think it's very, very possible to lay down ground rules and make most baggage and aesthetic principles overt. But few people have the patience to do so.

Which means, in the end, most conversations about art are, at best, free-associations. At worst they're sophisticated versions of "is SO" "is NOT."

I don't have a problem with either of those sorts of conversations, even the playground kind, because it's fun to hear proclamations from passionate people. But I'm not crazy about free-association and playground battles masquerading as logical discourse.

Most conversations about art, in my experience, are like conversations about metaphysics between a Christian and a Buddhist without either making it clear that he IS a Christian or a Buddhist.
posted by grumblebee at 10:27 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of the smartest people I know went art school, asshole.
posted by R. Mutt at 1:37 PM on March 5


You should get out more.

I JEST.

Probably. :-)
posted by Decani at 10:30 AM on March 5, 2011


cheburashka: The line to which you refer is subjective and personal. That is to say, finding it might be fun for you, but don't expect anyone else to care.

cheburashka, I personally think it is almost always more interesting and useful to discuss whether a piece is good art or bad art than to discuss whether or not it is art at all.

Fine, let's assume anything in novel form is a novel regardless of content, there's some line low enough where we can still pretty much all agree when something in novel form is a bad novel. But it seems like there's no line where pretty much everyone can agree that something in an art gallery is bad art (witness this thread). As far as people caring, I think if people were being sold a "novel" full of gibberish they'd care. They'd feel like someone's trying to take them for a ride.
posted by cheburashka at 10:30 AM on March 5, 2011


How about a metaphysical discussion between a Buddhist and another Buddhist?

You need to set a clear context in order to have the conversation, but that context-setting doesn't need to happen DURING the conversation. If it's someone you know well, you might already know their opinions on all these issues. In the case of art criticism, there are journals dedicated to specific genres, and you can at least make the assumptions appropriate to that genre. Sometimes you might even get a school of criticism with conventions and a list of assumptions you can look up online.

There are lots of ways to set context, and while I agree that on internet fora it's best to be conservative about that, there are lots of situations where the fact of saying "they sound more like The Pixies than the Beach Boys" automagically sets the context to one where you're discussing subjective impressions. I bet most conversations in art student circles work that way.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:33 AM on March 5, 2011


Part of the problem is with the word "art" itself.

It's possible to have a meaningful discussion about a word that has a fuzzy definition (or sharp definitions that differ from person to person) as-long-as, at the level of conversation, the fuzziness averages out.

In other words, my friend and I can talk about how we both love our wives without a clear definition of what "love" means. In fact, we might mean somewhat different things by it. However, in most conversations, all that matters is that we're talking about a feeling that tends to lead to certain sorts of behavior: pair-bonding, sacrifice, jealousy, etc.

With art, we're FAR from this level of agreement. We don't agree on what it is. We don't agree on how people generally react to it. We don't agree on whether any one particular object is an example of art. We don't agree on whether or not context is important to art appreciation.

We agree on almost NOTHING.

Yet we use "art" as the foundation of conversations. We build scaffolding and whole skyscrapers on top of that word and then call the whole thing logically sound.
posted by grumblebee at 10:33 AM on March 5, 2011


How about a metaphysical discussion between a Buddhist and another Buddhist?

You need to set a clear context in order to have the conversation, but that context-setting doesn't need to happen DURING the conversation. If it's someone you know well, you might already know their opinions on all these issues. In the case of art criticism, there are journals dedicated to specific genres, and you can at least make the assumptions appropriate to that genre.


Sure. All of this can and does happen. It's not going to happen on Metafilter, though, because there's no common ground at all.
posted by grumblebee at 10:34 AM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee, I think you might have a selection bias there. Groups of people who have agreed among themselves on a concept of "art" and a way to think about it, and don't confuse their preferred context with objective reality, probably have no interest in talking to uninformed outsiders who haven't taken the 101 course.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:35 AM on March 5, 2011


Pwally, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

Although I still say that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you.
posted by kyrademon at 10:35 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


So did I win the appreciation argument or what's the status of that?
posted by pwally at 10:35 AM on March 5, 2011


Oh, you're just talking about MetaFilter? I thought you were talking about art criticism in general.

Maybe it would be best to avoid talking about such a wide field. It would be very difficult to gather enough information to make any meaningful generalizations about "conversations about art in the art world".
posted by LogicalDash at 10:36 AM on March 5, 2011


(Well, I tried to call the appreciation argument as a classic Mexican standoff and finish with a joke. The only possible end now is either a horrific bloodbath or a pie fight.)
posted by kyrademon at 10:39 AM on March 5, 2011


Saying things like "anybody could do that" or "this is just a huge scam" is like going to a baseball game when you don't know anything about the rules or the teams or the athletes, then saying that people in the crowd should pay to watch you throw a ball and run around at random.

But, what if you did know baseball, and you went to the park and saw some people just throw a ball and run around at random. Might you not ask, "But, is it baseball?"
posted by Trochanter at 10:40 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, the only justice in aesthetics comes from aesthetics.

Therefore: Dance battle.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:40 AM on March 5, 2011


Pie fight then? It is Saturday after all ;).
posted by pwally at 10:44 AM on March 5, 2011


My understanding is that it is only not baseball when there is crying.
posted by kyrademon at 10:45 AM on March 5, 2011


Do you think I'm being glib? I'm not.

No. I think your uninformed. And while I don't think you need to do any research to experience art, I am an art critic, and think uninformed criticism is valueless.

And so we get to the "if you're not a part of my cult you should just keep your mouth shut" argument.
posted by cheburashka at 10:46 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


PIE FIGHT DANCE BATTLE BOLLYWOOD STYLE!
posted by kyrademon at 10:46 AM on March 5, 2011


Oh, you're just talking about MetaFilter? I thought you were talking about art criticism in general.

Even if the world of art criticism, which is a world I know something about, it's amazing how much talking-past-each-other there is. And I'm not talking about blowhards who don't care about each other's opinions. I'm talking about people who think they have common ground but don't.

But I absolutely think it's possible to pin down a set of aesthetic principles and agree to "play by them," at least for a duration of a conversation. I just don't think this happens very often.

By the way, an interesting thing happened in this conversation. Because I was as clear as I could be about MY aesthetics, Astro Zombie understood them (even if they were totally alien to him) and was able to suggest that (based on my tastes), I might like minimalist art.

AZ and I could take that to a very interesting level. We could talk about why my particular principals would or wouldn't likely lead to an interest in minimalism, which minimalist works I might like and why. And we could talk about why, based on AZ's aesthetics, he would or wouldn't like those same works. And whether he'd like them (or dislike them) for entirely different reasons from mine.

But all of that's only possible because we've been explicit about our underlying principles.
posted by grumblebee at 10:47 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


And so we get to the "if you're not a part of my cult you should just keep your mouth shut" argument.

My cult is the cult of knowing what you're talking about. What cult are you part of?
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:47 AM on March 5, 2011


My cult is the cult of knowing what you're talking about. What cult are you part of?

Well, then it should be easy for you to address the person's comment, as opposed to appealing to your own authority to completely disregard what that person said.
posted by cheburashka at 10:52 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


What part of the comment do you feel went unaddressed?

And I am not appealing to my own authority. I am not sure where you are getting that from. I said that I am an arts critic. But the only authority I get is from the fact that I research my subject before I write critically about it. And it only gives me the authority to support my own opinions.

You seem to have wildly minsinterpreted what I said.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:55 AM on March 5, 2011


This has been an interesting and polite conversation. I sincerely hope it doesn't become a boring and rude one. Can we all take a deep breath?
posted by grumblebee at 10:56 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have been curious about that as well. I'd like to believe the elephant just likes painting elephants, but it is possible he has been taught to do so.

I prefer the elephant's contribution to Chris Ofili's work myself.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:00 AM on March 5, 2011


FOLKS.

Can we all just repair to the doodling site that NoraReed instigated and Phire has graciously hosted, and settle this like MeFites?

I have a bevy of tufted capuchins at the ready.
posted by everichon at 11:00 AM on March 5, 2011


there's some line low enough where we can still pretty much all agree when something in novel form is a bad novel.

This hasn't been my experience. What are you basing this on?

I think "The Da Vinci Code" is absolute trash. I think a novel of random words is a "better" novel. Obviously, many people disagree with me. On the other hand, I'm not alone in my opinion.
posted by grumblebee at 11:03 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


You'd be surprised at how much art makes fun of other art."

A couple decades ago I was at an opening night reception at the MOCA and went out on a patio area for some air. I nearly set my drink on some junk hastily piled in the corner before I thought better of it. Sure enough, a couple minutes later another fellow walked up and set his drink on it only to be scolded by the security guard.

I'm pretty sure it was an intentional setup and is still one of my favorite works to have viewed in person. I struggle a bit to appreciate non-representational art and it kind of opened my eyes to the whimsical possibilities. AZ's cheetah painting is pretty damn nifty too.
posted by Manjusri at 11:26 AM on March 5, 2011


Yves Klein went through a period where he declared his art was invisible. He had an entire gallery showing with nothing at all on the walls.

I've never been able to tell whether Klein was being funny or not. I prefer not knowing. The best jokes are done totally deadpan.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:30 AM on March 5, 2011


I think the conversation went something like this:


Person: if we accept that interpreting the quality of art is fundamentally subjective, then why is my or the article's criticism "a cheap stunt" that's inferior to criticism from within the art community?

You: I'm an art critic and my criticism comes from a greater knowledge base than yours, and anything you say or the article says is "valueless."


It seems to me that unless you are conceding that there are some objective criteria which we can use to evaluate or criticize art, and by virtue of your better access to same your criticism would be valid where outsiders' would not, your response is pretty much "if you're not part of my group what you say doesn't matter."
posted by cheburashka at 11:33 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, you're not paraphrasing me with anything resembling accuracy. Please don't do that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:34 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


By the way, though no one has proven this, I suspect there ARE some universal aesthetic principles, just because we all have brains with similar structures. (Even there I have to be careful. Some people have "damaged" or abnormal brains, so by "universal" I mean close-to-universal.)

V.S. Ramachandran has done some interesting research on this, and he's written about it in his new book. But the science is in its infancy.

My prediction is that when we uncover these principles, they will be very, very basic and primitive. We'll discover things like "all humans respond to these colors when used in these combinations better than those colors in when used in those combinations."

I'm skeptical that we'll uncover universals that are higher-level than this. So it's hard for me to buy that we'll get anywhere near agreement on what constitutes a good novel. Which means we'll never have a universal metric. The very concept of "a novel" is itself high level. Art existed for thousands of years without the novel.

If you think that we all basically agree on what makes a good novel, I think the onus us on you to (a) define "we" (all college-educated Americans? all people who have read a lot of novels?) and (b) explain what would make this the case. WHY do we call think novel X is good and novel Y is bad? I don't mean "because novel X has fewer adverbs" or whatever. That's not deep enough. Why would "having fewer adverbs" make "we" universally prefer X to Y?

I DO think that, in addition to biological aesthetic instincts, there are cultural ones. So it may be possible to say things like, "Anyone raised in American and education in a typical public school will likely feel that novel A is better than novel B." I have no problem with statements like that, as long as we recognize all the requirements.

Particularly when we get into aesthetics that come from education, we have to be careful. Some very smart people have rejected much or all of what they "learned" in school. Others have embraced it.

I think caring about the artist's intent, as AZ and many others do, is common because we're social animals. Presumably, the experience of seeing art by someone you've never met is very recent (in biological terms). Early humans only saw art by people in their clan. At, at the most removed, by people in other nearby clans. The experience of seeing art by someone who has been dead for centuries or by someone in another part of the world is confusing.

If art is something made by one of your friends, it's natural to think of it as a piece of communication from him to you. Certainly, if I paint a picture for my wife and give it to her for our anniversary, it will be understood by both of us as a piece of communication. And my intent becomes, to both of us, very important.

But we're also all used to seeing art-like things that we know don't have any intent behind them: sunsets, oceans, etc. (Of course, some religious people DO feel these things are intent based). So there's variability as to how much intent matters from person to person.

This applies to abstract works, but it's easier to discuss with figurative ones: Imagine three people seeing the Mona Lisa. The first may think a lot about Da Vinci and enjoy the painting as if it's a communication from him. The second may think about the woman in the painting and feel as if she's real -- and he may enjoy his relationship with her. (For him, thinking about Da Vinci might actually be a distraction, as the artist exists on a different level. It can be fun to think about the special effects while watching a horror film. But at least to some viewers, that might make the film less scary.)

A third viewer may be able to relate to both the subject of the painting and the artist at the same time. Or he may be able to flip back and fourth between the two states very rapidly.

It shouldn't surprise us that all three of these types exist. I am very much the second type. In general, I am not a multi-tasker, so I'm not very capable of stepping into and out of a work rapidly without watering down both experiences. I need to be fully inside the rabbit hole in order to enjoy Wonderland.

At at later time, while I'm not engaging with the work itself, I might enjoy learning about the artist and how he's been received by critics. But, for me, that's a very different experience than "communing" with the work itself. The two, for me, don't mix well. My way isn't better (or worse) than anyone else's. It's just what works for me.
posted by grumblebee at 11:36 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


And, to be clear, since might point was somehow oblique, what I was saying is that informed criticism will always be stronger than uninformed criticism. Mencken once said that criticism is prejudice made plausible. We make it plausible by making sure we're approaching with actual facts.

As the study at the start of this demonstrate, "My child could paint this" is not an actual fact. It is an implausible prejudice.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:38 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The study doesn't demonstrate it. It demonstrates that it's likely, but not overwhelmingly likely, to be correct.
posted by Flunkie at 11:45 AM on March 5, 2011


I probably phrased that poorly. I'm going to try again:

The study doesn't demonstrate that "My child could paint this" is an implausible prejudice rather than an actual fact.

Rather, the study demonstrates that "My child could paint this" is usually wrong, but fairly often right.
posted by Flunkie at 11:47 AM on March 5, 2011


It seems to me that unless you are conceding that there are some objective criteria which we can use to evaluate or criticize art, and by virtue of your better access to same your criticism would be valid where outsiders' would not, your response is pretty much "if you're not part of my group what you say doesn't matter."

I think there are some really valuable things critics can do which have nothing to do with their opinions being "more important" or "valid" than anyone else's.

First of all, a critic can lay his prejudices on the table. He can do this explicitly, which would be my preference, or he can just make them clear via the general sorts of things he writes.

This allows me, his reader, to position myself in relationship to him: "Oh, wow! This guy shares a whole lot of my core aesthetics. And he's recommending this movie for this reason. Based on that, there's a good chance I'll like it, too -- and for similar reasons!"

(I love the "New Yorker" film critic Anthony Lane. I often disagree with him, but, over the years, I've come to "know him." I can see a film and think, "Lane will love this." I can read a review of a film he hated an know that I will probably like it and know WHY I'll probably like it. This is all extremely valuable, but it only works because Lane has been clear about his prejudices.)

He can also suggest really good "meals." He can, essentially, say "I've spent years trying this same dish with different wines (so that you don't have to). I suggest you try them together. If you have tastes that are anything like mine, you will be happy." This is often where things like context come in. A critic can say, "because I took the time to learn the context, I had this amazing experience! I'm going to help you have the same one without you having to do all the leg-work that I did."

He can help artists by saying, "I've seen 100 works that are similar to yours. Based on my aesthetic principles, these 30 worked and these 70 didn't. Yours isn't working because it's doing this particular thing that the 70 did." If he makes his principles clear, then I, as an artist can say, "Shit! I was hoping to reach people like him. I'd better make some changes. Or I can say, "You know, I hear you, but I'm really talking to people with a different set of principles and tastes."

None of this has anything to do with a critic's opinions being more or less valid than anyone else's. It has to do with his ability to be crystal clear about those opinions and what's behind them.
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


And, to be clear, since might point was somehow oblique, what I was saying is that informed criticism will always be stronger than uninformed criticism. Mencken once said that criticism is prejudice made plausible. We make it plausible by making sure we're approaching with actual facts.

Well, a food critic might say that his opinions and the opinions of those in his profession will always be stronger than those of, say, Yelp reviewers. And, within a certain frame of reference, he will of course be right. The question is why should we accept his frame of reference if there are no objective criteria?

As the study at the start of this demonstrate, "My child could paint this" is not an actual fact. It is an implausible prejudice.

Well, you seem to have agreed that it's a plausible criticism at least with respect to minimalism.
posted by cheburashka at 11:51 AM on March 5, 2011


Flunkie -- No, it doesn't, hence my original problem with the study's methodology.

It demonstrates that certain specific pieces of modern art deliberately chosen from those in the style most intentionally similar to children's drawings can, in fact, have roughly the same kind of impact as a children's drawing.
posted by kyrademon at 11:53 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The question is why should we accept his frame of reference if there are no objective criteria?

Life gets much easier if you dispense with "should." You can then say, "Okay, this frame of reference exists." It's there, like a hat, for me to wear if I want it.

And it's awesome that the people who DO accept it have fleshed it out so well.

I may or may not choose to learn how to play chess. There's no "should" about it. It exists if I want to learn it. But what would suck is if I decided to learn it and found out that no one had bothered to work out the rules.

Frames-of-reference are generally arbitrary. It's almost always pointless to rank them or talk about how valid or invalid they are (though is is how people seem to want to talk about them the most). The cool stuff happens after you choose one of them and run with it.
posted by grumblebee at 11:55 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, kyrademon, that is what is generally meant by "my child could have drawn this". Not "my child could have drawn an exact replica of this"; rather, "my child could have drawn something similar that significant numbers of people would find basically equivalent, or perhaps even better".
posted by Flunkie at 11:55 AM on March 5, 2011


Yes, kyrademon, that is what is generally meant by "my child could have drawn this". Not "my child could have drawn an exact replica of this"; rather, "my child could have drawn something similar that significant numbers of people would find basically equivalent, or perhaps even better".

And if you're saying anything useful along these lines, you have to be crystal clear about what you mean by "people" and how, exactly, they ranked the two works.

Are the people college undergraduates? Because that already comes with a TON of baggage.

Should I care about their opinions if I never went to college?

Also, it's useful to answer the "AND...?" question. Let's say it turned out that 98% of people couldn't tell the difference between a Pollack and a painting by Freddy the Chimp.

"AND...?"

I'm not at all saying that's meaningless (though it's not terribly meaningful to me, personally). But what, exactly, is the point?
posted by grumblebee at 12:00 PM on March 5, 2011


grumblebee: Yes, but the critic in your scenario is really just an aggregator or a proxy. To the extent the critic represents a small group or is a proxy for tastes many do not share, what basis does he have for telling those others that their opinions are "valueless?" And, if we accept your point about frames of reference, then why is "my child can draw this" getting such enormous flak here?
posted by cheburashka at 12:00 PM on March 5, 2011


Yes, Flunkie. But as I and others have pointed out, that critera is pretty silly when you are talking about

1) A highly specific subset of art by adults which DELIBERATELY IMITATES THE STYLE OF CHILDREN,

2) As if the comparison held the same meaning for the entirety of modern art.
posted by kyrademon at 12:02 PM on March 5, 2011


The study is clear about what was meant by people, and how they ranked the two works (to the degree that an ultimately subjective ranking can be clear). And I'm not telling you that you should care about anything at all. I'm just saying that "the study shows that 'my child could have painted that is implausible" is not true.
posted by Flunkie at 12:03 PM on March 5, 2011


what basis does he have for telling those others that their opinions are "valueless?"

No basis, because that isn't a meaningful utterance.

There is nothing in the world that has untethered value (or valuelessness). Things can only have value TO A PARTICULAR PERSON OR PERSONS.

A critic might claim that other people's opinions aren't valuable to him, and that's fine. Presumably he knows what is of value to him better than anyone else.

He can't reasonably claim that my opinion isn't valuable to me.

If he claims that my opinion isn't valuable to "society at large," he needs to back that up, starting with a working definition of "society at large."

(I've rarely heard actual critics make any of these claims.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:05 PM on March 5, 2011


Flunkie, I definitely agree that there are many works of art in museums that could have been made by children.

I also think there are quite a few works people incorrectly THINK could have been made by children. They think that because they haven't really studied the works or tried to recreate them. Jackson Pollack's paintings are a good example. Just on the level of pure execution, they are damned hard to make. I doubt most children (or adults) could make anything like them.

But, sure, there are plenty of "blank pieces of paper" than anyone could have made.

AND?
posted by grumblebee at 12:08 PM on March 5, 2011


Kyrademon, first of all, the "as if the comparison held the same meaning for the entirety of modern art" is something that you're imagining.

Second, I don't think you know that all thirty professional artworks were deliberately imitating children. In fact, I don't think you even know what twenty-nine of the thirty were at all. Do you? In case you're misreading my tone here, I'm not trying to be confrontational or anything like that.

Third, I can't help but read your comment as almost tautological, once it's stripped of those things: "Yes, maybe it's plausible that a child could have made something that people say a child could have made, but only because they're talking about something that looks like a child could have made it".
posted by Flunkie at 12:11 PM on March 5, 2011


Grumblebee, I'm not sure why you're pointedly asking me "AND?", as if I were making some grand point or denigrating artists or claiming some art to be somehow superior or inferior to other art.

I'm just disagreeing with the claim that the study shows that "my child could have made that" is an "implausible prejudice".
posted by Flunkie at 12:13 PM on March 5, 2011


The article lists the artists used. I can take a good guess as to the paintings.

But, forget it. I was enjoying the pie fight. I'll go back to that.
posted by kyrademon at 12:15 PM on March 5, 2011


My "And" isn't responding to you. It's trying to understand the point of the article. If it's just to throw a random fact out there -- some stuff in museums could have been made by chimps -- then ... okay.

But what's interesting to me is the range of responses from people to whom this finding, real or not, matters. Not because they're right or wrong. But whatever they feel says something very interesting about their relationship to art.
posted by grumblebee at 12:18 PM on March 5, 2011


1. It doesn't matter if your damn could have painted it, the point is they didn't.

2. "1 in 3 Art Students Can’t Tell Famous Paintings from Paintings by Monkeys."

Most art students are just 18-22 year olds (i.e. full of themselves while fairly ignorant) with a particular talent and seeming hatred of art history (based on my experience in art school), so this doesn't surprise me. I'd be curious to see what the results would be from artists who had gone to and finished grad school.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:25 PM on March 5, 2011


It doesn't matter if your damn could have painted it, the point is they didn't.
What point?

To me, the point would be more along the lines of "It doesn't matter if your damn child could have painted it -- or even if your damn child did paint it -- the point is either it moves me or it doesn't".

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but the apparently idea that "the point" somehow involves "who painted it", that doesn't really seem to reflect my personal relationship with art.
posted by Flunkie at 12:31 PM on March 5, 2011


Wow, that was a mess of a sentence. I meant "Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but if, apparently, the idea is that...".
posted by Flunkie at 12:33 PM on March 5, 2011


Mine, either, Flunkie, but to quite a few other people, "who painted it" and "why they painted it" is very much the point, and it's the core of their relationship with art.

This is an extreme -- and to me -- fascinating difference between two types of art loves.

(Of couse, there are many people who are probably somewhere in the middle of these polar opposities.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:33 PM on March 5, 2011


I wonder if the people most taking part in this discussion have read Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word," and what they think of his main point -- that much of 'modern' art has no value without the theory or manifesto accompanying it.

On one hand, I look at the Hoffman piece AstroZombie presented earlier, and I like it. I look at it, I tilt my head, and I think it has a balance in colour and composition, and like that. But Pollack, in the dribble and spatter period at least, seems to be devoid of evidence of mastery. There is rhythm and repetition, but there is rhythm and repetition in the marks left by a water sprinkler. Do these pieces have value beyond being exemplars of a theory?

Also, I should probably Godwin here, just for art's sake.
posted by Trochanter at 12:37 PM on March 5, 2011


What point?

The point, as I'm understood it, when say "My kid could have done that" is that it's nothing special or simplistic to the point where anyone could have done it.

To me that's a silly point, because well, your kid DIDN'T. Maybe they could have, maybe they couldn't, but they didn't, which separates them from being an artist in my opinion. It's swell to think about doing something, but if you're going do it, then you don't have much room to bitch when someone else does what you supposedly could have done.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:45 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of the smartest people I know went art school, asshole.

I, too, went to art school. I am not amongst the smartest people anyone knows.

Who says a 4 year old can't be an artist?
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso


Absolutely agreed 1000%. What I plan on doing with my art degree is actually to teach art to, well, four year olds. They're pretty amazing and lack a lot of the inhibition that comes with adult artists who have been told what art "is" and "isn't." A four year old, or even a two year old, is just a pure creative force and it's pretty freaking awesome to watch in action. Anything we can do to encourage children to keep creating whether or not the outside world "appreciates" or "understands" their art is invaluable - we need to stop with the message that gets passed down in so many art classes that you can be "good" or "bad" at art and that representational ability is the be all and end all of artistic talent.

You haven't spent anytime around an art school. Contrary opinions flow free like wine.

Oh man, so much truth in this. Art school makes a MetaFilter post on declawing circumcised obese cats look as calm and collected as a quilting bee.

I've rarely been to a gallery opening where the artists wasn't there and eager to babble on about their work. Sometimes it can be a bit much, actually, but, hey, they bought the wine.

I actually HATE talking about my work. Hate it. It's the worst part of openings for me. (Mind you I've only had TWO.) It makes me so freaking nervous and stressed out, I can't even eat my own cheese.
posted by sonika at 12:45 PM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


The point, as I'm understood it, when say "My kid could have done that" is that it's nothing special or simplistic to the point where anyone could have done it.

To me that's a silly point, because well, your kid DIDN'T.


I feel the same way. And if you want to show me stuff your kid DID do, I'm all for it. I'd love to see your kid's work. But no, your kid did NOT have the specific creative impulse to create THAT piece of art. Your kid could have done something similar or in the same style but artwork is a product of the unique brain and creative impulses of the artist making it (even if it's a reproduction, it's a unique reproduction based on how the artist making the copy sees it and is not indistinguishable from the original). Your kid couldn't have made THAT piece of art. Your kid could have made his/her own piece of art that may or may not be better than that one, sure, but THAT piece? No. Neither you nor your four year old nor your monkey nor your four your old monkey could have done THAT.
posted by sonika at 12:51 PM on March 5, 2011


To me that's a silly point, because well, your kid DIDN'T. Maybe they could have, maybe they couldn't, but they didn't, which separates them from being an artist in my opinion.
But the children (and monkeys and such) in this study DID, a significant amount of the time. In a third of the cases, it would be more accurate to say that "It's a silly point that your favorite professional adult human artist could, because, well, your favorite professional adult human artist DIDN'T. Maybe they could have, maybe they couldn't, but they didn't."

Does that then separate your favorite professional adult human artist from being an artist in your opinion?

And in any case, what is it, if anything, that separates these monkeys from being artists in your opinion?
posted by Flunkie at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2011


Your kid couldn't have made THAT piece of art.

Yeah, but they don't or can't see that, so I argue in terms they can understand.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2011


Some of the smartest people I know went art school, asshole.

Yikes...a little too harsh.

Also, get to know more people, and that will change quickly.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:59 PM on March 5, 2011


"Does that then separate your favorite professional adult human artist from being an artist in your opinion?"

Well, no ...

"And in any case, what is it, if anything, that separates these monkeys from being artists in your opinion?"

... Nothing?

I'm sorry, but I'm clearly missing your point.
posted by kyrademon at 1:00 PM on March 5, 2011


And in any case, what is it, if anything, that separates these monkeys from being artists in your opinion?

That's possibly an interesting questions. I say "possibly," because there's no generally-agreed upon definition for what the word "artist" means. So what you're going to get, if anything, is a variety of different answers with no metric (other than a subject one) to help you choose between them.

Still, you might learn a lot about the specific people answering the question and their values.

But it's important to keep very clear the distinction between "what separates these monkeys from being artists?" and "what makes painting A art and painting B not art?"

Personally, I don't think "artist" is a useful work, other than in casual conversation. In other words, it's useful to quickly covey to someone what my occupation or hobby is, but that's it. If I say, "I'm an artist," people assume I spend a lot of time creating the sorts of things we generally call art: paintings, music, etc.

If someone says, "I'm an artist," and I find out they they only painted one painting in the last 20 years and rarely even go into the studio, I feel like they're misrepresenting themselves. But that's just a rough use of words. I might call even that person an artist if I thought his one painting was incredible.

Is a chimp "an artist"? Other than in the pedestrian sense that no one employs him as such and, presumably, he doesn't himself know what "an artist" means, I don't think it's a terribly meaningful question. Some specific chimp -- just like some specific human -- might be a creature that makes paintings.
posted by grumblebee at 1:01 PM on March 5, 2011


My point is that Brandon seems pretty insistent on describing who is, and who is not, an artist, and that I don't really understand his reasoning behind what he seems to be insisting upon.
posted by Flunkie at 1:03 PM on March 5, 2011


Some of the smartest people I know went art school

Some of the smartest people I know, too. And some of the stupidest. And a lot of averagely-intelligent people, too.

What you have to do in order to be let into art school is convince an the arbitrary people in charge of admissions at that school to let you in. Some schools have high standards; some don't.

I doubt there's much correlation between intelligence (smart or stupid) and going to art school.
posted by grumblebee at 1:05 PM on March 5, 2011


Oh, goodie. More ignorant hate for abstract art. Strawmen included at no additional charge.

Did you artists bother to click on the link to the actual abstract. What is actually says is:

Participants preferred professional paintings and judged them as better than the nonprofessional paintings even when the labels were reversed. Art students preferred professional works more often than did nonart students, but the two groups’ judgments did not differ. Participants in both groups were more likely to justify their selections of professional than of nonprofessional works in terms of artists’ intentions. The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realize.

Thats a win for art...but a loss for artists who don't read far enough down.

posted by hal_c_on at 1:05 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


And a loss for posters who don't close up their BOLD.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:11 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have had many, many friends who have dislike abstract art, and every single one of them has disliked it because either

"I don't get it."

or

"My kid could have done that."

I'm wondering if anyone here has had different experiences from me. In other words, do you or does anyone you know "get" abstract art and still hate it? Take "get" to mean anything you want it to mean, but something along the lines of, "Yes, I've studied it for years. I've read books about it. I understand what the artists are trying to do. I may even appreciate some of it on a technical level. But I still don't like it. I hate (or get bored) looking at it."?

Since the reactions (from haters) I always hear are "I don't get it" or "my kid could have done that," it makes me think that these people either think there's something to get (some hidden meaning that is frustrating them by not revealing itself) or what they most enjoy about art is how apparently difficult it is to make. If it seems like it's easy to make, they don't like it. So, I guess, what they enjoy most is not the subject matter or content -- it's thinking about the feat of creation. (I'm not looking down on people who think this way. It's just interesting to me because it's so different from the way I think.)

People, like me, who love abstract art seem to divide into two camps (with many being partially in both camps). This is basically the Astro Zombie/grumblebee dichotomy. There are the people who like it because they DO get it (and, presumably, they would agree that "not getting it" is a sensible reason not to like it) and the people who like it because they enjoy the sensual qualities of the paintings but who aren't trying to "get" anything. Being one of those people, when I hear "I don't get it," I think "You're trying too hard." And when I hear, "My kid could do that," I think, "And if he did, wouldn't you like it?"
posted by grumblebee at 1:18 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


So you think informed criticism is better than uninformed, Astro Zombie. That's fair, in most cases I would agree with that principle.

However, I believe applied to art criticism specifically, that statement is incompatible with the subjectivity you insist upon. If intent can transform a blank sheet of paper into a work of art, then why is critique from a blank (uninformed) mind unworthy?

Using your logic, I could argue that your informed criticism is like representational art... rigid and not self-reflective because your extensive experience limits your flexibility. Meanwhile, I or David Letterman or an elephant or a four-year-old can see new works on their own merits, enjoy them according to their essence. Our criticism would therefore be like minimalist art itself, breaking the chains of the cultural worship of "informed criticism".

That is, of course, a load of bullshit. But you can't refute it because you yourself acknowledged that criticism of art can itself be art. And who knows, maybe I'm just making an elaborate commentary on the pride of ignorance. You don't know I'm not, any more than you know Friedman stared at that sheet of paper for forty days.

And there, I believe, is the weakness of your argument. You allow artists to subtract and add layers, you yourself add or subtract more with your perception, and since you demand that no one hold to an objective standard nothing ends up having any meaning at all. It's artles all the way down.

You're welcome to have your own standard, no one begrudges you that. But you chose to argue in this thread today, you chose to become an art critic and inject your perspective into the world, so you obviously believe in some shared meaning of what you're saying.

You're either drawing a line or you're not. Either you accept some level of objectivity, and thus accept that 1,000 Hours of Staring might not have any more value than the paper it was not-painted on, or you abandon objectivity and our criticism becomes as defensible as yours.
posted by Riki tiki at 1:47 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


...it makes me think that these people either think there's something to get ... or what they most enjoy about art is how apparently difficult it is to make.

What about this though? A painting, "Marks My Sprinkler Left," is displayed beside "#53" by Jackson Pollock. Joe Philistine is told that the Pollock piece sold in 2006 for 140 million dollars.

Is it unrealistic that Joe would utter some sort of expostulation? Possibly something like, "My kid could do that!"

Here's something from Wolfe's website:

"Soon after Modern Art developed, it became fashionable. Society (le beau monde, Cultureburg) and art critics attached themselves to it like pilot fish; but then they grew, and grew, and grew, until-as Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop, as Pop spawned Op, as Op fell before Minimal opposition, as what was Minimal became no more than Conceptual-Art began to serve fashion and theory. The shark vanished and left the pond to le beau monde and to the critics, custodians of the painted Word. Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Leo Steinberg-these are the big fish, Wolfe argues, not Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or Jasper Johns."

posted by Trochanter at 1:54 PM on March 5, 2011


Sure, that's a totally reasonable thing to say. But it has nothing specifically to do with art. It's more about pricing and capitalism, which could be connected to art in a specific person's mind. But they it could equally be connected to anything, e.g. "The plumber just charged me $600 to unclog my sink! I could have done that myself!"

Imagine a world in which no one pays for art. Still, in this world, only some works are allowed in museums. I bet even in this world, many people would see paintings and say, "What's that doing here? My kid could do that!"

So the interesting thing is why that metric (how difficult the work was to create) is so meaningful to some people and not to others.
posted by grumblebee at 2:02 PM on March 5, 2011


If you want to make the case that criticism and art are identical, and therefore can be understood in the same way, and therefore uninformed criticism is exactly the same usefulness as informed criticism, because there are no objective standards, be my guest, Riki Tiki. Arguing that you don't actually need to know what you're talking about isn't likely to get you a gig with Artforum, though.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:18 PM on March 5, 2011


"The plumber just charged me $600 to unclog my sink! I could have done that myself!"

That analogy doesn't really work, I think. There are metrics that would effectively judge if that was true. IE: the amount of water in your basement. The skilled creator does a better job. Something in the work itself makes it of more value than the home owner's attempt. It's not just that a group of other people value it higher.

And note that it's not how hard it was for the pro to do the job. It was probably a lot easier for him. It's the work itself.

Wolfe's question is whether the work itself has value beyond the credentials, the philosophy, the manifesto of the creator.

And for me, it's the money part that gets me steamed.

On Preview:

Arguing that you don't actually need to know what you're talking about isn't likely to get you a gig with Artforum, though.

Dude, you just said a mouthful.
posted by Trochanter at 2:27 PM on March 5, 2011


Arguing that you don't actually need to know what you're talking about isn't likely to get you a gig with Artforum, though.

AZ, I hope you credit me with taking you seriously, even when we disagree. I think you have some very interesting things to say.

That said, I think you're brushing off Riki Tiki's question. Sure, lots of opinions and philosophies won't get you a job at various institutions. I can be an atheist if I want, but then I should expect a call from the Vatican, asking me to be the next pope. That's true, but it says nothing about the logic behind atheism.

Your response reminds of of how, when someone criticizes, say, George Lucas, someone else inevitably says, "You know what? Lucas heard your criticism and is laughing all the way to the bank." What does that add? It's just a way of saying, "I'm not going to bother thinking about what you're saying."

You have (I think) made an interesting claim that art and art criticism are very different. I would like you to explain how and why they're different. And why you don't apply the same sort of thinking to criticism that you do to art -- if in fact you don't. Why is that not a reasonable question?
posted by grumblebee at 2:33 PM on March 5, 2011


That said, I think you're brushing off Riki Tiki's question.

Yes I am. I don't have to answer everything presented to me. Especially when Riki Tiki is putting in my mouth the argument that there are no objective standards. I have never said this, and don't believe it. I also don't believe that being a critic is the same thing as being an artist, so the same rules apply.

Ultimately, I am not very interested in supporting an argument I have never made.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:36 PM on March 5, 2011


I would like you to explain how and why they're different

Because as a critic, I am not making art, but responding to it. I should have thought that was obvious.

If I were to respond to a piece of art with another piece of art, that would be a different discussion.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:37 PM on March 5, 2011


Wolfe's question is whether the work itself has value beyond the credentials, the philosophy, the manifesto of the creator.

My problem is that I don't understand what "has value" means in the abstract. If I hang a chimp's painting on my wall, then clearly it DOES have value -- to ME.

I guess I understand getting pissed off about the money, but that's not special to art. While I was working my ass off teaching preschool for minimum wage, there were people getting paid millions for doing far less useful work on Wall Street. Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to Capitalism.
posted by grumblebee at 2:38 PM on March 5, 2011


Because as a critic, I am not making art, but responding to it. I should have thought that was obvious.

If I were to respond to a piece of art with another piece of art, that would be a different discussion.


This is far from obvious to me.

First of all, I'm not sure what "art" is. What I do know is that someone makes something. And then you make something in response. So we have two people making things. You are claiming one of those things is art and the other isn't. Interesting. What's your criteria?

You also claim that thing you make WAS art, then it would be fair to judge it AS art -- by the rules one uses to judge art. So you must have a very specific definition of art, because your claim rests on what you make not-being-art. But you must realize that I don't have your definition in my head, and even if I did, I might not agree with it. So I'm not sure why you say it's "obvious" you're not making art. Obvious in what sense?

Pauline Kael claimed that what she did was art. She believed film criticism was itself an art form. I don't agree or disagree with her, because I'm still confused about what an "art form" is, but my point is that what is obvious to you is not obvious to everyone.
posted by grumblebee at 2:44 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yves Klein went through a period where he declared his art was invisible. He had an entire gallery showing with nothing at all on the walls.

I've never been able to tell whether Klein was being funny or not. I prefer not knowing. The best jokes are done totally deadpan.


And this is the type of conceptual stuff that I just can't appreciate. I mean, there are some jokey artworks that I find brilliant and hilarious. I sometimes get a kick out of certain found objects and assemblages. But for me there's definitely a line. Klein's "joke" isn't even funny to me, nor is it clever, nor is it profound, nor does it require much skill to execute. Some would insist that I don't "get it," and I'll admit that I struggle to see the value in such stunts. But I don't think it's because I don't "get it." I'm pretty sure I do, I just don't see a lot of value in making such tired and mundane observations, or using such a roundabout stunt to draw attention to whatever it is you're trying to get across.

Another one that gets me is color fields. I think some of them are quite beautiful, but my own opinion is that there's not much more to get out of them. For others, there's an appreciation of their place in history, and they can appreciate the thinking behind it and their place in the evolution of art, and some people even appear to experience some kind of almost numinous "woah" factor particularly at ones that are done on a massive scale. To me a lot of that is extraneous information and the experience is about me looking at a painting of some nice colors. There's nothing wrong with that, and if I don't like some of them because the colors are bland and boring or don't contrast well or hold my attention, that's not "not getting it".

And that's why I find these conversations so frustrating. I see peoples' relationships to art, especially the polarizing stuff, as occupying niches. A background in art history gives you some context, certainly, and can be a large factor in determining whether someone will appreciate an artwork or not. It's not always a question of not "getting it" though for people without such a background. At the end of the day it's about how it connects with people and how they experience it, and sometimes it fails to connect with people and the experience is a negative one. So while it's tedious to the niche that appreciates some of the more out-there conceptual mindfuck artworks to hear these "my child could do that" or "that's pretty stupid," these criticisms are sometimes totally valid because some of these out-there conceptual "mindfucks" can quite correctly be seen as tedious re-iterations of cliched explorations of the relationship between art and the viewer.

But yes, "my child could do that" is pretty fucking annoying, and so is Damien Hirst.
posted by Hoopo at 2:57 PM on March 5, 2011


Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to Capitalism.

But there's a sort of feedback loop that happens between monetary value and critical acclaim. So, I guess I should correct myself in that it's not only the money part that ticks me off. It's that vortex of financial speculation and academic bloviation where things become "important."
posted by Trochanter at 3:17 PM on March 5, 2011


I wonder, AstroZombie, what you thought of "Exit Through the Gift Shop," as a critic.
posted by Trochanter at 3:24 PM on March 5, 2011


But there's a sort of feedback loop that happens between monetary value and critical acclaim. So, I guess I should correct myself in that it's not only the money part that ticks me off. It's that vortex of financial speculation and academic bloviation where things become "important."

Yes, it makes sense to be pissed off about this.

On the other hand, do you have to be? What in your life forces you to dwell on it? When you're in a gallery, there aren't big signs over each painting telling you how much they paid for it. You have to go out of your way to learn that stuff.

I guess if you're an Art History professor, or a professional critic, it may be unavoidable. Being neither of those things, it doesn't bother me, because I rarely think about it. I just go to museums, see stuff I like, and ... like it.

Maybe this is easy for me, because I'm an "artist." (God, I hate calling myself that!) The work I do is obscure and will never have a big audience. And it will certainly never make me any money. (I lose money by doing it.) I've been doing it for 20 years, and I guess if I felt my "reward" was colossally unfair, I would quit. But for me, the reward is the work itself. So I stopped connecting art with commerce, trendiness or fame long ago.
posted by grumblebee at 3:27 PM on March 5, 2011


I wonder, AstroZombie, what you thought of "Exit Through the Gift Shop," as a critic.

Haven't seen it yet. Am curious to do so, though.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:41 PM on March 5, 2011


On the other hand, do you have to be?

I don't think about it all the time. I was reading the thread, that's all.

It's been interesting. For instance I was thinking about your chimp picture and I had something written about how it's not really art, it's a knick-knack. But then I thought about how maybe a Van Gogh is just a knick-knack, too. Or how if art is something that makes you react then a piece of driftwood could be art. But then I settled on how it's got to be a combination of the Artist's intent and the perceivers reaction.

Like, if Jasper Johns baked a tortilla, and you see the Virgin's face in it, has there been art? If it wasn't put there is it art, or is it something else? An experiment in psychology?
Eternal Questions [1]
Trochanter        [0]

posted by Trochanter at 3:52 PM on March 5, 2011


Tochanter, I think your confusion (and you are not alone by far!) comes from your need to tie the word "art" down.

There are a lot of (I think) bogus philosophical issues surrounding this -- the kind that Wittgenstein would urge us to "pass over in silence." "Is driftwood art?" is an example. That can't be a profound or evening meaningful question until you first define art. You can't meaningfully ask if something is in a category while, simultaneously, trying to define the category. But if you try to do this, it feels profound-ish and paradox-ish.

It's much easier (and, I think, much closer to reality), to say that "there's stuff people make" (paintings, etc.) and there's "stuff the universe 'makes'" (driftwood, etc.) and other people see these things and have thoughts and feelings about them.

You can put them in categories all you want. You can put people-made-stuff in one category and universe-made-stuff (or chimp-made-stuff) in another category. Still, people will see both of those sorts of stuff and have the reactions they have. You can say, "Okay, you're reacting, but THAT'S NOT ART." Okay, it's not in the category you've called art. So what? People are still having the reactions they have.

My notion is complicated by the fact that we're social animals. So some of us are genuinely going to have a different sort of reaction to an object if it's generally thought of -- by other people or people we respect -- as art than we would have to the same object if it wasn't categorized that way.
posted by grumblebee at 4:03 PM on March 5, 2011


And for me, it's the money part that gets me steamed.

As the quote on Civ goes: "Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it."

You don't like abstract art and don't think it's worth thousands of dollars? Don't buy it. Personally, I like art just fine and can't believe people pay huge amounts of money to go on cruises, which just seems to me to be salmonella in a floating box. Doesn't mean I don't think cruises shouldn't exist, just means *I'm* not going to be paying for one.

Why should it matter to you what someone else wants to pay for a painting? And really, it's the market that sets the prices. I sell artwork and can get a reasonable price for my stuff, but if I suddenly said "This is going to cost you $5000" - well... no one would pay it. If you want sell your kids' fingerpaintings for thousands of dollars, go for it. Seriously, if you resent art because you personally are not making money off of it - that just doesn't make sense to me. So, make art and sell it then. Or don't and recognize that people will buy what they want to buy and move on with your life.

But yes, "my child could do that" is pretty fucking annoying, and so is Damien Hirst.

Word. I used to really like Hirst, and then he lost me around the time of the "suing a kid for stealing my precious pencil" episode.

I guess I understand getting pissed off about the money, but that's not special to art. While I was working my ass off teaching preschool for minimum wage, there were people getting paid millions for doing far less useful work on Wall Street. Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to Capitalism.

Yes, this too. I made more money making coffee at a Corporate Coffee Related Franchise than I did teaching preschool. The market has fucked up priorities, IMHO, but whatever.
posted by sonika at 4:10 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This thread is bumming me out.

I'm just disagreeing with the claim that the study shows that "my child could have made that" is an "implausible prejudice".

Expressionism in general attempts to capture a subconscious sensation or emotion like the kind that all of us expressed naturally as children. The fact that children can create art that's on par with abstract expressionism should be no significant surprise to anyone: Abstract expressionism is doing that on purpose. The problem with this kind of study is that people conflate abstract expressionism with all modern art and go Scoff, scoff, it's all just a bunch of bullshit, modern artists are con artists, etc, etc. I think art suffers from a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect, where it's easy for people who know almost nothing about art to dismiss it because they assume there's nothing to know.

Some of the smartest people I know went art school, asshole.
I, too, went to art school. I am not amongst the smartest people anyone knows.


I knew very intelligent people in art school and I knew people who weren't so intelligent in art school, just like everywhere else in the world. The end of that gawker blurb is pretty damn insulting even if every art student isn't a genius.
posted by girih knot at 4:52 PM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


The people who claim "my kid could have painted that" tend to be the same people who tell their kids that art is a waste of time.
posted by robcorr at 5:06 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think I underexplained my R.Mutt-is-pissed joke.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:12 PM on March 5, 2011


Thanks for introducing me to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Great concept for our time. Anyone remember the Devo song "Dare to Be Stupid"?
posted by Trochanter at 5:29 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I spent some time in art school. They sent me to look at modern art and it just seemed like an alienating joke (I know that's the point). None of the POWER or force of the sublime you see in great old art.
If I want to be laughed and sneered at by rich hipsters I know where to go. I don't need that in art galleries.
Surrealism is the last 'proper' art movement I liked. Nowadays it's comic book art if I see art at all.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:55 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


They sent me to look at modern art and it just seemed like an alienating joke (I know that's the point)

No, that's actually not the point. "The point" varies so widely (from artist to artist and movement to movement) that it's foolish and lazy to ascribe something like "the point" (and I mean any singular point you could possibly think of) to the disparate and enormous body of work we refer to as "modern art".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:42 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


None of the POWER or force of the sublime you see in great old art.

I'm flabbergasted by this statement. It is so far removed from my experience of modern art that I don't know how to process it.
posted by robcorr at 8:19 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Especially when Riki Tiki is putting in my mouth the argument that there are no objective standards. I have never said this, and don't believe it... I am not very interested in supporting an argument I have never made.

Oh, so you claim you believe in objectivity? Explain your artistic criteria in objective terms, then. Tell me why you think a blank sheet of paper bought from the store is objectively different from a blank sheet of paper that someone supposedly stared at and then hung in a gallery. Who made you the arbiter of the artist's "intent" in making it, and why do you think that it informs the significance of the resulting piece? You said, "neither a monkey [nor] a child would have produced any of this," but I guarantee you that if you put a child in a room with a blank sheet of paper, a pen, and a Wii there's a very good chance they'll produce something objectively identical to 1,000 Hours of Staring.

I liked it better when there wasn't objectivity, where people can just enjoy what moves them personally (including, or excluding, the artist's supposed intent), and art "criticism" is really just about taxonomy. That's where the "world of ideas" you describe can actually exist, and there's plenty of room in it for conceptual art and minimalism and "challenging" art and whatever else floats your boat. What there isn't room for is an industry of fashionable bloviating, where important people decide for the rest of us which art is culturally significant. In that world, you can say "that sucks" or "my kid could paint that" and people wouldn't jump at the bit to tell you how wrong your opinion is.

You think this study was a "cheap stunt"? I would've agreed with you initially but I think you've convinced me otherwise.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:03 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tell me why you think a blank sheet of paper bought from the store is objectively different from a blank sheet of paper that someone supposedly stared at and then hung in a gallery. Who made you the arbiter of the artist's "intent" in making it, and why do you think that it informs the significance of the resulting piece?

An object placed in the context of a gallery is different from the start because it's not just an object. It's a visual message, it's a statement, it is meant to mean something. It isn't simply a blank sheet of paper, it's the combined cultural and contextual weight of what a blank piece of paper means. It's art about the creative process and art itself. The artist's intent isn't that hard to understand; there's a level of objectivity in figuring out what someone could be trying to say by hanging a blank sheet of paper in a gallery.

You don't care for highly conceptual art? That's fine. Other people do, genuinely, without pretension.
posted by girih knot at 9:14 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Explain your artistic criteria in objective terms, then. Tell me why you think a blank sheet of paper bought from the store is objectively different from a blank sheet of paper that someone supposedly stared at and then hung in a gallery.

When did I become beholden to explain art to you. Do your own goddamn reading.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:16 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know, I honestly can't decide whether the discussions of art that take place here at Metafilter are tiresome, or funny. But I think I'm just gonna go with funny. I mean, you just gotta laugh to keep from crying, you know?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:20 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


When did I become beholden to explain art to you. Do your own goddamn reading.

What kind of critic would say something like this, ever? Jesus.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:30 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


What kind of critic would say something like this, ever? Jesus.

Well, granted, Jesus might've left out the "goddamn".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:53 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Call me old-fashioned, but I was reading Yoko Ono's book Grapefruit on my Friday lunch break (mostly one-paragraph conceptual art pieces, published around 1970), and I was delighted. Art can change your world.

Walking out of a huge Rauschenberg exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute in the early 70's, the world looked like a different place. And you know, it still does.

I buy work by human artists because they are cheaper than animal art (among other reasons). What a funny world we live in.
posted by kozad at 10:01 PM on March 5, 2011


Am I the only one who thought it was fairly obvious which was the famous painting? The cross shape and squiggle on the right side were a dead giveaway. The composition was way too mannered, too meticulous to be anything but the work of a human adult, as opposed to the other one, which seemed like a haphazard yet fortuitous collision of patterns.

Another thing no one mentions about all the "my 5-year-old could do this" arguments is the implicit assumption that all 5-year-olds have the same artistic aptitude, i.e. none. Whereas, my girlfriend gets intermittent shipments of art from her niece and nephews, and I gotta say, her niece is way more artistically talented than her brothers and I actually genuinely appreciate her art in pretty much the same way I appreciate adult art. What's so wrong about that?

(she made this totally sweet googly eye cyclops mummy postcard that's still on our fridge)
posted by speicus at 12:03 AM on March 6, 2011


Surrealism is the last 'proper' art movement I liked

Well then you might like this piece, Jackson Pollock's 'She-Wolf'.
Painted in 1943 roughly four years before his drip series, this is text book American Surrealism in it's ferocity and unconscious desire made visible. Only, Clement Greenberg, the most prominent art critic of the time, loathed surrealism as a movement, so there was no way he was going to refer to his budding star's work with that term as he worked out what became his theory of 'formalism'.
Pollock really only painted pure abstract works from roughly 1945-50, which includes the period of his most famous body of work, the drip paintings. By 1951, with the black pour paintings, recognizable shapes are back again.
My point here is that what we understand as 'proper' art movements rarely if ever have well marked boundaries. To make claims that a 'movement ' has one very specific point (I know that's the point) ignores the reality of art history. It's a messy business this art thing with all the over lapping and cross referencing. There can be several different ways of looking at and thinking about any one piece of art.

'My kid can paint that!'
Nope, no he(she) can't. That mythological kid can't paint this, this, or this.
As someone who paints mainly in an abstract mode, this statement makes me feel like biting my own fingers off. What people don't realize is the immense amount of work, craft, and thought that lead to these paintings. That doesn't mean that kids art isn't good, it just means it's something very different altogether and that this comparison is ridiculous.

The artists who became known as the Abstract Expressionists(Willem De Kooning said 'It is disastrous to name ourselves') spent a large part of the Depression in New York drinking cheap coffee in automats and talking. Talking about what they were doing, what it might mean to be an artist in the USA, what 'American type' painting might be, and most importantly; what should be done with their painting. Hence the long period involving years of work for their mature styles to take hold. There were years of conversation behind this movement and it was never only about gimmicks, a quick buck, or ready fame. By the time some of that happened a lot of these artist's were in their 40's and 50's. Pollock was the exception, achieving notoriety, but never financial stability, by his early 30's.

None of the POWER or force of the sublime you see in great old art.

This is pretty much what pops to mind when I hear the word sublime in relation to art. Turrell's project is ongoing and well worth having a look at if you think that the sublime doesn't exist in contemporary art. By the way, he has talked about Vermeer's light in his paintings and the relation this aspect has to Turrell's own work. An open view as it were of the long, long history of art and overlapping influences.

I think I underexplained my R.Mutt-is-pissed joke.
I see what you did there.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:14 AM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Everytime I see one of these art appreciation posts there's always 200+ comments already down.

To conflate the work of some modern artists to monkeys is an insult to our simian brethren.

While enough presumed arrogance is possessed to think I have something original and poignant to add to the discussion - something along the lines of, oh, I don't know, subjectivity being a bitch and all - I realize that by the end of the post I care even less than I did when I started it.
posted by Hickeystudio at 1:37 AM on March 6, 2011


Well I've enjoyed this thread. My city gallery has recently had a selection from Peggy Guggenheim's collection, and it's the first exposure to great works from the 20th century that I've had since my high school art history class (which focused on Pop Art because it was thought to appeal more to teens). It made me want to know more and this thread has been helpful in sorting out how to approach more abstract types of art than I'm used to.
posted by harriet vane at 2:32 AM on March 6, 2011


What kind of critic would say something like this, ever? Jesus.
Christ, what an asshole.
posted by dougrayrankin at 4:13 AM on March 6, 2011


What kind of critic would say something like this, ever? Jesus.

There's a point at which it's nice not to press one person with one specific argument when they have made it clear they are not interested in it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:20 AM on March 6, 2011


> When did I become beholden to explain art to you. Do your own goddamn reading.

What kind of critic would say something like this, ever?


What kind of leech nags a critic to do what he gets PAID to do for FREE, on a web site the critic visits during his off hours?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on March 6, 2011


What kind of critic would say something like this, ever? Jesus.

There's a point at which it's nice not to press one person with one specific argument when they have made it clear they are not interested in it.

What kind of leech nags a critic to do what he gets PAID to do for FREE, on a web site the critic visits during his off hours?

I have some personal ethics (item 13) when it comes to this. Of course, being personal, I don't expect Astro Zombie or Riki Tiki to abide by it. In any case, here it is:

Questions are God's children. (That's a metaphor, folks. I'm an atheist.) Learning and teaching are two of the highest aims humans can have, perhaps second only to loving. If someone asks me a question, it's my duty to at least consider answering it.

However, the question must be phrased politely. It can be as penetrating as the questioner needs it to be, e.g. do you enjoy anal sex?, but it can't contain insults, e.g. do you enjoy anal sex, asshole?

Though I'm acting my best when I answer the question (decreasing the amount of ignorance in the world), I am free to pass, as long as I do so politely. This is acceptable: sorry, I don't feel like answering that question. This is not: fuck off.

To this, I'll ad that I am puzzled by Astro Zombie's reaction. I would never, ever, ever say something like, "What kind of critic would say something like this, ever? Jesus," because, to me, that phrasing is insulting. I don't think AZ is wrong to forgo answering -- though I do think his way of forgoing was rude -- but, as I said, I'm puzzled by it. It's weird to me.

Maybe EmpressCallipygos is right, and it's an economic issue: he doesn't want to give his work away for free. What's weird to me about this is (a) he chose to participate in this thread, and (b) this seems to be "more than a job" to him. It seems, from his posts here, that this is a subject he enjoys talking about and that he feels the educator's urge to enlighten.

If I join a thread about theatre, programming or writing (my three professions), the fact that I'm joining signals that people are fee to ask me anything about those subjects and that I'll willingly answer, unless I can't because I don't know the answer (in which case I'll say "I don't know") or unless answering puts me at peril, e.g. doing so would get me fired.

Finally, this doesn't make sense:

Tell me why you think a blank sheet of paper bought from the store is objectively different from a blank sheet of paper that someone supposedly stared at and then hung in a gallery.

When did I become beholden to explain art to you. Do your own goddamn reading.

There is absolutely no way Riki Tiki can get the info he wants from reading. What he's trying to figure out -- and I'm curious about this, too -- is what AZ's aesthetic principles are.

AZ has made some strong and interesting claims in this thread, and they only make sense when viewed in the light of his principles, and if we don't know what they are, we can't process his claims -- other than just as groundless opinions. I share RT's curiosity.

On this matter, RT doing his own reading won't help him out, unless AZ has written a book about his aesthetic theory. And if he has, why not just say, "Read my book (and link to it)" instead of "do you own goddamn reading"? What reading will answer RT's question? If no reading will answer it, why not just say, "Sorry, but I'm not going to answer your question," instead of pushing him to read books that won't help?
posted by grumblebee at 8:10 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Grumblebee, I appreciate your comments, but I think I am reading the question differently than you. I feel like I am being backed into a rhetorical corner based on a series of suppositions that strike me as deeply cynical -- that there are no absolutes in art, and therefore criticism can be defined as an art, and because art can be idiotic and crappy, criticism can be idiotic and crappy, and none of it makes any difference. I am not, nor ever have been interested, in this style of internet arguing, in which a hostile and fallacious argument is presented as though an actual inquiry and then the questioner is expected to treat it as serious.

If Riki Tiki is really interested in pursuing this line of reasoning, there is an awful lot out there for him to explore. But I will not be his guide.

If I have misunderstood, I apologize, but rereading, I think my interpretation of this line of reasoning is justified.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:40 AM on March 6, 2011


Fair enough, AZ.

I will say that it's pretty hard, in my experience, to be backed into a rhetorical corner. If RT is doing that, it should be pretty easy to point out how he's using trickery instead of logic. If, in fact, he's bringing a genuine problem with your idea-system, it should be equally easy to say, "Wow, that gives me something to mull over...", "No, you're wrong, because...", "Looks like you've found an error in my reasoning..." or "This is making me uncomfortable, and I'd rather not discuss it further."

From your first comment in the thread, I assumed you believe that there's some sort of objective system of aesthetics that goes beyond "primitive" universals like "we all respond to symmetry." To me, this is a fascinating and provocative claim, because it's the opposite of what I believe. And I would like to understand it better. Which is why I'm curious about your aesthetics, and whether or not you think they are universal, "just yours," or "not necessarily universal, but inevitable for anyone who goes through a specific sort of formal training."
posted by grumblebee at 8:52 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


If RT is doing that, it should be pretty easy to point out how he's using trickery instead of logic.

Or I could just choose not to answer him. Which I have consistently done.

As to aesthetics, I have no overarching theory. Generally, I try to suss out what the artist is trying to do, and try to figure out how successful they are at it. I tend to like art that is pretty outre, because I like the prankishness that's involved, and the sense that artists are testing the edges. But I don't think that is the only function of art, and I respect and enjoy all sorts of art that comes from a more traditional approach.

Do I think there's bad art out there. Yes. Plenty of it. While I think artists can explore many of the things that we consider to be objectively bad -- that is, they can make active decisions to make use of amateurism, or cliche, or plagiarism -- if they do these things accidentally, or without intelligence or deliberation, it often is objectively bad. And a lot of artists fail at what they set out to do, which I can be pretty forgiving of if they fail at something interesting, or fail in an interesting way.

Generally, I take artists, and even individual pieces of art, on a case by case basis. And I guess my primary question is "How interesting do I find this." I often find myself agreeing with Oscar Wilde that there is no good or bad in art, there is only interesting and tedious. And that's going to be a pretty subjective response, and is worth being cautious about. Some pieces that I initially find quite dull sneak up on me, and I find myself coming back to it again and again, which some pieces that I initially respond quote strongly to grow tedious to me over time.

But, then, I'm not a critic who writes about how good a piece is or not (if I like something, I'll say so, but it's not my primary objective). Instead, I like to explore how a piece of art is made, and what an artists is up to, and what that makes me think about. And I'm happy to go back to the same pieces of art again and again, because I find my relationship with it often changes over time.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:58 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I'm happy to go back to the same pieces of art again and again, because I find my relationship with it often changes over time.

This
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:41 AM on March 6, 2011


This is interesting AZ.

Since you place such import on intent, I'm wondering how you deal with works by long-dead authors who have left few or no records about what the were trying to achieve? Granted, you can do a sort of armchair-psychology analysis of the author, using his works as a proxy for him. Or you can assume he was in a "dialog" with other artists of his time and/or earlier times, but surely this interpretation adds a whopping does of subjectivity into the mix.

An example would be something like "Assuming the artist's intent was to reveal the inner life of the young girl standing in front of the mirror, he has failed because..."

But what if that wasn't his intent at all?

Do you ever deduce an intent, decide that the author has failed, uncover a document (previously unknown to you) where he says what his real intent was, realize it wasn't what you thought it was, and, based on that, decide that the "bad painting" is a "good painting"?

What if I paint something and claim that my intent was "to expose the evils of Capitalism" and then later, claim that this was just a joke and that my real aim was "to expose the evils of my Sister." Does that change the painting and it's your assessment of it?

Do you ever look at a painting knowing nothing about the painter -- or his intent -- and feel unable to mine an intent from it, but still enjoy the painting. If the painting, say, makes you feel happy and you later find out that the artist actually had an intent, which was to make you sad, do you feel as if one of you is wrong?

What if an artist's intent is to make people feel lust, and I look at it and DO feel lust but you look at it and don't. Has the artest succeeded or failed?

I don't expect you to answer all these questions -- and, of course, you can choose to answer none of them -- but I'm hoping you can spend a few minutes dealing with some of what I see as the problems and paradoxes of the "intent" school of criticism. Do you feel they are actually not problems and that I'm just confused?
posted by grumblebee at 10:56 AM on March 6, 2011


Art is wholly subjective. Understanding that we see that all things are art and all art is both good and bad.

Thread over.

Probably!
posted by Decani at 11:36 AM on March 6, 2011


"Art is wholly subjective."

I'm not sure what that means. If I say, "item X is art" and you say, "no it's not," what are we differing about? I know we're differing about whether or not X is art," but how is that different from whether we're differing about whether or not X is bleepbloopblop? What does the word "art" mean?

If -- as I think it is -- the definition of "art" is also subjective, we get formulations like "item X is a member of some category," which tells us nothing about X or the category.
posted by grumblebee at 11:43 AM on March 6, 2011


"Art is wholly subjective."

I'm not sure what that means.


I guess I should have said "The appreciation of art is wholly subjective", because that's where I was coming from. I also tend to agree with you that the very definition of art is subjective.
posted by Decani at 11:54 AM on March 6, 2011


So we now have the problem that (a) lots of people -- maybe most people -- don't agree with you that "art is subjective." Specifically, many people feel that there ARE objective criteria for deciding whether a work is good or bad. I've never heard a sound argument for this view, but it seems to be the dominant view none-the-less. So just proclaiming "art is wholly subjective" won't achieve anything.

And (b) without any shared definition of art, people insist on building these complex intellectual structures on top of that non-definition. Even you have done so (and probably I have, too), by saying "the appreciation of art is wholly subjective." That statement makes ALMOST as little sense as "the appreciation of glurb is wholly subjective."

It makes a LITTLE more sense than that, because though we don't have a shared definition, we have a sort of shared cloud. When someone says "art," I don't know what he means, but I DO get a general idea of "stuff that's in museums" and "stuff people make that has a profound effect on other people" and even "stuff that's been traditionally labelled 'art'."

As soon as I start poking the cloud with questions like "what makes the stuff in museums art? If it wasn't previously in a museum but it later is, was it not art before and but now is art?" and "what if it has a profound effect on you and not on me?" and "why should I care about traditional labels," the cloud disperses. If you tried to step on it, you'd fall through to your death.

This sort of cloud-like fuzziness is not at all a problem in casual conversation. It allows you to say, "meet me at the art museum" and me to know where to find you. But I don't see how you can build any sort of rigorous thoughts or arguments with such a fuzzy foundation.
posted by grumblebee at 12:06 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


"But, what if you did know baseball, and you went to the park and saw some people just throw a ball and run around at random. Might you not ask, 'But, is it baseball?'"

I once watched about a dozen street people play an entire game of on a diamond in Central Park. There was no ball, no bat, no gloves. The "umpire" seemed very unbiased and was only challenged in standard baseball ways...It was very orderly, lots of fun to watch. My judgment was then and is now that it was definitely baseball.
posted by txmon at 12:38 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: "What kind of leech nags a critic to do what he gets PAID to do for FREE, on a web site the critic visits during his off hours?"

It's not like I showed up at his house with a collection of my personal drawings and insisted he give me his professional opinion. This is a general discussion on an open forum and he chose to participate.

Imagine we had a weekly book club. One day, we're lucky enough to have an esteemed literary critic attend. He describes some of his favorite works and how he has a signed first edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, and then goes into the objective literary merits of a book he found that contained just the letter "e" printed over and over for 200 pages. I personally disagree with the objectivity of those merits and ask him to justify it, to which he responds that he's more informed and quite rudely tells me I should investigate it myself. And I'm the asshole for trying to engage and challenge his ideas?

I've made a point here of saying I begrudge no one their personal preferences, that I enjoy quite a few modern and abstract pieces myself, but that I simply think art is a subjective experience for which "expertise" is unnecessary and not always a good thing. I've been straightforward in my arguments, and while I've been snarky and critical of the cultural institution of art criticism, I've directed none of that at Astro Zombie directly. The single thing I said that was critical of him, rather than his views, was a response to his own hostility; I stand by my belief that a professional critic should not take pride in the obscurity of their specialty. I'm pretty sure I could be in a conversation with Roger Ebert, tell him that American Pie: The Naked Mile was my favorite movie, and he'd have something constructive to say to me even though (I'm sure) he disagrees vehemently.

Anyone's welcome to go back through my comments in this thread and tell me where they thought I was arguing in bad faith, or badgering someone with the same question over and over instead of responding to their own comments.

And of course Astro Zombie is not obliged to respond to my questions, nor is anyone else. But it's not the high road to join a thread, assert your opinions, and then brusquely dismiss as "valueless" and "willfully ignorant" viewpoints that challenge yours. If he wanted to converse only among the people who are as informed as he is then perhaps a general-interest site was not the ideal forum.
posted by Riki tiki at 12:47 PM on March 6, 2011


And I'm the asshole for trying to engage and challenge his ideas?

You're kind of the asshole for not dropping it when the other person isn't interested in continuing the discussion with you for whatever reason.
posted by girih knot at 1:10 PM on March 6, 2011


I'm just going to point up at girih knot's comments and say "that."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:18 PM on March 6, 2011


Riki tiki wanted to engage, AstroZombie didn't. Dudes got blue balls.

Ha! Get it? "Blue" Balls!
posted by Trochanter at 1:31 PM on March 6, 2011


girih knot: "not dropping it when the other person isn't interested in continuing the discussion with you for whatever reason"

It's not his discussion to orchestrate, nor yours. I'm hardly shouting people down, here; I'm just one of many participants in this thread. While he's welcome to ignore my questions, I have as much legitimacy in voicing them as he does in advancing his own opinions.

"It's a free country MetaFilter" is often a cop out by people who think the right to say something protects them from criticism when they say something obnoxious, but that's not what's happening here. If you disagree with my comments in this thread, I welcome your opinion and I'd be happy to respond to it. But if you think I'm arguing in bad faith or being abrasive for abrasiveness' sake, I think you should back that up with a slightly better accusation than "I continued responding to someone who continued commenting."

And with that, I'm no longer going to participate in the Riki tiki vs. Astro Zombie meta-argument. You're all welcome to say your piece or take it to MeMail, and if someone has something to say about the content of my arguments then that would be a refreshing return to the topic at hand.
posted by Riki tiki at 2:54 PM on March 6, 2011


"It is VERY HARD to have a conversation about art without assuming, temporarily, just for convenience, that there is a correct interpretation for the present purposes. So everyone basically needs to pick an interpretation and stick to it. Some people are less flexible about that interpretation than others; some people are in denial that their interpretation is a subjective matter; but everyone assumes an interpretation, there's no way to avoid that."

Zen master says no.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 4:23 AM on March 7, 2011


I'll add one more comment about intent as I have been following this thread since the beginning — great input all around and very thought-provoking. It is clear that art means something different to each of us, and that is part of its appeal to me. It is interpretative by nature in all aspects (creation, perception, criticism, taxonomy.

For me, intent is really foundational to my definition of art. The reason I require intent is to mainly filter out what is not art. The arrangement of objects on my desk is not art, because there was no intent to make it so. As soon as an artist declares it their art, then for me it is, although, because art is subjective at its core, anyone is free to disagree with this assessment.

The key thing for me is that I do not have to know an artist's intentions, and I often could care less. But, I care greatly that the art is intended. This does not preclude randomness from being used in art, as long as it is used intentionally.

So, by my definition, paintings by animals are not art, as I do not believe they intend to create art. This in no way diminishes my enjoyment of them, it is merely my definition of the word.
posted by SNACKeR at 8:44 AM on March 7, 2011


SNACKeR, I have four questions about your way of viewing art:

1) Imagine you find an object that "speaks to you" but you know nothing about its history. Let's say you walk into a "junk shop" and find what is either a naturally-formed stone or a stone that's been worked by a human. It has an incredible shape, a beautiful color and a really unique texture. Every time you look at it, it makes you feel (let's say...) sad. It evokes, for you, the loss of childhood. You have absolutely no way of knowing if it was formed naturally or by a person.

Is it art or not?

Follow-up: let's say you put this object on your desk. Next to it, you put another object. This second object is a sculpture. You know for sure it's a sculpture. You know who made it, and you know he intended it to be art. The complicating factor is that the mystery object affects you way more than the sculpture.

Does that fact have no impact at all as to whether or not the mystery-object is "art" to you? Is art just a dry classification? Are you comfortable saying, "I found an object that in incredibly meaningful to me. I cry every time I look at it. It makes most of my friends cry when they look at it. Yesterday, the Museum of Modern Art asked if they could buy it from me ... but it's not art because I don't know that it was made with intention. Meanwhile, I have the sculture that was made for me by Fred. It says nothing to me. It just bores me. But it's art."

(I hope you appreciate that I'm not in any way implying that you'd be stupid to answer these questions in any particular way. I'm just interested in how individual people relate to art.)

2) What if there's an sculpture that's been in the MET for 50 years. It's by Fred the Artist. Millions of people have seen it and love it. It's in art books. It's taught in college. Students copy it, etc. Then, someone goes through some old records and discovers there's been a mixup. That "sculture" is a rock from the dig site -- from when they were building the MET. It accidentally got confused with one of Fred's pieces, but it's not by Fred at all.

Did it used to be art but now is not?

3) Let's imagine a alternate universe in which we clear up all these issues. In this universe, we know the history of every object. We know -- FOR SURE -- whether any particular object was intentionally made by an artist or not.

You are in the same scenario as in my first question. You have two objects: the first was made by a chimp; the second was made by a human artist. Almost universally, people find the chimp's object deeply meaningful and moving. Almost no one is moved by the artist's sculpture.

Let's say that EVEN under these circumstances, we call only the artist's object "art." The chimp's piece, no matter how moving, is not art because he didn't make it with the intent to make art.

What is the purpose of this category?

We already have a category called "man-made objects." How does it help us to have one called "art," which isn't necessarily tied to how much an object affects us? Why does it matter to you whether an object should be in the art category or not?

4. There are lots of man-made objects that are considered by many to be art, but we're pretty sure they weren't intended to be art: ancient urns, etc. We don't know that the creators of cave paintings intended to make art. Maybe, to them, they were just doing a form of non-fiction "writing" (I saw some buffalo today.)

Museums often display found man-made objects. These objects are aesthetically-pleasing to many people. We know they were man-made, but we don't know that the people who made them intended them to be art. To you, are they art? If so, why isn't a hammer and a toaster art? Or is it? Does a man-made object BECOME art if someone puts it in a museum? Again, what is the difference between "art" and "a man-made object"?
posted by grumblebee at 10:08 AM on March 7, 2011


Specifically, many people feel that there ARE objective criteria for deciding whether a work is good or bad. I've never heard a sound argument for this view

Me neither.

but it seems to be the dominant view none-the-less.

"The Earth is flat" used to be the dominant view. It was still wrong. :-)

So just proclaiming "art is wholly subjective" won't achieve anything.

I'm not trying to achieve anything. I'm merely stating an opinion.
posted by Decani at 12:41 PM on March 7, 2011


Specifically, many people feel that there ARE objective criteria for deciding whether a work is good or bad. I've never heard a sound argument for this view

Me neither.

but it seems to be the dominant view none-the-less.

"The Earth is flat" used to be the dominant view. It was still wrong. :-)

What interests me is why this wrong view is so widely held.

I know many people here think there ARE universal aesthetics (beyond extremely primitive ones, like "people enjoy color contrasts"), but for this post to make sense, I'm going to assume that this is a false but prevalent belief. I hope people who disagree will forgive me.

I suspect it's because art is so powerful.

There's a feeling that I think of as the Subjective Feeling and there's another feeling that I think of as the Objective Feeling (I wonder if any psychologists or philosophers have coined terms for these feelings). They don't necessarily correspond to what's actually subjective or objective.

If I kind-of like cake, I may feel like my luke-warm desire for it is totally subjective. I may feel like it's just a quirk of mine that I like it, and it doesn't seem at all surprising that some other people don't. I may even feel this way if I like cake a lot. But at some point -- if I LOVE cake ... if cake changes my life ... -- I will feel like EVERYONE likes cake. It will be amazing (and unbelievable) if someone claims not to like it.

I've seen women that are, to me, so beautiful, that I can't IMAGINE anyone else not finding them attractive. Of course, on some level I know it's "just my taste," and, of course, I know there are plenty of people who aren't attracted to women at all, but STILL... It feels like a fact of the universe!

This feeling can be detached from intellectual understanding. I'm sure we all have foods that we love (or hate) that, while we know intellectually that other people don't share our tastes, we feel like people are INSANE if they don't. HOW CAN YOU FUCKING NOT LIKE CAKE?!? CAKE JUST *IS* GOOD ON A COSMIC LEVEL!!!!!

Often, strong feelings of a universal aesthetic (or universal ethics) clashes with what we learn about other cultures. People in other countries eat bugs?!? BUGS *AREN'T* FOOD!

Clearly, bugs ARE food for some people, but the FEELING that they aren't -- not just for me but for EVERYBODY -- is a very real and profound feeling. I wish we had a vocabulary to talk about them besides saying "they're just wrong." They ARE wrong, but they FEEL right.

When art is at its most powerful, it evokes these feelings. Sometimes I watch a movie or read a book or look at a painting, and I feel like it's talking privately to me. And that can be a great feeling. But it feels private and subjective. It doesn't surprise me at all when other people don't respond in the same way.

At other times, the work evokes a FEELING of universalism. Maybe it's saying something that just applies to me -- or just applies to some people -- but, doggonnit!, it sure FEELS like it's saying something that applies to EVERYBODY! It feels profound on such an intense level that it's inconceivable that it doesn't feel that way to everybody. Even though it doesn't.

And this feeling tends to get backed up by other people. If a work is affecting me THAT much, chances are it will affect a lot of other people that much, too, because I'm not a space alien. And given that I'm similar to my friends, it is more likely to affect them strongly than people I don't talk to that often. In any case, I'm going to have that profound feeling, and ten other people I talk to are going to have it, too. Which is going to reinforce, in my mind, the belief that the work has tapped into a universal aesthetic. In fact, all I know -- despite my feelings -- is that it's evoked a profound feeling in me and ten of my friends.

Then I meet some guy who says "meh" to the work. And to me, it just feels like he's wrong. Even if I realize intellectually that he's not wrong, it really, really, really feels like he's wrong. And only a small number of people can detach feelings of that strength from intellectual ideas (and, by the way, I don't the one's ability to do this has ANYTHING to do with intelligence).

Some works evoke profound feeling in thousands or even millions of people! Many, many, many people like "Star Wars." Yet I don't and lots of other people also don't, even if we're in a minority. Still, I'm sure that to scores of people, "Star Wars" IS great, not just to them but to the universe.

I can get this far. What I can't get to is why and how art can so often evoke these feeling.
posted by grumblebee at 1:59 PM on March 7, 2011


@grumblebee - great questions, that are making me think.

1 - It is a classification, but not a dry one. Art for me must be a an expression or communication from someone else. I am not interested in beautiful or moving objects on their own as art. I would not say it is a "dry" classification, but it is an attempt to put rules around how I relate to what I think of as art. If I am reasonably sure a piece was made intentionally by someone, I can call it art. Whether it bores me or not has no relevance to my way of thinking. If I don't know if something was made by someone intentionally or not, then I do not know if it is art. I can still enjoy or be moved (or bored) by it, but it will be missing the additional facets that I can enjoy about works that I know were produced by someone, that have been discussed above: what greater context does it exist in both current and historical? where does it fit within that artist's concept? what was their specific intent with the piece, if any? None of these are required by me to enjoy a work, but I do need to know there was someone behind it at some point.

2 - Yes, used to be art and now is no longer art. Can society imbue objects with meaning? Sure, and I suppose THAT could be the art — this is a found object of society. For me, a pre-requisite of art is that there be one or more (human) artists behind it.

3 - Yes, the chimp's painting is not art to me. I think of art is a human social act. The reason that categorization matters to me, is because I think of it as one of the most important human activities, and I think of art (broadly, including music, dance, poetry etc.) as activities that can have the power to transcend time, language, social and economic barriers, and deliver a message directly from the artist's brain to mine in a way that simply does not exist in any other fashion. When someone says something they don't mean, I am not interested, thus the requirement of intent.

So for me, art is not founded on beauty, sensory delight, or lack of tedium. Art *is* a man-made object, but it is a sub-category of that that specifically is a primarily a communication/social expression that may have other functions but is intended to convey something. I feel like I should be able to tighten the scope further, but that is where I am at right now. My concept/definition of art is primarily useful in excluding what is not art to me. Where it seems to fail is in defining what is art. A stop sign is not art because the intent is not there. The intent to say "stop" is there, but there is no deeper meaning, and no context.

4 - Some of these objects are art, and I do not claim that there is not a continuum between artifacts and art. A toaster or hammer may be art, but is rarely so. Just because something is functional does not mean it is not art. An urn just because it is old is not art, but artisanship at a high level can become elevated to art. Putting things in a museum does not make them art.

I feel privileged to have my thoughts teased apart like this, it is really enlightening. Thanks!
posted by SNACKeR at 2:04 PM on March 7, 2011


Thanks, SNACKer. Awesome responses.

I wonder if you'd agree is that what you love is the FEELING of intent. I like that feeling, too. But I don't think it's the same thing as actual intent. (Though It may happen to be by coincidence).

What I mean is this: though I'm an atheist, I am certainly capable of anthropomorphizing the universe. I can look at the ocean and feel like, "Thank you SO much for making that! That's awesome!" And it's a great feeling.

I can't always sustain it, because my intellectual awareness that there's no intelligence behind the ocean is too great. But for the brief period that I do feel it, I love it.

Now imagine someone offered me a drug that would allow me to sustain that feeling while keeping my atheism, similarly to how you can be scared of the Wicked Witch of the West, even while you know she's "just fictional." IF I could FEEL like someone created the ocean even while knowing that no one did, that would be enough for me. Would it be enough for you? Or close to enough?

I'm trying to grasp how much of this is intellectual for you and how much is emotional.

It's easy to imagine that there's intent behind "The Last Supper" because there IS! (Or, at least, there was.) It's hard to imagine there's intent behing Harry the Chimp's finger painting, because (probably) there isn't. So I'm wondering if the fact that a human made it allows you to sustain a feeling that you enjoy.

If a drug could give you that feeling when you looked at a Chimp's painting, would you take it?

----

Here's another question for you: do you enjoy the sensation of getting SO caught up in a story that you forget it's a story? For instance, do you like being so scared by a horror movie that you forget you're watching a movie. (Or, if you hate horror movies, do you enjoy, say, falling in love with a character in a movie, totally forgetting -- at least for a brief time -- that she's fake.)

This is MY favorite aspect of art. It's not the ONLY thing I like about art, but it's what I like best! I read every book, look at every painting and watch every movie hoping and longing for it to happen, and when it does .... !

Now, I contend that's it's impossible to get this feeling at its maximum intensity, which is what I'm after, if you're simultaneously thinking about the artist. MAYBE you can flip back and forth, but even that is likely to dampen the immersive experience. It's impossible to BELIEVE something is real while, at the same time, know that it's a fabrication made by an artist. (Which is why when people get TOO scared, their friends say, "It's only a movie.")

This is often my problem with intent. I have some intellectual problems with it (see "The Intentional Fallacy"), but I'm mostly turned off by it emotionally.

And when I direct plays, I don't want the audience to think about me. Of course, I have no control over what they think about, and I don't think they're wrong or bad if they DO think about me. But if I could have my druthers, I would have them think about the characters and the plot instead.

And I do my best to facilitate that. Sometimes I come up with some bit of staging that is really, really cool. It is not gratuitous. It does its job and moves the story along. But I always cut it. I replace it with something less cool that does the same job. I find that when I do that, the audience worries that the hero might get eaten by the dragon. But when I leave the cool thing in, I hear them afterwards saying, "That was SO awesome how the director created a dragon out of chairs!!!!" I know they enjoyed it, but I also know they were thinking about the director instead of the play. I work really, really hard to cut everything like that out of my work.

So I guess the paradox is this, if you're looking at MY art, I DO have an intent. My intent is to make you forget about me. But since you love thinking about the artist, my intent is either doomed to fail with you or displease you.
posted by grumblebee at 2:36 PM on March 7, 2011


>If a drug could give you that feeling when you looked at a Chimp's painting, would you take it?

No, I must know there is intended meaning. Not the feeling of it, the reality of it. I would rather look at mediocre art than experience an artificial feeling of enjoying beauty that I know is not real.

>Here's another question for you: do you enjoy the sensation of getting SO caught up in a story that you forget it's a story?

Absolutely! One of the best pleasures in life.

>Now, I contend that's it's impossible to get this feeling at its maximum intensity, which is what I'm after, if you're simultaneously thinking about the artist.

Ok, I see where you are going. I (and most of us I suspect) experience art on many levels, and in different ways on repeat "viewings". I will always try to maximize my sensory experience first. I will (may) then allow a more analytical experience of it — why did I enjoy or dislike it, what is interesting about the "composition", context, motivations, etc. But none of these detract from the other for me. Knowing more about a glass of wine does not diminish its pleasure for me.

But, if you are saying technique should not intrude on the art, well that is usually a good principle, unless technique is virtuoistic and meant to be in the forefront as an undeniable force.

>But since you love thinking about the artist, my intent is either doomed to fail with you or displease you.

Fundamentally, I need not consider the artist at all — it is enough to know there was one (and this is not a hard criteria to satisfy, since most art and performance has this component). But I may choose to augment my experience of a work with reading the program, or taking things even further and learning about the history of the time the artist lived in. An intent to have the author of a work disappear from the receiver's perception of it is perfectly valid for me, and I would say much sublime music achieves this (Bach) for me. Were it to be computer generated, though (e.g., Theme and Infinite Variations), my enjoyment would drop to almost nil.

Ironically, you seem to need an architect for the most intense pleasure of the ocean, whereas I am content to simply bask in it, and feel part of it all myself, without the need to thank a fictional Creator, even briefly. But — it is not art :) I don't conflate the pleasure of sensory experience or complete suspension of disbelief or getting lost in creative flow with art. All of those can augment art immeasurably, but none are required in my book.

I sense that in your world, there is not much art that exists mainly in the intellectual plane, without a good does of the sensory. Is that a fair assessment? How does something like M.C. Escher strike you, for example?
posted by SNACKeR at 5:20 PM on March 7, 2011


I've never liked Escher, probably for the reasons you suspect. The funny thing is, I LOVE reading books about mathematics and logic puzzles. I really enjoy the sort of paradoxes that Esher was into. I want it from non-fiction, but it's not what I want from art. I also hate art that's didactic -- that's clearly trying to give me a political or social-issue lecture.

I find that, at least for my brain, art is horrible at teaching me stuff. It's blunts both the teaching and the "art." If I want to learn about the evils of Conservatives, I'd rather read an essay about it than a novel. To me -- you're right -- art is about fucking. Sorry to be that corse, but that's the best way I can describe what art is to me. It's not just about fucking. It's also about sobbing and laughing hysterically and being terrified... it's about sensation.

By "about" I mean that it does sensation really well. It's kind of lame at ideas -- other forms of communication do that so much better (at least for me) -- but at sensation it's the king!

Escher seems lifeless to me. I know this would ruin what he was going for, but when I look at his work, I always feel I would like it better if I saw a sloppy line or a smudge somewhere.

---

I totally get everything you say about your own relationship to art -- but on the other hand I don't get it at all. Here's the crux of what confuses me:

Fundamentally, I need not consider the artist at all — it is enough to know there was one

If you're not considering him at all -- if he's not in any part of your mind -- then (a) I don't get in what sense you "know there is one" and (b) I don't get what the knowledge does for you.

And...

I am content to simply bask in it, and feel part of it all myself, without the need to thank a fictional Creator, even briefly. But — it is not art

I don't understand why you care. If the ocean has such an effect on you, what would it being art add to it that's not there already? What if you found out tomorrow that a guy named Bill made the ocean. Would you like it even better?
posted by grumblebee at 7:07 PM on March 7, 2011


I have not said that something being art makes it better than something that is not. Nor, that I enjoy art more than non-art. Nor, that I cannot enjoy non-art in just a sensory way as art.

That art *have* a definition is not overly important to me. But, what my attempt at one does, is to try to help me understand myself, and what it is about art that is different from non-art for me. I clearly feel (know) there is a difference in the way I experience it, and I feel human art stands apart from natural or non-human "art" (non-art for me). Apart, not above.

The difference for me is that in my definition of art there is human communication and meaning. This brings it back to being a social activity. As much as I enjoy a sunset, as an atheist, there is no meaning to me. It is purely sensory. Does that lessen it in any way? No! But is it different than art for me? Absolutely. And a photo of a sunset clearly *becomes* art, because it was perceived and selected by a human, presumably with an underlying intent, even if it is "that is beauty" or, "I am compelled to make something today".

If I found out a guy named Bill made the ocean, I would not like it better. But, I would immediately fund his next work.
posted by SNACKeR at 5:19 AM on March 8, 2011


Thanks, SNACKer. That all makes sense. Great discussion!
posted by grumblebee at 5:24 AM on March 8, 2011


A few last, quick, questions for you Grumblebee:

1) What do you think of John Cage's 4′33″?
2) If you do not like it, do you enjoy any purely conceptual art?
3) When you are involved with a play, why do you do it (other than the meagre financial return)? What is the reason for the creative energy you expend?
4) Do you ever ask "why" of a piece of art?
posted by SNACKeR at 5:44 AM on March 8, 2011


1) What do you think of John Cage's 4′33″?

I was going to say I've never heard it. ;-)

I think it's clever, but I can't say much more than that. This is going to start sounding redundant, if it doesn't already sound that way (I keep saying the same things over and over), but I can't think of 4'33 as anything more than a stunt (or, at best, as an intellectual point being made) because it doesn't make be cry (or feel intense joy or rage or whatever).

One issue for me is that, though I am interested in some artists as individuals (though, to me, this is a totally separate interest than my interest in their work), I am bored to tears by the "art work" or "the art community."

I find that -- even on an intellectual level -- the main thing going on in a lot of works like this is one artist is trying to shock, engage or change the "the art world."

Every once in a while, I hear about how some work "totally changed everything" or "enraged everybody," and I think EVERYBODY? Really? It enraged my auto mechanic?

Then I find out that "everybody" was actually a really small group of people -- a group of academics and artists who are all talking to each other. But there are a lot of other people -- people who love art -- who are not part of this conversation. I prefer "art as a mirror held up to nature" to "art as a mirror held up to art." There are exceptions, but I have rarely enjoyed moves about filmmakers, plays about actors, etc. When the word "poem" is in a poem, I tend to shut down.

(When people walk out of my shows, I prefer to hear, "that character reminded me of my uncle" to "that play was making a statement about the state of theatre in the 21st century.")

I do find some intellectual joy in an idea being worked out to its logical conclusion, and I sort of think 4'33" does that. A rest is a kind of note. It's a silent note. Well, what if a whole composition was made entirely out of rest notes? It's interesting. I kind of like the fact that it exists -- that someone tried it. But it doesn't feed my soul.

To me, there's something a tad sophomoric about it. I have this image of a bunch of kids sitting around in the dorm, smoking pot, saying, "Like, what if a song was, like, totally silent? That would blow your mind, right?"

2) If you do not like it, do you enjoy any purely conceptual art?

A lot of what I said above, applies.

If the concept is mostly there to enrage or challenge or enlighten or poke fun at other artists or "the art world," I get bored. It's too folded in on itself for my tastes. If it's making a political point, I'm also pretty bored. Just tell me what your point is.

If it's a working through some idea, then I may find it interesting. But I will almost never find it moving -- and if I do, it will probably be by accident (it will be out of line with what the artist intended).

But I do find puzzles and games and intellectual jokes somewhat amusing. Somewhat. Briefly.

3) When you are involved with a play, why do you do it (other than the meagre financial return)? What is the reason for the creative energy you expend?

The unhelpful answer -- but one that I think is the truth for many artists -- is that I have to. I don't mean I'll die if I don't, but I'll be pretty unhappy and restless. I don't believe in callings, but it sure FEELS like my calling.

Specifically, what floats my boat is engaging with characters, plots and language. A line of Shakespeare can send me into a mental rhapsody for five minutes. I often find myself falling in love with Cordelia or Juliet. And I'm always thinking about "what happens next?" Yeah, I've seen and read "King Lear" a zillion times, and I know how it ends -- and I know the end is devastating. Intellectually, I know the ending is never going to change, but, but, but... but when I get into the play and start living through it, I think maybe ... maybe ... maybe ... maybe this time it will be different!

I love the process of adaptation. By which I mean that I start by being in love with a play by Shakespeare, but it's very much Shakespeare's play. I travel through it like a visitor to a foreign country. Gradually, through a lot of work, it becomes MY play. After months of toil, I know it like the back of my hand. It feels like the words are my words. It feels like the play is my dance partner. It feels like the play will be part of me forever.

I make art to visit other worlds and to become a citizen of those worlds -- sometimes to become the KING of those worlds. Sometimes to be crushed by those worlds.

I feel like I should say something about a need or desire to communicate with an audience. I LOVE the act of communication. But, honestly, I don't think about it while I'm working. While I'm working, I think about serving the work -- about making the story come alive for ME as much as possible. Later, when the audience loves it -- if they do -- I thrill to that. It's awesome. But that is something I sit back and watch. It's not something that informs my work while I'm creating it.

I often work as a teacher and as a writer (of technical books). Those acts, to me, are mostly about communication, not so much about the subject matter. I teach to teach YOU.

Working on a play, for me, is about me. I hope other people love it. But I can't worry about them while I'm working.

4) Do you ever ask "why" of a piece of art?

I am not sure what that means.

Do you mean why did the artist create it? I rarely ask that for two reasons: the first is that I don't believe it's knowable. You can fool yourself into believing that you can uncover his reasons via close reading (viewing, etc.) This is like Freudien analysis. Which is riddled with problems.

You can fool yourself into believing you've uncovered "why" if the artist makes a statement about why he created it. But I don't trust such statements. It's not that I think the artist is necessarily lying -- though he could be. It's that I don't think most people are good at understanding their own motivations. When someone says something as simple as, "I married my husband, because...", I don't trust it. I think that when people say those sorts of things, it's a sort of spin. We tell these simplistic stories about why we do things, and often we believe our own stories. But I think we really do things for lots of interacting reasons at once -- all of which form a complex, chaotic stew.

People often ask me why I chose to direct a certain play. They don't want to hear the real answer -- as real as I can understand when looking at my own motivations -- which is generally, "because I felt like it."

Also, there's rarely a persistant why. When you ask an author why he wrote a book, do you mean why he started writing it, why he finished writing it or why he was writing the part he wrote on May 13th? If he's able to state an overarching single reason, I don't trust it. It's like asking why I stay married to my wife. Either I'm going to say something not-very-informative, like "I love her," or I'm going to say something very specific about why I stay with her TODAY. There's no overarching single reason that spans the durration of my marriage.
posted by grumblebee at 7:37 AM on March 8, 2011


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