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Why I Hate the Avant-Garde
January 17, 2011 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Why I Hate the Avant-Garde or, Why Laurie Anderson is less Avant-Garde than DJ Kool Herc. A rant with videos. Via The Front Section.
posted by mediareport (110 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
And here's an angry, accusatory dance piece about architecture.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:42 AM on January 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


It's overused for sure but it's not as annoying as Papyrus.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:44 AM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Guy's right.. she's a HACK! ;)
posted by ReeMonster at 10:48 AM on January 17, 2011


That's what wikipedia art criticism looks like.
posted by jdfan at 10:50 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I missed the part where somebody said Laurie Anderson created everything she created inside a vacuum. Anybody got a link?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:51 AM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


If she did, it's one of those cool 1950's vacuums with the candy-apple finish. And a gas mask attachment.
posted by rokusan at 10:56 AM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Haha, that was an accidental double post, and as you can plainly see, the textual wink indicates I'm joking. Laurie's fine, I have no feelings whatsoever about her stuff, good or bad. But I agree with the tone of this post that her stuff wasn't all that original, just part of a whole, and yet she has cultivated the avant-garde persona to extreme personal gain. If she had been marketed differently, her level of success could have turned out very differently as well. Mods, please delete one of my above comments, thank you much.
posted by ReeMonster at 10:58 AM on January 17, 2011


I uh like both Laurie and Herc.
posted by everichon at 10:58 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


A D Jameson's argument strikes me as being weak. Admittedly, one of the reasons I think so is that I did a research paper about ten years ago tracing the origins of kut kulture. My conclusions were along the lines of Goethe's—we all stand on someone else's shoulders. There is no Day Zero for Avant Garde or Hip Hop or whatever label of the day.

Perhaps DJ Herc was not considered Avant Garde because he did not actively seek out favor with the downtown art crowd. Basquiat did and was considered Avant by the Garde.

It is pointless to pit Anderson versus Herc as if only one can win. The fact that Anderson is marketed as Avant Garde is hardly her fault and the fact that DJ Kool Herc is not is certainly not his.

That said, I too am a long time fan (of both), and I saw Anderson's latest show last Saturday night. I left unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
posted by beelzbubba at 11:01 AM on January 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


It's mind bogglingly how awesome Afrikaa Bambaataa was.
posted by oddman at 11:02 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ree, do you have a cite to support that claim?
posted by jdfan at 11:03 AM on January 17, 2011


I think to be avant-garde you must have at least one album cover photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe.
posted by localroger at 11:12 AM on January 17, 2011


His problem with the term "avant-garde" seems like a bizarre pet peeve to me. He would prefer people use the synonymous term "experimental", which he seems to have no problem with. Maybe the origins of the term avant-garde differ from the modern usage, but well, language changes, you know?
posted by naju at 11:18 AM on January 17, 2011


I also really don't follow his argument that the avant-garde is a racist concept because "it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks." I can't even wrap my head around that, I suspect there are some real false assumptions there.
posted by naju at 11:22 AM on January 17, 2011


Good playlist. Argument was fine, though I never thought of Laurie Anderson as "Avant Garde", just as cool. Her 'cred' goes way way back (if I have this right she curated the jukebox at 'FOOD' on Mercer St. (Gordon Matta Clark's restaurant and an ur-Soho joint)).

I think to be avant-garde you must have at least one album cover photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe drawn by Raymond Pettibone. True, true.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:23 AM on January 17, 2011


YOUR FAVORITE BAND DOES NOT DESERVE THE RESPECT ACCORDED IT BY CERTAIN MEMBERS OF THE BOURGEOISIE!
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:24 AM on January 17, 2011 [16 favorites]


Why do I need a citation to support my personal opinion? If you feel Laurie was a trail-blazer in avant-garde pop music, that's totally OK with me! I never even said I didn't like her music.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:24 AM on January 17, 2011


I love Anderson, she is one of my favorite rock stars. But using her to symbolize the avant garde is like using Steven King to symbolize the novel (hey, they sell more units and have more name recognition, that makes them the best examples, right?).

How about the real avant garde? Cage was scratching records on stage in the '30s, but who wants to credit Cage as a precedent for hiphop? Using feedback before Hendrix, but hey, he didn't groove so nobody's going to give a flying fuck. And true experimentalism can play very little relation to the community and identity functions that pop music must provide (which I contend are more important to pop music than the actual sounds, just as the meaning of words shadows the significance of orthography).

If large numbers of people liking stuff is your sole criterion for success (the water in which pop fish swim), experimentalism is for losers. Hate all you want, but don't assume your lack of interest makes our endeavor worthless.

I experiment and listen to experiment because I like stretching my musical muscles, learning new ways to listen and find meaning or feeling in sound (a recent insight: the particular way Maja Ratkje pivots and turns the "rage" of noise performance into the playfullness of a babbling child, the relation of this to performance of gender, and her constant flirtations with tonality).
posted by idiopath at 11:25 AM on January 17, 2011 [13 favorites]


Laurie's been doing purely her own thing for so long that she's practically an extra-terrestrial, I don't think there's a problem with challenging the quality or relevance of her work, but trying to undermine her credibility as an explorer and thinker is just silly.
posted by hermitosis at 11:25 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, no. Another Laurie Anderson clone.
posted by erniepan at 11:27 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Expecting a citation in an internet thread is like expecting an 8 count in a bar fight.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:36 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Part 2 goes into some of his specific beefs with the term "avant-garde", much of which relates to the literal meaning of the phrase and the original context in which it first emerged. But even if it no longer relates to either of those things, there is still a strong current in how people talk about it in terms of history, canon, and where/when it is appropriate to talk about the music that reflects its original meaning, he argues.
posted by Casuistry at 11:40 AM on January 17, 2011


I also really don't follow his argument that the avant-garde is a racist concept because "it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks." I can't even wrap my head around that, I suspect there are some real false assumptions there.

I don't know if the author ever explicitly said that it was a "racist" concept, did they?

I think the argument is that the term "avant garde" can only be applied by the cultural elite - critics, industry folk, etc. - who are by and large from the upper class. So, while someone like Laurie can be considered avant garde because she gained their esteem early on, while someone like Kool Herc was largely ignored by the elite class and therefore never gained that title.

One of the points in the article is that at its core, there is some sort of irony at play here: in order to be considered "against the mainsteam" "alternative" "expiremental" "avant garde", you must be declared as such by the elite, the mainstream, "the guard".
posted by Think_Long at 11:40 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was not aware that Laurie Anderson and DJ Kool Herc were caught up in a zero sum avant garde race.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:43 AM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I really wish I could find Simon Reynold's theory on musical innovation (I don't remember whether it was on his blog or an article or in Generation Ecstasy), where he describes how the Street/Folk, Academy/Experimental and Commercial/Pop segments interact to create, expand and define musical genres.

Basically, the street invents a new sound by combining previously existing genres in new ways, either intentionally or accidentally, then the record companies 'discover it', professionalize it and refine it, and finally the experimentalists expand it until all theoretical possibilities are used.

It's not cut and dried like that and it's not always in that order, but it's an interesting way to think about music.

You can see it in Dubstep with the street rapidly mutating 2 step garage and grime into a new sound, then 'the intelligent' producers making it abstract and glitchy and making new subgenres, and now the commercial aspect with acts like Magnetic Man and Rusko (and now Britney Spears!) commercializing the sound by pulling all these disparate subgenres together and making it into radio friendly pop music with singers and rappers.
posted by empath at 11:46 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's really, exceedingly rare that a professional or an 'artist' invents a new sound though. All revolutionary innovation seems to come from the street.
posted by empath at 11:48 AM on January 17, 2011


Yeah, the rant was dubious, but it contained some embedded videos to cool music, so hey.
posted by speicus at 11:49 AM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


by 'professional', i mean 'Someone who already makes a living working in an established genre'. -- obviously people who invent new sounds usually end up being professionals, but once they make that leap, it's rare that they then radically invent a new form again.

My point is that, usually revolutionary change arises from a scene of underground amateurs influencing each other, not one or two guys working alone. "Scene-ius" rather than 'genius' as Simon Reynolds says.
posted by empath at 11:53 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing is for sure:
In 2011, the chances of "dubstep" being written in any internet thread about music approach 1.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:56 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Blah, blah, blah.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:58 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Laurie Anderson surely must deserve some cred for having married Lou Reed.
posted by Gelatin at 11:59 AM on January 17, 2011


empath: if your definition for revolution requires mass acceptance, thae it's coming from the masses is tautological. Of course The People know what The People like. If it doesn't, you are just plain wrong.
posted by idiopath at 12:00 PM on January 17, 2011


Some very early Laurie at ubuweb :)
posted by puny human at 12:14 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


empath: if your definition for revolution requires mass acceptance, thae it's coming from the masses is tautological. Of course The People know what The People like. If it doesn't, you are just plain wrong.

I didn't say it comes from 'the people'.

I'm going to use dance music because that's what I know:

Garage originated in a few clubs in New Jersey and New York. House music started at two clubs in Chicago. Techno started with basically three guys in detroit (plus a lot of smaller producers). Trance started at a beach resort in india, and a few clubs in germany, etc. Dubstep was just a few clubs in London, Drum & Bass was also a small scene to begin with, etc, etc, etc.

None of the innovators here were artists who decided they were going to 'advance music'. Very few of them were professionals, and I think crucially, none of these genres can be said to have been invented by any individual, but only through the combined efforts of a bunch of djs and producers and a very small, but dedicated audience.

Acid House pretty much emerged fully formed from the Warehouse and Music box in Chicago, with probably no more than a few thousand people having ever heard it or danced, and maybe no more than a few dozen people making it before it exploded to worldwide popularity.

But none of those guys decided they were going to Invent A New Style Of Music or Push Music Forward. A lot of those guys just thought they were playing Disco or NRG, just like dubstep originated from the garage scene.

Eventually you get guys like Aphex Twin who latch onto a new sound and consciously decide to turn it into 'art', but they are rarely the people who create the sound to begin with. They depend on the street and small underground scenes to create new sounds.

Mass acceptance doesn't come until the music is commercialized, and it's rarely commercialized by the same people that invented the sound to begin with. It's usually guys like Max Martin and Dr Luke who just dropped dubstep into the new britney spears record.
posted by empath at 12:15 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I guess my point for bringing this up, is that the Avant-Garde has a role, but it's not as the primary driver for musical innovation, but as a means to push established genres out in new directions and thoroughly exploring the possibility space that isn't constrained by the needs of the block party or the dance floor or radio, or the environment in which the genre was created. The avant-garde is what happens when you detach a genre from the milieu in which it was invented and from the needs of the commercial market.
posted by empath at 12:21 PM on January 17, 2011


FWIW, we saw Laurie at the BAM October, 2010. Note to all: She's still awesome.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:27 PM on January 17, 2011


This person is taking Facebook advertisement WAY too seriously.
posted by dubitable at 12:31 PM on January 17, 2011


empath: yeah, we are on the same page there. Except I would add that the Avant-Garde probably is most interesting when it tries to position itself outside or before genre as well (of course to ears that only hear genre it then falls into the meta "lost and found bin" genre that is called experimental).
posted by idiopath at 12:32 PM on January 17, 2011


Also it is a question of which conversations you see yourself engaging with as an artist. Aphex Twin did not experiment so much as try to simultaneously engage currently popular musical forms of expression and simultaneously engage the most successful experimentalism of an era three decades prior. Of course to most of his audience that experimentalism of three decades prior is so far off the radar that he becomes the experimentalist, rather than the kid playing with the old experiments. There was a good exchange between Richard James and Stockhausen that illustrates this nicely I think (it made them both look like insufferable blowhards, probably because they are, but it is informative regarding the relationship of his work to the experimentalists he was conceptually riffing off of).
posted by idiopath at 12:36 PM on January 17, 2011


Booka Shade did a pretty fantastic remix/cover of O Superman a few years back, which brought it firmly back to the dance floor.
posted by empath at 12:38 PM on January 17, 2011


MY opinion on art! Let me tell you!
posted by Theta States at 12:39 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Said exchange quoted here.

I would debate the framing given there though. Dismissing experimentalism is far from unconventional, it is the very voice of conservatism and convention itself. So I guess I could go further and say that far from being Avant-Garde in the classic sense, Aphex Twin is so radically Avant-Garde that he wants to claim it's few successes for his own.
posted by idiopath at 12:41 PM on January 17, 2011


so radically ANTI-Avant-Garde that is

time for me to shut up now
posted by idiopath at 12:42 PM on January 17, 2011


I guess my point for bringing this up, is that the Avant-Garde has a role, but it's not as the primary driver for musical innovation, but as a means to push established genres out in new directions and thoroughly exploring the possibility space that isn't constrained by the needs of the block party or the dance floor or radio, or the environment in which the genre was created. The avant-garde is what happens when you detach a genre from the milieu in which it was invented and from the needs of the commercial market.

No, even the "Avant Garde" is not a universal. In jazz, the term was applied to Ornette Coleman a.o. circa 1959. Ornette was certainly considered "street" and not establishment. Later, an entire subset of the African American jazz genre was considered "the Avant Garde" in part because of their rejection of norms and normative expectations. That they eventually became, if not popular, then at least well-respected was in part due to their sticking to their principles and remaining true to their artistic vision--I'm thinking here of artists such as Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Ornette (of course), hundreds of others.

I'll argue again that there is no Day Zero for any of the sounds referenced above. Nothing proceeds without precedent. To say that trance began at Go'a is to disregard a several thousand year history of Karnatic music, and even in this century, homage to Pandit Pran Nath and his logical followers such as La Monte Young and later Budd, Eno, et al as influencing trance would have to be acknowledged.

Avant Garde is nothing but a label, most usually applied by critics or others. Often, artists/musicians pegged with such a label will offer that they do not think of themselves that way, but as creators of their own expression through their art. I am not gainsaying critics or criticism here—I see value to critique&mdsh;I am just saying that it is quite irrelevant to any consideration of Dj Kool Herc or Laurie Anderson.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:48 PM on January 17, 2011


Ree, do you have a cite to support that claim?

Someone needs a cite to vent an opinion now? Who knew?
posted by blucevalo at 1:19 PM on January 17, 2011


And here's an angry, accusatory dance piece about architecture.

I've quoted this before, but here's Alex Ross responding to the "dancing about architecture" thing:

Writing about music isn't especially difficult. Whoever coined the epigram "Writing about music is like dancing about architeture" -- the statement has been attributed variously to Martin Mull, Steve Martin, and Elvis Costello -- was muddying the waters. Certainly, music criticism is a curious and dubious science, its jargon ranging from the wooden...to the purple...But it is no more dubious than any other kind of criticism. Every art form fights the noose of verbal description. Writing about dance is like singing about architecture; writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet. There is a fog-enshrouded border past which language cannot go...

So why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music?

posted by mediareport at 1:19 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


So why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music?

I really don't think that quote desribes the relationship of music to criticism at the exclusion of any other art forms' relationship to criticism.

If I say a ballet has an indesribable beauty, I am not implicitly saying that a piece of architecture can't have indescribable beauty.
posted by Theta States at 1:51 PM on January 17, 2011


I'll argue again that there is no Day Zero for any of the sounds referenced above. Nothing proceeds without precedent. To say that trance began at Go'a is to disregard a several thousand year history of Karnatic music, and even in this century, homage to Pandit Pran Nath and his logical followers such as La Monte Young and later Budd, Eno, et al as influencing trance would have to be acknowledged.

Yeah but at that point you're just defining genre out of existence. From this perspective, there are no such thing as people since we're all descended from bacteria. At some point a decidedly new 'thing' exists. Although the exact point at which there is a break is unclear, you can usually localize it to a time and place.
posted by empath at 2:13 PM on January 17, 2011


Isn't judging whether Laurie Anderson is avant garde by using just one of her works as an example like deciding that Picasso was pigment-challenged by viewing one painting from his blue period?
posted by hippybear at 2:19 PM on January 17, 2011


Use of the term "avant garde" reminds me of Herman Goerring's line about when he heard someone use the word culture ("I reach for my gun"), because it usually precedes a bunch of obtuse nonsense in the name of something-or-other ...

But that said, I do remember hearing Ms. Anderson's O Superman for the first time (1982, I guess). It was uncanny. It was fresh. It was not really comparable to anything I'd ever heard before. And I loved my dub already, and my various noise-artists (Throbbing Gristle etc), and all manner of psychedelic weirdness. Sure, I guess you can find fragments of these things in her sound, but the way she found to mix them altogether, juxtapose them, just screamed genius.

In other words, I'm calling bullshit to this from the first link ...

…among many other things. She borrowed from all of these scenes and aesthetics, in addition to inventing some of her own things. She was and is a great musician and artist, who made important work in response to the culture at large. But she wasn’t some polar explorer, a daring innovator remarkably different from everyone else at the time.

Actually, she was doing something remarkably different from everyone else at the time. It was a simple as watching what happened in a room when a bunch of people heard O Superman for the first time. They stopped talking. They LISTENED. They said, "Who is this?"
posted by philip-random at 2:27 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


At some point a decidedly new 'thing' exists. Although the exact point at which there is a break is unclear, you can usually localize it to a time and place.

It's the choice of time and place to define new things that makes (art) history an inherently political genre, though.
posted by immlass at 3:17 PM on January 17, 2011


she has cultivated the avant-garde persona to extreme personal gain

that's what I was looking for a cite on. I don't recall Ms. Anderson ever doing exactly that.

As for the original 'article', it seems to me the author is complaining about marketing at the expense of Ms. Anderson.
posted by jdfan at 3:50 PM on January 17, 2011


writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet

Nonsense.
posted by Wolof at 3:54 PM on January 17, 2011


We watched this clip recently: Laurie quotes Burroughs with a fairly groovy band (which I think includes Adrian Belew):
Language is a Virus.
posted by ovvl at 3:59 PM on January 17, 2011


writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet

i made a building about ballet
the ceiling, you see, was the floor
you could leap and turn in all directions
and float through every door
you could pas de deux and pas de trois
and pas to your heart's content
but the building, alas, was in lower manhattan
and i couldn't afford the rent*


*i'm working on a grant proposal now

asking DJ Kool Herc to help me with it

course, i'm not gonna give him any credit for it

posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:40 PM on January 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


When I was young and I saw a toilet seat displayed as a work of art, I thought that avant-garde pretty much meant a clever way of making a living. For those with the hutzpah to get away with it.

Go ahead and rave about Iannis Xenakis all you like, or alternately, about the great social transformation that is bound to ensue from rolling full garbage containers down the steps of university libraries.

Nah. What you might get is a positive connection with a few others who are disaffected enough with most of humanity to get the joke. That's almost always about as far as it goes -- can't turn the Queen Mary on a dime -- but a connection is vis-a-vis. And who knows ... maybe if enough of us wiggle hard enough, one of us might actually find a way out of this maze. Given enough monkeys, etc.
posted by Twang at 5:52 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


"When I was young and I saw a toilet seat displayed as a work of art, I thought that avant-garde pretty much meant a clever way of making a living. For those with the hutzpah to get away with it."

That's nothing. There are peope who don't have to schmooze with collectors or gallery owners or apply for grants in order to pay the bills, and what do they do at work all day to earn their paychecks?

They sit at a desk and read MetaFilter.
posted by idiopath at 6:03 PM on January 17, 2011


I thought that avant-garde pretty much meant a clever way of making a living.

Well, basically... you thought wrong.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:44 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cause, see, making art that most folks would categorize as "avant-garde" is, in fact, not a particularly good way to earn a decent living. Just letting you know.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:46 PM on January 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


To clarify.

Avant

Making a decent living
posted by philip-random at 7:08 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


If I say a ballet has an indesribable beauty, I am not implicitly saying that a piece of architecture can't have indescribable beauty.

Art only has an indescribable beauty if you lack the necessary vocabulary and cultural context to make an informed criticism of it.
posted by girih knot at 9:26 PM on January 17, 2011


Writing about writing, painting about painting, filming about filming — once you have the ability to exactly quote the piece you are describing you've entered into a fundamentally different descriptive relationship with it. Certain discursive and historical networks specific to the medium being used also come into play; see, for instance, any Godard film.

This doesn't mean that interesting, or even illuminating, observations can't be made from outside the medium, only that they're different in kind. So it isn't exactly, uh, all relative, man.
posted by Wolof at 9:54 PM on January 17, 2011


Have people read any of AD Jameson's other rants from Big Other? Because he has plenty.

So why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music?

It hasn't. The point of that quote isn't about music at all, it is just a general way of trying to close down conversation that people find intimdating either because a) they are a creator and want to exempt themselves from criticism or b) they are thick. "Dancing about architecture" is just another way of saying "stop thinking, stop trying to articulate ideas, shut up and go away".
posted by ninebelow at 2:49 AM on January 18, 2011


If Laurie Anderson represented the avant garde to me, I'd hate it too.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:01 AM on January 18, 2011


"When I was young and I saw a toilet seat displayed as a work of art, I thought that avant-garde pretty much meant a clever way of making a living. For those with the hutzpah to get away with it."

Modern art has transformed itself into an irrelevant and closed conversation between a tiny number of like-minds. It doesn't mean anything to the rest of us (e.g. toilet seat) and there's no reason to bother paying these people any attention at all. Let alone funding them!

I blogged on the point here: Some mean comments about modern art
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 4:45 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Modern art has transformed itself into an irrelevant and closed conversation between a tiny number of like-minds. It doesn't mean anything to the rest of us (e.g. toilet seat) and there's no reason to bother paying these people any attention at all. Let alone funding them!

Let me also tell you my problems with women, immigrants and people on welfare.
posted by Theta States at 5:53 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry, did I hit a nerve?
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 6:19 AM on January 18, 2011


If by hit a nerve, you mean 'repeated some well worn cliches about modern art', then yes.
posted by empath at 6:24 AM on January 18, 2011


Well I really have done my best to try to understand how the contemporary art world works (see e.g. the tons of links in the blog post). Perhaps the well worn cliches are just true.....

(No need to try to argue this out here - but perhaps you could direct me to some good counter-arguments elsewhere on the web?)
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 6:33 AM on January 18, 2011


No need to try to argue this out here - but perhaps you could direct me to some good counter-arguments elsewhere on the web?

Try here.
posted by empath at 6:52 AM on January 18, 2011


De gustibus non disputandum est

I think that's my point. A very small group of people like contemporary art. That's absolutely fine by me. But I don't understand it and therefore don't like it. So why should I pay for their expensive tastes through either tax subsidies or direct public funding for art institutions?
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 7:00 AM on January 18, 2011


Are we seriously going to bother having a "why is art important to civilization" discussion?
We might as well discuss the importance of welfare programs or religion in regards to impact of society and taxation support.

It's probably best to just part our separate ways because this discussion probably won't end well, as the divide tends to be differences in the basic ideas of how a state should run and what a society needs.
posted by Theta States at 7:09 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Contemporary art works by being a series of individual artists with strange ideas who each are interesting enough to attract an audience willing to pay for their work. People like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. It's why they sell. And I doubt that most of the buyers of contemporary art are unaware of just what they like. They don't buy these pieces because they're scared of not looking hip, you know?

But bashing modern art is especially stupid and ignorant and pretentious (certainly pretentious) because it pretends that "modern art" is limited only to "art that I don't like". Do you listen to Britney Spears or Justin Bieber? That's modern art. So is Laurie Anderson and dubstep and rap. If you watch TV you're watching modern art. Read a book recently? You're reading fucking modern art.

If you just call things "modern art" when you don't understand them, you're attempting to associate every single contemporary art movement with every single other one, and that's stupid. There are a thousand individual art movements that each have their own goals. The Young British Artists of the nineties (this includes Hirst) are known for their conceptualism. But they spawned the Stuckist movement, which implicitly rejects conceptualism. Stuckist art is all figurative, and it's frequently very easy to understand and analyze.

Both Stuckism and YBA are modern art, yet their approaches are polar opposites. Are they both pointless and stupid? Then go find somebody else. Is nobody on the planet doing worthwhile art? Then go make the kind of art you want to see. Start a revolution. But here's the thing: You don't have the right to define for other people what counts as good and bad. You are not entitled to deny other people their opinions and systems of values.

Incidentally, Philosopher's Beard, this was exactly the point of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, which you so ignorantly dismiss. Fountain is only stupid and pretentious if you're lazy and refuse to read anything about the context of the piece. But you can't blame Duchamp for your laziness.

See, Duchamp was part of this art exhibition that sought to bring art to the masses by letting literally anybody submit art. I'm reciting this off the top of my head, but it was something like: You pay $50, and you get to be in this exhibition, and nobody gets the right to deny your art. So Duchamp submits his toilet called "Fountain" under a pseudonym, pays his money — and the exhibition denies its entry. They decide that calling a toilet art is where they draw the line. Toilets cannot be art. Then Duchamp reveals that it was his toilet, resigns from the board or whatever, and the debate begins.

Fountain is Duchamp's way of saying, "You want to declare that anything can be art? I agree! But I think that this applies even if the art in question is completely silly and lifted from some other source. Maybe it's not art that you like, but you don't have the right to say it's not art." In other words, Fountain is Duchamp's answer to your puerile argument, ninety four years before you thought it was a good idea to argue it. That means that Fountain is visionary, thoughtful, and completely immature. It's brilliant, but it's also hilarious! What more do you want from a urinal?

(You'll also find that casually dismissing a vast swath of art tends to offend people who like that art. Funny, innit? That when you insult Duchamp, who's loved by millions of people, without seemingly understanding what the hell you're talking about, you piss off people who do know what they're talking about? Maybe next time you can try being not-an-asshole.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:23 AM on January 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Rory. Your commitment to respecting other people's views and opinions is a lesson to us all.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 7:36 AM on January 18, 2011


I've got an idea for a piece of modern art wherein I submerge a urinal in a giant vat of urine in an art gallery, then spill the urine out all over the floor, but since I never went to art school, I'd be a "trouble maker" instead of "avant garde."
posted by fuq at 7:37 AM on January 18, 2011


You're allowed to have your opinions, and I'm allowed to think that your opinions say that you don't know what you're talking about. Right?
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:43 AM on January 18, 2011


So I reread this post this morning thinking it might make more sense, but no, I still avant garde a clue.
posted by puny human at 7:51 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've got an idea for a piece of modern art wherein I submerge a urinal in a giant vat of urine in an art gallery, then spill the urine out all over the floor, but since I never went to art school, I'd be a "trouble maker" instead of "avant garde."

C'mon. Try a little harder.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:53 AM on January 18, 2011


So why should I pay for their expensive tastes through either tax subsidies or direct public funding for art institutions?

.0046 cents of every tax dollar goes towards the NEA budget.

Find something else to be upset about.
posted by empath at 8:01 AM on January 18, 2011


Don't forget the subsidies delivered by the tax system. In most countries much larger than direct funding (for obvious political reasons)
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 8:13 AM on January 18, 2011


Don't forget the subsidies delivered by the tax system. In most countries much larger than direct funding (for obvious political reasons)

please see above.
posted by Theta States at 8:17 AM on January 18, 2011


Mr Beard, is it assuming too much to say that you believe everything of value in this world of ours must prove that value in the free marketplace? Because you seem to be.
posted by philip-random at 8:31 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm completely uninterested in the funding aspect. Philosopher's Beard does have a point to make regarding the insularity of the art world, which often seems designed for inaccessibility. Some of the conversations I have had with art world folk were at Magister Ludi levels of remove. Hearing that the art object is unimportant and that the skills required to produce the art object were mere "technical skills" was, well, for a moment I wondered, "Surely there's a middle ground between Velvet Elvis and dogs playing poker and the post-modernism generator pneumatically powered by the audience squeezing nine thousand enema bulbs."

It is unfortunate that the question "Who is this Art for?" is so often asked by those who would blow a gasket at, say, the odd Serrano photograph and scream for funding cuts. It is a question that might bear a little thought every so often.

It would be nice if Art left its dorm room and had a chat with us every so often. We promise not to scratch ourselves and belch too loudly if the clove cigarette smoke isn't blown in our faces.
posted by adipocere at 8:44 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


OK Theta States has been dropping subtle hints that I should shut up now, but I can't resist.

Markets are great for dealing with discrete subjective preferences - if you like it, just buy it with your own money and leave the rest of us alone. Of course there are other values, whether of Science of Justice that we feel people generally should care about and society should support. My question is why contemporary Art should fall into that second category when it seems so have evolved into such an alien and alienating form.

(Perhaps I should add that I'm not just being mean about Art out of some contrarian philistine delight. I made a lot of effort for many years to try to appreciate contemporary Art and understand what I was missing. Nor am I only skeptical of Art. E.g. I think modern academia has a lot of structural similarities and doesn't stand up well to scrutiny)
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 8:49 AM on January 18, 2011


Philosopher's Beard, like Rory Marinich, I'm confused as to what you mean by 'modern art.' Can you explain which art shouldn't receive public funding?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:52 AM on January 18, 2011


Philo-Beard, I personally find much that gets perpetrated in the name of "Modern Art", "Avant Garde", whatever, is foul indeed, odious to the point of wanting to track down those responsible and pursue some kind of moral (if not legal) action in the name of all humanity. But even the worst of these transgressions pale in comparison to the crimes and calamities committed in the name of the free marketplace at whose alter you seem to worship. Wake up, my friend. It's not an altar, its Duchamp's toilet bowl, except it's now been sitting there for 90 years, unflushed, full of shit, puke, piss, other nebulous and foul excrescences.

Some relevant art
posted by philip-random at 8:55 AM on January 18, 2011


It would be nice if Art left its dorm room and had a chat with us every so often. We promise not to scratch ourselves and belch too loudly if the clove cigarette smoke isn't blown in our faces.

How many art galleries do you go to? Seriously.
I try and go to the large galleries of any city I visit, and a huge part of their collection is all readily accessible art.

Most people, and this might not include you, that claim modern art as being innaccessible are often just referencing a few out-of-context art-rage pieces posted online.
Yes, there is much "diffficult" art. Yes, there is much art that probably won't make much sense or impact beyond the insular art world. But beyond those works there is a massive amount of readily accessible gorgeous works that most everyman would love.
But those pieces don't get outraged click-throughs at foxnews.com, so we don't often hear about them.
posted by Theta States at 9:06 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would rather the government fund a lot of artists, even if a few of them are terrible, than to limit itself to 'approved' art.

Sometimes government funds bad or offensive art, and the artist grows to produce something immensely popular and pays off huge dividends later.

For example, Peter Jackson's early horror films (braindead, meet the feebles) were subsidized by the New Zealand government. I'm sure if they had hearings about whether the government should be funding 'trash' like zombie movies and adult muppet films, most people would have said no.
posted by empath at 9:20 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seriously? Enough. It's the inaccessible ones — I've had to do websites for one of them. And then that includes chats with Art People. Nothing like having to do my pokerface while someone tells me that the art object is irrelevant, it's what the critics have to say about it that is important. *shudder*

It's not really the number of galleries as such, it's the disproportionate representation of Art World People. They make a great deal of noise and generate a lot of text. And whenever you would like to talk with someone about small-A art, they enjoy showing up and telling you how you're really unqualified to talk about it at all, as if there's some kind of reading list you must go through first to ask questions and decide if you like something or not.
posted by adipocere at 9:21 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but adipocere, you have that in every community of everybody ever. There are asshole actors, asshole sports fans, asshole programmers, asshole teachers, and every single one of them gets more attention than the nonassholes. They're vocal but still the minority.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:43 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


adipocere: The people who create art like that are contributing to a discourse. They aren't trying to decorate someone's house (and I know that you didn't say that, but it's part of what makes the art object irrelevant). They're making a statement about a slice of the world for other people to think about and talk about and generate new art and new thoughts.

Some visual artists have a hard time talking about their own work, because they focus instead on form, shape, color, scale, etc. There's a great series calledHow To Explain It To My Parents, where artists who make what I'm assuming you'd call 'inaccessible' art try to explain their conceptual reasoning to their parents. It's entertaining to watch.
posted by girih knot at 9:43 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, no doubt, Rory, no doubt. The difference is that so few communities defend, validate, and honor their assholes like the art world does.
posted by adipocere at 9:49 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ummm what? Asshole actors (Tom Cruise), sport people (Don Cherry), teachers (Chau?) Definitely get a lot of attention.
I don't think this is an issue specific to the arts world.
posted by Theta States at 9:59 AM on January 18, 2011


Adipocere: That's it exactly. What most gets to me about the Art world is that when I ask what it means, what they say never seems to make sense.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 10:18 AM on January 18, 2011


What most gets to me about the Art world is that when I ask what it means, what they say never seems to make sense.

That's probably because of they could put what they were trying to say in words, they'd have been writers.
posted by empath at 10:27 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


What most gets to me about the Art world is that when I ask what it means, what they say never seems to make sense.

Talked to any hedge fund managers lately? Any new age or religious types? Any ivory tower academics? Any lawyers? The world is full of confusionism. I think the Art types piss us off so much because Art is supposed to be about communication.
posted by philip-random at 10:30 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: What more do you want from a urinal?
posted by hippybear at 10:54 AM on January 18, 2011


I think the Art types piss us off so much because Art is supposed to be about communication.

Sometimes I feel like anger towards Art types is totally justified. Some artists are just too lazy and full of shit to want to genuinely explain themselves to anybody. But there are others who really just have a unique approach to communication, and who find it difficult/unnecessary to convey their ideas in more conventional language, because they feel it demeans the complexities they're trying to convey. The problem is that it's sometimes hard to learn to differentiate the one sort from the other.
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:42 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Booka Shade did a pretty fantastic remix/cover of O Superman yt a few years back

I opened this link and read the piece without any idea who Laurie Anderson is. When it mentioned her breakout track was called "O Superman", I got that Booka Shade track running through my head immediately, and thought to myself 'oh, perhaps that was a cover or based around a sample, who would have known...'

As such... perhaps I'd better show myself out of this thread.
posted by Slyfen at 11:48 AM on January 18, 2011


I think the Art types piss us off so much because Art is supposed to be about communication.

In all fairness, I think grammar nerds and linguists are supposed to be about communication too, but damned if I know half of the things they prattle on about. :)
posted by Theta States at 11:48 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


If the idea is communicable clearly and in its entirety in plain language, the art is a waste of time to even make, just read the explanation.

Each work of art or music etc. is part of a centuries long conversation between performers, audiences (including amorphous groups with fuzzy boundaries that we could call critics, aficionados and the uneducated), and a realm of concepts and possibilities. There are (as there should be) parts of that conversation you can just jump into with minimal preparation, and minimal forethought. There are other parts (as there should be) where it will take some real work on your part to get to the place where things are making sense.

The role of critics is to help us understand which of those more difficult parts of the conversation were really worth it (inevitably and unavoidably some of them aren't - or maybe nobody gets them yet - it is fundamentally undecidable). And also to help us catch up to some of the more difficult discourses (but as I said, if it was reducible to the words, just stick with the words). Therefore the worst, most useless kinds of critic, the ones that are simply a waste of your time, are the following two: the one who says "just stick to the stuff you like already", and the one who says "it's all bullshit".
posted by idiopath at 11:54 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


disclaimer: married to an artist. One who teaches art to both art majors and to nonmajors in two programs. And in two very different schools, one turning out AAA level degrees, the other a community college. (If I haven't muddled this up completely already, both programs have majors and nonmajors whom she teaches.

Having watched her teach, having discussed her philosophy of pedagogy, and indeed having experienced her grappling with the critical readings of philosophy about art, I have to say that this notion that artists are willfully ignorant or defiant of public response is utter and complete BS.

I am reading through arguments above that unless someone can can grasp the meaning, then they--or indeed no one--should have to pay anything for the experience. BS. I have gone to many a movie, many a play, read many a book, picked up many a magazine that I thought I might get some value from and parted ways feeling I did not (partially or completely) understand it. I did not make that understanding rest completely on the producer of that item. Sometimes I am Just Stupid about some things.

I don't want to flame, but I get the idea that Philosopher's Beard is Just Stupid about somethings, too, and if we rest the economic system on this one person's idea That Modern Art is Patently Offensive to My Idea of Bad Taste, then there are a whole lot of things that I find repulsive that ought to get their funding cut first. (But I digress)

Back to my point about the value of art in society--Mrs. Bubba teaches--or tries to teach--students different ways of seeing things about them. There are visual arguments made to us each and every day, and she helps people understand how and why the compositional, positional, tonal (etc) choices may have been made, and she teaches them how to talk about their own works in ways that quite often lead to people being able to express themselves visually in ways that they could not before contact with her teaching. And I do not make this about her--there are thousands of talented artist-teacher-designers out there and they each can have valid and utterly NON confusing ways of imparting that instruction. She encourages her students to oppose her reading of their work and that is at the heart of any dialogic system of instruction. Something that a self-proclaimed Philosopher ought understand.

Very few of the students that pass through her courses ever become practicing artists, but there have been literally hundreds of former students who will run into her., or contact her through other means, to tell her that she helped them understand a conception of the world and their place in it. She teaches about the history of her media and that takes students from the camera obscura to the digital processes of art production now. She teaches them about the contexts of Dada--the whys and wherefores of the Duchamps and Tzaras and others.

Her brother was one of the types of people who for much of his adult life embraced the concept that "if it doesn't make me a profit, I don't want it" and one who complained loudly about performance artists such as Beuys or confrontational artists like Serrano. He came by it honestly. Their father got enraged when Warhol's soup can and Brillo box ushered in Pop Art. He took it as a personal attack, much as I read Philospher Beard's soap-box rant, his protest that it's ok for other people to like it but why do I have to pay for it aside (as others have rightly said, that argument never ends well in a society that pays for weapons that can annihalate the planet many times over and spends billions of dollars making our airways safe, except they don't and can't). Eventually, the brother got her when he saw a show of her work that abstracted his sheep framing life through her particular filmic processes. Just like she eventually got it when reading and rereading Barthes and Eve Sedgwick and Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva. All philosophers who've written about art and often densely and often not accessible to those who insist that something worth discussing has to be brought down to their level of understanding rather than sometimes, just sometimes, we have to push ourselves harder to understand. If we give up, we should not automatically think that the artist or writer is trying to put one over on us, but perhaps the failing is ours. If we don't get it, but don't feel it is important, we should do the real life equivalent of FIAMO, not try to indict an entire profession.

Finally, art makes no sense or sounds confusing? Hahhahahahahahaha. Go up and stop the next ten people on the street and explain to them the concepts of deontology, ontology, and teleology AND make them care about it. Philosophy is what makes no sense and I don't know why I have to pay to support it.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:09 PM on January 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not completely getting things. Sometimes I am reminded that some people think they fully understand some of the art they see! To me this seems quite arrogant, and if you are used to being able to take such a presumptuous attitude to art, then I guess art that you don't get would get you a bit peeved.
posted by idiopath at 12:19 PM on January 18, 2011


I've always appreciated Scott McCloud's definition of art:

“Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.”

But even if that isn't true, even if it is possible to objectively identify art from "not-art", and if we are trying to do this to determine who gets government funding, there can only be two possible outcomes: either everyone gets funding or no one gets funding. Because though we may not agree on our definitions of art I think we can all agree that a government agency doesn't have the resources or expertise to determine this for us. Even if it were possible (which it isn't).

So to say modern art isn't really art is a difficult position to defend, but I can understand the frustration that breeds that argument. At the same time, I don't believe it's true that some or any art is incomprehensible, and I don't think you need an advanced degree in art history (or anything for that matter) to understand modern art.

In fact, all one really needs in order to appreciate an artwork (of any kind) is an inquisitive disposition and a little empathy. No matter how bizarre the art in question is, it invariably sprang from the mind of another human being, and it just so happens that all human beings use the same basic cognitive: our senses. If you're in possession of your senses then you can comprehend all art on some level. All you have to learn is how to ask the right questions.

I have posted at my workdesk a list of "critical thinking" questions that I use to help me in my work. These same questions apply to everything else I experience: music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, etc.

They're very simple questions, things like: "What is the purpose, goal or point?" or "What point of view is being expressed?" or "What are the basic concepts or terms being used?" and others as well. I try to keep these kinds of questions at the forefront of my mind so I'll be able to understand anything I experience.

It all just depends on how interested one is in the subject. It's easy to dismiss modern art, even after spending what one might consider a good amount of time "studying" it. But I think that to dismiss it is to admit defeat in some small way. If I reject the art because I tried to understand it but got nothing, I might be inclined to say "this is garbage. I don't understand it and I've tried, thus it must be garbage." On the other hand I could take my lack of understanding as an opportunity to learn more about myself. I could ask myself "what is it about this piece that is so perplexing to me?" and when I've found that out I could ask "why does this element bother me so much? What does that say about my own biases? And what does that say about the author's biases and intent?"

One of my personal rules is: Your mind is never open enough. Keep trying.

And now I've used my daily ration of colons so I better quit before the punctuation police get me.

(also I hadn't really listened to Anderson before today so thanks the OP for sharing)
posted by jnrussell at 12:49 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not to derail but... neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has advanced a rather convincing (to me) theory of neurological basis for art.

To make a very long story very short, Ramachandran posits that we have various "modules" which are known to perform various recognition tasks. Biology being what it is, these modules aren't perfect; they are only "good enough." And it turns out that in many diverse situations these modules return stronger outputs than they ever would in what might be considered a "natural situation." One example he gives in one of his speeches is of a sea bird which is born with an instinct to peck at a pattern which is present in its parents' mouth, so that it can feed as a chick. It turns out that there is another, simpler pattern at which these chicks will peck much more forcefully. It is this pattern, not the natural mouth pattern of the bird, that rescuers use to feed abandoned chicks.

And according to this theory art is primarily the search for such "better than natural" patterns. Art is designed to present a module or group of them with something that will stimulate a startling and unnaturally strong response. All art doesn't work for all people because not everyone has the same modules; some of them may vary genetically and in humans even more of them may be field programmed as we grow and learn. There is agreement on art when there is commonality in the module programming, and there is nonrecognition when the modules are programmed differently.

One could argue that this search is pointless. (Some cultures do, banning art of certain types as being pointless or distracting.) One could argue that it reveals hidden truths about the mind. (Probably true.) One could argue that it reveals truths about the cultures and influences that cause us to act and perceive the way we do, and I'd guess most practicing artists would prefer that justification.

As to who should pay for it, that is a question no different from who should pay for roads, sewers, and medical care. Some people believe art is an essential expression of the human condition, and if they prevail the government will generously fund the arts (of whichever type the prevailing culture is most susceptible). Some believe they should fund art that affects them personally, and these are private donors both large and small. And some believe it is all nonsense and if they prevail in structuring society you know how that will work out.
posted by localroger at 1:48 PM on January 18, 2011


“Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.”

Area Bassist Fellated
posted by kersplunk at 3:49 PM on January 18, 2011


MetaFilter: What more do you want from a urinal?

Urinal lotta trouble now.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:51 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Area Bassist Fellated

Funny, I'm pretty sure my weirdo experimental projects have done very little for my sexual viability. If anything they've damaged it.
posted by naju at 4:52 PM on January 18, 2011


Funny, I'm pretty sure my weirdo experimental projects have done very little for my sexual viability. If anything they've damaged it.

experimental chicks,
experimental chicks,
they go for the guys with the BIG...


modular synthesizers.



trust me, you'll score with something like this.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:10 PM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I do get a bit flustered when I encounter a full Doepfer or Serge rack...
but we all know it takes that chained to a VCS3 for a proper BJ, at least.
posted by Theta States at 10:10 PM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


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