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« Hudson River School, Part I | Main | PBS Responses »

December 09, 2002

American Art, All Wild and Wooly

Friedrich --

Perhaps we ought to come right out and say it: American culture and art are strange and wild. What’s best in this culture, and what has the most vitality, often doesn’t come in traditional packages -- a fact that can drive people crazy with annoyance and perplexity. American culture can be very hard to comprehend, particuarly for people who yearn for something more respectable, or more Euro-style.

But there’s another way of viewing this fact, and that’s as something marvelous, rich, and forever surprising. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that part of what we’re both getting at in our postings about 19th century American art is how far-out and deeply moving that art can be.

It's a case that isn't often argued these days. 19th century American art is an era that’s frequently looked down on, and even dismissed, by those with modernist and post-modernist educations. It’s seen as a matter of lousy imitations of European art. Judged by traditional Euro standards, much of it certainly does look hick.

How typical is this attitude? Just yesterday, out for lunch in Chelsea, the Wife and I were seated a few feet away from a couple of women artists. Midway through dessert, I overheard one of them say, “Well, until the ‘20s and ‘30s, when we finally got some real art in this country...”

It’s a common belief among educated people that America just didn’t get it until the arrival of modernism. Before the Armory Show, our art was clueless crap; before the Method, our actors were grandstanding naifs.

Well, balls to all that. Take a look at pre-modernist American art without the academic and Euro blinders on, and what you discover is a lot of freewheeling and very strange art. It was, it seems to me, a great and adventurous era, many-sided, experimental, democratic, and unself-conscious. The genteel and the rudely populist coexisted in ways that post-modernists can only dream about.

It seems to me that Felix (writing a comment in reply to your recent posting on the Hudson River School) falls into the trap of seeing Cole’s work, for instance, through academic (ie., "avant-garde") eyes. Felix finds “Victorian kitsch” in Coles' work; he describes Cole as an "autodidact," and a “slightly mad historical curiosity.” I think he's being quite perceptive. Where I part company with him is when he concludes that because of this, Cole was a bad artist. The fact has always been that much of the best American art has had elements of kitsch and the sentimental, and many of our best artists could be accurately described as “autodidacts,” and “slightly mad historical curiosities.”

He's the top: Bojangles

None of this makes Cole a good artist -- but none of it disqualifies him from being a good artist either. Much of the best American art has always been hard to respect, and hard to rank highly (let alone enjoy), if what you’re applying are traditional European terms. The oddballness of much American art and culture can even seem embarassing. Who can take a children’s story seriously? Yet that's what "Huckleberry Finn" is. Who can take seriously a nautical adventure story? Yet that's what "Moby Dick" is.

It seems to me (and I suspect to you, too) that anyone who settles for seeing American culture through the academic-modernist lens is doing himself a disservice. He’s certainly restricting his own enjoyment.

Let me illustrate the point by listing some 20th century American art.

  • “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”
  • The stories of Zora Neale Hurston
  • Bugs Bunny
  • Elvis
  • Breakdancing
  • Louis Armstrong's rendition of “What a Wonderful World”
  • The Marx Brothers in “A Night at the Opera”
  • Buster Keaton’s “The Navigator”
  • Tex-Mex cooking
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Jimmy Cagney
  • Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
  • Henry Miller
  • James Thurber
  • The hot-rod artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth
  • Ben Hecht
  • Patsy Cline
  • “The Godfather”
  • Soul food
  • California bungalow houses
  • “The Maltese Falcon”
  • The “Miss Manners” advice column
  • Mad magazine
  • Skate-punk style
  • Smokey Robinson
  • Southern “yard art”
  • Mexican-American low-rider cars
  • The films of Preston Sturges
  • Howlin’ Wolf
  • “Gypsy”

Big Daddy knows how

I don’t know about you, but I feel all welled-up emotionally and proud to be an American when I look at this list. I also notice that none of this work is best understood or enjoyed by reference to traditional academic and/or Euro categories. Henry Miller, for instance, was a rotten novelist (Turgenev he wasn't), yet he was a great writer of something-or-other, as well as an autodidact who was very prone to sentimentality.

There’s anonymous folk art here, as well as art that was done purely for a paycheck. Who cares? Sentimentality is almost everywhere to be found on this list; so is the taint of commercialism. So what? It all seems to me absolutely first-rate, and I’d hate to imagine American culture without this work.

There has always been a strain in American art that yearns for the status of fine art, and for the respectability of European art. I like much of it, and am sympathetic to most of it. It has occasionally resulted in fantastic work -- the Beaux Arts architecture of the late 19th century is one example. I wouldn’t agree that contempo installation art -- the reigning official form -- has been anything like such a success, but that’s another posting.

Like it or not, though, this strain has always been a rather small one. It’s simply a fact that most of what’s best, most likable and most vital in American art and culture comes in all kinds of surprising packages, and from all kinds of surprising directions. It takes the professors and the cultural gatekeepers decades to catch up -- movies, for instance, were only begun to be acknowledged as a great American art form 40ish years ago.

So why would any sane person worry about what most of the official gatekeepers (the profs, the editors, the critics, the foundation people) say? A few of them have had contributions to make, but most of them haven’t got a clue. Better, if you're looking for profitable intellectual wrestling with the goofy mess that is the American cultural scene, to look to such adventurous work as Nick Tosches’ Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll, Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues, John Kouwenhoven’s The Beer Can by the Side of the Highway, or Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

Hey: isn't it interesting that Tom Wolfe, appreciator of stock-car racing, is also an enthusiastic supporter of the Institute for Classical Architecture? Now there's someone, it seems to me, who really gets American culture and art.



posted by Michael at December 9, 2002


Really, now, Michael: talk about knocking down straw men! Of course I never meant that Cole was bad because he was an autodidact, a slightly mad historical curiosity, and a purveyor of Victorian kitsch. Two words for you: Richard Dadd, who was all of those things and more, and is a wonderful artist.

What I meant was that it's all well and good examining Thomas Cole in a serious and critical way, but it does get a bit much when you start comparing him to Jacques-Louis David, Caspar David Friedrich, and Nicolas Poussin. It seems to me that you (plural) are trying to have your cake and eat it: on the one hand lauding Cole as working in the tradition of these great European geniuses, and on the other hand saying that when Cole is looked at through their lens, he's admittedly crap, so what we should do is celebrate his quintessentially American far-out crazy fabulousness instead.

Now, if you want to say that Tex-Mex cooking is great 20th Century American Art, then all power to you. I'll see you and raise you a good English vindaloo. Here's a link to a BBC web page which shows that Americans have no monopoly either on such grass-roots working-class innovation or on its appreciation.

I would agree that much of your list is really good stuff, but I still maintain that Thomas Cole is a bad artist, and I'm adamant that the distinction between good art and bad art is a useful – nay, necessary – distinction to make. The reason I'm hesitant to agree that your list comprises great American art is not because I don't like the stuff on it, but rather because if everything is good art then nothing is art at all. Give me a list of bad American art along the same lines, and I'll be much more persuaded. But you'll find it's hard: would McDonald's be on the list? To call it bad art, you have to call it art.

On Thursday, you printed two lists, one of what the Art Critics liked, and one of what they didn't. The thing that struck me most is that I should imagine they're not far off from your own tastes. I can't imagine that you don't love Jasper Johns; I know you said somewhere you like Gerhard Richter, too. And surely you have big problems with Julian Schnabel and Tracey Emin. Personally, I would swap Louise Bourgeois and Jeff Koons: might you not do the same thing? Did you see the smiles on the faces of the shopping public when Puppy was displayed at Rockefeller Center? Did you see anything like that when LB's spiders were there instead? Or does Koons's immersion in the Art World disqualify him from your list of fun American artists?

The broader point is that it's interesting and instructive to make distinctions between artists we like and artists we don't. (I like Britney Spears, and don't like Cristina Aguilera.) It's much less useful to rattle off a list of things we like, slap the label "art" on it, and declare that everybody who doesn't agree is blinkered.

Posted by: Felix on December 10, 2002 12:32 PM

Thank you, Felix, for grafting some measure of sanity onto Michael's somewhat overwrought paean to American...whatever all that stuff is. What's needed here is a good working definition of what is and what isn't art before one can go off declaring it either good or bad -- an absolutely necessary declaration, as you point out. Perhaps Michael can give us his definition of what he means by the term as it's not at all clear from his enthusiastic post.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 10, 2002 04:47 PM

I wrestle with this question constantly, as I imagine "we" (= "weenies who take think we take art 'seriously'") all do: how to appreciate different (for want of a better word) "levels" of art while recognizing the difference between them.

A musical example: I bow to no one in my appreciation of Bob Dylan, both as a songwriter and performer. Not only is he the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century, but you can very easily split the century into two periods - B.D. and A.D. He took the pop song form and gave it depths of meaning and feeling that are unmatched by anyone, before or since.

But if you look in my car cd changer, I'm just as likely (maybe more) to have a Madonna disc in there as Bob. And some "purists" I've talked to seem to take that as some kind of betrayal. (You haven't lived until you've defended the Material Girl to a roomful of hostile folkies...) And the truth is, while I don't see people listening to Madonna 200 years from now like I'm absolutly certain they will Dylan, I believe that she is, in her own arena, every bit the artist that Dylan is. I just can't seem to articulate why, beyond a kind of sheepish "I like listening to it". I mean, of course Dylan is "better" than Madonna in some fundamental way, but how? Is it like Twain's comment about Wagner's music "being better than it sounds"?

Posted by: Jimbo on December 10, 2002 06:48 PM


If you are "adamant that the distinction between good art and bad art is a useful – nay, necessary – distinction to make" perhaps you would be so kind as to spell out the basis on which you make this all-important distinction. We might get some insight as to whether we agree that it is so necessary. So far, you simply have reached out with a label and slapped it on an artist--you haven't communicated much. I am a big fan of J.L.David and Poussin, but there are aspects of both their work that give me a great deal of pause. Among other issues, in comparison with, say, a Rubens, they're both kind of stiff, longer on earnestness than power. Does that mean I should call them "bad" and dismiss them? Cole has interesting qualities--many of which are rather more similar to those espoused in much contemporary art--even if he lacks the psychological tension of David or the formal balance and oddly compatible earthiness of Poussin. Calling him "bad" doesn't change that.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 11, 2002 01:32 AM

Hi Felix,

Many thanks for your good writing and sporting spirit. If you don't mind fencing for a while yet, I'll try to raise a few fresh points.

*Very pleased that you mentioned vindaloo and the paintings of Richard Dadd, two cultural products always worth lingering over. I do notice that you still haven't explained why you think Cole is a bad artist. Perhaps Cole was a bad artist (though many would disagree, and he has certainly been influential and had a lasting appeal). But I don't think your simply saying he's bad makes it so, entertained though I am by your usual swashbuckling vehemence. I am genuinely interested in your response to his work, in any case. What about it do you dislike?

*Your remark about how Friedrich admires Cole for the various Euro-style things he's up to while I praise him for being a valuable loony is very helpful, thanks. Friedrich will speak for himself, of course. It seems to me that in our enjoyment of Cole, we aren't describing two different artists so much as coming at Cole's work from two different sides. Much American art has aspired (often awkwardly) to Euro ideals while also doing its (often awkward) best to open itself to and accomodate American realities, with often ungainly results. (Which doesn't, it seems to me, automatically mean that the results are bad.) Cole was certainly wrestling with various Grand Tour formal and technical issues. I also detect, sensitive instrument that I am, an element of naivete, earnestness and strain in his work that makes it (to my mind) both kinda lumpish and wonderfully expressive and touching in some new (or newish) kind of way.

*For what it's worth, I do realize that many sophisticated people find much American art of this period faintly embarrassing, or worse. I did too for many years. It's not as if I think I now know better, but my view of it and my experience of it has changed. I had myself a "click" experience some time ago at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For the first time, I felt I got this art. I understood that the art is partly about aspiring (and often failing) to be respectable in Euro terms, but also about hustle, naivete, eagerness, and sentiment. The work stopped seeming embarassing to me, and started seeming wonderfully, touchingly bizarro, and often weird and even surrealist. Suddenly, much of this kind of thing (Cole, white marble statues with virtuous allegorical names, etc) seemed to me very beautiful, Whitmanesque sometimes, Wharton-esque other times -- extraordinary expressions of a new world taking shape. I used to laugh at the hayseed who puts on the city duds and brashly crashes the party. What a rube! Doesn't he know this isn't done? These days I'm delighted by him, and by the fuss and tittering that he causes. (I also like it that there's a party there to be crashed.) Addressing the embarassment many people feel about this kind of work is, by the way, one of the reasons Friedrich and I go to the trouble of writing these postings. Which of course doesn't make us right. But we're hoping a few people will start to see a little something in this work.

*I'm puzzled by your suggestion that it's me who's saying "I like this; thus it's good art." It seems to me that that's what you're doing, if in reverse: "I don't like this; thus it's bad art." My list, for instance, wasn't intended as a list of personal faves (love "Maltese Falcon"; not crazy about Howlin' Wolf), but instead as a list of American goodies and treats that seem to have shown real staying power (ie., are likely to win longterm acclaim as "good art") yet are hard to justify, let alone explain, using traditional formal criteria. I was hoping to convey something along the lines of "American culture -- ain't it some kinda somethin'?" and not "Here's some stuff I really, really like, and thus it's great art."

*I do often find Koons a hoot. I liked the puppy, and remember fondly a Soho show consisting largely of huge photo-paintings showing him and Cicciolina fucking. Hilarious stuff.

*Very interested, as ever, in knowing what your reasons are for disliking Cole.

Best again,


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2002 01:51 AM

Hi AC, hi Jimbo

You're raising interesting and necessary points. How do we define art? Is it a quality judgment or a matter of something more objective? (Many, many good conversations turn sour because of this question.) How can we make valid distinctions without losing track of equally valid continuities? Where, and on what basis, can our personal experience and enjoyment enter into these discussions?

Beyond-fab issues, all of them, and great fun to discuss, even if all of us probably suspect there'll never be final answers to any of them.

During my years in the arts-and-media trenches, I've developed a few rules of thumb, which I'm sketching out in writing and will post soon. They don't represent aesthetic theory so much as guidelines that serve me day to day -- you may well find them absurd. But maybe they'll prove useful as a point of departure for another good set of exchanges.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and responses -- I'm hoping to post my "what do we mean by art" maunderings in a day or two.

Many thanks, as ever, for stopping by,


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2002 02:07 AM

“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”,The stories of Zora Neale Hursto, Bugs Bunny,Elvis, Breakdancing. Louis Armstrong's rendition of “What a Wonderful World”,The Marx Brothers in “A Night at the Opera” Buster Keaton’s “The Navigator”.Tex-Mex cooking,Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Cagney,Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Henry Miller, James Thurber, The hot-rod artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Ben Hecht, Patsy Cline,“The Godfather”,Soul food, California bungalow houses, “The Maltese Falcon”,The “Miss Manners” advice column,Mad magazine, Skate-punk style, Smokey Robinson, Southern “yard art”, Mexican-American low-rider cars, The films of Preston Sturges, Howlin’ Wolf, “Gypsy”...hmmm

Well,it's amusing and enlightening to see someone's list of My Favorite Things (John Coltrane's version of that song would be on my list) but in the eternal struggle (squabble) to resolve "The What is Art?" and What is Bad Art?" connundrum,I must confess that I am not seeing a viable answer being advanced. Is this list an attempt at an ostensive definition of art? I don't know, perhaps I am out of my league here but in some sense this conversation resembles the Alice in Wonderland formulation, " A word means whatI choose it to mean."

On the other hand, I think that I would rather see and read other commentator's lists than....well, you know, suffer the promulagation of various aesthetic theories that are, it seems to me, briefs for the artists that one champions.

And, finally, for this moment at least, when I am confonted with a thing of wonder, I am not propelled to contruct a press release for it and talk talk talk about it. Now granted it is a good and normal thing that we want to share our joys with our world but somehow that discourse is and should be subsidiary and a thing of a different order to the pleasures that we discover in our universe.

And Michael, as a fan of the great Wm Smokey Robinson you might be interested in Kevin Mahogany's recording, "Pride & Joy" which has him covering 12 Motown songs. Especially compelling is his "Tears of a Clown" with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniement.

Posted by: robert birnbaum on December 11, 2002 08:24 AM

I suspect we're actually on the same page, Robert. I didn't intend the list to be a list of my personal faves -- it isn't -- but instead a list of American cultural achievements that seem to be showing lasting power, which together suggest just how various (and next-to-impossible to pin down) American art so often is. I'm sometimes a big fan of drawing up categories, making distinctions, and nailing down definitions, but at other times the moment seems right to blow them apart.

And, as you do a wonderful job of demonstrating with the diversity and depth of your interviews, it's sometimes important to remember that one of the strongest characteristics of American art is the way we make it up as we go along. Europeans often don't get that about us, seeing us instead as trying and failing to live up to their standards. (Fuck 'em, sez I.) Unfortunately, many Americans come to art, and to thinking about the arts, through education, and too much (IMHO) of a typical American art education consists of learning to look at American culture through Euro-ish eyes. (Which is OK, but it's also helpful to learn how to shake that.)

Americans often wind up in a terrible, overfamiliar bind: on the one hand, people who are often likable and sensible and have common sense and who know what they like but who have no experience with art; on the other, people who've learned something about art and its history, but who have often been educated out of their common sense and personal tastes, and who're constantly doing their striving best to "appreciate" what the experts tell them to. And all too few people who bring together the better parts of both.

I'm hoping the web (and what people like you and Felix, and AC and Jimbo, and Alexandra Ceely and, ahem, us do with it) will prove to be what helps break that down. As you know, it's possible to "get" advanced or difficult art and still not like it, contrary to what many of the profs and critics would have us believe. It's also possible to acknowledge the greatness of something -- and to give yourself the experience of it, as part of a cultured life -- without finally putting it at the top of your personal list of faves. I get Peter Eisenman's buildings all to well, for instance, but wouldn't want to have to live in one or work in one. It's important to be able to assert that.

Like you, by the way, I'm a big fan of lists, which often have the fun effect of showing the inadequacy of wannabe all-encompassing definitions and theories. "Make sense of this," says a good list. Eager to see your lists!

Many thanks for the Kevin Mahagony recommendation. I hadn't been aware of the disk.

Everybody else: treat yourself to Robert's cache of interviews. You can find it here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2002 11:04 AM

Let's get back to Felix's orginal statements for a moment. I don't think we are required to define art so much as define "good art" and "bad art". So much is accepted as art nowadays that you almost can't define it, but I think it is possible to define good and bad. For instance, a "bad" artist is perhaps one whose technical skill leaves something to be desired. Or perhaps he has failed to communicate his ideas or express a particular emotion that he was aiming for. In the case of 19th Century American art, when skill was all important, then we might use definition #1. After all, these were academic painters, relying on the traditions of generations of painters before them. They were painting images to be admired, beautiful pictures, inspirational pictures, and of course portraits. Wouldn't it be best to use their definition of bad or good art?

Posted by: Alexandra on December 11, 2002 11:11 AM

Friedrich -- I think we're actually closer than you might think. I don't share your preference for Rubens over David, but we're both agreed that they're both good artists. Likewise, as I said in my original posting, you've shown me that there was more to Thomas Cole than I had originally thought: there's certainly something weirdly appealing about nutcases like him (or, I'm tempted to say, Jeff Koons), and you're right that he's interesting.

Now onto Bad Art. I certainly don't consider it necessary to have debates about whether Rubens is better than David or vice-versa. It's possible for such debates to be enlightening (is the "stiffness" you see in David precisely the thing I like about him?), but they can degenerate into mutual incomprehension or worse.

Rather, I think the category of Bad Art is necessary for us to really appreciate Art as a whole. For me, Thomas Cole is indubitably Art, sub-category Bad: the same genus and species as, say, Salvador Dali. I even think that it's entirely possible to like bad art. I enjoy the occasional Dali in a museum, and I certainly got a giggle or three out of the Coles you posted. A friend of mine has a large collection of paintings-by-numbers, which I love, and I personally have a painting on my wall by Arum, who happens to be an elephant in Bali. The wonderful Most Wanted Paintings project is all about the enjoyment of bad art. To stitch it all up, there's even a sense in which Jeff Koons is good precisely because he so unerringly hones in on all the tropes and techniques which bad art thrives on.

Not all bad art has to be kitsch, of course: Julian Schnabel springs to mind as someone who has a large body of work which is simply depressing, pointless, and far too large. I remember seeing one of his smashed plate paintings called "Circumnavigating the Sea of Shit" and thinking how wonderfully apposite the title was.

But in any case, being able to come up with a list of bad art is much more than a parlor game: it's an exercise in avoiding precisely the kind of category error which Michael committed in this post. There are a lot of fabulous things in your list, Michael, but I doubt one person in a thousand would consider them all to be art. Never mind Tex-Mex cooking; calling the Miss Manners advice column "art" strikes me as exactly the sort of irony-drenched sophomoric snobbishness which you rail against elsewhere. ("I'm not in the slightest bit interested in the advice – I'm far too sophisticated for that – but I love the column.")

The Miss Manners advice column is not art, Michael, it's an advice column. If you insist on reading it through your art-tinted spectacles, you're subverting its original purpose, ironising its content, and, at the very least, appreciating it as unintentional camp. And what happens then is that your whole pantheon of demotic American art becomes cheapened in that anyone can, in theory, make it, but only sophisticates like yourself can really appreciate it. Talk about elitist: even the artist doesn't have access (let alone privileged access) to her own work!

More importantly, surely you understand that, within the universe of art, if nothing is bad, then nothing is good. Since Birnbaum has started off into Alice Land, I'll follow him: it's the world of "everybody has won, and all shall have prizes". Of course in your world, not everybody has won; only those people who are lucky enough to have been picked by you for entry in the first place have won. I asked you for examples of bad art along the lines of the good art which you cited, and you didn't give me any, I suspect because anything which came to mind you simply put into the not-art category instead.

And the distinction between art and not-art is really a much less useful distinction that that between good art and bad art. By looking at bad art, we can learn a lot about what we value in art. By looking at, say, a pile of sludge on the side of the road, we can't: we might agree that it's not art, but you could say the same thing about a sunset. In neither case have we learned anything about what art is, or what makes good art good.

So I guess I should try to take a stab at answering the question I've now been asked repeatedly: why is it, exactly, that I think that Thomas Cole is bad art? As I said earlier, it's not that I don't like it, exactly: there's a lot of bad art which I do like. Rather, I think it's because I find him hamfisted and technically inept: you can't admire his technique as one would with Poussin, while his Grand Artistic Vision is laughably naive and simply doesn't work: no one, yourselves included, reacts to his big history paintings in anything like the manner that he intended. Insofar as you guys like him, it's because he's "interesting" (Friedrich) or (Michael) because you lump him in with Miss Manners columns as fun-wacko Americana. His paintings are more conversation pieces than they are art, which is always a bad sign. As a rule of thumb, if we can all agree that he failed in what he was trying to do, then the chances of him being good art are probably extremely thin. Look at that Indian in the Kaaterskill fall painting: it's impossible, nowadays, to see him as anything other than kitsch. Which, of course, pains Thomas Cole dreadfully as he looks down on us from his neoclassical heaven. Does that answer your question?

Posted by: Felix Salmon on December 11, 2002 11:53 AM

Whee, ain't it fun how some postings and comment sequences take off? Who can predict these things?

Felix, many thanks for stating the reasons for your dislike of Cole's paintings -- I'm enjoying wrestling with them. I don't notice myself separating work into little piles of Art and Not-Art, so I don't know how to respond to your claim that that's what I'm doing. Also, while I admire your slashing way with art-world reasoning styles, the conclusions you use them to drive towards seem to me to be your own, and not mine. You aren't going to persuade me that I'm being ironic when the simple fact is that I'm not.

I confess too that I don't understand the vehemence of your contention that there's such a thing as Bad Art. I don't notice anyone in the room arguing otherwise. Go right ahead and help yourself. I do think -- personal opinion alert -- that it's generally wise to view the category and its contents as being more fluid (although not infinitely so -- classic forms evolve somehow from something) than you seem to, although I certainly enjoy the verve with which you enjoy laying down taste laws.

The argument over what's Bad Art and What's Not is a part of the art game, if not my favorite part. But I'd argue for the wisdom of being wary of being too cut-and-dried, although I recognize that your kind of flamboyant absolutism can serve as enjoyable and useful provocation. Still, rankings of the worth of art come and go; the Hudson River School, to take our given instance, has been in and out of favor several times in my own lifetime. Is Caravaggio a flashy genius or a sensationalistic vulgarian? The pendulum goes back and forth, and then back and forth again. Dali was for a few decades considered to be hot stuff. French 19th century academic art couldn't find a buyer a few decades back; these days none of us could afford even a small piece. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that sometime in the next 50 years Jackson Pollack's paintings will come to be seen as kitsch (What a lot of naive bombast!), and that Picasso (Bullfighting? Puh-leeze!) will too. Actually, it occurs to me as I type that Adam Gopnik has already taken quite a swing at Picasso in the New Yorker, so it may already be open season on Pablo. Convictions about "what's art" and "what's not art" also come and go -- let's all remember the decades and decades of disputes over such topics as tribal, folk and popular art.

But ain't nobody at 2blowhards, in any case, going to dispute that some art is bad -- or that experiencing it and discussing it can be a fun and rewarding thing to do.

Since my reference to Miss Manners seems to have made a little fur fly, let me take that topic on.

You do or don't like the Miss Manners advice column. (I do, but that's of no relevance here.) But I think that those of you who claim that it can't qualify as art of some sort are obliged to wrestle with several other items on my list. James Thurber, for instance. At the time he was working, he wasn't an "artist" but a guy who drew doodle-like cartoons and wrote short sketch humor for a light magazine. (The New Yorker wasn't taken nearly as seriously then as it is now.) Yet last time I checked (just now, actually), the Library of America, the closest thing we have an official literary canon-maker, has devoted a volume to Thurber. He's now semi-officially part of American lit.

So: Is it really possible to argue that what Miss Manners does -- with her advice column, her persona, her novel -- is somehow more out-of-bounds than what Thurber did with his doodles and fancies? Is it absolutely certain that there won't come a time when someone looks at her work and says, gee, you know, we don't usually think of an advice columnist as an artist, but in this case ...

In fact (trick question!), the reason I included her name on my list is that I happen to know that there already are people making such a case. Quickly put, the case goes like this: that the advice column is an indigenous folk literary form, and that, much as someone like Bartok or Copland used folk materials in concert-hall compositions, Miss Manners is using folk materials to create a substantial and complex body of literary work. Agree or disagree with the argument, I can't see how anyone could call it stupid or ill-informed. Miss Manners may or may not make it into some eventual Library of America, but I bet her odds are as good as, say, Dave Eggers'. And, hey, wasn't he just driveling on autobiographically about looking after his family? What kinda so-called literature is that?

My larger point is to ask this question: Do any of us possess a set of "what is art" standards that accounts for the fact that "Huckleberry Finn" wasn't always an Officially Acknowledged Masterpiece but started off life as a children's story? Or that jazz, the movies, vaudeville, country and western, comic books, and the blues weren't considered art until they were long out of the gate?

I don't possess such a set of standards. Does anyone?

It's always hard to encompass (or even semi-encompass) art with a theory or a definition -- not that it can't be fun and useful to nail some things down. (Something we're probably all pretty good at doing.) But with this posting, I was hoping to make this simple assertion: that nailing down categories and definitions is especially hard in the the case of America, where the question of what qualifies as art -- and how it's made, experienced and discussed -- is forever re-posing itself in new and unexpected ways. This is something that can be annoying about American art; this can also be something glorious. But does anyone think it isn't a fact?

Many thanks to all for pitching in here. What a good bull session -- may we have many more such. Why don't we call it quits where this particular line of discussion is concerned? I'll cough up a "what do we mean when we use the word 'art'" posting shortly, and Friedrich will be up to some kind of erudite mischief. Plenty of excuses for everyone to come gunning! We're looking forward to it.



Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2002 04:14 PM

Alexandra wrote: "Let's get back to Felix's orginal statements for a moment. I don't think we are required to define art so much as define "good art" and "bad art"."


Felix wrote: "And the distinction between art and not-art is really a much less useful distinction that that between good art and bad art."

Well, that's a pretty neat trick, all right.

I wonder how that's done.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 11, 2002 07:04 PM

Well, my head just exploded.

You Blowhards save this whole thing off somewhere in a FAQ or something.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on December 11, 2002 11:23 PM

Michael, I find this bit you wrote above to be very amusing:
"If I were a betting man, I'd wager that sometime in the next 50 years Jackson Pollack's paintings will come to be seen as kitsch (What a lot of naive bombast!)"

It is amusing in that we here in Tucson must be 50 years in the future, as art-scene friends of mine the other week were discussing how kitsch-y Pollack is, and that he's merely a technical-rule-breaker-for-its-own-sake-only, like the cut-ups of the Beats.

Must be the rate of artists per capita here (second highest in the world).

Posted by: David Mercer on December 13, 2002 11:53 PM

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