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January 21, 2003

Artchat Survival Tips -- "Greatness"

Friedrich --

It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed some of the typical old arguments about art. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed arguing about the arts period, come to think of it. “Is it art?” “Is it great art?” -- to my mind, at least these days, who cares? Or rather: I prefer to see conversations about art not get hung up on such questions. Do you still enjoy the old freshman-in-college quarrels? Why do I suspect the answer is “No”?

I wouldn’t for an instant pose as a professional aesthetician. But, as a practical matter, I find that after decades in the arts and media worlds I’ve developed some survival strategies. A few of them are useful (at least for me) in terms of avoiding dullness and unpleasantness in discussions about the arts. I’m sure you have many such too. What do you say we A) compare notes about these tricks, and B) Pass a few of them along? Hey, we're getting gray and grizzled; it’s time for us to enter our wise-and-tiresome phase.

So, in that wise-but-tiresome spirit, here’s the first such trick that occurs to me. Purely out of laziness, I'm going to assume that the reader in fact wants to avoid overfamiliar art quarrels. Given how ready to rumble many blogsurfers seem to be, that could be a mistake. Even so ...

Today’s 2Blowhards Artchat Tip for avoiding tedious arguments concerns the “greatness” question. Everyone has stumbled into this morass: “Elvis is greater than Mozart!” “Are you out of your mind?!!!” “But I really love his music. How can you say it isn’t great?” “And what right do you have to call it great anyway?” “Harold Bloom says it’s great, that’s who!” "Well, Greil Marcus blah blah." And then up pops the voice of the Predictable Radical: “Greatness is just a dead-white-male construct anyway...”

Snooze-ola. Spare me. Puh-leeze. I’m outta here.

But how to handle, and avoid, such moments? Here are my (possibly lame-o) tips and reflections.

First, remember that the fact that you love a given work doesn’t mean it’s great. Second, remember that the fact that a given work is great doesn’t mean you have to love it.

What is it about “great” anyway? If we’re talking about “great” in the sense of “it’s part of the canon,” this is simply a consensus opinion that has evolved over time. Lots of smart and informed people have agreed that this is the case -- which doesn’t mean that this opinion won’t slowly change with the passage of more time, or that there haven’t been dissenters. This is art, not science, as we’ve stressed on this blog several times. It’s an ongoing discussion, not a hard and firm body of objective knowledge. (And please, let’s for the moment overlook the fuzzy edges of science and the more intricate arguments about the philosophy of science. Art is simply softer than science.)

So is “greatness” in the arts meaningless, or completely subjective? And if so, why not just throw the category out? What’s the point of it anyway? Well, it’s certainly a judgment, and it’s certainly not science. But it’s objective in the sense that this evolved-consensus-opinion does exist. It’s an objective fact that lots of smart, informed people over time have indeed agreed on this judgment. That’s interesting. And perhaps more important than “interesting” is that it’s useful. As Denis Dutton, the editor of Arts and Letters Daily (and who is a professional philosopher of art, come to think of it), once said about the literary canon (I’m paraphrasing): It’s not (and shouldn’t be) an oppressive thing. It’s a reading list, a bunch of suggestions. After all, the library of all books ever written is mighty big, and we only have one lifetime. Where to start? And where to go? The canon can supply some useful guidance.

Exploring the various canons -- in music, art, lit, etc -- can also help anchor a person in the larger culture, much as knowing something about history can. What these lists represent is the culture passing itself along to itself. Putting aside for the moment all rhapsodizing about pleasure, bliss, englightenment, etc, it’s useful to know what Bach was up to, what Raphael did, how Homer sounds, etc. It’s useful because this work is some of the bricks and mortar of the culture you’re living in. It’s also useful in a personal-development way: read/listen/look at this stuff, and your brain, your emotions, and your senses are likely to open up and deepen. Your experience of life is likely to become more rich. You’ll be a little less of an idiot.

But are we obligated to love what has been deemed great? Absolutely not, no more than anyone or anybody has obligated you to, say, love Paris or Rome. Still, why not visit? Why not have that experience? But many people make the mistake of leaping from “I love it” to “It’s great” in the blink of an eye. This is understandable -- they’re both ways not just of saying something specific, but also of expressing a general enthusiasm. Nonetheless, doing so will tend to land you in hot and unpleasant waters. Say “It was great!” when what you really mean is “I loved it,” and someone might well respond, “Are you kidding? It’s not great!” Then you feel a little hurt and offended, and defensively/angrily say “Oh, yeah?” And pretty soon the two of you are saying “Sez who?” at each other -- when all you really wanted from the outset was a sympathetic and interested minute or two.

My trick for getting past this kind of pointless unpleasantness is to personalize my opinions and reactions: to say “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t enjoy it” rather than “It was great” or “It stunk.” Doing so makes it much less likely that dumb arguments will erupt -- after all, all you’re doing is informing people about your reaction. Who can argue with that? There is no higher authority than you on the topic of your own reactions. If you encounter someone who disputes your account of your own reaction -- as in, “No you did not love it” -- leave quickly. There are a handful of bossy and intrusive people who will dispute your account of your reactions. (Most of them live not far from me here in New York City, as far as I can tell.) I do my best to avoid having conversations with them -- some people are simply impossible.

But sometimes no matter how smooth or modest or canny you are, the “greatness” question keeps coming up. There are people who, bizarrely enough, like these discussions, and there are also people who like to come out gunning for a fight. When I can’t move such a discussion onto another topic, and when (for whatever reason) I can’t simply leave, I tend to find it easiest to deal with the topic this way: Greatness is a matter of objective fact, not of my opinion or your opinion. Ie., the consensus is that Raphael was one of the greats -- and the existence of this consensus is a genuinely objective fact. This requires a little reining-in of ego; I’m willing to accept the greatness of Raphael because, basically, I’m willing to agree that the issue is simply not in my hands. It’s not a matter that I can do anything about, so I hereby release my hold on the topic -- as if I ever did have such a hold. (Maybe the occasional relinquishing of ego isn’t such a bad exercise.)

The key thing, I find, is that there are two different topics here: Is it great? And how did I respond? One happy consequence of keeping this distinction ever in mind is it releases you to have your own responses. There is no reason on the face of the planet why you have to love everything that is great, or even like it much. I’d be a dumber person if I hadn’t tried Dostoevsky, for instance, though I’ve never enjoyed the experience much. But so what? It was worthwhile giving Dostoevsky a try, and it was also worthwhile puzzling out what I may be missing, as well as finding out what others do get out of his work.

Another consequence is that your list of personal favorites, of work and artists that move you most, doesn’t have to correspond to any canon. Much of the work that moves me most, for instance, is work that’s generally considered minor. Mahler puts me to sleep, I doubt that I’ll ever thrill to Racine. Yet I really, really love some Lubitsch, some J.R. Ackerly, some Christopher Isherwood. Is Lubistch as great as Mahler? Is Ackerly as great as Racine? (Probably not, but between you and me, who cares?) You can make these distinctions even on the level of greatness itself. JS Bach is one of the greats; so is the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. Still, few would disagree that Bach is greater. Yet Byrd’s music gets to me more than Bach’s does. Why would I bother disagreeing with the judgment that Bach is greater than Byrd? Do I really want to spend good time and energy quarreling with this kind of consensus opinion? Am I really one of those people who wants to remake art history in the image of my own tastes? Yet why would I deny that Byrd moves me more? To do so would be to do a disservice to my own experience.

I find the effort to maintain this distinction helpful and worthwhile. But it certainly doesn’t solve all problems. What can gum matters up? And what kinds of situations still turn into messes? I see two things. The first is the present tense. Present-day and very recent work has yet to be thoroughly sifted and sorted out. No matter what the critics, profs and editors want us to think, the greatness or not-greatness consensus judgment of work from recent eras and the present day has yet to be settled out. We’re wise to allow ourselves to disagree rather more with contempo judgments than we are with ancient judgments. I find this to be, in fact and to some extent, a moral obligation -- otherwise we’re simply letting profs, editors and critics make decisions for us.

Readers of this blog may have registered, for instance, that I think the generally-agreed-upon story of 20th century architecture is way too narrow. So I’m doing my meager best to open that story up a bit before it’s too late. Another for-instance: the critic/editor/prof class has by and large already settled on the judgment that Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie are two of the great writers of the present day. I couldn’t disagree more. I find that while Morrison’s writing sometimes has power, it’s generally like a professor’s idea of great literature. As for Rushdie, I find his novels almost unreadable. The sound of ego showing off overwhelms the fiction for me; I find his books to be more like sales pitches for great books than to be actual great books. Why shouldn’t I disagree with the profs and editors and critics about these judgments? I’m educated and experienced, my arguments aren’t half bad, I’m hoping my judgment will prevail or at least have an impact, and I’m willing to put a little effort into these battles.

This is the Crossfire, or professional-wrestling, side of talking about the present-day scene, which can be fun to take part in, although I’ve certainly burned up most of my appetite for it. But some good can come out of these discussions -- so far as I’m concerned, efforts always have to be made to disrupt the delusions and impositions of the present-day elites. But, even in the midst of these discussions, it can help keep you sane to remember that the greatness or not-greatness question isn’t going to resolved today. Chill, dudes and dudettes: no individual is likely to have all that much control over the eventual outcome anyway.

The other thing that I’ve found my keep-it-distinct approach doesn’t handle all that well is the existence of people who simply get off on arguments over rankings and greatness, and who insist on having such arguments. There seems to be a certain (thank heavens, rather small) percentage of arts buffs who take their opinions terribly, terribly seriously. I have some critic friends, for instance, who are like this. (It isn’t just the critic type, though; I also have critic friends for whom having and expressing an opinion is simply part of the job description, and a way to initiate a good discussion.) Around these my-opinion-must-prevail people, I mostly resort to taking a lot of deep breaths, and to trying to find the fact of this person’s opinion interesting in its own right. When opportunity presents itself, I scramble to change the topic. Have you come up with a better way to handle these moments?

A summary version of all this:

  • Personalize responses whenever possible. Say “I loved it,” not “It was great.”
  • When the topic of the greatness or not-greatness of a given work does come up, put your own opinion on hold and treat the topic as far as you can as a matter of objective fact. Leonardo? Of course he’s great -- but not because you think so. He’s great because history, for want of a better word, has decided that he’s great. His greatness or not-greatness is none of your business. If your interlocutor wants to dispute Raphael’s greatness and can’t be deterred, do your best to find what he says interesting, and give him some acknowledgment that you’re giving his argument some consideration. Then shift the subject.
  • Enter into discussions about the ranking of contempo work only when you’re in the mood, and do so consciously and warily. Be well-prepared and ready for battle, because things are very likely to become explosive. Once they’re underway, there’s usually no turning back, though you still might be able to minimize the wear and tear by personalizing and objectifying. Keep trying phrases like “Well, it’s interesting that you find that to be the case. I see these things differently.” Keep introducing elements of courtesy. Even if your conversation-partners are determined to be unpleasantly aggressive, making the effort to introduce shows of courtesy can give you a calmer place to work from.

As for myself these days, I by and large simply dodge the “greatness” and “ranking” arguments. It’s out of my hands, and other discussions interest me more. I’m more interested in such topics as, How did you respond? What moved or touched you? What did you notice about the work, about how it’s put together, how it works, and what it reflects? I find that when an arts conversation heads off in these directions, there's a good chance mysterious and wonderful doors will start to swing open. Pretty soon, you can be watching the clouds go by, talking about life and art more generally, enjoying the mystery and vastness of it all, and in touch in an almost tactile way with that thing that's always there waiting for us but that no one’s ever come up with a good name for -- the life force, maybe, or or the pulse of it all, or the tao.

I marvel that some people choose to avoid making contact with this hard-to-name thing, because for me what's great about the arts is that they provide innumerable occasions for finding my way to it. I wouldn’t be an arts buff if they didn’t. But this may just be me. I enjoy art best as exploration and adventure, as an occasion for seeing what’s out there -- and then, later, as an occasion for reflection and comparing notes. The discussion can and should be part of the ongoing experience, but first the discussion has to happen.

Very interested to hear about ways you’ve developed that can help swing some of these doors open.



posted by Michael at January 21, 2003


"There are a handful of bossy and intrusive people who will dispute your account of your reactions. (Most of them live not far from me here in New York City, as far as I can tell.)"

If only such people were contained - in what I believe are the words of Super Chicken: "They're everywhere! They're everywhere!"

You make excellent points (and helpfully note that some art twits will be impervious to your trademark Blowhard argument-avoidance tactics).

Perhaps you have this planned for the next set of tips, or maybe you assume it would be assumed, but I do think, when one is dragged into chat about canon, it's helpful to discuss whether or not the work in question either marks a turning point or at least represents and early and widely accepted example of a "new" thing.

Additionally, for some horrible reason, I often finding myself explaining to people who went to school for years and years that what they imagine to be a revolutionary cunning device in some new book/movie/play/comic monolog is in fact no more original than the "boy meets girl" plot. Seems that dismissing the idea of a canon has led to widespread ignorance.

And speaking of being new and different, why are people so invested in the idea that their pet artists are completely original?

Posted by: j.c. on January 21, 2003 06:28 PM

My response to the whole issue of greatness is not unlike yours, except where you personalise your own response, I personalise the critic's. I don't think such things as eternal objective standards hold true and the best you can manage is a consensus arising from discourse around a given topic. I've always been of the opinion that any aesthetic statement must be subjective. For, say, F.R. Leavis to say "Dickens is a great author" means precisely no more and no less than "F.R. Leavis considers Dickens to be a great author", and I think critics who do consider their value judgements to be objective statements are practising a form of intellectual dishonesty. They can perhaps describe how a work of act affects others, but they can't judge it except in the way it affects them in particular.

Posted by: James Russell on January 22, 2003 12:47 AM

I've found this works:

Follow a positive statement about the piece with a beaming smile.

Follow a negative statement with a burlesque belch.

Of course, neither of these work on the web.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 22, 2003 12:22 PM

Um, I didn't mean for my attempt at levity to be a comment killer...


Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 22, 2003 03:24 PM

[*beaming smile*]

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 22, 2003 04:10 PM

Note to self:
Cut back on number of cups of "English Breakfast" in the morning.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 22, 2003 04:11 PM

Sorry, Yahm -- I was at work all day. I want to know how to do the spontaneous burlesque belch. That would help me in more than just this situation. Email instructions at the address below.

Heh, heh...

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 22, 2003 07:43 PM

Hi J.C. -- Always great to meet another Super Chicken fan! Like you, I'm amazed how little background in the arts kids coming out of fancy schools have these days. They're happy, peppy, attractive, competent in some shallow sense, and know nuttin' about nuttin' -- perfect corporate-America cannon-fodder, as far as I can tell. In some q&a, the movie director Bernardo Bertolucci talked about how young audiences today seem to live in an "eternal present." Everything to them is just one new sensation after another, with nothing that extends back into history or art history -- not even movie history. You write also that "when one is dragged into chat about canon, it's helpful to discuss whether or not the work in question either marks a turning point or at least represents and early and widely accepted example of a new thing." I don't seem to run into this particular quandary, so I'm curious about your experiences here. Can you tell us more about the kinds of art-discussion situations you're referring to?

Hi James, I'm basically with you. "Greatness" emerges over time, out of zillions of different conversations and experiences, none of them under any one individual's control. If what Leavis means when he says a book is great is something like "This book has come over the centuries to be considered great," then he's being helpful -- perhaps I didn't have that information before, and now I do. If he means, "I think this book is great," I don't have any problem with that either -- that's his opinion. If, as you say, what he means is "This book is great because I have the authority to proclaim it great, and I do hereby do so," then, sheesh, let's have a giggle at his expense.

I do reserve one exception, and I'm curious if you do too. There are writers/critics/opinionators who are provocateurs. They make judgment-assertions deliberately to provoke controversy and argument, to stir up the pot. Sometimes this strikes me as an annoying pain, but sometimes I'm amused, or I find it helpful or useful. Why not get people a little riled up? Although, and maybe this is age speaking, 3 out of 4 times I'd rather not get riled up, thank you very much. But how do you feel about provocation? Useful? Sometimes? Ever?

Yahmdallah opens up a chest full of responses to boring art conversations that lugubrious, over-earnest me hadn't even thought of, namely funny ones, rude ones, outrageous ones. Better strategies than any I've come up with, and which I'll do my best to start putting to use. And why do I suspect that Scott Chaffin, The Fat Guy himself, is a master of these tactics?

Sorry about the length of this post, by the way. I promise to cut back on the English Breakfast myself.

Thanks to all for visiting and commenting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2003 12:33 AM

I thought I was the only surviving fan of Super Chicken. Maybe that's because everytime I use the classic line: "They're everywhere! They're everywhere!" I have to explain it to my youthful employees. I may have to start up an age discriminitation policy (in favor of old fogies) just to save time on these cultural matters.

Posted by: Friedrich Von Blowhard on January 23, 2003 11:18 AM

Clearly, Super Chicken has greatness.

However, I should point out that I do not have first-hand knowledge of Super Chicken, or WWII, or early pottery glazing techniques. I learned of these things through the magic of reading.

The kinds of art-discussion situations I refer to:

At a lively gallery opening or swank fundraiser, I find myself engaged in conversation with the Product of an Allegedly-Good School. When I suggest that artist X seems to draw on the traditions of Y and was clearly influenced by Z, the Product cheerfully and confidently dismisses Y and Z because those old relics are merely the work of a dead white male, or products of the patriarchy, or some such. The Product continues to insist that X is revolutionary and visionary. Ironically, Products of Allegedly-Good Schools are down-right smug about dismissing a long chain of related events when defending X's originality, yet also constantly harp about the many clever ways that X contributes to the arts by subverting the long chain of related events. My mind has a hard time stretching wide enough to find examples while I'm typing in this narrow box...

My bitchy questions range from "if that is irrelevant, then how does this symbol come to have meaning" to "is there still huge line at the bar?" Or perhaps, "Because we know Picasso collected and studied African masks, it seems unlikely that similarities between some of his faces and the faces of African masks prove some cheap-jack Jungian point you'd like to make."

And don't get me started on crap that is less than derivative.

Posted by: j.c. on January 23, 2003 01:02 PM

Viz provocation: sometimes I enjoy seeing the pot stirred, sometimes I enjoy stirring the pot (way, way less than I used to for both cases). My reaction depends mostly on the provocateur, and their tone. I love learning, but I hate being lectured. Like most humans, though, I can get in the pulpit under the right (wrong?) circumstances. I bet this is true for most.

Viva El Pollo Estupendo!

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 23, 2003 01:47 PM

Provocateurs have their place; the problem (at least sometimes) is determining just how serious a given provocateur is, i.e. whether or not they actually believe what they're saying. I suspect most people trying to make some "controversial" judgement do so because they're pathetic attention seekers, and you can usually tell because there's something desperate about them and their statements are patently untrue (e.g. "Oasis are a more innovative band than the Beatles"). It's when you get ones that look serious that the problem arises; that's when you have to judge if they are serious and if so, should you treat them seriously or not (e.g. David Icke is serious when he says the British royal family are reptilian beings from another world, which is not to say the rest of us need to agree).

Posted by: James Russell on January 24, 2003 05:13 AM

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