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November 22, 2002


Friedrich --

Remember my small campaign to avoid using the word "liberal" to describe leftists (who, in my experience, are anything but liberal)? Let's call them "leftists" instead. Well, I've got another one to propose.

"Modern art," "modern architecture," "modern poetry" ... Hmmmm. That word "modern" is a problem. Why? Because it does several things that demand to be untangled.

I'm proposing (and hereby resolving, if only for myself) using the word "modernist" instead of "modern" in these cases. Why? Because so-called "modern art" is really nothing but one strain and tradition in recent and contemporary art. Many different kinds of art have been produced in recent years, and are being produced now -- marine watercolors, for instance, and paintings-on-black-velvet, and surfboard decoration, and cowboy art. Some of it's good, and many of the artists producing this kind of work have their talents and skills.

Yet they aren't taken seriously, or (often) even thought of as doing real art. Why not? Well, partly because the "modern art" (and "postmodern art") mafia makes the claim that the only real art of our time is art done in their own particular "modern" or "postmodern" tradition. The terminology allows them to look down their noses at all the other art that's being produced, and even to dismiss it as not-art. Because painters of hunting scenes, for instance, aren't grappling with the "formal issues" supposedly demanded by the nature of our time (said nature as defined, of course, by members of the "modern" mafia), they aren't serious, they aren't deep -- they aren't really doing art with a capital A.

Why let them get away with this?

One way, I propose, of combating the tyrrany of the modern-postmodern mafia is to insist on referring to their art tradition as "modernist" and "post-modernist." If we do so, we'll succeed in implying that their tradition is simply one of many. We'll undermine their claims to be the ultimate authority on things artistic.

An example: "modern architecture" -- what a brilliant p-r victory to have claimed that name. It has many people believing that the only legitimate new (or newish) architecture -- the only buildings that qualify as architecture -- are shiney, abstract things (or, these days, jagged and bewildering things). Yet most people don't like these buildings, and many many other kinds of buildings are being built -- and, of course, not considered to be legitimate architecture by the mafia. Call the mafia's work "modernist architecture" (or "postmodernist architecture") instead, and it's clear that there are alternatives. "No, dear, I'm not in the mood for postmodernist, I'd prefer something a little more Adirondack cabin-ish instead."

Using modernist instead of modern will open up minds, if only in a small way. Besides, I'm offended from a purely language-buff point of view. Any art produced now is modern art by definition. Anything built now is modern architecture. Any poem written today is modern poetry. None of them, though, have to be modernist. Which style to use (let alone to prefer) is always a choice.

Interested in getting on board? I'm bouncing off of your recent reflections on the "Art in 1900" show (as well as stealing outright, I think, from the thinking of the great Leon Krier, about whom more can be read here), so I can't see how you can refuse.



posted by Michael at November 22, 2002


I like your idea, but perhaps it doesn't go far enough. The term "modern art" actually refers to everything done in the 20th century. Ever have a class on Modern Art? It starts with Impressionism, so you see where that's going. I like "modernist" because it implies a specific kind of modern art, one more closely related to the art of the 60's. But there you have a coneption that's a bit too narrow. Modern Art has become an empty term that doesn't mean the same kind of thing that Renaissance Art or Medieval Art mean, and Modernist doesn't address that. Post Modern becomes more accurate when you are discussing contemporary art, but where are we going to go after that? Post-post-modern? We really need to some up with some terms that leave "modern" out of it all together.

Posted by: Alexandra on November 22, 2002 11:40 AM

Hi Alexandra --

Thanks for stopping by.

My ultimate goal (shhhh! don't want to give this away too cheaply)is to crack open the prof-grants-foundations-museum lock on the definition of what's art. As an art critic friend likes to say, There isn't one art world out there, there are many art worlds. Magazine design, whirling TV graphics, dog paintings, fashion photography, etc etc. So why should we allow the grant-foundation-academic art world (only one of these many art worlds) to define much of anything?

Even "postmodern" is misleading. It seems to imply "anything goes, the modern-art tradition is over, the field is wide open" but it doesn't really, at least not in my experience. It's really a continuation or extension of modernism --same people, peddling a rather baroque and over-decorated version of what they used to peddle.

There's a big diff between a "postmodern" building that references classical elements, for instance, and a brand-new building in the classical tradition. The latter doesn't really qualify as postmodern -- ergo, the "anything goes" implication of "postmodern" isn't really true. The first building is a new building in the postmodern style, the second is a new building in the classical style.

So "postmodern" makes me as unhappy as "modern." "Postmodernist" and "modernist" I can live with.

But all improvements are welcome! I'd love to see you take it further. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 11:50 AM

Oh, and actually I'd dispute your claim that "modern art" refers to everything done in the 20th century. It refers to certain art done in the 20th century. I don't think anyone would call a straightforward watercolor of a hound pointing at a duck a work of "modern art." Yet, if it was painted in 1990, it was indeed a work of the modern age.

My contention is that using the word "modernist" instead of "modern" makes that clearer -- that there was, in the 20th century, work done in the "modernist" vein, as well as much work done that wasn't in the modernist vein.

Same holds for "postmodern." There's much being done today (supposedly the "postmodern" era) that it makes no sense to describe as "postmodern." In architecture, for instance: log cabins, new Victorians, the classical revival, Christopher Alexander-derived buildings. None of them have a thing to do with what it would please Herbert Muschamp to think of as architecture, let alone "postmodern" (Hadid, Moneo, etc) architecture.

But I rant, as I'm prone to...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 11:56 AM

Ah, wasn't it great when artists named their own movements? My favourite name (although, you'll probably be able to guess by now, not my favourite movement) was the Pre-Raphaelites, just because they were so hilariously and deliberately anachronistic. I think "neo-conceptualist" is a useful label to apply to a lot of prof-grants-foundations-museum work, and it's certainly a lot easier to understand what it means, at least compared to the vague hand-waving of "modernist" and "post-modernist".

(FWIW, my distinction between post-modern and post-modernist is the same as my distinction between Argentine and Argentinian: the latter is a person.)

I'm with you on the art, but I'm not sure I'm with you on the architecture, at least not unless and until you can give me a few examples of good contemporary non-modernist buildings. Maybe this new dorm which Meg Whitman is paying for at Princeton?

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 22, 2002 12:15 PM

Ah, there's your examples. (I was drafting my piece as you were posting yours.) I shall go look them up when I have a minute, although names of specific architects and/or buildings would be nice. "New Victorians" -- sounds horrible, but I'll wait till I see it... Surely if one was looking for an architect in the tradition of Roebling, one would look to, say, Calatrava rather than a pasticheur making bridges out of stone...

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 22, 2002 12:19 PM

Hey Felix,

Well, the point of my little campaign is actually to try to get the conversation away from value judgments for a few moments. "What's good" isn't the same question as "what kind of thing is it," and while I enjoy comparing opinions about quality, questions of terminology and typology seem to be what interest me more these middle-aged days.

Who's to say, really, whether or not a building is good? You have your opinion, I have mine, Herbert Muschamp has his, and history will come to its own conclusions and then probably change its mind.

It's fun to butt heads. But basing definitions on quality judgments, especially those made in the heat of the present moment, can create bewilderment and confusion. And definitions are what interest me: nailing down what a building is -- in what tradition it's been designed and made, using which approaches, with what variations, etc -- can be really pleasing and useful.

For instance, there are better and worse deconstructivist buildings; there are better and worse new-classicist buildings. Sure. But it's possible to get away from the better-or-worse discussion, and to take a moment to recognize that deconstructivism and new-classicism are both happenin' things right now. I approve or disapprove -- who cares? It's a fact, and the fact is what interests me to take note of.

Part of what I'm proposing (in what I hope is a pitch-perfect, impish-yet-perfectly-serious tone)is 1) that it makes no sense to consider a new Hadid and a new Porphyrios both to be "postmodern" except in the most wildly overgeneral (and thus unenlightening) way, and that 2) both are legitimate (in the sense of representing a genuinely-happening-thing) examples of present-day architecture.

Thus, there's postmodernist archtitecture and new-classical architecture (and much else), all of it being done (in this case by perfectly serious, talented and committed artists) in the present day. Which I'm going to avoid calling the postmodern era.

All that, independent of quality judgments.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 12:56 PM

Hey, I'm on board. And we can handle Felix's niggling complaint about a modernist being a person; we'll coin another term, modernista, to signify those guys.

Back in art school, by the way, they used the term "Modern Art" as a tag for a period art movement running from roughly 1860 to WWII; anything postwar was referred to as "Contemporary Art." Of course, I'm not sure the word ever got through to the man on the street.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 22, 2002 1:55 PM

Modernista -- I like it! And why not Postmodernista, and maybe Contemporaryista, too.

Alexandra? Felix? Can you go along with this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 2:11 PM

I'm on board too. "Modernist" it is.

BTW, there are all sorts of narrow little art worlds out there, with serious limitations on what the artists are "allowed" to do. You are talking about "fine art," the university educated artists. They can't paint pictures of hounds pointing at ducks. (to use your example) Nice little landscapes and portraits or still-lifes that actually look like their subject are taboo.

On the other hand, have you ever been to a country arts and crafts fair? That's where you'll find the hunting pictures and nice little landscapes and photo-perfect still-lifes. If a regular joe without a degree from an ivy league university wants to take up painting, the arts and crafts fair is where he goes to show and sell his work.

But what if the regular joe just happens to like doing abstract art? He can't show his work at a modern art gallery because he hasn't been to the right university to learn the "right" way to slather and splatter paint on a canvas. He probably could take his work to the arts and crafts fair but it would only be the object of ridicule. It would be as out of place there as the painting of a hound pointing at a duck would be at the Hirshhorn.

Posted by: Lynn on November 22, 2002 2:17 PM

Lynn makes excellent points -- there's all kinds of arts around, every which way you look, each with its own set of understanadings and conventions.

No reason, by the way, for a given arts fan not to pick and choose and put it together for him/herself in his/her own way. A hunting painting here, a bit of neoconceptual something there...

I suspect many people listen to music that way already -- I'm currently playing and re-playing Count Basie, Dwight Yoakam, and Purcell, for instance. I wonder why more people aren't as open-minded about the visual arts. Insecurity about "what's good" and "what's bad"?

Thoughts, anyone?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 2:22 PM

Sure, I'm cool with modernist. (Just don't ask me to sign on to leftist, as well: as far as I'm concerned leftist is a well-defined term which would apply only to a tiny minority of liberals in the US. To be a leftist, you need to be avowedly socialist, believe in the redistribution of wealth, and identify with the masses rather than the oligarchs. Leftists are doing well in Latin America right now -- see Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Gutierrez in Ecuador. I don't see very many people like that in US politics.)

As for the mix'n'match attitude to the arts, I think that's becoming more common these days. I have both Britney Spears and Dmitri Shostakovich on my iPod, for instance. It's part of the post-ironic sensibility, the idea that you can enjoy well-crafted pop music without having to feel superior to it at the same time. And I genuinely admire Die Hard as one of the great films of the 80s.

Architecture's a different kettle of fish, though. You say in your post that "most people don't like these buildings", referring to shiny spiky things. But I'd hazard that insofar as that's true, most people don't like any new buildings, no matter what vernacular they might be using. We all hate those $5 million McMansions in Great Neck, for instance, while I think New Yorkers actually really love the new Hayden Planetarium. Look at the way Parisians have taken to the Pompidou Center, or Londoners to the Tate Modern (and its not-wobbly-any-more bridge). Or I'll bring up Santiago Calatrava again: everybody loves his stuff.

Are there bad modernist buildings going up? Of course: the new Bear Stearns headquarters, for instance. But how do they compare with the old modernist buildings which went up in the 60s and 70s? (Chase Manhattan Plaza, say, downtown.) No comparison, the new buildings are much better. The new buildings going up in Times Square are generally pretty good, I think. Think of airport terminals, which used to be the most gruesome places on earth, but which now tend to be very light, airy and almost pleasant.

The general quality of (modernist) architecture is improving, to the point where I really don't think that "most people" would prefer something in the classical tradition. There's something really quite ludicrous about Doric columns on a brand-new building, especially when they're earnest rather than pomo. While it might not be as offensive as an in-your-face modernist nightmare, I would hope that we all have higher aspirations for architecture than simply not offending people. That's why I asked for good examples: when people (you, me, the general public, whoever) start getting really excited about non-modernist architecture, then we can set up an opposition and have a debate. But so long as all the best contemporary buildings remain in the modernist tradition (using any criterion of quality you want, including popularity), the fact that there are people fiddling around with Victorianism doesn't really matter to me.

There are alternatives to modernist art, you're right. At the extreme non-modernist end of the spectrum we have the most successful artist in the world (I think), Thomas Kinkade. I find his popularity fascinating. But the most popular architects in the world are all working within the modernist tradition, so I really deny your implied distinction between what Muschamp likes and what real people like. (Whether real people like Muschamp, of course, is another question entirely.)

Slowly coming around to modernista...

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 22, 2002 4:59 PM

But Felix, you're far too bright and irreverent not to realize that the list from which you're drawing your "most popular architects in the world" was put together by the high-end (modernist and postmodernist) architectural establishment itself. Why grant them that kind of sway over your thinking and responses? There's a great big world of designing and building going on that they would have you look down your nose at. I'm surprised you're willing to stand for that kind of snobbery.

If you like radical-chic modernist/postmodernist work, fine. I like some of it myself. But popularity? I doubt very seriously whether Calatrava, Hadid, etc., have built a thousandth the buildings that have been designed and built by the people behind condo farms, suburban housing tracts, and the Great Neck McMansions "we" (we who?) all supposedly hate, few of which are remotely modernist, and nearly all of which rely heavily on traditional ideas of beauty and form, however ineptly in many cases.

I marvel too at your assertion that there's something "ludicrous" about Doric columns on a new building. To you, perhaps. But nearly every new middle-class-and-ritzier home in the South, for example, features columns, and proudly so. Ludicrous? Oh, well, if you insist.... But now we're no longer in the realm of fact, but of taste. These are people freely expressing their preferences and tastes -- and outnumbering the Calatrava fans by a wee bit, I'd guess.

The art-and-architecture departments and publications don't want you to know it, but there are thousands of designers, builders, and architects servicing the desires and tastes of customers (as well as expressing their own talents) all over the country -- and few of them are working in a modernist (or postmodernist, except by a ludicrous stretch) vein. You may hate their work, or want to deride it, it may violate everything you personally hold dear about building. But that doesn't mean that the architects aren't architects, and that the buildings aren't being built.

The architecture establishment also isn't eager for you to know about the high-end, unapologetically over-qualified architects and builders who are having quite a success these days building in traditional (vernacular and classical) styles. Again, I don't think this depends (or should depend) on whether you or I can get excited about this work. It's quite the flourishing new micro-market -- and I don't think you'll find people like Leon Krier, Andres Duany, Dmitri Porphyrios and Thomas Gordon Smith to be contemptible idiots. They're at least as bright as the crew that the foundations, professors and editors are so fond of, and their arrival on the scene is comparable to the arrival on the jazz scene of Wynton Marsalis. I'd be happy to pass along some links and book recommendations, if you're interested.

The architecture esablishment's response to this fact is to label this work not-architecture. (If you'll recall, the first reaction of the avant-garde jazz establishment to Marsalis' new traditionalist approach was to claim that what he was playing wasn't really jazz.) The profs and administrators wave their little we-get-to-define-what's-art wand, and Poof, it's supposed to be gone. Again, I'm not sure why we should grant them art-police powers. It would be like permitting Harvard English profs to define what qualifies as poetry, or allowing the New York Times to define what's literature and what's not. They're certainly entitled to their opinions and contributions. But this is art, not science, and the experts don't always get to have the last word.

You're willing, I notice, to allow that pop music (and presumably folk music) is as much music as, say, Wagner is. Why not allow that pop architecture (and folk architecture, and traditionalist architecture) -- diners, shopping malls, new Southern homesteads, McMansions -- is architecture too?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 6:38 PM

I'm not quite ready to give up the notion that Wagner is superior to Britney Spears.... and I don't even particularly like Wagner.

Posted by: Lynn on November 23, 2002 9:00 AM

One of the best putdowns of the concept of modernism and 'uniquely modern art' came from Jorge Luis Borges who noted in one of his prefaces: "Around 1905, the critic Hermann Bahr decided: 'The one duty - to be modern.' Some twenty years later I too took upon myself that quite superfluous obligation. To be modern is to be a contemporary, to be of the present. This is a fate we cannot avoid. Nobody - apart from a certain adventurer dreamed up by Wells - has discovered the art of living in the future or the past. There is no book which is not of its time; the painstaking historical novel Salammbo, whose characters are mercenaries during the Punic Wars, is a typical nineteenth-century French novel. The one thing we know for sure about Carthaginian literature, which may have been very rich, is that it could not have had a book like Flaubert's."

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller on November 23, 2002 9:13 AM

Fascinating discussion, as always.

Another take on the modern/post-modern/etc nomenclature:

In chess, those early twentieth century theorists (Aaron Nimzovitch being the most known) who rejected most of the Classical values and beliefs (controlling the center of the board is imperative, etc.) referred to themselves as the Hypermodernists.

Yes, chess, too, has its Romantic, Classic and Hypermodern periods. Because chess is a game (and a very technical/mechanical one at that), it puts "grand theories" to empirical tests that most art is immune to, of course. By the middle of last century, the Hypermodernists were partially discredited, with the good parts of their theories synthesized back into the cannon of Classical ideas over the rest of the century.

What we have today cannot be called Classical, and it is certainly not Hypermodern. Anthony Said in his book, The March of Chess Ideas spoke of a "new dynamism", though by that he meant more a synthesis of technical vs. creative approaches to the game, rather than a synthesis of Hypermodern and Classical theories and styles of play.

(Note: I'm not one of the fanatics who insists chess is Art—which is not to say I'm planted in the chess-as-sport or chess-as-science camps, either. Chess is a game. I'm straight on that. I do believe, though, that it has very strong elements of art to it, though they are a subspecies of art that require a lot of specialized knowledge to appreciate.)

Posted by: Mac on November 23, 2002 12:05 PM

The conversation rocks on -- what fun. Many thanks to Cinderella Bloggerfella for the wonderful Borges quote -- CB runs a terrific blog, too. Lynn recently posted a fun and helpful top-ten list of classical music pieces over at her blog, well worth checking out. And Mac's ruminations about games and art, Classical and Modern styles deserves multiple blog postings of its own.

What I'm going to focus on right now is one little aspect of what's come up in these comments. It's this: that in thinking and talking about the arts, people often scramble two modes.

People often scramble many modes, of course, but I'm interested for the moment in just two. The first is the discussion about personal responses and quality judgments. The second mode is a more objective discussion, and consists of establishing (and arguing over) definitions. It's about descriptions and categories.

Do the edges of these discussions bleed into each other? Sure. But it can still be very useful to consider them as separate things. Why? Because people leap from one to the other without taking note that they're doing so. This is usually harmless, but (grizzled vet of 25 years in the arts-and-media-life speaking here) can also result surprisingly often in misunderstandings, hurt feelings, confusion, and anger. Friendships and even marriages have been known to break up over these confusions and misunderstandings. So it's worth making the effort to unscramble these things.

The first discussion -- "is it any good or not" -- is probably the more familiar one. It's lotsa fun, it's easy, it brings back good memories of being overcaffeinated (or overboozed) during undergrad years. And personal responses, as well as judgment calls, are an important and unavoidable part of the arts-and-culture life. Comparing reactions after watching a movie, for example, isn't just a frill; it's a fun and necessary part of the process of experiencing a movie.

The other discussion, the one about categories, descriptions, and definitions, is harder for many people to seize hold of. It takes a little knowledge, education and experience, for one thing -- but 2blowhards readers clearly have all that.

What can make it hard to grasp is that it requires you to call your knowledge and experience into play without letting matters of personal taste intrude. You take part in this discussion almost as a scientist, or an anthropologist, or as Mr. Spock. "What is this?" is the question always being asked. "What are we talking about here?"

Lynn raises a good example: Wagner vs. Britney Spears. She, sensibly, thinks Wagner's music is better than Britney's. Most people would agree -- so the judgment becomes, in a way, objective. Even so, that's an example of the discussion about quality.

If we were to have the other kind of discussion about Wagner and Britney, how might it go? It might begin like this: Hmmm. Category for both of them: Music. Subcategory for Britney: teenyporn pop. Subcategory for Wagner: late romantic western classical. Ie., they both make something we refer to as music, but they make different kinds of music.

And on and on. These categories and definitions can certainly be debated -- that's part of the fun of this mode of discussion. But, in this discussion, questions of quality are deliberately put on hold.

A helpful way of picturing this mode is to imagine being a Martian arriving on Earth. You have none of what earthlings refer to as taste, and no knowledge of our traditions and conventions. But you set about trying to understand what's what.

At first, naturally, you make very general categories. Perhaps you notice some sounds coming out of a TV; perhaps you also notice sounds coming from someone playing the piano. It occurs to you: hmmm, sound! You notice that both sound-events display a use of rhythm, of structured note-assemblies, and principles of sonic organization. Hmmm, they're both music! You notice that people attend to the TV sounds only semi-attentively, and that the same images appear on the TV whenever the TV music is playing. You notice on the other hand that people sit attentively and quietly and pay rapt attention when the piano music is being performed. Hmmmm: two different kinds of performance gestalts!

Eventually, the Martian might come around to understanding that the noise he's encountered coming from the TV might be well-described as potato-chip-ad-jingle-music, and that the noise he's encountered coming from the pianist imight be called Bach-Goldberg-Variations-music. He might get to this point or even further in his understanding of what these sound-events are -- yet still be unable to know which is better, simply because he has no taste. Music doesn't mean anything to him sensually, aesthetically, or artistically. He doesn't, and can't, care on that level; he only cares on the level of making sense out of the phenomena he's encountering. He's simply trying to make progress with categories, definitions and understanding.

That's how the second mode of discussion and understanding works. It seems to me that the reason Felix and I are butting heads -- enjoyably so, at least as far as I'm concerned -- is that we're scrambling modes and talking at cross-purposes. Felix, I think, sees architecture as a matter of judgment; it isn't architecture if it isn't good. (Ie., the quality defines the category.) I'm trying, perhaps ineffectually, to speak more descriptively and "objectively"; ie., an architect designed it, someone built it, thus it's architecture. (Ie., no opinion about quality, just a fact of existence.) We're talking over each other -- a common arts-conversation predicament. We're having ourselves a big tug of war.

If I were to yield and let the opinion-discussion rip, we might have a conversation that goes like this:
Felix: "Hey, that Calatrava stadium at Princeton really rocks!"
Michael: "Yo, it's like nothin', man, compared to Seaside!"

Well, not really, but kinda sorta.

If Felix were to yield and let the defining-categories discussion rip, the conversation might go this way:
Michael: "Interesting, the way Hispanic-derived central courtyards are suddenly a big deal in budget hotels."
Felix: "Hmm, the tiles on the arches suggest more of a Moroccan influence to me. And it's interesting too the way the materials they're using show the influence of the IMac."

Well... but kinda sorta.

My more general point is that, while these are two very different discussions, they're both about architecture. They can both be useful, and they can both be a gas.

In actual conversation, of course, all of us scramble these modes (and more) all the time, darting into first one and then the other as the moment moves us. And we all also have temperamental preferences and leanings. Felix, for example, is a brainy, well-educated young hothead who enjoys, among other things, asserting opinions; in his discussions of the arts, he moves like a fencer. Friedrich and I here at 2blowhards are grumpy, defeated old farts, more prone to leaning wearily back in our Barcaloungers than to brandishing our rusty old swords. In our discussions about the arts, we're more drawn to making distinctions and reflecting on experience. Both approaches can make real contributions -- or so we Blowhardys hope...

The way the personal (ie., the emotional, the temperamental, the erotic) and the objective (ie., matters of knowledge, reason, and fact) tend to scramble in the arts is something that drives certain people insane -- they just can't stand the arts because of it. It all so gooey ... the ground is never stable ... They feel like they're wasting all their energy arguing with a demented, irrational person. But the way these two modes scramble is for other people one of the big attractions of the arts. It feels like a field where all aspects of oneself can come into play.

But it can also lead to confusion, so the occasional session spent sifting and sorting can be very useful, as well as enjoyable. My impish suggestion to use the word "modernist" instead of "modern" to describe a certain kind of recent-ish art was an attempt to do a little such sifting and sorting.

It's part of what's great about being involved in the arts that such an insignificant suggestion can set off such an entertaining and enlightening cascade of observations, reflections, misgivings, and opinions.

Many thanks to all.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 23, 2002 2:00 PM

Michael, thank you so much for all your lovely compliments... I'm enjoying this too, although I think I do grasp your ontology/quality distinction a little bit better than you think I do.

One distinction I think worth making, which could clear up a lot of the dissonance: between architects and architecture. Most people, when the category "architecture" is brought up, immediately think of signature buildings by big-name architects, whether it's Christopher Wren or Zaha Hadid. They might not even know who the architect is, but they know when they see (say) the Hayden Planetarium that it's Architecture with a capital A.

You, on the other hand, make the excellent point that every suburban housing tract and Great Neck McMansion, however derivative or uninspired, was at some point designed by an architect. And that although developers place a lot of restrictions on those architects in order to keep building costs to a minimum, most of the restrictions are actually to keep the buildings as desirable as possible. People, when they're shopping for a home, like something homely, not something challenging or interesting. To a large extent, then, the cookie-cutter buildings one sees sprawling endlessly across Orange County or the Atlanta suburbs do reflect contemporary taste. (But cookie-cutter they are: many of those tracts consist of only six or seven different designs. Their architects might have built more buildings, but they haven't necessarily designed more buildings than, say, Calatrava.) I guess that's what I forgot when I said that there wasn't an architectural equivalent to Thomas Kinkade: there is, there just isn't a brand-name individual architect behind it.

So I will admit that my claim that the most popular architects are modernists was a little disingenuous. The most popular architects are modernists just because pretty much all architects -- the ones who get media coverage, at least -- are modernists. But that doesn't mean that the most popular architecture is modernist.

What I don't see is a real Wynton Marsalis (or even Thomas Kinkade) of the architectural world: someone who designs big public buildings, which become very popular, in a non-modernist style. If the general public can take, say, the Guggenheim Bilbao to its collective heart, why can't the same thing happen with something a bit more old-fashioned? In fact, right here in New York, a huge non-modernist architectural project is going on as we conduct this debate. I'm talking about the Cathedral of St John the Divine: the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, I believe, and an architectural project which is due to finish some time in the next century. Stone carvers have been brought in from Italy to train up a whole new generation of artisans; the highest standards in classical architecture and art have been applied throughout. And yet, architecturally, the cathedral hasn't even entered the top-10 list of New York landmarks. When people visit, they desperately want to see the Woolworth, Flatiron, Empire State and Chrysler buildings; they make pilgrimages to the Guggenheim; they might even take a tour of the UN. But if they want to see a cathedral, it's St Patrick's they generally go to.

Here's another way of looking at it. People who like Marsalis or Kinkade or Spears like their work qua jazz, fine art, and music. People who like their new suburban 4-bedroom tract house like it qua house, but not necessarily qua architecture. (Ask them what jazz/fine art/music they like, they'll say Marsalis, Kinkade, Spears. Ask them what architecture they like, they won't say "home", they'll say "The White House", or whatever.) Maybe they've just been brainwashed by the Architectural Establishment -- but in that case, how did they avoid brainwashing by the Art and Jazz establishments? So in the venerable tradition of Meaning Is Use, I think I'm still minded to consider architecture no more than a subset of all construction activity.

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 23, 2002 5:35 PM

Hey Felix,

I'd contend that the regular people you're referring to -- the ones to whom it hasn't yet occurred that the house they live in is a work of architecture -- have indeed been brainwashed by the architecture establishment. You might contend otherwise.

As you note, while walls of snobbery have come tumbling down in such fields as music, they have yet to in architecture. Why? It looked for a few years in the late'-80s, early-'90s as though the academic-foundation drones were about to lose their grip. But they managed to pull themselves together, and seal their thought-monopoly up, once again.

Come to think of it, architecture isn't the only field where the ivy-league/country-club walls are still solid. They're still standing in literature too. Stephen King may get himself reviewed in the Sunday Times book section, but few other pop or genre fiction writers are recognized as producers of literature. Yet all "literature" is (according to one definition I'm very fond of) is "reading and writing for pleasure."

(Come to think of it, I suspect I'd argue that the barriers have yet to tumble in the visual arts too, despite all the artist and curatorial hijinks we've seen in recent decades. Why aren't magazine designers and movie set-designers viewed as artists?)

Perhaps the thought-police still have their way in architecture because no pop-or-traditionalist architect has yet managed to have a Marsalis-like impact. Perhaps what's needed is a star. Yet people like Krier, Duany and Christopher Alexander do indeed have star power, both as idea-generators and in-person performers ... So how to explain? Hunches, anyone?

But there are signs of crumbling. Seaside has inspired many other developers to create similar neighborhoods. The program at Notre Dame's architecture department is based on the Beaux-Arts model, the New Urbanism rules at the University of Miami, and graduates from both schools are doing very well for themselves.

I have a small mess of half-baked theories about why the walls have tumbled in some fields but still stand in others, and hope to blog about them someday. Eager to read your thoughts on these matters too. Let's get cultureblogdom rumbling.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 23, 2002 6:32 PM

Architecture, I think, is a bit of a special case when compared to other arts such as music, literature, paintings, etc, in that the product of architecture commonly has a purpose beyond its artistic value.

Let me back up. Here's my definition of Art: the affectional ordering of experience, with the intent to communicate and evoke. (Well, okay, it's not my definition so much as a synthesis of science fiction writer Orson Scott Card's views with the extremely obscure aestheticist and english professor E. Bruce Glenn's definition.)

That Britt Spears' tunes sell cola is a non-artistic function, yet I'd still say the purpose of her music is to communicate and evoke. She sings, and thus provides you with an "artistic experience". Nabokov doesn't keep the snow off your head. Monet doesn't keep your stuff safe from theives.

Buildings, though, can be perfectly useful without their designers intending their occupants to receive any particular aesthetic experience.

Chess came to my mind earlier in part because it is a field that lies on the fringes of Art. Much industrial design does too. Using my definition of art, there is a huge realm of artlike practices that are not "purely" art and thus can confuse discussions like this one.

I'm cofounder of a web company ( - not that my own website's poor visual appeal does anything to confirm it). We've been at it since about when Mosaic was first released and are now up to about 75 employees. Over the years I've played almost every role (except actual visual designer), and some of the more frustrating/rewarding/interesting ones have involved managing web designers. Our designers are a mixed bag with backgrounds in print advertising, photography, graphic design, industrial design, computer programming, film, etc. Most of them think of themselves as and intend to be Artists. As often as not, though, clients don't want Art. Working to help designers find a compromise between a.) satisfying their own creative and communicative urges, b.) appealing to the tastes of clients and their users, and c.) producing something that accomplishes specific tasks (selling cruise packages, promoting movies, facilitating large scale commercial mortgages, whatever) has been a big education.

The narrow academigrantomuseocritical definition of Art excludes some truly wonderful things from offbeat fields; I don't hold with any definition, for instance, that rejects some of the work our designers have done purely on their own (e.g.

The broad definition of Art as anything created will wrap in not only McMansions but also The Evergreen Game (in chess) and the graphical interface in Quicken (in software); such things certainly induce aesthetic experiences which are themselves important to their functions, yet they were not created as intentionally and solely artistic works.

Art and aesthetics relate, but are not identical. I enjoy debating and catagorizing the artistic elements of McMansions, but I don't think they necessarily qualify as works of art. It's not that I dislike and thus dismiss McMansions; there is undeniably a good bit of artistry involved in designing one, but I seriously doubt their designers mistake them as principally for the purpose of evoking an emotional or intellectual response.

Posted by: Mac on November 24, 2002 1:23 AM

Hrm. I hadn't visited neo-pangea in a long time. After posting my comment above, I checked back and discovered that the site is now mostly the designer's commercial work. It's hard to find the "personal" material in among the for-clients stuff, but one example in particular to look for is "Big Fun Show" under "Video". It is filmesque, though it was created entirely in Macromedia's Flash format. WARNING: "Big Fun Show" is most likely deeply offensive in one way or another to many different groups. It is, though, a work of Art.

Another example of a web designer's personal site worth checking: Subculture Alliance.

Posted by: Mac on November 24, 2002 1:57 AM

Fascinating, Mac, many thanks for the info and thoughts. I tend to find the practical experiences of people in the various culture-and-such fields much more interesting than the musings of academics these days. Do you find that to be true too? And I'm eager to check out the sites you've pointed us to.

"Where's the art" is a perpetually fascinating question. It seems to me that one of the sources of many people's confusion about art (my own confusion prominent among the many confusions) is the multiple meanings of the word art, and the multiple ways in which we use the word. Which one are we speaking about (and using) at any given moment?

One example is the way many of tend to think of art as something produced primarily for the sake of stimulating or evoking aesthetic feelings. That's a perfectly good use of the word, of course, but it's only one of many. It's using the word "art" as a synonym for "a certain kind of fine art" -- and the fact is that, while all cultures not entirely consumed by the struggle for existence have made art in a general sense, relatively few have developed a tradition of fine art (Europe, Japan, India, etc).

It's also a concept of art that has its source in fairly recent history -- with Kant, basically. (Felix, whose systematic studies in aesthetics took place in the more recent past than mine did, might want to help out here. )

Yet, even with "fine art" .... In what sense can we call any architect or builder a fine artist? Buildings are an excellent example of how complicated all this becomes. It's certainly true, as you point out, that McMansions aren't built primarily to serve aesthetic functions.

But very few buildings of any kind are. An Eisenman museum is primarily a museum, for example -- as well as, perhaps, a tourist attraction, an attempt to revive downtown, a feather in the cap of a mayor, etc. It's got to have men's and ladies' rooms, a certain amount of wall space, a shop, parking. Eisenman's working within a budget, struggling with the desires of clients -- and dealing (often unsuccessfully, I hear) with the local climate.

In other words, Eisenman works within the realm of what's possible and acceptable every bit as much as the designers who put together a McMansion. What he's doing is as much a matter of selling goods to clients as it is of freely expressing himself. -- he's in, to one extent or another, the same situation as your web designers. It's true that it may be a different realm of what's possible. His clients may be eager for him to rock out a little. But "free expression"? Some, sure, but not open-endedly.

Given all this, in what sense can an architect-builder like Eisenman be considered a "fine artist"? Or more of a "fine artist" than the people behind McMansions, or your web designers? I don't in fact mind thinking of him as a fine artist (with just a little appreciative irony). But it's difficult, to say the least, to know where to draw the line.

Another quick example: why is the Metropolitan Museum so full of "cultural artifacts" from other cultures -- cups, knives, rugs? (I love 'em, I'm glad they're there.) Many of us are comfortable thinking of a mask or a pot from New Guinea as art, even though we know perfectly well that in their culture of origin these were, to a large extent, functional objects. Why, then, don't we consider our own functional objects to be art?

I think the time may have come to break this line of conversation out into a new posting, which I'll do in a few days. If people wouldn't mind holding off on further comments, that'd be great.

What I'm sketching out is a posting on the various meanings (OK, three) of the word art that I've found to be of practical help. Sorry, Felix -- no aesthetic theory. Just practical help, or what I've developed to help me keep my head above water in the field.

I'm looking forward to everyone's thoughts, tips, questions and experiences -- as well as to seeing my musings get shot all to hell.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 24, 2002 12:39 PM

So -- please don't add further comments here!

By the way, why haven't more people commented on Friedrich's superb posting on the origins of the NEA? It's the posting immediately above this one. Please read it. It's really brilliant, and very helpful in terms of understanding why the (narrowly-defined) contempo art world is the way it is. Plus a great little passage that'll give you new perspective on the work of J-L David.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 24, 2002 12:49 PM

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