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March 22, 2003

Genghis Khan, America, and "Fine Art"

Friedrich --

The Wife and I recently saw the Genghis Khan art exhibit at the Met. (Here's a good Web representation of the show).) A dazzler, focusing on the impact of the Mongol invasions on Iranian art circa 1300. (Did you know that Mongols had made it to Iran? I certainly didn't.) Chinese and Islamic art all swirled up together, in a word.

But, "art"? Well, this was the Met, so everything was under glass, in cases and on walls, and there were labels. Yet what was on display were combs, rugs, belt buckles, pages from books -- high end consumer goods, really. There wasn't an item of what we would today consider "fine art" to be seen. Yet there The Wife and I were, along with hundreds of other art fans, oohing and aahhing over these treasures.

Mongol saddle circa 1300: Fine art? Or fancy saddle?

Which makes me wonder why we modern Americans don't give our own high-end consumer goods as much respect. Is it because of the antiquity of the Mongol/Persian objects? I don't think that fully explains it. I think it also has something to do with our attachment to "fine art." An Audi or a fine meal at a chic restaurant are marvelous things, yet when pushed we're prone to say "But of course they aren't art." Art is that ... other thing. Higher. Hushed. More rewarding.

High-art fan though I am, I can't help but suspect that many people use the "but it's not art" objection to make themselves feel, if not miserable, then perpetually spiritually hungry. It's something that almost never quite happens. We think, yeah, that may be nice, but it isn't art.

To which I now reply: Hey, a swatch of Mongolian/Persian fabric isn't fine art either, yet there we Manhattanites were, oohing and ahhing at the Met over it.

All of which got me thinking one of those thoughts-that-are-so-basic-you-can't-believe-you-never-had-it-before. This one's about that perennial "America and the fine arts" question: why are the fine arts always so embattled and imperiled in this country? Commercialism vs. ideals, the bad taste of New-World rubes vs the strivings of the cultured, etc etc. Is it because, as many fine-arts people like to believe, we're just a bunch of coarse, money-centric vulgarians? Or is it because, as many mainstream people feel, American fine artists so often carry on like a bunch of shrill adolescents? These battles go on and on throughout American art history with only the occasional break -- Beaux-Arts architecture, for instance, or the Arts and Crafts movement, a few moments when artists found a semi-popular groove and the public saw fit to spend a few extra bucks on aesthetic and quality-of-life items. Otherwise it's one wild mood swing after another.

Here's the obvious thing that finally struck me: what's often forgotten is that part of what distinguishes America from Europe where art is concerned is that IN AMERICA FINE ART IS ALWAYS OPTIONAL. In Europe, this isn't the case. You're surrounded by it, and can't escape it. Even if you're a slob, there are old buildings everywhere, cathedrals, fine wines. You're always being exposed to it, or at least ghosts and hints of it; country homes and antique possessions are what even lugs aspire to, and many European ads, for god's sake, have sources in the fine arts.

In America, on the other hand, it's possible to lead a prosperous, active life in which the fine arts play no role whatsoever. Given my own appetite for fine and high art, I marvel at people who get by without it. Don't they know what they're missing? But there's no denying that such people manage to live complete lives. Amazing. Some of them may be shopping mall fatties with lard for brains, but others seem happier than I am despite my relatively fancy cultural life. Perhaps they listen to country and western, have a few favorite TV shows, go to a chain restaurant when they want to eat something special, and occasionally splurge on a Hollywood movie. That's what their art and culture life is. I wouldn't be happy on such a diet, but so what?

Which leads me to the hunch that, while in Europe matters of taste and culture can be imposed from on high, in America such matters can't be. Or at least not so thoroughgoingly. Though I'm often amused or annoyed by the posturings of would-be taste dictators, I can't imagine what they expect to accomplish in a country like the U.S., where no one is obligated to take them seriously. There's always someplace else -- or something or someone else -- to turn to. The most horrifying example is modern architecture, which various elites managed to impose on American downtowns. And what happened? Many people simply moved out. We may be simpletons, but we know what we like and don't like, and feel perfectly entitled to pursue our own pleasures.

Given this basic fact of American life, how can the fine arts prosper here? Well, maybe they can't and never will. Maybe the power of money and pop is too seductive. But if the fine arts are to flourish -- and I'd certainly rather see them in a more-healthy rather than less-healthy state -- they might want to reconsider their relationship with the country's general culture. I take high-end cuisine to be a model. People who have a sophisticated appreciation for high-end food have figured out how to sell the kinds of pleasures they enjoy and the products they create to larger and larger groups of Americans.

The results have been pretty great. French cooking has had the stuffiness knocked out of it; cuisines have been mixed and matched; high-end restaurants have become trend-setters in decor and design; grocery stores offer a much greater range of treats than they did when you and I were growing up ... Quite a set of achievements. Why can't the other fine arts manage similar feats? Why shouldn't they think less in terms of "challenging the public" -- the American public knows full well it doesn't have to put up with such treatment -- and more in terms of making what they do attractive and appealing? Why shouldn't they work with what people already like, and devise and offer classier versions of it?

But if our artists should stop being so insistently defiant and antagonistic, perhaps Americans generally should give up being so demanding about whether or not something really is art. Who knows? Who cares? Who can predict what a museum curator a thousand years from now will choose to display from our era? Perhaps it'll be a painting or a sculpture, but perhaps it'll be a lamp or a lawnmower.

There's lots to be had in the way of beauty, delight and satisfaction from our better consumer goods, and perhaps the kind of pleasure we get from them has as much to do with the "art" experience as does that transformative/redemptive/extraordinary thing we're always hoping for and never quite getting. "But it's not really art," my ass. There's such a thing as turning what you say you're hoping for into a defence and a hangup. Why not let go of it?

Americans have already shown with food and cars (high-end consumer goods much like those Genghis Khan artifacts) that they'll spend money on, and pay attention to, quality and class. I could be wrong, but my bet is that they'd respond just as happily to being seduced by the other art fields too.

What's your hunch about this?



posted by Michael at March 22, 2003


My first reaction was "Hurrah! He said out loud what I think to myself!"

Second reaction: the people I know in the "But it's not really art" camp are not people who I can hang out with. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don't know many of them. The people I know who are in the "shopping mall fatties with lard for brains camp" are fortunately few.

I am blessed with a goodly set of acquaintances for whom art is seen in a multitude of forms. "Fine art" (painting, sculpture, et cetera) is good, and art. "Illustration" is good, and art. Elegant and functional electronics are good, and art. Music great and small is good, and art. Art is a state of excellence and mind that can be found in varying degrees almost anywhere. True, sometimes the art maybe vanishingly small (is there art in a McDonalds??), but can be found in surprising places (gargoyles on a building in downtown San Francisco).

Three cheers for "Not-so-fine-art".

Posted by: Felicity on March 22, 2003 11:29 PM

If you recall, in one of my postings on Impressionism, I detailed the economic incentive for picture dealers (who are after all speculators) to make money by seeking out talented but still marginal artists whose prices will soar as they make their way to the golden center of the art market. This logic, first plainly identified by perhaps the single most important figure in the history of modern art, the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, so perfectly describes the financial paradigm seen for the past 130 years that I wonder if it has simply imprinted itself on the mind of the art world. To be "discovered" one must be controversial, difficult, etc. so that one looks like a good bet to picture speculators! Perhaps a different art business paradigm could work today, but often these underlying "business models" become institutionalized and thus outlive their time--rather like the Salon, no?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 23, 2003 1:16 AM

My husband and I have a frequent discussion about the difference between Art and Craft. My theory is that Art follows Craft--that only really good craftsman achieve the level of quality that makes something Art. And that in our disposable culture of McDonald's mentalities (I want it fast and I dont care what it tastes like) and Walmart, we are only too willing to sacrifice quality to quantity. We simply dont care anymore.

Posted by: deb on March 23, 2003 9:54 AM

"Higher. Hushed. More rewarding."

I think the word "hushed" gets at something here.

I remember seeing a show at MOMA in New York on the industrial design of chairs. On the same visit I saw some paintings.

People would talk with each other when they were in front of the chairs, but everyone was much quieter in front of the paintings.

Posted by: alexis on March 24, 2003 4:36 PM

Sure. Art is today's church, and you're not supposed to talk in church. Besides, other people might overhear your stupid remarks.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on March 25, 2003 3:36 PM

You've all got me remembering a conversation I once had with a modernist painter friend. We were mouthing off about how ludicrous it is the way Americans project so many religious feelings and desires onto art, and I asked him if he didn't sometimes feel bad about encouraging that kind of delusion. He gave me a pitying/disbelieving look and said, "You apparently don't understand. Without them thinking there's something of religious significance going on in my paintings, what exactly am I selling? Just some paint on a canvas."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2003 12:12 AM

I loved the whole essay and totally agree with it!

Posted by: karen on March 29, 2003 9:21 AM

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