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January 02, 2004

Raphael on Popper

Dear Friedrich --

One of the many things that surprised and dismayed me about the arts world is how intolerant it is of dissent. Silly me, I'd thought what I was entering was a field of activity; instead it turned out to be something more like a strict church, or a particularly rigid political party. Disagreement is allowed to go only so far.

Dissent on the big topics simply isn't permitted. I remember, for example, an artist friend being enraged by the topic of the rebirth of academic-classical painting -- a rebirth which is, objectively speaking (and like it or not), a fact. "But you simply can't paint that way today," he spluttered. 2Blowhards visitors who recall the disputes that took place on this blog about whether or not the New Urbanism can be considered to be architecture -- it wasn't a conversation about whether the New Urbanism has any contributions to make, but whether it qualifies as architecture -- are familiar with this kind of reflex. The fact that the New Urbanism is something that many well-qualified architects are involved in didn't seem to make any difference to those who took the it's-not-architecture line. New Urbanists concern themselves with different issues than the ones the architecture commissars say are Architecture's Only True Issues? Then what they're doing isn't architecture.

Quarreling with the main tenets of the arts world doesn't make you what you'd imagine -- an arts person who disagrees about a topic with other arts people. It makes you something else entirely. First, you're attacked. Then you're shunned. Then you're ignored. You become persona non grata, in other words. You may be writing, painting, thinking, composing, or performing up a storm, yet you still lose your membership card. Those academic-classical painters? They aren't to be accepted as artists, they're ... well, something else entirely, god only knows what. Non-artists, in any case. Possibly scum, and almost certainly fascists.

How to explain this doctrinaire, you're-with-us-or-against-us attitude, let alone the vehemence with which many artsies cling to and uphold it? And how and when did fanaticism become a prerequisite for membership in the arts world? I recently read a small book by Frederic Raphael about the philosopher Karl Popper (buyable here), and a few passages in it caught my attention. Raphael is discussing Popper's ideas about knowledge, belief, science and politics, but they seem to me to apply to the arts as well.

In pseudo-science as practised by Freud or Marx, ideology can make facts accord with anything if its terms are sufficiently elasticized (and elusive). The critics of such ideologies can be systematically dismissed by their proponents, since in the terms of the system they can always be accused of being, for instance, either 'in denial' or 'lackeys of the bourgeoisie.' ...

The fallibility of the democracies had turned out to be a strength; the infallibility of dictators had revealed their weakness. Totalitarian systems created an illusion of frictionless cohesion and inflexible unanimity, but -- by damning all dissent as treachery -- such regimes lost any prospect of improvement or self-correction through constructive criticism. ...

The view that history had an inevitable direction and an immutable final destination, which was, so to say, written in the stars, and from which it could and should not be diverted, was common to both fascism and communism. ...

Where [Popper] became apprehensive was the point at which the fruits of imagination were wrapped in the language of science ...

Not to be overdramatic -- art isn't politics -- but the above strikes me as an on-the-money characterization of the arts world. I especially like the bit about wrapping the fruits of the imagination in the language of science, which reminds me of the way the modernist (pomo, decon, etc) apologists try to make it appear that anyone who doesn't agree with their judgments disagrees only because he or she is ignorant. It can't be a mere matter of disagreement. No, it's that they're right and you're wrong because they know better. In their own minds, they know something you don't; they have mastered the complicated, objective, technical ideas and language that enable them to understand the art you dislike. It's often fun to go to the bother of demonstrating that you do in fact understand the case they're making, and that you do indeed "get" the art or style they're advocating and the point they're making -- and that you still disagree. They aren't prepared to contend with that challenge -- it, harumph, just isn't possible! Gears start to grind; bile, curses and imprecations erupt. And soon these offended artsies stop speaking to you. An exorcism has taken place.

Raphael doesn't discuss Popper's thoughts about art and culture at length, but one passage struck me as helpful:

What deserves attention is the degree to which the cultural priority of modernism may have been foisted on us by notions of aesthetic inevitability that derive their force from the inevitability that is said, by Marxists, to belong to political development. The idea of a single correct aesthetic current is akin to that of a single correct political direction. Conceptualism is only the latest version of art that validates itself on the grounds of aesthetic premeditation. It is no accident, as Marxists used to say, that this puts artists under the ideological command of those --curators, journalists, dispensers of the residue from lotteries -- who affect to predict which movement must be conducive to the Future of Art. Thus the avant-garde persists, albeit under new colours, when the rest of the Marxist army has been disbanded.

Not bad, eh? Raphael's book isn't bad either, though it's not what you expect it to be; it's so short and personal that it's more of a quirky extended essay than a balanced introduction to Popper's ideas.

I don't know about you, but I'm bugged much less these days than I used to be by the close-mindedness and intolerance of the arts world. Technology is opening the arts discussion up, and dissenting voices are starting to be heard.

Over a bloggers' lunch one day, Aaron Haspel (here), George Hunka (here) and I -- had-it-up-to-here arts types all three of us -- wondered how widespread dissent is within the arts world. If the likes of us exist, after all, there must be others out there too. (I recall a couple of other things we three cranks agreed on too: the underrecognized literary worth of Terry Southern, and of "National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook.") And I know from my years covering the arts that grumbling about the Official Party Line is widespread even within the various arts worlds. But how widespread? Any hunches? Are 10% of artsies cranky about the police-state mindset that's expected of them? Or is it more like 49%?

These days, though I still enjoy letting my blood pressure run away from me from time to time, my general attitude is: who cares why so many artsies are still caught up in spent doctrinal disputes? The old hierarchies don't yet seem to know it, but their days in the sun are numbered -- though my bet is that the Defenders of the One True Faith will go on proclaiming their vital importance and prophetic stature even as tidal waves sweep over them. They'll cling to little bits of sand and rock and wonder why no one's paying attention. Answer: because the world has discovered that it prefers to get by without the interference of self-important clowns.

Oops, sorry: there went the blood pressure. Apologies for that. Really, my main reaction to the cleaving-to-the-party-line quality in the arts world these days is embarassment. What a dumb, stuffy field the arts have become: evidently the very last one to hear the news that the Iron Curtain tumbled a long time ago. I even have moments of extreme cheerfulness when I thank the heavens that the would-be religion status of the arts seems likely to come to an end soon. Hey, perhaps the arts will once again become an open field of activity.

How are you reacting to the existence of the Artsy Thought Police these days?



UPDATE: As if to confirm everything I was writing about in my posting, along comes Dinitia Smith's NYTimes profile of the literary critic Terry Eagleton, here. One of the most famous and prolific promoters of "Theory" in the English-speaking world, Eagleton has now decided that Theory's era is over. Time to get back to basics: war, morality, love ... Eagleton proudly announces that, despite everything, he's still a Marxist and that he still looks forward to the arrival of a true socialism. He isn't shy either about making connections between Marxism and Christianity. A man who evidently can't imagine what the problem might be with conflating religion, art and politics.

posted by Michael at January 2, 2004


I think I get this: it's something along the lines of "if you don't like my art, then obviously you only like your kind of art". But that's simply not the case. It is true that Conceptualism "validates itself on the grounds of aesthetic premeditation", but it is NOT true that it considers itself to be "a single correct aesthetic current". Just look at Sol LeWitt's art collection -- does the painting in the picture look Conceptualist to you? If LeWitt and his fellow conceptualists thought there was only One True Art Way, would he be collecting British sculpture, Aboriginal paintings and sundry pieces of furniture? I think most contemporary artists have much more eclectic tastes than you give them credit for.

Posted by: Felix on January 2, 2004 2:43 PM

That's a good point. Warhol's collection, for instance, was full of what many artsies would consider to be very reactionary art. Some architects who design thorny, difficult buildings prefer themselves to live in comfy, traditional houses. And I've known High-lit novelists who preferred to spend their own reading time with cozy mysteries.

What I'm hoping to throw a few spitballs at here though isn't individual cases but the field's general gestalt. That whole atmosphere of "if you're an artist, then you have to be doing blah blah," or "if you're a serious fiction writer, then you're necessarily caught up in such-and-such issues." No such thing automatically follows.

Hey, wouldn't it be lovely if the eclecticism and openness many artists display as individuals were reflected in the general gestalt? And what's your hunch about why the general gestalt can be so doctrinaire?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2004 2:58 PM


I don't see Sol LeWitt's tastes as all that catholic. They seem very predictable for someone who reached adulthood around 50-55 years ago (i.e., late 1940s.) If old Sol owned a few academic pieces by Gerome or some some Frederick Remington bronzes (or any other art not validated by the dominant serious art consensus of 2004) I'd be more impressed with the wide range of his interests.

Not, of course, that I've got anything against Sol. He always struck me as a straightforward guy, very upfront about what he was trying to do, and not an intolerant ideologue Donald Judd type of guy. He had some advice for artists that struck me as valuable no matter what vein of art one was mining.

But I see nothing in his collection that falls 'outside the art-world pale' in his collection. He seems like a card carrying, institutionally-approved art-collecting kind of guy.

Now, I'd be interested to have a look at Claes Oldenburg's art collection...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 2, 2004 3:20 PM

I dunno, Michael, I think it just comes down to which clubs you want to be a member of. The designers of McMansions only get shunned if they try to join the club of Serious Academic Competition Architects. Old-fashioned painters can have a lot of success without ever setting foot in Chelsea -- look at Barbara Ernst Prey, who seems to have a lock on Bush Administration Christmas cards this year, and whose paintings are in great demand. If she tried to have a solo show at Deitch Projects, she'd be shunned, to be sure, but why would she ever want that? Similarly, I can imagine the reception that Julian Schnabel would get if he offered his talents to paint something for Laura Bush's living room. The single most successful artist in the USA is Thomas Kinkade, and the people who love his work are just as close-minded about, say, Andres Serrano as the Serrano collectors are about Kinkade. People naturally fall into cliques, and as the Culture Industry becomes increasingly fragmented, it's going to be less and less useful to bandy around catch-all terms like "art" and "literature". If you don't like the reception you get from one crowd, then there's bound to be somewhere friendlier. Only glass-half-empty types get hung up on the fact that Group X doesn't like them, rather than the fact that Group Y does.

Posted by: Felix on January 2, 2004 3:38 PM

Felix -- I think we're on the same side on this one: plurality rules, in fact if not in theory. (My little attempt at a contribution here: what do artsies have against making the theory, or at least framework, conform to the facts?)

Fab New Year's party, by the way. The Wife and I are still having a good time trying to recover.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2004 4:48 PM

The quote: "But you simply can't paint that way today," he spluttered reminded me of a story about a similar remark. When Clement Greenburg visited Willem de Kooning's studio and saw several of the "Women" paintings, which marked the rebirth of recognizable imagery in de Kooning's work after a period of pure abstraction, Greenburg also sputtered: "But you just can't paint like that today." After Greenburg left, someone asked de Kooning what he thought of Greenburg's thesis. De Kooning's response was a classic: "He wants to be my boss but not pay me a salary."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 2, 2004 7:43 PM

That's a classic story.

Wasn't Greenberg the butt of another such story too? I seem to remember Fairfield Porter writing that he'd once been flailing a bit with his art. Then,at a party, he overheard Greenberg pontificating about how you couldn't, just couldn't paint in a representational way in these modern days. And Porter wrote that, hearing that, he knew just what he (Porter) had to do -- and he went on to become a representational painter.

Maybe the time has come for one of us, and certainly not me, to sink his teeth into some Clement Greenberg? Hint, hint.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2004 8:01 PM

It's not just the art world. It's every group. There comes a point where the "leaders" become more interested in their status or funding than in progress or the truth and dissent isn't tolerated.

Even in science!

Instapundit today linked to a great Michael Crichton speech at Caltech from last year which makes many good points, including criticizing the shoddy treatment Bjorn Lomborg received from the scientific community in response to his heretical (but well-supported, and reasonable) writings.

Posted by: Gil on January 2, 2004 8:34 PM

Gil is right. If you want an example of how this facet of human nature can lead to, or keep, practices in place that result in worse consequences, like the death of millions, read "The Story of the Discovery of Contact Infection by Semmelweiss " by Jurgen Thorwald from the book "The Century of the Surgeon".(Google "The Story of the Discovery of Contact Infection by Semmelweis". View as pdf or HTML)

This man was double crossed and dismissed from his position because he dissented from the established dogma of medicine. Long before germs were discovered, Semmelweiss reasoned out the causal link between cleanliness and infection(1847). He insisted that students and doctors wash their hands before coming into a medical ward, and between patients. Only a few took him seriously. His was "...a voice crying in the wilderness. Never again was the arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and rigidity of the acknowledged "gods of medicine" to prove so fatal to the progress of medicine..." The same hubris that motivates the Art community also affected the European doctors of the 1850s.

Posted by: Amos on January 3, 2004 2:52 PM

I call the climate of intolerance in the art world described above as false pluralism, to distinguish it from the real pluralism we would have if traditional tendencies in art were tolerated by the antitraditionalist ruling elite. I think Michael is right that its days are numbered, and I'll be there to do my part in pulling it off of life support when the time comes.

Felix's description of cliques is accurate. We gravitate toward societies that share our values. These societies attack each other in the form of communication, with the result that their membership shifts as people reassess their values. That's how I deal with the Artsy Thought Police - I remember that they have a different set of values, one that I find wanting. If they were kicking my door in to exhibit my work and publish my writing, it would be helpful, but the fact that they're not is a good thing in the long term. I want my work to be supported for its own merits, not because it has caught the winds of fashion in its sails.

Posted by: Franklin on January 3, 2004 4:01 PM

Gil, Amos: Thanks for the observations and info. Amazing story about Semmelweiss. One of the things that surprises me most about this kind of behavior in the arts (as opposed to the sciences) is that you'd think -- well, at one point I'd have thought, anyway -- that the arts of all fields would be one where openness and adventurousness would almost come standard. No super-special, super-technical skills or mastery are needed, after all. But maybe that's partly why it can be such a close-minded place: overcompensation, and maybe even feelings of inadequacy. A cheap theory, but maybe there's something to it.

Franklin: "False pluralism," that's excellent. I'll be stealing and using it, thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2004 7:16 PM


Thanks for the link to the New York Times article on Mr. Eagleton. I must quote the part describing a critic's reaction to Mr. Eagleton's new book, "After Theory":

And Eric Griffiths wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that the book "can only confirm the confused popular image of an intellectual as someone happy to mouth off about anything at a moment's notice."

The connection between Mr. Eagleton's writings on cultural theory and his (Marxist) politics certainly reinforces your notion of the unity between the Modernist Project and post-modern manifestations like "Theory." Of course, the link the link between Marxism and postmodern thought is pretty evident from even a cursory inspection of the biographies of its French originators.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 4, 2004 7:25 PM

Great stuff! I discovered your blog from "Collected Miscellany." I was especially fascinated because of my experience with, as you call them, the "artsies."

I loved this quote:

"I especially like the bit about wrapping the fruits of the imagination in the language of science, which reminds me of the way the modernist (pomo, decon, etc) apologists try to make it appear that anyone who doesn't agree with their judgments disagrees only because he or she is ignorant. It can't be a mere matter of disagreement. No, it's that they're right and you're wrong because they know better. In their own minds, they know something you don't; they have mastered the complicated, objective, technical ideas and language that enable them to understand the art you dislike."

My major in college was graphic design. (I ended switching it, but that's another story.) For a few years after college, I tried to explore my creativity, subscribing for awhile to "Art In America." I found myself growing more frustrated with a few things, namely the elitist attitude I saw exhibited within many pockets of the art culture. There is an assumption that if if one has concerns (or conflicting theories) about art, then they must be intellectually inferior. I disagree. In fact, disagreement is a very healthy thing, otherwise we'd all be marching lock-step next to the newest celebrity artist. Isn't art the one place in our culture where we should celebrate individuality?

Another assumption is that if one does like Thomas Kinkade, they must be a simpleton when it comes to understanding theory or concept. (The unwashed masses and so forth.) Again, elitist and narrow-minded thinking but yet often held by the very people who condemn such attitudes in others.

Bottom line: I left the art world. I'm a happy person and I discovered quickly that happy, cheerful people are seen as suspect by many artsies. As far as I'm concerned, joy is a particularly intriguing concept to me. Life is short. Why force myself to suffer?

Posted by: M.R. Maguire on January 10, 2004 4:59 PM

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