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February 05, 2006

Should First be Best?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ever hear the gripe that news media cover political campaigns and elections like horseracing or other sports?

You know: who's ahead and by how much -- that sort of thing. Complaints about the practice center on how important things such as positions on issues get shortchanged in reports.

While ignoring or downplaying issues might make for bad civics, it's impossible to ignore the fact that political campaigns and sporting events are both forms of competition. I'm not quite willing to claim that competition is part of human nature (mostly because I haven't given the matter enough thought), but it certainly is pervasive here in what's left of Western Civilization.

Consider science.

Scientific kudos are awarded for being the first to discover/explain/create something or other. This has been going on for centuries, if the Newton-Leibnitz controversy over who invented the calculus is any guide. James Watson's famous book The Double Helix deals with scientific competition as much as it does with scientific subjects.

Not that there's anything wrong with being a beloved science teacher or well-paid pharmaceutical researcher. But if it's scientific glory you seek, you need to be first. Nothing less will do. They'll never hand out a Nobel Prize to the third guy to make an anti-gravity machine.

That's also how the history of science is written. It's a string of names such as Lavoisier, Gauss, Pasteur, Roentgen, Einstein and Bohr.

It seems to be the same for art history -- but should it?

When I took a year-long art history class in college (way back at the end of the 50s) the instructor did a very 20th Century thing, casting western art as a progression interrupted by a few hiccups such as the Dark Ages. Once we reached late mediaeval times the course became a chronicle of improvements related to faithful depiction of the world. Matters treated included linear perspective, atmospheric perspective and human anatomy. Where possible, the artists who kicked the various cans down the road to reality were identified and celebrated for their achievements.

Upon reaching the 1860s, the pointer shifted to the direction of Abstract Expressionism, the dominant field of painting at the time the class was given -- the narrative according to Albert Barr (of MoMA) and friends. Given that Post-Modernism was still in embryo, this made for a tidy presentation of everything from Lascaux to West 8th Street.

All-in-all the art history narrative was pretty much like the scientific history narrative, right down to the controversies: Was it Picasso or Braque who invented Cubism?

I wonder if this business of assigning precedence and glory affected -- perhaps even created -- PoMo art.

Assume that most young artists since the mid-1950s have taken an art history course and that the content of the course wasn't drastically different from the one I took (for events up to about 1960, anyway). Lesson likely learned: you can become famous if you innovate.

And take it as given that once painting became abstract or non-objective, that particular line of development reached a dead-end; all that remained was to do variations on abstraction. So how can an aspiring artist become immortal if the paths to future innovation in both representational and abstract painting are essentially closed? You might try painting a portrait of a Campbell's soup can. You might install a blinking light bulb in a museum gallery and call the result "art." You might rent some heavy equipment and arrange large rocks into a pattern and call that "art" too. And this is just what PoMo "art" is -- a bewildering accumulation of mini-movements, each desperately fathered or mothered by a fame-seeking innovator.

Whether or not the results are any good does not seem to matter much.

All this strikes me as marketing, not art. Or as I sometimes put it, "PoMo art = public relations." Art galleries thrive on names. Ditto contemporary art museum curators. Names come from claims to innovation coupled with promotion: "Xxxx is the next Picasso."

What ever became of beauty as a goal of the artist? It largely got replaced by "edginess" or "shock" in the progressive corner of the art world.

Like representationalism and abstraction, edginess and shock and "transgressiveness" in general strike me as pretty much having reached practical limits. So what is next for art?

I won't present an answer here. But I'll offer the opinion that the healthiest thing for the art world would be to abandon the quest for innovation and return to the 19th Century notion of valuing art that is satisfying to experience.

The "greatest" artists should be the ones who create the most "satisfying" works of art. Yes, these are vague, eye-of-the-beholder concepts, but here are a few hints to get you started: Rembrandt, Velázquez, Vermeer, Michelangelo -- not necessarily innovators but nevertheless great.



posted by Donald at February 5, 2006


Yes, the travesty of the Damien Hirsch/Cy Twombly/Robert Motherwell art world exactly parallels the vogue for "pluralism" in PC circles. "Let's all explore our mutually-exclusive ethnicities" is akin to the innovation obsession you speak of.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 6, 2006 1:30 AM

A few years ago, I had a professor in a graduate philosophy of mind seminar make a passing comment to the effect that although most of today's "high art" is junk, such diversity is critical for truly significant developments to emerge. My analogy was that bad art may be to the art-system what dreams are to the learning human brain: a regular byproduct of the constant reorganization that is neccessary for the daytime brain to adapt and stay sane. I can find applications to poetry (Cummings can seem like a well-rounded inventiveness to Stein's core dump) and to contemporary popular music (so-called "post-punk" producing a lot of great output from individuals drawing partly from, but not immersed in, the delusional world that produced the nearly unlistenable work of the seminal punk bands). I guess the issue is stability of the system: can the valuably dreamy artists acknowledge their role in reorganization *for* the daytime, without setting their work up as a better way to *be* in the daytime?

Posted by: J. Goard on February 6, 2006 6:44 AM

Gee, I dunno, Donald. Wouldn't you actually have to 'look' at the art then, rather than just think about it?

And think of all those monochrome canvases of various tints (white, black, blue, etc.) that would have to be recycled or something...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 6, 2006 10:03 AM

P.S. Donald, you might also note that the 'progress' model of the world goes back to the early 19th century, and was philosophically rather old-fashioned by the time your professor used it to organize your class material. Again, allow me to point out how oddly 'old-fashioned' Modernist thinking often turns out to be for an art-theory that foregrounds innovation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 6, 2006 10:06 AM

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, having read a pretty good book on the current artistic climate called "The End of Art" by the Donald Kuspit. As a young(er) artist with a healthy admiration for the modern aesthetic. I find it difficult to connect with much contemporary art and found this short book quite refreshing. Here's a link.

Posted by: L. Sheridan on February 6, 2006 12:59 PM

Well, as a (reasonably) well-paid pharmaceutical researcher whose artistic tastes run more to the pre-Raphaelites than to Rothko, I enjoyed this post. Anyone who hasn't should see Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word" for more on the subject, with the depressing coda that it's what? Thirty years on now, and the world of contemporary art is in even worse shape?

In the sciences, it's often possible to assign credit for a particular innovation. But even over here, there are complications. Accolades are given, and quite properly, to people who were the first to realize the meaning, significance, and mechanism of what they're looking at, rather than being the first to see it at all. Warren and Marshall didn't discover ulcers, and they didn't discover the H. pylori bacterium. But they did prove that it (and not stress, etc.) caused ulcers, and got a Nobel for it.

But in the arts. . .I just don't see how something as subjective as an aesthetic experience or technique can be definitively discovered or proven. Let's see, light bulbs have been done. . .rocks have been done. . .but electrified rocks! Conceptual breakthrough! Who can say you're wrong? (Well, plenty of folks - but who can prove it? No one.)

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 6, 2006 1:15 PM

Science & art differ b/c there are more historic breakthroughs in science which someone was bound to discover at some point vs revolutionary new ideas; whereas in art (& music), most of the historic breakthroughs we have no reason to believe would have been painted or sculpted by someone sooner or later. So originality should count for a lot more in art.

The problem is that originality should be understood as something so far out there, it would never occur to a mere mortal. Most of the garbage art you're describing is just facile: any imbecile w/ 30 seconds of thinking time could come up w/ any of it, were they so inclined to shock. But try inventing & executing the first fugue in history during a free afternoon.

I'm optimistic, though -- unlike science, art is not constrained by other considerations, like "is my totally out-there idea a contradiction?" "Does the idea jive well w/ other established theories?" "Does the idea have empirical support?" There are just as many out-there ideas in science, but more often than not they're bunkum at explaining the real world (epicycles in geocentric astronomy). But b/c art has fewer criteria to answer to, more such ideas are viable solutions.

The only thing that needs to happen is for gifted artists to stop being so lazy. Or perhaps art critics will have to take the design world more seriously -- maybe the Michelangelos are creating furniture or fashion, just as new areas w/in science have established their own enclave w/in the larger science world (e.g., the recent development of computer science).

One thing that worries me (w.r.t. artistic originality) is that in part artistic originality could reflect being a bit mentally unbalanced (due to infection, contamination, who knows), and that by having better neonatal care, etc., we're cutting down on the proportion of the pop. who could be the next Leonardo. That would leave only genetic sources for way-out-there thinking, and genes like to keep things safe & simple rather than take big risks that result in little progeny payoff.

Posted by: Agnostic on February 6, 2006 2:46 PM

J Goard: "although most of today's "high art" is junk, such diversity is critical for truly significant developments to emerge."

I'd have to disagree. I've found that great art feeds off of good art.

Beethoven wouldn't have come along without Haydn before him, who wouldn't have come along without Fux. Bach built on Vivaldi, who built on Stradella. Poe plundered his ideas from the "penny dreadfuls" of his day. And on and on. The great artist almost always represents the "grand finale", as it were, to a long series of capable craftsmen.

Imagine you're an artist today. Where would you find inspiration? Certainly not from your colleagues. What would you find that you could build upon? Certainly not the headline-chasing rubbish that's dominant.

By comparison the guys in the Quattrocento had it easy. You can't create in a desert.

Posted by: Brian on February 6, 2006 4:15 PM

Who cares who is first in painting? Almost none of these "innovations" has advanced painting, just undone it. What matters is quality. It is an interesting parallel that all of these "innovations" and preoccupation with such occured during the rise to pre-eminence of science in the intellectual realm, and the industrial revolution. The arts seemed to want to get in on the action. I guess you don't know what you've got until its gone.

Posted by: Brian Minder on February 7, 2006 1:49 AM

I've worked out a theory of art (at my URL) according which the art gets worse as the merchandising gets better. Van Gogh was great artist who sold nothing, Picasso was a less-great artist and great salesman, and Warhol was the mirror image of Van Gogh.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 7, 2006 10:51 PM

I guess the answer lies in the purpose of art. Being innovative is only one of the many ways of doing it. Well, if it serves the purpose better than a traditional approach, why not?

But, being innovative is definitely not the purpose of art. However, currently, commercially, it is a more viable approach to sale art. Everybody just wants to be different nowadays. I could only hope in this approach to art making, the purpose of art work has not become subservient to innovation.

look from

Posted by: look on February 11, 2006 8:31 PM

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