Entries in Art (10)
Two shows are at MoMA, both interesting in their own right: Inventing Abstraction, about the origins of abstract art, and the Quay Brothers, talented animators of neo-gothic films. Comparing the two and reading Peter Schjeldahl's review of the former in a recent issue of the New Yorker raised for me further issues on aesthetics.
Many of the pieces in the show on abstraction struck me as surpassingly beautiful. Just to take an example, Kazimir Malevich's Painterly masses in motion. It is intriguing for raising issues of foreground and background in what is, after all, a completely abstracted canvas: there is no reason why the large black object must be 'behind' the colored squares before it, yet that is how our visual system reads this assemblage.
But more than that, the piece, and many other abstract pieces in the show, have an aesthetic grace and power that I find immediately compelling. Where does this aesthetic value come from? I have no doubt that there is some answer we can give neurologically, but whether this answer would be in any way universalizable to all humans, or depend on some robust facts about human evolution, I have my doubts. Of course, seeing shapes as foregrounded and backgrounded is a result of certain selection pressures on our visual system, and so on. But none of these really gets at why this arrangement of shapes and colors is one with aesthetic value, while another is not.
Case in point: in his review of the show, Schjeldahl picks out as "the most beautiful work, for me" a needlepoint tapestry by Sophie Taeuber-Arp that I find attractive but ordinary compared with the masses of great art that surround it. Not only is it not ("for me") the most beautiful work, it is one of the lesser works in the show.
On to the Quay Brothers, whose approach is resonant with metaphor, dream, and human emotion. A much more fertile field to find compelling art than among abstracted colors and shapes, one would think. Yet although the brothers' talents are unmistakeable, for me their work is too often leaden and stiff; mannered in the style of silent cinema but pompous and humorless, with a feel of being somehow warmed-over.
Awhile back MoMA had another show by a neo-Gothic filmmaker: Tim Burton, whose Hollywoodized style looked out of place in the cathedral to modernism. At least Burton has a certain sly levity, though, and an ability to draw and delight the crowds. The Quay Brothers are clearly pitched at the elite: although they have worked for advertisers and made pop music videos, that is clearly not their aim.
I don't mean to suggest that Burton makes better artwork than the Quay Brothers; both, in fact, leave me rather cold. My point is rather to suggest that by aiming for the elite, the brothers may have limited their aesthetic appeal generally, without any real concomitant benefit. For me. Whether MoMA's imprimatur will make more of an impact on their posterity than, say, Tim Burton's remains to be seen.
Ethics and Aesthetics
We are left with certain basic questions about contrasting aesthetic value: between one work and another, one artist and another, or between popular and elite forms of art. Is there any way to resolve them?
Well, one way to begin is to contrast these questions with those from that other great realm of value, ethics. There, notwithstanding our exceptions, foibles, and disagreements, there is deep, intercultural accord on certain facts: that one should not murder, should not steal, should not lie. That one should not hurt others, and that one should treat them fairly, as one treats oneself. These go back to the earliest written ethical accounts, worldwide.
There is nothing remotely similar in aesthetics. Why?
I don't have a good answer to that question, however I would like to propose one possibility. The violation of basic ethical principles involves clear harm to others: it is something obvious, and if it is not obvious, it will become so when the other person is involved. They will protest.
With aesthetic principles, there is nobody to protest except a disinterested public. Those who remain unimpressed or nonplussed by a work, yet have the freedom to remove themselves from its presence, have little left to protest. (We will leave aside issues of literal offense, beacuse they touch on issues where aesthetics becomes ethicized). In this regard, of course, the art world has changed quite completely over the last century and a half. "Épater la bourgeoisie" no more; it's been done so many times that they are thoroughly bored by it.
With nobody left to protest, highly-placed tastemakers are free to muddy the aesthetic waters. Literally anything goes, since whatever aesthetic preferences we may have are all too easily obscured by the imprimatur of a famous critic or curator, telling us that our instincts are base and only they can help raise them to the elite.
Tastemaking seems less a problem with the artists I mention here than with certain others who will remain nameless. Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the Quay Brothers and Tim Burton are very talented, and they deserve recognition. Nevertheless, I think Schjeldahl's decision to pick a relative unknown as "the most beautiful" in a show brimming with great works, as well as the MoMA curatorial decision to pick two contemporary neo-Gothic filmmakers for solo shows, makes the point: for tastemakers to retain an edge, they must always be after the new and different.
Tell Me What You Like
A final word on the "for me" of personal preference: it's often said that the least interesting thing someone can say about a work of art is that they like or dislike it. And perhaps this is true. When one goes to a gallery or museum, of course, that has already been said by the curator before the piece was installed: he or she must decide to install this rather than that. And while nobody would be enlightened by a description card that simply read, "I like this piece", nevertheless such cards often amount to little more than highly pitched rhetorical marketing on behalf of those pieces. ("Here is why you should like this piece.")
Try as one might though, it is difficult to say anything very enlightening, or opinion-changing, about an artwork. One may reveal an obscure subject, or enlighten about a historical context, but apart from that, it's hard to make real gains. The best marketing is done by placement in an elite context of display.
I do love the arts. But my sense is that any real aesthetic merit above and beyond fame-derived fashion may be hopeless, at least as regards anything remotely considered "elite". If so, then all we can ever really do at that level is say what we like, and work to market it.
Or perhaps this is only a feature of fleeting taste in the market of art-for-now (ever more the purview of even the most 'elite' museums), which will come out in the wash of history, all the detritus being left in the bathwater. Perhaps.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the last New York performance of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's masterwork opera Einstein on the Beach. It's a rare thing since the production requires both an orchestra capable of performing Glass's meditative, minimalist music and a cast capable of performing Wilson's intricate, ritualistic direction. And famously it lasts over four hours without intermission, which can be a trial for audience members unused to non-narrative works.
Einstein is a successful melding of art and science, because it doesn't attempt to be too literal about the science. It's conceived as a progression of dream-scapes; there is no real dialogue. What words one hears are either digressive, strange monologues or repetitive strings of numbers and solfège symbols. At first this approach mystifies. But then, isn't it a valid, indeed precise, interpretation of the hermeticism of scientific dialogue, and its requirement for quantity and measurement? Singers count beats, name notes; it may seem overly literal, except that's just the point. The rest of the dialogue prods us to dream.
The opera proceeds towards its crescendo in several, apparently unrelated scenes or vignettes. Wilson's staging re-uses visual cues, such as clocks, moons, circles, compasses and a grand bar of white light, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that came out only eight years before the opera first premiered). The bar has several other resonances: its first appearance in the "Train" sequences clearly represent one of the bolts of lightning Einstein used in his famous thought experiment on special relativity, breaking simultaineity.
Later the bar appears on a darkened stage as a solitary line on the floor, that slowly rises to the upright position and then ascends offstage. This representation (apparently confusing to one recent New York Times reviewer) has profound representational possibilities: my preferred is the so-called "Doomsday Clock" kept by the Bulletin of Atomic scientists since 1947. As the minute hand ascends to the vertical, nuclear war comes closer to hand. The white bar, a simple and pure symbol, takes on immense resonance. And clocks, time in general, are themes that both Glass and Wilson refer to endlessly.
The bar may also represent a missile raising to the launch position and then ascending into the air. This melds with the next scene, which is of a rocket ascending. Then the opera reaches its crescendo ("Spaceship") in a darkened, mechanical atmosphere reminiscent of one of the grand scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
In the 2012 version, the Spaceship scene included a devilish character who appeared to be directing the workers, clarifying the scene's sinister overtones. And at the end a scrim dropped before it with a 1960s era image of the effects of a hydrogen-bomb blast. I don't recall either devil or bomb-image from the last time I'd seen the opera, back in the 1980s. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, given the obscure nature of the opera's symbology, I felt these were welcome pointers.
They also served to deepen the final scene, with its strange and otherworldly turn to love, and one of the great final phrases: "fervent osculation."
It's a piece not to miss for any with an appreciation of Glass's minimalist music or Wilson's expressionist stagecraft. The piece is different enough to be unique in its impact. I believe it to be one of the greatest late 20th century operas, however only time will tell how it fits into the repertory. It's unlikely that many will attempt to copy Wilson's technically demanding direction. But is there Einstein without Wilson? If not, future performances will likely be limited to devotees. And that would be a shame. For the opera, difficult and demanding though it is, deserves a wide audience.
What makes a piece of art worthwhile? What makes it good?
Is this simply a subjective matter of opinion? Or is there anything more we can point to?
If there were alien life forms on other planets, would they find the same things beautiful that we do? Would they find the same things artistically worthwhile? Or would they view our artistic taste as incomprehensible or worthless?
These are some of the questions that come up when we consider aesthetics.
There is little question that there are similarities in the way humans see beauty. Europeans love Japanese prints, Chinese youth pine after the iPhone. Human physical attractiveness follows certain set patterns, such as the 0.7-to-1 waist-to-hip ratio for women, or male facial symmetry. While some of this is doubtless culturally imposed, much of it is due to our ability to ferret out underlying biological characteristics such as fertility and partner suitability. After all, humans are animals, and animals (particularly females, who have the burden of gestating the young) are notoriously picky about mate choice.
Aesthetic sense in the animal kingdom extends from visible and auditory factors such as the peacock's plumage, the bird's song or the lion's roar, the gorilla's size or the seal's ownership of the beach, to the intricate hanging nests made by weaverbirds or the extraordinary collections of bowerbirds.
It also extends to location. Animals have an instinctive sense of the best placement of home: one that is relatively safe and secure from predation, close to sources of food and water, with a good view of the surrounding territory.
The artists Komar & Melamid conducted surveys in countries around the world, asking people what they wanted most to see in a painting. The result was their People's Choice series of "Most Wanted" paintings. While there were local, cultural, discrepancies, the overall results of their polling reveal, in philosopher Denis Dutton's words, "serious empirical evidence for a natural, evolved universal aesthetic preferences." Viz., people tend to like open landscapes with a view out over water, much as non-human animals prefer territory with a view, close to sources of water. Americans like to add a president in there as well, somewhere.
Our aesthetic preferences extend to taste and smell, senses that enable us to find foods that provide sustenance and avoid those that may cause illness. It's practically a truism that people enjoy the taste of fatty, sugary and salty food, and tend to avoid foods that are perceived as bitter. (Bitter is one indication of spoilage).
One "post-modern" response to all this, of course, might be termed expressly anti-aesthetic: what is beautiful is suspect. Studies of universal taste reveal nothing more than narrow cultural brainwashing and therefore a universal lack of sophistication. And who can argue with that, when presented with Komar & Melamid's Most Wanteds? They're awful, looking like Hallmark Cards or cast-offs from any flea market in the country. But that's the point, isn't it? Any artistic subject that is universally appreciated is likely to be the sort of thing one find's everywhere.
Or, perhaps better said, it's the sort of thing one finds everywhere except in the places that have been taught not to appreciate it.
Because ironically it's the anti-aesthetic movement, the movement that views standards of beauty as simply passing cultural constructs, that is the prime example of constructing taste along cultural lines. If we are to give up on universal standards of beauty as our touchstone for artistic excellence, all we have left are passing fads, cooked up for us by today's cultural tastemakers.
Perhaps this is why so much contemporary art mystifies. Perhaps this is why to appreciate it requires detailed knowledge of context and background. It's far from obvious that a pile of detritus on the floor indicates some pungent social reality, or to see why this presentation is more pungent than simply stating the reality outright.
To appreciate such art reveals the extent to which one is culturally in-tune with the moment, the extent to which one has the time, money and interest to teach oneself what it's about, and indeed to teach oneself why it's art.
All art appreciation has an element of status indication, of course. Like the universal aesthetic pointed to above, awareness of status is a part of our evolutionary background. But ironically, by eschewing beauty, much of contemporary art has only managed to privelege status-indication in its place, by making art appreciation more rarified, more élite, more out of touch with anything but art study for its own sake.
And that, I think, is a dead end, at least for art.
The alternative, that all art at least contain some notion of beauty as an essential element, is not itself truly universal at all, of course. It depends upon our vague evolutionary heritage. But that, I am afraid, is the way it must be. For aesthetics apart from evolution is, it seems, no more than numerology.
I read Dan Nadel's incisive review of the Maurizio Cattelan show at the Guggenheim several days ago, and wasn't sure what to think. Having seen the show now with my own eyes, I am inclined to agree with his somewhat jaundiced view.
But I don't think the problem with the show lies entirely in Cattelan's work. Cattelan is first and foremost a clown: a provocateur by pratfall and sight-gag. "La Nona Ora", the famous sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, is the kind of thing one would expect to see in a ten-second scene out of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or animated in the Simpsons.
Others of his pieces refer to the 'hanging' of artworks, to artworks as taxidermy, and make mild commentary on social themes such as race. It's very much gag art; funny for all that, entertaining as modern, ironic clown should be, but essentially light and ephemeral. Perhaps that's why it works as well as it does, hung before us like a mothballed circus wardrobe.
No, the real problem with the show isn't the work itself; it's the introduction by the curators Spector and Brinson.
So much of what's wrong in the art world nowadays is in the writing: overamped, overwrought prose that either obfuscates or sells. In this case, it sells. "This Work is Very Important!" it tells us. So, the silly piece involving the Pope is described as "incendiary" and "notorious". JFK in a coffin is "eleagic". And his work overall is described as "deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power". Really? Where? Not in this exhibition, anyway, nor in his prior ones, from the sound of it, such as his decision to make a show out of a locked door with a "be back soon" sign, or his idea to steal another artist's work and pretend it was his own. Silly gags? Yes. Profound statements about authority and the abuse of power? No.
Basically it's a light and humorous show, and light humor is popular. There's nothing wrong with that: we all need a little clowning in our lives. But please, let's not mistake clowning for profundity, nor cloak its essential modesty in marketing bombast.
OK, let's get one thing clear at the outset. Art is not science, and science is not art. That may seem like a pretty banal point but it's one that gets violated a lot in the liminal space between them. It's not enough to take a pretty function and put it on a graph for it to be artwork. (I'm talking about you, fractals).
It's not enough to take an interesting discovery and put it on stage for it to be art. That goes doubly when the plot is overwhelmed by a ham-handed attempt to demonstrate a (controversial) interpretation of the science through 'non-linear' plotlines. (I'm talking about you, Copenhagen). If I want a great, shimmering example of the fallibility of reconstructed memory, Rashomon is the touchstone; Kurosawa's film has nothing whatever to do with quantum mechanics per se.
Art is a commentary on life, and art that takes science seriously has to be a comment on science, full of metaphor and instability for it to be fruitful and interesting. A lot of art in this space is more commentary on technology than science; I include most all of SF. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I love SF. But commenting on the methods and techniques of science is rather different than commenting on hyperdrives, artificial intelligence or gene hacking.
So then what would it be to comment on science? What are the hallmarks of science? It's too much for me to get into a lengthy treatise here on that problem, but for a start we can point to carefully controlled, repeatable testing; analysis into smaller, simpler parts; and mathematization. These processes lead to theory formation that leads to enhanced powers of prediction. When prediction breaks down, science returns to the drawing board with further analysis, testing or revised mathematical theorization.
That's science in a nutshell.
Who are some artists that comment most incisively on this method? A few who come to mind are, in the visual arts, Chuck Close, Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Martin and Jaq Chartier, and in opera, Phil Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach.
Close and Bartlett's work comes in a tradition of color and form analysis that goes back at least to the pointillist painters, most famously Georges Seurat. There are many ways to analyze form and color, but it's a comment on the science of optics and the physics of atoms to do so in terms of a more limited color palette and smaller dot-size. The large and complex is understood in terms of the small and simple.
Chuck Close is best known for his paintings of faces, done in very large, complex grids of dots. Note that Close often uses grids, not open canvas. A grid can be a comment on technology (e.g., the technology of the cathode ray tube or computer monitor), but it's also something that comes from mathematics, geometry, the gridded sheet of paper. A grid is a sectioning of the plane into a regular lattice. The sections can be counted and hence easily mathematized; an open canvas cannot so easily. A grid's analysis of space comments on the method of science.
Bartlett as well is known for her paintings on large, gridded panels. She analyzes painting into color, line, shape, and simple subjects. Simplifying subject matter is a hallmark of the scientific method of analysis; not in the sense that the scientist makes a subject more simple than it is, but rather that he or she tries to begin an analysis on the most tractable part of the problem.
Though she considered herself an expressionist, Agnes Martin's work is more directly minimalist: commentary on the grid itself and the color on which it lies. Personally, I find that the cold, Platonic purity of her canvases make them problematic as artwork; much of the most rigorous minimalism is that way, and it flirts with boredom. But there's more than a little of boredom in the obsessive accuracy in science.
Jaq Chartier (mentioned below) often uses the same grid, the same rigorously linear design, in her work. She adds another aspect of the scientific method: testing. Her pieces are in concept and execution test patterns of color bleed through a painted surface, and many of them, in particular her Sun Test series, include bleaching from solar exposure. In form I find her work reminiscent of the gridded surfaces of Close and Bartlett as much as they comment on scientific testing. It's the fruitful range of metaphor that makes her pieces particularly interesting.
To change gears, these artists bring to mind one work of artistic science commentary in the world of opera: Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's masterpiece, Einstein on the Beach. A work that premiered in the mid-70s, Einstein is an expressionist, dreamlike meditation on the great scientist's work and legacy. There's no attempt at a linear plot, and very little narrative of any sort. The work is supported by Wilson's highly demanding stagecraft and Glass's minimalist musical score. Glass's music is particularly relevant to the present essay. Along with nonsense poetry and short passages, Glass's lyrics are filled with numbers and solfège symbols: beat and note. In the same way that the grid analyzes physical space, beat and note analyze musical time.
Of course, such rigorous analysis, repetitive and obsessive, threatens to bore. I've never found it that way in Einstein, though I know many have; instead I've found it intensely meditative. But again, so too can science be boring in practice. It isn't always accompanied by brilliant stagecraft.
This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject, rather a few short thoughts on what comes to mind. I'd be interested in other ideas!
(Click on images for larger reproductions).
There are several shows in Chelsea that will be of interest to people with a more scientific bent. To start with, Jaq Chartier has a beautiful and very interesting installation at Morgan Lehman. She works with rows of inks, usually deeply saturated, from her time doing color tests for an acrylic paint company. Her work stands somewhere between art and science, resembling DNA gel electrophoresis or the result of a high-throughput assay procedure. The square ones also allude to Jennifer Bartlett's gridded panels, mentioned in the last Chelsea artwalk.
The problem some artists have when merging art and science is that one or the other gets short shrift. Sometimes it's the artistic merit that goes, and sometimes the science appears deeply misinterpreted. Chartier manages to lose nothing of artistic value: her paintings stand on their own as abstract works, whether or not one knows anything of the scientific processes to which she alludes, and coming from a background in color testing, the science comes through clearly as well.
These are some of the strongest works I've seen in a long time.
For works by a more established artist, there is an ethereally beautiful show of prints and drawings by Vija Celmins at Senior & Shopmaker. Celmins is best known for finely detailed reproductions of the night sky or seascapes. She also gives us hazy images of Saturn, and a beautiful etching of an Earth globe, in a 19th century style. Once again, her work is a seamless merging of art and science, in her case the science of sheer physical observation of the natural world. Her reproductions of the night sky capture the way it looks in a telescope better than any artist I know, but her pieces always retain enough of the artist's hand to make them breathtaking works in their own right.
In the last Chelsea Art Walk I mentioned works by Tara Donovan. She has another, larger piece at Pace now on view, a large, quasi-crystalline, mineralistic construction of linked and nested spheres, made out of folded, conical sections of mylar. It's an extraordinary piece, beautiful both from a distance and close-up. As you approach, the reflective properties of the mylar take over in each of the conical sections that make up the spheres. They take on an otherworldly, almost floral appearance.
A number of large, digitally enhanced color photos of Earth the planets and Sun make up a more plainly scientific show by Michael Benson at Hasted Kraeutler. It perhaps strays a bit too far from sheer artistic quality to be considered a great marriage of art and science, yet for all that the photos are impressive and beautiful, some of the best executed of their kind. They are great teaching material and would be fantastic in a planetarium or science center.
Finally there is a single artwork in Dario Robleto's show at D'Amelio-Terras: a print titled "Candles Un-burn, Suns Un-shine, Death Un-dies" that works as a Hubble deep-field view of the galaxies. In fact it's a digitally constructed image made up of stage lights from album covers. The rest of Robleto's work has a wonderful graphic sensibility, using juxtapositions of anonymized advertising iconography in interesting and beautiful ways. It's worth a look on its own.
Back in November I did a writeup of an art walk in Chelsea, NY that highlighted some artwork that might be of interest to those with a SFnal outlook. Well, having been back on a blue-skied winter's day today, I've found a couple more that might be intriguing.
First is a wonderful show at the Pace Gallery by Tara Donovan, an artist who's working here exclusively in nickel headed steel pins on white polystyrene board. The images she produces are reminiscent of crystalline patterns, galaxies, or globular clusters, shimmering silver. They have to be seen up close, because along with the beautiful surface patterns, she also works with a delightful density of heights, building up bulges, hillocks and little forests of pins. They are works in which to lose oneself.
Another interesting show is an installation titled "O" by London-based video artist Hiraki Sawa, at the James Cohan Gallery. It's also the gallery for Bill Viola, which isn't a surprise because Sawa's metaphysically intriguing, digitally manipulated images are reminiscent of Viola. This is a show about time and the metaphor of the circle or spinning image. He imposes video of a toy ferris wheel, the moon, and flying (migrating?) birds on interior or exterior landscapes. Meanwhile smaller video images of spinning objects like a top, a bell and a lightbulb dot the darkened space. Sawa has also added an atmospheric musical drone to the piece, that plays here and there on small, spinning speakers.
Sawa also has a series of large, precise, gorgeously drafted pencil drawings of different phases of the moon, to go with the videos.
A third piece is the glorious "Recitative" by Jennifer Bartlett at Pace. It's a quasi-minimalist piece, something of an update to her earlier masterpiece "Rhapsody". (Which is also available in book form). Like that work, it's all about color, form and rhythm, though without any representational qualities. It has an expansiveness that suggests a universe of possibility. Unfortunately the show closes today, and also unfortunately it's a piece that is so huge as to be virtually impossible to show photographically. It stretches around three walls of an enormous interior gallery space. I include three images of it, to give the flavor. (Click for larger images).
Last I heard the piece remained unsold. I expect the only potential buyers would be either very wealthy patrons with enormous interior spaces or more likely museums. I only hope it ends up at a good home.
There's a mass of great artwork down in Chelsea now, and at least a couple of shows that will be intriguing for fans of science and SF.
To start with there's an exhibit of photos and scientific objects at the Pace Gallery by Hiroshi Sugimoto, known for his haunting photos of wax figures of famous people among many other things. This exhibit, titled "The Day After", has a whiff of post-apocalypticism about it. The center of the exhibit is a small Tesla coil spitting out plasmatic sparks, and the Pace gallery is lined with photos of lightning. The gallery also has two other rooms. One has large photos of the ocean, the horizon lost in mist, as of a world beginning to grow life. The other has photos of science museum dioramas of the early oceans, with a piece of the Allende meteorite and a beautiful fossil of an early ocean dwelling plant.
While the show is interesting on its own terms, it's perhaps a bit thin on artistic value. The other show delivers all: at the Tanya Bonakdar gallery a show of work by Tomas Saraceno. The gallery space is taken over by a riot of thin black polyester rope held in midair by nearly invisible fishing line, making shapes that look organic: perhaps complex molecules or cellular spaces. Each piece uses subtly different thicknesses of line to give the whole an amazing rhythm. One of my favorites is titled "Space Elevator/Spark 460" reminds me of tree or a neural dendrite, although canted on its side pointing at the wall of the gallery space it also reminds me of Bill Viola's wonderful piece "The Theater of Memory".
Viola hung lights in the branches of a dead tree, and its roots hang out the back, while before it memories play on a screen. Viola's piece is more of a video piece, as fits his interest, while Saraceno's is more about material, tension and space.
Unfortunately there weren't any shows of Bill Viola in Chelsea on this trip. Maybe later.
Other great shows included a huge retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg at Gagosian, a wonderful show entitled "Letters" by Brice Marden at Matthew Marks, and ur-sculptural photos of water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher at Sonnabend. The latter few are perhaps less suited to those of a scientific bent, but anyway I found them well worth the trip.
I almost forgot a couple of very good shows at David Zwirner: Michael Heizer minimalist works from the 1960s and 70s, and Luc Tuymans's show called "Corporate". Heizer is mostly known for his massive earthworks, which I have only seen in photograph but look very impressive. Tuymans is a name I've heard but never seen before. These are wonderful, soft-focus paintings on a large scale, grand and dream-like.
Both are worth seeing, as is a more difficult show there by Raymond Pettibon, "Hard in the Paint". The latter show is harder edged and more sociopolitical in feel, and so I suspect more liable to garner attention. When we were there it was full of art students taking a tour and snapping photos.
I've been talking a bit about aesthetic disagreement. The topic skirts around the central issue, which is whether there is such a thing as aesthetic expertise: that is, whether there really are certain people who have more insight into painting or literature or music or food, and who therefore are better positioned to make normative judgments about it. Whether there are people who can tell us whether or not a particular work of art is good, independent of our own opinions.
We all have our own opinions. Do some opinions matter more than others?
Some people are better at gauging popular opinion, or the spirit of the times. There are writers, filmmakers, and so on, who are good at consistently creating works of immense popularity. But that isn't the same thing as expertise ... or is it?
Isn't the expert the one who tells us that those popular films and books are all garbage? Usually, that's so.
I was at a show yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A greater bastion to expertise in art there probably isn't. But the show I saw, by the contemporary artist John Baldessari, struck me as a complete waste of time. Baldessari comes from the school known as 'conceptual art', which Sol Lewitt defines as art in which:
the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.
This school entirely stems from one work of art: Marcel Duchamp's (in)famous urinal on a pedestal, called "Fountain".
"Fountain" raised a number of important questions for visual art: could something that was created industrially, a piece of ordinary household goods, indeed a urinal for gosh sakes, become "art" by being put on a pedestal and included in a museum? If it could, then presumably anything could. All one needed to do in order to make something "art" was to put it on a pedestal and introduce it to a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It's an interesting point. But here's the problem: it leads nowhere. If a urinal on a pedestal is artwork, then so too is a guy in an artless black-and-white video reel saying, "I'm making art" over and over again, as Baldessari does. So too are banal statements and quotes about art painted by sign painters on canvas. So too is anything. And put next to the other works in the Met, this attitude is extraordinarily arrogant.
It's a kind of contempt for the public, something that is not original to Baldessari, or indeed to the conceptualists generally. It's a particularly lazy sort of contempt, though, since what one ends up with is 'art' of thorough artlessness, crashingly boring pieces that appear to have been made in mere seconds, offhandedly, or made by paid professionals like sign painters when presumably the artist would have had the skills to do the same himself if he'd wanted. (I know, I know. The conceptual artist doesn't care about the work itself, so having the sign painter do it is part of the 'concept').
Certainly an expert provides historical and contextual knowledge of a field, if nothing else. Even if one rejects the notion of aesthetic expertise per se, at least one can agree that some people have more experience than you, have read or seen or heard or tasted more and so can put a work in its place in a way that you cannot.
But are there also real experts who can delve into which pieces are more beautiful? Are there really qualified editors who can take dross and turn it golden? If so, how is this done? To what do they look as they work?
Do they simply look at historical precedent? (Baldessari has become famous, so he must be good enough to put in a show at the Met)? Or do they look at something more difficult to define: aesthetic quality? And if so, what is that?
This is the point: if there are real aesthetic experts, their expertise must be in something. There must be aesthetic facts in which they can be expert. But what are those facts? In what do they reside? It's an issue any artist must come to terms with, at least obliquely. For if there are no such facts, then there can be no true experts, either. Then all expertise is simply good marketing passing itself off as knowledge, a pedestal in an expensive building, and Duchamp was right.