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.