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Entries in Marcel Duchamp (1)

Sunday
Oct312010

The Role of the "Expert"

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".

Duchamp's 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.