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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Belittling Art

Posted by Daniel Green on 09/19/06 at 06:00 AM

I agree with Jerry Saltz that it is a mistake to think “that art is about understanding, when, like almost everything else in the everyday world, art is about experience; it’s ‘I experience, therefore I am.’” Unfortunately, Saltz only muddles this valuable insight when he goes on to observe that:

Art is often political when it doesn’t seem political and not political when that’s all it seems to be. Neither Andy Warhol nor Donald Judd made overtly political art. Yet both changed the way the world looks and the way we look at the world. That’s because art creates new thought structures. Imagine all the thought structures that either would have never existed or gone undiscovered had all of Shakespeare been lost. Art does far more than only meet the eye. It is part of the biota of the world. It exists within a holistic system.

Saltz wants to wrest art away from what he calls “neo-Cartesians,” those “dogmatists, ideologues, academics, and theorists who demonize and belittle art as a gratuitous, semi-mystical, merely beautiful, purely formal amusement.” This is a noble enough ambition, but, unfortunately, Saltz’s own language only gives the neo-Cartesians additional reasons to dismiss the “semi-mystical” descriptions of art that too often accompany the claim that art is experience rather than a means of acquiring knowledge. What exactly is a “new thought structure”? What’s new about it, the thought or the structure? Shouldn’t the encounter with art give us a new way of structuring experience rather than our thoughts, and isn’t the emphasis on “thought structure” just another way of conceding that the Cartesian approach to art is correct--that what art provides is “ideas”?

The “biota” of the world? Is this just a way of saying that art is a “natural” or “organic” product of the human imagination, itself a biologically determined phenomenon? (Thus no artistic creation is “unnatural” in the way some dogmatists of the religious kind sometimes maintain.) If so, why the clumsily scientific term “biota”? Isn’t this also just a concession to the intellectualized approach to art favored by the academics and theorists? Except that in this context the word seems emptied of all meaning, a frivolous gesture toward science that no scientist could take seriously.

As for “holistic,” Saltz never really gets around to explaining what he means in using the term to illuminate works of art, aside from a concluding story about the difference between cats and dogs, through which “holistic” is also equated with “nonlinear,” “indirect,” and “circuitous.” I can see the relationship between these latter three concepts, but how they work to create something “holistic” remains a mystery to me. All in all, Saltz’s language is precisely of the vague, inconsistent, “mystical” sort that gives aestheticism (even the metaphysicalized aestheticism Saltz seems to favor) a bad name.

Saltz seems to be one of those embarrased aesthetes who appreciates beauty but who doesn’t himself want to settle for the “merely beautiful” (like those literary critics who scoff at the “merely literary"). Art needs some transcendental plumping-up, even if only to protect it from the intellectuals and pedants who might trample on it otherwise. I, for one don’t see the need to reassure everyone that “art is often political when it doesn’t seem political,” even if most present-day “theorists” can see only the political implications of whatever art or literature they deign to consider, and I can’t agree that artists like Warhol and Judd “changed the way the world looks” or the way I “look at the world.” Warhol marginally did change the way art looks (at least for me), but his experiments in the demystification of “Art” did nothing to affect my perception of “the world.” Nor did they need to.


Daniel, who exactly are these “‘theorists’” who “can only see the political implications of whatever art or literature they deign to consider”?

By on 09/19/06 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You are absolutely right about Saltz’s careless use of buzzwords ("holistic") and scientific language. I was equally appalled by his calling art an “energy source.” I was genuinely concerned he was going to break into a quote from The Secret of NIMH.

Could you explain how you differentiate between structuring ideas, and structuring experience? I wonder whether it isn’t that the way thinkers like Descartes define “thinking” and the “idea” excludes many of the effects produced by art; all the same, structuring experience does seem like a thought process involving judgement,even if these are only the wordless judgements that produce an emotion, or determine what is foregrounded in a given moment.

Possibly Heidegger, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” fumbles his way towards definitions of thinking that might include the artistic, where he tries to substitute the experiential notion of the “clearing” for philosophy that “speaks the language of Plato.”

What do you consider to be a reasonable relation to Warhol? If he doesn’t change one’s perception of the world, nor the world itself, what role does his work play for you?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/19/06 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If the encounter with art *is* an experience first and foremost, then, as John Dewey wrote, the experience of art is the most open experience we can have, a “clarification” of what experience itself can be like. Great art “structures” our experience in novel and more distinct ways.

As I said in the post, Warhol’s work did (marginally) change one’s perception of *art*.

As to “theorists,” I was imprecise through quoting Salt’s own words. I would say more generally “scholars,” or, more specifically, proponents of cultural studies.

By Dan Green on 09/19/06 at 03:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, one might argue that the cultural studies scholars are the true inheritors of Dewey’s ideas.  The way various cultural objects structure our experiences is basically what cultural studies views under the rubric of ideology or hegemony.  A scholar like Fredric Jameson is similarly interested in the specific ways in which artistic forms structure our experience. 

I suppose the question is: to what extent is the shaping of our experience by art “political”?  One way to look at this is through Dewey’s ideas on freedom.  For Dewey, freedom is the ability to make and adjust plans, to overcome obstacles, and to increase the degree and number of choices.  So when we’re talking about art “shaping” experience, isn’t it a valid Dewey-ian question to wonder which artistic experiences increase our freedom and which experiences shut down our freedom?  (Bakhtin’s ideas about what’s novel about the novel come to mind.)

To take one example: proponents of experimental poetry, like Charles Bernstein, see truly experimental verse as re-awakening our ability to experience the world in multiple ways.  For Bernstein, or Ron Silliman, mainstream poetry (or what Silliman calls, after Poe, the School of Quietude) really only offers one structure of experience.  Bernstein calls this “The New Yorker Poem.” In his hilarious essay on water images in the New Yorker poem, he gives a punchy description of this structure: a man sits in his backyard, observes nature, and relates it to his present feeling. 

What’s sad is how true Bernstein’s mocking description of so much lyrical poetry really is.  A life in lyric poetry is so narrow, the range of experience described these days is so thin.

Is this also a political issue?  I’d argue it is, or at least a social/cultural one.  One critic (whose name I forget) has written about how the lyric poem’s obsession with personal experience ties into a larger cultural phenomenon.  We see it in “progressive education,” where the emphasis is on the child’s experience.  We see it in ideas about art, where the authenticity of the experience is raised above the crafting of language, color, sound. 

So I agree that art is first and foremost an experience that shapes and reveals experience as such.  But I think the next step, after a careful analysis of that experience, is to see how the type of experience reflected in a work of art relates to other ideas about social experience.  A true cultural studies would attend to both sides (aesthetic and social), and I can see how too often the aesthetic or formal side of art is subordinated.  But the best works of cultural studies—like Said in *Culture and Imperialism*—relate form to the social.

By on 09/20/06 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I suppose the question is: to what extent is the shaping of our experience by art “political”?  One way to look at this is through Dewey’s ideas on freedom.”

Another way is to look at what Dewey actually said about it in Art as Experience. His conception of aesthetic experience is not even remotely like Jameson’s and cultural study’s conception of experience as a site of ideological contest.

“But I think the next step, after a careful analysis of that experience, is to see how the type of experience reflected in a work of art relates to other ideas about social experience.”

It could be. It doesn’t have to be. Once art has induced the initial stage of aesthetic experience, its essential work is done.

By Daniel Green on 09/20/06 at 01:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dewey’s aesthetics always include social utility.  In his essays for the Barnes Foundation journal, Dewey continually insists that art’s utility is to shape experience (as you wrote above).  What you ignore is how “experience,” in all of Dewey’s work, is social experience as experiment and education.  As he writes at the end of *Art as Experience*: “Words furnish a record of what has happened and give direction by request and command to particular future actions.  Literature conveys the meaning of the past that is significant in present experience and is prophetic of larger movement of the future.  Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual.  The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art . . . Factual science may collect statistics and make charts.  But its predictions are, as has been well said, but past history reversed.  Change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor of the changes that affect more than the details of life” (345-46). 

That could come out of *The Arcades Project* or *The Political Unconscious*.  Art as a utopian project of shaping future social experience?  Sounds a lot like what Benjamin was writing at the same time (early 30s). 

What connects that, in my mind, to cultural studies and historical materialism is the very idea that art shapes our experience as a community, not simply as lone pleasure-seeking aesthetes. 

And the claim that art blows its wad at “the initial stage of aesthetic experience” seems simply to ignore the vast majority of art: Bach’s Passions and Masses; Mozart’s and Verdi’s Requiems; religious, historical scene paintings; portraiture; Goya and Picasso; tragic and comic drama; the novel from its very start (whether in Fielding’s anti-moral entertainments or Richardson’s manuals for proper behavior).  Simply to experience the “beauty” of such art is to miss much of what the artist sought to accomplish.

By on 09/21/06 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . art shapes our experience as a community . . .


By Bill Benzon on 09/21/06 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whatever it was that Bach was attemtpting to accomplish in his Passions and Masses, speaking as a 21st century agnostic, all that’s left for me is the beauty. It’s quite enough.

By Dan Green on 09/21/06 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would beg your indulgence to look upon <a href="http://dignam.livejournal.com/502173.html"> this post for a little while.

By on 09/28/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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