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Friday, July 29, 2005

Culture, like booze (and still a public good)

Posted by Sean McCann on 07/29/05 at 02:54 PM

John Quiggin makes the excellent suggestion that we put away the romantic conception of art as “the immortal and transcendent product of individual genius, free from and superior to, all social restraints” and replace it with an older meaning of the term. 

let’s agree that in most areas of human endeavour, things can be done with skill and effort, in a way that will only be fully appreciated by someone who has themselves put in a fair amount of effort, or they can be done in a cheap and superficially appealing way, and that the latter will often succeed in the market. Until about the beginning of the 19th century, the term ‘art’ was used in relation to the first way of doing things, with no particular restriction. We still speak of the “Vintner’s Art for example.

Quiggin’s thought is that we should continue to do so, and that we shouldn’t necessarily think of painting, or music, or literature any differently.

Seems like an eminently reasonable idea to me.  One of the signal advances of recent decades is that you no longer hear much of what was once a staple of New Yorker cartoon style humor: the but-is-it-art question.  But the romantic sense of art as transcendent genius hasn’t necessarily gone anywhere, especially if you remove the word “individual” from Quiggin’s definition.  I’m with him: better to think of art as extraordinary skill then as ineffable genius (which is not to say, of course, that extraordinary skill can’t exceed easy explanation or challenge dogma). 

One side benefit of that view may be that it makes it easier to conceive of culture as Quiggin further suggests—a public good.  If culture isn’t the achievement of genius, but the product of social capital distributed among audiences as well as producers, then it’s at least possible to make the case that subsidy (in the form of education and institutional support as well as creative patronage) serves an important civic purpose.  Not that that’s likely to get much of a hearing in the U.S. these days.


"let’s agree that in most areas of human endeavour, things can be done with skill and effort, in a way that will only be fully appreciated by someone who has themselves put in a fair amount of effort, or they can be done in a cheap and superficially appealing way, and that the latter will often succeed in the market. Until about the beginning of the 19th century, the term ‘art’ was used in relation to the first way of doing things, with no particular restriction. We still speak of the “Vintner’s Art for example.”

Let’s not agree to such a facile doctrine.

At least not till we have discussed the proposition a little more.

I will start this off by asking if there is no difference between the “Vintner’s Art’ and the painter’s art, even that of a minor painter?

By on 07/29/05 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Doesn’t seem facile to me.  Of course there are differences, Jackson. But are they enough to say that one is art and one isn’t?  If so, why?  What’s wrong with seeing painting as the product of skill and effort?

By on 07/29/05 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"What’s wrong with seeing painting as the product of skill and effort?”

Because then Bouguereau is the best painter of the late 19th century.

By on 07/29/05 at 09:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Human societies have deemed certain activities requiring skill and talent - painting, music, dance, sculpture, literature - to be aesthetically distinct from other activities requiring skill and talent, such as wine making.  Art is the term that we use to describe these activities, which at their best are capable of producing aesthetic bliss, catharsis, or glimpses of the sublime.  I do not see what is so wrong about recognizing that these activities produce monuments of culture. 

This is a deeply embedded distinction in Western thought.  I don’t think it will be as easy to shrug off as you suggest. 

It’s no knock on winemaking (or baseball or crochet) to say that it is not among the highest forms of aesthetic expression. 

Pragmatically speaking, genius is just another word for extraordinary talent.

By on 07/29/05 at 09:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The terms JQ sets out (I know he’s taken the wine example from elsewhere), they’re a bit frightening.  The contrast he puts in front of us is Chateau Lafite vs. Ribena.  (And it is framed as a choice, not as two things you might put in a shaker with some crushed ice and gin and pepper and lemon peel.) Like, I know he’s an economist, but this is tying skilled intensive expensive labour, and brand names for god’s sake, to aesthetic value, as if it’s the most obvious and natural connection in the world.  That creates a problem for the terms of your question about funding for art and civic benefits; French plonk is a product of social capital all right, but the way it is distributed is instructive rather than equitable perhaps. 

The genius criteria does have its uses, still: I just don’t think it has to only describe a Promethean Superhero Originator figure.  I wonder whether it ever did mean that, somehow; early Romantics, William Gilpin for instance, talked about genius in the way Pope thought of it, as a kind of environmental inspiration, something that flooded the self, something almost to be inhaled.  Much undoubted art is not technically complex or dependent on specialised skill but nonetheless does provide a compressed articulation of the spirit, or genuis, of a place, or time or whatever.  This certainly includes art that is not physically made by the artist, or by any craftsperson, but made by machine and is extremely simple formally and conceptually.  A serious discussable example might be the Vietnam War Memorial in DC by Maya Lin.  It would be as hard to argue that this work doesn’t make a critical civic contribution as to claim that it lacked artistic power. 
To jump forward to skill and effort as core or base criteria might cause more problems for aesthetics than it solves.

By on 07/29/05 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The question, I think, isn’t whether painting and music aren’t different kinds of activities than wine making or cooking.  Of course, they are.  The question is whether the abilities involved at being either capable or incapable or supremely good at any of them are so different in the kinds of talents and abilities they draw on that it makes sense to treat one as mere technique and the other as a kind of special spiritual gift. 

Laura and bob, I think you both use what from my perspective would be a narrow definition of skill and effort.  I don’t think it’s necessary to valuing those qualities that we see them as mere facility or physical ability or that we imagine that they preclude great innovation.  Quite the contrary.  I certainly wouldn’t claim that Maya Lin hadn’t designed an extraordinary monument, indeed a work of art, and I wouldn’t deny that she is extraordinarily gifted at envisioning the way space and form and material can create a powerful emotional and civic experience.  Nor would I deny that like other similarly impressive creators, she shows an unusual commitment to her work.  But I can’t see why that shouldn’t be called skill and effort.  Lesser artists have less of those qualities.  No reason either that overcoming the temptations of technical complexity shouldn’t be thought of as part of skill.  Even among non-extraordinary musicians it’s a commonplace that playing well involves knowing when not to overplay. 

(btw, Laura, Quiggin anticipates your point about the distribution of plonk, which is why he calls culture a public good--something he wouldn’t say about wine presumably. When I put up the post, though, there were some interesting comments about Bourdieu in relation to all this.  But I think myself that those are significant questions about art as well as food and wine.)

If genius is just extraordinary talent, blah, than we don’t really disagree.  But I think that’s still not the way the term is used.

By on 07/29/05 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My own sense, Sean, is that genius is /not/ “just extraordinary talent,” but this is simply because I am (I’ll freely admit) wedded to the Romantic distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. One possible defense of this view is Gadamer’s late essay translated as “Intuition and Vividness,” in which G registers suspicion at the idea of genius but nevertheless defends it as indispensible to any understanding of art:

“We may well be inclined to find Kant’s concepts narrow and restricting, particularly his concept of genius, with its roots in a concept of nature that is ultimately grounded in a theology of creation. But that is exactly what makes his analysis of the feeling of the sublime so interesting. For here the ‘standpoint of taste’ is completely surpassed. This happens when the task of grasping the immense in an intuition or of fathoming the overwhelming and facing up to it, fails” (The Relevance of the Beatiful and Other Essays, 168).

I love Laura’s example of the Vietnma Memorial precisely because it captures so well this notion of great art as somehow (for lack of a less absurdly flamboyant term) sublime. Laura also points to the Romantic notion of genius as a sort of overwhelming sense of the essential nature of an historical epoch, and again the example of the Vietnam Memorial is perfect. Maybe we could tie Gilpin to Gadamer by way of Heidegger, who certainly agrees with Gilpin’s notion that art can be thought of as enshrining the truths of a given epoch. Heigegger thinks this enshrinement takes the form of an “overflowing” that cannot be understood, even retrospectively ("The Origin of the Work of Art"). That mysterious overflow can seem /like/ “genius,” but the Romantics, as Laura rightly suggests, are for the most part aware of the difficulties atendent on the concept of genius. These difficulties were enough to make a twentieth-century cynic like Gadamer puke at the notion of genius early in his career, but perhaps his late about-face is the product of a recognition that we cannot do without the thing, however uneasy it may (and arguably should) make us. Whatever it is, “genius” is claarly a necessity if we want to distinguish “merely” beautiful decoration from sublime art. And, of course, if we want to distinguish booze from books—the brain of an astute reader from the tongue of a Robert Parker. I want to do this, partly because I can’t tell Chateau Lafite from two-buck Chuck. But I know that ain’t much of a reason.

Ok, Prof. MacCann, mock away. My view is retrograde and ridiculous, and I’m sure Laura will not subscribe to my naive formulation. But /someone/ has to be the Really Last Romantic.

By on 07/30/05 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope you’ll forgive a bibliographical digression.

The case for the abandonment of the Romantic aesthetic paradigm is one that has been made at great length by Jean-Marie Schaeffer in 2 long books (L’art de l’âge moderne, which has been translated into English, and more forcefully in Les célibataires de l’art, both of which were published by Gallimard).  A shorter recapitulation of the argument of the latter book can also be found in his Adieu à l’esthétique

Unfortunately, contemporary anti-Romantic French thinkers like Schaeffer don’t enjoy anything like the status of the previous, generation in the English-speaking world, due in part to a vicious circle: ideas about (French) philosophers (as radically transgressive avant-garde geniuses akin to the Romantic artist) mean that they don’t get translated.  And because they don’t get translated, the Romantic conception of the French philosopher persists.  This is why even contemporary books about “contemporary French thought” can be made of chapters on figures all of whom are deceased.

So the anti-Romantic and sober arguments being put forward by French philosophers today don’t get heard in the English-speaking world, which is hell-bent on finding “the next Derrida.” I’d advise anyone interested in arguments like Quiggins’s to look into the Schaeffer books (and those by Gérard Genette, which have been translated, I believe) first.

By on 07/30/05 at 07:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

<<Doesn’t seem facile to me.  Of course there are differences, Jackson. But are they enough to say that one is art and one isn’t?  If so, why?  What’s wrong with seeing painting as the product of skill and effort?>>

There is nothing wrong with that, Sean, if you want to return to a Platonic conception of art.

By on 07/30/05 at 01:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walter writes, “Whatever it is, “genius” is claarly a necessity if we want to distinguish “merely” beautiful decoration from sublime art.”

I’m torn by this discussion.  On the one hand, I agree entirely with—was it Erikson?—who said that a first rate soup is better than a second rate poem.  On the other hand, I do think that there are some artists who are not simply more “skillful” than their peers but rather are qualitatively different (better?) than these peers.  An example: Anne Carson is not just more skillful than Billy Collins.  Her poetry is in a different league: not always as polished or “workshopped,” but consistently wowing in a way that Collins and his ilk rarely are.  Is this genius?  Dunno. 

Is Anne Carson’s work “sublime” to Collins’ “beautiful”?  Not by any definitions I know of those terms.  First of all, in Burke and Kant, the sublime is an *experience*, not an attribute of an object or a subject.  The object must inspire terror, whether through sheer size, force, or mind-bogglingness (i.e., the idea of counting all the grains of sand on a beach or the idea of pi).  But the subject must be: (a) in a position to feel this terror, and (b) in a position to know that s/he cannot be subsumed by the object.  No object is, in itself, sublime.  No subject is, as is the case with Hume’s idea of taste, “trained” for the sublime.  This is why Frank Ankersmit has explored the intersections between the sublime and the traumatic in historical experience. 

The fragment is one strategy for “stimulating” the sublime, as we see from Sappho to Ossian to Kafka.  The sense that a text is only a bit, a trace, leads the subejct to wonder what the true extent of the object could have been.  What gives Kafka’s work much of its force is the belief in many readers that behind all the bits, mini-writings, unfinished works, notebooks, and so on, is some vast system of belief that, if we had access to the “whole” work, would shed light on the entire project.  In this sense, Carson’s poetry can potentially lead to sublime experience in way that most contemporary lyric poetry cannot.  Perhaps this is also why the poetry of Nate Mackey, or Leslie Scalapino, or Susan Howe, also “feels more vast” than, say, Hoosier’s work.  The cracks, gaps, fissures, silences, and fragments in contemporary experimental poetry is all about the sublime.

I dunno (again).  I seem to have written myself into a corner, so I’ll stop now.

By on 07/30/05 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, you say the Kantean sublime “is an *experience*, not an attribute of an object or a subject.” But am I wroing in thinking that there is potential for slippage from a “subline-as-an-experience” to a “sublime-as-a-property-inhering-in-the-subject” view? After all, if the mind in Kant can overcome its feeling of terror at the prospect of the unbounded, can’t we say that this reaction—this affrmation by the mind of its own power to recognize and thereby overleap its limits—is a kind of sublimity of the subject herself? In its initial movement of terror, sure, the Kanrean sublime is just an experience, but doesn’t the mind itself become “sublime” for Kant by reasserting control (this is where the “pleasure” in Burke’s formulation “pleasing terror” comes from, too, no?)

I may of course be way off, so correct me if I’m wrong or just being lazy. One reason this question of the sublime interests me is that it seems to get at why I /want/ to find art sublime, instead of merely beautiful: I like to think that the mind—and by extension my Humanity or whatever—is itself the real sublime. Now, of course this is potentially all quite silly. But it is precisely because the notion of a sublime offers us a way of distinguishing our minds from our taste-organs that it is so damn appealing. This idea of there being, as you so well put it, something more there between the “gaps, issures, silences, and fragments”—but something more in us, not just in experimental poetry—is where the attraction of the sublime lies for me. Like you, however, I am torn insofar as I am aware that my attraction to the idea of “really great” art is potentially just a sort of self-flattering illusion.

Anyway, thanks for making me think this through a bit more, although I also have now written myself into a corner.

By on 07/30/05 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps the difference between “genius” and mere “skill” in art can be sorted out as follows.  Mere “skill” in art simply means skilled application of technique.  Skillful artists, in this sense, are indeed no different from quality vintners.  “Genius,” in contrast, denotes a different kind of skill - one that cannot be reduced to technique but instead concerns the artist’s ability (often unconscious) to see new, unexpected possibilities in her art - often by borrowing from but also defining herself against what all other artists in her field are currently doing.  In this sense, you can have artists of genius who are relatively lacking in skill.  In contrast, I don’t think you can think of vintners in this way.  Anyhow, we can keep the concept of “genius” as distinguishing certain works of art from the work of artisans but ditch the term’s mystical/metaphysical connotations.

I think Pierre Bourdieu basically defined genius in this way in The Rules of Art.

By on 07/30/05 at 03:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<<“Whatever it is, “genius” is claarly a necessity if we want to distinguish “merely” beautiful decoration from sublime art.” >>

Which notion of the sublime is being proposed here?

The ancient idea is indeed a aesthetic idea of technique, while the modern Kantian notion has more to do with experience (of nature as well as of art)than with art proper, i.e. art as poiesis or making.

By on 07/30/05 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps the difference between “genius” and mere “skill” in art can be sorted out as follows.  Mere “skill” in art simply means skilled application of technique.  Skillful artists, in this sense, are indeed no different from quality vintners.  “Genius,” in contrast, denotes a different kind of skill - one that cannot be reduced to technique but instead concerns the artist’s ability (often unconscious) to see new, unexpected possibilities in her art -

Stephen puts in terms easiest for me to grasp the objection I think most in this thread share.  So let me just say a few words in response.

As Quiggin notes, this isn’t really the kind of dispute that can be resolved by appealing to the facts, having more to do with the fundamental attitudes we think are important to take to art.  He also notes in passing in his comments thread that the romantic notion of genius requires a binary attitude distinguishing between genius and non-genius and, it could be added, quite typically between art and non-art.  There’s the problem.  As Stephen casts things here, skill becomes mere technique and technique becomes mere rote reiteration.  One prominent effect of the investment in genius in other words is the devaluation of skill.

But think of the skilled craftsmen you know, the ordinary ones and then the truly extraordinary.  Is it really true that they just apply technique that, to varying degrees, they don’t see new, unexpected possibilities?  I don’t think so. 

Of course, you want to recognize that there are people who are truly extraordinary at their work and surpass the expectations that others and even they have.  Maya Lin, say, or, Wayne Gretzky, or Yo-Yo Ma.  Those people are extraordinary, but it’s also possible to recognize that they do incredible things with practices and in mediums that they share with others, and that their abilities are on a continuum with their colleagues.  (A genius, on the other hand, has no colleagues.)

Thanks for the recommendation, Stephen. I noted the reference to Schaeffer in your essay and have been hoping for a chance to read him.

By on 07/30/05 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is there anyone these days that will argue like Plato that most art is a vice because it appeals to pleasure and pain instead of reason and virtue?

By on 07/30/05 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you might have me confused with another Stephen, Sean - I’m not sure what reference to Schaeffer you’re referring to.

Anyhow, genius is a problematic term that implies a value-judgment where I don’t want to make one.  I don’t buy into the idea of the “all-powerful creative genius” who transcends his time and place, etc.  Moreover, genius is obviously a historically delimited concept, the product of how art has evolved as a set of institutions.  However, I think it defines certain distinctive features of the arts (or at least it used to) that don’t exist in the case of hockey, wine-making, etc. 

For example, Wayne Gretzky is indeed an amazing player who has completely mastered his game, to the point where it’s a kind of second-nature to him.  And no, his mastery of the game is not rote repetition.  But I don’t think that future hockey players will ever think “Hey, I can’t play this way, or else I’ll be considered derivative of Gretzky.” There’s no need to be “original” for its own sake, although this sometimes happens.

In contrast, “genius” is a feature of fields that have a built-in hyper-awareness of their own historicity.  You could even call it a kind of pathology of those fields.  And obviously, there’s a law of diminishing returns that applies to genius, and we might have reached a point where the concept is exhausted in most of the arts.  I.e., pragmatically, too much has been done, and there’s no real room for startlingly new developments in most genres.  Jazz is an example.  Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler are all genius saxophone players, in the sense that they introduced new styles of playing the instrument, ones that self-consciously defined themselves against everything that had gone before while also, of course, dependent upon it.  They also, not coincidentally, helped define jazz as a form of art music, one that could thrive upon alienating certain portions of its audience and instead appeal to those with more complex tastes.  However, while it’s possible to imagine highly, even brilliantly skilled jazz saxophonists today, it’s difficult to imagine the emergence of a new genius.

By on 07/30/05 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right, Jackson. The term as used in Kant is does not apply specifically to poesis; it is Schiller who makes that connection, and also Schiller who will insist on the centrality of genius to Kant’s conception of the aesthetic (rightly or wrongly—the truth of this is still debated). The Gadamer of 1980 would have argued, I think, that we need not be so ashamed of interpreting Kant in light of Schiller, though clearly he (and I) are in a tiny minority here.

So that’s what I meant. Stephen’s sensible compromise beckons to me, but somehow it doesn’t seem to capture what I want to say. I can’t put my finger on why, so I must accept his position.

By on 07/30/05 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<<Is there anyone these days that will argue like Plato that most art is a vice because it appeals to pleasure and pain instead of reason and virtue?>>

That’s not Plato’s argument, certainly not his primary brief against art.
Art is to Plato like a craft because they each are based on imitation. In fact craft is superior in as much as it only imitates a primary pattern while art is inferior because it is the imitation of an imitation.
To suggest that one ought to see art as a craft is to argue for an intrinsic similarity which Plato had already noted and used it to devalue the activity of the poet.

By on 07/30/05 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, Stephen, and a good point.  I’d reply with a few thoughts.  One is that the hyper awareness of historicity is (to the extent hyper) a particularly 20th century phenomenon, maybe even particularly mid-20th century.  (I don’t know if I’d say pathological, but I think there are some seriously distorting effects.) Another is that, when we don’t think of artists necessarily advancing the field, we may think of them at their best realizing their distinctive style.  That is, I think, in fact a way we do talk about supremely accomplished craftsmen in other fields. (Or to make a still more reductive suggestion, we might just say that it’s part of the demand of the market to offer distinctive and high quality product.  No surprise that the people who are best at it will appear to do something utterly unprecedented.)

You’re right, of course, that there’s no ethical burden on hockey players not to play like Gretzky.  But it is worth noting also that great athletes can completely reorient the styles of play in their sport and that they will inspire imitators--just as in the arts someone like Picasso will launch a thousand abstractionists and Charlie Parker will give rise to schools of bop--and sometimes not just imitators but extraordinary innovators who follow the example to do something quite new.

By on 07/30/05 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and you’re right, another Stephen (Asam Schwartz) also commented in this thread.  Sorry for the confuction.

By on 07/30/05 at 11:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As someone who has been obsessing about Albert Murray’s work recently, I just want to add that Murray’s existentialist-cum-Hemingway approach to art and life bears out Sean’s position here.  What makes *Train Whistle Guitar* such a moving kunstlerroman is the way Murray shows how art arises from “the practices of everyday life” (some of which might seem like cliches 30 years later): minor league pitchers, local musicians, the way men talk in barbershops, the way female schoolteachers teach, the way preachers preach, and so on.  In fact, there’s not a single work of “art” mentioned in this portrait of the artist as a young man.  But insofar as an act is imbued with a distinctive style, Murray shows how his protagonist adopts it, transforms it—and Murray “performs” this in the writing, shaping the writing to mirror the vernacular styles his narrator is learning as he grows up.  [A partypooper would see these “cultural” practices as ideology, but who likes partypoopers?]

What grabs me is style.  Not style as “ornament,” but style thought of as an adaptation to and transformation of the world.  Hemingway saw this style in his bullfighters.  I see it in the way Kim Gordon played bass while pregnant when I saw her with Sonic Youth.  I see it Art Tatum (who I see as the greatest artist of the 20th century), in his approach to pop standards *as* an art.  I see it in Faith Ringgold’s quilts and the Singh twins’ miniatures (I’ll never forget seeing the twins’ work at a British cont art museum on my honeymoon.  Thomas Pynchon’s writing is all about style for me, which is why *Vineland* never disappointed me: it’s idea-content might seem small compared to *GR*, but the writing, the sentences, the performance throughout is stunning.  And I guess this is why late James blows me away, even if I throw the novels across the room every ten pages. James’ style isn’t genius; it’s the mark of a craftsman at the height of his talent.  The baroque affectations of Michael Jordan’s playing are essentially no different than what James’ does with words in *The Ambassadors* (don’t ask me to justify that one!).

A final point: some people use creative writing programs and “workshop writing” to condemn the reduction of art to craft and genius to training.  But I think the real dangers are the limited *type* of training received, the limited range of writing that is accepted in such programs, and the anti-intellectual atmosphere in which reading the latest Ted Koosier book is “better” than reading, say, Agamben’s latest.

And a quotation from Murray’s “The Storyteller as Blues Singer”:

“When Ernest Hemingway declared that all bad writers were in love with the epic, he was not expressing disdain for epic heroism.  Nor was he repudiating the epic as a fundamental category of literary expression.  He was objecting to overwritten journalism and pointing out that the injection of *false* epic qualities into such writing did not transform it into literature.  He was condemning pretentious elaborations and fake mysticism.  The he was reemphasizing his preference for the clear-cut statement, or, as he puts it elsewhere, ‘straight honest prose on human beings.’”

By on 07/31/05 at 01:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“Genius,” in contrast, denotes a different kind of skill - one that cannot be reduced to technique but instead concerns the artist’s ability (often unconscious) to see new, unexpected possibilities in her art - often by borrowing from but also defining herself against what all other artists in her field are currently doing.  In this sense, you can have artists of genius who are relatively lacking in skill.

So are Grant Achatz, of Alinea, and Homaro Cantu, of Moto, geniuses in this sense?

By ben wolfson on 07/31/05 at 02:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, your basketball analogy is flawed. When it mattered, Jordan played with the cold efficiency of a career assassin. Cf. Herak. fr. 123.

By Jonathan on 07/31/05 at 02:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: as did James.  Re: theatre.  See his real final novel: *The Outcry*.  Cold efficiency, and I’m not describing my flat, though I could be.

By on 07/31/05 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Leaving aside the vexing question of “mattered” in this context, your aforementioned point about the “baroque” is now shot to hell.

By Jonathan on 07/31/05 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to keep dragging historical relativism into this, but past eras (and maybe even different communities in this era) would look on some of what we consider clearly “art” as, just as clearly, “craft” (or even “inept primitive attempts at craft"). The division isn’t one that can be argued on the abstract merits of the cases—it’s contingent on cultural history.

One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is that most ambitious hard-working makers treat what they’re doing as craft, no matter what its reception might be.

By Ray Davis on 07/31/05 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is that most ambitious hard-working makers treat what they’re doing as craft, no matter what its reception might be.”

This is true, Ray, although I can think of many writers and artists who self-consciously worked an idea of their own genius into their art - Stein, Joyce, and Picasso all come to mind (obviously my notion of genius here is, as Sean pointed out, historically specific).

To return to Sean’s rebuttal to my Hockey / Jazz distinction, I would say that although Wayne Gretzky might innovate a new style of playing the game, and although he might inspire imitators, he cannot actually change the rules of the game.  In contrast, this is what artists who style themselves as geniuses try to do.  For example, Ornette Coleman set out to rewrite the rules of jazz performance; this ambition is explictly announced in early album titles such as “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”

By on 07/31/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s just because hockey is a joint venture; it doesn’t illuminate something specific to art.  A great general might come up with an entirely new tactic and thereby change the “rules” of war.

By ben wolfson on 07/31/05 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And it’s not true that a player in a sport can’t change the rules of the game; I recently read an obituary of a basketball player, one of the first of the very tall ones, who, because of his height advantage, was able to hang around under his team’s basket and just block shots.  My understanding is that this is now illegal.  He didn’t even have to be good to be able to do that—he, or his coach, or a teammate, just had to make the fairly obvious realization that he was tall.

Ornette Coleman, on the other hand, or Derek Bailey or whoever, cannot change the rules of jazz performance, because, to Wynton Marsalis’ dismay, there is no governing body of jazz.  There are de facto standards and methods of instruction and whatnot, but that’s equally true of, say, hockey; a brilliant player could easily inspire followers and perhaps even pedagogical methods, no?  New playing possibilities reveal themselves.  Extended techniques.  (Though Coleman faced more skepticism—but it’s easier to tell when something new will be worthwhile and successful in hockey than in jazz.)

By ben wolfson on 07/31/05 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok; you’re right, Ben.  That was a bad example.  The difference should be that in artistic fields, there’s a constant imperative to introduce major innovations for their own sake.  In contrast, when a general changes the rules of war, or a hockey player innovates a new style of play, they do so because it’s functional - because it wins more battles or goals.

By on 07/31/05 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The difference should be that in artistic fields, there’s a constant imperative to introduce major innovations for their own sake.

This is not the case in, say, iconography—but icon painters probably didn’t regard what they were doing as making art.

By ben wolfson on 07/31/05 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Setting aside the question of genius, it seems to me that as a means of distinguishing between art and “masscult,” Quiggin’s criterion is flawed.

On the production side, whatever you may think of the film Titanic, it wasn’t “done in a cheap ... way.” And many of the people behind the camera (if not in front of the camera) must have been highly skilled. (If you believe that Titanic is art, feel free to substitute any other mindless Hollywood blockbuster.) Conversely, suppose we discovered that Williams had dashed off “The Red Wheelbarrow” in five minutes. Would this cause us to decide that the poem is not art?

On the reception side, undoubtedly many works of art require “a fair amount of effort” to “be fully appreciated,” but I don’t think they all do. Are the Marx Brothers art? If so (as I suspect most of us would agree these days), what is the fuller appreciation to be gotten by someone who has but in “a fair amount of effort,” as opposed to the appreciation of someone who just laughs at the jokes?

By Adam Stephanides on 08/08/05 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the comment, Adam.  You’re quite right, I think.  This isn’t a method to distinguish between art and masscult, but that’s a good thing in my view.  I don’t see a virtue to looking for categorical distinctions along those lines myself and think that most efforts to find them have had bad effects.

Was Titanic done in a cheap way?  Well not in terms of production costs, no, but in terms of easy manipulation, trite plotting, corny characterization, etc., sure.  Tossing the diamond in the ocean at the end--that’s the kind of cheap gesture that a skilled craftsman might well scoff at--even if it took lots of money and fancy technology to make.

Sure, it’s true that a lot of art doesn’t require great effort to appreciate and some may well be harmed by too much effort.  But, as with skill, I think it’s a mistake to construe effort too narrowly--and also a mistake not to consider that art can occasion different degrees of appreciation. 

A minor anecdotal example.  I once worked occasionally with musicians who performed a purely popular form of music with a pretty restricted repertoire and no formal (but much informal training) required.  All of them were aware of the difference between flash and musical subtlety.  All of them were aware of which musicians would settle for the former and who were accomplished at the latter.  They also knew that audiences could be wowed by the former and moved less consciously by the latter.  And they also knew that there were some few, very attentive listeners who would take much closer note of qualities that less schooled listeners might hear and respond to, but not fully register, or might miss entirely.  None of these people would have considered themselves artists (though in our estimation, many of them probably would be).  They were accomplished at a distinctive skill and some rare few of them could do beautiful things with it.

By on 08/08/05 at 09:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are no objective aesthetic standards, and thus definitions of art are as subjective and personal as the impressions of different people listening to Debussy or whatever they choose.  I like to think Debussy is superior to, say, Bobbie Dylan, and according to my own criteria, Claude is superior; similiarly I might view Claude as a heroic and visionary artist and not as craftsman or worker or whatever. Additionally, like some of the postmods., I believe the aesthetic experience is individual, and perhaps culturally specific, that metaphors and semantic connotations (or harmonies and melodies) might mean quite different things to diffenrt intelligent people: I suspect Ornette Coleman gets something quite different than does Eminem or Marilyn Quayle from listening to La Mer; I derive something quite different from TP’s “Vineland” than would my schoolmarmie or mechanic neighbors. Given a certain amount of similiar education and knowledge, perhaps some readers’ interpretations and impressions of Vineland or La Mer might be similiar, and I think they may be more similiar than dissimiliar, but I do not think they ever are identical. This might be obvious but so many aesthetes seem to assume that say Mozart IS great, but offer no proof.

Perhaps the problem of “other minds” is as problematic for aesthetics as it is for metaphysics, and I see the subjectivity of novels or symphonies as both blessing and curse. Vineland, like COL 49, refers to quite a few familiar California locales and situations, so I suspect Californians of a certain intelligent-countercultural type will respond to it more strongly than would farmers from Ohio. I don’t think connotation can be mapped any more correctly than can someone map all of his or her memories correctly.

Does any chord and/or cadence have some measurably objective effect on any group of people? Some hearing say Debussy’s Reverie think schmaltz, others don’t; hearing dylan some cringe at the primitive harmonies; others enjoy it. Is there a correct hearing? Really I think there is--the Debussy is “correct” or objectively beautiful at least in sections--, but it would suppose a common education and culture which itself might be subjective: I doubt a skilled hindu musician would enjoy Debussy or Dylan.  So, in effect, I think that subjectivity prevents aesthetics--music, novels, art-- from being any sort of effective political tool. The arbitrary nature of
aesthetics may then indicate to some degree the problem of “other minds”; e.g. the problem of identifying a common perceptual schema....

By ak-187 on 08/08/05 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

ak, I think it’s a premise of the view I’m describing that the reception as well as production of art will necessarily take place in community contexts--skill necessarily being skill at something. If that were true, it wouldn’t mean that there couldn’t be widely divergent, purely personal reactions to works, but it would mean that there would also be something like (changing) communal canons of taste against which works and reactions to them could be measured, even if not in any simple or calculable way. It would also mean that some comparisons just wouldn’t be useful.  Debussy and Dylan both create music, but that seems such an enormous context that it’s hard to think of them as doing things that are meaningfully comparable.  It could also mean that chords and cadences could well have measurable effects on groups of people, even if not on all people.  If you’re reared with western music, you know that some emotional associations go with minor keys. 

I have to admit, though, that part of me actually suspects that there might be some directly physiological effects of music that are independent of taste and education.  I’m thinking of rhythm, but I don’t really have any thoughts about this, just a suspicion.

By on 08/08/05 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

that is what i dispute: when bill evans plays prolonged minor 7ths--like with miles davis--not everyone feels sad. some might feel happy, or many other emotions, or no emotions--I don’t think the chord can be mapped to some corresponding emotion in the way that say a table refers to the physical thing you eat your breakfast on, or how when 5x = 20, x = 4; I do think music is language to some extent, but that it’s personal and requires a certain specific education: yes the composer hears say a Bach cello concerto in C minor as sad and grave majestic in a way a teenage rocker doesn’t; there is a certain objectivity to musical knowledge maybe, but that is completely dependent on how the afficionado or composer was educated or conditioned. 

Literature has a higher probability of denotative meaning than does music, I believe, but a book such as Vineland may be ultimately as much expressionist as public: it is TP’s vision of California; others may have much different visions. No? Does the vision tell some things which can be agreed upon and which are valuable? I think it does, but there is again a great deal of context and education one would need. And any reading of the vision, trying to place the referents, denotations, or “proper” ethical or psychological responses, is made more difficult by irony, parody, obscurity etc. Do we feel compassion for Zoyd Wheeler, or for any of the characters? Are these pictures of believable humans and is there a narrative being played out which somehow corresponds to the political reality of the time? Perhaps there is , but it gets very complex, and again I think the problem of specifying any necessary meaning or interpretation to works such as Vineland causes the novel to be of less pragmatic value than say economic or historical writing.

(btw I apologize to some extent for irritating you and your staff for the interchange with kotsko and emerson, but I would like to note that this happens to me on numerous sites: I post something and then out of nowhere this kid appears and starts accusing me of flames or “trolling” which happened months ago, and then he is accusing me of all sorts of things, begging the admin. to delete my posts and so forth. Such interference is upsetting, and perhaps I made a few harsh statements, but I do not think posters’ hearsay comments should cause you or the admin to censor or delete posts. I dont really
care if you do delete them, but bogus rumors should not cause you to do so.)

By JC-187 on 08/08/05 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think the chord can be mapped to some corresponding emotion in the way that say a table refers to the physical thing you eat your breakfast on

definitely not.  and definitely not everyone will hear a minor chord eliciting sadness.  But more than one will.  Otherwise there would be no efficacy to movie soundtracks.

By on 08/09/05 at 12:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

fwiw, JC, I didn’t delete any comments. They’re all still there.  I just attempted to detour a discussion that was headed toward flame war.

By on 08/09/05 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Another problem with Quiggin’s formulation: what about somebody like Henry Darger, whose works are now widely accepted as art, but as far as skill goes was far inferior to the average “cheap and superficially appealing” hack?  I suspect that there can be no counterpart to Darger in winemaking, where without a certain amount of technical skill you can’t produce anything drinkable; and that the same is true of the other “useful arts.”

(Note that I’m not claiming that all “outsider artists” are unskilled, just that Darger was.)

By Adam Stephanides on 08/09/05 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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