The Heretic: Why Dissent is Indispensible to Art

You can read a revised version at the great new art & culture webzine Escape Into Life

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Adoration of the Golden Calf

"Landschaft mit der Anbetung des goldenen Kalbes", 1653, Claude Lorrain

What is taste? What is art? Many artists and thinkers have struggled to answer these and similarly vexing questions, and thanks to their curiosity and determination we’ve inherited such a rich and varied cultural tradition. Reflections on questions of beauty, what we consider to be the domain of aesthetics, are in themselves worthwhile and revealing. “Worthwhile”, because they generate creativity and new ways of seeing and representing things. “Revealing”, because in the way we pose the questions and in the answers we give, we show who we are, were, and aspire to be. Last but not least, this cultural tradition made us into the people we are today by defining our outlook and shaping our sensibilities.

For example, by dislodging ‘the Good, the True, and the Beautiful’ and compartmentalizing such a thing as ‘aesthetics’, our western sense of what art is (and what it is capable of) has forever changed. Of course all these things are debatable as they have been debated over the centuries, but precisely because of this polemic, our culture has so much to offer. The point I wish to make, is that different schools of thought are very valuable, especially in such a ‘vague area’ as art. And secondly, and in line with the foregoing, that it is legitimate to make claims to truth in art – hence all the different schools. But maybe most surprising of all, I believe that such aesthetic judgments have never left us, nor do I think that they will go away any time soon.

For some people these revelations might come as a bit of a shock, so I fear I’ve got some explaining to do. In a thought provoking article on The Blog of Innocence called “Art, Taste, Money”, the author reflected on the current state of art. He noted a sharp difference or divergence in taste, between the so-called ‘cultural elites’ that populate the art-establishments of today, and the ‘lowly masses’ who ‘just don’t get it’. He illustrated his point brilliantly, with an apt response by an anonymous commentator on an article posted by Aurelio Madrid on Stephen Prina, titled “Difficult Art”.

It turned out the anonymous commentator was in complete disagreement with mr. Madrid, and disqualified Prina’s “Difficult Art” as “Fartart”, or in his own words: “When I see this ‘Fartwork’ I get sick from the fumes of its own arrogance”. Even without reference to the concrete work criticized here, the comment and the feeling that goes along with it, is immediately recognizable to many of us. Who hasn’t walked around a modern museum looking for the nearest exit, only to be afraid it might be part of some ironic self-referential ‘installation’? It shows quite nicely the necessity of polemics in art, as well as the claim to truth it entails.

We could just ignore this person’s outrage, just as we can ignore our own outrage in similar situations. We only have to recite the magic formula: “There’s no disputing taste”. Though no matter how many times we close our eyes and repeat the mantra, it won’t make bad art go away. It also doesn’t mean there can’t be agreement on great works of art. After all, isn’t the opposite true as well? “There’s no disputing [good] taste.”  And when you consider the mere possibility of a ‘taste beyond dispute’, and the great artworks it would testify to, then it becomes clear that disputing taste is indispensible to art!

Vatican City

“Laocoön and his sons”, photo by Reinaert de V.

Which brings us to Immanuel Kant’s famous Critique of Judgment, and especially his intriguing notion of subjective-universality in taste judgments:

(§ 22) “The necessity of the universal agreement that is thought in a judgment of taste is a subjective necessity, which is represented as objective under the presupposition of a common sense: In all judgments by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion; without however grounding our judgment on concepts but only on our feeling, which we therefore place at its basis not as a private, but as a communal feeling. Now this common sense cannot be grounded on experience; for it aims at justifying judgments which contain an ought.  It does not say that ever one will agree with my judgment, but that he ought(emphases mine)

We don’t need a lot of imagination to figure out what Kant meant with these shrewd observations. A return to our anonymous commentator shows we are witnessing Kant in action. For our desperate friend is trying to convince us of the truth of his taste judgment, precisely on the basis of Kant’s feeling of subjective necessity! What else could his outcry mean, if he didn’t expect someone out there to share his feeling, or ought to share it? Isn’t Kant inviting us in this passage to find out what binds us together as a community, through the questioning of each other’s taste, or lack thereof? A taste that, according to Kant, is based on a presupposed communal feeling, a common sense, a shared sensibility. And isn’t this process of ‘taste conformity’, this ‘reaching out’, part of our human nature, and – sometimes – a necessary corrective?

Nowadays we pretend, “as if” we don’t influence each other’s taste judgments, by refraining from commenting on them – at least in the negative – so as not to appear judgmental. We like to see ourselves as open-minded individuals, with a unique sense of taste. But we all stampede at the first sign of a sale at Ikea, or deliberately don’t go there solely because ‘everybody else goes there’ – which can hardly be considered a sufficient reason. Even so, when someone decides to furnish his or her house with everything but Ikea, isn’t this also an implicit critique of those who do? And isn’t silence sometimes deafening…

Exactly who do we think we are kidding, when we pretend to be the sole authors of the content of our thoughts? Is there anyone on this planet so arrogant that he or she seriously believes to be an expert on everything, or doesn’t need advice on anything? Isn’t this false premise the prime reason why public relations and advertising people can work their ‘magic’? What better way to control behavior than through the suggestion of such a narcissistic idea? “You can chose”, “Obey your thirst”, “Yes, you can”, but only so long as you don’t get too serious about things. After all, everything is ‘subjective’, isn’t it? Divide and conquer is their slogan and mediocrity the result.

People influence people all the time, it’s unavoidable. There’s no shame in this, there never was. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with ‘authority’ either. The only problem is following authority unthinkingly or unquestioningly, following someone for no other reason than that A or B said or did so. But it does not mean that you shouldn’t listen to what A or B has to say, especially when A or B has proven to have mastered a given subject. What is important however, is that authority A or B convincingly argues his or her case and show it to be right. Even when you’re completely out of your depth, at least you’ve been given a rationale which you can then freely choose to accept or not. Now you can hold someone accountable, compare arguments, pose questions, and criticize! Now you’re acting consciously.

All this doesn’t mean people should, all of a sudden, become conscious of everything they do from now on. Apart from such a state probably being very unpleasant, it’s also a psychological impossibility given the inherent limitations of people. Everyone has his or her field of expertise and set of relative strengths and weaknesses. What is possible, however, is to react differently to a well-informed and well-argued opinion. Therefore, instead of lynching an opinionated person for the bore, annoyance, or pretentious prick he or she sometimes appears to be, we could listen to the arguments – or look at the examples – and judge those on their given merits.

Where does all this common sense leave us? I hear you ask. Which brings us back full circle, in this merry-go-around, to the question: Should we denounce the insolent commentator because he verbally gassed an artist, or should we rather be glad he passed gas on this piece of art? When I started this post I boldly stated that truth exists in art, and that it still exists in art today. So does this mean the expert is right after all, since it’s his job to know about good art to begin with? My answer in this case, is a resounding: “No.” But of course the expert should, or at least, could have known in this case.

For if art needs this much explanation just to get recognized as such, then what would be the sense of art at all? Besides, even the explanation itself doesn’t sound very convincing. It sounds contrived and rather far-fetched if you ask me. Like I said, we should never trust authority blindly, and in art that goes double! By definition an artwork is there to be seen, or to be listened to. No one can lay exclusive claim to “experience”, one can merely try to explicate, enhance, or enrich it. We are all sentient beings and in principle capable of experiencing art, so we should all have a say in the matter, and what we say should be taken into account.

Art can’t be a purely cerebral activity, it can’t be an assemblage of in-jokes either. It should, and always is, open for critique and it should be able to withstand reasonable critique. True art is able to withstand the test of time, that is to survive without ‘context’, without explanations, and without advocacy. True art echoes down to us from history, it effortlessly crosses cultural divides and does so unaided (a feature shared with sound arguments, i.e. truth). It makes us wonder who made these incredible things, why and how they did it, and what they wanted to say with it. True art is eloquent and speaks for itself, because it moves us.

An art critic should be open to critique, because that’s the way you sharpen your senses and open yourself to new experiences. Sometimes art critics forget art isn’t there just to please and confirm them, but that it is a common good. A good that expresses best what is common to, and most praiseworthy about humanity – that which really binds and unites us. A good art critic should take the outcry of our anonymous commentator to heart and scratch his ear, and then open his eyes. Art is a language but not a secret language…

het melkmeisje

"The Kitchen Maid", 1660, by Johannes Vermeer