I hold this truth to be self-evident, that not all art is created equal.
To call something Art places specific value into an object, a space, an experience, and warps perhaps forever the purpose of its existence. It’s heavy, but hey, the institution is itself a burden—and Reader, you are gonna carry that weight.
Art is a loaded word, a very general word, one with no exact synonym and no fixed definition. Like other abstract concepts such as Love (“a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person”), Truth (“the true or actual state of a matter,” emphasis theirs) or even Reality (“being real, resemblance to what is real”—this definition explains so much of contemporary American politics) (is Reality an abstract concept?), the definition aptly describes, but still falls short, of their collective history and cultural implications.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “art” as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” The last bit—“of more than ordinary significance”—resonates most. Art, by definition, could be anything you like, anything you enjoy, anything that matters aesthetically to anyone.
This explanation becomes more true but less and less satisfactory as artists continue to push the boundaries of their craft. With much of modern and contemporary art devoted to exploring its multilayered and complex definitions, the question transforms from “What does matter?” to “What should matter?” Indeed, what should qualify as art? Whether those who argue are involved with its actual production or not, this is something on which everyone seems to have an opinion.
Real Life Example: Tate Liverpool, DLA Piper’s Constellation Series (and side note, one of the highlights of my UK art experiences). I’m face to face with Henri Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919), the titular reader’s matte eyes staring out from the washed out lines of her pastel bedroom, into the living world, my world, and somehow, beyond it.
My boyfriend Sam and Day, his best friend, emerge from the hall, chatting quietly. Day stops behind me, considers the painting, and jokingly says, “Are you kidding? I could have done this.”
Another Real Life Example: Art Institute of Chicago, the Elliott Room (Charter Series). A father and son observe Robert Ryman’s series of white paintings. The boy asks if all the paintings are the same. No, his father explains, they’re all done a little bit differently. The son nods, contemplative. Then he says, “What? This is extremely boring.” He kicks the stanchion and walks out.
I’m including these examples as real life fodder to this paradox. Here we have two artists, their artistic achievements eulogized in two very respected “cathedrals of the institution,” so to speak, and two people who fail to recognize their significance—that is, Matisse and Ryman may be “Art” to some, and just “art” to others.
This is where art becomes problematic; its definition as anything “beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance,” is only half true. While perhaps not qualitatively identifiable, one must recognize that not all art is art that matters—or rather, some work matters more than others. While often difficult to articulate, the public is in tune with this distinction. There is a line between personal significance and significance across a broad cultural spectrum, an institutionalized importance that imbues a white canvas on a wall in the Art Institute of Chicago with more cultural value than a white canvas in a craft supply store. One can argue there is no difference, but to deny that distinction is to turn a blind eye to high art, Western culture, the cult of celebrity and other institutions by which our lives are partially run and within which we operate.
Art criticism then serves, in part, to elucidate these aesthetic standards, to give structure and narrative not to the artwork itself—art communicates in the language of experience—but to its cultural context and significance within the operative non-art world. Not to decide, but to clarify these distinctions, the way historians, journalists, and cultural critics reconstruct events to create, ideally, a series of interconnected events that give both past and present meaning.
But unlike historians, journalists, and cultural critics dealing with the long-range implications of global warming, the Arab Spring, or American Idol, the political and sociopolitical dynamics reflected in the pool of high art are typically less transparent, quantifiable, or predictable. They’re often subtle and indirect; their effects can lack foreseeable immediacy within the grand stream of historical output.
Woman Descending a Staircase (1965), Gerhard Richter
Yet in effort to order the art world’s tangled dialogue, there’s this desire, as with other forms of historical reporting and recording, to speak through what is quantifiable and objective, and consequently treat personal interpretation and experience (which, we’ve established, transforms an object into art in the first place) as a separate and historically unviable side effect.
In his pamphlet “What Happened to Art Criticism?,” James Elkins, a historian and art critic (in that order) articulates this in a summary of critic Clement Greenberg:
[Greenberg believed] you cannot legitimately want or hope for anything from art except quality. And you cannot lay down conditions for quality. However and wherever it turns up, you have to accept it. You have your prejudices, your leanings and inclinations, but you are under the obligation to recognize them as that and keep them from interfering.
Greenberg makes a strong case. Yet there’s this implied notion of criticism as a “higher calling,” of quality as a quantifiable criterion somehow accessible, somehow real, somehow True. Greenberg’s argument takes this pseudo-spiritualist tinge, as though the critical gaze necessarily exists outside of himself, like how Michelangelo was not bringing to fruition a personal aesthetic ideal in his sculpture but freeing the art from a block of stone.
I don’t think Greenberg would say he successfully removed himself from his criticism so much as he actively tried to keep these two engines—the personal and the critical—separate. And here is the crux of traditional criticism: a belief in ultimate objectivity, inarguable quality and cultural significance. And I get it. Simply put, it’s tidy. It can hold its own in the canon of art history and academia, which too, gravitates towards the sterility of fact.
But I would argue that the personal can be critical, too, messy though it is. I would argue that subjectivity not only informs critical practice but also augments it, that feelings and experiences are more than signal interference, the way we use feelings, experience, and personal narratives to communicate complex ideas everyday.
Tell me, Reader: Is that radical?
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This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.