Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 10 (Postmodernism and the Pursuit of Ugliness)

We have already seen that a hallmark of Postmodernism is the idea that every person creates his or her own frame of reference. This is known as relativism because truth and values become relative to the observer. What is true for you may not necessarily be true for me.

One of the ways that relativism has outworked itself in Postmodern art is in the demise of content. No longer is the meaning of a work governed by the content; rather, the viewer is free to create his own meaning for an artwork.

Though there has always been a sense in which great works invoke a response that is personal and unique, it has only been comparatively recently that viewers are encouraged to exercise complete autonomy in how they respond to works. Julian Spalding tells how, in recent times, many artists “came to see the very concept of a work of art as a form of dictatorship” and attempted to make “art to be more of a give and take between the artist and the viewer.”[1]

In practice, this has resulted in artists making the content of their works intentionally opaque. Oldenburg’s Placid Civic Monument is a prime example. Oldenburg’s “Monument” consisted of a hole the artist had dug in the ground of New York’s Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum, and then filled back in again. “Oldenburg tells us that the thing includes all that is related to the event of digging and filing the hole, but did not happen at the spot of the event, such as the deliberations of the Park Board. The whole park and its connections are supposed to enter into it and he also tells us that it is open to any interesting interpretation.” [2]

The idea that an artwork can be “open to any interesting interpretation” is a reflection of the relativism that is axiomatic to Postmodernism. Postmodern art has transcended the crude fixity of objective content by liberating the viewer to create his or her own meaning. Tilghman complained about this when he reminded us that

Not just any description or interpretation can be true of, or relevant to, a work of art, or anything else, for that matter. The subject of any interpretation is the subject of no interpretation. The object of this kind of critical generosity has no value; anything whatsoever would do just as well.

Rejecting Aesthetics

An artist who has truly bought into the assumptions of Postmodernism does not merely attempt to redefine the categories constituting art. Postmodernism has never been interested in simply reconfiguring categories: it is interested in eradicating those categories and distinctions. Just as the categories we employ to discern objective truth (reason, investigation, supernatural revelation, etc.) are oppressive, so the aesthetic categories we use to evaluate artworks are stifling and oppressive. One of the forerunners of postmodern art, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), described a problem he faced when working with his “Readymades” (ordinary objects, such as his famous urinal, that were taken and displayed as art). Speaking of his work, Duchamp wrote,

I had to be careful to avoid the “look” [of being art]. It’s very difficult to choose an object, because after two weeks you either love it or hate it. You have to become so indifferent that you have no aesthetic feeling. The choice of Readymades is always founded on visual indifference and a total lack of good or bad taste.”

Duchamp is not alone in his quest – indeed, his struggle – for aesthetic indifference. The artist Josef Albers said, “I want my art to be as neutral as possible.”[5] The art critic Monroe Beardsley noted, with displeasure, the way in which “The disconnection of art from the aesthetic has been hailed as the most significant development in contemporary visual art, as a final freeing of the artist from all obligation.”[6] Joseph Kossuth argued that “It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deal with opinions on perception of the world in general.”[7]

Denying the Illusion of Beauty

The twentieth century witnessed the creation of a corpus of works designed specifically to show that beauty, if it exists at all, is completely relative to the framework of the perceiver. Some art galleries intentionally juxtapose work from the great artists of the Western tradition with nihilistic art, the message being obvious: there is no essential difference between the two. As one artist was quoted as saying, “You complain that my art is just bricks. Well, painting is just paint.” Since beauty never did have any objective meaning, according to this viewpoint, it is possible for contemporary artists to claim the great works of the past as their pedigree. There is no essential difference between the works of Raphael and the works of Francis Bacon. The only difference is the relative conceptual categories externally imposed by the viewer.

It should be no suprise that as our society has progressively accepted the idea that beauty is completely subjective that we should also have produced some of the most repulsive, anti-beautiful art this planet has ever witnessed. Anecdotal evidences for the self-conscious pursuit of hideousness in art are legion and hardly need be adduced here. We only have to reflect on the Chapman brothers – that notorious duo who are rich enough to buy paintings of great masters and decadent enough to deface and then exhibit what is left of the work. Granted that the Chapman brothers are extreme and, in some respects, non-representative, yet the conceptual framework underpinning their pursuits is typical. That conceptual framework is not the idea that people have grown tired of beauty and desire ugliness instead. Rather, it is that the very concept of beauty is itself void of objective content. This is the same reason why Theodor Adorno praised Schoenberg’s music. “All of its beauty,” wrote Adorno, “is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. . . .”[8]

A contemporary artist once told me that the new orthodoxy is to teach people to draw badly well. I am not quite sure if I understand how someone can “draw badly well” any more than I understand Adorno’s contention that a thing’s beauty can be its denial of beauty. Nevertheless, what is perfectly understandable is that in the world of postmodern relativism, contemporary artists are embarrassed, even ashamed, at the idea of beauty. I am told by people who have attended art schools that beauty has actually become somewhat of a dirty word.[9]

It may seem that the common man represents a last refuge against total artistic decadence. These are the people who still fail to see the point of animal sculptures crafted from carpet fluff, nor can they even begin to fathom why The Tate would want to spend £22,300 on one of Manzoni’s 90 tins of his own excrement. Yet still, the “man on the street” usually subscribes to the mindset that has legitimized such work, namely that beauty is relative. All you have to do is observe the common reactions if you chance to remark that the music someone prefers is ugly. Nine times out of ten, the person will not openly disagree, but will instead question the meaningfulness of your evaluation. Because taste in music and the other arts is seen as being on the same level as taste in say, food, anyone who makes a value judgment is vulnerable to the charge of arrogance or of “trying to force your opinion on others.”

[1] Julian Spalding, ibid, p. 38.
[2] B. R. Tilghman, “But is it Art?” in Art: Context & Value (Milton Keynes: The Open University), p. 248. See also Barbara Haskell, Claes Olfenburg: Object into Monument (Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), p. 62.
[3] Tilghman, ibid, p. 248.
[4] Cited in Pierre Cabanne, The Brothers Duchamp (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976), p. 141.
[5] Julian Spalding, The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today (Prestel, 2003), p. 49.
[6] Monroe Beardsley, “Redefining Art” in Theories of Art & Beauty (Milton Keynes, The Open University, 1991), p. 56.
[7] Joseph Kossuth, “Art after Philosophy”, Studio International 178 (Nov. 1969), p. 134.
[8] Adorno, Philosophy of modern music, (London: Sheed and Ward) 1973, p. 133.
[9] Among critics and philosophers of art, the term beauty has also tended to disappear, but for different reasons. See Mary Mothersill, Beauty Restored (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 257-258. Mothersill argues that though the term “beautiful” does not figure prominently in the shop talk of art criticism, just as the term “legality” is probably rare in the shoptalk of lawyers; nevertheless “when a point about a poem or a musical performance is made, the concept of beauty is in the background.” Beauty is “like knowledge or action, a 'standing' concept, that it is taken for granted in critical discussion of the arts, and that it is indispensable.” (Mothersill, op. cit., p. 257 & 247) As these comments suggest, most professional philosophers of art and art critics have not accepted the total subjectivity of beauty. Though such professionals do not tend to speak in terms of beauty, but prefer the wider range of categories available under our rich vocabulary for aesthetic judgments, art critics have held some ground against total subjectivism. (See Ian Ground’s Art or Bunk?, London: Bristol Classical Press, 1989) Nor is this surprising, for it is hard to see how critics could continue to have anything meaningful to write about if they did come to accept that everything is just a matter of personal taste.

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