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December 17, 2004

Addressing a Deficit of Dorking

To my own dismay, my ability to dork around up in this piece has been rendered fairly minimal lately, due mostly to a need to poach internets access where and when I can. DSL at home goes live on Tuesday, so we'll see what kind of dorking the holidays will hold in store (no promises).

If you haven't yet, try and sort through the recent clash of comment cultures over at Artblog (a tiny bit of which spilled over into the comments on my previous dork): 114 progressively ornery comments for your browsing delectation (beware the shit talk).

A sampler platter...

I would... describe greatness as a massive agreement of subjective responses from people with self-critical tastes. The fact that I see the painting as great is important, because I have self-critical taste, and I become part of that massive agreement and reinforce it. (I am not, not, not saying that you don't have self-critical taste if you disagree with me. If you have self-critical taste and disagree with me, you undermine whatever consensus I help to form.)
I gave a class in art appreciation an assignment this semester. It was to compare the best of King Tut's thrones to Rodney McMilliam's chair. McMilliam's chair can be seen at http://www.artcritical.com/blurbs/JSMcMilliam.htm
I thought I would get back something about the irony that a somewhat funtionally oriented throne comes off as staggeringly beautiful for its own sake and an "art for art's sake" chair is such a flop as to be a waste of time to make it part of an assignment.
Instead most wrote they did not care for McMilliam's work at all until they were required to think about it as part of my instructions for writing an interpretation. The more they thought, the more they found they could write about it and therefore the better it seemed, until most of them concluded it was just as good as King Tut's throne. A couple went so far as to say McMilliam's chair was better than Tut's throne.
I also found that the strength of Tut's throne limited their interpretations considerably, even those who preferred McMiliiam. Most focused on its presence, its feeling of power, importance, splendor, formality, and how each detail helped create these impressions. There was amazing agreement. McMilliam's chair, on the other hand, spawned a zillion different ideas, ranging from the plight of the impoverished to the meaning of comfort for one's bottom.
Borrowing from Aristotle, I speculate that the objective FACT that the chair was next to nothing as art left it in a state of great potential to be anything else. According to Aristotle, the more a thing is realized, the less it can be something other than what it is, and vice versa. (Plain talk for the enlightened.) Tut's throne is in a magnificent state of realization and thus limits reasonable interpretation to what in fact it actually is. McMilliam's chair, existing on the edge of nothingness, stirs a far greater range of speculation because it lacks much of substance that would naturally limit the discussion. The students were all amazed that a piece of junk was so "thought provoking".
I left a big question of elitism open and nobody jumped on me for it: I would instead describe greatness as a massive agreement of subjective responses from people with self-critical tastes. Well, what about all those people who don't have self-critical tastes? They don't matter. They matter to each other and the market and much else, but they don't matter to the progress or continuation of great art. And people with sort of self-critical tastes? They matter more. So, yes, some tastes are more valuable than others. Now, who decides who has good taste? No one and everyone. How do you decide who is a good person? You have to get the facts right and decide for yourself. How do you know you're a good person? That's between you and your conscience. It's a similar problem.
But within that, self-critcial taste seems to be open to everyone, regardless of age or makeup. So it may not be all that elitist in the end.
Bottom line - I'll give the time of day to anything, but no idea is sacred, and many of them need a-killin'. I agree that the art world is in trouble, but much of that trouble was self-inficted through a bunch of failed priorities. I feel that I do my part to make it better if I make a call about something to the best of my ability and state it, even if that means turning some sacred cows into cat food.
It is possible to appreciate the beauty of something in at least two different ways; on involves "thinking" about it and understanding why you believe it is beautiful, the second is a kind of wordless state of wonder and awe. You refer to the latter as a state of absence of thought. Of course, whatever is going on while you look at the Matisse is going on in your brain; therefore it is thought. BUT it is word-less thought. I would say you meditated on the Matisse. I'd bet that at some point you stopped doing that and actually thought about it with words just a little bit. But even before that happened, your brain was doing all kinds of work, analyzing the relationship between the brushstrokes and what you, personally, know about the reality of mirrors, flowers, Cartesian space, and all kinds of other stuff (not the least of which, come to think of it, is brush strokes). You know this stuff so well that the brain does it sub-consciously, but nonetheless it is thought, and it is essential to your pleasure.
So you went into a wordless, Zen-like appreciation of the painting. That's pretty great, but don't give the painting all the credit - it was as a result of the painting being a near-perfect example of what you hold as sublime. I had the same experience at Basel while looking at a Wolfgang Tillmans photograph of a pink rag in water. It's powerful stuff.
Personally, I just do not believe that that is the only way to judge great art. I stand by my original statement; that art is great in proportion to its ability to evoke an idea/feeling.
Idea/feeling is a pretty vague bundle, so let me try to explain it. There may be a continuum of brain activity, from the Zen-like wonder which you describe, to a deep feeling of a specific emotion (i.e. sadness), to a feeling of sudden profound realization . . . ending up at a complicated, tangled, intellectual reasoning of some sort. I think great art can hit on any combination of these notes.

Some more or less related contents kicked about elsewhere:

Immanuel's just alright with Miguel Sánchez:

Iím not concerned with a strictly accurate reading of the 3rd Critique here. The movement from the initial explication of the judgment of taste to its placement in an ideally universal conversation, thatís whatís important. I see the Matisse painting and Iím struck dumb in wonder by its beauty; someone else disagrees, and we begin to talk, each trying to see and inhabit the point of view of the other. From out of our inchoate experiences, a conversation begins. Together that initial experience and our communication of it in a, well, community of others make up our engagement with beauty.

Onajide wonders about connoisseurship:

An interview about the photography market with Judith Keller, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Amanda Doenitz resulted from a conference attended at the Getty in March 2004 and, published in the December 2004 issue of art on paper.
Doenitz:It seems to me there is an overbearing emphasis on investing in art. But a discussion of connoisseurship barely exists. Is connoisseurship less important?
Keller: Its importance has been reduced within the art market, but I don't hold the market entirely responsible for this. When a collector is looking at work, the people who are presenting that work should be connoisseurs themselves, and should be able to speak to the merits of the work. But an entire generation hasn't gotten this instruction at the university level. The teaching of connoisseurship has been enormously reduced in the academic world, where theory rules. It's simply not about the object anymore.
I heard many complaints about the work shown at the art fairs but, I saw lots of good work. Maybe I just didn't want to waste time looking at it and, thinking about it. If there was so much bad work out there, there are definitely a great number of people willing to stake financial risks on it. Maybe they don't think it's a risk. How does it matter that theory is now the trump card?

Plus... Sánchez gives it his own back and forth (and back) with James Panero of Armavirumque:


What I would like to do is propose a challenge to Brown. I would like to make the argument that for art history at Brown to survive as a discipline it must rely on the native tools of its discipline, which traditionally has been rooted in connoisseurship and the unique categorization of great works of art. Related to this, I would like to propose that art historians at Brown rely on only source material contemporary to their subjects. Only then may we understand artists on their terms rather than on our terms. If Brown made a pledge to pursue art history along these lines, and rejected sociological art history as is now practiced, the department would become the most progressive school for art historians in the country.


Connoisseurship as a fundamental I can understand in the sense that without the training in seeing that allows one to make distinctions one probably won't be much good at any other art historical task. To draw the line there seems unduly narrow, though, as if one believed that possibilities for art history stopped dead at Beazley or Berenson. Though I salute the achievements of the former, his work stands as a reminder of the damage done to historical understanding by fostering a cult of the artist. As for source material, contemporary material is peachy - few are the historians who would do without it. Far more complain that they don't have enough of it. But aside from the point that understanding artists "on their terms" is far from the only legitimate question for art history, it seems odd to argue for ignoring either the preceding record that might illuminate a new development or the ways in which it has been received by later generations.


My suggestion for Brown came out of a wish--first--to circumvent the art-critical theory of the past few decades that has come out of the field of linguistics. Imposing its methods from outside the discipline of art history, linguistics has done nothing but stand in the way of the "beginning of the investigation" of art, as Kicks writes, and indeed has thwarted old-fashioned connoisseurship at every turn. Linguistics has even robbed art history of its own native language. Words like "connoisseurship," "genius," "masterpiece," and so forth can't even be spoken in the art history classroom anymore. Second, yes, my suggestion is reductive. But my hope is that such a restriction might serve as a very minor corrective to the massive oppositional forces of today's art history, which is everywhere.


As I alluded to below, the involvement of linguistics in art history is not a recent perversion but part of the displicine's earliest history in its debt to philology, just for starters. To this extent James is complaining that the linguistic models he approves of have been replaced by those that he does not. Obviously this topic requires more elaboration than I can provide here, but that will have to stand for now.
Which is not to say that art history lacks disciplinary distinctions between itself and linguistics, however much influence the latter has had. But words such as "masterpiece" and "genius" aren't much use in the classroom not simply due to nefarious new theories but because they are worn out and don't say much. "Masterpiece" has become so devalued as to have about the same impact as callling a work "wicked awesome"; and "genius" as a descriptive term obscures exactly what one wants to investigate.
...those trying to argue for a revival of out-of-favor methods need to recognize that these are hors de combat not merely for reasons of fashion or politics. And, one hopes, not attempt revival but a truly creative evolution, examples of which already exist.

"Addressing a Deficit of Dorking"
Posted by Dan at 03:48 AM


Referenced in this post:

Armavirumque: Kick Me
Artblog.net: thinking about thinking and not thinking (or, my dinner with j.t.)
Iconoduel: Fragmentary Thinking—Comments
Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Prominent Alumnus Challenges Brown University
MAeX Art Blog: Connoisseurship vs. Theory
Modern Kicks: Kunstgeschichte
Modern Kicks: Was ist Äufklarung?
Modern Kicks: geekin' out
Poor Man: Blog Dogme 2003