30 April 2007

90% Of Everything Is Crap

OJ links to a Spengler column arguing that no one really likes modern art but everyone pretends to like it because they think that their kids are gods, or something like that. I don't really understand the point and, to the extent I understand it, I disagree. People don't pretend to like modern art because we don't believe in god; we pretend to like modern art because we've lost our critical judgment and are uncomfortable making value judgments. If we're told that something is art, we feel that we have to pretend that it's as good as anything else labeled art. If we were more critical consumers of art, we'd reject 90% of modern art because 90% of everything is crap.

But some modern art speaks directly to our souls.

It's unclear, first of all, what Spengler means by "modern art." From an art criticism perspective, modern art is what we call the art created in the 100 years from 1870 (starting with the Impressionists) through 1970. Art made since 1970 is, generally speaking, contemporary art. There is a lot of great modern art out there and anyone who rejects it all has lost his critical faculties just as surely as if he loved it all.

Spengler might mean that we only pretend to like contemporary art and, if so, he has a better case. I personally don't like much contemporary art -- but I do like some. Of course, Spengler completely ignores the selection bias at work with art from the past. Only the best art from the past has made it into the collections and on to the walls of the world's museums. Old art that we see is much more likely to be good art. New art, and particularly new art created in an art world that has lost its critical judgment, is simply more likely to be crap because it hasn't yet been sieved by history. Spengler's point, if this is his point, is thus much like taking a random book from the "Fiction" shelves of the local Barnes & Noble and comparing it to a random book taken from the "Classics" shelves.

Spengler might also mean to distinguish between representational art and abstract (non-representational) art. Abstract art is usually dismissed by conservatives as being art that cannot be distinguished from a toddler's finger-painting, and much of it is that slight. Other abstract pieces, on the other hand, mesmerize me. With even the best abstract art, however, I find I run up against two problems. First, I have to be in front of the actual piece -- reproductions don't work. Second, I only buy representational works for my own home, even when I set out to buy an abstract piece.

In the end, the only distinction that works is Duck's: I know what I like. But the danger is that "I know what I like" cannot be separated from "I like what I know, and I don't want to know anything new." My own threshold is this: if I see a work and its speaks to me without my knowing anything else about it (title, context, the story of its creation and the artist's politics), then it is art and I might enjoy it. If it is not self-contained -- and almost no contemporary art is self-contained -- then it is commentary and not art at all.


Duck said...

But the danger is that "I know what I like" cannot be separated from "I like what I know, and I don't want to know anything new."

Wanting to know something new in the way of art is motivated by how productive one felt about the last experience one had exploring art venues. If one came away from it empty and unsatisfied, one won't be highly motivated to keep trying.

I agree with your distinctions between modern, contemporary, representational and abstract art. Thre have been excellent representational artists during the modern period. Edward Hopper comes to mind. What I find irritating about most abstract modern art is not the fact that it is abstract, but the whole baggage of social commentary and moral/political posturing attached to it. I agree with you that a piece of art should be self-contained. Any value it has as art should be intrinsic to itself.

Mike Beversluis said...

Beg to differ: Modern and contemporary art value creativity over skill. And skill can be judged more objectively than creativity, which goes towards making a critical judgement.

The rest of his column aside, I think Spengler is talking about this shift in perspective. Which is why he spends so much time claiming that true creativity is very rare, while craftsmanship can be consistently developed in most people. The later is better, because craftsmanship without creativity at least produces useful goods and tools. Shakers furniture and much of Japanese crafts come to mind. What useful tool did hippies ever make?

Brit said...


Good post and I much prefer your take to the lazy and tediously obvious Reverse Art Snob attitude favoured by Orrin.

But you're still insisting on rules about "what art is."

Some art is self-contained, but art history and context are valid too, and interesting if you find that sort of thing interesting, which I do.

It amazes me that nobody seems to learn the lesson that the impressionists were as reviled and laughed at as any current conceptual art, yet they are now as mainstream as mainstream gets.

You rightly point out that 90% of everything is crap. But it's also true that just because there is a lot of nonsense spoken about something, that doesn't make the thing nonsense. There is an awful lot of nonsense spoken about Shakespeare, for example.

David said...

Mike: I love crafts. I go to craft fairs and buy crafts for my home. And yet, there clearly is a (fuzzy) distinction between arts and crafts.

Brit: Of course I'm insisting upon rules about what art is. My point is that art culture has lost its critical judgment and that that is a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

It amazes me that nobody seems to learn the lesson that the impressionists were as reviled...

Boticelli too. Can you imagine coming off of several hundred years of head-to-toe covered modesty with the most appalling personal hygiene underneath and suddenly seeing this?

It sure takes some of the lustre off the creative courage behind all those impressionist apples.