At least, I hope it isn’t.
A reader posted a fascinating response to my previous talk, and what started as a response to her remarks became a follow-up post. I’ll post the original comment first, and follow it with my (very unbrief) response. Thanks again to our reader The Missy for her engagement with my writing. Here’s her comment:
While I agree mostly with your assessments on determining what is considered “art”, I have a curious thought about Duchamp’s urinary “fountain”. I am with you that I would probably reject it as art of any kind, however, “disgust” and other negative feelings ought to be considered as an evocation of feelings to be conveyed in the message. If we came from a time that toilet was just an unconcealed pit, would Duchamp’s toilet not be a refreshing piece of art? Additionally, dark art is an art, even though I am hardly a fan of this category, but perhaps it’s exactly because it evokes the fears and sadness in me that I resist it. Is it not conveying a message?
“Standards” is a controversial term in evaluating art, but I do like your analogy of medical diagnosis. I say controversial because I wonder how “standards” would implicate more broadly in terms of art creation. If we accept standardised evaluation as a form of recognition to art, we are accepting the specific prescriptions to qualify our work as art or garbage. What I’m trying to say is that standards are often associated with measurements; measuring if the brush strokes were skillfully and consistently applied; measuring to discern conceptual and perceptual presentations and accurateness; discerning a child’s random scribbles from an artist’s abstract images, etc. So, are we not the products of modernity by standard? From the witch-doctor who may not need years of formal training and hours of supervised practice, to an artist whose works were appraised by the mass; we introduce standards to classify what is to be accepted as “qualified”. Relating to feelings, are less desired feelings less valid than what “ought” to be felt?
I am not resisting the concept of modernity, in a specific discipline or in life in general. I do embrace evolution (I mean, life moves forward, resistance is futile really). I am just more caught up with art being fluid (subjective) and standard-evaluated (objectivity).
And here is my response:
Delightfully thought-provoking points and questions. Let me address your topics in the order in which you raise them:
DUCHAMP, HIS TOILET, AND THE ROLE OF DISGUST IN ART
Disgust, I think, can have a place in art. Or, put another way, truly great artists must be free to employ whatever tools they deem necessary to convey the feelings they want to convey.
Also, a fine porcelain structure like a toilet could be “artful” in the hands of a craftsman who seeks to beautify the homes in which the toilet will be installed, but this sort of “artfulness” is not what we mean when we think of high art. Art, we must remember, is the transmissions of the noblest and loftiest feelings that humans have ever reached, and craftsmanship is not art in this sense.
I have no respect for Duchamp or his toilet, though. He didn’t declare his toilet an artwork because of the emotions that it conveys. As a modernist, he may not have had any intention for the toilet; many modernists rejected reason and logic altogether. And honestly, if I were to see a urinal in an art gallery, my disgust would not be caused by the urinal itself, but by the cynicism and the smugness of the false artist who conned some gallery into displaying such a thing as a work of art.
So when Duchamp put that toilet in an art exhibit, I think that that was his purpose—he was smugly and cynically rejecting traditional notions of art. In placing a toilet on a pedestal, he was trying to make a mockery of art, to humiliate genuine works of art down to the level of filth receptacles. This kind of cruel cynicism was common among the intellectuals of the day, and it can be found in some of today’s intellectuals as well. So the toilet may convey a “message,” as you rightly say, but it is not a savory one. And that leads us to our next point.
DOESN’T DUCHAMP’S TOILET “CONVEY A MESSAGE”?
Remember that art is not meant to convey “messages” but feelings. It is actually quite hard to remember this, because the leaders of art have trained us for over 100 years to believe that art must “mean” something for it to be any good. Tolstoy illuminates this fact with his singular clarity of vision in his What Is Art?, which I cited in our conversation yesterday:
“This manner of [deliberately obscure] expression, consisting of euphemisms, mythological and historical allusions, came into use more and more, and seems to have reached its extreme limits recently in so-called decadent art. Recently, not only have vagueness, mysteriousness, obscurity and inaccessibility to the masses been considered a merit and a condition of the poeticality of artistic works, but so, too, have imprecision, indefiniteness and ineloquence.”
Duchamp’s toilet seems to be a perfect example of this, of a piece of false art that actually aims to be imprecise, indefinite, and ineloquent.
“After [the French poets Verlaine and Baudelaire] comes Mallarme, regarded as the most important of the young poets, who says directly that the charm of a poem consists in our having to guess its meaning, that there should always be some riddle in a poem.”
So we, the art-interested public, have been trained for a century that any art that is not a puzzle or riddle is stupid and unsophisticated. It is hard to break the pattern of approaching high art in search of clever puzzles. But we must be vigilant to do so, because puzzles are not art, and art is not a puzzle.
Don’t get me wrong; puzzles are often quite fun, and one might even say that nature itself is a grand puzzle that modern scientists have been trying to solve for 500 years. We can even go further: To come to an understanding of totally new feelings and emotional states, the artist must act as a scientist, and try to “solve the puzzle” of these new emotional states that exist at the frontiers of human consciousness. But—this is the critical point—what the artist shares is not the puzzle but the fruit of the puzzle.
The same is true of the scientist. The scientist may work for years or decades trying to tease out some mystery of nature, but once the mystery is solved, he publishes his work (ideally) in as clear and logical a form as possible, so as to communicate the puzzle’s solution to others. The artist does the same thing, only instead of writing a report on the findings, the artists creates a new work of art that provokes in viewers the new feeling or emotional state that the artist, though hard work, has puzzled out and discovered.
Scientists share the frontiers of their understanding; artists share the frontiers of their feelings.
WILL ARTISTIC STANDARDS STIFLE CREATIVITY?
This is a worry, but honestly it is not something I worry about in the current culture. Today, the opposite problem reigns over art: No standards are imposed on anyone, and children are told that even their laziest and purposeless scribblings are valuable, that no one’s art is any better than anyone else’s. (Of course, that rule is true until it isn’t, and a modern art museum tells us that this ugly, inscrutable painting is more valuable than that one, for an equally ugly and inscrutable reason.)
You are right when you say that “standards are often associated with measurements,” and that this can translate into judging someone by their brush strokes and other tedious criteria. In fairness to the modernists, this strict and small-minded approach, which you rightfully fear, is one of the things that the modernists were rebelling against; the previous artistic methodology had become so strict that no healthy person could get a full breath within such bindings. These are not the kinds of standards that Tolstoy or I am in favor of.
Tolstoy’s 3 standards for art are, to some people, too vague to mean anything, but I think that any reasonably sensitive person can see when these standards are being followed and when they are being broken. As a refresher, here again are his 3 standards:
- How unique and valuable is the feeling that the artwork conveys?
- How clearly does the artwork convey that feeling?
- How sincere has the feeling been conveyed?
These standards are how we measure the value and skill of a work of art. Things like brushstrokes, musical structure, and other practical concerns all must be subservient to these 3 ultimate criteria.
Now, I happen to think that the more practical or technical elements of art are highly important, because good technique makes the art more likely to transmit feelings smoothly, and bad technique can be jarring to the viewer. This is seen quite readily in popular art, like in movies and TV shows. These days, the production of movies and TV shows has become so refined that even the average viewer can tell when a TV show was thrown together sloppily, and is annoyed at the cheapness of the special effects or the clumsiness of the lead actor. The same principle applies to high art. If we have been exposed to enough art—if we have read enough novels, or listened to enough Mozart—we can start to notice mistakes or clumsiness on the part of the author or the musicians. And these mistakes disrupt the artistic experience, and bring us back, irritatingly, to reality. These practical concerns all fall under the category of technique; so we see that technique is crucial indeed.
But again, technique is always subservient to the big 3 criteria. A work whose technique is lacking, but which nevertheless contains feelings of genuine insight and power, is much more moving than a work of technical perfection whose emotions are hollow. I think that viewers have the duty of forgiving, as best they can, technical shortcomings, especially when they can see that a valuable and unique feeling or emotional state is being attempted in the artwork; and artists have the duty to perfect their technique as much as possible.
IS ANY ONE FEELING “BETTER” THAN ANOTHER?
In a word, yes.
Okay, more detail is required. Intelligent people have struggled for centuries to demonstrate logically that some feelings, emotional states, and values are objectively better than others. Some people resign themselves to saying, “I can’t ‘prove’ that murder ought not be done—I just don’t want neighbors who disagree with that proposition.” But I think that we can do better than that.
The key to “doing better than that” is, I think, to realize that human behavior is as predictable, as bound by natural law, as any other phenomenon of nature. In other words, free will does not exist. I’m not writing this response to your brilliant comment because I “choose” to; I’m writing this because I’m compelled to, by the laws of psychology. I find your post intellectually and emotionally thrilling, and I eagerly share my responses, as they develop in real-time, through the process of writing this new post.
External forces are always nudging our behaviors into certain patterns. This is why humans are predictable. If humans really had free will, there would be no predicting human behavior; each response to a given stimulus would be impossible to foresee. The predictability of human behavior demonstrates that human behavior is governed by physical laws, not by “free will.”
So how does this apply to our desire to create objective standards of moral and artistic values? Let’s work upwards from this foundation: It is objectively better for humans not to suffer than it is for them to suffer. Humans have no control over this fact; one cannot choose for suffering to be superior to non-suffering. People can be conditioned to take pleasure in certain sensations that are considered painful, but if they are taking pleasure then they are not suffering. And if they are suffering, then they are not really taking pleasure; or better still, they are attempting to take pleasure in a harmful state of being.
Non-suffering is better than suffering, and because all humans are genetically the same species, there are common biological laws that apply to all humans, regardless of culture. Mutilation, torture, cruelty—these are harmful, regardless of culture. Anything that is harmful to a human irrespective of culture is objectively bad. Anything that is helpful to a human irrespective of culture is objectively good.
And yes, cultural differences do exist; events, words, hand gestures, and so forth have different meanings in different cultures. In some cultures, a certain hand gesture is meaningless, whereas in another culture that same gesture creates feelings of offense and anxiety in the viewer. So in one culture, that hand gesture is objectively harmless, and in the other culture that hand gesture is objectively harmful. This is as objective a fact as any other, regardless of whether the objective harm applies to all humans or just to the humans of a particular culture.
I can’t say that I know the following claim for sure, but I believe that the loftiest and noblest feelings and experiences are applicable to all humans, once cultural differences are accounted for. Because of the nature of the human organism, love is better than hate, in any culture. The process of getting each culture to see this in a way that makes sense to that culture may vary, but the essential truth does not vary. So any art that stirs in people’s hearts the importance of valuing love over hate is better, objectively, than art that attempts to make us feel that hate is good or that love is naive.
SUBJECTIVITY IN ART
I’ve written enough for one day, so I’ll try to keep this concluding section brief. I agree that subjectivity is ultimately what art is about—art is about the experience that you, the viewer, get when you view or take part in the artwork. The art is just a means to evoke in you the intended experience.
It is the job of the artist to get you to feel what he wants you to feel. If the artist is talented, you will feel immediately and powerfully the emotional state that he intends for you to feel. Will all art be meaningful to all people? Quite possibly not. If people’s backgrounds are too different, then meaningful communication at the emotional level may not be practicable. But then again, I’ve heard it said that all communication is a matter of patience and imagination, so who knows?
Some people are better communicators than others. Some art appeals to just a few people—the artist’s family, perhaps, who share many common experiences with the artist and already know “what he is trying to say.” Some art appeals to entire countries, like hit TV shows. Somehow, the people working on those shows have a clear understanding of the values and emotions of their people, and they can make stories that move millions or even billions of people all over the world. That ultimately is how we can spot a great artist—we look for those people who have that dazzling ability to sense the essence of what their culture is experiencing at any given moment and to communicate new emotional insights about those shared experiences.