Thursday, November 25, 2010

my response to a YouTube video defending modern art

Response to One day, Pablo PIcasso was on a Train... (A Defense of Modern Art):

"You cannot just dismiss an entire movement simply because it doesn't look like art. That's the whole damn point of the modern-art movement. You don't get to say what is and what isn't art. Because you don't know. No one does."

So there's a thing called "art"?

How do we know this thing exists? The philospher doesn't say.

Well, how do we usually know something exists? We go find it in the world. How do we do that? Well, we have a description of it, which may or may not correspond to reality, and we go looking for something that matches that description. (We form a hypothesis that object X is a thing in the real world that has properties A and B, sometimes C and never D. Then we go looking for objects that match that description.)

It's worthless and pointless for me to say "There's an object called a "blurg." Does it exist?"

"What's it like?"

"I don't know. But, still, I ask you if it exists?"

That's what he's doing. He's saying, "There's something called 'art' that exists. I'm not going to define it or describe it, but it exists. Given that it DOES exist, I'm really upset that some asshole is claiming some specific objects are not 'art.' I can't define 'art'; he can't define 'art'; and yet he has the AUDACITY to say that certain items are not art!"

Actually, now that I type that out, I see he's right about that in a very literal way: you can't say that a paperclip is not a blurg, because you don't know what a blurg is! No one does!

(I should pause here and make clear what I mean by "it exists." I doubt the philosopher believes there's a thing called "art" that you can touch and smell. Rather, I assume he believes that it exists as a mental construct -- as a category in the mind.

By building on top of that construct -- by using it in sentences and deriving other ideas from it -- he's giving that construct credence. He's saying something like, "This is a USEFUL construct." He's also saying, "This is a construct we share, just like we all -- or most of us -- share the concept of 'red.'"

But whereas it's actually possible to define "red" -- in terms of wavelengths or whatever -- he doesn't even try to define "art."

"It's a concept we all share, and I'm assuming we all mean more or less the same thing by it. I can't define or describe it, but how DARE you say something I don't like about it.")

I think the complicating factor here is that though no one has a definition or description of art that is even close to universally accepted, most of us have a profound FEELING that "art" exists. I would love to analyze where that feeling comes from and what it means, but I'm not sure that's possible.

I suspect it arises from many forces acting in concert over many years, but two of the main ones are...

1. Looking (listening, etc) to certain objects can make one have profound feelings (of some sort). And it's easy to notice that, throughout life, certain objects tend to trigger such feelings over and over.

(There's a lot of fascinating stuff to say about that. One is the fact that having a visceral reaction to something is different from categorizing something, though having the reaction might lead one to categorize.

For instance, when Fred first sees "Starry Night," he might be overwhelmed with feeling. He might recognize that that he's had similar responses before, and, generally, when he's had them, he's been focusing his attention on something people tend to call "art." And so he categorizes "Starry Night" as art.

There's nothing wrong with that. But let's say that he buys a print of the painting and puts it up in his living room. He looks at it every day and, gradually, it stops affecting him. He gets to that point where it becomes part of the background. Even if he wants to, he can't recapture the feeling he once had. Yet, if he's like most people, he still categorizes the painting as "art." It's rare for people to move objects OUT of categories.

I still see nothing wrong with what Fred is doing. People are free to categorize things however they want. But it's interesting to note that "Starry Night" went into the category because it ONCE affected him in a certain way and now it's still in that category, even though it no longer affects him that way.

Given that, does the category have any meaning to Fred, other than an arbitrary grouping of objects? I suspect we can give it a useful meaning: it's a set of things that ONCE affected Fred in a profound way -- some of which might still affect him that way -- and which are likely to affect other people in similar ways, if their aesthetics are similar to Fred's.

I think that works, but it's much more complex than it seems on the surface.)

2. The feeling that something is "art" can also happen because one is TOLD that something is "art." A child might not know what art is, but he knows it's something important -- that is he's aware that people say the word "art" with reverence (or anger or bafflement or pleasure or whatever -- some extreme reaction). So, even if someone feels nothing when he initially looks at The Mona Lisa, if he's told it's "art" -- and he's "told" that by virtue of that fact that it's in a museum -- he may have a profound feeling that it IS art.

It's easy to scoff at this and talk about people who can't form opinions of their own, but we're social creatures. We're built to accept other people's categories, and what's interesting to me is that it's not necessarily just a matter of acceptance.

Fred MIGHT feel like "Okay, since it's in a museum and everyone SAYS it's art, I guess it's art. Whatever. Glad that's categorized. Now I can move on." But it's also possible he might feel like "Wow! It's art? I didn't know that! Man, now that I DO know it, I feel really moved when I look at it."

We tend to look at herd behavior as unthinking -- and maybe it is -- but it is rarely unFEELING. The question "Does Fred REALLY get a profound feeling when he looks at The Mona Lisa or is he just aping what other people say" is, potentially, really complicated and not binary as the question suggests. He might be getting a profound feeling BECAUSE he's aping what other people say.

And, of course, these two forces -- one's initial response to the object itself AND one's social response -- can interact and strengthen each other.

Those two forces can also be at odds, which, I think, is why we get into some of these aesthetic debates: Fred is told that object X is "art," so it's already in the "art" category. But when he looks at X, he feels nothing. So is it art or not?

Though there may be some profound (and profoundly oppositional) feelings here, there really isn't a debate. There are some facts:

1. People generally categorize X as art.
2. Fred cares about the way people categorize X.
3. Fred doesn't have strong feelings when he looks at X.
4. Fred generally doesn't feel comfortable putting items in HIS personal "art" category unless they affect him profoundly.

There's no contradiction here, but it's easy to see why Fred feels uncomfortable. The general category called "art" is smashing up against his personal category called "art".

We can get rid of this problem by giving the two categories two different names. But we don't. We call them both "art," and because they have the same name and are similar, we get confused and think they're the same thing. And then when we notice differences between them, we think that ONE thing contains contractions or that certain people are wrong about that one thing.

The philosopher is mad because some other guy claims Pollack paintings aren't art. Let's see if we can get rid of the problem (or reframe it).

1. Fred notices that many people put Pollack paintings in a category called X.
2. He has a similar category, called Y, which but it doesn't include Pollack paintings.
3. X and Y are similar but not identical.

That's fine. North-America and USA are similar, but it's not a contradiction that one contains Ontario and the other doesn't.

If Fred claims, "People do NOT put Pollack paintings in category X," he's wrong. He's just wrong. They do. (Many of them do.)

If Philosopher clams that Fred is saying Pollack paintings aren't members of X, Philosopher is wrong. Fred is NOT claiming that most people don't put Pollack in X. He's claiming that he doesn't put Pollack in Y. (Fred is not claiming that OTHER people don't think of Pollack as art. He's claiming that HE doesn't think of it as art. And that is an ambiguous statement. What does it mean to say he doesn't think of it as art? We don't know. Since we don't know, it's silly to say Fred is wrong.)

If Philosopher is claiming that Fred is "wrong" to not put Pollack in Y, Philosopher is behaving oddly. He's saying something similar to, "You're wrong to not like broccoli." Fred is equally odd to claim something about the world outside of his own brain. If he means that Pollack is NOT art to anyone, he's just wrong. Clearly Pollack IS art to many people. If he means it SHOULDN'T be art to those people, he's being as nonsensical as Philosopher. Why not, Fred?

Fred can make up any reasons he wants, e.g. "Because it doesn't take talent to make Pollack paintings." Okay. Why should I care if something takes talent or not? Why should someone NOT care if something takes talent or not?

Finally, I'd like to say something about statements like, "You can't judge modern art without understanding its historical context." Taken literally, that statement is at worst meaningless and at best it's untrue. You CAN -- and maybe do -- judge modern art without understanding its context. Perhaps the philosopher means "You shouldn't."

Why not? I assume he doesn't think it's morally wrong to do so. Surely he doesn't think Fred is causing serious harm to anyone by judging Pollack without knowing its context. If the philosopher DOES think this is morally wrong, then his ethics must be really complicated and it must be really easy -- in his ethical system -- to sin all the time. Children sin just by not-having-yet-learned a bunch of stuff. The urge to judge comes way before the acquisition of contextual knowledge.

Here's how I can give meaning to "You can't judge modern art without understanding its historical context." I canrephrase it like this: "If you dismiss Pollack without understanding its context, you are missing out on a profound experience." In other words, if you spend some time learning some stuff and training yourself in certain specific ways, you will have profound feelings and thoughts when you look at a Pollack painting, and I'm sad for you that you're not willing to do that."

(There is a way ethics enters into it here. If an art critic -- or someone else who has influence over others' behavior -- dismisses a work without understanding its context, he might be robbing others of a profound experience.)

One question pops into my mind here: how do I know this will happen? How do I know that Fred will have a profound feeling if he learns the context? I don't. What I know is this: *I* had a profound feeling after I learned the context. Furthermore, I know that many other people did, too. I'm assuming that Fred is similar enough to me (and these other people) that he'll have the same feelings if he goes through the same steps. But I may be wrong. As yummy as it is, there are people who don't like chocolate.

(At some point, the philosopher calls a certain work "undeniably art." Interesting. Why is the fact that it's "art" undeniable? What if I deny it? Are there certain foods that are undeniably yummy?)

I suspect there ARE aesthetic universals. And I suspect they can be studied in the lab. I'm guessing that if they exist, they are really basic. Maybe people are genetically built to prefer shade-of-red X over shade-of-red Y, and it's impossible for any non-damaged human to prefer Y over X. But it's hard for me to swallow that there are universals of a higher order, e.g. that all people necessarily prefer "Hamlet" to "Macbeth."

We might be able to make really complex statements like, "If you have had events A, B and C in your childhood and educational moment D, E and F, you are likely to respond to Pollack painting in the same way that I do."

Professor McArtHistorian tells us that Painting X is "art." We read that it's "art" in ten books. We hear lots of people refer to it as "art." We have a profound "art-ish" experience when we look at it. Our friends have that same experience. All of these facts entrench us deeper and deeper int he conviction that X IS "art."

Then Fred comes along and says it isn't. It's natural to respond to him as if he just said "two plus two is not equal to four." But what he said is actually much more complicated. What is our basis for calling him "wrong"?