Art and Criticism (Again)

When I started this blog last year, I had a more esoteric view of art than I do now.  Also, if one thing should be clear from my most recent posts, I no longer think that the usual definitions of art (e.g., Joyce’s) are sufficient to cover the full spectrum of human aesthetic experience.  Indeed, I already amended Joyce’s definition (via institutional theories of art) to suit my purposes:

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end, whereby the aesthetic end is determined by context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal)–not by the artist.

This is adequate, but it still sounds unnecessarily academic.  Are there better definitions out there?

In a recent essay about an appearance of the Blue Man Group on The Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette offered his partner Teller’s definition of art: “Whatever we do after the chores are done.”  I kind of like that.  I’m also fond of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “Art is whatever you can get away with.”  These definitions, though unsatisfying in any metaphysical sense, have the benefit of being more in line with how humans in practice actually create and interact with art.

To be clear, this approach (which some will deride as “anything goes”) does not make criticism irrelevant.  I have written extensively about this already, most recently in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.”  However, I would like to point you to a recent video conversation between A. O. Scott and David Carr concerning the purpose of criticism.  (I also recommend Jim Emerson’s sharp analysis of this conversation.)  In particular, I want to highlight the following exchange:

CARR:  But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth. There is only your subjective version of it.

SCOTT:  Do you really think that there’s no common project of deciding what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true?

Like Carr, I accept that there are no objective values.  However, like Scott, I believe in the “common project” of criticism: a community of people coming together to decide “what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true.”

Scott continues:

I don’t think it’s ever arrived at for all time, but I don’t think that you or anyone else actually believes that we just carry around our own little private, you know, canons of taste that we just sort of protect. Otherwise we’d never talk about any of this stuff. Otherwise, why would we have an arts section in the newspaper? Why would we talk about movies with our friends? Why would we have book clubs?

Well, I think that we do carry around and protect our own “canons of taste.”  However, the point that Scott is making is that taste is malleable (another idea that I have stressed on this blog).  Taste can be transformed through reading and participating in criticism.  Thus, what you think is beautiful, good, and true today will not be beautiful, good, and true “for all time.”

In sum, the role of criticism is not to dictate taste; however, we should remember that it plays an important role (intended or not) in establishing it.

Further reading:

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3 thoughts on “Art and Criticism (Again)

  1. This will not be one of my more intelligent responses, as I’m bleary with a head-cold, but the last few points in this piece made me think about the potency of our first few introductions to canonical taste— junior- and high-school “required reading” lists, for instance. Here students are force-fed material which, they are told, is among the best ever produced by human beings. The more discerning among them (i.e. those who may already enjoy literature, or who may simply trust their teacher’s education) may be persuaded to agree, by careful analysis and critical conversation, that these books are “great.” They may even grow to love the books— but then, decades later, will come back to them with new, matured, refined, and personalized “canons of taste” that will cast entirely new lights upon the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, and Salingers of their youth.

    I guess I don’t have any new point to make here, just [hopefully] a universal example of what is already being discussed in terms of the malleable and public-versus-private natures of taste.

  2. “Well, I think that we do carry around and protect our own “canons of taste.” However, the point that Scott is making is that taste is malleable (another idea that I have stressed on this blog). Taste can be transformed through reading and participating in criticism. Thus, what you think is beautiful, good, and true today will not be beautiful, good, and true “for all time.” ”

    Fashion is a great indicator of this, no? One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out! To me, clothing is wearable art and the constant fluctuation of trends shows how quickly tastes can change. Yes, there are pieces/staples that can be worn in any season, but mostly, true fashion changes often. Designers present clothing and I think publications gather together to present the best to the public – creating a group to set a trend forward. Have you ever read “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki? I think has interesting and true ideas on the way humans interact. It might give you more to work with on this really interesting statement – ” ‘common project’ of criticism: a community of people coming together to decide ‘what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true.’ ” – which is also relevant to publications and trend movement…or perhaps you inspired me to work this into a fashion essay? Haha.

    Art – you’re so smart! I can’t wait to work on a film with you in the near future! …But first, I have to visit you and Amanda in Boston! Soon!!!

    Anthony

    • Anthony, thank you for the comment. Fashion is indeed a great indicator of changes in taste. And I agree with you that it should be taken more seriously by those interested in art. Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art should be viewed as just the tip of the iceberg.

      I am unfamiliar with “The Wisdom of the Crowds,” but it sounds like something I would enjoy. I will look into it.

      You should definitely plan a visit!

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