My last article was an attempt (I like to think a successful one) at disentangling the verbose “theory” of Roland Barthes that “The Author is Dead”. I shared my article in a couple Reddit forums, one being “philosophy” and the other “art theory”. There were a lot of responses, most the initial ones fairly reasonable, with an occasional brazen insult that didn’t bother to pretend to be anything more.
It was a bit overwhelming to try to debate a half dozen different people at the same time about esoteric “philosophy”, but I fielded the various rebuttals and hit the ball back into their courts. At this point some of the initially reasonable people started to get hostile, while others lasted one more volley before resorting to personal attack (the rather desperate attempt to prove you are right by insisting the other person can’t be right because he is somehow inferior). A few others remained stalwartly reasonable, and we came to a sort of stalemate where we didn’t disagree on anything.
And then I noticed something. I hadn’t paid attention to whether the comments which showed up in my in-box were from the “philosophy” or the “art theory” forums. As it turns out, all the ones that were of a high caliber were from the philosophy forum, and all the nasty, below the belt attacks were from the “art theory” forum.
Over the past couple years I’ve submitted a lot of articles to “art theory”, and so I looked to see how they had fared in terms of ratings (you get a score based on up-votes versus down-votes). My current article had been down-voted to zero in “art theory” but upvoted to 4 (74%) in “philosophy”. I must have submitted about a dozen articles to “art theory”, and all but three had been down-voted to ZERO, and that’s only because you can’t go any lower than that, or I’d be deep in the negatives.
They weren’t down-voted by forum members based on the quality of the articles in question, though of course they’d say they were, but rather simply because they disagreed with my stance. And this is despite a red pop-up window that appears when you hover over the down-vote button, and boldly remonstrates: “Downvote and report posts and comments that break the subreddit rules. Do not downvote just because you disagree.” Nevertheless, my articles were almost all down-voted into oblivion because people disagreed, mostly on the face of it without bothering to read. And I rather think this does reflect on the art world and how it treats legitimate criticism.
I suppose that is quite predictable, because I may as well have gone into a “climate change is a hoax” forum and done my very best to argue that, indeed, just as we’d polluted masses of water with devastating results, we could also pollute the atmosphere; carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reflects heat back to the Earth’s surface, and that’s not that hard to understand; the biosphere isn’t a culture in a petri dish and hence it’s impossible to make 100% accurate predictions; all significant scientific organizations agree on the topic, etc… They would just shoot me down and resort to character assassination (the logical fallacy of the ad hominem attack).
I might expect that from climate-change deniers, Flat Earthers, chem-trail conspiracy theorists, and others who are notoriously not swayed by overwhelming evidence and the best arguments. But artists? Has art always been an arena of sharp-toothed ideological warfare?
My vociferous critics in the “art theory” forum liked to say that had I read Barthes’ essay in an undergraduate course, and not on my own, I would have been disabused of my fledgling grievous misunderstandings. Meanwhile back in reality I had an undergraduate course in “Art Theory” and aced it. Compared to art classes, I found the more academic work painless. In art classes not only are you responsible for doing something well, you are also responsible for coming up with what you do, and you can be criticized on both from entirely subjective and relative positions. In a more academic class, you just need to write papers and make cogent arguments that demonstrate you assimilated and understood the material. What I’m getting at here is how central this sort of theory is to the dominant current art paradigm, and because of that, art practices. We contemporary artists are all weaned on French postmodernist thought and its derivations (and to the exclusion of other philosophical outlooks).
It is curious that the people in the philosophy forum were less defensive about me unraveling a (pseudo) philosophical argument than were the artists, and art theorists… The reason is that postmodernism and “critical theory” [note that the word “theory” openly acknowledges they are serving up hypothetical models] is more dear to the art world than the philosophical one is because it’s the only philosophy the art world has. It is typically paired [I’ll explain why] with political correctness/identity politics/social justice (“social justice” for short). To the degree any prior philosophy is acknowledged, it’s overwhelmingly only going to be whatever is seen as the predecessor to postmodernism.
Postmodernism is a critique of the shortcomings of modernism, and in that regard had something useful to offer as a sort of checks-and-balances on the monolith of modernism, enlightenment values, humanism, capitalism, and classical liberalism. Postmodernism insisted that all was relative, everything was a narrative, and the modernist model presumed to be superior to all others via judging all others by its very own standards. They pointed out the shortcomings of the patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, and railed against social injustice. Instead of ceding to the modernist model they insisted all narratives were legitimate, and thus there needed to be redress for the suppression or sidelining of all the narratives other than the modern Western paradigm. Therefore, the stories, beliefs, and concerns of marginalized people, other cultures, and minorities should be given precedence over the Western model. This is where the social justice movement comes in.
And herein can be found the genesis of where postmodernism and social justice went horribly awry, and became too much of a good thing. Instead of tempering modernism, reason, objectivity, and the scientific purview, postmodernist social justice advocates sought to replace it wholesale, in a single generation or two, with themselves at the helm as the new arbiters of what is and isn’t art, of who does or doesn’t matter, of the coarse that history will take.
While modernism was not broad enough to include some significant alternate perspectives, postmodernism is much narrower and more tyrannical. Because it eschews reason and logic (often as the “tool of the oppressor”) the only metric of who is right on any issue is who is articulating the position, and here the (formerly) marginalized voice has automatic supremacy.
The art world is infatuated with revolution and radicalism. And while we will look back at many of history’s political radicals with horror — Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Stalin, Der Fuhrer — we worship artistic radicals, no matter how bankrupt or reductionist their ideology. On one level this is OK, because they are experimenting with ideas and not out killing their rivals. But it may not be optimal. This deferring to radicalism in the art world means an uncritical adherence to radical philosophy, or more accurately “theory”, which is why the art world embraces the extremes of French postmodernism more than does the world of philosophy. Philosophers are much less likely to see reason and objectivity as even remotely something to be abandoned in favor of untempered subjectivity and relativism, and much more likely to have been exposed to other philosophies.
Along with abandoning all philosophy prior to postmodernism, contemporary art education will also abandon all art prior to Duchamp’s radical disavowal of the tradition of visual art. Contemporary art starts with Duchamp’s urinal, and here we see the same problem of a gesture (or prank) which is a criticism of the canon of art taken as a replacement.
In one of my mini-debates about Barthes’ article – which insists on the radical position that the artist has no authority over her own art, nor is her intent to be taken into consideration – I mentioned the danger, which we see manifesting in the art world now, of people imposing whatever interpretation they want onto art in complete opposition to the artist’s intent, beliefs, convictions, and so on. I gave the obvious example that many people now believe that the old masters, being white males, were necessarily misogynists, racists, colonialists, and everything wrong with the world, and their art necessarily is about all those most heinous things. His response was to say that the old master’s paintings “weren’t good”.
In my graduate education in art, we never mentioned any artist before Duchamp. Not once in two years. All tradition was the enemy, and we were all radicals dedicated to changing the course of history through art. Further, we must all be radical left cadres in a war for social justice. Certainly there was no room for a conservative, or a moderate, or a humanist, or a traditional painter, or a painter.
This is why the art world is so toxic. Generations of artists were reared on radical ideology, and the delusion that they are right, and righteous, because of their anatomy or who they are, and all of history is not only pernicious but irrelevant. There’s a caustic arrogance to this, which is anything but just or generous or open-minded. It presumes that our ancestors were all dupes, and merely by living NOW our understanding automatically outstrips theirs, despite their likely having endured much more hardship, and learned the hard lessons thereof (and we do learn quite a lot more from experience than from books, which have no relevance without personal experience).
We replace thousands of years of cumulative and integrated advancements in science, philosophy, and culture with a generation of radical “theory”, and amputate all art prior to the last century as if it were our baby teeth.
The person who disavows nearly everyone who has lived before; believes he or she is entitled to automatically be right over them and their living peers; thinks he or she is changing the coarse of history; and thinks his or her conceptual/political art is superior to the art that went before is not someone who is open to compromise or sharing a broader picture of reality.
What is the solution? Take the best of what new theories and insights such as postmodernism, feminism, marginalization theory and so on have to offer, and integrate them into a broader understanding. Don’t keep the addendum and throw out the book. Learn from history rather than rejecting it. See either/or propositions as inherently fractured (ex., Barthe’s argument that the reader determines the meaning of a text, and not the author). Don’t judge art only or primarily by political or ideological stance. Allow, be tolerant of, and enjoy a diverse range of art and ideas present and from the past. Notice that “radical” presumes everyone else is hopelessly behind, and usually advocates for an extreme position, in which case it might be better to try to improve upon history rather than dispose of it in favor of an all-encompassing, heroic solution which is similar to a fad diet . Look for the big picture, not the one-liner.
Some artists are starting to fight back against the ideologues. Presently we are being shut down. As far as I’m concerned, we are being shut down by numbers, not by real insight, understanding, argument, or art.
[Please excuse my typos, grammatical erros, when I try to make “its” possessive, write “their” for “there”, and all that little stuff. I don’t have an editor, and my own mistakes are hard for me to spot, even if I know better. If you are feeling pedantic, feel free to offer your free edits in a comment.]