The art world is filled with bad ideas that are repeated like scripture, and accepted as truisms. Most of them presume to make sweeping statements about all art, and establish a hierarchy with their chosen art at the pinnacle. I’ve dismantled a bunch of the worst of these ideas in lengthy articles, but here I’ll nail it down in brief, and create a graphic for each. New additions will be added at the top in new posts. Stay tuned.
#5. The Purpose of Art is to Ask Questions
“The purpose of art is to ask questions” is, significantly, not a question itself, but an absolute statement that narrows the scope and range of art. You could say that the purpose of some art is to ask questions, but all art?! This seemingly forward-looking idea functions to exclude art that isn’t asking questions, or more specifically, isn’t the kind of art that asks the big question, “What is art?”. In the end, we find that traditional visual art — painting — is incapable of asking the question “what is art”, and thus is not art. I think it would be much more accurate to say that art makes statements or observations about the nature of reality (a bit like a manifestation of an epiphany) which are intended to resonate as “true”, rather than perpetually fumbling in the dark.
For the record, I think most art is neither engaged in asking nor answering questions, but seeks to share something worth looking at.
[Note that someone like H.R. Giger isn’t an artist according to Kosuth, but I predict that Giger will be remembered as an artist when Kosuth is only a curiosity to someone absolutely obsessed with the theoretical side of art history, and not for his art. One could also make a strong case that Giger uses fluency with visual language and representation to raise questions about the future, human-robot hybrids, sexuality, evil, and so on. But, no, he doesn’t reject painting and ask what art is. ]
If art can only ask questions, who answers them? Philosophers? Politicians? The general public? Nobody? Are artists incapable of answering their own questions, or if they could, do they have no interest in sharing their answers?
In reality, we make countless decisions every day, beginning with if and when we are going to get out of bed, and each decision implies an answer. The underlying idea is probably that the artist’s job is to provoke people in general to THINK about life, this or that issue, and most importantly, art itself. Art may be tasked with questioning the status quo or the authority of institutions, but the most expensive art, which is bought up by the status quo, is the kind that “asks questions”, and is propped up by theory propounded in educational institutions.
The idea that the purpose of art is to ask questions utterly fails two philosophical tests, despite the assumption by those that espouse it that they are championing philosophical art.
- When establishing the purpose of something, and assuming the purpose is worthwhile, that purpose can’t be better accomplished by some other means. Rather, the purpose should be something that only the thing in question can uniquely do. Well, written or spoken language is far more useful, and easier to use, for asking questions. Art is uniquely able to use visual language and communication, and its purpose is going to be found in that terrain, not in suggesting questions that are ultimately articulated in linguistics.
- When establishing a general principle, it needs to apply to multiple examples and circumstances. As is so often the case with theories about art, they fall apart instantly when applied to music. If the purpose of art is to ask questions, than the purpose of music must be the same. It would be a mistake of the literalist variety to assume that songs, for example, don’t “ask questions” if the lyrics don’t have question marks in them. Nevertheless, if you bother to look up the best or most popular songs of the 20th century, there are few questions in them, and when they occur, they are often rhetorical (Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind?) or outstripped by assertions. As I recall the lyrics to a certain famous song are not “Billie Jean, is she my lover?” and “Is the kid not my son?”. “Is a working class hero something to be?” “Did the people bow and prey, to the neon God they made?” “Ain’t I nothin’ but a hound dog?” “Girl could we get much higher? Come on baby, should we light my fire?” “Do we need no education?” “You can check out any time you like, but can you ever leave?!” “Will you excuse me while I kiss the sky?” “Are we the champions?” “Will we rock you?” The much more significant question the best popular music of the 20th century didn’t ask was, “What is music?”.
Let’s apply Joseph Kosuth’s criterion (which I fashioned into a graphic above) of what constitutes real art to music. Fist, here’s the whole quote (so you don’t think I’m taking it out of context, which I would never do on purpose, mind you).
“Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art . . . That’s because the word ‘art’ is general and the word ‘painting’ is specific. Painting is a kind of art. If you make paintings you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of art.” ~ Joseph Kosuth.
To be an artist you have to be questioning the nature of art, and if you make paintings you aren’t questioning the nature of art, therefore you are not an artist. Nifty! There’s a gaping hole and enormous chunk of hypocrisy in Kosuth’s statement, but let’s test it as true when applied to music.
A musician who played instruments, used conventional musical language such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and so on, or wrote songs, would be eliminated as being worthy of the name “musician”, because in accepting that music revolves around making music with instruments, or writing songs, one would not be questioning what the nature of music is. All of rock music, disco, soul, R&B, rap and hip-hop.. are not music because they accept that music is making songs and playing instruments.
So, what could you do that would be real music that questions the nature of music. Well, something like what Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner do, which is to make props or signs that
articulate a postmodern foregone conclusion ask a question pertaining a bit more to the aural universe than the visual. Visual or aural art can equally be replaced by text or some sort of museum presentation.
This “art” piece by Lawrence Weiner
might be replaced by this piece of “music”:
You might object that, like some painting, Weiner’s work appears in a gallery and is located on a wall. Fine. We can have an electronic voice articulate the phrase, “LEARN TO SEE MUSIC” in an auditorium, and that will suffice as worth the ticket price, because it gives you the rest of your life to ponder the brilliant philosophical entreaty. “LEARN TO READ MUSIC” would have worked as well if it weren’t for the fact that you can literally read musical scores.
To be a real musician, you need to be anything other than a musician, and to be a real artist, you need to be anything other than an artist. This general trend of thinking seems to stem from the 20th century’s obsession with revolution, completely disregarding and rebelling against the past, and trotting off in a new direction at a fresh starting point where one is a philosophical or artistic genius, or both, because the rules of the game have changed, and there’s no other competition. A competing model, which we will hopefully embrace before it’s too late, is to learn from the past, take the best parts, see the shortcomings, and improve the recipe, which is what science does, and why we still have comfortable lives despite all the other insanity that we seem to be increasing rather than holding at bay. Better to learn from history than reject it and try to start all over again.
And here’s the problem with Kosuth’s revolutionary definition of what it means to be an artist. “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art” is an oxymoron because it defines the nature of art as questioning the nature of art. Her further argued, “That’s because the word ‘art’ is general and the word ‘painting’ is specific. Painting is a kind of art. ” Well, so is conceptual art about ideas. You can sign up for a course in it at an educational institution. I did. If that weren’t hypocritical enough, he then asserts that painters aren’t artists because they aren’t engaged in questioning what art is. In the same breath that he declares art must ask what art is, he declares what art isn’t, in which case he must already know what it is, otherwise he wouldn’t know what it isn’t. Snappy! Gotta’ love self-contradictory, fallacious logic as the greatest articulation of the art philosopher.
“The purpose of art is to ask questions” or “to question the nature of art” are reductionist ideas that severely limit art, prop up one kind of art-making, and attempt to lay waste to all traditional art and anyone who attempts to make visual art using visual language (ex., painting).
Weiner or Kosuth, or any of an army of conceptual artists who regurgitate this same revolutionary credo, are the ones limiting the horizons of art, and doing so for self-serving reasons. I suggest they rephrase their rallying cry to something less bleak: “Some of the best art seeks to ask questions” and “the role of the artist now includes making work which challenges traditional ideas about art”. You get the idea.
These ostensible questions have given far too sweeping answers, and not good ones. I suppose it’s as typical of art revolutionaries as political ones that a coup d’état is always in the making: a thorough rejection of the past, off with some heads, and installing oneself in the seat of power, attention, and authority.
How about settling for a seat at the table, and allowing other artists to join in as well?
Finally, I do think there’s a much more broad, subtle, and elusive meaning to art asking questions, such as pertains to artists (or people in general of the appropriate stripe) being continually engaged in questioning and reevaluating their own existence, the human condition, and so on… However, even this is matched by coming to temporary conclusions and most plausible explanations, insights, epiphanies of the truth, visions, sensations, instances of spiritual awakening, dreams, and psychedelic forays. There are answers, and there is also quite a lot of territory that is neither questions nor answers, and this may be the larger terrain of art.
I would probably let Weiner or Kosuth off the hook with just admitting, “I believe I seriously overstated the case”. But the damage has already been done.
[Also see What is the Purpose of Visual Art?]
[Note: Please excuse my typos and grammar mistakes. I don’t have an editor.]
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#4. If Michelangelo were alive today, he’d be a Conceptual artist
This is a general sentiment that is ubiquitous in the art world, and definitely a contender for the most vile and destructive idea about art. The belief is that real or great artists no longer paint or make pictures, that we have evolved artistically beyond image-making, and there’s no going back.
Here’s a quote by infamous performance and conceptual artist, Chris Burden saying precisely that:
There is a tradition for what I’m doing, and it is, y’know, if you look back in our history, it’s there, y’know. If, uhh, y’know, if some of the people at the turn of the century were here now they wouldn’t be making paintings, they’d be doing art like I’m doing, or some people I respect are doing. Do you know what I’m saying? But people want to see that same format continue, which I don’t think is really very realistic, because the people that we respect in art history were… at their time seemed difficult, and outrageous, and pushing something, and that is basically the history of art, y’know, is that it does push your head around a little.
I transcribed the text from this video, if you’d like some more context, or to hear him say “y’know” a bunch of times:
I’m actually a fan of Burden, mostly because his variety of conceptual art doesn’t bore the living crap out of me. He’s the guy who had himself shot in the arm as art, and had himself crucified to a Volkswagen.
Let me just correct Burden on his, y’know, art history. Picasso lived to a ripe old age, and he was surely one of the most controversial artists alive and working at the turn of the 20th century. Well, he didn’t die until 1973 (aged 91), which is after Burden’s own first performances, and he never made conceptual art. Worse, when Duchamp (the grandfather of conceptual art) died, Picasso simply stated, “He was wrong”. So, which artists of the turn of the century would have abandoned visual art in favor of non-visual art?
Burden’s notion that art was always about “pushing people’s heads around” makes as much sense as saying that popular music has always been about getting a parental advisory label assigned to one’s CDs, so why not just skip all the fussing with instruments, melodies, and rhythms, when you can just deliver the explicit content to piss off the prudes?
Not just conceptual and performances artists themselves, the critics also maintain that visual art died when conceptual art was born. Here’s Jonathan Jones with The Guardian:
There is a profound difference between art rooted in craft, and art that has no interest in it. In this century, art has left craft far behind. A process that began when Marcel Duchamp insisted art should appeal only to the brain is, today, complete. Painters who know how to paint are relics from another world and sculpture no longer seems the right word for the objects artists find or cause to be made.
When Jones said, “in this century, art has left craft far behind,” he also relegated the product of “craft” to the dust, which is visual art proper, and that means pictures or images, and with that the visual imagination and visual language. It is quite on par with declaring that some new form of art rendered musicianship antiquated, and thus music, and musical language…
When Jones says, “Painters who know how to paint are relics from another world” it would be as fair to say “musicians who know how to play instruments are relics from another world”, because conceptual art has as little to do with visual art proper as it does with music.
Burden’s performances have far more in common with theater than art: there’s a setting, they take place in time, there may be an audience, they involve props, and there’s a “performer”. The only thing they share with painting is that they are placed in the museum context. [Note: I was a teaching assistant for a “Performance Art” class when I was a graduate student. At least 90% of the students who enrolled in the class were “theater” majors. You do the math.]
In the same way, you can sit on a metal, folding chair, and watch a “video” projected on a wall in a gallery, but not in a theater, because video is believed to be radical art, and not an offshoot of film. Sound sculpture is visual art, not music. Text art isn’t literature, but visual art.
Most or all the new forms of art that replace painting are hybrids or variations of already established other genres of art, or non-art, which they much more closely resemble. Installations are frequently indistinguishable from museum or educational displays. Even Duchamp’s radical new art-form of deciding what to call art, and putting THAT in the museum, is just a twist on curation (this applies equally to Warhol, Koons, Hirst, and others). Every new form of art is categorized as visual art, except visual art, which must be vanquished in order for all the other art forms to be understood as having taken up the baton of fine art from visual art, which lay exhausted in the dirt.
If visual art is still legitimate, which it absolutely is (see my article Why the Still Image is Still Vital), than these other art forms are just additional lateral options for creative exploration, and not superior to drawing, painting, or other image-making. If you don’t think visual art is still valid, consider how popular retrospectives of Van Gogh, or any of the Impressionists are. Recent painters such as Alex Grey or H.R. Giger have an enormous following, despite being entirely outside the contemporary art framework.
The end result of all this was to sideline and thwart generations of actual visual artists in an attempt to stifle the visual imagination and visual language. This is why there was no visual equivalent to rock music (excepting rare individuals such as Robert Williams, who insisted on making visual art no matter how out of fashion he was).
Maybe this isn’t obviously weird to other people. While in the 60’s-70’s there was a cultural explosion of new music in Rock (and Soul, Blues, R&B…), with thousands of young people participating, there was no such popular equivalent in art, and the equivalent would have been legions of painters making new imagery reflecting themselves and the era they lived in.
Consider that if you were a musician in your 20’s, there were plenty of people — famous people — you could look up to and see that a career was possible. If you were a painter you could look up to perhaps a handful of people, none of whom most of us can name. Who was the visual artist equivalent of Jim Morrison, or Janis Joplin, or Aretha Franklin? Don’t rack your brains. There weren’t any. All those artists were thwarted. Stop and imagine what their visual art might have looked like.
When the theoreticians in their ivory towers clinically removed the visual from visual art, and declared it a cancer, they removed any of its potential for popular appeal, and indefinitely. Obtuse, intellectual, cynical, and cerebral artifacts as art appeal to a very select audience, and alienate everyone else. Take note: There is no popular form of visual art.
Conceptual art questioning what could be considered art at all, and rejecting visual art entirely, had zero popular appeal. If there were a competition in the 60’s-70’s between art and music as to which was more relevant, interesting, nourishing, rich, fun, and entertaining, art didn’t make it out of the starting gate. Art was too busy asking itself pseudo-philosophical questions, such as if a chair was a thing, or a definition, or a photo.
I’m all for the proliferation of every style of creative enterprise, and wouldn’t have it any other way, but I object to the decades-long (OK, century long) attempt to squelch one form of art in order to justify others. Instead of co-existing with visual art, conceptual art demanded a monopoly on art, and perhaps depended on it, which is why Jonathan Jones needs to say painting is a relic.
Visual art, with its requisite visual imagination, visual intelligence, and technical facility, was never “left behind” by “art”, it was banished by non-visual-artists and various ideologues in order to promote their own products and eliminate the competition.
Notice the same rhetorical sleight of hand I pointed out in #3, where the contemporary theorist objects to a favorite notion of the past, because it is not 100% accurate, then asserts the diametrical opposite is 100% true, and produces whatever tortured arguments are necessary to bolster their new paradigm. In the past, the word “artist” was associated primarily with painters and sculptors, but it was not true that only painters and sculptors were artists. Now we consider anything and everything art, except painting (which is a “relic” and an impediment to real contemporary art), and anyone and everyone is an artist, except painters (who are obsolete, and whose views are anathema to the flourishing of new forms of art).
Visual art is a primary and timeless form of art. The only way to fully eradicate it, or leave it behind, is to pluck out our eyes and become a blind species.
Sure, sure, some people passionately disagree with me, and here we need only take note that they are arguing in favor of destroying an entire field of art, a kind of communication, and in so doing crippling our capacity for visual imagination. All hail!
There are some well established visual artists in the contemporary art world, such as Peter Doig, Kerry James Marshall, and Dana Schutz, but the idea that painting, and visual art proper are a lost cause still persists.
When someone says painting (which is essentially visual art) is dead, it only means that they themselves are dead to it, which is nothing to boast about, and only signals their own short-sightedness.
#3. The Public Decides What Art Means
Other closely related versions of this sentiment include that the artist can’t control how his or her art is interpreted, and the artist’s intent is irrelevant.
There’s a lot of truth in the fashionable idea that the audience decides what an artwork means, and it is accepted wisdom in the contemporary art world, but it is a cynical truth that is an affront to justice and the sanctity of the individual. It is similar in its practical wisdom to saying that the judge and jury decide if the accused is innocent or guilty, not the suspect himself. But think how this could go horribly awry:
The Inquisition decides if you are a witch or not.
Imagine being found guilty of witchcraft, sentenced to burning at the stake, and the flames beginning to lick at your ankles. Do you accept that society determines who and what you are, that you are indeed in congress with the devil, and your torture and execution are righteous? Should Frederick Douglass have accepted the conclusion that it was OK for him to be a slave because he was less than human? Perhaps Jesus’ last words should have been:
“Father, reward them, for they know what they are doing.”
There’s something about granting the mob final authority over the individual that pierces right to the core of any sense of justice. Yes, I’ve gone to the extreme of invoking the “mob”, when what we are really talking about here is much more likely art critics, theorists, and critical theorists. It is the art critic, the social critic, and the social justice champion who presently seek to determine the meaning of a work of art. The non-artist theorists have proposed that the meaning and value of art is decided not by the artists themselves, but the theorists themselves. What a surprise!
The idea, along with several other radical-because-ass-backwards concepts, can be traced to Roland Barthes, and his “Death of the Author”:
A text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination…
Sorry about that convoluted bullshit. In short, is says that the author doesn’t create a unique story, but patches together text from various sources, and the meaning never comes together in the author’s mind, but rather in that of the reader.
What elaborate fuckwittery! This is like saying that Einstein didn’t understand the “unity” of his equations or the meaning of his theory of relativity. Rather, only others who examine his math can do that. No, they can only do that IF he did it first, and only if they are up to the task.
I can’t imagine presuming to understand any real artist’s work better than the artist her or himself. It’s like saying I understand their internal struggles and who they really are better than they do. Let me just go lecture them on the meaning of their lives and tell them what they really feel.
True, the artist doesn’t have absolute authority over his or her art, and society is going to have the final say, but this doesn’t mean that the artist’s intent can be disregarded in favor of that of the average critic or audience member armed with an ideology that could fit on an info-poster.
Van Gogh’s mother outlived him by 17 years, in which time he came to be widely appreciated as a great artist. Who knows how she felt about having thrown away crates of his art. In his case, while he was alive, the art world and his own mother, thought he was a joke. He was able to persist anyway because he had confidence in his own vision and judgement. This confidence would be eroded by a belief that others determine what an artist’s work is and means.
We may say that at the end of the day the audience vindicated Van Gogh, and we now appreciate his work. Well, even if that is the case, we are only coming to see his work as he did. But this does not guarantee that we won’t change our mind again (consider the recent revaluation of Gauguin in light of his treatment of women and girls, to put it lightly).
It is a typical practice of radical postmodern theory to find a minor flaw in something, and then because it is not 100% true, insist it is 100% false and the diametric opposite is 100% true. So, if an artist or author does not have absolute authority over his or her art, than the audience has absolute authority. This is super intellectual stupidity, and the tragic result is that the public is prone to denouncing art as degenerate, sexist, patriarchal, sacrilegious, pretentious, garbage, ugly, misguided, morally offensive, and so on. And given that power, the public will censor and destroy art (not entirely unlike the iconoclasts who destroy religious imagery of their own deities, or those of others).
The artist or author surely has at least 51% authority over his or her own creation.
[For a much more thorough dismantling of Roland Barthe’s “Death of the Author” read my article: “The Death of the Author” Debunked.]
#2. All Art IS Political
All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo. ~ Toni Morrison
[NOTE: I’m a big fan of Morrison’s novels, but not this quote.]
Toni Morrison is just one of armies of people who have made this same claim. It’s everywhere, especially these days. Whenever anyone says “all art” we already know there’s an enormous problem: someone is trying to circumscribe art and lord themselves over art with a single definition. True, Morrison starts off with “all good art”, but then includes the rest when asserting even art that tries hard to not be political says “we love the status quo”. Elsewhere she’s said, “that’s what an artists is — a politician”. Ah, so the child who picks up a brush is instantly a politician. I see. For other quotes one can choose from over 37,000 hits on Google for the exact phrase “all art is political”, that’s how ingrained this idea is.
I remember when people used to say “all art is sexual”, or to quote Picasso, “sex and art are the same thing”. I thought that was bonkers when I heard it, and a bit pervy, but, alas, all has changed, and now all art is political. What we really see here is just that all art (and everything else) can be sexualized, or politicized, or seen through whichever narrow lens serves someone’s personal interests (Freudianism, Marxism, Feminism, religion, pure aesthetics…).
if you really pressed people who say all art is political, they’d probably admit that all fashion, cuisine, sports, horticulture, and everything else is political. They just see everything through political lenses. It’s their problem, not arts. On top of this, it makes art into the rope in a tug-O-war between always opposing forces, and advocating for one side or another.
“All art is political” is the rallying cry of artists who make overtly political art, and it asserts that their art is the most important, that all art must play by their rules, and all art must serve their political agenda. This gets tied in with other overly simplistic notions, such as “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”, and that’s how obviously non-political art gets looped in as political, as automatically part of the problem, or as Morrison put it, the status quo.
What does one do in the case of minimalism, where there’s no content at all to politicize (ex, a stack of bricks by Carl Andre)?
You politicize the act of creating minimalist art itself. But then, there’s no difference between your criticism between individual works, because you only have one blanket criticism which you attribute to all minimalism.
The idea that all art is political comes bundled with a virus: all art is judged on its political merit in terms of a particular political agenda. Every artist is a cadre, and all art must serve the cause. The revolutionaries are the new critics, political allegiance their criterion, and the artists that don’t join ranks are the enemy who must be defeated.
The person who only sees politics when looking at art can’t see the art for what it actually offers, and places art in a subordinate role to politics as merely a vehicle or prop for whatever (always “progressive”) political cause. Art which promotes the proper agenda is exalted, but any art, no matter how good, which takes a different political position, including none at all, is reviled. Here, art has no intrinsic quality of its own.
Sorry, fanatics, but you don’t get to enlist all of art into your political revolution. A lot of art is AWOL, a conscientious objector, a celebration of pure beauty, about nature, or even dreaming in an opium trance… “All art is political” is such a grotesque exaggeration, that it might be more accurate to argue the opposite extreme, such as that all the best art succeeds irrespective of whatever political content. And if I had to choose one overstatement, it would definitely be the latter. The artist is an artist, and not a politician.
See also: Art is Not Inherently Political!
#1. Making money is the highest form of art
We have Andy Warhol to thank for this nasty little gem.
“Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad”. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art.” ~
To accept this you need to buy into two things. One is that making money is a form of art-making, and two is that it’s the most advanced level of art. Both are stinkers.
The hippies were closer to the truth than was Warhol. I can illustrate how ridiculous and insulting his idea is by changing one word: “good business is the best music“. Now, the sentiment doesn’t even make sense. Making money has nothing to do with music, and it has nothing to do with art, either.
Even if we are going to try to say that anything and everything is art, than why would business make better art than science, or saving lives, or landing on the moon? If making money is a form of art in the broadest sense of the word, it’s closer to the worst art.
In the same way you aren’t a musician if you don’t make some form of music, you aren’t an artist if you don’t make something creative that can at least be looked at. If making money is great art, so is making war.
Saying business is the best form of art is a bit it like saying greed is the most noble self-sacrifice. It’s shocking us with stupidity and hoping we mistake the shock for novelty and don’t question the stupidity.
[Extras. A meme, and a digital collage on the topic by yours truly.]
To be continued…
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