This is an important distinction, and the art world has placed so much more value on information than texture over the last century that texture has been banished to the periphery when discussing art. I recently watched a video about Kara Walker’s monument, Fons Americanus, and while the narrator analyzed how it quotes and challenges history, and what this and that symbolized, he never addressed whether the sculpture was sculpted well or not, if it was beautiful, or even how it was sculpted.

Kara Walker and her monumental sculpture, or sculptural monument, Fons Americanus.

An authoritative article by the TATE similarly never mentions beauty, aesthetics, skill, craft, or how the monument was created other than to say that sections “appear to be made out of clay”. In both cases it’s as if it never even occurred to the authors to address what the sculpture looked like, whereas all focus was given to the information it hoped to convey about historical wrongs.

Detail of Fons Americanus..

The entire sculpture is white, but the only mention of the word “white” is in connection with “white supremacy”. This is equivalent to analyzing the lyrics of a song, and never mentioning what it sounds like. It’s like elaborating the ingredients of a recipe in an article about cuisine, but leaving out what the dish tastes like, or even if it tastes good. I’m not saying the sculpture doesn’t look good (it seems OK-ish]: I’m saying the question isn’t even asked.

By “texture” I mean the aesthetics of a piece, and here “information” alludes to the ideas that can be put into words either about the literal content, or from a more conceptual standpoint how the piece functions in society.

Songs provide a very direct example. The information is what the lyrics of the song are about, and the texture is the way it is sung. Consider the ever popular song “Scarborough Fair” (1968) by Simon & Garfunkel. Here are the first lines of the song.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

If you know the song, you probably can’t read it without to a degree singing it, at least in your head. It’s a traditional song with a long history, and the singing duo updated it by interspersing anti-war lyrics into it, such as, “Generals order their soldiers to kill”. The lyrics have been analyzed in great detail, and it’s safe to say that for all of my life I misinterpreted it as longing for a lost love. Y’know, some sort of sorrow about “she once was a true love of mine”. No, not really. The song has its roots in a traditional ballad about an evil elf who threatens to abduct a young woman and make her his lover unless she can accomplish certain impossible deeds, such as making a “cambric shirt” but “without any seam or needlework”, or as in the pop duo’s version “without no seams nor needlework”.

There are the lyrics, and then there is the music. We may say both are essential and complimentary, that you can’t have one without the other (though you certainly could have just the poetry or words or just the notes). In this particular case, it’s the beauty of the song that carries it, though the lyrics “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” are as unforgettable as they are just a grocery list of herbs.

Note that this song is extremely popular in Thailand, where I can guarantee few people have any idea what the lyrics say at all. Also consider that there are Thai country songs that I can hardly make out what they are about, even though I can read and write Thai, and which I enjoy entirely because of the music.

I always point this out, but, here it is again: we are a lot less confused about music than we are about visual art. Everyone knows it matters deeply how a song is sung. Is it screamed? Does it matter how Nina Simone sang the final lines of “Four Women”?

My skin is brown.
My manner is tough.
I’ll kill the first mother’ I see.
My life has been rough.
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves.
What do they call me
My name is

If you don’t know this remarkable song, it builds in emotion and volume until she screams the name “Peaches”. The piano, the percussion, and the flute all contribute to the texture of the song. And while I will generally argue that texture is more important than information, some of my absolute favorite all-time songs are overtly, passionately political.

But I am not the one giving an either/or proposition. I am arguing that texture has been largely eliminated in discussions of visual art. Part of this stems from conceptual art and the namesake focus on the concept behind the art; and the other major player is today’s ubiquitous focus on the political ramifications of the art, especially in relation to the race, gender, and sexual orientation of the creator. This is the case with Kara Walker’s monument, but even in a very general way “beauty” has become a bad word in art.

Of course beauty is not the same thing at all as pretty, and to confuse the two in art is awkwardly unsophisticated. Anyone who can appreciate a painting by Francis Bacon, or even a late self-portrait with bulbous nose by Rembrandt, can understand that how something is painted, regardless of subject matter, can be aesthetically compelling even if the subject itself is not so easy on the eyes.

Francis Bacon: Lying Figure (1966).

Today there is the assumption that all meaning resides in the “information” residing in a work of art, and that the texture is merely the packaging, and can be thrown out like Christmas wrapping paper that the new iPhone came in. This is backwards, because there is meaning inherent to the aesthetics themselves, it just can’t be literally translated to sentences in linguistics.

Rembrandt: detail of Self-Portrait (1660)

We are in a stage in visual art that is self-absorbed, revolutionary, and is rebelling against prior periods of art. Much of modern art focused almost exclusively on texture. You can probably think of the most obvious examples yourself. Allow me to trot out what is probably many people’s first choice. Enter one Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) [1950].

His paintings are all texture and no representational subject matter whatsoever. The texture is itself the subject. This is the same with instrumental music in general, but much less easy to pull off with literature, even poetry, because the words will always represent something external to themselves. While Simon & Garfunkel’s singing the words “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” can function as pure texture to a non-native speaker, and in my own experience works for me in that same way, it’s still a list of herbs.

People today don’t know how to discuss Jackson Pollock’s paintings. I’ve written an article addressing precisely this. They will discuss the fact that he was ostensibly the first person to make the action of painting paramount, in which case the painting is an obvious record of the physical act of painting it. [He’s not the first. He’s the first to do it very well.] They will elaborate that he painted on the floor, and talk about the flattening of the picture plane so that it is not a window into another representational world, as it had been in the past. You might even hear the ever popular, “it changes the way with think about ________”.

But it only matters if someone was the first to do something if the thing in question itself is worthwhile. And if something changes the way we think about art or painting, is that a good change? Notice here that art becomes a vehicle for what we think, rather than for what it intrinsically offers.

These are all things the paintings did or didn’t do, or why they are considered important, but these pronouncements apply equally to over 300 of his drip paintings, and don’t differentiate between any two, even between a great one and less fortunate attempt. Some of the people who will articulate why the paintings are important along these lines will also buy or sell conspicuously inferior fakes, because they can’t even tell the difference.

Similarly, I was shocked that people took the Salvator Mundi to be not only a work by the hand of Leonardo himself, but on par with his greatest accomplishments. A lot of artists and art connoisseurs felt very strongly that it, for lack of a better word, sucked. But the experts either couldn’t tell, or had an ulterior motive that had everything to do with either making big bucks, or not losing their jobs by speaking out.

Er, that’s my video.

You learn to appreciate painting by looking at it, not discussing it, just as you learn to appreciate music by listening to it. These days even art critics are if not visually illiterate, their visual intelligence is so compromised by their intellectual biases that they might as well be blind. It’s a red flag whenever we talk about art as “starting a conversation” or “changing the way we think”, because it makes the art itself into a mere visual aid for a lecture on a hot topic. When that topic is no longer hot, then we only consider the art at all in terms of its historical role in a social movement. That conversation that the art allegedly spurned, and which gives it its value, is the equivalent of a conversation taking place over a piece of music as evidence that the music is worth listening to in the first place. If the purpose of art were to start conversations in linguistics than it is unnecessary because an essay or documentary could achieve the goal much more effectively.

And so what can you say about a great Pollock or Rothko painting, other than mouth Art 101 mid-term talking points about ideas surrounding, but alien to, the work itself. Well, it’s going to be much more elusive and challenging to do so, because a lot of it has to do with feelings, associations, moods, and sensations.

Let me give you another musical example. When I was in high school I started to notice that certain songs for me evoked the sense of a place. It had little or nothing to do with the lyrics. The music also evoked a time, to be sure, but that was kind of obvious, because I listened to a lot of older music. I was more intrigued when music suggested a sense of place, or environment, so that I felt transported somewhere else. Most music only took me to the recording studio. I’m not saying this is the best music necessarily – I’m also attracted to rather cerebral studio music — but that it is a very curious and compelling achievement when it happens. A couple hugely popular examples of this are the albums “Who’s Next” by The Who [particularly Baba O’Riley], and “Fragile” [all of it] by Yes. If you are British, these instances might not transport you to some other place, but since I’m from Los Angeles, they did. That said, I do get a similar feeling from hits by the band “America”, most notably “Ventura Highway” which I’ve spent enough time driving on myself that any evocation of it could be merely mundane, but somehow isn’t].

It’s easier to understand how a song can illicit an emotional response. “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks can bring tears to my eyes. So can “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. The first case is the most obvious because it’s sung from the perspective a boy singing about dying, and all the things he’ll miss. Of course it makes me sad. Chapin’s song is about a son who is neglected by his father because he’s too busy with his career, and then the tables turn and when the son is working age he’s too busy with his career to spend time with his father. It’s not even just the stories, but the delivery is also poignant. The same could be said of “Killing Me Softly” as covered by Aretha Franklin. Songs can be beautiful and sophisticated in a number of ways, but that one’s haunted and can stop people in their tracks like the benevolent version of the singing of a siren.

But when a song conjured a place, I had to wonder how it did that. The songs weren’t literally describing places. It was just a feeling. The point here is it was all texture, and had nothing to do with information or ideas that could be put into words. It was far too elusive, but also powerful.

It’s inordinately difficult to nail down, or then convey, what really works in a piece of art, and why. The art speaks for itself and in its own language, that is not linguistics, no matter how hard people want to reduce anything and everything to text they can tuck away in their back pocket and forget about.

There’s a story about the Buddha that I always go back to. I have no idea how true it is. I wasn’t there. But the story goes that someone asked the Buddha if there is life after death. He would not answer that question, because whatever he said would just be accepted as a conclusion, in words, converted into an un-examined conviction, shelved away, and made meaningless. And so it is with art, that discussing a piece over-much is killing it by talking over it. Nothing I can tell you about “Scarborough Fair” replaces even one listen.

What is the difference between a good Rothko and a not so great one? What is the difference between a good and bad guitar solo? It’s how it’s done. How does it hold together. Is it cliched? Does it somehow evoke a mood? In order to make a good guitar solo you need to have heard a lot of other ones and appreciated them; you need to care; you need to have dedicated yourself to learning an instrument; and more importantly you need to have a strong sense in general of what it means to be alive. Your solo can’t just be empty noodling: playing scales and arpeggios at breakneck speed. For it to really capture our imagination, for it to resonate with us, the musician needs to be very sensitive about music and reality and somehow be able to fix the latter into the former like a prehistoric insect is preserved in amber. This is a language unto itself which we can only learn to appreciate through the exposure of repeated listening.

An insect suspended in amber from 100 million years ago

And if you can capture that essence of what it means to be alive without literally addressing it, or making a pertinent political argument, it can be not only more moving, but more centering than reams of text articulating very specific meanings. Information in and of itself does not matter unless we care about it, and if we care it’s probably to do with our feelings and emotions. And if those feelings and emotions are real, they aren’t reducible to text. They are experiential. The ideas in a lot of these songs are vague, confusing, or in and of themselves rather superficial. They don’t necessarily reflect an accurate picture of the sociological landscape, and any analysis they present may be biased or skewed. If art is not the best, or second best avenue for explaining important social or political information, why is that currently held as it’s inherent and most important objective?

For a brief thought experiment, assuming you are familiar with the musical examples I shared, or can easily come up with your own, imagine that in the dawn of the 20th century someone who was committed to anti-music sought to flush a toilet as a musical composition in an open concert where contemporary composers were performing their latest works. Initially, the concert’s organizers rejected the toilet-flushing as a worthy musical composition partly because it mocked and trivialized the other works by Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, etc. [I know about John Cage’s piano concerto where the pianist just sat there, but few consider it really that important, and nobody listens to it more than once.] However, history came to herald the flushed-toilet as a musical composition on par with Beethoven’s best work; declared that it checkmated all more traditional approaches to music; and it was honored as the most important and influential musical achievement of the 20th century. [Further, you need to imagine that the rock and pop songs I mentioned never materialized, because no equivalent in the visual arts ever did.]

This video has over 7,000,000 views and 13,000 comments, almost all rabidly decrying it.

Today we regard visual art as a mere transparent vehicle for conveying important information – if not “starting a conversation” than “drawing attention” to some issue – and we judge it by the information according to our foregone conclusions and the prevailing belief system. Art is reduced to an idea, and its value is determined by ideology. The pendulum has swung all the way to one side, and is collecting dust on the edge of a shelf dedicated to radical politics, postmodern and linguistic theories.

Today’s aspiring artists, art theorists, and art critics believe it’s more important to spend time reading texts about semiotics than it is to spend time with a book of art propped in your lap studying the pictures. It is surely considered infinitely more important that young artists are politically and socially aware – as it were from a far left perspective – than it is that they know anything at all about art prior to Duchamp, or have even seen it. Let me just save you a lot of trouble, young artist. I studied postmodernism, linguistics, semiotics, and radical sociopolitical critical theory in art school through a Master’s degree. I aced my contemporary art theory class. Save your time and money. You need none of that to be an artist, and I dare say it may do far more damage than good, depending on what kind of art you make and why. It can take decades to completely unravel the conditioning, if one ever succeeds in reprogramming oneself. Whole generations of painters – what would have been visual art’s equivalent to rock and pop stars – were extinguished because of the belief, spawned from anti-art, that art had moved on, painting was dead, and any serious artist needed to make conceptual art. That is why there is no visual equivalent to the enormous outpouring of rock and pop music between the late 60’s to early 70’s.

Art becomes a mute object that one studies as a subject, rather than a language that one assimilates directly and gains nourishment from.

When it comes to which side of the spectrum I’m on, I definitely fall into the territory of texture being more important to me than information, which I can get elsewhere much more clearly and succinctly. But this is not to say that information isn’t important, as even the purely instrumental composer or the fully non-representational painter needs to have something to communicate, no matter how broad or vague. We used to think artists needed to suffer to make quality art. I reject that on the face of it because it’s just a justification to rip off artists and otherwise make their lives difficult, but in a more fundamental sense it’s true. Artists need to be cognizant of what it means to be alive, to participate in the human condition, and this doesn’t happen in a secluded bubble of privilege where one can avoid ever getting one’s proverbial hands dirty. But as I said, this breadth and depth of understanding can be conveyed in aesthetics alone, such as in purely instrumental music. Beethoven’s piano sonata N° 23 ‘Appassionata’ comes to mind. That one knocks my socks off. To place notes in time at all, pace them, juxtapose, contrast, overlap, and interrelate them so magnificently requires the composer understands the nature of time, of lives intertwining, of long and short term exchanges, of joy, tragedy, loss, strength and vulnerability. To conjure this in pure music takes much more understanding than to articulate the correct political argument in text.

What is the information in the Appassionata? By today’s standards we must dismiss it as utterly meaningless. Instead we can discuss how and when Beethoven composed it, where it was played, and whether or not he was a womanizer. If you want a somewhat less cliched example of classical music, how about the Concerto for piano and orchestra no. 1 by Béla Bartók?

Many of Van Gogh’s best paintings are not of anything that I would find inherently interesting. Poplar trees, a wheat field, sunflowers, or irises. It’s all about how he painted it. But if we are going to talk about his work today, than we will focus on something like the fact that he was influenced by Japanese wood prints, because this implies that his innovations were actually simply borrowed from another culture. In reality, it’s just one of his many influences, and his vision is uniquely his own. Completely unrelated and opposite to the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints (fine as they are), and more conspicuous, is the thick impasto brushstrokes he used. The way he painted a sunflower says more about him than it does about sunflowers. His canvases are marriages of opposites. He fused his inner vision with external reality to produce something simultaneously representative and abstracted. They are thickly encrusted and yet luminous. Similarly, the perspective is flattened, and yet the colors suggest depth while the surface is richly textured. The subjects are humble and yet the depiction is ecstatic. He was able to portray reality the way he perceived it, or at least conceived it, with everything moving in rhythms of clear and intense energy.

But what information do we take away from it today? Well, we will probably skip over his paintings and talk about biographical elements. His paintings become not vessels of artistic communication, but mute collector’s items of a tragic retroactive celebrity: locks of hair once belonging to Elvis.

A lock of Elvis’s hair which sold for £4,000 at auction.

While Van Gogh was able to transmit his own reality into paint on canvas, today’s artist looks to postmodernism, linguistics, critical theory, and recent interpretations of history and politics for information to repackage as art for the public (and the sponsorship of moneyed institutions). When we judge art by the information it relays, we should remember that the information in question is quite often second hand at best, even in the case of the old masters.

The one thing I would want people to take away from this essay is that the meaning in art – its real content – is not found primarily in the information it relays that could be conveyed better in words – but rather in the texture of the art, within the language of aesthetics.

I am not saying anything radical or extreme here. I’m merely stating the obvious, which we have learned to dismiss in favor of the obscure and the counter-intuitive. When I was an undergrad in art school I was disappointed to discover that the art my instructors wanted us to admire and emulate was the most dreary, threadbare, uninteresting, and overall terminally banal art I’d ever seen. Best if there was no skill involved, no aesthetics whatsoever, no emotion, no feeling, nothing remotely cool, and instead a dry-ass, nihilist rejection of art itself and anything ancillary I might find remotely interesting. If it wasn’t Duchamp’s urinal, it was Malevich’s all black square painting, Warhol’s Brillo Box, or Joseph Kosuth’s chair + a dictionary description of a chair + a photo of the same chair. Even after I “got” the art, which wasn’t all the heroic mental leap it’s cracked up to be, it still bored the living crap out of me. That was precisely because it gave me absolutely nothing to look at. The real language of art is aesthetics itself, and yet the art that was heralded was either anti-aesthetic, or less visually interesting than looking at the floor, the wall, or the ceiling. Imagine going to music school, and then being escorted into the inner sanctum where you would hear a recording of a toilet flushing; a one-note organ solo; a cover of a Brillo Pad jingle; and a plastic whistle + the sound of a whistle + the dictionary definition of a whistle. You might find yourself starved for music within the vaunted institution of music.

Aesthetics are minimal and perfunctory in Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” of 1965.

It’s safe to say that I tried to be a part of the contemporary art world and to embrace the various radical ideas of art. I did get an A in my art theory class, and remember being very disappointed when a friend wouldn’t lend me a book of theoretical essays on art she had in her possession. I did some performance art, installation art, and conceptual pieces. I even got a big fellowship as an undergrad which was awarded only to one student per year, based on a juried exhibition. But ultimately the graft didn’t take, and it’s simply because that kind of art didn’t really interest me that much. If anyone had asked me if I preferred John Lennon’s music or Yoko Ono’s performance and conceptual art (or her music), I’d have admitted it was the former by a landslide, and I knew it had better be the latter (though I prefer her art to his drawings).

Yoko Ono “Painting For The Wind” [1961]. Uuum, has time proved this a brilliant artistic breakthrough or perhaps just a wee bit of BS?

For me personally, anti-art and its derivatives are a curiosity, and I prefer that the art world includes them, but I don’t want them to be the main course of my art diet.

And so the contemporary art world at large is convinced that aesthetics are either irrelevant or the mere vessel the idea comes packaged in. Worse, beauty is anathema to real art. But that’s just being fashionably and stubbornly arbitrary, and insisting a patent falsehood is unalloyed reality. How about this fancy notion: art is only as important as it is good. According to a Google search I’m the only person to ever have strung those 9 words together, or 8 if I take out “only”. But I’m sure it’s not an original thought. Rather, it’s just making an obvious point that gets thoroughly eschewed by the supremacy of radically contrarian anti-art ideas about art. I might as well have just said the best art is the best art (which also gets zero hits on Google).

The patently obvious is invisible, folks, and that’s totally appropriate when we flatly deny the role of aesthetics in art, which is the language of art itself, and where the true meaning of art resides.

~ Ends

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13 replies on “<strong>Texture Versus Information in the Visual Arts</strong>

    1. It might be on your end, or they may not have finished loading. I just checked the video links and they all work for me. I chose older videos that have been around for years and are less likely to be taken down.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Interesting post and examples! Modern art seems to be a reflection of the predicament of modern humanity, where left brain ‘information’ has come to dominate right brain ‘texture’. The left brain which sees parts has usurped the natural dominance of the right brain which sees wholes. See eg Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re really onto something there, Barry. I was not familiar with Iain McGilchrist. Just looked him up and watched a short video to get the gist []. While I maintain that artists don’t need all that semiotics, critical theory, postmodernism and so on we were forced to read in grad school. this stuff really IS interesting and relevant, and for artists. And all that theory, as it happens, is terminally left brain. And my rebellion against it may be a right brain attempt to keep throwing ingredients back into the stew that the left brain wants to ignore or eliminate because they are inconvenient or difficult, even if the stew tastes like library paste without them.

      You’re right. We see a left brain dominance to the exclusion of the right brain – when what we want is a balance – even in the last place we might expect it – art! I just think of it, as you can see in my article, in terms of what people focus on, or how they do it. I didn’t realize how clear this division is, or that it has a biological underpinning.

      I’ll have to research this a lot more. There’s a ton of McGilchrist lectures and interviews on YouTube.

      Thanks for the hot tip.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, McGilchrist’s take on left/right brain explains a lot about not only contemporary art, but also politics, economics, science, psychology, health, social media etc etc. I thought ‘The Master and his Emissary’ a brilliant book. He’s just published a new magnum opus, his life’s work, which I’m planning to get to grips with…

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  2. I don’t think painting is dead, Eric. Or ever was. People still flock to figurative and abstract art exhibitions in favor of installations. One of the leading contemporary artists is Anselm Kiefer who is all about texture.

    The churning of content to discuss the most trivial details seems to be a feature of academia (and capitalism). A few months ago I had just finished re-reading Great Expectations, and I was curious about an analysis on certain themes that had caught my interest. All I could find was generic stuff on YouTube and some really obscure dissertations in academic books/papers. Stuff like the symbolism of the stars in the book. Tens and tens of pages written about how the stars symbolize hope.


    1. Painting isn’t really dead, because visual intelligence hasn’t been extinguished, and as long as people are capable of creating and appreciating images using visual intelligence and aesthetics it will continue. Obviously I believe this because I make digital paintings. But we’re talking about how painting has been treated according to theory, and in institutions. I know about this up close and personal, because you couldn’t be a painter and taken seriously when I was in grad school, or even in my higher undergrad education. Conceptual art was considered to have evolved out of, and replaced painting, and thus painting was tacitly or explicitly considered redundant. Other people have corroborated having the same experience in their academic institutions. It all depends on how radical and contemporary ones art education was.

      There was that the function of art was to ask the question, “What is art” and painting didn’t ask that question, hence was not longer relevant art. I’ve quoted Joseph Kosuth saying this. Similarly, Chris Burden argued that if Michelangelo were alive today, he would be doing what Chris was, which was performance and installation art. Note that I signed up for a “New Genre” class with Chris Burden at UCLA as an undergrad, but as it turns out got Paul McCarthy instead.

      And while people can name dozens of popular bands and musicians from the 60’s – 80’s they can’t name corollary painters. Anselm Kiefer is not a popular artist in the way Jim Morrison was. Kiefer is the equivalent of a contemporary classical composer, like Stockhausen, who most people also never heard of. How many people know who Anself Kiefer is, or even Gerhard Richter? We might be able to name a few artists, such as Roger Dean, who did covers for Yes, or Peter Max, who did art for the Beatles, but they are primarily known for making art commercially to package or advertise music or musical events. There were some comic artists. What happened to generations of young artists that would have made popular paintings that were the equivalent of rock, pop, and soul music? My “theory” is that at the same time in the visual arts, paintings was considered passe, and artists were steered, like I was a few decades later, into making non-painting, conceptual art.

      The only way to be a painter in my grad school and really be taken seriously would be to do it in a way that attacked and undermined the tradition of painting, and you’d probably better be a marginalized person in order to do it.

      And as I pointed out with the Kara Walker sculpture, even art that is rather traditional in appearance – a sculptural monument – is ONLY discussed in terms of politics and symbology.

      But today, yes, the institution and art theory have pretty much been blown out of the water by social media, because anything can become popular outside of the institution. And now a Beeple JPEG sold for $69,000,000, and yesterdays fine art giants are scrambling to get on, and take over, the digital art NFT craze. Money and social media are now more powerful than art institutions for popularizing art, and this could result in a revolution of digital art. However, the moneyed elite of the art world art already working day and night to steer art back into their control, just as the big news organizations and YouTube and Google are trying to quell and shadow-ban independent news sources.

      So, the mentality I am flipping on its back here is the dominant one in academia, but not outside of it. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to invest themselves in arcane theories, obscurantist art, nor would it do much more than depress them to do so. Messages such as that “the author is dead” and we have no originality or authenticity are not only dispiriting, and presented in tedious grammatical gymnastics, they are bogus, and bankrupt.

      The greatest enemy of art in 2021 may be the blind algorithm, and that the value of art is determined by how much revenue it is perceived (largely by blind algorithms) as being able to generate.


  3. Fascinating & instructive! I sometimes wonder if people choose to do the sensational/intriguingly obscure rather than the hard work to learn skills they need to be good painters. If someone wants to earn big $ and be a famous artist – if that’s the goal – then creating poorly crafted but wildly weird things may do the job. Toilets are great subjects and vehicles bec they’re just a little naughty, cringy. They look terrific in ads. They can be purchased easily. Let’s make a toilet statement! ::sigh:: Take this as it’s typed by someone who would love to be a good painter but who isn’t even a good drawer and can’t face doing the years of work to make either happen: much of celebrated contemporary art (including the mid-1950’s thru today) reads to me as the faster and easier road taken. Why spend years learning how to make good art, fine art, to paint in painterly ways? To “succeed” now all we have to do is something that other people can’t believe anyone would actually do. Or create something so opaquely meaningless that it MUST mean something or the why we would we have art experts around to explain it to us? Or dazzle viewers with such badly crafted crap that it can only be excellent or why would we even see it, much less pay for it? Everything feels upside down, turned that way (I suspect) by people who don’t choose to “do the work” but are greedily desirous of the reward and will snooker anyone and everyone to do it. And…most people won’t raise the alarm. They may see that the Emperor’s in his skivvies but they don’t want to speak out. They’re afraid of looking foolish. Or uneducated. Or too educated.
    Here’s a story from my 3rd year in a university’s school of music: There was a guy (let’s call him Bob) who was a decent pianist, a haphazard student, and a very good saxophonist. He got into the school bec his sax audition was terrific. But his true star quality resided in his ability to bullsh*t people. We all had to take arrangement classes. Bob wasn’t interested. He cut class a lot. When it was time for the final – a performance of our arrangement work by the appropriate group (orchestra, choir) – Bob handed the conductor a score for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with some sketchy instructions re tempo and dynamics. He showed up for the first of 3 rehearsals. In the score he advised the conductor that the sounds of the cannons would be provided the day of the performance. WHAT?? Heresy. But it was his arrangement & the rules said he could do anything. I guess we were lucky no students were told to perform standing on their heads. Anyway — the day arrived. Bob was nowhere around. As the orchestra reached the cannon part, Bob flung open the large back doors to the stage, led two tethered goats through middle of the orchestra, downstage. Cannon? Sure: he pulled some hairs on the goats and they made loud goat sounds. Their timing was off but the sound (amplified by numerous microphones) was truly one-of-a-kind.
    Most of us, the kids who’d studied and worked and tried very hard to create exemplary power in the beauty of the music, attended Bob’s critique panel session the next day. We wanted to see him eviscerated by indignant professors’ words. But they gave him A’s across the board. His work had “made a pivotal statement about violence toward humans & animals in the context of the Cold War.”
    I still remember those words bec we were graded on a curve and Bob’s antics dragged our grades away from us. He got goats bec his roommate knew a guy and owed him a favor. Bob was a moderately talented slacker. We all knew that. Even the professors knew that! But how could they give him a bad grade when the audience had sat in silence, baffled, then began laughing and applauding?
    OK, I think I’ve blathered more than enough. Not going back to organize this or proof it. If I do, I’ll probably delete it bec I know how little I know. Maybe I’ve got this whole thing wrong. 🥰(Oh, Bob went on to be a car salesman who gave sax lessons on the side. Perfect.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing the “Bob” sax/piano/goat story. It’s an excellent anecdote, including his becoming a car salesman. It reminds me of one of my observations I’ve made a lot over the years. In the contemporary art worlds there’s a very fine line between what is considered the most brilliant, and what might in fact be utterly insipid. You can say that about “The Fountain”, works by Hirst and Koons and Martin Creed, and many others. Is it genius, or is it f_cking moronic?

      But that is not the case with other art forms in general. There’s more of a gradient between very good, outstanding, and exceptional. Or at least was. When people make lists of the greatest films of all time, I rarely find complete stinkers in there. Is Apocalypse Now possibly utter crap? Does anyone need to ask themselves if maybe William Faulkner was a complete fraud, and if he could write at all? Do we ask ourselves if Led Zeppelin could actually play their instruments? Was Frank Lloyd Wright a fraud?

      Only in “art” as applied to what has become of the visual arts do we have this strange conundrum where the very best, most celebrated, and expensive art teeters on being complete imbecility.

      One of my university instructors was Paul McCarthy, who has the unique distinction of being the most disgusting living artist, and perhaps artist of all time. He does mostly performance and installation works. One of his early pieces was him whipping a blanket dipped in black paint or tar against a wall. At the time he said he was “going beyond painting”, or something to that effect. What struck me was that he had not gone anywhere significant at all in painting before going beyond it. It’s like going beyond speaking Chinese without being able to speak a single sentence. Where are the paintings where he was at the upper edge of painting before he eclipsed it? What we get is something that says it is better than painting, more in the future, but which in fact gives us nothing worth even looking at for more than a few seconds, and only to figure out what the hell the mess on the wall is.

      The moral of the story is that art that could be utter genius or complete bullshit may not be as solid as people think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I looked up Paul McCarthy. First reaction was “Ewww!” & I didn’t hang around for a second one. Interesting, what you’re saying about other art forms. As I was reading my mind kept saying, “You have to know the rules to break them!” It’s not 100% true, of course, but it’s not nothing. I wonder, tho, about artists who create work with no sanctioned or recognized training. Like folk artists? Where do they fit in? Some have been very successful, celebrated. Or are they all on a lower plane than the super-artists who make the big money, so we don’t mind if they’re actually making cr#p? Hunh. Gotta think about this! 🥰

        Liked by 1 person

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