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sautéing the discourse

Post #133 • October 22, 2003, 7:18 AM

Jerome du Bois of Tears of Things complained about the lack of response it generates, and now has posted this melange of Darwinism, art criticism, and art-criticism criticism that is too rickety for me to be sure how to respond to it. This doesn’t elevate the discourse, as its author claims for it; it sautés it by coarsely chopping up other peoples’ thinking, combining it in an essay, and applying high heat.

It lays out baits for Artblog.net (snaps at Morandi, Walter Darby Bannard, and head vs. heart discussions pop immediately into view), and I’m not going for any of them. Instead, I’d counter that the numerous examples of bad art and gullible or effete critics are a product of the Darwinism that ToT implies would fix everything, if only it were understood and applied. Evolutionary theory notes that the fittest organisms survive, and that the fittest are cooperative – entities that form mutually beneficial relationships more than they attack each other (which is also occasionally necessary). Art that has any qualities finds an audience for whom those qualities have value, which promotes and preserves it. The audiences are diverse and value different kinds of art. Members of these audiences occasionally attack each other in the form of art criticism, with the result that the audiences gain or lose members. The art world, in its largely pathetic state (with a lot of good bits thrown in), is a perfect example of Darwinian evolution.

Because taste is individual and subjective, what constitutes a value in art is as well. Du Bois’ criteria include art that is “so profoundly eccentric as to establish a new center” and others that are valuable to him but not to me; since we’re talking about survival of the fittest, what “survives” in his artistic life may “die” in mine. Both biological and cultural survival are local affairs; we have polar bears in some places and iguanas in others for a reason.

That means the larger question is what values are maximally befitting. I observe that ideas tend to die over time while beauty persists. The Botticelli Allegory of Spring supposedly has over a hundred species of flowers in it, each with its own ascribed meaning, and I can’t name one of them. Deprived of this knowledge and quite a bit else, I have nevertheless gone a quarter of the way around the world to see it. Four times. I would choose to preserve it. (And I’ve been to Morandi’s museum in Bologna twice.) So Darwinism, far from being a salve that could be applied to an ailing art world, is the very mechanism that produced it in its ailing and healthy forms.

I wouldn’t talk about this if I didn’t generally enjoy ToT’s angry erudition, and the fact that we dislike a lot of the same art for the same reasons. It should continue to attack as it sees fit. I would just encourage it to do so more like a laser and less like a shotgun.

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