thinking about thinking and not thinking (or, my dinner with j.t.)
Post #431 • December 15, 2004, 7:36 AM • 114 Comments
It occurred to me when I was writing it that yesterday's post, "Thinking and Not Thinking," wasn't going to go over so well at J.T. Kirkland's Thinking About Art. My throwing him into a 2300-word spin surprised me, though. Out of respect to Kirkland and the thought he gave this topic, I'd like to answer some of his concerns, even if it means writing a post in reply that makes his look diminuitive. Go read his post and return here.
To simplify the problem a bit, I'll switch the topic from art to
sex food. Let's say J.T. and I are at a restaurant and we're splitting the Three Mushroom Risotto. Out it comes, and we dig in. It's delicious! Yum! And in a complex dish like this, there may be opportunities for analysis. Is it possible to distinguish the porcini from the shiitake? That's a fun game. Then I start going on for awhile about trivia I know about shiitake. Did you know that shii (シイ) is the Japanese word for oak, and that the best are grown on oak logs? At this point J.T. is starting to think I'm a pedant and he wishes I would pipe down because he's trying to enjoy his meal, for crying out loud. (Update: Thank you to Momoko for fixing the order of the characters.)
The component of eating that provides the first enjoyment and the basis for the subsequent ones is taste. Without good flavor, our discussion isn't going to be a pleasant one. Without any food in the first place, our discussion is pointless, if it even occurs. And great taste - exquisite taste - stops thinking. Not involuntarily, of course (although it might). But if we put ourselves in a mindframe to enjoy it, we set aside thought in favor of sensation, and the food rewards our attention.
I'm glad that Franklin feels the painting is beautiful. But to me, that says nothing more than Franklin thinks the painting is beautiful. How could it say more?
It doesn't.1 More on this later.
...I don't think we can say with any certainty what art is great. Because Franklin's mind went blank when he viewed it, doesn't make the painting Great... it merely makes it great to Franklin. Again, the intent of the [Matisse] painting is to acheive beauty... not spark some great debate. I don't know this for certain, admittedly, because we'd have to ask Matisse about his intentions.
This passage contains a few fallacies. The first presupposes that greatness is an objective or externally decided state. I would instead describe greatness as a massive agreement of subjective responses from people with self-critical tastes. The fact that I see the painting as great is important, because I have self-critical taste, and I become part of that massive agreement and reinforce it. (I am not, not, not saying that you don't have self-critical taste if you disagree with me. If you have self-critical taste and disagree with me, you undermine whatever consensus I help to form.) This addresses the second fallacy - that my subjective response doesn't apply to the painting's objective greatness (which I don't think exists).
The third fallacy regards Matisse's intentions. This comes up again later in Kirkland's post:
So what if Kitty could riff on anything? This doesn't mean anything in and of itself. We could all riff on anything.
My point exactly. That's why being able to associate a string of thoughts to a work of art does not validate it.
But, if Marcaccio's intent in making his art is to provoke the exact thoughts that Kitty expressed, then hasn't he succeeded? If this were the case, then perhaps the doubters have it wrong. Of course, Marcaccio's intent could be to make some object that has no meaning or beauty and is only meant to be displayed in a museum and hopefully make him a lot of money.
Kirkland is conflating a few different kinds of success. For Kirkland, a work of art succeeds if it achieves its intentions. This is logical. But when I talk about a work succeeding, usually I'm talking about aesthetic success, which exists in a tenuous relationship with the artist's intentions. Aesthetic success depends on the artist's aesthetic instincts and his ability and willingness to weild them.
Let's say we have a postmodernist, prankster cook who dumps a vial of novocaine into our Three Mushroom Risotto with the intention of making our mouths go numb, calling the act of eating into question and challenging traditional notions of the culinary experience.2 He may succeed, but he's going to piss me off. That's not why I eat, and that's not why I seek out good food. I'll try new flavors at the risk that I won't like them, but I'm not interested in short-circuiting the process by which I enjoy food in the name of some half-baked (sorry) ideological agenda.
You probably see where I'm going with this - a large segement of the art world is dining at Chez Contemporain, I'm being offered Three Mushroom Risotto with Novocaine Sauce, and when I complain, the waiter sneers at me that I don't understand contemporary cooking. Meanwhile, at another table, Mark Coetzee has ordered platefulls of the stuff, at $18,000 a serving, for Don and Mera Rubell, and they're all shoveling it down with self-congratulatory gusto.3
This ought to take care of the rest of Kirkland's assertions about the artist's intentions in a work of art. I don't accept all art-making philosophies as equally valid. I'm open to trying a new restaurant, but I'm not open to eating sand. Just because an artist satisfies his intentions, that doesn't mean that I'm going to value his achievement.
Franklin then states, "... the ensuing argument still holds: depending wholly on the viewer to supply the meaning is a crutch that I was seeing too often three years ago." How do we know if the artist or art depends wholly on the viewer to supply meaning?
We might not, but in yesterday's cases, the art was explained that way either by the artist or the institution showing it. One clue otherwise might be that you have to crank through a bunch of strained analysis or associations in order to get anything out of the work. By "strained" I mean resorting to pedantry like that of my first example. Analysis is fine, but at a certain point it becomes extraneous, irritating, self-parodying, onanistic, mandarin, and fruitless (sorry).
Franklin and some others seem to be saying that art shouldn't be about an idea or specific meaning. I just don't buy it... I don't know how you can avoid it.
I apologize if I gave that impression. Art can be about whatever it wants, of course. I'm saying that the aesthetic component that I value over everything else operates independently of a work's ideas and meanings. Artists always have ideas in their heads when they're working, even abstractionists. But whether a work of art succeeds, by my standards, depends on the artist's aesthetic instincts.
...he implies that there is something wrong with art that provokes discussion. What if the piece is not meant to be beautiful? It is only meant to inspire thought and discussion. Would we say it isn't art? Must art strive to be beautiful? Would we say that the piece cannot be great?
Beautiful art can provoke discussion - it's not as though no one has ever written about Matisse. Art that is only meant to inspire thought and discussion has the potential to be very interesting, but it will only have artistic value, as opposed to literary or philosophical value, to the extent that it engages aesthetic concerns. That means dealing with beauty - in the largest, most powerful sense of that word.
Personally I think art can be great (in my opinion) only if it has some amount of thought associated with it. I can find beauty in nature... but what elevates art is that there is an idea behind it. There is something to think about. Beauty enhances that.
You can find beauty in nature but nature isn't trying to be beautiful. It's trying to survive, and beauty has been part of its survival strategy. The creation of beauty by humans, in the form of art, has been a sophisticated, complicated, long-term process that values ideas and workmanship. Ideas and workmanship often, but not always, enhance beauty. The opposite statement that Kirkland says above, that beauty enhances ideas, I'm not convinced about. Beauty might make ideas more attractive, but their inherent worth is based on other factors like applicability, logic, truth, etc. And if Matisse's idea is beauty, as Kirkland implies, what happens to that assertion?
I want to bring back up something Oldpro said, "I am merely saying that if a work of art says 'think about (whatever)' it is directing you away from itself to something you already know about. You don't need art for that." What exactly do we need art for? I want to see a piece of art that isn't about something we already know about. Show me an art object that is foreign to me. The Matisse painting above isn't foreign... I already know about flowers, vases, etc.
I challenge that. One day the Buddha held up a flower in front of his assembly, and only Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, "For forty years I have been teaching the Dharma, and I now transmit its realization to Mahakashyapa." The assembly included senior monks, like his attendant Ananda, who had eidetic memory and could recite the Buddha's teachings like a human tape recorder. They all knew the Dharma intellectually. So what did Mahakashyapa see in the flower? If you know, teach me!
If that's too esoteric for you, we may know about flowers and vases in general, but the painting in question is about Matisse's life, and his sensibilities at the moment he put that work together. Those sensibilities had great profundity and refinement. That's why the painting conveys so much beauty.
In my art, I intend to make visually appealing objects. But I only consider myself successful when it provokes further thought. I can find beauty in lots of places... I can't find things that provoke thought. I hope my art isn't a waste of time because I want my work to inspire people who aren't thinking anyways. Franklin wants to stop thinking... I want people to start thinking.
Anything can provoke thought - just start thinking about it (or go talk to Kitty). You can start with a blade of grass and go all day long. Where does this come from? Why is this the way it is? How does it work? I don't want to stop thinking, and I have a blog to prove it. Rather, I want to make art that will ring your heart like a bell.
1. Notice the equivalence of thinks and feels in this sentence. Yes, you can use the words this way, but given the topic it indicates that Kirkland may categorize more varieties of conscious activity under thinking than I do. (back)
2. You know, PoMo cant is pretty easy to write once you get the hang of it. Is there a freelance market for this? I could adopt a French pseudonym (François Unparole?) and make a little something on the side. (back)