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the self-criticism of self-criticism

Post #457 • January 19, 2005, 6:55 AM • 24 Comments

I posted this as a comment on the Dorsch post from last week, but thought it might qualify as an independent piece. Here it is again, worked up a bit.

Good art has always used self-criticism.

Traditional artists used self-criticism to achieve the imitation of nature and good design, which many cultures thought to exist as two aspects of a single trait.

Modernist artists directed self-criticism at the process of art-making, discarding many of the assumptions of traditional artists and demonstrating that one could make good art without them.

Postmodernist artists directed self-criticism at the culture of art-making, discarding many of the assumptions of Modernist artists. Modernist artists had so few assumptions, however, that eliminating them removed the basis by which one might see art as good or not.

In the next phase, artists will direct self-criticism at self-criticism. Postmodernism, having arrived at baselessness, demonstrates by its excesses that some assumptions have value. Artists of the next phase will see worth in the conventions, because they will see them as having life.

Flatboy challenged this with: "If our assumptions are the basis for seeing art as good or not we are in trouble. Art does not proceed according to assumptions. Only theory does that." I agree. The assumptions are a side-effect, and I overstated it when I said that they removed the basis by which one might see art as good or not. Evaluating quality is intrinsic to human functioning and no theory will ever be powerful enough to stop it. But to the extent that contemporary art relies on infinitely fluid standards in order to find philosophical justification, the above statement remains true on some level. Whether properly belonging to the category of Pomo or not, the legacy comes from that realm.

Why is it that nearly every culture at every time produces art? Why is it that nearly every religion counsels against greed? Why is it that fine cooking from any ethnic group combines intensely flavored, low-nutrition materials with bland, high-nutrition materials? I think we will find that culture is not an arbitrary construct but instead relates to physical, perhaps spiritual facts about the world and the humans who live in it. In the meantime, I intend to proceed as if these relationships were already proven. I feel them to be true.




January 19, 2005, 5:14 PM

Franklin, I believe that saying "as if these relationships were already proven" is the best way to put it. Your observations are true, though not proven and probably not provable. What matters is to get the truth and you got it.



January 19, 2005, 5:20 PM

The context of what you pose here requires that we make a distinction between the related concepts of "assumption" and "convention".

"Assumptions" are what those associated with the practice of art use as working "truths" or premises. They tend to be general. An assumption of Modernism is that a work is good in itself and that the purpose of "content" is to contribute to this goodness.

"Conventions" are established approaches to making art. They tend to be specific. The depiction of illusionistic space is a convention. Modernism tended to reject some conventione and establish new conventions as part of its working method.

Art, like every other human activity, does indeed proceed by assumptions and conventions and everything else that goes into the mix. If you are not carrying a lot of this baggage you will have no framework, you will be paralyzed. Part of the process of making art, especially Modernist or Postmodernist art, is dropping some bags and picking up others, but the idea that we can be somehow "free" of them is a delusion.

I say this not as a direct criticism of what Franklin and Flatboy said but as a qualification to ward off misunderstanding.



January 19, 2005, 5:41 PM

Thanks oldpro. The assumptions I was talking about are logical assumptions, which are never that "true" because they float freely about, attaching themselves in theory to everything, but in practice never with much success. Everything else, I mean everything, goes into the mix before art comes out. That's what postmodernism has brought home to me, though I knew it long before I ever read a word of Derrida.

I love your use of "baggage". That's what we have and that's what we need. The baggage free person is a dead person.



January 19, 2005, 6:34 PM

"Contemporary art relies on infinitely fluid standards in order to find philosophical justification," or just plain justification, period. Such as, justification for having no significant artistic talent and still passing for an artist. Justification for using art without being fit to practice it. Justification for selling rubbish at the price of gold, or higher. Justification for not having to deliver the goods as long as you can talk a good enough game. Justification for getting away with fraud if you're a good enough con artist. Justification for rejecting what has proven of lasting value without having to provide something as good or better, just "new and different." Justification for needing no justification, only self-seeking.



January 19, 2005, 6:58 PM

Jack, does the phrase "grumpy old man" mean anything to you? Being grumpy works for the return desk at Target, but why sweat the little stuff in the wonderful wacked out world of art? You aren't buying anything so you don't need to get your money back. Being a fraud is its own ultimate reward anyhow. Smell the roses, my friend. There are a lot of them around.

That doesn't mean give up your standards or your passion. That's the great part of what you offer and I admire you for it.



January 19, 2005, 7:14 PM

I accept Oldpro's refinements, as long as we're talking about practical conventions like he describes as opposed to conventions of thinking, which might as well be assumptions.



January 19, 2005, 7:31 PM

I prefer "irascible" to grumpy, Flatboy, but never mind. As for old, I expect I'm older than you, but I have a good number of years left before I'm old enough to retire. It may be better to laugh at the art world than curse it, but "wacked out," while no doubt fitting, is far too kind. We're not talking about a benevolently eccentric uncle here. And no, I'm not buying, certainly none of the BS that's so insistently and ubiquitously being sold. The trouble is, it IS being bought, it's keeping out or discouraging real goods from the market, and it's eating away at something I care about.



January 19, 2005, 7:40 PM

I think you have supplanted me on this blog as the champion of rhetorical overstatement, Flatboy. I am having visions of baggageless expired persons.

"Infinitely fluid standards" is also a bit confusing. Standards are specifiable measurements and are not usually at work judging art. It is a matter of procedures, not standards.

The procedure within the context of modernism was usually a matter of looking and evaluating intuitively and estimating good bad better best.

Postmodernism is stuck with the hypocritical position of disallowing any hierarchy of value while simultaneously attempting to enforce radical categories of "in and out" - everything is just an equally valid personal construct on the one hand but heterosexual white European male personal constructs are evil and pernicious. And one art making method is as good as another but painting is dead.

So the procedure of Postmodernism actually amounts to a direct contradiction of its basic tenets, because it intrinsically forbids the individual to make judgements of value while in fact encouraging and propagating value judgements made on the basis of rigid political principles.

What is fluid is less "standards" than it is a matter of where the power of judgement rests, in the individual (moderrnism) or in the group (postmodernism). Anyone with a little education can certainly see parallels in the political history of the last couple of hundred years.



January 19, 2005, 7:42 PM

Flatboy, I think Jack is smelling the roses. He is only saying that he isn't going to smell shit because someone tells him it is a rose.



January 19, 2005, 7:48 PM

I could hardly have explained myself better myself, Oldpro.



January 19, 2005, 8:01 PM

All art uses self-criticism, both "good" and its corollary.

Please tell me how Modernist artists had "so few assumptions".

It may be because I have not taken my vitamins in a few days, but this whole discussion seems to me to be based on such generalities as to approach nonsense. I am willing to be enlightened.



January 19, 2005, 8:07 PM

"Infinitely fluid standards" may be an oxymoron, but that's nevertheless what you get if you take away hierarchies of quality. I don't want to lay this too squarely at the feet of Pomo as if it were a single entity that one could blame, but rather point out that any theory can be applied perniciously or well depending on the weilder. Collapsing hierarchies could be democratic or egalitarian, for instance. But in the case of the arts, some people out-perform other people. Refusing to account for that or recognize it is like pretending to be blind.



January 19, 2005, 8:47 PM

I agree entirely with your assertion, Franklin, I just don't think that "fluid standards" is the same as an anti-heirarchical stance toward art. Fluid standards means that you have standards that change a lot, whereas what I gather you are talking about is no valuation at all.

It is a fine hair to split, I'll admit.



January 19, 2005, 9:21 PM

Oldpro says: So the procedure of Postmodernism actually amounts to a direct contradiction of its basic tenets, because...

Granted. But every pile of baggage carried by wacko art movements can usually be shown to contain its own contradiction by someone skilled enough with words. As you say, we gotta have baggage and self-contradictory baggage seems to be the only kind we have, even if it does not go down easy at times. (Smells like shit?)

We do the best we can which often isn't that "good".



January 19, 2005, 9:45 PM

Kathleen, even I'm bristling at the level of generalization here, but I keep running into the same problem - the vocabulary for describing these trends is meager. I've called a few times for replacement terms for Pomo and no one has yet come up with one. Really, we ought to be talking about various postmodernisms, but that requires a whole taxonomy that isn't germane to my points above.

Modernisms had far fewer assumptions about what art required in order to function than, say, the circle of Franz Hals. Passages of light? Don't need 'em. Illusionistic form? Backgrounds separate from foregrounds? Accurate drawing? Subject matter? No thanks. They were attitudes that often sought purity in reductive ways.


mr strauss

January 19, 2005, 11:54 PM

An excellent topic of discussion. Of course the fact of the matter is that every artist preceeds according to the dictates of an implied "possession" of quality owned by the object he creates. In other words, "this art I make will BE better or worse according to the descisions I make."

Problems emerge when the discussion moves away from the practical matter of how an artist might continually pursue the right choices, and ulitmately, the creation of better art. Aesthetic Relativism is, indeed, the single most powerful and persistent myth of the twentieth centrury. The notion that because meaning making is done within the subject quality cannot be contained within the object, is an alluring one. Alluring, but totally false.

One must look carefully to the text of the book of robotic mind, Rigaberto Religetti's seminal work of channelled Pantheonic Gospel for answers. The gods want their truths manifested faithfully, after all.

mr strauss
pop goes lethal



January 20, 2005, 4:36 AM

you brought up something that sticks in my craw...
this perpensity for validation to be given to art because it is new or different, i.e. hadn't been done before in that exact way...
A lot of this stuff I had thought of doing in the past but didn't because it wasn't WORTH doing. Now it is great because it is "new".
I've been around looking at art since the early 70's while living in Europe which is where and when I saw a lot of what is called "new" around here anyway. The kids aren't reading their art history...
Sorry if this isn't relevant.... Had to get it off my chest.



January 20, 2005, 6:19 AM

Bookworm, even if something is really new and different, as opposed to merely appearing to be, that, in and of itself, does not make it desirable. It is only desirable if it is better than, or at least as good as, what has already been done. It may, obviously, be worse than what's been done, in which case being N & D is irrelevant. This may not be the ideal analogy, but thalidomide was once new and different, and that was hardly a plus.

I know you get the idea, but an inordinate number of people do not, or what seems more likely, it's in their interest not to--especially if they find enough suckers to fall all over themselves because of the novelty factor ("transgressiveness" is always a good bet as added bait on the hook).

If you don't think something's worth doing, if you don't believe in it, if you don't like it, of course you shouldn't do it, even if nobody's ever even imagined it (unlikely though that may be). What really matters is how good the work is. New and different crap is still crap (which is neither new nor really different in principle, after all).



January 20, 2005, 3:08 PM

I agree bookworm! A big disregard for how art has evovled. Or at least past the 1960's. This isn't new I had a friend years ago in undergrad who stopped looking at "old" art, he wasn't interested, didn't find it relevant.



January 20, 2005, 3:25 PM

Mr Strauss: One must look carefully to the text of the book of robotic mind, Rigaberto Religetti's seminal work of channelled Pantheonic Gospel for answers. The gods want their truths manifested faithfully, after all.

I like paradox, irony, and weird books. But when someone says I gotta read an obscure book for "answers" and then drops it, I don't like that at all. If this book has something to say about what else you wrote, surely it can be paraphrased. I'm not a god, just a grad student with many pressing obligations. So let us know what the "answers" are.




January 20, 2005, 7:53 PM

I made a comment regarding Post-Modernism on the Reconstruction post, but it may be more appropriate here; the ideas are a great soup in my head. Thankfully the Post-Modern premonition of hypertext is alive and well, and I'm confident that we can all think sideways.



January 20, 2005, 8:29 PM

As for Modernist assumptions (note: not necessarily Modernist innovations), here are a few:

rejection of tradition/realism
Freudian analysis is correct
separation of emotion and reason
technology equals progess (as opposed to morality), except in case of Great War
stratification of High and Low culture (even though value placed on subjectivity)
avante garde equal to elite
alientation (even though holds status of High Culture/Avant Garde/Elite)
value simplification/reduction of visual ornament, and eventually of the figure in visual representation
style trumps meaning
stratification of High and Low Arts
Art (not art) is universally true

Anyone got any more?

Oh, and this is relatively few compared to what?



January 23, 2005, 3:27 PM

what about the apparent and increasingly prevelant use of 'projectors' and realism? is tracing really real?



January 24, 2005, 5:39 PM


I think most of the things in this grab-bag are effects or by-broducts of a modernist process, rather than "assumptions of Modernism". Modernism, if it can be specified at all, was an attitude and procedure rather than a set of rules and assumptions.



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