Post #1083 • November 8, 2007, 1:32 PM • 61 Comments
From the Freebies thread:
To trot out an old truism, who will decide what is completely true or what is reality?
Who decides what is essential about an art work?
From the Degrees thread:
Who determines an artist to be good? Money? Mary Boone? Gagosian? You? And who decides if an artists work is conceptual or otherwise?
I guess what it all boils down to for me is this: who will decide how to label what elements of a work of visual art are pseudo literary or philosophical... and which parts are concerned solely with visual form or significant form?
...isn't the process of deciding what is "visually weak" (as opie puts it), especially contemporary work that hasn't entered the history books or permanent collections (and actually gets shown instead of stored away) done on a completely individual basis?
Opie provided the short answer: you decide. Simplicity itself. And yet I've answered this question again and again over the years the same way. Why does this trip people up?
I have never understood the anxiety people experience over taking charge of their own tastes. If nothing else, it seems that they could look at the rest of their lives and figure out that their art experience might work the same way. Who decides what food tastes good? Who decides what music sounds good? You do. You probably don't even think about your autonomy regarding those decisions - you assume it. People get tired of Jack's comments on this blog, but I'm not one of them. Jack provides the blisteringly simple and consummately true observation, over and over again, that he answers honestly to his own tastes and nothing else. If everyone did this, the art world would be a better place. And until everyone does, Jack is welcome to keep reminding everyone how taste works.
My hypothesis about this asserts that insisting on your taste is an insult to what I call the Cult of the Open Mind. There's a fallacy in the art world that was likely created when people finally realized that the Impressionists were right after all - that progressive art challenges previously held taste. It takes Greenberg's observation that all great art looks ugly at first and perverts it to conclude that all art that looks ugly at first is great. The Cult of the Open Mind makes this fallacy sacred, by believing that analysis and interpretation are more important than aesthetic judgment and that differences between newer art and older art are inherently valuable even if unattractive. If newness is the cult's God, Satan is the notion of universal artistic value, the declaration of things as good in more than a personal, individual sense. Universal artistic value insults multiculturalism, postmodernism, and egalitarianism, and therefore can be seen by someone so inclined to support autocracy, homogeneity, and elitism.
Taste, real taste, varies from person to person. But all tastes refine in the same way, causing you to like more and more kinds of work and fewer and fewer examples within those kinds. Refinement of taste brings on a diversification of type and a winnowing of numbers. If your taste isn't doing this, it's likely involved with something besides quality, because quality doesn't have any traits. You can identify adherents in the Cult of the Open Mind because they totally fail to comprehend this. In 1981, Walter Darby Bannard wrote a brilliant essay entitled The Seminar that recorded the following exchange:
A slight girl with a pleasant flaky expression asked: "Doesn't it get kind of boring, just Iiking that little teeny bit of real good art you're talking about?"
A few smiles flashed around the table.
"Just the opposite. You are choosy when you're interested, and when you are interested you run everything past your taste. That way you find all kinds of things to enjoy. But you never confuse the 'teeny bit' of absolute best with all the lesser stuff, as the art public habitually does."
Real adherents won't stop there, though. They'll go on to accuse you of authoritarianism, narrowmindedness, and belief in universal artistic value, which, as stated previously, is the Devil.
Taste can foul up in three ways: it can be bad, it can be wrong, and it can be borrowed.
Bad taste sees value where there is none. Given a choice between watching a ballerina dance in a ballet or the Laker Girls do a routine during a time out, I'll go with the latter. My taste, in this instance, is no good. I understand intellectually that ballet is better, but my tastes have no patience for ballet. I'd rather watch the Laker Girls shake it. I don't pretend to excuse this, but neither do I try to form arguments to the effect that ballet is somehow inferior artistically to whatever you call what the Laker Girls are doing, based on the fact that the latter is newer and more relevant to the culture at large. I live with my taste being bad and presume that exposure to and study of really good ballet would change my feelings about it, if I ever elect to spend my time that way.
Wrong taste doesn't see value where there is some. Clement Greenberg, who probably had the best eye of anyone in the last century, underestimated Morandi, Fairfield Porter, and a great number of worthy artists. His taste was wrong about them. The distinction between wrong taste and bad taste is worth making because they operate somewhat differently. People who liked academic art for academic reasons and disliked Impressionist art for academic reasons had both bad taste and wrong taste. They saw value in Alma Tadema that wasn't there and didn't see value in Monet that was there. It would be possible, in theory, to see value in both that wasn't there, or not see value in both that was there. Or get either right. If your taste operates independently of traits, you could say, for instance, that Bouguereau is better than Alma-Tadema and late Monet is better than early Monet. This is how refined taste manifests.
Borrowed taste can't form judgments and so borrows the judgments of other people. If I went to the ballet with someone who knew a lot about it, with the intention of trying to figure out what the big deal is, I would probably ask him his opinion about what worked and what didn't. The next time I saw a ballet, I would think about those parameters. This is fine as an entry point but it is crucial that the refinement of taste not stop there. Paul Giamatti's character in "Sideways" made a stink about not drinking Merlot. A writer friend in Miami told me that not long after the movie came out, she went out on a date with a guy who made a stink about not drinking Merlot. This is borrowed taste. Merlots, of course, can be delicious.
Given the three ways that taste can foul up, the Cult of the Open Mind would prefer to risk borrowed taste to bad taste, and bad taste to wrong taste. Cultists dread one thing above all others: that they'll make the same mistake made by the people who clung to Alma-Tadema and rejected the Impressionists, and so found themselves on the wrong side of history and therefore in the wrong at their moment. Since everyone has instances of bad taste and even someone as gifted as Greenberg had instances of wrong taste, borrowed taste seems like the smallest risk, because it has the advantage of being shared, perhaps by a great number of people. Duchamp frequently comes up in defense of any conceptual work because there is a lot of analysis of his ouevre, thereafter applied to subsequent artists, that can be borrowed as taste. Certain ideas in contemporary art writing ("challenges commonly-held notions," anyone?) became clichés because of frequent borrowing. There is safety in numbers, and if nothing else, they will all go down together.
Real taste would prefer to be wrong than bad, and bad rather than borrowed. Opie and I can't agree on Andrew Wyeth. I think he's great, he thinks he's stiff and uninspired. Either my taste for Wyeth is bad or Opie's is wrong. We would both very much like to be right, but we can live with fouling up our estimation of him because that's the risk you take when you're genuinely using your judgment. If it came out that I liked Wyeth or he didn't like Wyeth because somebody talked us into it, that would be shameful. We call that sort of thing "looking with your ears" and it's tantamount to liking the latest size 2, silicone-injected pop star just because she has a new single out and all the clubs are playing it. In other words, a disaster of taste, an utter failure of taste. Borrowed taste is the biggest risk of the three and we scrutinize ourselves to make sure that we're not using it. Jack, I'm sure, will agree.
So to answer the above questions, you do, but note that the questions aren't very substantial in the first place. There is no one else to make these decisions for us except ourselves. We can turn our authority over to someone else, but then the tastes we have are not ours.