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Beauty as an act of self-denial

Post #1437 • January 4, 2010, 8:27 AM • 83 Comments

Roger Scruton posits a fascinating thought:

When it comes to beauty, our view of its status is radically affected by whether we see it as a form of self-expression, or as a form of self-denial. If we see it in this second way, then the assumption that it is merely subjective begins to fall away. Instead beauty begins to take on another character, as one of the instruments in our consensus-building strategies, one of the values through which we construct and belong to a shared and mutually consoling world. In short, it is part of building a home.

I haven't seen a communitarian argument for beauty this convincing since Wendell Berry. "As for the literary world, I had ventured into that, and liked it well enough," he wrote in The Art of the Commonplace. "But I never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other."




January 4, 2010, 10:30 AM

Somehow, this drawing seems apt:

(Pen, brown ink and brown wash, heightened with white, on blue paper, by Claude)

Liber Veritatis, No. 27



January 4, 2010, 10:51 AM

Very apt, and a beautiful way to start the week.


Chris Rywalt

January 4, 2010, 11:37 AM

Berry also, in that quote, explains why I still live in the New York City metropolitan area. It's a decision I review every so often, especially when, as today, it's 15 degrees out. (Canadian readers will no doubt mock me for my lack of fortitude.)

Scruton makes a great point, absolutely perfect, and something I understood implicitly without articulating it. I don't know that I ever would have understood it on my own, but, yes, he's right: Beauty -- and great art is part of that -- is part of what stitches us all together as humans.

There's a Linux distribution called Ubuntu. That had me looking up the word "ubuntu" which basically means, a person is a person because of other people.

I've thought this a long time. It's another one of those ideas I got through Bucky Fuller and Robert Anton Wilson: Get dropped into the middle of the wilderness all on your own -- no tools, no clothes, nothing -- and see how long you last. Your entire existence is predicated on the existence of everyone else on the planet right now, and further on the existences of everyone else who has ever lived (all the way back to the dawn of life on Earth, really). Humans don't exist without other humans. We're a communal organism.

I had never thought to hook art and beauty into this, but it fits perfectly. Oh, this is wonderful!


Chris Rywalt

January 4, 2010, 11:46 AM

Note also that Scruton's article explains why Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Guggenheim is less than optimal.



January 4, 2010, 11:49 AM

I'd never considered 'consensus-building' as applied to art. Only politics, where it vies with the idea of partisanship and vigorous debate. "Can't we all just get along,?" Answer: No. Therefore, civility.

Compared to the world of about 1000 years ago, the world is doing just fine, thank you. It's not perfect, and guess what? It's never gonna be.

As for art, would consensus-building replace contrast or tension, so necessary to good art?

Thanks, Jack, for the elegant drawing. I can never like Claude's paintings as well as I do his drawings, which are comparitively little known.


Chris Rywalt

January 4, 2010, 11:58 AM

P.S: Good lord, I just praised something from the American Enterprise Institute. Kill me now.

Tim, I think the tension and contrast of good art exists within the work, not necessarily with everything outside it. My friend once bought a t-shirt reading "Art doesn't have to match your sofa" but I'd expand that to say it doesn't have to clash with it, either. The sofa should be irrelevant.



January 4, 2010, 12:21 PM

Just think, Chris: that money could have went to to some fucking evil sonofabitch, but instead, they gave it to Scruton to write about consensus building through beauty. That's one (just one) tick in the plus column for the AEI.

I'm reminded of Greenberg's contention that those of us who develop our objective sense of taste "better represent the species".



January 4, 2010, 12:42 PM

The Neocons have been so wrong about so much that I, too, flinched a little at the source. It turns out that the AEI harbors a pretty wide diversity of opinion.



January 4, 2010, 1:04 PM

From Turner's Liber Studiorum series of mezzotints, inspired by Claude:

Liber 1
Liber 2



January 4, 2010, 1:08 PM

Chris, " My friend once bought a t-shirt reading "Art doesn't have to match your sofa" but I'd expand that to say it doesn't have to clash with it, either. The sofa should be irrelevant."

There is the ensemble, wherein can be found complimentary contrast.

Where would a Cezanne's or a Monet's place be in a 'consensus-building' art environment? The notion seems very pretty, but it leaves out one important detail: human nature. Which is the best way to reveal, for example, the hollowness of Conceptualism? Exile it via some process like consensus-building, or bring it front and center and place the spotlight squarely upon it so that it can live or die, fair and square?



January 4, 2010, 2:02 PM

"It is only when the artist works entirely to the dictates of the medium - only when he or she abandons the pursuit of virtue or relevance and submits to the objective standard of aesthetic success or failure - that the work of art will testify truthfully to the historical condition and moment of its production, and in that sense become itself a true medium. It is not through correspondence with the appearance of the world, then, that realism is to be achieved, but, on the contrary, through the achievement of an aesthetic autonomy.

In the light of this suggestion we can finally look back to that moment in the later nineteenth century when the interests of modernism and realism appeared to diverge. We can take a somewhat dramatic case in point. Some of Monet's late paintings of lily ponds were painted during the First World War at a place near enough to the Front for the guns sometimes to be audible from his garden. Yet no shadow of a relevant history could be said to fall in figurative form across his pictures. On the contrary, their celebration of sensory experience seems wholly inconsistent with what we might expect from deliberation on the subject of modern war. If what is required to pass the test of realism is some form of topical picturing, then, such paintings as Monet's must be seen as failing utterly. However, suppose we start from an emotional response and an aesthetic judgment, and that we find the paintings absorbing - both visually complex and formally complete and self-sufficient. To the extent that we do, we might find them expressive of a sense of value in the natural world and in our experience of it. If we then consider that the moment of that expression coincided with a period of war, are we bound to dismiss the result as a form of retreat from the realities of history? Might we not allow the aesthetic integrity of the painting to be an achievement sustained in the face of that history, in full awareness of its horrors, and thus potentially a more worthy contribution to what Bell called the 'spiritual history of the race' than the work of someone who believed that in a time of war, 'war' alone must be represented?"

-Excerpted from Modernism, by Charles Harrison



January 4, 2010, 2:08 PM

Scruton writes: "The distinction between subjective and objective is neither clear nor exhaustive."

Maybe you should email him your "Panjective" piece, Franklin. Help the fellow out.



January 4, 2010, 3:29 PM

The opposite of 'subjective' or any '-jective'
is 'actual.'

From the Harrison quote: "Might we not allow the aesthetic integrity of the painting to be an achievement sustained in the face of that history, in full awareness of its horrors..."

Though Monet was a thorough-going Republican French nationalist, Harrison's suggested extrapolation here seems a stretch. When Monet, who surely had an opinion about the mentioned war, was making the Waterlilies, were his mind, emotions, sensibilities, anywhere near that war?

But, there were French artists who made extraordinary things in answer to that war. Ravel's La Valse, for example.

And after reading the complete article by Scruton... It's hard to disagree with his observations. But, as eloquent as he put them, he's saying nothing new, and is over-reacting to modernist architecture, I think, perhaps exaggerating for effect.

Alas, I've not encountered any suggestion of solutions which take into consideration the comparitively very complicated culture, society, and economy of the USA. Think of how quickly American cities were built, compared to the gradually accreting European cities Scruton mentions, for example. My thought about a lot of what has been built in the USA which 'doesn't work' is that much of it was planned to obsolesce, and it's easily enough pulled down. Most American cities have already had a couple of rounds of just that, and will have to have several more before they settle in to what they're going to be, if they ever do settle. I don't know how the American way of building cities could be altered to accommodate Scruton's idea of 'consensus-building.' Neighborhoods could and do get together and do it, but entire cities is another question entirely.

There are so many things which need to happen just so we could be in a position to realistically address any of Scruton's concerns on any kind of large scale. But it doesn't hurt to keep those concerns front and center.



January 4, 2010, 3:34 PM

While there are moments of sense throughout Scruton's essay, none is as good as the one Franklin cites. While it has always been clear to me that art demands self denial from artists, he has made it clear that the same is required from viewers.

The experience of art is subjective, but what is experienced is "out there" and demands that the subjective conform to it or "be wrong" - that is, be detached from its proper object and hence delusional. Thus subjective experience undisciplined by learning to respond to what's real and what's not becomes self-indulgence. Just like the legions of sloppy artists who suppose that "expression" of their idiosyncratic whims is what counts are also self-indulgent fools. To fully experience what art offers, you must deny subjective experiences that are off target. Learning how to do this is called developing cultivation. As we become more cultivated, we have fewer and fewer off target subjective experiences, but to in my experience, we never eliminate them, so aesthetic intuition is a habit we must practice over and over - work on, in other words.

Aesthetic judgment has something outside itself as its target, just as much as inductive and deductive reasoning does.

Brilliant find, Franklin. Thanks.



January 4, 2010, 3:52 PM

MC (#7) and Franklin (#8): here is something we put on newCrit that was based on a talk Lynne Munson gave at the American Enterprise Institute.

Lynne was Deputy Director of the NIH during the Bush administration, and a good friend of the Cheneys. A conservative, to be sure, but not a neocon. In conversation with me she expressed the fear that artists (patriotic scene painters in particular) admired by the neocons were not even "players" in the quest for the renewal of aesthetic value that she, like many of us, seek. Instead she felt the pomos and other current hot shots were more plausible vehicles, as "repulsive" as she found that to be. That's a good demonstration of "self-denial" in her viewing of the art scene.



January 4, 2010, 4:50 PM

John, the speech you directed us to in #14, a very fine read, thanks.

So, then, that I can better understand the meaning of Franklin's 'consensus-building' excerpt from the Scruton piece, could it be said that my example of Cezanne from my question in #10 would be an example of an artist laying a foundation for what would become consensus for so many artists and audiences since then?



January 4, 2010, 5:12 PM

Tim you are on target when you say consensus building leaves out the importance of human nature. Greenberg's observation of the "consensus of taste" supposed the positive side of human nature at work building a consensus that is "correct" with respect to the goodness of its objects. The past 50 years in the art scene, however, shows that consensus does not have to be "correct", it simply has to be a majority, the larger, the more dominant, no matter whether correct or not.

Cezanne certainly laid "the foundation" by doing the good work. But good taste had to eventually prevail amongst the "experts" for him to ascend to where he is now. The same general process appears to be working for Warhol, except that a misguided taste (I'm being generous) underlies that consensus. Warhol's inherent affinity for "graphics" helps this along, as he looks good in reproduction, often reproducing with greater clarity than Cezanne, for instance.

The question is whether taste will correct itself. If you've got for-f**king-ever to wait, I suppose it will. But I don't have that long.



January 4, 2010, 5:22 PM

In reference to "neocons", or liberals or conservatives or whatever, you guys should pay less attention to labels and more to what makes sense whoever says it. Getting freaked out because you like what someone of the "wrong" political designation says is like going for Warhol because everyone says he's a good artist. Get over it.

As for Scruton, sorry, this old fart has to disagree. This is just another effort to rationalize experience. Beauty is beauty. It has no character but itself. You see it and you take pleasure from it. That is what it is there for.

Seeing art or beauty or any other thing that brings joy as subordinate to something else - especially a "consensus building strategy" that is an act of "selfdenial" for crying out loud!! - makes it less joyful, less real, less pure, less an experience and more some kind of frightened, brittle intellectual construct.

Jesus, go write another label, or join the Peace Corps, or sing Gregorian Chants!

Now 6 people will write and indignantly say but, but, but... beauty is consensus building, it is communitarian, it is "human" etc etc. YES, of course it is, but those are EFFECTS, not SOURCES. We had the same confusion over "art" and"ideas" a few posts ago. Let's not get dragged into it again.



January 4, 2010, 5:38 PM

I think Chris was kidding, Opie. A small joke at the expense of the AEI reputation. Nothing to get worked up over.

Recognizing that love is an instrument of gene replication doesn't mean we'll stop seeing or experiencing it in its more romantic sense (we probably couldn't even if we wanted to). I think the same goes for art theories that tie art to basic biological attractions and forces of social cohesion. It gives a fuller picture of what's going on. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to think about this stuff in the gallery.



January 4, 2010, 5:48 PM

It wasn't just Chris, MC.

Nature knows how to get us to keep ourselves going, as per your example, but when we are smart enough to take the apple from the tree and just enjoy it, we should just enjoy it. What else is art, after all?



January 4, 2010, 6:18 PM guys should pay less attention to labels and more to what makes sense whoever says it.

It's not my fault that I have prior experience with the problem domain. I flinch just as much when I go to read Holland Cotter or essays issued by the Whitney Museum. It's an intellectual immune response formed by previous exposure to intellectual pathogens. (And I edified myself on the full scope of the AEI because of it. So much the better.)

Scruton is only describing effects, as far as I can tell.



January 4, 2010, 7:11 PM

"Scruton is only describing effects, as far as I can tell."

No. He says that seeing it in a particular way it becomes not "merely subjective", that is, not something we enjoy for its own sake, but purposeful, thereby acquiring a "value".

This may or may not inhibit us from seeing beauty but it undermines the acceptance of the real value of beauty, which is solely within the experience. Everything else is auxiliary. This is why we so highly value something which has no other usefulness: art.

I understand your immune response reaction. I have the same kind of reaction, some in your "problem domain" and some in other problem domains. But if we are going to think of ourselves as clear-headed and open to common sense, or endeavor to shape ourselves in this way and toward that purpose, we are obliged to squelch it, not indulge it.



January 4, 2010, 8:26 PM

Most of this discussion is way over my head, but to credit anything exclusively to "self-denial" sounds Puritannical to me. On the other hand, "self-expression" if left by itself sounds like a kindergarten teacher encouraging her five-year-olds to make finger paintings. At any rate, I see no reason to assume that "self-denial" is any less "subjective" than "self-expression." After all, only the person who is engaging in either can say what specifically is being expressed/denied in his/her case. And, being equally subjective, I would suggest that even looking at art or (more appropriately) making it is a combination of both self-expression & self-denial-- on the one hand, creating & on the other, editing or restraining the less worthy impulses in what's being created before sending it out into the world.



January 4, 2010, 8:56 PM

Yes, OP, common sense could solve or significantly improve innumerable problems, but alas, it is hardly common, or certainly not used commonly enough. Scruton is entitled to his approach, but I'll keep mine. When it comes to art, and probably most everything else, we each need to do what is individually commonsensical.



January 4, 2010, 9:04 PM

Piri, whether or not "self-denial" is the best term for it, I can't say. But what I like about the term is the implication that self-discipline and practice, including hard looking, are important to getting to the joy only art as art can bring. Yes they are "subjective" practices, but they point to something real beyond themselves that serves as their focus and ultimately one of their causes. You don't just go into a state of titillation because of some internal machination. You do it because there is a cause outside yourself that warrants it or because you are deluded into responding as if that is the case. Opie seems to disagree with this last statement, as do many others in the "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" (overly generalized) camp.

I am a real hard-ass when it comes to this. It does not make any more sense to deny the extra-mental existence of beauty than it makes to deny the extra-mental existence of the whole dang world. Some things are beautiful, others sort of, others not at all in a neutral way, others downright ugly. That is what my experience tells me.

Even though I am a hard-ass about my position, I know I can't prove it, I can only live it. And certainly opie can't prove his either. But I do puzzle how he can say things like some art is better than others, at the same time he says the basis for these judgments lies entirely within himself.

When I was a philosophy grad student we used to speculate about anything and everything, including why were we philosophers? Our consensus answer to that question was "because we can't do anything useful". We might ought to have added that we love useless stuff, certain useless stuff, anyway. And sometimes, the more useless, the better.



January 4, 2010, 9:17 PM

He says that seeing it in a particular way it becomes not "merely subjective", that is, not something we enjoy for its own sake, but purposeful, thereby acquiring a "value".

I disagree with that interpretation. If I've understood it correctly, he's objecting to the characterization of beauty as subjective for the same reason I object to it - that doing so classifies it among arbitrary, personal, socialized, learned phenomena - "private appetites," as he puts it.

We can reject the assumption that beauty is merely subjective without embracing the view that it is objective. The distinction between subjective and objective is neither clear nor exhaustive. I prefer to say that judgements of beauty express rational preferences, about matters in which the agreement of others is both sought and valued.

That paragraph, in particular, is fantastic, and I don't think it's even arguable. (As opposed to my contention, that the subjective/objective split is illusory.)



January 4, 2010, 9:22 PM

WAIT! I have found the perfect site for those who hold beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is what happens when "good looks" are detached from what's real and left to simple perception, with or without real cause. What strikes me most about this site, is how closely it parallels the "elite" art scene of the past 50 years, though it is not exactly the same. The major difference? My guess is that most of the people voted into the network probably ARE good looking.


Chris Rywalt

January 4, 2010, 9:24 PM

Remember the old joke about mathematicians and philosophers, John: You don't even need the wastebaskets.

If you don't remember the old joke, let me know and I'll fill you in.

Anyway. I was only joking about the AEI. I have something of Franklin's immune response but for less reason. I'll read anything that looks interesting. Although I must admit to returning the Glenn Beck book my wife accidentally bought me for Christmas. I have my limits.

I actually spend a lot of time over at Infinite Monkeys, where Ben is a (virtual) friend of mine from way back. He used to work for the Claremont Institute, so his Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy bonafides are in order. I get my AEI/Cato Institute fix there.

OP, as has been happening more lately, you're just being cranky. You should check your dietary fiber intake. The fact that Nature has its own uses for what we do -- as MC points out -- doesn't demean it. In a way -- if you're a scientific type especially, I think -- it deepens it. That many humans love beautiful things, and that those beautiful things are usually the same things, and that shared experience stitches us together so we can make more beautiful things -- cathedrals aren't built by one guy working alone, your paint pigments aren't dug up in your backyard by you -- that's all pretty fantastic.

I'm not sure about "self-denial" precisely, but I'm not sure what would work better. I think -- let's bring Piri in here -- the self-denial Scruton is talking about is the denial of the urge to fingerpaint like a kindergartner. That's not self-expression, it's self-indulgence. Modernism isn't exactly at fault -- maybe in architecture it is -- but certainly Modernism in art eventually led to far more self-indulgence than the art world had seen previously.



January 4, 2010, 9:26 PM

A little etching, probably after or inspired by a Dutch 17th century seascape:

Seascape (click image to enlarge)

It's only about 4 x 6 inches, but it's great.



January 4, 2010, 9:44 PM

Chris: "...but certainly Modernism in art eventually led to far more self-indulgence than the art world had seen previously."

A gross, seemingly deliberate misunderstanding of modernism led to more self-indulgence...etc.



January 4, 2010, 10:00 PM

What is ironic, Tim, is that many modernists themselves, including Greenberg, Pollock, Rosenberg, deKoonig, Motherwell, and others were initially at the forefront of the misunderstanding. Although, it didn't get really gross until it was indulged in extremis.



January 4, 2010, 10:11 PM

John, I'm not denying the importance of self-denial or self-discipline, I'm just saying it's only half the equation. Similarly, not all self-expression is on the level of fingerpainting. By using the analogy of kindergartners, I was just (jokingly) making the point that self-expression, too, is only half the equation. Without the self-discipline, the self-expression degenerates into self-indulgence, but without something expressed or created in the first place, there's nothing there to deny or discipline.

As to consensus of what constitutes beauty, I believe that up until the middle of the 19th century, there was a lot more of it than there has been since. In Renaissance Florence, everybody from shopkeepers and apprentices on up through the Medici pretty much knew what the great art of their time was, nor was all of it kept closeted away in the camerini of the nobility. Both Donatello's David & that of Michelangelo stood out in the open air, where everybody who wanted to could see them. Piero's Cycle of the True Cross, being a fresco, decorated the walls of a church in Arezzo, where anybody who wanted to could walk in & see it. Ditto Masaccio's Crucifixion & Brancacci Chapel (including The Tribute Money): church frescoes in Florence. To say nothing of divers others.

The same or comparable degrees of consensus seem to have continued on up until the Industrial Revolution, which brought a lot of half-educated wealthy nouveau riche into the market place, people who didn't know good from bad & luxuriated in the slick cliches of the Salons. The original tradition of the avant-garde was an attempt to salvage art from such patrons. Postmodernist art historians have tried to rehabilitate the Salon art, and have also (I gather) tried to fudge the real situation in the Renaissance with a lot of prattle about patrons & market value, but the facts about the 2 Davids & the frescoes remain: they were out there for all of their contemporaries to admire, regardless of who paid for them. And of course, the decline of consensus has been accentuated by the fact that beautiful art itself, as it has become more & more abstract, is more & more art that can only really be appreciated by other artists. For a majority of the public, representational art -- whether we're talking Warhol, Wyeth or Disney --- remains the art of choice.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to go back to the Renaissance. Far too many people were poverty-stricken peasants, and life expectancy was a lot shorter than it is now, but I don't think it's correct to assume that what holds true now has always been true, at least in this particular sphere.



January 4, 2010, 10:12 PM

And, John, I assume that by 'in extremis,' you're pointing at such as Conceptualism, which took 'anything goes' into a completely irresponsible, licentious direction. As someone said, freedom is easily enough attained; knowing what to do with it is the challenge.



January 4, 2010, 10:41 PM

Piri: "beautiful art itself, as it has become more & more abstract, is more & more art that can only really be appreciated by other artists. For a majority of the public, representational art -- whether we're talking Warhol, Wyeth or Disney --- remains the art of choice."

This has always been the case, but especially now because art has been an exclusive club so long that the chasm between art and 'the average person' is impossible. Today's 'average person' (Morley Safer) is bewildered by the blizzard of 'art' put before him/her, has no time, no motivation, no capability, so takes respite in the familiar, especially the familiar cloaked in 'snazzy' (Warhol) because it's at least fun.

I mentioned once on here that I viewed an exhibition in Wash. D C in the late 70s titled "Disney: The Architecture of Reassurance". The title said it all.



January 4, 2010, 10:48 PM

Tim, freedom completely unfettered is chaos, or chaos like. Conceptualism is among the culprits, but so is simple bad painting, like that of Mr. Prince and his nurses. It is as if, now that there is nothing credible that can be opposed, those who would "push beyond the boundaries", just look lost. Meandering here, meandering there. Mulling around in the freedom to do nothing worthwhile.

Piri, thanks for posting the stuff about the decline of public taste, or whatever it would be called. I've long suspected it, but am not knowledgeable enough about art history to venture forth. You did a masterful job. The statement about pomo art historians and their revision of those facts rings several bells too.

In my time as a teacher since the mid 60s, I observed that higher ed did a much better job of "enlightening" students than it did of teaching them how to become cultivated. I could make a case that enlightenment, not cultivation, is the natural outcome of education, but I don't really believe that. In art, enlightenment without at least somewhat cultivated taste is not enlightenment at all. The means to at least point the expanded college educated crowd in the direction of the good stuff was present, it just wasn't used by the institutions as they developed other means of coping with their expanded clientele. But you are saying this started with the Industrial Revolution, not the post war expansion, which I find interesting.



January 4, 2010, 11:13 PM

I don't think the public capacity for taste has declined. There is a disinclination because of dumbing down and way too much input to sort through.

I don't believe the job of public ed is to enlighten. The job is to give students means to enlighten themselves. The encouragement/inclination/motivation for students to bother has to come from the society and from a compelling culture.



January 5, 2010, 12:33 AM

I found my own college education enlightening - would not argue whose fault that was. The cultivation, though, I had to mostly get for myself, though there WAS that show of Leon Polk Smith and Larry Poons ... way down in the backwoods of Cleveland County, OK.



January 5, 2010, 12:45 AM

John #23 "Even though I am a hard-ass about my position, I know I can't prove it, I can only live it. And certainly opie can't prove his either. But I do puzzle how he can say things like some art is better than others, at the same time he says the basis for these judgments lies entirely within himself."

John, we are agreeing but you are still not understanding my position. This has gone on over several postings and before. All I am saying is that beauty (let's call it that) is real and it is (with qualifications; I hate the term) "objective" insofar as it relates to a kind of consistency relating to the human psyche (mine, yours, everyone's) but it does not exist externally in the same sense that a rock does. (I know I qualified the external existence of the rock a while ago but let's leave that for now). There is no inconsistency with this opinion and the recognition of degrees of goodness in art. In fact if beauty is NOT objective there can be no degrees of goodness, only preference or some external measure of another kind, which essentially makes art another thing.

Franklin #26, the quote you gave was "We can reject the assumption that beauty is merely subjective without embracing the view that it is objective. The distinction between subjective and objective is neither clear nor exhaustive. I prefer to say that judgements of beauty express rational preferences, about matters in which the agreement of others is both sought and valued."

I disagree with the first sentence but I do not want to specify the disagreemernt further because I no longer have the patince to write about the inadequecies of the subjective/objective terminology which in the end just boil down to degrees of agreement. We had this out here many postings ago.

I also am not comfortable with the term "rational" in this context.

Beauty (goodness in art, etc etc) is in fact "objective". Perceiving it is "subjective". It corresponds to, awakens in, relates to, matches, provokes... whatever...something in our neurological brain makeup, which we all share, which goes back to some kind of sense of life which we all have because we are all 99.99% the same.

This is extremely nonspecific, of course, but I am convinced that in bare outline it is true and constitutes the only reasonable point of attack for any sensible discussion of art basics.



January 5, 2010, 12:56 AM

Piri the public at large has never understood ("gotten") good art whether abstract or otherwise. "Getting" art has always been specialized, and not just for artists - I know plenty of artists who don't know the difference.

People have been impressed by size and drama and facility and skill and verisimilitude and many other things, but those who could tell how good it was have always been very few. It is just lucky that the good stuff often, in the past, came in company with some of those attributes so the good stuff could get put in museums.

Now that those characteristics have been jettisoned and art can be anything anyone claims to be art the detection of good art has become largely a lonely and isolated practice.



January 5, 2010, 8:32 AM

I think true cultivation has to be primarily self-motivated and self-driven. It can, of course, be helped or hindered by external circumstances, but even with optimal external conditions, it has to be essentially done or achieved by the individual's choice and desire to pursue or develop an innate aptitude for interacting with art. Said aptitude, or the degree of it, is the critical factor. There are people with every possible advantage and opportunity who never go beyond a superficial familiarity with art or a veneer of cultivation, because it's simply not in them to go further. There are distressingly more than a few "major" collectors who have no real clue. Then there are people who, based on statistical probability given their circumstances, should never bother with art, certainly not seriously, yet they pursue it with a passion and "get" it. Education and exposure are good, useful, helpful things, or can be, but they are aids for, not sources of, the essential aptitude. "Elitism" is beside the point; it's the way it is.



January 5, 2010, 8:51 AM

"I know plenty of artists who don't know the difference."

Well, there appear to be quite a few artists who don't know much about art except what they do and what's going on now or what's been going on in the recent past. Of course, current thinking, if one can call it that, encourages or at least condones such blindness, but one still has to ask: if you're a serious artist, isn't it incumbent upon you to know as much as possible about what's been done or achieved in your field historically? Shouldn't you want to know that, even be driven to know it, if nothing else so you can use it? Or do you really presume to re-invent the wheel all by yourself?



January 5, 2010, 11:29 AM

Can someone s'plain in one sentence what self denial has to do with beauty? I didn't quite get it.

Did Scruton mention the vernacular? It's an interesting concept to consider on a blog where the chorus is provided by Jack's vernacular, medieval Japanese pots. I suppose there was elitism then too, so the best pots would have come from the vernacular, everyday ones. And Pop was/is about vernacular culture. My off beat sense of Modernism is also that it was partly about a freedom from elitism, if you go back to Manet, or even maybe to Napoleon, except when it became idealistic. Sorry, sorry, I'm sure I'm rambling in woods where the regulars know the trails.



January 5, 2010, 11:31 AM

Well, I don't think it's incumbent upon an artist to know art history. I am inclined to suspect that some contributors to this column will dump on the idea that art history has any use at all (though history of any kind in my experience makes the present more understandable, and hence more bearable--if only for reminding us that the present is unlike the past, and by the same token, the future may be different, too). Quite aside, though, from whether it's incumbent to study art history, I should think that any serious artist would simply enjoy looking at the great art of the past. Isn't it supposed to be one of the characteristics of great art that it should be able to outlive its time? Moreover, the great art of the past can provide hints on how to proceed in the present(just as artists of the Renaissance derived inspiration from looking at Graeco-Roman art, or more recently how Courbet & Manet avoided the Salon mannerisms by going back & taking their cues from Velazquez).



January 5, 2010, 11:34 AM

I think "getting" art goes hand in hand with some form of art-hunger. This is not the same as fashion-hunger, image-hunger, status-hunger or socioeconomic-gain hunger, which can and do use art as a means or tool to non-art ends. The latter types of hunger are all over the place and much in evidence throughout the current art scene, but they certainly don't require actually getting art, which could easily interfere with or run counter to the real objective/s at work.



January 5, 2010, 12:28 PM

Jack is right about "art-hunger", Piri. That is somewhat different from art history as such.

If a new artist is not aware of what happened in the 20th C it basicall means that he or she is really not that interested in art, not "hungry" enough - the word is very appropriate.

I have a grad student who is ambitious and coming along well, who, through his own evolution, started making paintings tht were very reminiscent of Jack Bush. Of course I immediately showed him Bush images from my image archive and of course he was very discomfited. I said don't worry about it, take advantage of it, as I always do.

Wouldn't it have been much better if he had known Bush's paintings in the first place? I think it is a necessity to know these things.



January 5, 2010, 1:00 PM

By "incumbent upon" I didn't mean artists, or anybody, should be force-fed art history or art anything. You either want it and care about it or you don't. That interest, or hunger, should simply come with the territory, with the aptitude, the affinity or avidity for art--if that's really there innately.

I cannot imagine anybody truly serious about art, either as creator or observer, who would not be deeply interested in knowing as much as possible about what has been previously achieved in the realm of art. If, in fact, there's no such interest in a self-identified artist, that automatically calls into rather serious question his or her aptitude for art in the first place.



January 5, 2010, 1:05 PM

Fine, if you want to call it "art hunger," that's okay with me. We appear to mean pretty much the same thing. But I disagree with David when he says that pop was/is about the vernacular. To me, "vernacular" implies made by the uneducated masses, Das Volk if you want to be heavy & Germanic about it, but pop was/is based upon commercial art and cartoons, all of which are consumed by the masses but not made by them. Rather, they are made by a very talented & well-paid elite, so pop is really just another form of elitism -- albeit more widely enjoyed than other elite art forms.


Chris Rywalt

January 5, 2010, 1:17 PM

Piri, that's quite an insight about Pop: That it's two elites talking amongst themselves. I never looked at it that way.

David: My interpretation of Scruton's use of the term "self-denial" as it applies to beauty goes like this: You deny your own personal, selfish pursuits in order to harmonize with your surroundings. In the metaphor Scruton uses, his neighbor's idea of beauty -- blinking Santa Claus lights and so on -- clashes with his own. If his neighbor were truly neighborly, he'd keep the front of his house in a more universally approved style, instead of selfishly putting up displays he prefers.

Or to use the example of good manners: It may be easier for a guy to reach across the table for food, to wipe his hands on the tablecloth, and to elbow the diners sitting next to him while he speaks loudly about his most recent colonoscopy. But it's rude because while it makes things easier for him it ruins the meal for everyone else. So rather than do whatever we want at the table, we deny ourselves and conform to social norms.

I've had first-hand experience with striking the balance between social norms and a streak of individualism, since my lax policing of free speech in my home has resulted in a 12-year-old who curses like a Navy NCO. Turns out there are times, as Scruton says, when it's better for everyone to fit in.



January 5, 2010, 1:31 PM

Well, this morning on my way to work, in weather too cold for car windows to be down, I had to endure a very loud rap music concert blaring from a neighboring car (whose sound system probably cost more than the car). The offending driver had his windows down, no doubt deliberately, presumably for my, uh, benefit. It doesn't even matter that it was rap. At that point of the day, I don't want to hear any music, especially at that decibel level. This was one person in serious need of self-denial therapy, or maybe just simple anti-jerk therapy.



January 5, 2010, 1:45 PM

Good point about Pop Art, Piri. The whole high/low circus was as elitist as could be, a campy in-joke reaction against the man-on-the-street concept of "fine art".



January 5, 2010, 2:11 PM

Piri, I agree with you (and others) about art history taken basically, acquaintance with master works of the past, as something a serious artist would naturally be interested in. I was using the term more loosely way up there somewhere, meaning the social circumstances that surrounded certain movements. I don't avoid learning about them, but neither do I devote much effort to it. But they are relevant to the history of taste.



January 5, 2010, 2:24 PM

I'm no artist, but art historical knowledge for artists would seem to be very much a practical matter, meaning something they could use and profit from in their own work. In other words, artists who dismiss or ignore that potential are shortchanging (or fooling) themselves.


Chris Rywalt

January 5, 2010, 3:19 PM

A note about those overly loud car stereos, Jack: Usually anything that loud outside the car is a sign of poorly installed speakers. Chances are -- it's hard to believe but true -- it's not as loud inside the car, and that's why it's turned up so loud. Also to be annoying to old fogies like you and me, but not principally. If car speakers are correctly installed, their sound is directed into the vehicle, minimizing sound loss to the back and sides. That's how correct home speakers are designed, also: Sound out the front! Of course car speakers don't have cabinets, so it's up to the installer to essentially build a cabinet-type enclosure. Sadly, most car stereo installers are idiots. So you get the problem you encountered: To get it loud inside it ends up being really loud outside. Also, it sounds really bad, probably all rattly and buzzy and stuff. Not that you can tell with hip-hop anyway.

If you've ever sat next to someone wearing headphones where you could hear their music, it's the same principle. It's probably not nearly as loud to them as it seems it must be to you.

When we lived in Hoboken we were in an apartment overlooking the main drag just over a bus stop and a traffic light. Many was the night I was awakened by some asshole blasting his radio from his car stopped at the light. Hoboken cops eventually started giving tickets. But for a while there I put a lot of thought into inventing some way of blowing up those assholes and their radios. Sound-activated machine guns on the roof, anyone?



January 5, 2010, 4:04 PM

Unless, Chris, the person wants the sound to project outside the car (which would explain the windows down in cold weather) in order to be a mobile concert and/or attract attention and/or act out being an obnoxious jerk. There are such people, as surely you know very well (especially since you live in NJ). Let's just say I was not amused.



January 5, 2010, 4:17 PM

Perhaps I should add that I am not a morning person, so when I'm driving to work, my body wants to be asleep. It does not want any more sensory input than is absolutely unavoidable, meaning no music, no radio, no TV, no bright lights, no talking. If I was typical, there would be no such thing as morning TV shows, let alone morning news shows. The very idea of it, to me, is irrational.


Chris Rywalt

January 5, 2010, 5:52 PM

I doubt anyone wants the radio to be louder outside the car than in, unless they're driving around broadcasting political speeches or something. As for the windows down in cold weather, you're in Miami, right? Or Florida anyway? It doesn't get too cold to drive with the windows down there. I've been known to drive with the windows down when it's 32 degrees out (especially if my wife's been in the car and has the heat set to "blowtorch").



January 5, 2010, 6:49 PM

Chris, when it's at all cold in Miami, and this morning was quite cold for Miami, people here act like they've been set down in the Arctic naked. What you would do is irrelevant. Trust me, the guy had the damn windows down because he wanted his "concert" to be heard and noticed. A-hole.



January 5, 2010, 7:12 PM

Thanks Chris. I guess I get it. Still not quite sure how civic responsibility has anything to do with beauty but I'll think about it. And thanks Piri. Yes I see. The makers of Pop Art were and are elitist and just using vernacular or popular imagery. Elitism doesn't necessarily bother me if it's a question of appreciating the best work, for instance, or making difficult, educated distinctions and choices about art and culture. I was thinking about vernacular in regards to craft I suppose, where a quality of genius and beauty can exist apart from high culture, so called. Vernacular in this case not meaning uneducated necessarily but maybe a lack of broad education. Maybe it's a craft thing.


Chris Rywalt

January 5, 2010, 7:53 PM

David, I think the idea Scruton is getting across is, in architecture specifically, that adhering to classical standards of beauty, or attempting to live up to the standards of the past, and working within a framework that at least aspired to be universal, led to work which fit in with its surroundings, played well with others, and allowed communities to flourish. But modernism as applied to architecture placed self-expression, standing out, being different, as the ultimate goal, resulting in buildings which break the social fabric.

A metaphor might be cooking: Imagine a cuisine intended to express the chef's personality and whims with no regard for whether the results are edible. A chef might use broken glass and ball bearings to make a meal. There's a restaurant that wouldn't last long.

But in architecture, that's what we've got: Architects designing buildings with no connection to the past or the places they'll be built.

And of course that's what we have in art, too. It's just less obvious. Our art is self-indulgent to the point of being rude -- often on purpose, like Jack's pal with the windows down -- instead of being respectful.



January 5, 2010, 8:22 PM

Yes I understand the architecture critique. Maybe it's less about denial than about common sense.


Chris Rywalt

January 5, 2010, 9:49 PM

Jack said as much earlier. It's clearly not common sense, though, since neighbors are not always so neighborly, and people are frequently rude. Just this past Sunday I had to ask the person in front of me at Avatar to stop texting during the movie. This is an IMAX 3D theater where the tickets for this massive moviegoing event cost $11 each, and she thought it was okay not just to flash her phone quickly to check the time or maybe see if that text was from the babysitter reporting a house fire or something -- which would be rude enough -- but to actually start typing on the damned thing.

I have now had to scold someone at virtually every movie I've seen the past year for texting while the movie was on. Except at the Harry Potter movie, where, during the quiet, sad, emotionally powerful denouement, someone's phone went off to the ringtone, "So what? I'm still a rock star!"

Clearly, self-denial isn't one of our strong points these days.



January 5, 2010, 10:48 PM

'Beauty-by-abnegation' is the inverse of 'death-by-chocolate'. No?

And I mock you for your lack of latitude, Chris.



January 5, 2010, 11:04 PM

At a performance of Puccini's Turandot, during one of the major arias, I once had to endure two old biddies in front of me chattering away as if they were watching the thing at home on TV with nobody else around. I was flabbergasted. Everybody around them had invested money and time to be there, and that obviously did not include their inane blathering at the worst possible time. As it was, the singing was not all that stellar, but that was beside the point. I expect they would have done the same thing no matter who was singing. Idiots.


Tom Hering

January 5, 2010, 11:10 PM

As incivility increases in society, technologies are introduced that act as incivility multipliers. Why is that?



January 6, 2010, 12:05 AM

Incivility is a kind of fad, Tom, a juvenile leftover from the 60s that has trickled down into social habit.

When you are uncivil you are not letting stale old customs tell you what to do. You are an individual, "gotta-be-me", let it all hang out, show your real feelings, no slave to social rules, doing what you want to do, and to hell with all that fuddyduddy civility.

Of course this comes in harsh conflict with the paralytic PC position, also a remnant of a bygone era, which has grown like Kudzu, forbidding any even slight expression which might in any way impinge on the feelings of what we patronizingly term "minorities".

These behavior patterns are sometimes amusing to see work themselves out.



January 6, 2010, 12:06 AM

David, I appreciate your response but I still think you don't quite get it. Vernacular means uneducated but the people who make commercial art are all very educated -- they all went to art school, and from there graduated to jobs in advertising & package design, which is what people like Warhol & Rauschenberg took advantage of and copied. It's only popular in the sense of who consumes it, not who originated its forms. I prefer the term "mass-audience culture" to "popular culture," though I daresay that's not catchy enough for pomonians. With craft, it may be something created by somebody uneducated, but I really wonder. How many master craftsmen (and women) do you know who didn't have to learn how to throw a pot from somebody sometime?



January 6, 2010, 1:43 AM

Piri, I was just considering the idea of the vernacular. Maybe high and low culture is a better way to think of it. One definition of vernacular is mother tongue, rather than uneducated, so regarding craft it could include hand made bicycle makers, tool makers, quilters, etc. The fact that almost all contemporary craft makers are college educated moots the use of the term for them although the vernacular arts are a major technical source and inspiration. In the fine arts I suppose there's no real usefulness for the term except possibly something like comics or regional landscapists, (maybe Elvis's on velvet) and that sort of thing. In the article about beauty and denial Scruton mentions classicism as the default style. To me, this could be considered a vernacular if you use the mother tongue definition - from 19thc. Greek revival buildings across the northeast to what I call Ho-Jo colonial where every new bank and supermarket has a classical roof style and Palladian windows, and I think it is used that way by architectural historians. My initial thoughts about the term were about the relative distances and relationships between high and low in Japanese medieval pots and in contemporary art and Modernism.



January 6, 2010, 1:47 AM

Maybe it was the Wendell Berry that got me going on this. "But I never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other." -home, mother tongue, the hand made life.


Chris Rywalt

January 6, 2010, 2:39 AM

"Pomonians" is good, but might I humbly suggest "pomoranians"?



January 6, 2010, 10:54 AM

or "Pomorons"



January 6, 2010, 1:55 PM

"Po-morons" will do very nicely. It even has a suggestion of pity to sugarcoat the disdain. Sort of like "po-white-trash." People in the South would understand perfectly.



January 6, 2010, 6:48 PM

With Chris's picture in mind, it will forever be Pomoranians for me.


Chris Rywalt

January 7, 2010, 12:35 PM

That was the idea.

If George is right -- and in this case, I think he is -- postmodernism is dead, anyway, so it may not matter. Unfortunately far too many of its tenets are being blended into the new whatever-it-is, but as its own entity, pomoranianism is over.



January 7, 2010, 2:17 PM

David, thanks for the elucidation of the vernacular. I can see why you respect it, in terms of the crafts you mention (bicycle makers, etc.) I think many beautiful objects may be part of this tradition. But when you try to find equivalents in the fine arts (by which I mean painting & sculpture in galleries & museums)it doesn't, in my opinion, translate to Warhol or even Schnabel. I think maybe it's closest to the self-taught or "outsider" artists, most of whom (in my opinion) get more publicity than they deserve.

Love po-morons! But postmodernism isn't dead, in my opinion. Rather, the powers responsible for it simply decided that the term itself sounded oldfashioned, and/or had taken on a negative connotation -- anyway, that it needed a new name. This is "contemporary." Last summer, in hopes of promoting my book, I submitted an article proposal to a hip magazine, all about Greenberg & younger artists continuing the modernist tradition today. In rejecting my proposal, the editor said that her magazine was into "contemporary" art, and my proposal was "historical."



January 7, 2010, 2:39 PM

I expect that, at least for now and probably for a good while, it'll be mostly a case of same (or similar) dog, different collar. Given the extreme importance given to "new and different," regardless of merit, the "postmodern" label pretty much had reached its expiration date. In other words, think Madonna "reinventing" herself, yet again (or don't, as I realize it may be too painful).


Chris Rywalt

January 7, 2010, 2:39 PM

I don't think the editor was wrong, precisely. Modernism is historical. But that doesn't mean it's dead. I mean, Civil War re-enactments are historical and the Civil War is dead. Modernism is a living thing, but it's also old. I'm sure the editor meant it negatively, and in that respect they're wrong, but overall they have a point: Modernism isn't new.

Still, I think Postmodernism is dead, moreso than Modernism. Active practitioners are dying off. George has described how young artists of today see Postmodernism as another tool in a toolbox, another possible approach. To the extent they think at all, which is, in my experience, not much.

I was going to write about this at length on my blog but didn't. Going through the most recent SVA BFA I realized a lot of the artists are not artists by temperament. They're artists because they think it'd be good to be an artist -- fun or challenging or a great way to get laid or whatever -- not because they're really any good at it. And when you have no discernible talent for art at all, you're pretty much stuck playing Robert Rauschenberg or Tracey Emin.

So I think Postmodernism is just a tool in the toolbox, as George says. The trouble is the toolboxes are poorly stocked and the mechanics don't know what they're doing.



January 7, 2010, 6:28 PM

True, modernism isn't new, but postmodernism isn't either, being only year or so younger than the first abstractions of Picasso & Braque (1910-1912). Yes, I know everybody says those paintings aren't pure abstractions, but they were so abstract that they looked like pure abstractions to many of their contemporaries --- including Duchamp, who despised them as purely "retinal" art. So he decided to "return art to the service of the mind" by inventing objects that could once again be described in words, i.e. the Readymades. The first of these was the Bicycle Wheel of 1913, though the famous one is Fountain, the urinal of 1917. Lest anybody think Duchamp is dead, that urinal is still the logo of New York's Armory Show, that annual attempt to outsize Basel & Miami Basel on Piers 90 & 92 of the Hudson River.



January 7, 2010, 6:44 PM

Sounds like that Armory show is bound to be piss-poor.


Chris Rywalt

January 7, 2010, 8:56 PM

I nominate you, Jack, to take over after Jerry and Roberta are fired.

Postmodernism wasn't invented at that time, I don't really think. Maybe, if Duchamp is to be believed, he had his first inkling of it then. Wittgenstein laid the groundwork for Postmodernism and he didn't publish until 1918; Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan didn't really get rolling until the 1950s and '60s.



January 7, 2010, 9:45 PM

Nominate me to take over what? Stroking a system I find bogus and contemptible? Thanks, Chris, but the competition for that kind of position is much too stiff for me--the system can get far more suitable and/or accommodating scribes for its money. Some of them come with major prizes, even.


Chris Rywalt

January 7, 2010, 11:31 PM

Since I nominated you, you wouldn't have to stroke anyone. Just keep making jokes like your last one.



January 8, 2010, 12:31 PM

In my opinon, the origins & essence of postmodernism are not philosophical but visual. All those philosophers were simply following the lead of the visual artists, and have been leapt upon with glad cries by academics who admire Duchamp,the 50s neo-dadaists (Rauschenberg, JOhns) and pop because they furnish impressive-sounding window-dressing for their cause. To me,the essence of postmodernism is the reaction against abstraction back into figuration -- or to use my own terminology, from multireferential imagery to back into unireferential imagery -- together with the innate disillusionment & cynicism that going backwards instead of forwards inevitably entails. It's a reactionary movement, which has been gathering steam ever since the 60s.

It's certainly true, however, that the term, postmodernism, didn't come into use until decades after Duchamp's Readymades. I believe a few people were using it in the 1940s, when it was said that modernism was already dead. People who said this, of course, were pretty surprised when abstract expressionism came along (although a few have tried to call abstract expressionism "postmodernist"). The term then came back in the 60s & early '70s, as applied to pop and the neo-dadaists who'd preceeded pop in the 50s (Rauschenberg & Johns). I cite a few such usages in my book, from Hilton Kramer, Brian O'Doherty & Leo Steinberg. I also say that the term didn't come into widespread use in the art world until the 80s, but then again, it was used to signify the triumph of representational painting (Neo-Expressionism) and the diminished stature of "modernism" (a.k.a. the Greenbergian artists). Considering how much neo-expressionist painting from the 80s is now moldering in dealers' & museum warehouses, modernism takes a lot of killing -- sort of like the death of the American theater, which has been called "the fabulous invalid" for decades.



January 8, 2010, 12:39 PM

Piri says: " ... modernism takes a lot of killing ..."

Hear, hear! Shunning it sure hasn't worked if eradication was the intent.



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