High and Low: What is Excellence in the Arts?

21, November 2011 § Leave a comment

An excerpt from the keynote speech delivered at Augusta State University by the artist and art critic Franklin Einspruch, a former teacher and student at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts:

“Excellence, literally, is the state in which something or someone can be said to excel. To excel is to surpass, to be superior, to outdo. In the arts, we have loads of poor and mediocre examples, and the excellent ones are superior to them. Okay, we’re done. I’ll take your questions.

Actually, hold on. I’d like to examine what happens when you look at an art object and perceive it to have excellence. Let’s say that an artist has made some beautiful thing. You look at it and say, Wow. You experience a pleasant feeling of joy or excitement. Your attention goes to it and lingers there. Also, “excellence,” as I said, implies superiority to other art objects. In the past you have looked at other objects and not perceived excellence in them. Now that you’re looking at this one, the pleasure you get out of it has an additional quality of surprise, perhaps even relief, that reminds you that you are looking at something unusual. You don’t recall the inferior objects, but the excellent one stands out in relation to them.

There’s a simple question you can ask about this experience. You see excellence in this art object that I’ve been talking about. Is it actually there in the art object, or have you just seen it there? In other words, is excellence some objective quality about the art object, or is it your subjective experience of the art object?

There are a lot of good reasons to say that it’s subjective. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet to Rosencranz and Gildenstern. Subjectivity explains why taste varies. You like this work of art quite a lot, but your friend doesn’t. He prefers this other work of art over there. You think he’s crazy for preferring that one. You see excellence where he doesn’t, and vice-versa. This indicates that seeing excellence is a matter of opinion and individual experience. Those opinions and experiences aren’t facts about material objects. They’re opinions about what art is for and what makes it good.

But the idea of subjective excellence has some serious drawbacks. Although it can explain why your taste differs from your friend’s, it doesn’t explain why it might agree with the tastes of millions of other people. Millions of people love the art of Rembrandt. If there’s not something objectively excellent about Rembrandt, then you have to explain how millions of people concluded subjectively and individually that Rembrandt’s work was excellent.

One explanation you hear from the proponents of subjective excellence is that the consensus forms because people passively absorb the cultural values around them, and fall sway to marketing and propaganda. You think you have independent taste, but you’re really just acting out the presuppositions of your culture. Even the notion that you have independent taste is a presupposition of your culture. I have never been impressed with this idea because it’s basically a conspiracy theory. It’s not a conspiracy theory because it’s wrong—it may not be—but because it’s unfalsifiable, and because it favors a dramatic, convoluted explanation for the consensus over a simple one. The simple explanation is that quality exists in the object, objectively, and a lot of people—not everyone, but a lot of them—can see it.

Objective excellence also explains a phenomenon that I have never seen adequately discussed by art’s philosophers. During the modern Edo period, Japanese prints were so denigrated by the Japanese that they used them to wrap ceramics in preparation for sending them overseas. It’s only a little overstated to say that they looked at Utamaro about the same way we look at Styrofoam peanuts. This is how they were introduced to Europe, and how the French interest in them was sparked. Finally, Degas got a hold of them, and they thrilled him so much that he made works based on them that changed the course of Western painting.

This is easy to explain if there’s something objectively good about Utamaro, and impossible to explain if there isn’t. If the appreciation of Japanese prints depends on absorbing Japanese cultural values, Degas would not have been able to see any excellence in them, not only because he was French, but because even the Japanese at the time didn’t value them.

Proponents of subjective excellence would say that Degas appropriated the Japanese material in the same manner that European colonialists appropriated the resources of the colonies. But we’re not talking about sugar cane, which all humans can taste as sweet, but art, which—according to the people making that same argument about subjective excellence—is learned to be excellent from the surrounding culture. What’s more, it went in the other direction. The Japanese turned around and appropriated Art Nouveau. There are thousands of beautiful examples of Japanese Art Nouveau.

But again, there are problems with the idea of objective quality. The first one I already mentioned—just as subjective quality doesn’t explain the consensus, objective quality doesn’t explain differences of taste. At least, it doesn’t explain them very nicely. If something is objectively excellent, and you don’t see it, you’re failing to see a fact about the world. It is a kind of blindness, or maybe a kind of ignorance. At best it’s naivete.

That’s not such a drawback for the argument—the world often isn’t a nice place. The drawback is the notion that something could be a property of an object, but not a measurable one. We could say that a sculpture has mass, and weigh it. We could say that it has a color—blue, let’s say—and even if we disagreed about the nature of the color blue when it comes to vision or consciousness, we could take a spectrometer and measure the wavelength of the light reflecting off of it. What qualities can be said to properly belong to an object that we can’t measure? If the subjective explanation of consensus is a conspiracy theory, then the objective explanation of immeasurable properties is a kind of spiritualism. Excellence thus joins the company of things we believe to exist, and sometimes think we see, but can’t prove are there: deities, souls, aether. The former, we can’t prove to be false. The latter, we can’t prove to be true.”

Read the whole address here: http://www.einspruch.com/writing/2011/high-and-low-what-is-excellence-in-the-arts/

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