A Peanut History of Art
The earliest ‘artists’ did not attempt to represent the clear objective outer form of things, in which lines and colours are distinctly and rationally reproduced, nor did they attempt to express a personal, subjective (or religiously determined) state of fear or desire. The earliest artistic images were expressions of panjectivity.
Objects were not perceived as hard, isolated forms, but as fluid expressions of a felt reality in which the context ‘out there’ blended with the consciousness of the observer ‘in here,’ and from which both the objective time and space and the subjective thoughts and feelings of the self emerged (see appendix, ‘What is Real?’ below for further discussion).
The bull, for example, was not a wrinkly suspicious threat we occasionally pass on a walking holiday, nor was it a unit of economic productivity, nor was it even the mythic symbol of male aggression and power around which the cults of early civilisation formed. In pre-history the bull was the face of life and death itself, the blood of fertility bowing its horns before — and as — the moon, the roaring earth standing dignified and horned, ever charging against restriction and bondage. It was itself, but it was other; man, beast and mystery. This otherness was not apprehended imaginatively or speculatively, as a whimsical illusion, or sentimentally, as a totemic symbol, but erupting in the heart, with catastrophic gaiety, to be represented, as it is, with free vibrating strokes, a vivid inner life sweeping across the fields of darkness. The power and character of the bull, like that of any animal, existed within, in this inner abyss, of the still, dark mind which primal people sought to embrace, and without, in the still, dark caves that primal people sought to be embraced by.
These earliest images are multi-dimensional, integrated into a complete sensory experience. Each animal is different, unique; there is no uniform design, no emblematic totemism, no appeal to the abstract mind. Painted in caves deep underground, viewable only by candlelight, they shift and glow; they live, and through the conscious experience of this life, they communicate psychologically transcendent realities to the reverent beholder; the sense that the living quality of the animal is a function of consciousness, that I am that.
The sense that reality lives — that, miraculously, it has the quality of a living creature — suffuses all primal art. The universe was consciously felt and conceived as an organism; fundamentally benevolent, productive, mysterious and impenetrable to the rational mind; which is to say, female. Not that creation is ruled over by ‘a female god’, but that reality itself is feminine.
There appears to have been two conceptions of this femininity. One was the enormous round life-woman, with ‘shelf effect’ buttocks and pendulous, milk-heavy breasts, and the other a straight skinny woman.
Impossible to say for sure, of course, if either was understood differently. Some say that the big girls represented the universe in its creative sense and the thinner, more stylised figurines were tomb goddesses. But whatever their individual meaning and function (and a few are a bit creepy, Lord only knows what some of our ancestors were up to) the paintings and sculptures of pre-historic art, as a whole, clearly express a reality in which men and women were profoundly at home and of which they were profoundly in awe.
But all that was to change.
Around ten or twelve thousand years ago a shift in representation occurred. The animals of panjective sympathy became the beasts of subjective-objective symbolism. We begin to find, in the stone pillar complexes, rock buildings and burial sites, a new animal; not one of attachment but of disconnection, of abstraction. There is now the sense that we have our place and they, theirs; an inner and outer world which divides the human from the animal. The pictures become fixed and unmoving carvings, exposed to daylight. They are also clumsy, garish. Dangerous and predatory creatures — leopards, cheetahs, foxes, scorpions, lions and wolves — now become the norm. The thinking seems to be that small fields of domesticated animals and grains were protected from wild animals by more formidable animal spirits, and that the dead would help defend living people against the threatening wild. The animal in art — like woman in art — is now no longer an intimate subject of experience, but an object to be tamed, mastered or defeated; either food (what I want) or threat (what I don’t want). This is the beginning of porn.
Early ‘civilisation’ began with cities like Çatalhöyük, which were overcome by or grew into the early states of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Semitic-Aryan societies of the fertile crescent (the fathers of Greece and Rome). As ‘civilised’ history progressed, so the sweet, stirring strangeness of nature, innocence, mystery, femininity and life-loving art declined, along with those cultures that still valued such unselfish realities, which were crushed or assimilated by ‘the iron cage’. Artists were now cut off from the darkness of life and portrayed death, not as it had been previously — a splendid continuance of the subtle mystery of life — but as suffering, loss and torturous obscurity. The purpose of art became to impress, frighten and conspicuously display power and wealth. Violent clashes between aggressive animals became common, along with terrible scenes of punishment and warfare, enemies being beheaded, slain and skinned alive.
‘There are three [bulls] at about waist-height — white heads striped with black and red, from which sprout enormous horns that seem to threaten all life in the room… around the bulls the walls are painted with bold geometric designs — sharp, oppressive images above handprints in red and black similar to those painted in the French cave at Pech Merle. But while those ice age hunter-gatherer hands were welcoming, outstretched in greeting to visitors to the cave, these farming hands of Çatalhöyük seem to be more of a warning or a plea… a tour of Çatalhöyük, a nightmare vision of the world that farming has brought to these members of mankind’
‘Civilised’ art, therefore, was initially subordinated to the selfish subjective emotions of fear and desire. As ‘civilisation’ evolved the emphasis changed to equally selfish objective ideas of perfection and accuracy — which to say; essentially there was no change at all.
By the time we reach Greece and Rome the purpose of art is to represent the state and glorify the body — not as bodies actually are, but subordinated to a rigid ideal of what they should be. The figures and scenes are now incredibly accurate; but, like classical monuments, scooped out shells; no more truthful, fundamentally, than those of the superstitious barbarians they detested.
Does this mean there were no great works of art in early civilisation? Was all artistic output between 10,000BC and the birth of Christ devoid of artistic truth? Obviously not — but the point is the illusory subjective-objective matrix which has dominated all cultural output since the dawn of recorded time, is inimical to unselfish panjective expression — artistic truth. When such art (or literature) appears it inevitably comes clothed in the style and form of the time — it has to — but it is fundamentally independent of it; which is why it is so often violently rejected by the time in which it appears.
The objective realism of classical culture ceded to medieval subjectivity in which symbolic forms, standing in for non-sensory experience — the Western, transcendental, Abrahamic God, or the Eastern, imminent, divine nature of the godhead — again predominated. Although superstition, state-power and ideological religious subservience certainly continued — and with them pornographic art — such totalising cultural forces were largely a project of Western civilisation which a) broke up with the fall of Rome and b) never had quite the same grip on the Eastern psyche. Consequently, in the early medieval era, in the West and the East, we see greater freedom of expression in art, more vivid characterisation and finer panjective quality — often grounded in sensate experience of the balance and personality of the natural world.
Panjective pre-modern medieval art of the East and West may (like the pre-civilised masks of the inuits or the pre-Roman tomb-art of Etruria) seem naive and ‘childish’, but (unlike the crude daubings of recent years) it is often overflowing with character, sweetness and an intimate sense of the actual living quality of ‘inanimate’ matter. There is a felt sensitivity to the character of animals which, as objectivity returns to art and the humanist renaissance strikes, begins once more to fade, and charming, psychologically truthful, carvings like these once again vanish…
With the rediscovery of so-called ‘objective’ science came the discovery of so-called ‘objective’ perspective, the great innovation of the late middle ages which heralded the birth, in art, of the modern age. Once again though we have what claims to be an objective idea, technique or experience but which, actually, still privileges the self and its society.
Perspectival pictures, first of all, only represent the mind-made ‘civilised’ world — there is no perspective in nature, because there are no straight lines. Secondly, these straight lines force the viewer, and the painter, to subordinate the whole of the image to the concentrated [vanishing] point of it. The lines of the walls, roads and tiles are not to be viewed in themselves, but as symbolic markers for the perspectival idea. Points on a plane are not expressions of quiddity but subservient signifiers of uniform space and time used to emphasise the illusion of solidity and homogeneity, and to deemphasise both the role consciousness has in creating and perceiving experience and the self has in forming space and time. We are, in effect, tricked into thinking we are viewing an accurate representation of reality, whereas we are actually viewing a highly abstract matrix of interlocking symbols.
This isn’t to say that artistic truth cannot be expressed in perspectival images (or that perspective is literally invented), any more than that truth cannot be expressed in abstract language. Rather, perspective is not an accurate representation but a realistic form of interpretation, and the cultural drive to worship this form, which began in the 1500s, ends up suffocating ‘unrealistic’ natural qualities and alternative, personal, expressions of that which is represented; not just individually, but collectively.
For the renaissance also saw the erosion of the artisan and the craftsman. The idea of the ‘professional artist’ was foreign to human experience before modern times. Rather there were men and women who made buildings, pots, paintings, and tapestries. Nobody thought to sign paintings, no famous architects left their names to posterity, and we have no idea who was responsible for most of the revered masterpieces of pre-modern times. This wasn’t just because people were less egoic — although this is true — but because they were less professional. As John Berger put it:
The category of the professional artist, as distinct from the master craftsman, was not clear until the 17th century. (And in some places, especially in Eastern Europe, not until the 19th century.) The distinction between profession and craft is at first difficult to make, yet it is of great importance. The craftsman survives so long as the standards for judging his work are shared by different classes. The professional appears when it is necessary for the craftsman to leave his class and “emigrate” to the ruling class, whose standards of judgement are different.
We now see a set of professional skills, a standard, begin to shape artistic output. Anyone who has not learnt those skills, in the correct manner — and increasingly, in the correct institution — is, by that very fact, unable to create art. The primitive artist (a word which was used for non-civilised and lower-class painters) is now beneath us in the arts just as surely, and for much the same reason, as she is beneath us in the sciences.
Just as professionalisation and institutionalisation removed the creation of art from the hands of ordinary people, so it removed the use and appreciation of art from the context in which it was once embedded. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the first museum, a place we were supposed to go to enjoy cultural artefacts. No longer was art made for walls — much less for kitchen tables — it was to be seen in the proper place, the gallery, presided over, of course, by professional experts. This was the start of a process that would end with artists who wished to succeed having to produce work not for places of living and the people who lived in them, but for places of consumption and the people who owned and managed them. Any art which disrupted the increasingly dominant prerogatives of capital or which did not fit with the deformed aesthetic of owners and managers, simply didn’t count.
This aesthetic — which is to say the taste of the middle and upper classes — privileged form over function. The professional and possessing classes had, as they still have, a distaste for function — for material reality — literally built in from birth. They don’t, on the whole, do anything really useful, they don’t make or have to deal with real things, they don’t have to rely on real people for support or for the experience of their real senses for knowledge. They have a pre-programmed distrust of the future, which they view through the lens of financial security, and an inbuilt distaste for the imminence of matter and the transcendence of consciousness, all of which is reflected in their bizarre attitude towards art, which focuses almost exclusively on what the image is ‘about’, how it was made, who the artist is, what it reminds them of, how it makes them feel, where it is ‘situated’ (in history or philosophy) and of course, how much it is worth. To ask what the painting is actually of is taboo, a laughably naive question which has no place in serious art curation or criticism.
Perhaps you have noticed the extraordinary way the privileged classes greet art; by paying no attention, whatsoever, to what it represents, or to what is actually there in front of them? The foolish commoner might say ‘but it’s just a stuffed sheep!’ or ‘that’s disgusting!’ while the knowledgeable critic snorts into his Chablis.
The focus of the bourgeois critic on form, style and concept mirrors the drive of the bourgeois artist to speak through form, style and concept; because pre-formal sensory experience is distasteful to them both. The same is true of film (ooh, wonderful cinematography!) story (ooh, powerful language!) and each other (ooh, nice house!). The function, much less the reality, of art and life is simply off the menu for the formal classes.
The rise of the professional artist therefore went hand in hand with the rise of the professional art critic and curator. It also went in tandem with another related process, the decline of objectivity in art. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw, firstly, another cultural turn away from classical, rational mentation back towards instinctive, romantic emotion. Bach gave way to Beethoven, Gainsborough ceded to Turner and Kant yielded to Schopenhauer. The pendulum was once again swinging back to subjectivity.
In addition, objectivity in art was being usurped by the camera, a machine which seemed to be able to capture in an instant what Titian and Raphael took years to achieve. This ‘seemed’, however, was the flaw in the realistic jewel. Artists realised that although photographs could capture the rational appearance of the object perfectly, they left no room for the fluid blended mystery of its essence, the flavour of it, the life of it and the human response to it. Photographs may be amusing, accurate or exciting, they might stimulate memory and, particularly if the shot is taken during an idiosyncratic or unguarded moment, be a fascinating and useful revelation of the open-day; but they rob the witnessing subject of its empathic response. Strangeness, delicacy, character, vibe light and the living blood of the witness cannot survive the transition to technically accurate film, and although it may sometimes possible to identify the photographer from her photograph, through her choice of subject, film and technology, the work reveals next to nothing of its creator. Photographs, by their nature, deny, or intensely limit, subjective experience, just as hyper ‘realistic’ objective art, denied the subjective mystery-loving civilisations they encountered, such as Minoan Crete and Etruria.
The combined consequence of professionalism, romanticism and photography was, firstly, that artists began to once again consider their own subjective experience to be as important as the objective fact of what was happening, and secondly that the materials of art — the paint, the brush-strokes, the clay and whatnot — began to be seen has having as much communicative power as the image itself.
The result was impressionism, the beginning of modern art.
When art turned again from considerations of objective reality to subjective impression the focus of the critic, curator and artist turned to paint and canvas. This had the effect of changing taste from a matter of sensitivity to experience to a question of education. This in turn combined with the removal of art from life into the unplace of the gallery, and its concomitant commodification, to produce elite art; that which only the properly trained experts can really enjoy and commercial art; that which is valued for its authenticity and for its arbitrary price-tag, rather than for its quality. Other words for elite, commercial art include porn and bullshit.
The road towards pornographic art began as we have seen, long, long ago, at the dawn of ‘civilisation’, but as society has descended further and further into egoic unexperience, so art has become more and more pornographic until, in the last half-century or so, it has reached its logical end-point — hyperporn. The first stage of artistic hyperporn was when the medium — of paint or clay or what have you — begin to form part of the artistic message. This process (combined with a new non-standard feeling for the quality of life) initially permitted the exquisite panjectivism of artists such as Turner, Monet and Van Gogh — the great impressionists (and post impressionists) — but soon developed into the degraded modernism of Picasso, Braque and Moore, in which art started to become its own subject, and then into abstract expressionism, in which the object became irrelevant. By the time we reach artists like Mondrian, Johns and Pollock (an employee of the CIA incidentally) experience had nothing whatsoever to do with art.
So what was going on? What was this new art about? Here is an extended account, from the celebrated art critic Arthur C. Danto, of the aesthetic priorities of two famous abstract expressionists Robert Ryman and Jennifer Bartlett;
The De Stijl movement allowed itself only three colors – red, yellow, and blue – and three noncolors -white, gray, and black. These have a certain metaphysical resonance: the colors are the primaries, and the noncolors define the end and midpoints of the axis through the center of the color cone. But orange and green, for someone with this orientation, are mere secondary hues, as suspect to the purist as diagonal lines were to Mondrian, who despised van Doesberg for indulging himself with them. So one can say that whatever the reasons were for Ryman turning to white, they were like those he held for using orange and green, with no metaphysical cosmological implication whatever. When Jennifer Bartlett executed her dot paintings of the 1960s, she arranged them like Cartesian points on a grid, and employed (shades of Duco!) just black and white and the primary colors as they come from the little bottles of Testor’s enamel, used for painting models. But she later confided to her profilist, Calvin Tomkins, that ‘it always made me nervous just to use primary colors. I felt a need for green! I felt no need for orange or violet, but I did need green.’ This concession to need immediately negates the Neoplatonic overtones of the primary hues and the geometrical ones of the axis of the cone, and makes plain that we are dealing with impulse and subjective inclination. My sense is that green and orange in the case of Ryman preemptively exclude the implication that the white squares have much to do with the white radiance of eternity. But that means that white is not a progressive development of Ryman’s work, but rather a disclosure of a personality.
The emphasis is now on microscopic shades of meanings between purely subjective — which is to say, infinitely trivial and selfish — decisions. White squares can be exhibited, or green dots, and the properly trained critic can nod in sage wonder at, hold on! no, it’s not the white radiance of eternity but, rather, a disclosure of personality. Do you see? What’s that? Bullshit you say? Are you sure you’re serious about art?
With canvasses comprising a single dot of red paint, the selfish subjective-objective pendulum seems to have swung all the way over to me, me, me and my thoughts and my emotions. But no — there was one extraordinary final step to take towards pure conceptual abstraction, which was first tentatively made by Marcel Duchamp, with his famous ‘Fountain’, and then decisively taken by Andy Warhol, with his ‘Brillo Box’.
We have now reached what Danto correctly identified as the end of art; postmodernism. Now everything is irrelevant to art, which enables anything, anywhere to be presented and commodified as art. High and low culture collapse into a hyper superficial, self-referential market place which runs on pure whim — albeit professionally accredited whim. The gallery owner or wealthy collector decides that something is art, and, on this elite decision alone, it becomes valuable.
Almost nothing is expressed by the artform now but ‘why did the artist choose this?’ A tape recorder on a step-ladder playing the sound of a running tap, or a stuffed crow wearing dentures, or an unmade bed covered in semen provokes one kind of conceptual response only — a series of abstract ideas on why these objects have made it into gallery heaven and not those — and one kind of oscillating emotional response — I-like-it-don’t-like-it-like-it-don’t-like-it.
In order to justify this ludicrous superficiality art had to be reconfigured as a form of depth — aka ‘philosophy’. The whole point of postmodern art became to ask the so-called ‘philosophical‘ question ‘what is art?’ — is it this bucket of ordure? Does a glass nipple count? Why is this huge furry ocelot hanging in the Tate? The answer is the artist’s whim, combined with the ‘training’ of the professional art-decider which informs him that a) this bullshit is slightly different to all the other bullshit and b) it’s the right kind of bullshit; sufficiently bleak, ironic, irrelevant or titillating.
Hyperpornographic bullshit cannot gain access to the modern canon unless it meets one or more of these five postmodern criteria.
- Irony is the sine qua non of course — without the modern artist’s religious commitment to the idea that ‘It’s not supposed to be taken seriously,’ (itself based on the foundational philosophy of extreme relativism — that nothing is good) his or her lack of any skill whatsoever would be easier to expose.
- Formality, meaning, as we have seen, lack of function. It is absolutely forbidden for postmodern art to have any kind of use (unless it’s ironic of course!). A chair you can comfortably sit on? Fail. A teacup cut in half? Pass. A picture that would add serenity to your bedroom? Fail. A close-up of a bleeding vagina? Pass with merit.
- Irrelevance, intimately connected with extreme formality is the necessity of all modern art to have no meaningful bearing whatsoever to what is actually happening in the world. As noted below protest art, that attempts to address political realities can get access to (or rather can be co-opted by) the gallery, but this is the exception that proves the rule.
- Titillation is the only component of modern art that is part of a tradition — of pornography. The naked women and delicious food of yore has now become gusts of strawberry-smelling air, high-tec blobs of latex that feel oooh, slightly odd to the touch and piercing screams from vents in the floor that makes us feel sick (you don’t like it? you prude!).
- Bleakness — a commitment (popular in the psuedo-art of photography) to reflect the repellant brutalism of the modern city through an absence of natural farcicality, vibe or colour (note that garish kitsch is also permitted).
There is a sixth, optional pomo-tactic, which occasionally grants access to The Marvellous World, and that is reportage, or pseudo-realism — replicating ‘material reality’ precisely (extra points if the medium is soot, dried peas or Elvis Presley’s dandruff, or if it elicits the titillating response ‘ooh, that must have taken ages to do!). Artistic reportage, however, like protest art* is a dodgy tactic for the ambitious artist, because it smacks of the measurable and the objective and is therefore considered unsophisticated, gauche — likely to get you on the front page of Reddit or a feature in Metro, unlikely to win you a Turner Prize or a round of applause from Jonathan Jones.
Any art that is non-ironic, that takes responsibility for itself, that is in any way relevant to what is happening in the world, that seeks to still the emotions rather than excite them, that is genuinely exuberant or genuinely harmonious, that has an actual useful function in the world (such as decoration, illustration and so on) or which is technically superb is BANNED.
The pointless ugliness of contemporary art, the gladhanding venality of the art scene and the complete absence of sensitivity, intellect or originality in art criticism is usually disguised in a river of pseudo-intellectual pomo-babble along the lines of ‘my work questions identity and memory’ or ‘I am concerned with the interplay of light and form’ or ‘the artist has always rejected linearity in favour of refraction and reflection,’ or ‘it’s a deeply honest archaeological excavation of a moment in someone’s life’. A great deal of art ‘training’ is in learning this jargon, and in ‘teaching’ students to spot and produce high-scoring pomo products without ever explicitly admitting what’s going on.
Anyone untrained in bourgeois values and styles of perception who takes an art course at, say, Goldsmiths, or who reads contemporary art-criticism, or who wanders, for the first time, into a modern art gallery is in for quite a shock. They might look at the religious awe of their fellow gallery goers or students and question their own intelligence or sanity. If they have any confidence in their own experience — if they are capable of perceiving the pompous manner in which seasoned art critics and gallery goers talk about art and stare at it — they are likely to have the distinct feeling that, actually, they are drifting through the mind of a complete madman. And they are right.
Art has now descended into a schizoid state of total virtual irrealism or intellectual self-absorption. Bounded by an intensely focused mind, entirely cut off from embodied experience, it is necessarily characterised by precisely the same attributes as schizophrenia (see here for an in-depth investigation of that word and its relation to art), namely rationalism, adversarialism, smug irony, self-referentialism, intense scrutiny of details, cool detachment, intense relativism and humourless absurdity. Actual experience becomes thinner thinner and thinner, while all the time claiming — with breathless expressions of fanatical delight — to be more and more universal. For those trained to desensitise themselves to their own embodied experience, to the voice of their conscience, to the lived reality of the context and to the world as it actually is, none of this is objectionable. Oh yes a huge sphere made of cotton buds, mmm, fascinating, delicate, suggestive, subversive, sensual, vibrant. So, lunch at Ottolenghi yeah?
The disembodied nature of modern and post-modern art also explains why it all looks more or less the same, wherever it comes from and whoever produces it. Like modern management, the modern painting, sculpture and installation could be produced by anyone, anywhere for any purpose. It is completely interchangeable and can be positioned in any modern institution, any boardroom, any Olympic park or any virtual landscape and look equally unplaced — scenius is as inimical to its creation as genius is. There are occasionally ‘influences’ and ‘references’ to local styles but this for example…
…could have been made anywhere, at any time. What do you think? Is it French? Japanese? South African? 2010s? 1950s? And yet, timeless it ain’t, any more than an Ektorp is or a Eurovision song entry, all of which are products of untime, or dead time. Culture, everywhere, has died, and all it can produce are the same spasms when stimulated by the cattle-prod of capital.
And just as the art all feels the same, so the artists all look and sound the same. Listen to an interview with any famous painter or sculptor of the past twenty or thirty years and you’ll be struck by how amazingly banal they all sound; the same characterless faces mouthing the same characterless platitudes. In fact they look like management. Say what you like about Banksy — I’m sure he himself would say that he’s not in the same league as, I dunno, Schiele — but at least the guy has personality, integrity, wit, life.
I said that modern and post-modern art has to sell itself as an empty form of philosophy; but there are a few kinds of valid philosophic art*, and there can certainly be philosophy about art; we can think about pretty much anything and, with the right kind of attention and experience, produce interesting essays and speeches on just about any subject. Likewise we can be inspired by a cathedral to write a ‘cathedralish’ song, or even somehow express our emotions in what we are cooking. But generally — and in the postmodern case very specifically — a philosophy of art is a decadent absurdity. Producing philosophical art is like dancing a cathedral, or making a slightly self-conscious omelette, or working for ‘Mojo’. The fact that libraries are filling up with books on the ‘the philosophy of art’ is evidence that art itself is no longer fulfilling its pre-rational function. The experience of the seeing eye has given way to the ideas of the staring mind. We are not invited to resonate to the primal reality of the inspired image or form, but to think about an idea, and an extremely banal one at that.
To some extent the same thing happened with music (John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, etc.) and literature (James Joyce, Alain Robbe-Grillet, etc.), but modern and post-modern writers and musicians found it much harder to get away with fifty minute ‘symphonies’ of tennis balls striking a dead cow or the letter ‘e’ written 200,000 times, because these art forms are inherently, albeit slightly, more functional than the visual and plastic arts. Naturally, there were no such experiments with the most functional arts. Imagine if architecture had taken the postmodern turn, if the point of every building was for us to ask, with reverent perplexity, ‘but is it a house?’ Imagine if all restaurants now served bricks, bits of ear-wax, shattered light-bulbs and tiny plastic tigers. ‘Waiter, I’m afraid I can’t eat this.’ ‘You’re not supposed to eat it sir! You’re supposed to question its validity as food.’
In fact, with experience now irrelevant, with everything (or everything that gets a price tag) now considered, potentially, as art and with even the object itself being secondary, you have ask why bother having the object at all? Postmodern art would serve its limited purpose just as well by being a descriptive placard. We don’t actually need Duchamp’s urinal or Warhol’s Brillo Box to ask why they chose to exhibit them. We would be far better off by putting the whole lot in a book, a long catalogue list of descriptions, in nice Swiss fonts, and then let the readers form their precious concepts from those.
What makes the difference between an artwork and some thing which is not an artwork if in fact they look exactly alike?
The answer — which pomo-enthusiast Danto would never give — is a combination of mob rule and professional decree. The same process which makes Tracy Emin’s bed worth a fortune is that which makes a storm-trooper’s helmet valuable and the word ‘ho’ offensive. Again the shameful nihilism of this can never be officially acknowledged while fortunes are made by ‘artists’ who exhibit their eyebrow hairs.
And just as everything is art, so, as German po-mo performance artist Joseph Beuys had it, everyone is an artist. Everyone is a musician too if you redefine the anus as a trumpet.
Danto tells us that there is no further direction for the history of art to take. It can be anything artists and patrons want it to be — except good of course, or real; words which, to the modern artist, are either meaningless or the active source of an anxiety which must, at all costs, be effaced; either through the usual appeal to relativism (‘à chacun son goût’) or by effacing the exigencies of artistic truth behind a refusal to be restrained by genre, style or medium.
Here’s the famous critic of modernism, Clement Greenberg:
The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating some thing valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way in which a landscape — not its picture — is aesthetically valid: some thing given, increate, independent.
Again, fine; if the creation is, like landscapes and trees, good — beautiful, truthful, useful and so on. But is it? Is this…
…‘valid’ in the same way as this…?
Is it fuck! If you find these two things (the painting and the caterpillar I mean, not the photo of the caterpillar) equally beautiful, we have moved well beyond questions of taste. We are drifting into schizoid realms of insanity.
You might be wondering at this point, who are you, Darren, to say what good is? Who are you to determine beauty and sanity and artistic truth for me? Isn’t it a form of fascism to divide up art in this way into the valid and the invalid? Isn’t the age of manifestos — both political and aesthetic — dead?
First of all, regarding the ‘fascism’ of applying truth-standards to art, note again the five postmodern criteria above. I repeat, for a work of art to count as art today it must meet one or more — ideally all — of these standards. That they are unspoken, or implicit (Huxleyan) makes them no less… (searches for a word, oh yes…) fascist than having an (Orwellian) Ministry of Beauty issue artistic decrees.
Secondly, I am not saying what artistic truth is. As I have already suggested; ‘I’ am besides the point. Both objective measures of quality, those embodied in realism, and the arbitrary subjective decisions upon which modernism is founded, are components of the self. To assume that a declaration of truth is either a call for an objective scientific measure, or a command for the world to bow down before my subjective decree, is itself an example of ideological positioning. To ask ‘who are you to say?’ sneaks in an assumption that there can only be me in here.
While it is true that I have my own artistic preferences, and am keen to learn and promote objective standards, traditions and techniques (particularly when it comes to writing, my preferred trade), quality, or the roots of good taste, ultimately has nothing to do with either. It is not me who has decided that Bach is the greatest composer of his time, or that Shakespeare is superior to Marlowe, and it won’t be me who will decide that Almodovar, Haneke and Scorsese are frauds or that the Beatles are infinitely superior to the Stones. Quality clothes itself in the form and fashion of self, but, ultimately, it is selfless (which is to say, timeless).
Artistic truth, as we have seen, is neither objective nor subjective; it is panjective. It manifests as the objective-subjective self — and, therefore, depends on objective technique and tradition and on subjective preference and style — but is paradoxically irreducible to either. We therefore find that artistic truth, or artistic standards, can appear anywhere within the entire self-spectrum; from the formal realism of Michelangelo, or Robert Crumb, or the transcendent craft of William Morris and Eric Gill, through the impressionistic genius of Hokusai, early Picasso and Egon Shiele to the formal abstraction of Insular art or Mark Rothko. We also find that artistic truth cannot appear at the extremities of the self-spectrum. The artistic standards bounded by the absolute objectivity of photography or digital virtual reality at one end and the absolute subjectivity of postmodernism and pornography on the other, in ruling out panjective paradox, are inherently hostile to artistic truth. And, finally, we find that when artistic truth does appear it nearly always conflicts with fashion — the artistic mob-rule of time, space, groupthink and groupfeel.
Fashion may determine that objective quality does not exist, or that feminine styles of art are inferior, or that illustration and craft are lesser arts, or it may determine that only properly trained, civilised, bourgeois artists can produce art worthy of gallery validation; but whatever criteria those on high decide you must meet for admission into their fabulous club, the true artist, seeking quality that transcends the subjective-objective pole, will find himself in a fight for his life, for his very soul, against the established taste of the monomind.
Here’s John Berger commenting on this process;
During the 19th century certain artists, for consciously social or political reasons, tried to extend the professional tradition of painting, so that it might express the experience of other classes (for example, Millet, Courbet, Van Gogh). Their personal struggles, their failures, and the opposition they met with, were a measure of the enormity of the undertaking.
In fact, as we have seen, Van Gogh, like Turner and Monet, were struggling to overcome more than mere professionalism — they were also devoted to the non-photographic suchness of phenomena. Nevertheless Berger’s justly famous political analysis of the conflict between the great artist and the officially sanctioned art of the powerful remains extremely enlightening. Here he is discussing the artistic instincts of the ‘primitive’ (here working-class) outsider:
He knows already that his own lived experience which is forcing him to make art has no place in that tradition. How does he know this without having visited the museums? He knows it because his whole experience is one of being excluded from the exercise of power in his society, and he realises from the compulsion he now feels, that art too has a kind of power. The will of primitives derives from faith in their own experience and a profound scepticism about society as they have found it.
Yes, his own lived experience. Whether the great artist is struggling against institutional power, or fascist (Orwellian) artistic objectification, or the pornographic (Huxleyan) art of capitalism, his own lived experience — rather than his technical expertise or his subjective whims — radiates from the work. This is the subtle thread that connects the cave paintings of Chauvet, Sesshū’s Splashed Ink Landscape, Caravaggio’s Matthew and Munch’s Madonna.
These works, like all masterpieces, were ultimately independent of the subjective-objective fashion of the time they were produced in. They were expressions of genius and scenius, which come clothed in the style of the day, but which, ultimately, transcend the swing of the formal, selfish, pendulum. And how does great art do this? Because the great artist has. He has overcome the pseudo reality of his self, which means he can see the miracle of sensory experience that lies beyond his mind and emotions, and he has mastered the tool of his self, which means he can do justice to the transcendent reality which presents itself to him, squirming in ecstasy.
There is much more that can be said about artistic truth and the connecting panjective threads of great art. Once we have divested ourselves of the monumental red-herring of self and the opposames of ‘scientific fidelity’ vs ‘personal fancy’, and provided that we always bear in the mind the obvious truth that, ultimately, only art can speak for itself — words are just stand-ins — we find that a new kind of manifesto is possible.
In the next post we’ll conclude our survey of artistic truth at the end of time, by looking at that.
Thanks to Andy the Magpie for his guidance on early civilised art.
The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich
Meaning in the Visual Arts, Erwin Panofsky
Perspective as Symbolic Form, Erwin Panofsky
Ways of Seeing, John Berger
About Looking, John Berger
The Prehistory Of The Mind, Steven Mithen
Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg
What Art Is, Arthur C. Danto
After the End of Art, Arthur C. Danto
Civilisation, Kenneth Clark
Medieval Art, Veronika Sekules
Early Medieval Art, Lawrence Nees
The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis Williams
The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell
Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Craig Clunas
Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Heinrich Robert Zimmer and Joseph Campbell
* There can be good philosophical artworks, but these are mostly illustrative and protest pieces. Such art (the kind that I produce incidentally) because it is designed to express a meaningful and largely explicit message, is, firstly, pretty crude — often downright vile. Secondly, if it is any good — if it strikes at the root of the problem — it will thereby be officially taboo. It might still end up getting a price tag, through its popularity, and be admitted — or rather co-opted — into the club, but the message will be ignored.
Another kind of philosophical art is the optical illusion and visual pun, exemplified by the work of Escher and Magritte. But although such pieces are designed with a very specific intellectual idea in mind — and so tend to be cold — they do not derive their power from that idea, but from its paradoxical graphic realisation.
APPENDIX: WHAT IS REAL?
The most that can be said of a work of art is that it represents — re-presents — reality; the least that it is a real thing. In both cases reality is an important component.
As with most important questions, there are two common answers which seem to be different from each other but which are really two sides of the same counterfeit coin. One version of reality is that it is entirely subjective — that it is wholly created by the self (through mentation and emotion). The other is that reality is an entirely objective collection of things, ‘out there’, which are independent of the self but can be faithfully apprehended by it. Subjectivity therefore defines ‘reality’ as my thoughts and emotions while objectivity defines it as time and space. The reason why both views are ultimately the same, and ultimately false (i.e. that they are opposames) is that time, space, thought and emotion all exist in the self; and that self, ultimately, is not real.
So what is real? There are two kinds of answer to this question. One kind can be grasped by the self. Reality is either objectively understandable (it’s a collection of scientific facts), or it is subjectively perceptible (it’s however I feel or whatever I want to believe). If there is anything beyond any of this, beyond the self, it follows that any self-graspable — or selfish — account of it is, ultimately, wrong; or, at best, extremely misleading.
The other kind of answer to the question of reality cannot, ultimately, be mentally understood or emotionally perceived by the self. It will present itself to the self — in time, space, thought and emotion — it can do nothing but; for the relative world of the self is unavoidably ‘real’. But any reality beyond, outside of or elusive to that world — and any unselfish account of it — will perforce be missed by the self, which will either walk straight past it, respond to it with outrage and horror, or believe (think, feel) that it understands what it is hearing, when, in fact, what it perceives is nothing more than its own desire to understand.
Only that which is not self can truthfully respond to unselfish expressions of reality and can recognise the elusive, ineffable or mysterious component of the message as somehow right, truthful, good or beautiful. Such expressions, or answers — both selfish and unselfish — are presented to us in philosophy, literature, music, ordinary conversation or communication and — the medium under investigation here — art.
The more a society assumes reality to be objective, and therefore rationally knowable, the more that artists assume their function is to accurately (aka ‘realistically’) represent what is ‘out there’. The more a society assumes reality to be subjective, on the other hand, the more that artists take their task to be a quest to express themselves. In the first case ‘artistic truth’ is largely a measure of how well the artist has ‘captured’ the world of space and time. In the second case fidelity is irrelevant; either I like it or ‘agree’ with it (for reasons I need not, perhaps cannot, express) or I don’t, and that’s that; there is no question of my enjoyment of a work of art being related to anything ‘really real’ or ‘true’.
Both of these poles (and the various points between them) are however, ultimately, opposames. While it seems that extreme ‘objective’ realism, for example, and extreme ‘subjective’ abstraction, are utterly different, they both occur in and as the self, and so are both just as unreal and empty as each other; and while it seems that art has ‘progressed’ from Mesopotamian frescoes to post-modern installations, this is at best an illusion, at worst the opposite of what has actually happened. There have been important technical developments of course, but truth in art, as in philosophy, does not, as we shall see, get or go anywhere — because it has nothing to do with objective time and space or subjective thought and emotion. Artistic truth is neither objective nor subjective — it is panjective.