what do we gain by calling something bad art? – stuff I said on Bad at Sports with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/02/2014


AFC’s post was hardly a “takedown,” more like a differing opinion. Paddy is smug, snarky, and elitist, in other words a typical art blogger. Note that my merely asserting that doesn’t make it so any more than her asserting something is “bad art” makes it true.

What do we gain by calling something bad art? Especially if non-art people like it? Paddy hyperbolically mentions “cigarettes and candy” not being good for you, but please provide plausible evidence of the harm so-called bad art inflicts – actual harm comparable to diabetes, heart disease, emphysema, etc.

One person’s “spectacle” is another’s “value.” There are plenty of folks who haven’t been *trained* to see Jeff Koons’s puppies or his Macy’s balloon as any less spectacular or insubstantial as Johnson’s piece. In fact the question of “value” in an art critical sense is mostly irrelevant to the entire discussion, except of course, for the small group of people who like those sorts of conversations. Why is the Tribune obliged to have paid staff to address them?

I’m not sure I even understand what the complaint is. Not all art requires a “rigorous discourse” does it? Does this piece? If not, why lament the coverage?
It’s “not newsworthy?” Here again, I have to wonder – says who?

The complaint I hear all too often is that ordinary/non-art people don’t “properly” understand art. Art world folks seem to think that a critic can help educate the public and “draw attention to bad decisions and art world folly while at the same time placing new developments within a larger cultural and historical context.” Surely there is truth to this, but it seems to me that the situation is backwards – rather than try to have ordinary folks understand the art world, the art world should try to understand ordinary/non-art world people. Why is it exactly that people like this sculpture or the singing cowboy? Is using the buzzword “spectacle” the best answer? Why not go out and actually ask people – the ones whose reaction is being dismissed as being wasted on “bad art?” I suspect (and will gladly wager with someone)that the word spectacle would rarely be used.

Let me leave you with Carl Wilson:
“The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by “cool” taste is inimical to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.”

Enough with the snarky my tastes are more informed/sophisticated/smarter/cooler/complexly articulated/ stuff. How about a little more humility, a little more curiosity about what makes others like the things they like?

Or quoting Wilson again (regarding music) “I would be relieved to have fewer debates over who is right or wrong about music, and more that go, “Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate all the music you like. What might we make of that?”

Yes you were implicated in my comment, but the buzzword comment was directed more at the AFC post that you seemed to endorse – perhaps only in spirit and not in tone. And you’re right, spectacle is hardly an intimidating word, but I stand by my speculation that few would cite it as why they like the sculpture. I’ll gladly go down to the site and talk to an agreed upon number of people to count how many times the word is used.

Of course art people interact with non-art people. I never meant to imply otherwise. When looking at this coverage, and the negative reaction, it is clear that either huge assumptions are being made about the subjective experience of others or that experience was being dismissed as “bad taste.” Your implication was that if someone “qualified” had the opportunity to write about the piece they either wouldn’t (the mere fact that people *actually* like it not being newsworthy) or they might be able to contextualize it (explain why it is in bad taste or superficial to “qualified” tastes).

I don’t want to get in a tit for tat thing here but, “entrenched” is a bit strong. More importantly, ask any of the people I’m “entrenched” with how often I talk about art with them. Art is hardly the basis of the relationship. And don’t forget that I literally spend half of my life living with non-art people from all over the country. Granted they don’t live in Chicago, so maybe the point is moot, but they’re not clamoring for more or better arts coverage. In fact, the only people I ever hear clamoring for it are art people. And to this question of yours, “And for that matter, why should you assume the opinions and curiosities of non art world folks would be so radically different?” As above, it is simply my experience. Maybe this is a class and/or urban/rural thing. My small town parents certainly don’t approach art with a “probing” or “critical” mindset and neither do the guys on the boat. It doesn’t occur to them that either of those things have anything to do with art. When it comes to art, they like pretty things. They have “bad taste.”

The fact that your urban “culturally savvy” lawyers, p.r. people, social workers, and stay at home moms do bring those qualities to their art viewing experience doesn’t do much for me because that just means they already share some basic assumptions with you and the capital A art world about what features art should have. For them, you’re probably right that a Christopher Knight sort of critic might serve their interests.

My central question was never addressed – what do we gain by calling something bad art? And to follow up – What does “art” gain by dismissing the taste of people like my parents? Rather than condescendingly attempting to educate them, isn’t it humbler to assume you and I, might have something to learn from them and their taste for “pretty bad art?”

PS For the record, I did not find your post to be snarky, but you did cite two rather snarky sources for your feelings of embarrassment at the Trib’s coverage. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be Johnson and Knight.
PPS Here’s hoping this doesn’t affect Halloween – wink!
PPPS This is too much work. Hopefully nothing egregiously provocative will be said so that I can avoid responding any further…

Thanks for the suggestion ***. Now here’s some suggested reading for you that might “educate” you regarding your, to put it charitably, questionable assertion, “Art is by definition not a matter of taste…”

P. Bourdieu – Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
AND The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field
Carl Wilson – Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
David Halle – Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home
Lawrence Levine – Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Howard Becker – Art Worlds
Herbert Gans – Popular Culture And High Culture: An Analysis And Evaluation Of Taste
Peter Swirski – From Lowbrow to Nobrow

As to the perspective offered by calling something bad art, there is no doubt that *a* perspective is offered. The question is *whose* perspective? And what does that perspective bring to public life and what does it exclude?

You are also tautologically correct that there is a difference between Britney (not Brittany) Spears and Beethoven. Unfortunately, yes, I would argue that it is largely a matter of taste (and power). Although we might disagree on what might replace it/them, isn’t the rise of the “consensus curator” precisely about the imposition of and/or blind adherence to, a certain taste, a taste saturated by power and the pursuit of cultural and social capital? Obviously you still believe in art’s autonomy and obviously I don’t which may be the crux of the disagreement…To you perhaps, not believing in art’s autonomy means not having any conception of art whatsoever?

You’re right, the difference between art and craft is important here, especially how the two notions are situated hierarchically within and across different social classes and cultures (if the distinction exists at all in some of them). The great variability between cultures appears to be an argument for the inextricable link between art and taste. This is doubly so if you look at how popular/low works morph into “high/fine” ones over historical stretches (See Levine’s (above) analysis of Opera’s transition to “high art” in the 19th century U.S.).
Finally regarding anthropology and art as it pertains to this discussion, James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art is crucial. See especially the essay “On Collecting Art and Culture” which address the West’s appropriation (while “searching out the origins of modern man” as you put it) of artifacts from other cultures and contextualizing them as art.

This diagram of his gives a quick and dirty guide to the fluidity of the categories as he sees them:

Thanks for actually addressing my question, albeit in a snarky, err, *** way.

I am going to skip my disagreement with what you’ve said and focus on our common ground as I’m one of those boring types “attempting to coexist peacefully” with others.

Yes tacit and explicit knowledge. I have a great deal of interest in this. I hate to be rattling off even more reading, but Polanyi’s Tacit Dimension is central here. I even wrote some sloppy blog posts on the notion:

My thinking has changed a bit as I unfortunately gave explicit knowledge a bit of the upper hand in art practice which you will immediately see is a mistake. I have become far more pragmatic (as in the actual philosophic tradition) since initially writing those posts so let me throw out some “chum” from that school for you that we can also agree on (especially with regard to your de Kooning comment):

Any idea that ignores the necessary role of intelligence in the
production of works of art is based upon identification of thinking
with use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words.
think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a
demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and
mathematical. Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical
ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more
intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on
among those who pride themselves on being ‘intellectuals.’
— John Dewey, Art as Experience

Amen. I would add to that – dialogue that is *only* critical and only takes place among “scholarly chroniclers” and insists that being “deep” is of utmost value, then that too is a problem.

I would take more time to address your thoughtful comments, but I have to go make jambalaya for my crew (jobs – ugh!)

*** – thanks for wanting me included. Given I’m the soft hearted, populist, egalitarian, inclusivist that you suspect me to be, it means a lot.

You seem to have one misperception though. I actually don’t care all that much to write about art and really don’t (care to) know much about it, especially the kind that makes its way into galleries. Aesthetic experience, on the other hand, I have a great interest in. Being the slacker I am writing about it is just too much work.

Allow me an analogy. I see you as an old line Catholic dispirited at the direction of the church (artworld). Angry at the Protestants (post-conceptualists, “bad” painters, etc.) and their heretical relationship to god (art). Now perhaps the consensus curators and the neo-cons are far more deviant to you. So maybe they’re more like Scientologists from your theological perspective. Maybe *** is Episcopalian – a dissenter, but still sympathetic to Rome in form at least. Come to think of it, maybe you’re more Pentecostal, wanting to throw out all of the middlemen (curators, critics, gallerists) between the believers and god. In this ridiculous analogy I would say I’m an apatheist – dismissing the very question of god (art) as irrelevant altogether (but no atheist). Now I must admit that I’m trending toward a more searching relationship with god (art) and maybe I’ll soon be a Unitarian Universalist an appropriately pluralist and personal faith for me. A faith rooted not in the formalities of dogma or ritual, but in personal experience.

So yeah, thanks but no thanks.

Damn you ***. I really thought I might get a chance to watch a romantic comedy tonight and now I find myself responding…

Don’t be so quick to assume my endorsement of solely crowdsourced criticism. My advocacy of pluralism is not a knee-jerk relativism nor is it to say that there are people’s opinions that aren’t worth more than others.

Earlier I was warning against throwing out data (the aesthetic tastes of others) too quickly. Being a pragmatist, it is also important to contextualize epistemic claims, and to weigh their effects – thus questions like what do we gain by calling something bad art? So I always look to see from what position a claim is being made and what how that claim might operate. Of course this is not just something from pragmatism. I also look to feminist theorists like Harstock (standpoint epistemology) and Haraway (situated knowledge). I swear I’m going to stop the name dropping!

To get back to the “worth” of opinions…If your car is broken you will likely trust the opinion (another way of saying a hypothesis) of your mechanic as to its underlying cause over the opinion of your dentist. The value of the mechanic’s opinion will be tested in experience (a pragmatist touchstone) when you authorize them to fix it. If they turn out to be wrong, the value of their future opinions may very well begin to “fade away” like the font mentioned above. In my example we have a relatively easy test of a problematic situation. In art criticism things get messier no? What is the problem we’re trying to solve when we turn to critical writing? Some possible problems:

1. I have a limited amount of time. Do I want to take the time to see this exhibition?
2. I saw this exhibition and I’m looking for some help making sense of what I experienced.
3. I will be unable to see this exhibition. Can someone give me a reliable account of what it was like?
4. I’m researching “x” and I need some useful thinking on it.
5. I am looking to be made aware of new and interesting things.

There are clearly more. If you break it down in this pragmatist spirit it becomes clearer to me what “quality” is and it also becomes easier to square the two notions you ask about ***. The “quality” of an idea is its usefulness in carrying one through a problematic situation (any of items 1-5 for instance). In the case of criticism, quality can largely come to mean trust – “I trust that Richard Shusterman will provide me with an analysis of a book that will serve my ends.” So *** just hasn’t found Knight all that reliable (despite being a mechanic) in assessing what’s broken with his car, so maybe he’s found that his neighbor (who is a “mere” tinkerer) has done a better job. The neighbor produces higher quality repairs. Of course if the neighbor does this just for *** and can’t do this for anyone else, then the quality is greatly diminished. Correspondingly, if the mechanic fails only ***, but satisfies most other, over time, the quality of his work will reveal itself as tested socially (see below in re: personal truth too).

There are also some forms of crowdsourcing that are better (again meaning more reliable at “solving” something problematic) than others. Amazon reviews are fine, but the structure is difficult to establish trusting (quality) relationships with reviewers. Delicious, Goodreads, and LibraryThing incorporate a social networking aspect that allows you to aggregate and follow a person’s reviews/annotations of websites and books respectively. On delicious for instance you can see everyone that has saved a particular link you find interesting and then you can look at all of their other saved links to determine if this shared interest was an aberration or if there’s a pattern of congruity (also quality). You can then add that person to your network thus adding another curatorial filter (had to make the reference).

Sooooo…one can certainly make claims about quality in my pluralist vision. it’s not the chaos you seem to imagine. It’s just that it limits one to small , not sweeping assertions. To be a properly pragmatist aesthetic populist ones claims must be fallibilistic and meliorist in spirit. The truth of a judgment is determined by a highly contextualized set of qualifiers. That truth is not merely personal however as experience is always part of a social context and will be tested over time. Let’s not forget that human culture has been crowdsourcing a very long time – that’s what capital C culture is right? the judgments of millions of people, some experts, some not coalescing around a set of ideas and practices to create legacies. It’s just that as post-colonialists, feminists, this process is suffused with power and a history of exclusions, thus the need to examine how “expertise” is determined and who is included in the process so that we know how much quality our quality truly merits versus obliges from us out of the laziness of consensus…

Sorry to the two of you still awake after reading my ramble!

I will concede the existence of masterpieces, but let’s not clink our champagne glasses just yet because I do so in the same spirit that I concede the existence of UFOs. That is, there certainly are flying objects that remain unidentified and those UFOs are real in a qualified sense. Masterpieces certainly exist in that there are cultures, and groups within those cultures that discuss and identify them. However there are cultures and groups within cultures that do not. So once again, context is of the utmost importance, you happen to be native (I think?) to a language and culture that has a (constructed) conception of the masterpiece and thus they are quite real to you and whether you accept it or not, I would argue that you have been trained to make the distinction between “schlock” as you called it and “genius.” I prefer Madonna to Bach, and given a certain set of values I can determine which is a masterpiece. The key being what values do I judge by? If you say a masterpiece is something that makes the dance floor fill up consistently and inspires dancing then Madonna’s oeuvre (you must be wincing at seeing those words next to each other) wins. In fact, she now has two decades of the evidence of her “genius.” Again, this leads me to ask though what do we gain by declaring something genius or a masterpiece beyond the emotional satisfaction of declaring our affection? Perhaps in the cause of preservation it is useful…but making these categorical proclamations seems counterproductive unless the ability to exclude some people from recognition is a desired end, which for me is not urgent at all!

Errrgh. Running out of time, so I’m not sure I said this exactly as I’d like…


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