The book is Who Says That’s Art?: A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts, by Michelle Marder Kamhi. It was recommended by a friend who’s also a friend of the author.
The author herself is an independent scholar and co-editor of the (now online) journal Aristos. She seems to be somewhat of a Randian, at least on aesthetics. It’s worth noting that Jacques Barzun lavishly praised her earlier (co-authored) book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Roger Kimball also said some nice things about it, a generous gesture since she’s strongly anti-modernist and The New Criterion is very much the opposite.
A sign of the times is that the book doesn’t include the images she discusses but refers you to a website where they’re all collected. It’s probably not a bad idea–you save money on the book and get much better images. Also, most people who read the book probably have a tablet or whatever.
I’m pleased I read it. It’s clear, informative, perceptive, well-written, and jammed with info that doesn’t get played up in the official histories of twentieth century art. She’s certainly done her homework. The quotations alone are worth the cost of admission. I’m not going to review it though, if only because I lack the background to compare it with other books of the same general type. Instead I’ll go off on tangents suggested by what she says.
I’m more tolerant than she is of some of the figures she pans, e.g., Rauschenberg. I agree he’s no Vermeer or whatever, and shouldn’t be taken overly seriously, but he has talent and I like looking at some of his things (at least briefly, occasionally, and in images rather than reality).
I agree though that celebrating him for helping un-define painting, or destroy the concept of art, or however they put it, is ridiculous. You don’t get good philosophy out of marginal cases, as I think she says, and they usually don’t go much of anywhere. If someone does something odd you shouldn’t make that the new normal. On the other hand marginal cases can be diverting, suggestive, amusing, etc. Also, there’s something to be said for unsettling categories a little now and then. We need them but it doesn’t pay to be overly literal-minded about them. That’s why we make jokes.
The modern tendency is to take everything literally and then try to extract universal rules from marginal cases. That works in physics, where people create artificial or extreme conditions to “put nature to the question” (as I think Bacon said), but not so much in other settings. Since there’s no perfect definition people give up on definition altogether. The result is the idea that art is whatever an artist says is art, which is stupid and leads to diminishing and even negative returns.
I think more could be said on what causes the current situation. She attributes it to pretentious insiders and crude rich people throwing their weight around and bidding up prices. But how are those people able to define the situation? A more basic cause is the implicit nihilism of modern life. You can’t have an essence of art if there aren’t any essences, and you can’t have art that expresses the good, beautiful, and true if those things don’t exist. Instead you’ll look for some other way to define what you’re doing and make an impression–shock, novelty, debunking, inside jokes, visual and conceptual aggression, whatever.
I agree with her that there are a lot of good artists today who don’t get much attention. I like going to the Gowanus Art Show here in Brooklyn for that reason. The basic rule today seems to be that if something cultural is considered important, Damian Hirst or whoever, it has to be appalling because otherwise people will say it rings false. If not, it’s allowed to be good. You can see the same situation in genre fiction, which is allowed to have all the traditional good qualities of fiction.
The author wants to maintain the distinction between art and decoration. It’s art if its primary function is expressing ideals, values, etc. through imitation. If there’s some other primary function then the “art” is actually decoration. So the object has to be imitative and primarily an object of contemplation rather than use.
There are obvious polarities, but clear distinctions can be hard to maintain. When do murals or sculpture on cathedrals stop being decoration and become art? How about paintings hung in a living room? Manuscript illumination? Maybe when the murals etc. become something people contemplate separately from the overall ensemble. So I suppose she’d have an answer on that point.
It seems odd though to exclude architecture from art, as she does, since it can function as an object of contemplation. The great cathedrals mostly function that way today (alas), and their facades always did. That’s true even though they don’t normally imitate much of anything. If a mural can be art, why not a facade?
Also, the expressive form of a work of art sometimes seems a lot more important than the particular thing imitated, or for that matter the supposed practical function, as is often the case with Romanesque capitals. The literal image seems to work the way Eliot said the ostensible meaning of a poem works, as a bone to distract the watchdog of the mind. Clive Bell goes on and on about that type of situation.
She appeals to the universality of art as she defines it, and there seems to be something to that. The Chinese for example seem to have taken a view similar to hers on the nature of art. The great artistic works of the Hindus though were religious images that originally had a practical ceremonial function. Ditto for a lot of what the Greeks did. If that counts as art, why not cathedrals? One could say that the ceremonial function of a religious image is contemplative, since people look at it and see something divine, but the function of a cathedral is to create a sacred space and focus attention on the divine as well, so the differences may not be so great.
The Muslims in contrast are iconoclasts, and Islamic art basically seems to be 100% design and decoration. Does that qualify as art for her? How about the Qutb Minar in Delhi, which is both architectural and Islamic? It’s odd to think of the functional aspects (providing a tower from which to call the faithful to prayer) as primary and the expressive as secondary.
I suppose I’m mostly just grousing that her definitions aren’t always obviously perfect, which is silly as a complaint but maybe justifiable as a way of testing the inevitable limits of what she says. I am a bit puzzled though by the idea of a secular icon, which seems to be her idea of art, in a world without real icons. There’s a modern tendency to turn art into a religion, so maybe the attempt to abolish a clear concept of art is part of a general iconoclasm motivated by the impossibility of an object of contemplation for people whose conceptual system lacks transcendentals. For people in that position art as religion and indeed art as art in her sense just isn’t possible so they want to debunk it.
I suppose the debunking tendency is still bad, since a deficient religion is better than aggressive unreligion, which is what we have now. The artworld doesn’t seem to want a better religion, it wants no religion at all. You have to start somewhere, and in the Year of Grace 2015 even a deficient religion points in a better direction than where we are.