Wednesday, September 13, 2006

where did all the great art go?

Dear reader(s). I realize that you may not make it through this boring post, but I would love to hear your views on what makes great art and whether or not it is still being produced. Stick em in the comments.

I've been thinking about great art recently. Yesterday I was browsing a book on philosophy where the author makes the same point as Charles Murray: no great art has been produced recently. I think that this is ridiculous but at the same time I am reluctant to point to anything recent that I would insist is great, apart from some Beatles stuff. I like lots of stuff but I can't call everything I like great. I'm willing to suggest that Elvis is great, Bob Dylan and a few others who I don't really like myself, but I?m just guessing really.

When I think about this I normally get stuck on what exactly great art is. It seems to me that the cultural backdrop is important in establishing greatness. For example, I don?t think another rock band will ever be greater than the Beatles but I am confident that there have been better rock musicians; I think it is extremely unlikely that another band will be as popular, as innovative and as prolific at the same time while still being a rock band. It must also be more difficult to invent a new genre without appearing totally crazy. Just about any idea you have has likely been had by someone else, there are so many of us.

I recently read about the Flynn effect. Basically, the average IQ of the population has been increasing by about 3 points every ten years and this rate seems to be increasing. The IQ of the top 0.1% isn't increasing though; our actual mental capacity is staying put. Maybe great achievements don't seem as great because the average mind is more capable of absorbing it.

Since there are so many of us around now and we have so much money, free time, education and huge resources, maybe there is simply so much MORE great art. Like the kid in the Incredibles said, "If everybody is special, no-one is". Great stuff is less scarce and so less valuable compared to other things.

Something that I think may have an effect on the amount of greatness is the worship of characters like Beethoven, Bach et al. Time spent playing other people?s music is time not making your own. Also, if that stuff is simply defined as perfect or great then no wonder there isn?t new great or perfect stuff.

Since there are so many different genres, someone who dominates a genre may be likely to be a cult hero rather than great.

Today, we are rich, educated, free and many. I've met plenty of people way more talented than me and way more committed to what they do. They will probably say the same thing about their own experience. This means that there are a lot of supremely bright determined people out there. To suggest that none of them, over the last fifty years has done anything that should be considered great is to believe in some magic power thwarting our best efforts.

Charles Murray thinks that we are an impoverished society (despite our material riches). I think Charles Murray is really weird.


GT said...

I think the identification and appreciation of great art is a specialised subject and the lay person/blogger should not be expected to have any understanding of it, just like they are not expected to understand the finer details of quantum physics.

I agree that if great art is simply defined as something that is qualitatively on a par with or better than the stuff that is universally agreed to be great like Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare etc* then it is almost certain that far greater quantities of the stuff are being produced these days than ever before.

*Note that this definition doesn't require any discussion of what actually constitutes greatness. Just assume that it is some intrinsic thing - we don't have to be able to identity it for the statement to have meaning.

Swart Donkey said...

I agree with Greg that it is tough/impossible for the layperson to have an understanding of greatness.

People accept Van Gogh as great... but I have more than once had people say they are not sure why. Picasso is another example.

Perhaps we sometimes mix up greatness with notoriety?

Not that I am saying Van Gogh and Picasso are not great, but Van Gogh is at the one extreme where no one acknowledge his greatness and Picasso at the other where he grew very wealthy.

stuart said...

i think its important to identify certain things that make something great. thats not the same as being able to identify individual. i know what makes good science theory but couldn't wade through any of the actual science that has been done.

when murray claims that no great art has been produced recently he should have a clear idea of what makes something great so we can see why recent art is not. to me it looks like greg begs the question by just assuming that there is lots of suitably high quality stuff out there.

i'm no expert but i do think that us lay persons could profitably discuss criteria for greatness. part of the reason is that i believe that one of the criteria should be that intelligent, committed laypeople should be able to appreciate the merits of the work if they really try.

my back of the envelope suggestions.

necessary but not sufficient conditions:

1. artist has great talent.
2. great ambition/determination/obsession (or related desire like things)
3. flash of inspiration after much effort.
4. favourable cultural climate.
5. luck (broadly defined)

Tracy Leigh said...

Like Stuart, I think that the layperson should be able to appreciate great if they take the time to do so. If the art is so abstract and complex that this is not possible, then I doubt it is great art. I'm not saying that the moment a layperson looks (or hears) something great they would immediately know, but if they were to expose themselves to artists work and enriched by some context(provided by some expert) they should be able to at least partially understand/appreciate why it's great.

It's elitist to say it's not possible and not worth discussion by the layperson. I'm not an expert musician or composer, but the sheer beauty and revolutionary style of some of Beethoven's work, plus some understanding of his life and context, makes it easy to understand why he is considered a great.

Swart Donkey said...

In the end... greatness doesn't require democracy. The only true barometer can be personal opinion. And there will always be disagreement. Only Vincent's brother thought he was any good.... I tend to agree.

So... if someone thinks Beethoven was kak.... does it matter?

If you take Stu's implied requirement of a wider influence, then I guess some recognition is required.

Maybe ... to contradict myself... the only measure of greatness is impact/notoriety.

Maybe Mao, Hitler were great....

Maybe great had nothing to do with quality and everything to do with quantity.

I prefer the idea that greatness doesn't need recognition... but I know that is naive

cristi said...

I think a great artist must have pushed the envelope on what was considered art...and succeeded (either in his own life time or later on). If the artist succeeded, then his/her particular style would be the start of a whole new movement, where he/she is mimmicked by other artists.

beethoven would be great because he is responsible for the transition from classical to romantic music (a huge movement). monet would be responsible for impressionism. beetles would be responsible for rock.

many artists today try to push the envelope. they usually succeed in shocking people, but are hardly ever mimmicked. i would say that jackson pollock is a great artist from the last 50 years (granted the earlier part of those 50 years. people are still splattering paint on a canvas and passing it off as art, most fail dismally. jackson's work was genius.

stuart said...

Democracy and personal opinion are not the only two ways to determine greatness. Democracy means that Celine Dion is great and opinion means everybody is. I feel that going down Trev?s road is a road to meaningless.

Recently there was a poll in England to determine the greatest brit. Princess Di and Churchill both did well; this is a debate about what constitutes greatness, which i think is a reasonable debate.

I outlined some criteria above. I think they should be broad enough to include Jackson Van Gough etc, but it was just off the cuff, any other criteria suggestions?

Getting a little more subjective, I also think that great should express something meaningful (again broadly defined) and that should be accessible to other people. So a song that that breaks your heart without being manipulative or smaltzy is better than one that is.

Swart Donkey said...

...I am just going to sit in a corner for a little while and sulk about my meaningless road.

stuart said...

defend your meaningless self!

gt said...

Stuart, interesting that all of your back of the envelope suggestions were about the characteristics of the artist or the environment/circumstances in which the art was produced. None were about the inherent qualities of the work of art itself. I'm not saying this is probably is a much more accessible way of discussing greatness. I guess I was coming at it from the inherent qualities angle. This the angle from which I would guess that a philosopher of art or expert in the philosophical sub-discipline of aesthetics would approach it (I know nothing about these fields, so I may be wrong...but a quick scan through the entries in my dictionary of philosophy suggests that this is broadly the case).

This is what I think would be difficult for the lay person to discuss... I think the levels of knowledge and understanding required to appreciate the difference between great and not-quite-great art is just too much. Just like the lay person shouldn't be expected to be able to distinguish between great and not-quite-great pieces of physics or economics based on simply reading the paper or whatever (I think this is what you referred to "identifying the individual", which you agreed would be difficult). I don?t think that this is an elitist attitude, any more than it is elitist to want to go to a highly trained doctor when you are sick. Also note that this is not the same as claiming that a lay person cannot appreciate great art. If confronted with Beethoven?s Hammerklavier sonata I think it is perfectly possible for a lay person to be greatly moved by it. I just think that the lay person would find it difficult to understand why the experience is so inherently different from listening to that Pixies song that they also find greatly moving.

So I agree that the impact/environmental/circumstantial/comparative approach to discussing greatness is much easier than the inherent-qualities approach (which I wouldn?t even know how to start thinking about). Leaving out any inherent-qualities completely makes me strangely uneasy though?it somehow seems like you?ll never get anywhere without it. Interesting that in your second comment you change tack and do start going in this direction (i.e. must express something meaningful without being smaltzy?).

stuart said...

i was basing my envelope stuff on vague recollection of something bertrand russel said.

i dont disagree that it is almost impossible for people like us to actually recognise great art, hence my reluctance to seriously nominate.

i admitted the subjectivity of my tacked on criteria. we debate the importance of accessibility. maybe it would help to ask, what is great art for?

stuart said...

I was trying to remain agnostic about the form the art should take and wondering what needs to be in place for it to be produced. If the requirements are in place, why is no great art being produced is a question for charles murray. I intend it to bring out the weirdness of his position.

When I think of criteria of the art itself, I often end up to narrow, "must show technical mastery" or too vague, "must affect people in deep and profound way (or something like that)".

I think great art is a lot about innovation, it is a challenge to specify criteria that are not to narrow, excluding future works, or so vague they become useless. I have no really useful suggestions. (these paragraphs are probably useless, but I?ve written them now)

I agree that in identifying individual works there is nothing better than asking the experts (though I worry about experts who may have an interest in maintaining a Murrayesque attitude, like university professors. Think of the non practicing magicians in JS&MN. The high priests cant have all the power.

So I agree with you. But I'm trying to take on Murray without claiming to recognize the stuff myself.

Swart Donkey said...

The first thing we would have to be able to decide on is what do we mean by Art? Which

What is Art?
What is Great?
What is Great Art?

What is Art?

Art has never been given a real definition. It often comes down to a personal decision. People attempt to define it, and some people agree with them.

Duchamp's urinal, which was presented at the 1917 New York Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists is perhaps the most famous example of the whole movement that was started to challenge what Art is. I would agree that what he did was Art. I would agree in fact that it was great Art?. BUT? a drunk standing over a urinal today who scratches his initials on the porcelain and walk away is no artist. So why the difference?

Other Examples Warhol's Campbell soup cans, Damien Hirst's dead animals floating in large tanks of formaldehyde?"Mother and Child, Divided," a dissected cow and her calf, winner of the 1995 Turner Prize

1) Art is Emotion

Leo Tolstoy ( speak of it as a conduit of sorts, a means for the artist, the observer, all those who have experienced the work, and all those who will of forming some sort of relationship. He speaks of it being a way of allowing others to experience the same emotion that the artist experienced.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.

He goes on to say argue that in order to define good art, we first have to establish what counterfeit Art is? since (a not uncommon argument) many people feel the concept of what art is has become perverted and lost in the modern world.

In his definition of Art as a transfer of emotion, he lays down three conditions for the degree of infectiousness of the emotion

1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
2.on the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
3. on the sincerity of the artist, i.e., on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.

I like the idea of Art being about the emotion it contains, or transfers. It removes reproduction, copying, mass-production, and connects the viewer with the actual act of creation.

2) Art is Beauty

Some people would say that Art need to have a certain appeal. They say everything can be art. The naked human body with light shining through a window is naturally beautiful. Some argue that art is beautiful to the extent that it is able to replicate nature.

So what about Art that is non-representational? I also don?t like the idea that Art should be defined by the ability to replicate. Layman in particular can be very impressed by replication. For me, if I want something to look exactly like what I see, why not just take a photo.

3) Art is Truth

The Romantics talk of "artistic truth", which links to Tolstoy?s feeling that Art is conveying emotion. Romantic Art is all about conveying some kind of emotional truth. It is an expression of the feelings of the artist rather than truth in some philosophical or scientific sense.

Again, I like the idea of true art moving someone. But, I don?t think it needs to be a tangible emotion. Sometimes art can just capture you for a second, and you don?t know why. It just affects you somehow. It might just be a level of warmth.

4) Art is not Science

To quote:

` The method of science calls for precise repeatable measurements, and for an objectivity that excludes all subjective factors on the part of the experimenter. This is very different from the method of art - indeed, it is nearly the opposite. That artists directly engage their subjectivity in their work is one of the few assertions that is very widely held among the highly diverse plethora of contemporary artistic movements. Moreover, repetition (at the time of creation) is anathema to most artists[[FOOTNOTE: For example, Monet famously painted the same cathedral many times - but they are all different, often radically, e.g., in using a very different colour scheme. Anthony Freeman adds the following remark: "Paradoxically, the scientist reveals truth by coming up with consistently identical results, while the artist reveals truth by coming up with consistently different results."]], and this proclivity is much reinforced by the nature of the art market, which tends to value scarcity (other things being equal). Objective measurement also differs greatly from the creative aspect of art, though it may of course be used in the technical support of artistic production (e.g., mixing paint, tuning musical instruments, fitting together parts of a sculpture, using perspective).?

Anyway?. That?s something for now. You have got me started Stu.

stuart said...

Just a thought on objectivity and subjectivity: I guess this is the extent that reasonable people should agree on science stuff but not necessarily art stuff. Whether on not you like beer is pretty subjective; many sensible people will disagree on the merits of beer. But the experiences themselves are objective truths. Joe finds beer yummy, Jane finds it gross. An artist can set to work explaining why beer is yummy in a way that a scientist can't. His work of beer art can in part be measured by its effect on beer haters or people not interested one way or the other, either by making them feel like a beer or making them sympathize with his stupid beer preference.

Swart Donkey said...

Another difference between (say) great science and great art, is that great science is likely to have a profound practical impact on the way we live, in a tangible way.

While a provocative art piece such as `liberty on the momument' may drive people to action, and exhibitions, music and literature can be used to stir people to action.... I don't think that is a prerequisite for greatness.

One of the mistakes a lot of people make is thinking that art by definition must have some meaning to give it value. That is where I think Tolstoy gets it right, that art is about emotion, rather than meaning.

But... in another way I think he was wrong in that it is not necessary for you to follow the same emotional path the artist did in experiencing his piece.

Different people will experience different reactions to art. Like you say stu, it can be likened to taste... whether beer or broccoli.

But for me greatness extends beyond what is nice, what is right, what is good. Greatness is a seperate concept from goodness. When judging greatness, it almost needs to be seperated completely from even quality.

It simply has to come down to how big an impact did it make. Was a whole new movement started? Did it define a cultural generation?

So while I think Robbie Williams is Supa Kak, the number of people that go to his concerts and buy his music should give him a degree of greatness. I use him as an example because I think he is a prat.

So going back to what I said before... perhaps greatness is inextricably linked with notoriety.

For me personally, in terms of art, the only judgement should be an emotional response. This emotional response may be partly affected by the skill involved, brushwork, layering of colour, perspective, movement, use of light.... but this should not inhibit someone who knows nothing of this. If someone looks at a Pollock and says, but that is just paint splattered on a canvas and it does nothing for them... then for them it isn't great, and so be it.

Science, Economics etc. are perhaps easier fields to define greatness. Art by definition is more personal.

Tracy Leigh said...

this has been a very interesting discussion.

Thanks Trevor for raising the question of what is art. I was thinking about that very thing the other day and couldn't quite pin it down.

I suppose art could be any number of things, in any combination. Such as:
>an expression of an idea, feeling, point in time, story, mood, setting, etc.
>technical proficiency
>something new
>asthetically pleasing
>shocking or thought provoking

Since it's not that easy to define, it's difficult to say what is great art. I think it is very personal.

I do struggle to get my head around very modern stuff. Music seemed to suffer the same "lack of sense and asthetic beauty" as art. Some music is so experimental such as miking up furniture and moving it around the stage, or breaking glass on piano strings, or listening to the audience.

I could possibly consider this sound art, if something interesting came out of it, but music? I'm not sure. Guess it depends on your definition.

Sorry for that long ramble. got to go.