Saturday, December 20, 2008

Autonymous Art?

Over at Ray Carney's mailbag, he's having what I believe is an important conversation with a fellow named Michael Brotzman. Check it out at the top of this page:; and at the bottom of this one: I would like to respond to Brotzman's comment in detail, but it would seem silly as he will likely never read them.

Instead I will post edited selections from a conversation I have been having with a close friend of mine, that seems to be moving along similar lines. The point where these two exchanges intersect most saliently is here: intelligent people, when asked, have ideas about art, even though they have no training at all in art appreciation. Since they are intelligent, it is difficult for them to believe that they would need any kind of special training to arrive at conclusions different from the ones they have already reached. Above all else, the thing I am trying to communicate to my friend is exactly what Dr. Carney is trying to show Mr. Brotzman: you can't think about art the way you think about everything else. Art teaches you new ways to think. It breaks down all the categories you brought to it that you thought would help you make sense of it. It's a process of deliberation and reconsideration that goes on and on. Being smart only gets you to the door, as it were. You have to be willing to unlearn a whole lot of what you think makes you smart in order to begin to understand great art.

This conversation begins with my friend's comment on a video of Michael Moore's recent appearance on CNN that I forwarded to him. It quickly moves into some fundamental questions about the function of art. My responses are in italics:

Interesting video. Like Moore, I'm amazed they let him on live TV. The problem is that because the time is so short and Moore has a lot of things to say, he comes across like a nut. My guess is that the average CNN watcher are not about to go to Moore's website to see the "facts". Most people agree with Giuliani that profits and the bottom line are the only way to fix any system; anything else is socialism. I admire Moore for what he does but I feel sorry for him because he's pissing in the wind. Americans as a whole are sheep. They do whatever they're told and anything outside the realm of their experience is by definition bad. If George Bush got on CNN tomorrow and said, " In the interest of protecting the United States and freedom, blah blah, blah,.... I've decided to implement that all of you must blow a goat every morning before work and if you don't blow a goat then the terrorists will win and the evil axis empire will take over the planet and that means no more cheap bananas and gas and hummers blah, blah blah," PEOPLE WOULD OBEY!

Also, does the following diatribe make any sense to you:

The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth."

Well, my attitude about Moore sounding crazy is pretty much the same attitude I have about myself sounding crazy every time I teach: Lots of people will tune you out, or judge you to be an idiot based on the fact that they already have everything figured out, but if you get to one person and change them a little... well you know the rest of the cliche. Progress? I don't know. We've been supposedly working on the same problems for over two thousand years of Western civilization and we haven't solved any of them. So probably not. You work on yourself and you reach out to others and hope that they are interested in your help. That's about it for life. Not so glamorous but I'll take it.

I'll also say that I understand what your quote is about, and I hope I'm not too tired to explain it. It's like hearing Chomsky or Moore on TV. What this guy is saying is so fucking out of step with the past forty years of your training, there's no way it would sound credible at first. I happen to disagree with his position at least in part because it is so extreme. The answer is always, as far as I can tell at age almost 33, in the middle. So in this case the God of No-Logic is just as bad as the God of Logic. But it is necessary first to understand that when he talks about logic and its shortcomings, he is talking about, at least I hope he is talking about, blind faith in pure reason. Total undaunted commitment to anything is dangerous.

But what's wrong with reason and logic? Well I'll give this example: Dick Cheney. To me he's a cold, calculating, shrewd utterly reasonable man. I don't think he believes anything he says. I don't think he believes IN anything beyond his own self-interest. And there's nothing illogical there. I guess I would say you can't have ethics if logic is the only standard. You certainly can't have creativity, which is the point the guy who you quoted seems to be making. I suppose it depends on where you rank creativity in your personal hierarchy of values and what you think creativity serves humanity for. Obviously, your guy thinks it’s very important, and he thinks that logic tries to neutralize its power or its function. I think this is true. I disagree with him because you need both. You have to have a brain and a soul, not one or the other.

I don't understand your explanation very well. I got that quote from some guy I never heard of who's the writer for the new HBO show John from Cincinnati. I've been watching the show since the pilot and in last Sunday's episode one for the characters gives a soliloquy that lasts about five minutes, most of which, makes no sense. So I read the blog of the writer on HBO's website where he said the quote I emailed to you. Oh well. Maybe I'll go watch one of the new Star Wars movies and dig on that dialogue- God knows its world class.

So where did I lose you?

I don't know. I guess its fun for the writers of the show to have a bunch of dialogue that doesn't really make sense. Here's another quote by the same guy:

The tactics of fictive persuasion have nothing to do with reasoned discourse. OK- What is that supposed to mean?

Well, for starters, I wouldn't put a whole lot of intellectual effort into a TV show. I mean, even the shows I like only stay at an entertainment level. I would be really suspicious of a TV show that purported to directly address aesthetic questions like the ones you've been throwing at me. Nonetheless, your new quote is pretty similar to the last one. Art is for emotions and science is for the brain. Like I said, that's a gross oversimplification. And I certainly don't like the phrase "fictive persuasion." Literature, narrative, poetry, art - whatever; it ain't a fucking argument. You aren't making it to prove something. You aren't looking at it or reading it or listening to it to be convinced of something.

For fun, let me try this quote out on you:

"The birth and development of thought are subject to laws of their own, and sometimes demand forms of expression which are quite different from the patterns of logical speculation. In my view poetic reasoning is closer to thelaws by which thought develops, and thus to life itself, than is the logic of traditional drama."

This is from Tarkovsky. Enjoy!

As a sort of hint to what I think it means, I will say this: Logic is not how you think. It is how you think about how you think. You have an experience, you think during that experience (because you are always thinking). Later, you sit down with reason and you try to figure out what the experience means. But the everyday stream of thought is not bound in by the orderliness of reason.

I understand, I think, what the quote is talking about. It’s why Curt Cobain blew his head off and why Axl Rose stopped making records. Axl said in an interview I read once that people just don't "get" his art. For the millions of people who bought his records it’s about rocking out. For him I guess, it’s about "his development being subject to laws of its own." Artists are interesting to me because they create something that they say comes from inside them and then complain that no one "gets it". How the fuck am I supposed to "get" something when you create rules that say art is not subject to any normal interpretations? I think art is all a game of who's scamming who. I go to the Getty with a bunch of fifth graders and all I hear all day is "this stuff is weird. I could make that. My little sister made something similar in second grade with crayons." Bottom line: If I stick a whip up my ass and email the photo of it to my friends- I'm some sort of freak, weirdo, etc. But if my last name is Mapplethorpe- I'm a brave, genius. If I take an old doll and pound nails into its head in my garage- I'll probably be recommended for therapy. If I do the same thing after WWI, I'm a dadaist who's expressing my outrage at the carnage, destruction, blah blah blah.

Why can't the writers of a TV show just say, "I wrote that script when I was high and frankly I'm not sure what it means. But the next day when I was straight, I read it again and thought- hey this shit is pretty cool. Hope you like it!" It seems like art and honesty are diametrically opposed when artists try to tell you that art and honesty are synonymous and possible that art is the ONLY thing left that is honest.

You have to remember that art has the same problems that the rest of the world has. Mapplethorpe may or may not be a douche, but even if he is, it doesn’t mean that you can piss in a cup and call it art. Just because there's alot of dumb shit at museums, that doesn't make everything at the museum a waste of time. There's art that you think is stupid that is worth your time to figure out, and there's art you think is stupid that isn't worth your time. And whether or not Axl is right about the spiritual profundity of Use Your Illusion One and Two, his point is perfectly valid. It's what burns out so many musicians, sends them to rehab and occasionally drives them to put shotguns in their mouths. You don't think these people want to fucking kill themselves when their record company sells their song for a fucking car commercial?

You can throw my name in camp with honesty and art. That's what it is fundamentally. But you can be an artist and not know that just as much as you can be a politician and not know that it’s your job to take care of the citizens you represent. The point here is that a great artist is rare, because it is easier to scam than to be honest. You say you agree with Bill Hicks on this issue? - well, he's an artist. If you’re pissed at painting or something, just think about stand-up as a microcosm. You've got Bill Hicks, Richard Prior, Lenny Bruce and I think David Cross and Margaret Cho are as good as we have these days, and to a lesser extent Carlin. Then there are a million Dane Cook's and Jerry Seinfeld's. That's how every art is, and the longer the history of the art the more the bad art outnumbers the good.

Anyway, stop listening to artists. They should be most articulate in their art. If they could tell you what it means they wouldn't have to paint or sing or write poetry or whatever. And really stop listening to whoever is telling you that all art is equal. There's good art and bad art. And there's argument about which is which. And there are idiots who will tell you it doesn't matter which is which. Man, just find something you like. If you don't like Mapplethorpe or Dada, fine; you'll live. There's much better stuff out there anyway. I'm not sure any of it is at the Getty, but it’s out there.

I don't have any feelings one way or the other about Mapplethorpe, or the Dadaists, or Picasso, etc. I was just making the point that to me, art is all a matter of perception and that sometimes that perception is skewed on purpose. I disagree with you. You could definitely piss in a cup and call it art. All you'd need to do is get some influential people to agree with you. For example, I read in the LA Times that ad companies actually pay attractive people i.e. hot chicks, to go to bars and order certain drinks or wear certain clothes etc. and then loudly talk about the booze or the clothes or whatever. And it works. Sales skyrocket. The more people hear that something is cool, the more it is. And artwork is no different.

I swear to Allah this is true: At the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC last year, I was standing in front of a framed canvas that in my estimation measured about 10 feet by 15 feet. And the canvas was simply painted white. That's it. Some people next to me were admiring it and saying how this piece of work really captured the essence of blah, blah, blah. See? Perception. Not good art, not bad art. Just human perception. To me the painting seemed like a joke, a put on, or like I was on Candid Camera. To other people, it was fucking brilliant.

For me, art is just something to look at. I keep looking at things that I find appealing and move on from things I don't. I just hate the pretense that goes on when people (like the writer of the quotes I sent you) try to use incomprehensible speech to sound like they're so gifted and that their work is so far above the common man. Whatever. Maybe Axl was upset that his "art" was being misused. Then don't sell it. Keep it to yourself and maintain your sense of integrity, Axl. But if you want to sell your "art" so you can keep up your smack habit don't get pissed off when the rest of us "don't get it".

I know what you are saying about perception. But let's save the "beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder" thing for another day.

Instead let me address public perception and it relation to quality of the art work. There is no relation. People are monkeys who will do what everyone else does. If you are a marketing person you figure out ways to appeal to the largest number of people in a given group. If you have 50 people and you convince, say, 15 of them that something is cool, all you have to do is watch as the 15 convert the other 35. And this has nothing to do with the actual quality of the thing in question which may or may not be cool! And if looking cool doesn't matter to you, then why not just pick up the thing and decide if its worth your while? Just look at U2. They are popular, then they are unpopular, they make good albums, they make bad albums, Bono tries to save the earth from AIDS, Bono makes fucking i-pod commercials, people think they're lame, people think they're the best band ever. Through it all, does the number of records sold have anything to do with how good the album is? Does the number of awards earned have anything to do with how much you like the album? No and no, because none of that shit is what the art is about.

And why would you care what someone tells you is art? Why would that play a factor in how you think about what a work means or what effect it has on you. I agree that all you need are influential people to say something is art to get people to believe that its art. But I also have to ask: why would you care what those influential people say. Who are they to you? Fuck them. They don't understand art, they only understand commerce. Those influential people you are talking about, the ones who get the public (by which I mean the college-educated public and only a tiny little minority even of them) to give a shit about art; they are the folks Bill Hicks advises to kill themselves and to stop putting a dollar sign on everything on this fucking planet. Absolute proof positive is that they can only market extremes. I notice you aren't complaining about Rembrandt self-portraits, the Sistine Chapel ceiling or even Picasso's cubist stuff. The examples you're giving me constitute a very small minority, but it’s the kind of thing people are familiar with because polarizing shit is the easiest stuff to market. Alot of people wouldn't even know they had any strong feelings about art until they overheard somebody talking about how he thought a canvas painted white was deep.

Art is like everything else in the world, in that people who are able and willing to tell the truth about it are rare. Most people who are critics, teachers, dealers and mediocre artists do what they do for the same reasons that anyone else does the job they do: they can stomach it, it makes them feel important, it makes them feel smart, it gives them a nice career, blah, blah, blah. 99 out of 100 people telling you some work of art is important give as much a fuck about you understanding that work as the guy who sold you your car cares about how that car works out for you. And all I'm saying is that the value of the art exists independently of what they tell you about it.

OK. If public perception does not relate to the quality of artwork- what does exactly? I can't fathom how anyone can be an art critic. What criteria can be used to judge a piece of artwork?

That's really the question? That’s pretty nebulous. Lets try this: for the sake of argument, don't think about the music or books that you like in terms of "I just like it for whatever reason." Instead, think about as: "I think it is good. I have placed a value on it. On U2 for instance. Why do I think U2 is good?" There are reasons beyond, "it sounds good to me." So let's start with your criteria. You have them, you just have to figure out what they are.

I'm not sure I can think of any reasons beyond "it sounds good to me". I used to like them in high school because no one else had ever heard of them so it was cool to actually listen to a group that wasn't Def Lepard. Then they got so popular and preachy and some of their music sucked so I don't know.

Anyway, I'm not talking about my criteria. I was just interested to know what a guy or gal writes about when they write an art critic book. Do they judge the works on their use of negative space? Or do they just make up a bunch of bullshit to make what they write sound intelligent? Like the guy I quoted you who writes for HBO.

Most of them do what you call “making up bullshit.” I would call it “repeating what they have been taught.” In university nowadays criticism is taught like an assembly line skill. You learn formulas and then you apply them with more or less proficiency to works of art you come across. Of course if you are a film reviewer, you don't even do that. You say whatever cartoon you watched that week was "sparkling" or a "tour de force" or "the most important movie of the year." Film is a good way into these questions, because the bullshit is so transparent. Film reviewers are obviously part of the promotion campaign for dumb shit and not at all critics of art.

Yes, they talk about negative space. A good critic should be able to explain why that's important, but since they are writing for each other they are usually content to demonstrate that they know jargon. Most of them do it for the reasons I mentioned in the previous e-mail. I do it, because I feel a sense of responsibility. Great art needs to be championed to those who don't care and explained to those who are interested. I see a movie and it confuses me. It makes me question things I took for granted. It says things i agree with and then it says they're all wrong. It keeps asking questions and it keeps giving me new things to think about, constantly re-orienting me to what is happening. I try to make sense of it. I go home and write about it. I go see the movie again. I try to make sense of it again. I read what other people say about it. All of them are wrong, but at least their wrong-ness helps me to eliminate certain trains of thought from my own study. I think about other art that seems to do similar things, say similar things, effect in similar ways. I compare them: maybe what I know about one can shed light on the other. I write an essay. I revise it. I watch the movie again and throw out half of what I said. I am trying to figure out what the artist is trying to communicate. I'm trying to communicate to my reader why the experience of watching the film and wrestling with it is valuable.

To return to my experiment with U2, if you can't think of a reason other than they sound good, perhaps you can define "sounding good"?

I like what you're saying about why you watch certain movies. I do the same thing sort of with books. I go to Barnes and Noble two or three times a month and find myself reading Ann Coulter or someone similar just so I can digest so to speak what they're saying. It turns out she's actually a complete lunatic. There's this new book out that's actually a rebuttal to a People's History of the United States. It’s written exactly the same way but its premise is that Zinn is full of shit.

I can't really define why U2 (or any other group/song) sounds good to me. I've noticed that I'm partial to the key of E but I don't know how that matters. My musician friend told me that we like certain kinds of music because its what we've been exposed to our entire lives so to truly expand your listening horizons you have to try to retrain your ear. Every song on the radio is three chords and away we go. I don't think I can explain why I like U2 anymore than I can explain why I like A1 steak sauce.

I read Klosterman's book called Fargo Rock City which is essentially a treatise designed to defend hair bands and heavy metal. The book is funny and in some places he gives info about some 80s bands that I didn't know so the book was enjoyable. But when I finished I thought, why? Either people like that kind of music or they don't. Why did Klosterman write a 250+ page book defending metal? Probably because that's what he does for a living, who knows. Regardless of what any critic or anybody else says, AC/DC kicks ass. I didn't need 250+ pages of Klosterman to convince me of that any more that I need 500+ pages of some art critic to convince me that the Mona Lisa is great. Regardless, I think the Mona Lisa is shit and possibly the most overrated piece of artwork of all time. But that's just my opinion.

So here's my question. How does an art critic get anybody to listen to them? Follow the assembly line method you described? What if they don't? Are they doomed to a life of obscurity?

Okay. Let me clarify. The movies that I watch repeatedly are the good ones. They are good because they shake up things I take for granted or they make me think about stuff I didn't thought I was done thinking about. That ain't the same thing as reading Anne Coulter. She's a bad movie. She's the movie I watch and I know it is dumb, and it has nothing to offer me, and I can dismiss it and move on to something else. Fuck her.

I'm not talking about being challenged by an ideology deliberate opposed to my own. I'm talking about style. You mention that part of what you like about U2 is that it was interesting to listen to something that didn't sound like Def Lepard. Well, I'm interested in movies that don't look like movies should look: Movies that hold shots longer than they need to require requisite information; Movies in which characters have conversations that don't move the plot along; Movies that point the camera at the back of somebody's head instead of their face; Movies that don't have any fucking musical score; Movies where you have to figure out what is going on with a character by studying their behavior instead of waiting for them to emote their pleasure or displeasure. These are all examples of possibility. They are not the requirements.

Your music friend is 155% correct about retraining your ear. That's how every art works. Maybe you already like Bach, maybe you already like van Gogh, maybe you already like Shakespeare. I promise you that whatever you like about them now is not what is really going on. You will not understand them, you will not have a sense of what they have to offer, until you retrain. Now, if you listen, study and read them all with regularity, and you do it attentively and dutifully then you are already in the re-training process. As far as I can tell, this process does not end, at least not with the greatest works. I can't ever comfortably listen to Bach. I cannot pass casually by a van Gogh, and I'll never understand every word of a Shakespeare play. Now I know there are people who believe that food is art. I myself have yet to develop my tongue to begin comparing truffles to Mozart, so for the time being, I would say that your relationship to the music of U2 is quite qualitatively different than your taste for A-1.

As to Klosterman's love of Metal: yeah, you are right. Klosterman is not an art critic. He's a quirky and clever cultural reporter - I hesitate to call him a critic. His flashes of genuine insight are few and far between. Mostly he's just trying to sound clever. And I doubt that he would disagree with my assessment. You don't say KISS is your favorite band if you have intellectual pretension of any kind, at least you shouldn't. As to the Mona Lisa, you have to retrain; you have to ignore the hype; you probably have to actually see it in the flesh and not pictures of it in books.

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