Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An (untitled) divide

So far in my cursory study, I've probably given disproportionate weight to the social production of artistic ideals while ignoring the legitimacy of a well-formed sense of aesthetics. However, the key word here is ideals, and by this I mean the differing criteria by which opposing schools of thought divide on the nature and accomplishment of art, both historically and in the current era.

What I’m struggling to express revolves around the implications of Dada's “anti-art” and the supposedly universal judgement of aesthetic value explored by Immanuel Kant and exemplified by traditional canons of art and literature. In my last post on this subject, I counterposed Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy with Marx’ and Engels’ The German Ideology in a brief attempt to examine class privilege as it relates to the evolution of Western aesthetic and intellectual ideals. However, I think I need to balance this approach by engaging Kant a little further. Still, the different ways of thinking about art intrigue me.

I don’t have a problem with canons per se or the work they celebrate, but I do have a fascination (and a problem) with the ways in which traditional aesthetics are sometimes invoked to challenge the legitimacy of innovative practices derived from a non-aesthetic point of view. What fascinates me is the divide between opposing definitions of “art” and the limitations that emerge when we discuss (and “perceive”) the quality of work that develops from different sets of creative criteria. And by “creative criteria” I mean the structural difference between the logics of conceptual and aesthetic forms of visual art and poetry.

Returning to Kant’s analysis, the term “aesthetic” refers specifically to a non-conceptual, subjective perception of “the beautiful” and “the sublime” that is asserted not as a particular preference but as a universal quality to which everyone ought to agree – even if they don’t. Frequently they do, so from this perspective if art is considered only as an aesthetic endeavor (a common assumption) then work which ignores, violates, or challenges aesthetic criteria cannot be regarded as meeting formal standards of artistic (i.e. aesthetic) merit. Hence, the application of  terms like “anti-art” or “anti-aesthetics” to artworks which challenge or ignore traditional standards.

But what interests me specifically (as a poet) is the way in which influential institutions of visual art have embraced a broader definition of art that celebrates wildly innovative practices of conceptual complexity, while influential institutions of poetry seem to prefer an aesthetics reliant on clearly-stated verbal imagery that evokes an apolitical, emotional response from its reader. For instance, if you note the staggering difference between what is displayed in a typical museum of contemporary art and what is generally published in an issue of Poetry (or any other prestigious journal) then you might agree: institutions of contemporary art resist what is "merely" aesthetic, while institutions of contemporary poetry resist a poetics that foregrounds conceptual structure while ignoring aesthetic demands.

For me, this difference between visual art and poetry is puzzling.

I like a "disinterested" criteria in which restrictions are viewed with suspicion, and innovation is judged by standards that extend beyond aesthetic expectations. Of course, if I were a talented painter of beautiful landscapes, I might deplore the current turn of events in the world of visual art. Which leads me, finally, to a wonderful movie I saw the other night, referred to in the image at the top of this post.

(Untitled) tells a story about a struggling composer of atonal music, his brother (a commercially successful painter who can't land a gallery to exhibit his work), and the owner of a gallery that sells the brother's paintings from "the back room" while exhibiting cutting-edge, conceptual art in her featured exhibits. Circulating amidst this milieu are corporate buyers, private investors, gallery owners, and a variety of artists who exhibit a wide range of pretensions, dysfunctions, hopes, dreams, frustrations, and cravings for recognition that add a genuine sense of life and humor to a movie I enjoyed from beginning to end.

I found this at my local video store and was pleasantly surprised at the very effective way it hits on the nature of my "aesthetic/conceptual divide" in a truly wonderful and human way. It even weaves intelligent and nuanced examples of disinterested judgement throughout its dialogue, juxtaposing these against the different types of human self-interest that make the social dynamics of the contemporary art world so … well …. interesting. And, not least amongst all this, the filmmaker does a fabulous job of subtly inferring the largely unconscious (and thoroughly unrealized) inspiration that drives the musician/composer at the center of this story.

I highly recommend this movie, especially if you are that rare (and probably fictional) person who actually read all the way to the end of this blog post. As for the remainder of my aesthetic exploration – and a critical consideration of Dada – I'll get to that later.

For another perspective on issues of the contemporary arts, check out this short opinion piece from the Huffington Post: What Is Wrong With the Arts?

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