"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thoughts on Value in Art

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (Three Panel), 1951; painting; oil on canvas, 72 in. x 108 in. (182.88 cm x 274.32 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis; © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York

*Those with "postmodernistic" leanings, be forewarned; you will likely be unhappy with some of the ideas that follow! But I'm interested in discussion, so please comment, if you like.

I once saw a blank white canvas (not even painted with white paint) bolted to the wall at le Centre Pompidou in Paris. There was a placard next to the canvas with a title and name of the "artist" (though I’ve forgotten the names). I thought at the time, and still do think, that it was complete b.s. An idea does not automatically qualify as art.

Robert Rauschenberg famously made a series of monochromatic paintings (I don’t believe it was a Rauschenberg that was on display at Pompidou; for one, there was no paint on that canvas, and Rauschenberg used paint even on his white paintings). John Cage, speaking about Rauschenberg’s white canvases, called them “airports of the lights, shadows and particles.” (This is not at all surprising, coming from the famous “composer” of the silent “4’33”--which came, by the way, as Cage himself pointed out, after Rauschenberg's whites.) My response to that notion would be that the wall of the nearest building, the floor, and a leaf (as three instances out of innumerable ones) are equally “airports of the lights, shadows and particles.” I think Cage’s attempt at discerning value or craft in the blank canvas is ridiculous.

Some would argue (and many do) that this work has to be considered in the context of the “conversation” of which it was a part. Hm. I'm dubious about the status as art of any artwork that depends for its effect on its audience being part of a meta-level “conversation” about art or the work’s particular genre. Those works seem to me less artful than political, foregrounding the “meaning” or “statement” and minimizing the aesthetic effect of experiencing the work. I'm not opposed to education or understanding of the context in which art arises and works within and reacts against. But if scholarship or entree is the ONLY means by which to appreciate a work of art, its worth is severely limited. Education about the context can enrich the experience (think of the way this might happen for someone reading a 19th-century novel, for instance), but if that kind of knowledge offers the only richness to be had in experiencing the work, then I say the work doesn’t function as art at all, but rather as a political billboard or a social commentary or philosophical proposition. This is not to say that art should not be "political" or "philosophical" (on whatever level) or be engaged in a historically-located conversation. Rather, what I mean is that when the message (and even an apparent utter lack of a message constitutes a message because it tells us about the artist's ideas about art, if about nothing else)--when the message supercedes the experience of the medium in importance for the artist and, by extension, for the viewers, then I think it would be strange to call such a work "art." It's become more like an essay than a poem, more like a billboard than a canvas.

I also think it’s important to consider what we value, how much we value it, and why. If Rauschenberg’s monchromatic canvases are a reaction against other artists or philosophies of art, then ok, it’s a “statement.” But in my experience, no one really cares about “statements.” A “statement” (act of communication) might be considered art (I say “might” because I do not think that this should always be the case, as I’ll discuss in a moment). Even so, I’d relegate a work that is purely, or at least primarily, a “statement” about art rather than a rich aesthetic experience to the less valuable end of the artistic spectrum. (Sure, you can experience a statement, but it’s a weak experience compared to other artistic experiences.) In my view, art should have itself (rather than any “conversation”) as its primary and most essential source of power, of having an effect on the viewer. Museums and public places and literary journals and publishing houses ought to champion and preserve those works of art that are most worthy of our giving them value--i.e., those that offer the richest and most significant experiences to those who value them.

There is also these days the opposite problem, namely, "art" that attempts to divorce the aesthetic from any intentionality--indeed, from any work--by the so-called artist or writer. A good example of this is poetry that is entirely computer-generated. Reading a computer-generated poem may be some sort of aesthetic experience, sure, but it is not art because there is no craftsmanship. Art is a shaping, a primarily aesthetic intentionality in a tangible medium. Blank canvases and computer-generated poems are not art because they either lack the primacy of the aesthetic, no matter how much work went into them, or lack intentionality (i.e., work, shaping, craft) despite any aesthetic effect they may have. This has what seem to me clear implications for value.

Much of this already sounds like a manifesto. (Poetry magazine recently featured some interesting manifestos, by the way:
Here's an attempt at the beginning of one:

A MANIFESTO ON ART (Part 1, Assay 1)

1. Manifestos are inevitably imperfect and insufficient, but they can be a means of articulating ideas and fostering discussion.

2. Art is artifice. It is a made thing. (This idea is inherent in the etymology of English words: poem comes from the Greek verb that means “to make”; art originated in the Latin word for “craftsmanship”; artifice comes from the Latin word for “skill.”) Thus, art is inherently creative in the literal sense of that word.

3. Given (2), in order to be considered a work of art, some amount of actual work has to have been done, some action taken on the medium.

4. Given (3), something that expresses an idea (or makes a “statement”) does not necessarily qualify as art. A blank canvas or blank sheet of paper would not qualify. (Another of Rauschenberg’s works, “Erased de Kooning Drawing," for example, would barely qualify, in my view. The blankness, in this case, is the result of work, however, so I wouldn't say it's absolutely not art. [In fact, a lot of work went into it, by Rauschenberg's account, because de Kooning purposely gave him something that would be difficult to erase, a page that had charcoal and paint and crayon.] Works of that nature function primarily on the level of meta-art, and are thus more expository than what I would call creative. "Erased de Kooning" seems to be primarily a “statement” rather than a creation--or an attempt to create a cause rather than an effect [see my previous post]. No matter how much work went into it, I would argue that it is the idea of what he did that is significant rather than the product itself, thus this work does not function primarily as an aesthetic experience--just look at the thing and that should be obvious--but as a representation of an idea. This is at the lowest end of the spectrum of art, in my book, hardly deserving the label. An example of something that, in my view, is decidedly not art would be John Cage’s “4’33,” which I mentioned above, a “composition” consisting entirely of three movements of silence. Note that this might, indeed, qualify as a “statement,” but not as a work of art, not as a made thing--as it is neither made nor a thing.)

A MANIFESTO ON ART (Part 2, Assay 1)

1. Value, as regards a work of art (see Part 1), is a measure of the potential reward of engagement (by a person) inherent in that work. Note that the potential is inherent in the work of art, given its physical properties, but not the value itself. Value is primarily an action (on the part of the valuer) rather than a characteristic of the work itself--it is a function of a complex interaction between the human experiencer and the work being experienced.

2. Works of art reward individuals in different ways and at different levels, but the potential reward should be thought of as the sum total of the amounts of reward experienced by a representative audience. (An assumption underlying this claim is that both subjectivity and objectivity exist simultaneously--and, in fact, are interdependent. We have subjective responses to an objective reality [an object or thing that is actual--that exists independent of our perceiving it].)

3. Some works of art are more worthy of value (i.e., reward valuation more highly) than other works of art. (Upon reflection, you will likely see that this claim does not contradict [2] above.)

4. Something can be art without being good art; i.e., the term art is not a statement of value, but art is the subject of valuation. (The term art is a statement of process [see Part 1].)


  1. Very interesting, Luke.I like it. And I like hearing what you are thinking about. Miss seeing you.

  2. I would be hesitant to declare anything "not art", although I do understand, and partially sympathize with, the argument here. (I fully sympathize with the frustrations that underlie it.) The categorical question presents so many traps tho. It might be more productive to say, "This might be art, but if so then it is entirely uninteresting and un-engaging to me as art." Then you can explain why you think this or that work, text, or object fails. All these points still hold, I think — one just avoids the complications of the category argumetn.

  3. @Daniel: I see your point. I do, however, think that a category can serve a function that is useful for critical perspective. I happen to think that "art" is one such category, and that it's not a heinous crime to exclude certain things from that category. I understand, however, that many people these days would not be willing to make that kind of distinction.

  4. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on whether photography can be considered art. I've had an ongoing conversation with an art professor about this--he maintains that photography is NEVER art, because there is no creation involved. But to lump all photography together, in my opinion, is like saying that a newspaper article and a poem are the same thing. Certainly, a yearbook photographer is not an artist--but when a photographer takes into consideration texture, light, and perspective, is he not "creating" a way of looking at a familiar object in a way that is similar to, for example, Monet's Haystacks? Is it fair to say that because a photographer is merely representing a real object, there is no creativity or artistry involved?

  5. @Sharon: Yes, I very much believe that photography is an art form. Photographers take deliberate and often exacting steps, and their selection of subjects and techniques in capturing images, in addition to any techniques they might use for developing the film, all have tangible effects on the finished work. I highly recommend John Berger's essay on photography as an art form, "Appearances."

  6. Rather than calling Cage's and others' works statements, maybe they are more than that. Maybe they fall under the category of philosophy.

  7. @Laura (aka, Mother Dearest): That is possible, and, in fact, I think the term "statement" includes that possibility. I think perhaps I should have included "philosophy" along with what I'm calling "politics."

  8. Be careful about a few things:

    First, as I mentioned elsewhere, you are not limning truth but creating rules for your aesthetic community.

    Second, how big your club is does not art make either. This aesthetic utilitarianism could quickly take you in a direction you don't likely want to go in -- like calling Britney Spears art.

    Third, while white canvases may seem like pretentious pap, if they inspired a conversation about shadow, the fact that the canvas delimited a space that turned our conversation about light play on nearby walls -- that is meaningful to some communities, not to others.

    Finally, come communities will welcome mediated and dialogic artforms that include conversation, social change and other epiphenomena of the art. Other communities prefer unmediated art experiences that include attempts to discover the intent of the artist. That's okay.

    In short, different communities, different rules. Pluralism happens.

  9. @Max: I wonder if enough people agree about art in order to maintain any coherent kind of intersubjective aesthetic community! I ask this half in jest, but half in earnest as well. I rarely encounter people who agree with my views on art, and I rarely encounter others whose views I agree with...so where is my community?
    And by the way, I have no problem whatsoever calling Britney Spears' music art. Remember, my view is that "art" is not a statment of value (though art is the subject of valuation), but the term is a statement of PROCESS. Something can be art without being VALUABLE (or "good") art -- and as you probably guessed, Britney Spears' music is rather low on the spectrum of value for me!

  10. I got a lot out of this thread. Thank you very much. Years ago I moderated a panel discussion in New York titled "The Dichotomy Between Form and Content" with the panelists Roberta Smith, Ken Johnson, John Yao, Richard Tuttle and Thomas Nozkowski. We were ferreting out questions and answers about this very issue. The panel lasted two hours and I'm not sure we came to any conclusions. It's a fascinating issue.
    At the time, as young artist coming from a conservative training, I was frustrated with the necessity of critique and background info in order to get anything out of an artwork. I thought the form and content must fuse together in a powerful way, that this was the very GOAL of the artist. And (exactly as you say) any extra reading should not be necessary in order to get a lot out of experiencing the art.
    I realize today, reading this thread, that I am still very much engaged with this issue---that it is the actual subject matter of my recent work.
    You raise a few other important considerations having to do with materiality and craftsmanship. These are important, especially in a technological and disposable world…but now I am revealing my aesthetics, my politics, AND my philosophy..!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Catherine. Is any of your artwork accessible online? -L

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