30 June 2004

Criticism criticism

Why are people defensive with regard to Art criticism? Analyses of books, movies, or songs are often scoffed at as pretentious, and the author of the analysis is dismissed as some opinion thug. Just mention that critics loved or hated a movie and you'll get the standard reply: "what do they know?" Music is particularly off-limits; listeners know-what-they-like and plant the flag of relativism in defense of it.

Is there any justification for Art criticism ('art' with a capital 'a' covering all of the arts)? Do any universal laws of aesthetics exist?

Back in college, during a period when I was reading many books on modern critical theories, I read Art and Nonart (1983) by Marcia Muelder Eaton. I finally found a copy a couple of years ago at the wonderful Alibris (that site and BookFinder are invaluable for digging up hard-to-find books). In it, the author rigorously digests the questions of whether bad art exists, can it be labeled, and is something ever not art. Eaton examines both the extremes of modern art to discern the limits of art, and the similarities between great art and illustrations. She discusses at length all of the uncomfortable questions of modern art. If a urinal can be considered art, is anything excluded? She also has detailed discussions of Walter Keane's big-eyed children (both creepy and very 70's kitsch, but actually painted by his wife Margaret) and compares paintings by Vermeer and Michelangelo to similar ones by Norman Rockwell. Why is one great and the other somewhat quaint?

Eaton's final answer may seem uninteresting or obvious, but it's vitally important: something is art if we are moved to discuss its aesthetic properties. Great works have a wealth of content that can be discussed at length: how the architect leveraged space to evoke a specific response, how the painter repeated shapes to guide the viewer's focus, how the poet presented a rhythm and broke it at a key line. Contrast the detailed investigations that are made for a Michelangelo painting and the lack of investigation for Rockwell's. Of Rockwell, Eaton points out that [i]t is difficult to ask or say interesting things when everything is apparent; the pleasures accompanying decoding are missing. His paintings are technically adept yet aesthetically obvious.

The value of Michelangelo over Keane may seem obvious and silly until we move into the realm of pop music. The difficult task about analyzing anything current is that of avoiding ephemeral subjectivity, most readily understood as kitsch. Wikipedia points out that kitsch is a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art [and] relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art. Pop music, as a rule, generally doesn't try very hard. Part of the enjoyment of pop music is its subjectivity, which it's absolutely drenched in. But who could stand to listen to most of the hits from 1980? And although we may recognize some of the hits from 1960, how much aesthetic value is there beyond recognition?

Or is recognition enough? Is Eaton's pleasure in decoding a work missing something? Once the novelty wears off from inactive listening, maybe we shouldn't care that the artwork offers nothing more and becomes disposable and valueless except for its role in trivia and nostalgia. One of my big concerns is whether I should be making art when so much bad art is already out there. We can mass-produce so much so quickly (thanks for nothing, Gutenberg), that throwaway is the norm. Although throwaway existed and was enjoyed in previous centuries, what is its role today? Some will argue that the modern classics are being written by pop song-writers. When confronted with the fact that the #1 song from last year doesn't seem to measure up to the beauty of Bach's Goldberg Variations or to the analytic fullness they offer, others will avoid the value question and reply that "it's only pop music." Now really, who'll be listening to 50 Cent's "In Da Club" 300-years from now? Is it arrogant to make that comparison?

Maybe it just comes down to anti-intellectualism. Michael Jackson at one point was concerned about being able to read and write music, and Quincy Jones told him it was unnecessary [sorry, no source]. Although Jackson doesn't need to learn that skill, how could it possibly hurt? Elvis Costello learned to read and write music only 10 years ago when he was working with the Brodsky Quartet.

Although those are purely technical situations, they perhaps explain the defensiveness directed towards Art criticism. When rules are applied to Art people get touchy, but they ignore the fact that some aspects of Art can be defined and explained by rules. Just because it's Art doesn't mean it's a free-for-all.

[ posted by sstrader on 30 June 2004 at 1:40:50 PM in Music ]