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Tag Archives: aesthetics

Cultural Diet Advice

It would appear to be a reasonable proposition that an art critic aught to be able to tell good art from bad and therefore would be able to advice on an appropriate cultural diet. What to see and what to avoid. Such advice is often obvious when someone is deprived of culture or has a very poor cultural diet, in the same way that it is obvious that a starving person needs food. As in recent reports of Canadian doctors prescribing a visit to an art gallery.

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Less obvious, perhaps better aesthetic taste provides a benefit, such as the benefits of a better cultural diet. As yet there is no evidence for this and as so many people have been so very wrong in describing some art as ‘junk food,’ ‘rotten’ or ‘poisonous’ I am loathe to follow their example. If there was equally clear evidence for poor aesthetic taste having detrimental effects it would as likely be around by now, given millennia of bad taste. The idea that someone knows the right kind of culture to consume is to avoided like a fad diet.

Much of our critical vocabulary is based on food: sweet, sour, light, vapid, rotten… all summed up in one word, ‘taste’. With this jumbo serving of misplaced synesthesia is hard not to imagine that we are in some ways ingesting culture. However food and diet are a poor analogy for cultural consumption and demonstrate why such a common analogies works so badly. We hardly know what the nutritional value of aspects of culture. To call something ‘cultural junk food’ maybe as misinformed as medieval dietary advice on balancing the four humors.

If culture is at all like food, or exercise, then the best advice is to consume a variety in moderation. Advice that I try to follow in this blog with posts on a variety of types of art and associated cultural matters but that I follow more in my everyday life as I don’t generally write about the music, dance and other aspects of my cultural diet in this blog (maybe I should).

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Understanding Graffiti

Some graffiti writers have some strange ideas about who can understand, speak/write, or even properly appreciate the work. The claim that it is anathema for the uninitiated to ‘understand’; that is not only are their explanations wrong but damaging. Street art tours conducted by graffiti or street artists; would you expect all art gallery tours to be conducted by contemporary artists?

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R.A.D Grant points out “to claim that a belief can be ‘understood’ only by its believers is to use the term ‘understanding’ somewhat oddly, since understanding is normally thought to follow upon explanation rather than to be precluded or destroyed by it.” (A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992 p.103).

However, the English word ‘understand’ means both to comprehend and to be sympathetic. Can only the empathetic comprehend? For it is empathy and not sympathy that is expected. It is about the magic of initiation and spirit. Part of this is a need to maintain control of what is considered ‘understanding’ in order to maintain their power.

‘Understanding’ is connected to notions the person being ‘true to the spirit’ as Philip Brophy explains in “What is this thing called ‘Disco’” (Art & Text 3, Spring 1981, p.64)

“To perform jazz, blues, rockabilly, soul, power pop, Middle-of-the-Road , etc., is to evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act of performing the particular music style. There, a notion of ‘truthful’ performers and ‘false’ performers exists, establishing a productive difference between ‘artists’ and ‘charlatans’ – and, it is interesting to note that in the realm of popular culture, the institutions that we call the recording industry can profit from both the ‘artist’ and the ‘charlatan’.”

Likewise the graffiti writer is expected to ‘evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act’ of doing graffiti.

Here is some old graffiti from Brunswick to look at.

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Taste & Identity

Contrary to popular opinion taste is not subjective. Taste is both natural and reactive. Taste is a way that we express our identity.

It is easy to understand natural taste preferences. Liking chocolate is not a subjective, it is a natural human reaction to chocolate. If taste were subjective it would not be surprising to find an equal number of people who disliked the taste of chocolate. People who profess a dislike for chocolate are reacting to something about chocolate, perhaps they are allergic to chocolate.

Taste is also reactive. It is a reaction to a stimuli, it is a reaction to memories, it is a reaction to the tastes of others. Feedback loops can develop in tastes. Taste can also become a reaction that something is not as good as we remember. We react to our earlier tastes, we might grow tired of aspects of them. Reactive taste choices occur in response to a wide range of factors and account for much of the diversity of taste. It is an interpretation of the reaction, favourable or unfavourable or to other associated aspects.

Morrissey Edmiston suit 1993

Morrissey Edmiston suit 1993

Perhaps these example of about chocolate are not taste but an aesthetic judgements of chocolate. Perhaps taste is more about fashion and identity.

Wittgenstein wrote: “Take the case of fashions. How does fashion come about? Say, we wear lapels border than last year. Does that mean that the tailor likes them better broader? No, not necessarily. He cuts it like this and this year he makes it broader. Perhaps, this year he finds it too narrow and makes it wider. Perhaps, no expression is used at all.” Lectures on Aesthetics II.8, Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief (Basil Blackwell, 1966,Oxford)

Wittgenstein’s  imaginary tailor might be more comfortable with hip-hop expressions like hardcore, old school (traditional) or wild style (eccentric) as these stylistic descriptions do not imply that one likes one trend or taste is better than another. Terms like ‘hardcore,’ ‘old school,’ ‘freestyle’ are useful in understanding that a culture is not a unified and timeless thing, but rather a cluster of emerging and past styles.

For taste is not just matters of aesthetics but about affinity or alienation, for example identifying with people wearing wide or narrow lapels. Taste is about identification, especially in taste in fashion.

Taste is a discourse that an individual is having with the culture that they are part of and with cultures that they are not a member. Janine Burke’s book, The Sphinx on the Table (Walker & Company, 2006, New York) is an examination Sigmund Freud’s art collection as a psychological and biographical analysis of his character. Burke uses Freud’s taste as a demonstration of both his personality as well as the way that he chooses to express it in society at the time.

Taste is the way that individuals define themselves within a culture. If taste were simply subjective then you would not be able to judge a person by their taste in music (see the Date Report “What Your Taste in Music Says About You On a Date”) any more than it you could judge them by a preference for fruit.


Logic and Art

Given: the waterfall and the illuminating gas

We assume that there is a logic to beauty and art. If x is art and y is equal to x then y must also be art. If you think that x#1 is beautiful then it would be reasonable to assume that you would agree that x#2 is beautiful. If not; then why not?

Artist painting at Flinders Street

Artists propose these questions all the time. If one Elvis is desirable then why not have more than one concluded Andy Warhol. If puppy dogs and flowers are beautiful therefore a giant puppy made of flowers must be beautiful concluded Jeff Koons.

The word art is used as both a category and a quality and this duality confuses many discourses about the nature of art.

If art is a quality with a certain cut off point, a bench mark of quality, then there is no such thing as bad or poor art. Are we talking about what qualifies to be entered into the category or about the quality? The idea that art is a category or a quality has led some people think that there is a rule book for art (sent down by God at the same time as the 10 Commandments) and become disillusioned when they discover that artists aren’t playing by this imaginary rule book. That the image wasn’t drawn freehand, that other people worked on it, that it was done to make money…

The distinction between the category and the quality of art is often raised in discussions about the defence of work accused of obscenity or pornography people will bemoan that they wish that it was a great work of art, as if, only great works of art are worth defending.

If art is a category then there should therefore be parameters that define the category. However, any attempts to find such parameters will be proved incorrect with counter-examples and excluding all counter-examples to the category of things that are called ‘art’ but aren’t becomes a curmudgeonly position because art is part of a continuing culture and not part of a narrowing category.

The idea of a category of art has emerged after many of its contents were created; as ‘art’, whatever it is, is an idea that has been made up by people as they went along and there are several different versions of ‘art’ in the last five hundred years.

However, art is not a category that can be empirically defined, such as a particular wave length of light. It is not a football code, there is no rule book that defines art. The more stringent the code that is thought to define it, ersatz art and the ossification of the art. The more that the logic of a rule book is applied to art the more that it becomes a tired, stale version of its former incarnations.

Art is sequential and each work is part of a very long series, a series that we keep on adding prequels as well as sequels too. The items in the series have a family resemblance because they are members of the series rather than that they can be a defined category because of particular qualities. Examining the items out of sequence makes no sense and nor is it possible to predict through logic too far ahead in the sequence.

Since Duchamp other artists have humourlessly followed the same logic that he successfully employed but as they have a different position in the sequence their desire is different; not to collapse the boarders of art but to extend them.


Meta-Aesthetics

What do we mean when we say something is beautiful? Beauty, or other similar words, describe the attraction of something. However, while there is often similarity in the appreciation of beauty some people find somethings beautiful that other people do not. Any good theory of what beauty is will have to account for both the attraction and differences in taste.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ sums up old fashioned subjectivism about aesthetics. Old fashioned subjectivism is the simplest explanation for both attraction and differences in taste. However, old-fashioned subjectivism does not allow for much discussion about differences in taste, they are simply different and discussions end there.

Furthermore we expect some consistency in taste: if you like this piece of pineapple does it imply that you like most pineapples? If taste were simply a matter of subjective it would not be surprising if someone like Abba, Motley Crew and The Beatles; I once meet a man who told me that these were his favourite bands but he was a sailor working along coast of Borneo. We also observe consistency in the tastes of others, for if taste was subjective it would make it impossible for artists, designers, chefs, cosmetologists and other professionals to work.

Old-fashioned subjectivism doesn’t really explain taste any better than it explains moral perception. Better subjectivist positions on beauty require defining competent observers.

The first alternative to consider is some kind of objectivism. After all it seems natural to assume that others will agree with what think is beautiful and it is much easier to expect consistency from objectivism. It certainly appears that there are objective qualities to beauty that could be explained by biological/genetic driven tastes.

Given that the idea of beauty may also be a product of the environment and experiences with differences in age, background and other factors explaining differences in taste. This could explain some variations in the apparent objective qualities of beauty and this is occasionally tried in the area of evolutionary aesthetics. However, what if we aren’t attracted by what is objectively determined to be beautiful, what if we finds it repulsive, at this point objectivism completely fails.

Any attempt to find a biological basis for beauty ignores that ‘beauty’ is a word from a particular culture. It is like expecting to find a genetic difference between dogs and wolves because there are different words for them.

Beauty is also a recommendation that is often presented as prescriptive; my friend Geoff is always telling me that I must watch this TV series. Also in a prescriptive is the 1001 books etc. that you must read before you die meme. Cannons are prescription, the required reading for future critical discussion. What is it to recommend art? My friend, Geoff was trying to encourage another friend, David to watch the HBO series, Deadwood. “You must see it.” David didn’t think that it was necessary and a moral or existential imperative to movie watching is very difficult point to argue. So Geoff changed his argument to “It is very worth while because of the plot, attention to historical details, etc.” David replied that there were better things to do besides watch a TV series, like looking after his young children. Do we really mean by ‘beautiful’ simply a recommendation of its aesthetic quality? Was this what Geoff was really trying to say about Deadwood?

Does the beautiful require that we are cheer squad for it? To some extent this is true; encouraging others to experience something beautiful is a natural response to eating beautiful food or hearing beautiful music. However, the idea that beauty is only a combination of endorsements, recommendations and prescriptions creates a kind of conspiracy of definition. The emperor’s new clothes, and, although this may sometimes be the case, it lacks the objective quality that we associate with beauty.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.


Ringholt’s Kraft

Someone has parked a red Datsun Charade with personalised number plates, CUR8OR, in the plaza in front of MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art) on Monash’s Caulfield campus. Even worse they have left the passenger window down and on the back seat there are some old clothing and rubbish.

Stuart Ringholt, CUR8OR

Is Stuart Ringholt embarrassed by this?

Kraft at MUMA is a mid-career exhibition of the art of Stuart Ringholt and Ringholt art is about embarrassment and conforming to social conventions. It feature two new commissions: Club Purple and the giant clock (oh er! that sounds a bit rude), Untitled, telling the wrong time.

Ringholt’s art posses particular problems for curators because his art is often ephemeral. Often his art is a personal experience for both Ringholt and responder/viewer, it questions the distance between the artists and the responder/viewer. Fortunately for the curators, Ringholt does produce some tangible art and some video work. They do have to double up with one Ringholt’s work currently on exhibition in Melbourne Now but have a longer version of his collage, Nudes, 2013. In this uptight contemporary world Ringholt is one of the few Melbourne artists who is focused on that perennial theme of the nude, as well as, in Ringholt’s case naturism.

Art curators are on Ringholt’s mind too as the car’s number plates and the five amazing episodes of the video Starring William Shatner as the Curator, 2010. Is Ringholt trying to embarrass the curators, as well as, himself? Shatner and the cut-up Star Trek episodes make wonderful jokes about curators.

But seriously, aesthetics is a far wider topic than just the beautiful. Aesthetics can be a way of experiencing things. In the late 20th century consideration began to be given to a range of aesthetic experiences; kitsch was examined by Clement Greenberg, camp by Susan Sontage and other writers and artists have explored aesthetic experiences ranging from sentimentality to cornball, from horror to funk. Ringholt’s art poses the question is there an aesthetic of embarrassment? If there is then part of it would cross over into the aesthetics of the comic and the cute and, it would be equally possible to cross over into the multiple aesthetics of contemporary art.

Which bring me back to an important point about Ringholt’s art it is often very funny. Even if embarrassment humour is not my taste I did get a laugh (LOL) from Ringholt’s Conceptual Art Improving My Embarrassing Life, 2003, a series of collage books and magazines to leaf through. The cover was often so completely different to the contents.

Stuart Ringholt, low sculptures

The room of low sculptures with the modified chairs, drink/spray cans and joke fake sausages are some of the funniest sculptures that I’ve seen in awhile. Things in Ringholt’s world are thoughtful combined to be as awkward as possible and inelegant solutions are carefully engineered.

I didn’t use Club Purple, Ringholt’s nude disco even though I was there on a Thursday that was set aside for solo dancing. Was I too embarrassed or simply too time poor? The form for bookings at Club Purple was intimidating enough.


Art Animal?

Is art unique to humans? Art-like activities practiced by animals other than humans include: birds and humpback whales sing, bowerbirds build displays, and chimpanzees and elephants paint. The last two chimpanzees and elephants painting, only occurs with the intervention of humans and the other activities are generally instinctual and unchanging affairs. The only changes that could occur in the instinctual art-like behaviour of animals are due to either an accidental discovery or availability of a material for production – Bowerbird’s bowers became more elaborate after blue plastic milk bottle caps were introduced.

I have been reading Stephen Davies The Artful Species (Oxford, 2012); in it Davies examines if aesthetics is an evolutionary or a cultural development. It is a very detailed examination of what might be the evolution of aesthetics, examining the evidence from biology, paelontonlogy and the various arguments around the issue. I’m not convinced, I think that aesthetics might be more of an issue of semiotics rather than evolution but I don’t want to make this a philosophy essay nor a book review (as I’m still reading Davies) and I’m not paid enough to do professional philosophy, like Davies, so I’ll just kick a few more ideas about art and animals around in this blog post.

The art-like activities of chimpanzees are introduced into the media cycle of sensationalism for reasons more of publicity and money rather than science. Theories are not proven, improved or even disproved by getting chimpanzees to paint or take photographs. There is always some zoo somewhere in the world raising money with animal painting – it is not bad zoo practice but it is not art.

(See “Chimpanzee’s Polaroids Expected to Fetch Big Money at Auction” by Allison Meier in Hyperallergic 16/5/2013 for the latest example.)

Chimpanzees appear to have aesthetic purpose in their creations, in that they show an interest in balance, composition and completion. Male chimpanzees have been recorded becoming sexual excited when painting and destroying the work on completion. Desmond Morris, who studied chimpanzee painting for many years, expresses his opinion of chimpanzee aesthetic taste succinctly: “They show compositional control, but a minimum of it; they show calligraphic development, but a minimum of it, they show aesthetic variation, but again at a minimal level.” There is the suggestion that chimpanzees are more intent in disrupting the blank space that they are presented with rather than the results, as chimpanzees are no more or less interested in their own work than paintings by anyone else.

I remember an Ivor Cutler story about listening to a thrush singing. The thrush stops to ask Ivor what he thought of the song. “Pretty good thrush music” Ivor replies, but the thrush wanted to know about the song’s chart potential. (Ivor Cutler, A Bird?)

If there were an artist that was of another species would we be able to understand or appreciate their work? Could you make a work of art that would be appreciated as aesthetically by another animal (as opposed to just appreciated for its comfort, curiosity, etc.)?


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