Art, Talent, and the Tyranny of the Subjective

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder… but who exactly is this mythical “they” entity anyway? Things like art and music – so easily perverted into the ethereal chaos of the subjective – can really cause engineers like me to seg fault (that’s basically a metaphorical parallel to an intellectual seizure). But then you’ll tell me that doesn’t make sense because I am an artist and musician. Yes, but the harmony that exists in my muddled cranium between the tonal symphonies and the string theories is sent tail-spinning into chaotic dissonance by the over-subjectification the masses apply to more modern art and pop-cultural music.

Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.   -Oscar Wilde

MoMA One number 31I was in NYC recently and visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). They had some featured paintings by Jackson Pollock. Now it was cool to actually see this man’s work, and I’m not saying his stuff doesn’t have artistic merit… (I know I’m going to get flamed for this)… but I don’t really get it. Abstract impressionism is not art to me… especially when it’s just paint thrown, dripped, tossed, flung, dropped onto the canvas. And then I read about people who have dished out big bucks for paintings done by a chimp named Congo? (story link) They call his paintings abstract, too. Isn’t that funny? Just two abstract guys monkeying around drooping paint on the canvas. Maybe the monkey threw paint in lieu of poo?

The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in modern art is merely romantic fiction. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.   -Thomas Wolfe

However, the most illustrative material at the MoMA were the paintings that were just one solid color! I wish I were kidding. There were at least four of these… and yes, one of them was completely white and another was completely black. Now, all in all I loved visiting the MoMA… so let me toss in here some pics of works that I really liked… work I found to have greater than subjective artistic merit. I’ll even include some demi-chaotic selections so you can see my differentiation between reasonable abstract impressionistic quality and canvas boogers.

I See Again In Memory Four Panels Fountain House Project Battle of Fishes Roger and Angelica

Now addressing subjectivity from a musical angle… just last night I was engaged in some musician chat where I had instance to heartily decry Rolling Stone magazine for its travesty of a Top 100 Guitarists of All Time list. What a disgrace this list was. Seriously. They put Kurt Cobain (whose music is thusly rank by any name) at number twelve?! He should have never come near this list. And poor Eddie Van Halen was only listed at 70? And oh so excrutiating… the monsters of guitar themselves… Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci (who together just released a way-cool DVD of their 2005 G3 Tour) did not even make the list?! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!?

Musically, the above example is but a small morsel of the backward valuations some mindless conformists in popular culture have assigned to music. Now… you might say that Rolling Stone does not represent all of modern pop culture. I agree, but upon casual inspection pop culture is replete with examples. You may also say that some of these examples are from competitive market forces. I might agree, but the radio is a free market, and how many times have you turned on the radio to find nothing but garbage? How many top-selling albums feature not even one truly talented artist? How many of us know an instrumentalist or vocalist who is mind-alteringly skilled at their craft yet living on a paltry wage… while talentless figureheads rake in mad duckets (read big money) by mere and ridiculous chance? It’s enough to drive a Republican to listen to NPR.

Of course the music is a great difficulty. You see, if one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music people don’t talk.   -Oscar Wilde

You don’t have to walk the streets of NYC long to find local musicians and artists who are not featured in any galleries or music halls… but who are creating incredible music or paintings right in front of you on the sidewalks. I remember seeing a group of three dudes who looked like clean bums, with tattered military vet looking attire and scruffy features… and they were armed only with a couple jar lids, four or five cans of spray paint, a few small pieces of cardboard, and several blank pieces of paper that looked 17×14. Large crowds would gather and watch as one of these “bums” turned a piece of white paper into an exquisite and detailed landscape work featuring glowing moons or sunsets. The colors were vibrant and the overall work would have looked more-than-appropriate in a black contemporary-framed glass case sitting in an upscale wine bar.

So what does all of this mean? I dunno… it’s subjective, you see. :-) But let me leave you with this…

Beauty is a harmonious relation between something in our nature and the quality of the object which delights us.   -Blaise Pascal

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