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

u comment i follow 32 Comments

  1. Posted February 2, 2006 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    . . . I found to have greater than subjective artistic merit . . .

    Isn’t that an oxymoron? ;)

  2. Posted February 2, 2006 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Yes, but isn’t that just the phrase you’d expect from an engineer? :-) I find poetry in the contradiction. :-)

    Oh, and by the way… thanks for getting us in for free! Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time there and I would have paid my way in in a second.

  3. Ken
    Posted February 2, 2006 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!? My thoughts exactly. Maybe we should put together a “real” list. I can think of quite a few that probably weren’t listed either.

  4. Posted February 2, 2006 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    No problem, I just like to point out when people contradict themselves (and their arguments ;D).

  5. Posted February 2, 2006 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Hmm… I actually got thinking about this. Based totally upon subjective artistic merit anyone could at any time say anything was art… even though I would suggest that not everything can be art, regardless of the observer’s sentiments… unless we reduce art to something so obscurely and intangibly ethereal that Mozart becomes on par with squeeky brakes as long as some bum thinks it is so. Or unless we reduce art to an emotional response… but even then the Mona Lisa might cease to be a work of art unless someone was, at a given point in time, emoting appreciation for her.

    Art is such a crazy topic, anyway… there is a huge Wikipedia article on it and it’s even marked as having its neutrality in dispute. 8-O

    I can remember a Folsom Library “art” video of someone throwing up on a statue of the virgin Mary. That does not possess “greater than subjective artistic merit”…. that one I know for sure. :-)

  6. Posted February 2, 2006 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    Took an art class that basically concluded with saying that “art” is, indeed, subjective. When someone says it’s art, it’s art . . . and that’s the only way we can explain it. Art is something someone does to express something subjective (writing is art, under this definition, as well as music or painting or sculpture or film or photography). Even if their subjective statement is their belief in absurdity.

    Whether or not it’s good art is a little more objective, because you can quantify that a bit (i.e., how many people like it, is it aesthetically pleasing, etc.), but by its very nature, it’s pretty darn subjective.

  7. Posted February 2, 2006 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of: you would appreciate this book that we’re working through at IAM on Wednesday mornings:

    A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch, by Betty Spackman. It’s a bit on the pricey side but it’s a gorgeous, big book with glossy pages. And it’s a great book for Christians who “do art” and those who have been in the Christian subculture. I think you’d really get a lot out of it.

    She’s going to be at the IAM conference later this month, too.

  8. Posted February 3, 2006 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    >>> When someone says it’s art, it’s art

    Hence the tyranny. :-)

    >>> Whether or not it’s good art is a little more objective, because you can quantify that a bit (i.e., how many people like it, is it aesthetically pleasing, etc.), but by its very nature, it’s pretty darn subjective.

    Agreed. :-)

    Hey, that sounds like a cool book! I’ll check it out. Between Terra Nova and visiting the MoMA I think my creative juices are starting to flow again.

  9. John3Sobieski
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    I like a Canadian comedy show that actually has humor. In it a man, basically the Canadian version of a rednecked hillbilly, said quite correctly about art the tomatoe soup can in particular, “If I can do it, it’s not art.” Seeing as how I have no drawing or painting talents or inclinations, I have to hold this true. When you go into literature arts, I’m a bit better, but thats a different thing.

  10. aomo
    Posted March 4, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    basically, something that can be done by an untrained monkey(pollock) is not art for me. I think it’s shameful to call that art. There are a lot of different types of abstract art, so it is hard to group them in one category. For example, one artist(forgot his name) would paint bunch of blank white paintings and call it art. He was actually famous and was featured on pbs!

    For me, i still think an artist need to show he is technically competant.

  11. aomo
    Posted March 4, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    one for thing:

    I think a lot of abstract/modern artists take advantage of the subjectivity of art and use the excuse of “breaking from tradition” to hide the fact that just 100 years ago no one would regard them as artist and their painting as art.

    If you try to convince Michelangelo a pollock’s “abstract expressionism” piece is a painting, Michelangelo would probably laugh really hard.

  12. bowzer
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    aomo, i think youre missing the point of pollock’s art. up until the 1900′s, art was defined as imitating reality, because art was largely a profession, and what sold was portraits, landscapes, so on. a great deal of art is like this, that is, holding a mirror up to reality. with the expression of the self in art in the last century, abstract art has come to rise because it represents the feelings of the artist. but you are right that many artists take advantage of this for the monetary aspect.

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