Saturday, March 8, 2014

Aesthetic Relativism

Because I often find myself at odds with others on questions of artistic merit, I have thought about what constitutes good art for many years. Having been brought up in an anti-American household, and living in one now, it may be difficult for some people to accept my positions, because it is almost a given to me that American art is suspect, if such a wide generalization can be made.

My first exposure to aesthetic relativism occurred in 1995 when I took a course on Impressionism in Paris. In preparation for the course, I read several conventional American art history books covering the topic that were recommended by the professor on the basis of their availability in the U.S. He was Jean Lancri, a professor at the University of Paris and an artist himself, whose paintings reminded me of Klee. What surprised me was how his explanation of the Impressionists in the context of art history bore little relationship to any of the texts I had read in preparation. He was an acquaintance of Jacques Derrida and had even sold some of his paintings to him. He liked to show techniques that the Impressionists borrowed from earlier artists, and he used Pieter Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding as an example of eye movement techniques. Although the Impressionists were innovators, much of their conventional training in art school shows up in their paintings.

Lancri was probably a good example of Gallic arrogance. He was pleasant to speak to and always polite, but he must privately have thought that most Americans are complete ignoramuses on art. He said the main reason he taught the class was to practice his English. He probably recognized that art history is taught differently in the U.S., but thought that the people teaching it didn't understand anything about art, so he would simply ignore them and start from scratch in order to provide us with an accurate understanding.

In the realm of paintings, I don't think Americans have made much of a contribution. It seems to have been mostly downhill since Duchamp's Fountain in 1917. Warhol, Lichtenstein and their successors are embarrassments, in my opinion, and it is no surprise that the philosopher Arthur Danto thought art permanently ended then. With a few exceptions I skip modern art entirely.

Since I'm on the subject of visual arts, let me say that there is an inherent ambiguity about it. The most ancient cave paintings are in some respects just as good as any subsequent art and may have had religious significance. Many early art objects had functional value, and the decorative arts overlap with what we consider to be formal art, such as a framed painting on a wall. High art emerged as a patron-dependent product during periods of wealth and allowed patrons such as the House of Medici to broadcast their status. Not much has changed since. During every historical period, fine art is inextricably linked to status. To a great extent, the quality of art is determined by the discernment of the then-current patrons. Discernment has never been a notable characteristic of America's rich, and I think this goes a long way toward explaining why American art is less satisfactory to me than European and Asian art.

I think a similar pattern occurred in American fiction. It started as an imitation of European writing and eventually veered into postmodernism and now post-postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it, beginning in the 1960's. The results, I think, have been unsatisfactory in parallel to modern art in general. However, American fiction covers a broad range, and I should mention that blunt, unadorned writing is also an American genre. On this point I found Julio Ramon Ribeyro interesting. I hope Fario continues to translate Ribeyro. And American fiction falls into other categories that I won't go into now.

After expending much time and effort to appreciate contemporary American literature, I have officially given up. I'm not terribly keen on any fiction at the moment, so this isn't a simple case of anti-Americanism. I have been particularly irked by the quality of writing of some American writers who are considered talented. I think what bothers me the most is that writers who are perceived as observant and wry in literary circles actually tend to be unobservant and flat. The kinds of situations that arise in their fiction tend to involve characters who have stunted personality development, such that they don't understand anything about themselves or others. You might call them dysfunctional adults. Then if they happen to notice some small thing, it becomes an insightful revelation. The revelation is never mentioned explicitly in the text but its subtle suggestion is presumed to demonstrate the writing powers of the author. When I visualize these situations in terms of my understanding of people, I only see characters who are not self-aware and communicate poorly. Writers who repeatedly remind you that people are not self-aware and communicate poorly have either struck upon a formula that fulfills their writing objective, or, if not that, one must conclude that they are in fact unaware of their mind-numbing repetition. I suspect that the former is the case, and they have developed a skill at using vagueness to insinuate a wisdom that isn't there at all. Such writing does not stand up to close readings, and the best of it belongs in poetry, not fiction.

Notwithstanding the above, I must admit that there are pockets within the sea of American literature that aren't bad at all. I am thinking of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, which is the only American novel that I'm likely to reread.

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