Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Judging Art: Almost Objectively

"If I state what I think, and I always do so with certainty, one of two results will follow. 1) I'll be right, and this will clarify things for others. or 2) I'll be wrong and someone will correct me - at which point I can revise my opinion and no longer be mistaken."

This article is inspired by a number of deep debates and especially one intense conversation with my good friend Charles Philip Brooks. As a true friend must, he called me on my very strong assertion that we could compare Soutine and Rembrandt - not just "The Slaughtered Ox", but Rembrandt's late work in general. Given that I've tackled almost every style at one time or another, I felt confident in my comparison. But he very kindly explained in his charming southern manner that such claims could very easily be interpreted by people who don't know me as arrogant, naive, or dogmatic (Not his exact words). He suggested, and rightly so, that if I was going to continue to use such firm language, then I had to have a damn good argument to back it up. Very true. Frankly, I didn't care if I was wrong. I was, and am, looking for sound logic based upon the most objective information that I have available. And if someone demonstrates logically that a particular assertion is wrong, I can and will consider their point of view carefully and alter my opinion accordingly. In this vein, Charles pressed me on the topic, and for the first time, I clarified to him (and to myself) the reasons why I felt they could be compared. Why visual art should stand on it's own visually; why we can compare and judge paintings side by side, and especially why we can and should first disregard context and attempt to regard the piece alone, with no strings attached. Context can be assessed later, and I'll get to that.

Yes, this is an overwhelming and often unpopular task, but something that I've been concerned with for some time now: forming objective criteria for analyzing and judging art, at least as objective as we can get given that we can't possibly step outside of ourselves and our condition as humans. I'm not trying to build an exact science out of the analysis, comparison, and understanding of art, and I don't believe it will ever be one - thankfully. But, in my previous experience teaching art, I often find myself striving for some kind of criteria to analyze and describe the work, which wasn't entirely "wishy washy". How to you teach an art student? How do you give them value for their money without qualitative tools and without teaching critical thinking? How do you or they know what is necessary for them to learn? Like explaining such an unstructured field, creating universal criteria is an equally massive task. But, I believe it is worthwhile and I believe it can be done. Why, you might ask, can you do this when so many others before have tried and ... well, not failed, but not quite succeeded? Historical perspective.

I have the benefit of a great accumulation of history, science, philosophy, art, and it's all at my finger tips. And I was lucky enough (part luck, part hard work) to attain - and continue to build on - an education providing the ability to tackle and process such a task and to have been born in an age where I have the internet, and the ability to sort through the mountains of data that it provides. I'm approaching this first from the perspective of a painter and teacher, secondly from the perspective of philosophy, third from a scientific perspective, and fourth from an art historical angle. Yes, this is a task which speaks of and demands great confidence, but don't mis-understand me. I don't believe I am greater than those who have tackled it before, only in the right time, place, surrounded by the right people, and given the right resources. I'm not the first to propose this. I'm not inventing the wheel. I'm simply trying to synthesize and streamline other approaches into a more objective and clear system. So, on that note, let us go straight to the foundations.

Before I begin I feel it's necessary to define the term "Art" so that we all know what I'm talking about here. When I refer to "Art" I am referring to two definitions. I'm speaking of the original meaning of "ars" in ancient Rome, or "tekhni" in Greek, passed down from at least ancient Greece: which is synonymous with skill, beauty, emotion (the concept being only part of the whole) and is the basis for Odd Nerdrum's definition of Kitsch as well as the definition of Art used by many of the contemporary realist movements. And I'm speaking also of the contemporary definition of "Art" which is primarily the concept.

What is the purpose of Art? This is largely debatable. But most answers you will hear have something to do with a desire to feel connected - with each other, with a deity, or to leave something of ourselves behind when we die. Most answers seem to have a common root in communication. And if we look at the origins of Art: cave and rock paintings 40,000 years ago, small sculptures like "Venus of Willendorf", or even early installation art: Stonehenge (I'm half serious). We can easily conclude that some kind of communication is intended, for these are all symbols or signifiers of something.

Building on the assumption that the shared primary purpose (among many others which might vary from culture to culture) of Art is communication, we come immediately to an impasse. Because each individual person has different experiences in life, they have different contexts and meanings for things. Thus, even the best communication is imperfect. It is impossible to understand exactly the intention of someone else and exactly what they mean. But perhaps this is the reason why Art is so necessary and powerful. Through it we can find other means, or multiple means of communicating. Culture gives us an additional context for meaning, but as culture changes from one geographic area to another, and as it changes over time, first subtleties are lost, and then more and more becomes incomprehensible. So culture is shifting, and context is shifting... does that mean that meaning is constantly shifting? Yes and no.

There is something that we universally share, regardless of where or when we were born, regardless of our gender or language, or ethnicity. We are all human. We have basic needs and desires. We have a common human nature that has not fundamentally changed in tens of thousands of years. We all understand, or have an overlapping understanding of food, sex, death, fear, anger, love, comfort, happiness, longing. When we visit a foreign country where we don't speak the language, the first things we understand revolve around these elements. My first experience of communication in France was at the farmer's market, selecting the perfect tomatoes. (And they were amazing tomatoes). The woman standing beside me tried a sample and the pure pleasure was evident on her face. Sure, this is still western culture. But the same is true for those newly discovered tribes in Brazil or southeast Asia, who, at the time of their discovery, hadn't had contact with any other cultures for thousands of years. Yet, they share the same basic understandings. If we come across a bear in the forest standing on its hind legs and roaring, we all recognize that this is a sign of danger. Of course emotions are more complicated than such basic instinctual understanding. But emotions are first based upon instinct and then altered from experiential input. We are genetically predisposed to these universals, and though we are a very flexible species and our actions can be altered and programed by culture and individual experience, our deepest desires, fears, and passions are shared and universal to humanity.

So, here is where I begin my search for objective criteria. Without context. Genetics are an expression of the laws of nature and physics, and as objectively as is humanly possible, we can measure, quantify, and describe them. And as nearly objectively, we can study, quantify, and empirically describe attributes and universal qualities of human nature and the human experience - many of which we share with mammals. I won't go into the science, but it is sufficient here to point out that it exists. Though genetics may change over a very, very, long time; for our purposes concerning Art, on a human scale - on a mammalian scale, these things are applicably constant and stable.

Of course, it begins to get tricky when we move to Art, because by the very nature of communication, we require at least two people. We require community and culture at least on a basic level. But any anthropologist will tell you that cultures are built upon the foundations of human nature and their interaction with the particular environment in which they live. Form follows function first. And then, form may vary and evolve - based on the initial function. So, if we try to stay aware of our own cultural and individual biases and dogmas, which distort our perception (not always in a bad way) then we can understand some of the basic elements of human nature and of culture, and for our purposes, communication.

Because of human need, there seem to be several purposes for communication. The obvious is, of course, conveying meaning. But we also require other needs of communication, for instance the well-being we receive from simply feeling connected with someone. Communication seems to serve the purpose of both providing information and various kinds of emotional gratification. This nuanced line between the two seems to be where Art lies, in the poetry of our common connection. Strip away all context, and that which is left, is the thing that is Art. What I'm proposing here is similar to the idea of New Criticism, which I've only very recently discovered.

Context, by definition, is something on the outside, imposed upon the subject. The universal human experience is something on the inside. It is the subject of communication. Everything has context, but we cannot judge something based upon its context. The relationship is analogous to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You cannot simultaneously measure both the position and velocity of a subatomic particle. What I'm getting at is that context is relative to the perspective of the viewer, whether the viewer is in the same culture or time period as the artist. Further, there is the question of what context is relevant. Is what the artist had for breakfast relevant? So, context is entirely dependent upon the knowledge of the viewer and is projected upon the actual piece. I'm not saying understanding the context intended by the artist (as far as we can understand intention) is meaningless. I'm simply saying that context cannot stand on its own. It requires something to refer to for meaning to take place, and the value of the context is absolutely dependent upon the communicative efficacy of the work itself.

The question: "How well does the work communicate" can be clarified to ask "How well does it speak to our shared experience. How deeply and clearly does it fulfill the needs that we require of communication"? Thus, the most objective means of judging the success of an artwork is by judging how well it communicates to our shared human qualities, in the language that we all intuitively understand to the deepest core of our being. How well does it connect us? It is difficult to ask both for depth and clarity... depth entails nuance, and clarity requires specificity. So we have to develop some basic guidelines, or principles by which we can gauge a particular work's success in fulfilling our emotional and intellectual needs.

I think we can break it down into three basic principles: skill, emotion, and content. The emotional component and the content are obvious, as they directly fulfill our needs vis a vis communication. Skill, is more of an indirect but absolutely necessary principle. Some degree of skill is necessary to convey meaning and create emotional resonance. But the more nuanced the meaning, the more nuanced the emotive content, the more skill is necessary to convey it. This is not a quality judgment. Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Son" is a very successful piece with two primary emotional meanings: disgust and empathy. We don't need to know Greco-Roman mythology to feel the impact of this painting. We need no context other than the fact that we are human, that we are alive. What we recognize is another human being, twisted and tortured by experiences and powers beyond his control. Somehow the madness in the eyes of Saturn can seduce us to imagine that we, ourselves, are unwillingly compelled to do something that we so revile, that we so deeply detest, that it twists our physical body to an almost unimaginable extent. Almost. This tension between compulsion, disgust, and empathic understanding is a powerfully harmonic combination. The technical skill is more than sufficient to enable the exact balance of expression and recognizable form/symbolism. The brilliance comes in the specific balance of all these elements. If you compare it to Rubens' painting of Saturn with the same title, we may find ourselves amazed by his skill and subtlety. But the empathy is not quite there. The skill is moving and beautiful in its own right, but the emotional/psychological content (as conveyed by the facial expression and posture, among other compositional elements) contains only a single note: disgust, and therefore is less successful. Notice I said: less successful. This piece is still highly successful in terms of unifying our three criteria in an effective combination. But it is not as successful as Goya. It's not very accurate to say good or bad, what we require is a relative scale.

Yes, cultural elements: narrative meaning, iconic meaning, subtle complexities of context in society and the life story of the artist can and do enrich and add to the value and the power of the piece. Culture and education can contribute subtlety and nuance, and often the greatest works do this as well. But context alone is insufficient and is ever shifting like the sand. Context can only communicate so much, and it is very poor at fulfilling the emotional component of communication. Thus, it must be built upon a strong root, to hold fast to the stone beneath the sand that is our common human bedrock. The greatest works communicate on many levels, but the fundamental level is to communicate our fundamental selves. The esoteric is not entirely without value, but it is secondary.

I will only briefly touch on beauty because that is another very complex subject which we should discuss in addition to this, but not within this article. Beauty is certainly difficult to define, but if we look at it empirically, we can find a significant overlap in people's subjective opinions of what beauty is. Our ideas of beauty are also malleable, given our cultures and individual experiences. Beauty of some kind that, at least partially, meets our overlapping sense of beauty is intertwined with skill, emotion, and concept and will be a natural conclusion of the effective harmony between these elements. I think it possible to build upon the framework here to attempt to define nearly objective means of analyzing and understanding the idea of beauty and many other elements in art.

Something like Damien Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death to the Mind of Someone Living" has a great deal of meaning and remarkably, some small degree of emotional resonance, held within its context. However, though this work is influential and historically important, it's communicative ability will be short lived even if it is physically preserved for thousands of years. The time will come when much of the context surrounding is forgotten, only a fraction being recorded in history, and then it will be just a dead shark. A symbol of perhaps terror, consumption, and our own mortality. A certain amount of logic might lead one to conclude, that as the work of the random acts of evolution: Nature or God - this is Art. But further than that, all subtlety is lost and this will not be the only object inspiring these question in our minds. So, relative to our time it is very successful in fulfilling mostly the conceptual portion of our communicative need to a small, esoteric group, but compared to many other pieces, and given the span of history, it disappears into mediocrity.

I don't speak of historical relevance, nor of influence. These are values placed upon the context of a piece and are not addressed here. This is not a criteria for judging the context, but the physical object or the experiential element (in the case of theater or music) of the piece itself. Of course the clarity of comparison varies according to the nature of the pieces compared. It is more difficult to compare Rothko with Peter Bruegel that it is Bruegel with Bosch, but in terms of basic principles it is possible. I'm not saying this is an absolute separation. There are indeed overlaps. Like all dichotomies, this is merely a useful tool for analysis.

So now, perhaps we can compare a few fundamentals, but it begs the questions: is this meaningful, is this relevant? Why? My answer is to say: because communication is a human necessity. We are social creatures and we need the fulfillment emotionally and psychologically, and we need the content both psychologically and practically. Comparison gives us clarity, obviously in the making and understanding of Art, but also in understanding ourselves and each other. Rational comparison is the basis of the scientific method. Refusing comparison, in the short term may be easy and immediately practical, but in the long term it drives us further apart by creating a chasm between our perceptions and understanding of each other and ourselves; thus fostering misunderstandings both minor and major. By extension, communication and Art are the foundation of social interaction and therefore civilization. Comparison helps to strengthen the stone upon which it was built, and quite simply, enrich each individual human experience. The value comes not in the fact that we can compare these works, but as a point of departure. The value lies in what we can learn from such comparisons about the work, the nature of communication, and ourselves. We can begin to build an understanding of the relationship of these elements.

Without honest objective comparison (again, as objective as we can be), we are likely to fall further and further into the relativism of Post-modern philosophy. Fine, some might say, but the end result of this among other things, is the devaluation of all art and the subtle skills of communication. How is that? Well, if all things are equal and can't be compared, then by logical extension all things are equally meaningless. If all things are Art, then nothing is Art. Value is relative and depends upon a hierarchical relationship.

Why is something more or less valuable? Because it is more or less successful at fulfilling its primary purpose.

These criteria: skill, emotion, content - seem to be as stable and objective as we can get (until someone smarter, or with more information comes along to clarify this difficult subject - and if you're out there and reading this, please fill me in!) Culture changes, contexts shift, and our perceptions can be colored and blurred by learned behavior and life experiences. But the roots of human experience and human nature are the same, and as long as humanity as we know it is around, these criteria will hold. Human art is about human communication, so, we cannot make any claims about ultimate "truth". But the work itself, in order to be the most successful, should first have the qualities within itself - devoid of context - and speak to each person who experiences the work. It must fulfill their impulse for communication, it must stir their longing and speak to them. It must show us that we are not alone.

Again, this is not a value judgment. Though I personally have made my own subjective value judgments apart from this theory and will do so in the future. But this is simply a valuable tool of analysis which we can build on. The result is that there seem to be two options. We can separate the classical arts of painting and sculpture from the larger contemporary art world and judge them primarily on these criteria, whether we call it "Kitsch" or something else. Or we can begin to apply these tools of analysis to contemporary art (at least visual art) instead of ambiguously judging visual languages based on solely their context, by using the subjective tools of linguistic analysis, which focus on verbal and written forms of communication (we can thank Foucault for that).

The simple analytical tools that I've outlined are nearly objective. The conclusion reached from those tools is debatable, and up to you.


Cathyann said...

I enjoyed reading your post. Articulate, clear and on point.

Oliver said...

Dear Richard,

I've tried to summarize your chain of thought:

The purpose of Art is communication.
Since context changes over time and from one geographical region to another, context cannot stand on its own.
Due to the fact that we are genetically predisposed, our basic needs, emotions and desires do not change over time (or insignificantly slowly).
Thus the subject of communication should not be based on the context, but the universal human experience in regard to our basic needs, emotions and desires.
The most objective means of judging the success of an artwork is by judging how well it communicates the universal human experience in regard to those needs. We can measure the success of an artwork in terms of its ability to communicate the human experience by three principles: skill, emotion and content.
The more nuanced the meaning (of the universal experience), the more skill is necessary to convey it (not a quality judgement).
Context is very poor at fulfilling the emotional component of communication.
The artwork, in order to be successful (i.e. to communicate the human experience), should have the qualities within itself – devoid of context – and speak to each person who experiences the work.

Would you agree with my summary?
What I do not understand is how you arrive at the three principles (skill, emotion and content).

I would be grateful for an explanation.

Best regards,

RichardTScott said...

Hi Oliver,

Thanks for your question.

I think your summary is fairly accurate, though I would add that context can and often does add richness to the piece. But context simply cannot stand alone, and because it is shifting, is not an objective gauge. Though, it is certainly is subjectively valuable for the viewer to consider context after confronting the piece on its own merits.

I arrived at emotion, content, and skill as criteria because of what we are trying to judge: the effectiveness of communication which has two primary components (emotional and conceptual).

Emotion - because emotional communication is necessary for meaningful communication.

Content - because the conceptual communication is part of it as well.

Skill - because it makes it possible to communicate both emotion and content.

Ideas like beauty, truth, etc.. are great, but they're much more subjective. And I think beauty is a natural result of an artwork which harmoniously uses the three criteria laid out.

Oliver said...

Dear Richard,

Thank you very much for your explanation.
I’m still having some problems correctly understanding your thoughts. Partly because I come from Analytical Philosophy where specific usage of language is emphasised and I’ve only recently taken interest in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Also, English is not my mother language (I’m Swiss) so I had to look up quite a few words. Though your reply has clarified some aspects, some questions remain:

Do I understand you right that you use content synonymous to concept?
When I read your text I was thinking of content rather of the acctual subject matter (that what is being depicted, including it's composition etc.)

Further, if you don’t mind, would you please clarify your statement that emotion is necessary for meaningful communication. I’m having troubles understanding this statement, mainly because the meaning of “meaning” in Analytical Philosophy seems to be something completely different than “meaning” in the Philosophy of Art. “Meaning” for me is the actual object that is being denoted. So the meaning of a portrait of Barack Obama is the physical person Barack Obama (things get a lot more complicated when considering dead people, fictive things (e.g. Pegasus), or a person depicted “as” something (e.g. Barack Obama decpited as a Clown), but let’s not get into that).

I also find your last sentence quite interesting. If beauty is a natural result of an artwork that harmoniously uses the three criteria, would you say that reciprocally, when something is beautiful, then all three criteria are used harmoniously?

Best regards,

RichardTScott said...

Dear Oliver,

Again, thank you for your astute comment. I didn't study philosophy in school, so I don't have any previous approaches: analytical, critical, post-structural, or otherwise. I simply read and think and debate and this is the conclusion that I forming. As I understand, this is pretty much the same process as most of the philosophers before.

I think the difference between concept and content is an important distinction to make. When I get some time, I'll go back through the article and clarify that.

About emotional meaning, I don`t think that all meaning is only direct or metaphorical. Direct, as in and apple in a painting represents just an apple, or in a metaphorical(contextual) sense, the apple represents Adam and Eve, etc...

When I was a child, I was afraid that there was some creature under my bed at night. There was no creature, but that sensation was very real and my brain and body understood that sensation to mean fear - danger. When I fell in love for the first time, I didn't need to be told what it was. I had a deep attraction to her and my brain understood this before it was even given the label "love". Emotional meaning is pre-linguistic meaning. Though, as an emotion becomes more nuanced, context begins to play a role. This is why the criteria I'm laying out are "almost objective".

We cannot disconnect our bodily reactions from our mental processes because they are so intimately intertwined and depend upon each other. This is well documented in the science of the last 30 years.

So, what I'm saying is that, this emotional connection, this emotional meaning, is a necessary component of meaningful communication in Art. Because Art is about trying to communicate more deeply and with more subtlety than verbal or written language. It attempts to go beyond the limitations of language. This is why it's valuable.

I think what you mean about an image of Obama as a clown, etc... is projecting contextual meaning upon the piece. So, devoid of that context, a picture of Obama has certain innate meanings because we, the viewer, are human.
He is a human, he is a man. We know that he was born, and will die. At a certain age we form a sense of death, even before we really know what it is. So, I argue that this is a priori knowledge. We know that because he is human, like us, he may have longing, or hope, or fear, or joy, or anger, all of these are communicated by the expression on his face.

Beyond that, there is a vast range of visual language that communicates meaning in a painting. For instance, does Rembrandt's painting of the "Slaughtered Ox" mean the same thing as Francis Bacon or Soutine depicting the same subject? I think, even without a fluent knowledge of the visual language of paint, anyone can see that they have different meanings in the myriad of relationships between color, line, light, shadow, texture, brush strokes, etc...

I have to go now, but I look forward to hearing your response.