Thursday, September 13, 2007

False Dichotomies

for my first ArtBabel post I thought I'd dust off an old number from the archives...enjoy:

Rattling around the artblogs recently I've noticed a cloud of thought hovering over the notion of "value" in painting. "How do we determine value in art?"..a question asked (and answered) by Jed Perl, among others in direct response to the vast influx of hedge-fund money that seems to be turning the notion of artworld correctness and propriety upside down. To me it's a curious problem because it represents an alchemical conversion of abstract ideas and concepts into a numerical equivalent in currency. This is ostensibly a method of gauging the collective belief and confidence in any given set of "values" that may be winning out against other values at any particular moment in the popular imagination. The problem is not in the notion that certain ideas seem to be more popular than others within the context of a moment in time (a constantly changing and unreliable measurement), but the tendency for "value" judgements themselves to assume either/or categories, bifurcations that represent false dichotomies .

Here are a few false dilemna's you may be familiar with hidden in rhetorical questions and statements:

Are you with us, or with the forces of racism and oppression?
Are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?
America - love it or leave it.
Nobody wins unless everybody wins.

In art history, the contrived dualisms that best represent this type of Manichean logic have seemed most salient to me in the relationship between two artists such as Fragonard and Greuze. Fragonard came to be eponymous with the Rococo and the artificial tastes of the Aristocratic culture he catered to. On the other hand, inspired by the writing of Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his insistence on "natural" virtues as an antidote to the corrupt "ancien regime" that hovered like a bloated corpse above French society of the 18th century, Greuze embraced the simplicity and sincerity of common villagers and the "realness" of their everyday lives. We are aware of course that Greuze is the "winning" side in this contest, with the French Revolution virtually annihilating through exile or beheading the patrons that supported Fragonard, who died penniless and forgotten in 1806.

Looking at Greuze in 2007, it's hard for me to see "naturalness" and sincerity. Instead, I see a pantomime of these virtues that borders on histrionic. The work only communicates simplicity in the way that a caricature might. It is ham-handed, farcical, melodramatic, and calculated. It is only by placing the work in a false dichotomy besides it's conceptual enemy do these characteristics become even a little bit real.

Dichotomies are common in Western thought, a condition that C.P Snow has described as the "culture of argument". In such a climate, dialogue is characterized by a warlike atmosphere in which the winning side has truth (like a trophy). In such a dialogue, the middle alternatives are virtually ignored. Obviously for art to have numerical value in currency it must pass through this odd mechanism of valuation. And maybe this is why the pugnacious disgust at what Jed Perl has described as "Laissez- Faire" aesthetics might be a little over blown. I'm not advocating a sort of glib nonchalance that represents a superficial and shallow commitment to the world of ideas…but I have to say that today's culture is clearly based on a model of cultural customization that seems to represent a step away from the epic righteousness of dialectical thought. Although it's clear that the impetus for this de-valuation of "value" has more to do with fashion, constantly shifting tastes, i.e. trendiness, and the "democracy of access" granted by new money, the net affect is a logical and positive step away from art as yet an other emblem of ideology (..."-ism").

It's not insignificant to note that Greuze also died broke and penniless a year after Fragonard..a victim of his own extravagances and a deep inability to manage his own success. In my mind the notion of "victory" and "revolution" are absurd concepts that by necessity create pathological cults of belief. In this way winning and losing are real concepts, but ironically can never be consummated. Today's winner is tomorrow's loser, and the individual is caught in a never ending whirlpool of torment that to me seems the most tragic reality that an artist can know. People that talk about moving art into what's "next" usually do so because they believe their contribution represents the inevitable destiny of the conversation of art history, and see their own art embedded within this sequential narrative. This dissatisfaction can generally be thought of as a subjective affect that I feel is an inevitable byproduct of lamentably mistaking the social-economic matrix of the "artworld" for the broader concept of "art" as a concrete cultural manifestation of applied philosophies-which should ideally transcend notions of game theory and market value. Implicit in this new version of historicity is the diffraction of all Grand Narrative outwards into an multi-dimensional Field of possibility and connectivity. In this way there is no such things as "winning" and "losing", but rather all that exists are vectors of relateability that are separate and distinct from a bounded and linear time-based model that we have come to call "Art History". The emergence of recognizeability or "celebrity" among an enormous pool of abundantly talented artists is merely an epiphenomena of social conditions/networks in a media driven culture along a given axis of causality and should not be regarded as an inevitable destiny that has become manifest.

"Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?"


New York City said...

Excellent! Thank you for sharing with us.

The false dichotomy is a dangerous element of propaganda, but it is also an effective analytical tool. As you demonstrated, it allows us to reveal subtleties that we may not have before noticed.

It does play a role in the arbitrary determination of value in the art world (and in the work force at large - where the value of labor is determined not on actual work produced, but an arbitrary assignation of the monetary - and expressly not social - value of said work)

However, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water. Take, for example, the abstract ideal. It can be inhabited by the precepts of religious fundamentalism and lead to crusades, inquisitions, terrorism.... and can likewise be embodied by the ideas of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung and lead to the genocide of at least 60 million people.

Yet these two ideals are diametrically opposed in dichotomous analysis. Though are both abstract concepts. Shall we rid the world of the abstract ideal? That would be sad indeed, as we would loose all art, literature, music, geometry and math, physics... in short almost all the cumulative knowledge of mankind.

But the issue that you brought up is particularly pertinent in our current era of exaggerated political polarization. This can and will lead to increasing danger for humanity if we do not point out the danger of dichotomous rhetoric in the hands of propagandists, corporations, religious fundamentalist... The question I have is: Are the American people willing to learn this?

New York City said...

The last image is also an interesting comparison. On one level it's a similar comparison as the first - decadence and moral Americana. (Interestingly there's a reversal of settings - nature becomes moral and the immoral moves to an urban setting.)

In a second reading there is a comparison between life and death. Christina, the subject of Wyeth's painting had an undiagnosed degenerative muscular condition that rendered her a paraplegic. Literally, the extent of her world was revealed in the painting, in which she dragged herself through the fields to pick wild flowers.

One can see the revelers on the left (who is this by the way?) as celebrating their vitality, while Christinas body desintigrates.

Or one could reverse the dichotomy: the revelers continue the monotony of an endless cocktail hour, never truly experiencing the vital moment of triumph which Christina has achieved in dragging herself such a distance from the only place she has ever known.

Or yet, Hollywood beauty vs. the sublime.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

People don't really learn anything ever.
Which is why change is often violent.

Denise Williams said...

It’s simple, what we often think expands our world, money, politics, power, generally limits it. However, the things we believe confine our existence such as physical or political impairment, or poverty usually increases it if we see beyond our presumed limitations. The same is noted throughout history regarding contemporary art for any period. Politics, more often than not, creates value in art due to current trends while the true masters are largely unnoticed throughout the course of their life generally dying penniless. The only way the true value of anything can be found is to eliminate politics. The truth is always there, in life and in art, but rarely is found until after death.

Many think that proper politics allows them to win, but it never does, not really, for it leaves a path of destruction behind, not only in the lives of those eliminated during the course of a success that held no truth, but in the lives of those who won through it. We experience this in microcosm of various existences that stems from daily business, to wars, to art. The life of a true artist and their art reflects the existence of all human kind.

Sometimes the art lies in the words of the beholder.

When we call nothing art and pretend it is, it represents the truth, or the lack thereof, of the individual who makes the statement. When that statement is upheld through politics, and supported monetarily, it demonstrates the weakness of all those who seek to verify a farce because it behooves them politically. Similarly we see the same in not only business, but in government. The blind support of the inane in art is only paralleled by the atrocities we accept from our world leaders who dictate war and then profess their righteousness in having done so merely to exploit another country at the expense of not only that countries citizens, but the lives of their own.

Considering how shallow we have become as a populace, how poorly educated we are, how weak as individuals we have become, our lack of ideals and morals, I’m not surprised how a peanut butter ladder, or some other perishable good might be considered art for it reflects how we collectively support the ego of the buffoon who was more of an artist themselves than the creator for having found value in it. This, in a whole, only represents that the common public, or those who support those in power for fear of doing otherwise, might prefer a common blatant lie over the truth because they don’t have the integrity to stand up for what they truly believe.

I don’t think we have ever seen a more potent era of art reflecting the values of the common public when supported by politics as we have now. But it is not these shower curtains or blow up bunnies that will prove to have been a good art investment, for a fallacy never is whether it is in art or in life.

As for depicting the rich as bad and the poor as good, with the later holding the only ticket to heaven, that is but another falsehood created by the church so that people feel good about the oppression and exploitation they suffer generally inflicted by their government beginning with lack of education.

I say let any falsehood perish, and let the truth survive. Perhaps one day we will learn how to support it as it lives around us.

My son said something profound to me when he was but the age of twelve. He said, “As Jesus said ‘a prophet is not recognized as such in his own village,’ Mom. I say, nor is a true artist.”

We no longer have the church, or the government, dictating to us what truth is in art. The responsibility has been left up to the artist with complete freedom for a brief time in history. What do we find? We find that we are fools led by fools. Look at what we call art today. That should tell you something about our truth in the moment. Later, as we become history, Historians will tell the truth about the ignorance we suffered. The perishable highly prized art will be gone, and the true artists will have survived..

Steven LaRose said...

This was the post that turned me on to Jacques.

Hey. . .

Where are all the other "contributers?"

New York City said...

Many of them are recent graduates from the New York Academy and are trying to find jobs, housing, their voice, etc... They pop in every once and a while and tell me that they plan on posting when they get settled in.

My theory is that many of the more "traditional" artists seem to shy away from technology a bit. Maybe that's why they choose such a low tech means of art making - like smearing dirt and oil onto pieces of cloth with little bits of hair on a stick.

I'm in the process of trying to find some more frequent contributors (I just started this blog in June) so, if you have any friends that you think would prove mutually beneficial, please let me know! As of right now, most of the postings are mine.

If you have any suggestions, I would be more than happy to hear them.

New York City said...

"When we call nothing art and pretend it is, it represents the truth, or the lack thereof, of the individual who makes the statement. When that statement is upheld through politics, and supported monetarily, it demonstrates the weakness of all those who seek to verify a farce because it behooves them politically."

Like The Emperors New Clothes?

Jacques de Beaufort said...

Peanut butter ladders are cool.

I think my point was that all value is a relative position. The other word for this is Relativism. There is no such thing as a mainstream culture today, and that is a terrifying and liberating thought. This is a time where individualism is the strongest it's ever been, and there is a very real rift between the individual and the society they participate in...whether voluntarily or by default.

One of the main things that we should resist is judging others...and judging art. There's no Truth in my opinion..

Art opens up experience and conversations, but when we judge something we end all of that.

And go eat peanut butter by ourselves.

Peace Out.

New York City said...

Who's the artist at the bottom left next to Andrew Wyeth?

Jacques de Beaufort said...

Delia Brown

New York City said...

I see it now. I'm more familiar with her series of college girls in their underwear.