Criticism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes, the effort I put into writing is unexpectedly well remunerated. A friend of mine, P, has taken seriously my letter on art (here) and has replied with patience and accuracy, raising very constructive objections (if you read German, you find his reply here). I owe him a response, so here it is.

In my letter, I analyzed three common “positive definitions” of art: art as subjective expression, art as the work of genius and art as particular medium for communication. I argued that they all give interesting perspectives, but that they are eventually either too exclusive or too inclusive. Hence, I proposed to apply the term “art” to things and phenomena of which we lack a better definition within a language and a culture. My proposal is that of a “negative definition” for it can be applied only “case-after-case”, by excluding other definitions. As I wrote back then, ≪the term “art” can be used with parsimony as the term to explain something which other terms can’t better explain≫.

As far as I understand his answer, P has objected to three main points:

  1. My negative definition risks to exclude objects of industrial and fashion design too soon from the realm of art;
  2. It doesn’t discriminate between Artist and Artisan, for an artisan is no artist, but she can produce art none the less under the right circumstances;
  3. It doesn’t discriminate between Artist and Work of Art, making the latter dependent on the former, whereas art needn’t always be created by artists and artists needn’t always create art;

He thence concludes that we should reassess the value of “geniality”, which should be placed directly in the work of art, rather than in the artist: “the sometimes paradoxical thought of Art as a work of geniality, that originates beyond itself, that goes beyond its own conceptualization, is the sole, which does justice to these facts”.

I try now to answer his objections and comment on his final account. Starting with 1, I must admit that my definition accounts for non-primarily-useful forms of art. Industrial design would be therefore a “less artistic” form of art than others.

I think I am forced to accept my vulnerability to this point, but not because I couldn’t in principle account for design as a form of art: after all, my definition allows for an inclusive gradualism, and artistic design might even rank pretty high as a form of art in specific cases. The reason why this objection is powerful is that I link my account of art to what a community of speakers thinks and feels, and people often don’t think of design products as “artistic ones”. They would say that a painting or a symphony are artistic, but not the fork they roll up their spaghetti with or the chair they are sitting on when reading this letter. I think this first objection is sound, but I also can live with this vulnerability.

Moving to objection 2, P claims that my definition is unable to distinguish between the production of an artist and the production of an artisan. This is true but, with all due respect, why should I care? According to my definition, insofar as you can better define a product of human craftsmanship without employing the term “art”, it is not necessary to use it. That’s all my negative definition says. It leaves open the possibility that the work of the camera man, or that of the stage technician can flow into a work of art of filmography. Mine is a negative definition of art, it is not concerned with defining what an artist is if not indirectly. I can own the claim that ≪the producer of art be defined as artist≫ sometimes, but I definitely don’t think that my definition implies the “pretention” that this must necessarily be so.

I take objection 3 to be stronger for it straightforwardly targets my attempt to define art. But again, I don’t think that my definition is bound to associating a work of art with complete artistic control of an artist over it. The important point, to me, is to distinguish products of sheer chance or nature from those of human craftsmanship. Once that distinction is made, it is up to a community of speakers to discriminate between what is art and what is not with respect to their shared inclinations.

What about P’s own account, that of the geniality of the work of art? I think that this conclusion is compatible with my negative definition. They both refer to the artistic product: P’s by focusing on a property of it, mine by focusing on a shared linguistic understanding of art. However, I stick with my definition because the concept of geniality is somewhat undefined and mysterious, whereas my negative definition tells you at least when it is the case that you produce art: you do it when all other means of communication and expression are insufficient to tell what you would have told otherwise.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Correctness

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Potentially, every time we say something, there is a risk to hurt someone else’s feelings or to discriminate certain people. This is the trivial sense of “taking a risk to discriminate” and, of course, if we were to take it seriously, we couldn’t say a word anymore.

There is another sense, however, which is the one of consciously foreseeing the discriminatory effects of what we are saying and say it none the less. This is immoral. And immoral is also avoiding to excuse oneself, once one is shown the discriminatory effects of her utterances.

Political correctness has developed in western, modern, multicultural societies as a method of talking and thinking in such a way as to avoid, insofar as it is possible, immoral discrimination of disadvantaged members of a society. An excess of political correctness could mean being self-righteous and be unsustainable, because it might lead to improper censorship.

Since more than one person has accused me of unsustainable political correctness, I owe them an explanation. I need to address two related features of the problem: the first is political correctness taken as a form of “moral censorship” about certain everyday life, linguistic or artistic freedoms; the second is the risk of adopting the stance of a moral police officer.

Flat-out censorship is never the most efficacious method to contrast discriminatory ideologies. I do believe in the importance of dialogue about what is right and wrong, and in the possibility for fallible creatures like ourselves of making forgivable mistakes.

This said, my political correctness doesn’t yet allow me to appreciate a racist or a homophobic joke. Indeed, certain kinds of satire have an oppressive flavor: they attack the vulnerable and implicitly defend the powerful. And each time you laugh, you strengthen inequality and oppression.

We won’t stop laughing then, because something gets censored. We stop laughing when we start thinking, and our thoughts will help us next time to distinguish funny jokes from discriminatory ones, and to laugh accordingly. Moreover, in an evolving society, what was strange and “abnormal” in the past, can suddenly turn out to be common in the present, and related jokes will thus stop being funny “just for that”.

In a previous letter, I have already addressed the topic of misconduct of artists. In this case, all I shall underline is that nothing in the production of art provides artists with any “moral pass”. Art can’t be judged in moral terms, just as moral subjects can’t be judged in artistic terms. Art is judged with artistic criteria, whereas an artist’s moral conduct with moral criteria. In the case of discriminatory lyrics, for instance, we might adopt artistic criteria but, among them, we shall also consider the originality of the message and its meaning. Given my recent definition of art, we might even question whether those lyrics can’t be better defined as a discriminatory regurgitation, rather than art.

Now I skip to the second accusation, that of endorsing some sort of Orwellian moral police, if not being myself a moral police officer. Here I must distance myself from a common phenomenon of political correctness. What I really don’t like about this phenomenon is its Manicheism, its seeing everything as either black or white, its dividing the world in bad guys and good guys, in police officers and criminals.

We can’t a priori rule out the possibility of victims to be themselves oppressors and we can’t deem oppressors as monsters. That would be too easy: monsters don’t have the chance to be otherwise. Human beings are much more complicated creatures. They often act upon certain motives and they have reasons for acting. They have a history and they are culturally shaped. They deserve blame sometimes. Sometimes they perpetrate unforgivable evils. But always as human beings, never as monsters.

This means that we can never judge an individual life as if we could see through every relevant decision leading to an evil action. All we can do is just to try to analyze the action itself, its motivational background and attempt to construct a model for making the action morally intelligible. I really can’t see how this approach might count as “moral police”.

Talking about monsters in a politically correct fashion is a terrible mistake: we risk to ascribe very human vices to non-human entities. De-humanizing vices leads to extreme dangers: we tend to be too indulgent with ourselves and too fatalist with monsters. We tend to forget the evil in ourselves, because “at least we are not monsters”.

No one is. Not even the filthiest genocidal criminal. We all are fallible human beings, and we fail whenever we are given the chance to reconsider our conduct, and we laugh or appeal to specious artistic license or else instead of thinking.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Art

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In this letter I will address the question of art in its most general formulation: “what is art?”

Since I lack the knowledge on the topic of an artist, an art critic, an art historian or a philosopher of art, I will attempt a man-of-the-street approach to it.

I’ve heard many definitions of art in the past. Many think it is a particular way of expressing one’s own subjectivity. Some people think it is the work of genius, namely the creation (or interpretation) of something, which has never been seen or heard before. Some other think it is a particular way of vehiculating messages – political, moral, philosophical, existential, etc.

To a certain extent, I believe that all these definitions are sensible. At the same time, none of them is invulnerable to objections.

Consider the first view I’ve mentioned. If art were to be understood only as the particular expression of one’s own subjectivity, art would hardly send messages about the world as it is often said to do. If all art can do amounts to expressing what one feels or subjectively thinks, there wouldn’t be any such thing as politically or morally loaded art.

The second view, that of genius, faces a direct objection: how can we define what is truly new? If we look closely, we would see that nothing is, for, as David Hume remarkably argued, everything we can imagine is the product of our own experience. If nothing can exceed our experience, then nothing is truly new. But there is indeed innovation in the connections that art originates, so maybe that’s the meaning of the work of genius. However, wouldn’t this view be still too elitist? Wouldn’t we like to grant the status of artist even to minor painters, musicians, poets and movie directors? There seems to be a gradualism in art that the concept of genius is too coarse to notice.

After all, art might be just a way of vehiculating all kinds of messages, so our third view. This view is able to account for both art as subjective expression as well as “art about the world”. Moreover, it blocks the accusation of elitism. However, it remains vulnerable to the all-too-common objection that “everything goes” (in a certain sense, the first view faces the same problem). If art is a way of vehiculating messages, how can we draw the line between art and other more trivial ways of expressing messages such as writing an article, bringing cookies to our neighbor, burning a flag, and so on? The risk is that everything goes, and art would be meaningless. We don’t want art to be meaningless, do we?

Thinking about art provides us with quite a headache. Perhaps it is impossible to give a positive account of art. But maybe a negative is still possible. Instead of thinking what art is, we could ask ourselves what art isn’t. If something can be better defined as a psychological experiment, a treaty about economics or the unintentional effects of a psychotic person provided with paint and brushes, why employ the concept of art then?

I think that the term “art” can be used with parsimony as the term to explain something which other terms can’t better explain. You stumble on your feet and your camera takes by chance an astonishing shot after falling? Well, that’s what it is: a casual event producing something beautiful, but no art is involved. The same can be said about the Niagara falls: they are “by chance” beautiful, but it would be counter intuitive to call them a “work of art”, for no artist was involved in their production.

It is important to point out two consequences of such considerations: 1) contrarily to what many people believe, art is not in the eyes of the observer, but rather in the eyes of a community of observers, who can apply definitions and in general agree about what isn’t art or simply have shared feelings about it; 2) the negative definition of art allows relativism about what art is but, at the same time, helps us find a meaning to it which is quite rigorous, namely that of excluding from the domain of art all that can be better explained by other concepts.

A last thing that I would like to underline, is that this theoretical approach to art has a parallel in practice. Not only it defines art negatively, but it tells also what one is supposed to practically do to “produce art”. Art is something that is originated when all other means of expression are deemed inadequate.

Art is the last possibility for limited beings such as ourselves to express what otherwise would be impossible to express for us. Good art is the only, irreplaceable, remaining way to say something, when all the other attempts have already failed. On the other hand, the easier it is to replace a work of art, the worse it is. Bad art can be much better expressed by better art, an article or nothing.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Misconduct

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

There are at least two reasons why I don’t talk often about art. The first is that I have never had a true interest in the discipline of aesthetics, and that makes me even less of an expert than what I am on an average with respect to other topics. The second is that I love to contemplate art with my poor knowledge of art history, rather than necessarily try to find a meaning to it. Still, as you have probably by now noticed, I like to explore the paradoxical nature of certain phenomena and, in this sense, “art” offers me the perfect field for today’s little inquiry.

In particular, I will focus on the following question: Should we enjoy the work of an artist, even if we know she is a horrible person?

Few months ago, after the Weinstein’s scandal, the wildfire of allegations for sexual harassment and violence has been spreading and has reached many men in powerful positions. Probably, the most rumored of the “targets” of such allegations has been the actor Kevin Spacey. Many people consider him an extraordinary good actor, and his exclusion from House of Cards’ last season – the tv series of which he has played the leading character so far, has caused outrage.

According to the allegations, Spacey has been involved in several cases of moral misconduct. If this picture is correct, we might conclude that Spacey has been an extraordinary good actor over a considerable amount of time, while being a sexual harasser. Our dilemma is ready: are we justified in enjoining his movies, if we believe that he has been a sexual harasser?

Apart from watching a couple of episodes of House of Cards almost a year ago – without understanding much of what was going on, I really don’t have any knowledge of the actor’s ability – I can’t judge actors in general, for the record. To put myself in Spacey’s fans shoes, I will refer to an example, which has been more familiar to me, but still presents the same dilemma.

In 2009, the singer Chris Brown was taken to trial with the accusation of domestic violence against his girlfriend at the time Rihanna. When the photos of Rihanna’s bruises were released, my repulsion for Chris Brown mounted to the point that I couldn’t hear or read his name anymore. Every time I could recognize even the least of his background vocals at the radio, I automatically changed station. Chris Brown was to me a dead man.

Was I justified not to listen to a singer, who is considered by who-knows-how-many-people a music genius, just because he beat up to death another human being, insofar as she is a woman?

There are two perspectives, which we should consider when confronted with such cases. The first is the historical one. According to the historical perspective, the events in a person’s life are a sequence of interlocked facts. A person is the direct and indirect cause of her doings and can be directly or indirectly influenced by external happenings in being what she is.

This perspective is just descriptive of a person’s psychology and history, but it doesn’t allow to ascribe justification. It is impossible to say that “because she is aggressive-genial-depressed-…, she is justified in doing immoral/artistic things”. The historical perspective simply links events: person X is depressed and depression is linked to her doing immoral and/or artistic things, for instance. This doesn’t mean X is justified in doing those things.

The second perspective is the evaluative one. From this point of view, we have the faculty to “stop time” and judge. We stop time at the moment when Chris Brown is singing and we judge his performance as an extraordinary one. We stop time at the moment where he raises his hands over his girlfriend and we judge his action as loathsome.

For this time, I must surrender to skepticism. Chris Brown, Kevin Spacey, Caravaggio, Woody Allen, etc. are unified human beings, hence we can’t detach the two perspectives or separate our feelings for them insofar as they are artists rather than immoral individuals. We shouldn’t endorse the activity of a horrible person but, at the same time, we can’t deny that that horrible person has done very valuable things.

However, there is something that differentiates Caravaggio from the other men I’ve mentioned. Caravaggio died a murderer in 1610. And he belongs without doubt to the most restricted club of the greatest painters ever. It is the time that has passed that allows us to adopt the historical perspective and detach the evaluative ones from one another. That is, if ever there is a value to the other above mentioned men, only future history will tell. And future history will do justice to their triumphs as well as their baseness. Or will just forget.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha