I’ve been reading a lot lately about the many ways to assign value to the arts and why anyone would want to do so. It has become more popular than ever, for example, to determine the many instrumental and intrinsic social benefits of the arts to individuals and communities. As I’ve written before, the arts can genuinely transcend cultural and political barriers and open dialogue between diverse stakeholders. There are those who have even measured the arts’ economic impact on a local, regional and national scale. I consider these valid (even necessary) ways of determining the value of art, but lately many people have been asking, “What happened to aesthetics?”
One of those people is Dr. Tiffany Jenkins, director of the Arts and Society program at the London-based Institute of Ideas. This morning I awoke to her post (and article in the Scotsman) on judgment in art. She was disappointed that the BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, wouldn’t offer a real answer to the question of which artists of the past or present he considers good or bad (though it is ostensibly his job to do just that).
To offer a contrast, I heard Camille Paglia speak last night at the Skirball Cultural Center in a program by Zócalo Public Square. Paglia’s a firebrand anyway, but she had no qualms about calling out Damien Hirst as overrated and deriding what she sees as the empty cartoonishness of much of Jeff Koons’s work in comparison to the thoughtful outsize sculptures of Claes Oldenburg.
She also had no problem decrying the damage contentious art (not to be confused with the avant garde) has done to the art world and US artists by igniting the culture wars of the past few decades.
I think most people shy away from making value judgments because if you say something is good or bad, you’re expected to follow up with your reasoning, and many people simply don’t feel qualified to do so (though that’s certainly not the case with Mr. Gompertz). They fear that some supercilious art historian will come along and tell them they’re wrong for liking or not liking a work of art.
Which brings up another reason Paglia identified in her talk last night for the loss of aestheticism. It has been replaced by the brand of academic Marxism currently entrenched in academe, which borrows its theory from the post-Structuralists and the Frankfurt school. Bearing little resemblance to the vibrant antiestablishment left wing of the 1960s, it has morphed, Paglia says, into a “comfortable professional class” so stultified as to reduce art to ideology, as if a work of art has no other purpose or meaning beyond the economic or political.
(At this point, the Skirball crowd, which had been laughing nervously throughout—not sure if Paglia was deadpanning or really serious—broke out in applause.)
Consequently, she continued, two generations of college students have been trained (if they took an art history class at all) to look skeptically at art for its flaws, its political references, and its hidden agendas and power plays.
Further complicating our relationship to the visual image, Paglia said, is our highly kinetic visual environment made up of routinely enhanced digital photos; the lack of depth and disturbing distortion of space in video games; and the supersaturated, cartoonish colors on our televisions, which, at least in their widescreen option, stretch and distort images with such regularity that our eyes come to accept them as normal.
This is why Paglia, who was brought up in an Italian-American, postwar middle-class home with its requisite book-of-the-month club subscription (the loss of which Susan Jacoby laments here*) has a vision of saving art education in primary schools across the nation from its current John Dewey-based do-it-yourself philosophy.
In her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, Paglia argues for a return to art education as the most basic training in awareness, in learning how to look at images and objects with an eye toward aesthetic value, serenely and without prejudice.
That’s the first step, she suggests, to regaining a sense of comfort making value judgments based on aesthetics.
*I think Paglia would agree with Tyler Cowen’s refutation (in his book Creative Destruction) of the idea that capitalism, expanding markets, and globalization lead to an inevitable dumbing down of taste. This idea, which Jacoby called “defining dumbness downward” in The Age of American Unreason, also stems from the critical theory of which Paglia is so derisive. Applying a “gains-from-trade” economic model to cross-cultural exchange, Cowen shows how market growth contains both homogenizing and heterogenizing mechanisms that work in tandem, making mass culture and niche culture necessary complements of each other.