Writing Archive

High and Low: What is Excellence in the Arts?

keynote speech delivered at Augusta State University, October 21, 2011

Greetings, and thanks to Professor Kristin Casaletto, the Morris Museum of Art, and Augusta State University for having me here to speak to you all today. My topic is High and Low: What Is Excellence in the Arts?, and I'm hoping that by the end of my talk, everything you thought you knew about the matter will be thoroughly undermined.

Excellence, literally, is the state in which something or someone can be said to excel. To excel is to surpass, to be superior, to outdo. In the arts, we have loads of poor and mediocre examples, and the excellent ones are superior to them. Okay, we're done. I'll take your questions.

Actually, hold on. I'd like to examine what happens when you look at an art object and perceive it to have excellence. Let's say that an artist has made some beautiful thing. You look at it and say, Wow. You experience a pleasant feeling of joy or excitement. Your attention goes to it and lingers there. Also, excellence, as I said, implies superiority to other art objects. In the past you have looked at other objects and not perceived excellence in them. Now that you're looking at this one, the pleasure you get out of it has an additional quality of surprise, perhaps even relief, that reminds you that you are looking at something unusual. You don't recall the inferior objects, but the excellent one stands out in relation to them.

There's a simple question you can ask about this experience. You see excellence in this art object that I've been talking about. Is it actually there in the art object, or have you just seen it there? In other words, is excellence some objective quality about the art object, or is it your subjective experience of the art object?

There are a lot of good reasons to say that it's subjective. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, said Hamlet to Rosencranz and Gildenstern. Subjectivity explains why taste varies. You like this work of art quite a lot, but your friend doesn't. He prefers this other work of art over there. You think he's crazy for preferring that one. You see excellence where he doesn't, and vice-versa. This indicates that seeing excellence is a matter of opinion and individual experience. Those opinions and experiences aren't facts about material objects. They're opinions about what art is for and what makes it good.

But the idea of subjective excellence has some serious drawbacks. Although it can explain why your taste differs from your friend's, it doesn't explain why it might agree with the tastes of millions of other people. Millions of people love the art of Rembrandt. If there's not something objectively excellent about Rembrandt, then you have to explain how millions of people concluded subjectively and individually that Rembrandt's work was excellent.

One explanation you hear from the proponents of subjective excellence is that the consensus forms because people passively absorb the cultural values around them, and fall sway to marketing and propaganda. You think you have independent taste, but you're really just acting out the presuppositions of your culture. Even the notion that you have independent taste is a presupposition of your culture. I have never been impressed with this idea because it's basically a conspiracy theory. It's not a conspiracy theory because it's wrong—it may not be—but because it's unfalsifiable, and because it favors a dramatic, convoluted explanation for the consensus over a simple one. The simple explanation is that quality exists in the object, objectively, and a lot of people—not everyone, but a lot of them—can see it.

Objective excellence also explains a phenomenon that I have never seen adequately discussed by art's philosophers. During the modern Edo period, Japanese prints were so denigrated by the Japanese that they used them to wrap ceramics in preparation for sending them overseas. It's only a little overstated to say that they looked at Utamaro about the same way we look at Styrofoam peanuts. This is how they were introduced to Europe, and how the French interest in them was sparked. Finally, Degas got a hold of them, and they thrilled him so much that he made works based on them that changed the course of Western painting.

This is easy to explain if there's something objectively good about Utamaro, and impossible to explain if there isn't. If the appreciation of Japanese prints depends on absorbing Japanese cultural values, Degas would not have been able to see any excellence in them, not only because he was French, but because even the Japanese at the time didn't value them.

Proponents of subjective excellence would say that Degas appropriated the Japanese material in the same manner that European colonialists appropriated the resources of the colonies. But we're not talking about sugar cane, which all humans can taste as sweet, but art, which—according to the people making that same argument about subjective excellence—is learned to be excellent from the surrounding culture. What's more, it went in the other direction. The Japanese turned around and appropriated Art Nouveau. There are thousands of beautiful examples of Japanese Art Nouveau.

But again, there are problems with the idea of objective quality. The first one I already mentioned—just as subjective quality doesn't explain the consensus, objective quality doesn't explain differences of taste. At least, it doesn't explain them very nicely. If something is objectively excellent, and you don't see it, you're failing to see a fact about the world. It is a kind of blindness, or maybe a kind of ignorance. At best it's naivete.

That's not such a drawback for the argument—the world often isn't a nice place. The drawback is the notion that something could be a property of an object, but not a measurable one. We could say that a sculpture has mass, and weigh it. We could say that it has a color—blue, let's say—and even if we disagreed about the nature of the color blue when it comes to vision or consciousness, we could take a spectrometer and measure the wavelength of the light reflecting off of it. What qualities can be said to properly belong to an object that we can't measure? If the subjective explanation of consensus is a conspiracy theory, then the objective explanation of immeasurable properties is a kind of spiritualism. Excellence thus joins the company of things we believe to exist, and sometimes think we see, but can't prove are there: deities, souls, aether. The former, we can't prove to be false. The latter, we can't prove to be true.

There's another problem. If excellence existed in the object, we should be able to take the observable traits of excellence and reuse them to make other excellent works of art. This turns out to be completely unreliable. If you recombine the elements of an excellent work of art without sufficient artistry, you can end up with a nonfunctioning pile of meh made from excellent source material.

So excellence is not in the object, and it's not us. Where is it?

This question first occurred to me a few years ago, and my initial answers to it were pretty clumsy. I'm not trained in philosophy, I'm trained in art. Late in my schooling some teachers encouraged me to write, and it turned out that I had some talent for crafting prose. So I began writing art criticism, but I didn't have an aesthetic theory worked out. I had an ear for words, an eye for art, and a huge disregard for the baleful consequences of voicing your honest opinion. I figured out pretty quickly that in order to be persuasive, and not sound like a ranting lunatic, you have to rely on reasonableness. Not reason, because opinions about art can't be logically proven, but reasonableness, in which one premise follows another without too much stretching. For art criticism, this is enough.

Upon finding out that I was an art critic, someone recently asked me what my theoretical background is. I don't have a theoretical background. I have a method, and I can sum it up in four words: look, and look again.

Also, I'm a practitioner. I make art, and like any serious artist I try to make whatever I'm working on a little better than the last thing I made. Every now and then I succeed, and the rest of the time I try not to hate life. So any answer to this question has to be a pragmatic one. And the first thing to recognize from a pragmatic standpoint is that to make art, I don't need an answer to this question. The urge to make art comes out of a place where everything is its own justification. I can sense in my guts whether my current painting is going well or not, and all the theory in the world isn't going to help make it better. I have to claw my way up the mountain like everyone does.

On the other hand, I'm also an art writer. Writers hate not knowing things. It's a different mode of living from being an artist, and the two modes don't necessarily help each other. When you, as an artist, have unknowns in your life, you can just shrug and keep working. When you're a writer, it sticks in your craw.

So I have worked out a pragmatic answer: Excellence is art's reproductive drive. Excellent traits in art trigger the feelings, emotions, and attentions of the viewer. Thus aroused, an artist sets out to reproduce those traits in a new arrangement of materials. Thus the cycle begins anew. It's not subjective or objective because it's dynamic.

Beauty brings copies of itself into being, wrote the philosopher Elaine Scarry. I agree with that, and believe that excellence is a related project. The difference with excellence is that in order for an artist to succeed in his attempt to relive those feelings and emotions, in order to have his attention worked upon in the same way as the art that inspired him, a copy won't do the trick. If it's a very good copy, other people might enjoy it just as much as the original, as long as they weren't side by side. There are examples of artists who have copied their own work so that they could sell them to different collectors, and it's likely that each collector enjoyed his version of the work as much as any of the others. But for the artist who made the copy, the two works will always be side by side. The original is an act of discovery and wonder. Copying a great work of art by someone else can be profoundly edifying. But to copy a masterpiece repeatedly, or to copy yourself even once, is a chore.

Excellence in the arts might be best understood as pressure to be both good and different. In order to relive the effect that good art has on you, you cannot do the same thing as the art that affected you so. This even happens within the confines of your own art. If you make a good painting, for instance, it would be sensible to make a series of similar ones with minor variations. If you keep this up long enough, you'll make two terrible discoveries.

The first terrible discovery is that Painting #2 isn't as good as Painting #1. This is because when you made Painting #1, you were paying attention only to your desires and feelings and excitement in the act of discovery. When you made Painting #2, you were thinking about Painting #1. That screwed up the whole process, and it probably doesn't get fully unscrewed until Painting #5.

The second terrible discovery is that at some point, maybe Painting #10 or #20, maybe later, the minor variations aren't cutting it anymore. Whatever was good about Painting #1 is there in Painting #15, but it's dead, you're tired of it, and you don't want to see it again. In order to get back into goodness, the state of attention and emotion brought about by good art, you have to enact bigger variations. And because excellence is a dynamic, it's impossible to know how many traits or which traits are the right ones to copy or not copy. The problem is nearly paradoxical. The only way to relive the experience that good art gives you is by making things that are different from that art, and it's usually not obvious as to how the new art should be different.

At this point, a lot of artists chicken out. One way to chicken out is to make art that has intellectual justifications instead of visual ones. If the work fails as art, at least it provoked a discussion or made you think about some issue, so the rationale goes. Another way to chicken out is to do something outlandish, so that if it's neither all that good nor all that different, at least it's noticeable. There are hundreds of ways to chicken out. Figuring out how to make something good and different, when it's not obvious how to do so, requires courage.

On the outside of the creative process, as a viewer, excellence is less of a dynamic and more of an artifact. The excellence is recorded in the composition as triggers of certain emotions and attentions. As a viewer, you get to bask in the glow. But the dynamic of excellence takes place at the macro level as well. Styles of art have limited possibilities. Successful styles, once they're established by great artists, draw in a great number of lesser artists. Over time, all of them working together on the same problem makes it harder and harder to do something both good and different within that style. Just as it is in the progress of a single artist, the minor variations don't cut it anymore, and a bigger variation is necessary. This is how new styles come into being. Often the great artists make their own stylistic shifts, but more commonly, new artists set off in their own directions. Even as a viewer, you can see too many examples of one style. After a while you want to see something good, but different. Usually you'll revisit favorite examples of the familiar style and seek out new examples within it, but it's also possible to tire of a whole genre for a long time.

I believe that the triggers work in the way they do because of similarity between humans. In a nutshell, most of what we are, we have in common. There are differences, of course, and culture and upbringing exaggerate those differences. Your upbringing may prevent you from ever developing a taste for, say, kimchee. But no amount of acculturation, education, or indoctrination will cause you to grow antlers. You stay human and share a lot of predilections with your fellow humans. This explains how we can have both variation of taste and consensus, how the arts can be universal but not affect everyone in the same way, and how cultures can develop distinct styles but non-members of a culture can appreciate their objects. The triggers are the property of the material object, but we can't measure them because the experience that makes those triggers important takes place within human consciousness.

So what are those triggers, exactly? Here's the mystery—they could be anything. We only know they exist by virtue of being able to work on the feelings of the viewer. Here it's a shape, there it's a color, here it's a fine piece of drawing, there it's an uncontrolled splash. More importantly, it's the appearance of those forms in the context of a successful composition. Sometimes it's the successful composition itself.

When those triggers work on your feelings, they can do it in a gross or subtle way, often both at the same time. At the grossest level, the trigger evokes some specific emotion or response, or preys upon your attention in a formulaic way. A horror movie, for instance, is trying to make you feel fear while sucking you into a narrative. This manipulation of particular feelings is melodrama. That sounds pejorative, but I think that all art relies on melodrama to some degree. You could look at melodrama as failed drama, but I suspect that a lot of successful art relies on a few big, obvious ideas, and the question is how to work those obvious ideas in an interesting, heartfelt manner. So I tend to look at it the other way around—drama is redeemed melodrama.

At the other end of the spectrum, the subtle end, the trigger evokes an innate sense of rightness in the universe, what we call the sublime. If melodrama is an attempt to goad your attention and feelings in a particular direction, the sublime draws your attention and feelings towards it like a flame draws a moth. This experience is impossible to describe. In fact, the impossibility of describing it is likely why we have art in the first place—to be taken beyond words. Gustav Mahler once said that if a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.

That said, if an artist sets out to trigger sublime emotions, he's just turning the sublime into a melodramatic project. This happens in a lot of failed high art. There are Tintorettos, for example, that in my opinion just thrash ridiculously. Conversely, the melodramatic, executed with enough artistic force, can reach the sublime in spite of itself. In the Road Runner cartoons, by the time Wile E. Coyote falls to his doom for the fifth time in ninety seconds, the fundamental absurdity of the universe is as palpable as in anything written by Camus. Not only are you better off succeeding at low art than failing at high art, you're better off concentrating on excellence relative to your own work, your colleagues', and nature, and letting the sublime take care of itself.

I just compared some paintings to an animated cartoon and threw out the terms low art and high art as if they were given. The idea that there is a distinction between art forms marked by high culture and refined taste on one hand, and popular culture and crude taste on the other, has been unraveling for 150 years. People thought Manet's Luncheon on the Grass was a crude gesture. By the middle of the 20th century we had Andy Warhol painting soup cans, and the best new music on earth was being composed by jazz musicians. In the last two decades of the 20th century, philosophical movements rose to prominence that said that all of these distinctions between high and low were arbitrary and elitist. On this point, I believe, they came as close to being right about something as they ever did. There is no good reason for high art and low art not to intermingle freely, both stylistically and categorically. Things of value are being produced by low art all the time, and these things are worth study and consideration.

And yet, some art forms have access to the sublime that other art forms don't. Road Runner has moments of the sublime, as does Led Zeppelin, Calvin and Hobbes, and Star Trek. The world would be poorer without them. But compared to Botticelli, whose work resides in the sublime full-time, their work takes place at a lower level of activity. Moreover, their work should take place at a lower level of activity—good entertainment, and intelligent, sensitive craft as applied within the parameters of rock 'n' roll, newspaper comics, and television, respectively. Calvin and Hobbes would have been terrible if Bill Watterson had tried to be Botticelli seven days a week. To be fair, I think Botticelli would have been a bad cartoonist. Tintoretto, though, would have been a great one.

I did just say that you don't want to turn the sublime into a melodramatic project by aiming your work in that direction, but a high artist should have the sublime in the back of his head as a reminder of what is possible in his art form. From there, he should concentrate on excellence and hope the sublime creeps into his work of its own accord.

High and low art have so much in common in the way they operate that we can say that they run alongside one another. High art has more access to the sublime, but triggers that are less than sublime, merely good (although good is nothing to sneeze at), or melodramatic, overlap with those in low art all the way down. There is something lower than both high art and low art. That is the middle.

We don't use the term middle art, and in my opinion there is no middle art. There doesn't have to be, with so much overlap between high and low. There is, however, middlebrow taste. Middlebrow taste is a kind of chickening out of taste, in which you settle for familiarity instead of demanding excellence.

If you have healthy highbrow taste, you'll argue with your highbrow friends about whether Pere Goriot or The Country Doctor was the better Balzac novel. If you have healthy lowbrow taste, you'll argue with your lowbrow friends about whether Next Generation or Deep Space Nine was the better arc of Star Trek. These activities are identical to the extent that they both recognize that excellence exists in art, and that it's worthwhile to make distinctions between examples thereof. In fact, I think it's hard to prove that the former conversation is better in any significant way than the latter one. Whether either of them ends up being illuminating or pathetic has more to do with the people in the conversation than the topic.

The main concern of middlebrow taste is not excellence, but allegiance. People with middlebrow taste for low art are interested in having complete sets of things. Comic book companies occasionally put out the same issue with four different covers in order to separate the middlebrows from their money. In low art, these people are called fanboys. Because they like something, they feel allegiance to it, and the allegiance causes them to like things that are done in the same manner. They never experience the feeling that creators have that I described earlier, when they hit their equivalent of Painting #15. When the creators can't take it anymore, and decide to play electric instead of acoustic guitar, or do the alternate-universe version of their comic book, fanboys wail like the wounded.

People with middlebrow taste in high art are similarly driven. Sometimes you run into someone who only likes Surrealism, for instance. They know Dali and Magritte but haven't heard of Paul Delvaux or Max Ernst. They're not interested in knowing about automatic surrealists like Joan Miro or Arshile Gorky. They've latched on to particular traits, and styles of art that don't share those traits don't appear to them as good art.

That's a primitive example, but this attitude permeates the high art world. Last month a multi-millionaire contemporary art collector made this statement in his online column in the New York Observer: The art world of now is about graphic imagery, sexuality and the media; it reflects our experience of the world around us.... It's political, it's provocative and it's about the world in which we are living. These were his reasons for not liking the de Kooning retrospective which is up at the Museum of Modern Art right now. This is a thoroughly middlebrow attitude about art. De Kooning doesn't share the traits that he associates with art that matters, so it doesn't appear to him as art that matters.

So now that you know what excellence is, demand it. Go high, go low, but demand it. Whatever you do, don't chicken out.

Word count: 3980

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