Joseph Beuys said everyone’s an artist… which is hard to deny. I believe everyone’s a brain surgeon, which is equally obvious. The question is how good a brain surgeon, how good an artist? Anthropology shows that art is an instinct, a symbolic language of early humans since the dawn of time. It’s an achievement; there’s the art of carpentry.
Unpacking Rachel and the cat cartoon yields assumptions. Postmodernism broke rules and trashed tradition; tossing a plate of cat food becomes art. How more radical can it get? How better reject classical standards of art, than by tossing a plate of food at the wall? I think everyone would accept that as art. Hum… Duchamp didn’t. In the Cabane interviews and elsewhere he consistently said that readymades were not art and could not have anything to do with art.
Cat trolls Rachel asking why self-expression scares her… and non-verbal Rachel just shrugs in disgust. It looks like it’s up to us to answer. You can’t accidentally make art. Art is an intention. You can see potential in an accident, but then you need master the process to understand what in that accident was art; what is art? As in the art of cuisine, the art of conversation. Quality is the magic word, quality is degraded when food is splattered on the wall. That’s not art, it’s pretence.
Postmodern theory temporarily erased the line between art and pretence. But it did this by denying reality checks and as a result academia faces a cognitive bias; psychologists say that in cases of delusion, the first banana peel will do. We should start thinking once again about the difference between art and pretence.
When art is an idea
There’s a musical piece with this installation; an orchestra plays classical music with out-of-tune instrument and completely out of tempo. The performance lasts 4′ 33″. Our irritated audience is likely to walk out early, we’re so disturbed by flawed pitch. We have instincts that judge aural information and those instincts are specific. You can’t unhear that sound when the singer goes off key.
Mistuned music disturbs in other ways. Art is therapeutic, music is especially so, it can calm and heal. In the Timaeus, Plato writes that mathematics are related to the divine, which explains why an out of tune song is hellish. When art is therapeutic anyone purposefully making bad art, anyone following a counter-aesthetic practice, can become mentally unwell, ill, and infect others. Sol LeWitt recommends you purposefully make bad art if suffering from an artist’s block, but even then it’s dangerous. When purposefully making counter-aesthetic art, you wreck havoc with the fine tuning machinery of creativity, and you do damage, including a loss of standards, an inability to judge, you no longer know what art is.
Duchamp made art intellectual, discarding non-verbal visual elements. He also aimed for an art that went against his personal taste; he said good taste is the enemy of art. Then he lost interest and stopped making art. This is a cautionary tale, it argues that an intellectual approach to art destroys both motivation and ability. That is when art becomes an illustration, when it forsakes the primacy of non-verbal languages such as body language, aural language or visual language, and is used to express ideas. That ’s not art, that’s illustration, a common strategy in our time; most art today is actually an illustration of academic concepts. But that’s not art, it’s illustration.
The Great Unlearning
In Critique as Unlearning (e-flux.conversations, 2017) Sreshta Rit Premnath, artist and Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Parsons New School, personifies a language hosting superficial trends over the realities of complex history. “It would be prudent to take the contingency of one’s position as a given …I would like to consider what it might mean if we took Gayatri Spivak’s call to unlearn one’s learning and unlearn one’s privilege as the aim of studio critique.”
In what seems a rebuttal, Chomsky asserts that knowledge of language, and probably other kinds of knowledge are not accounted for externally, through experience, but internally, in terms of principles which are not contingent, but certain; not learned, but innate; not a posteriori, but a priori.
Premnath tosses psychology out the window and calls for a sacrificium intellectus, in what looks a strategic attempt to destroy his student’s self-esteem, promoting uncertainty and inferiority, teaching his students to hobble themselves, perhaps to eliminate any competition from potential bright minds. His advice to give up our privilege comes from someone privileged above others; a tenured New York academic earning many times a average wage, who is not about to unlearn his own education, the base of his power. Unlearning our way to a politically correct utopia is a childish fantasy that will not bring about the golden age of the simple minded. Superficial trends ignore complex reality, this world is awash in historical illiteracy.
Teodrose Fikre wrote that there are tens of millions of uneducated white people who suffer generational poverty in the Appalachians and beyond, that matches the poverty faced by minorities in the cities. But these rural poor are told they’re privileged by a college educated middle class living in cities these uneducated poor could never afford to visit. Because inequality and injustice occur among all levels of society, it’s education that brings privilege, and everyone studies to acquire it.
“unlearning one’s learning and unlearning one’s privileges”… Aren’t there times when accusations of privilege are a power strategy? People have been known to claim victim status as a moral currency to dominate the narrative. Few of us are rich. In time we realize the privileged are those who are educated, while those lacking an education are unemployed. One cannot unlearn one’s education nor should one wish to. Without talent, no entitlement.