Joseph Beuys said that everyone’s an artist… which is hard to deny. And I believe everyone’s a brain surgeon, which is equally valid.The question is how good a brain surgeon, how good an artist? Anthropology has shown that art is an instinct, a symbolic language found in hominid behavior since the dawn of time. It has always been our highest accomplishment, as in the art of medicine or the art of singing; art is excellence.
Unpacking this cartoon yields assumptions. Postmodernism broke rules and trashed tradition; tossing a plate of cat food becomes art, not in a play acted onstage but as normal behavior at home. 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. He always said readymades weren’t art.
Cat asks 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.
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 cannot lie and claim an out-of-tune instrument is enjoyable.
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. “…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.”
Premnath teaches a renunciation of education and privilege, this coming from someone very privileged indeed, a tenured New York academic, earning many times the typical wage, who is certainly not about to unlearn his own education, nor will he give away his financial privilege. Unlearning our way to a politically correct utopia is a childish fantasy that will not bring about the golden age of the simple mind. Superficial trends ignore complex history, this world is awash in historical illiteracy.
Teodrose Fikre wrote that there are tens of millions of unlearned “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 the college educated middle class living in cities these poor could never afford to visit. Because inequality and injustice occur among all levels of society, it’s education that brings privilege, and everyone works and 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 claimed victim status as a moral currency to shame others and dominate the narrative. Few of us are rich. Eventually we realize the privileged are the educated, while those lacking an education are unemployed. In any case, one cannot unlearn one’s education nor should one wish to. Without talent, no entitlement. On hearing that who we are and what we’ve learned is worthless, it’s evident we’re being attacked; Premnath suggests we’re a moral tort. It looks a strategic attempt to destroy the other’s self-esteem, possibly teaching his students to hobble themselves intellectually, maybe to eliminate competition from some bright minds among them.