Thursday, November 12, 2015

Art, Kitsch, Subjectivity, and All That

These are themes I've written about in the past, and I feel like taking another whack at them. The interested reader can probably search the archives to find if I've changed my mind. Me? I am a forward-looking man! The past is the past.

Oft-repeated theme: art is all subjective anyways. False. Art is not subjective. Nor is it objective. There is a lovely word specifically invented to describe what it is: intersubjective which is, more or less, "something like subjective, except people seem to agree with one another about it". In practice, it means rough social consensus.

Oft-repeated theme: why don't people like good photos?

This one can be unpacked a little. Photographers are often heard to, roughly, divide photographs up into three categories:
  • Poncy Art Crap that only faggots from New York City like.
  • Garbage snapshots on facebook etc.
  • The pictures my friends and I like.
which is really to divide the world up in to:
  • Faggots from NYC. FfNYC.
  • Unwashed ignorant pigs.
  • Me and my friends.
which isn't very charitable. Still, we all tend to do this, don't we? There's always us and them, and we can generally divide "them" up into the fancy ones and the dirty ones.

Let's all take a moment and resolve to try to do better. ... ok, there.

So we have the idea of intersubjectivity, which tells us that a "good" photograph is something that some group somewhere more or less agrees is "good". If you like you can play games with measuring the size of the group. If it's pretty much just you and your friends, or pretty much just FfNYC, well, that means something, doesn't it? Not that many people like whatever it is. Which may or may not be a good thing.

Let me take a moment for an aside. I think that the Poncy Art that only Faggots Like is actually much more accessible than people make out. I think that the common man, of which I am an example, can get something out of practically anything if they simply apply themselves a little. Read the artist's statement, which will be ridiculous, yes. But struggle with it a little and try to get something from it, and look at the piece or the exhibit in that light. What are the ideas here? Stop fussing about the fact that it was painted with poop for a moment, and look with an open mind.

Which brings us, circuitously, around to the other axis which is ideas. There's kitsch and decor which are typically short on ideas and long on looks. Kitsch actually has ideas, often, they're just not ideas about society or humanity or the infinite, they're ideas about what things can be glued to other things. At the other end we have the Poncy Art which is long ideas and often short execution these days. And then there's all the stuff in the middle.

There's also Dada and so on which tries to avoid ideas, in a sense, but fails. "Has no ideas in it" is an idea. So there.

With all this stuff in play, there's really no point in judging something good or bad. Those words are meaningless, or rather have so many potential meanings as to be pointless.

You can say "I don't think this piece has any ideas" and "I think this piece is poorly executed" and "I think the colors in this piece would go remarkably well with my couch". These are factual statements about your internal state, and as such are not really open to debate.

Because we are humans and are indeed plugged in to our society, and are good guessers about what other people might think, we can extend these factual statements about ourselves to firm opinions, well-educated guesses, about what other will think. "I don't think many people will find any interesting ideas in this piece" is a statement you can make, if you're careful. It's not quite the same as "I don't find any ideas", you have to expand your mind a little. I, for one, have seen many pieces where I got little or nothing, but felt it possible that others might. I have seen many more pieces where I am convinced that the reason I see no ideas is because there aren't any.

Similarly you can say "I cannot imagine there is a couch in the world this goddamned thing would go with" and so on. Generalization from the personal to some broader scope is something that we are unreasonably reliable at, what with our big fat brains. We're not 100%, which is why we think of generalization as a bad idea, but we're much much much better than random. So, generalize away, just hedge a trifle, because nobody's 100%.

It is the intersubjectivity of Art and related things that lets this work. If Art were truly subjective, then generalization would not work. Since it is a social consensus, we, as members of society are both accurate guessers as to that consensus, and also contributors to that consensus.

So, judge away. But your judgement should be your personal experience of whatever it is, and then a considered and careful generalization of that.

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