Against Art Relativism… or, If You Ever Wanted To Call Me An Elitist Snob, Here’s Your Chance
In Sam’s recent post on snobbery, one of the more interesting threads had to do with what I refer to as art relativism. For my purposes here, let us define art relativism as the belief that in any particular study of art, all works are inherently equal. Compare Beethoven and Lee Greenwood, say the art relativists, and they are – objectively speaking – artistic equivalents. You might prefer Beethoven, but this is just because you happen to like him more. This is most likely because you are an elitist snob – and probably a disingenuous liberal and academic to boot.
Wardsmith notably took what I might call a strong art relativistic position, posting a sexy, black velvet-style picture of a bikinied woman and declaring it the artistic equivalent to Rufus’s “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, [and] Caravaggio” (among many others). Jaybird argues (I think- but maybe it was just J being inscrutable) a certain kind of weak art relativism when he suggests that the difference between the artistic merit of classical music and top 40 music is merely the difference in the levels of Brahmin elitism displayed by the listener. Neither Wardsmith nor Jaybird are in the minority here, I think. In fact, I suspect that most people in our country agree with them.
I wanted to talk briefly about this. I do agree with Sam that there is just as much snobbery involved in saying “Classical music is for wimps, I only buy Country Western CDs!” as there is “County Western music is for rubes, I only buy Baroque CDs!” However, I also feel that there is a very real difference in artistic achievement between different works of art. Are there elitist snobs you look down their nose at people who don’t agree with them? Yes, and they are indeed trying – and often they have no idea of what they speak. But this doesn’t mean that some works aren’t greater achievements than others. Despite Ward’s insinuation that a black velvet picture of a babe with a great rack and a stunning ass has just as much claim to being a work of art as, say, Picasso’s Guernica, it really doesn’t.
Note: Despite the fact that I am partially responding here to his example of a specific painting, I’m going to beg Ward’s (and everyone else’s) forgiveness and not address this specific work, as my knowledge of visual art theory is lacking. Instead, where I focus on specific examples at all I will use music (which I have studied) and writing (where I am at least on more solid footing in terms of knowledge than I am with painting, sculpture, or mixed media).
In my experience, those that do argue strongly for art relativism have three things in common. While I would hasten to say that these observations are personal and not based on any study – and are certainly not universal – in my own travels they have generally been true:
1. Those who claim that art is only a matter of taste – or that consumer-based measurements are the best metric of art – are usually confusing “art appreciation” with “liking” something.
2. In the big Venn diagram of life, there is very little overlap of those that preach relativism in a form of art and those that have seriously studied that form of art.
3. There is however a surprisingly large – and perhaps ironic – overlap between those that are so confident that all art is relative, and those that rail against moral, religious, political, or any other kind of relativism.
There is a difference between liking a piece of music, and appreciating it’s artistic merit. For example, one of the bands that my friends listened to growing up was the Dead Milkmen. I still like listening to them from time to time, for all kinds of reasons – not the least of which is nostalgia. In fact, when the sun and warmth returns to my part of the world, there’s a good bet that my iPod’s driving mix will include Nitro Burning Funny Cars. (Best line is when the lead singer laments with disgust, “This world is full of people who look a lot like Gavin McLeod.”) So maybe throughout the course of this summer I’ll hear Nitro Burning Funny Cars a few dozen times. On the other hand, it’s a very good bet that during that same period of time I won’t actively choose to listen to Mozart’s Serenade for Winds, K. 361; 3rd Movement. If you don’t recognize this piece by name, you’ll certainly remember the classic scene where Salieri walks you through the opening bars in the movie Amadeus. Despite how much I love watching F. Murray Abraham in that scene, I will confess that I have never particularly liked K. 361. I can’t tell you why, exactly; I don’t really have an objective reason. It just never floated my boat.
But despite that fact that I really like Nitro Burning Funny Cars and don’t particularly care for K. 361, I still recognize that they are not equal in terms of artistic achievement. And to avoid going too far into the arcane language of musical theory, let me simply back up that statement in far simpler and less Brahmin terms: Any city in America has dozens or even hundreds of bands that could have written Nitro Burning Funny Cars or something just like it. There aren’t that many people alive in any generation that could write something like K. 361. Anybody can put the ball in the basket, but only a few consistently with the clock winding down against the planet’s greatest defenders. Which is to say just as you are not LeBron James, the Dead Milkmen are not Mozart.
Likewise, I don’t particularly care for Ulysses. (I’ve always been a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man guy.) I did enjoy John Grisham’s The Firm a lot; seriously, I found it a real page turner. But those two books are not equal in artistic merit. I don’t need to “like” Ulysses to appreciate the level of genius it took to craft its seemingly endless pages. Similarly, I can understand that Grisham lacks that genius of a literary master and still really enjoy The Firm.
In addition to the language of “like vs. not like,” the measurements of consumerism also serve us poorly in these discussions. We might well note, for example, that John Grisham outsells James Joyce on a pretty consistent basis; likewise for Justin Bieber’s My World 2.0 outselling Duke Ellington’s Midnight in Paris. This is not a sign, however, that Grisham and Bieber are more artistically talented than Joyce or Ellington, or are even their equals. Instead, it’s sign that they are more accessible.
One has to pay very little attention to enjoy top 40 music or airport paperback thrillers. In fact, this is one of the appeals to these kinds of works. Confronting genius, however, takes a fair amount of work by the audience. Both classical and jazz music require at the least a level of active listening that is not required in top 40 music. Some amount of working knowledge of the music theory behind either is best, though – which means that Classical and Jazz require a substantial investment of time and effort before the needle even hits the vinyl to truly be appreciated. The same can be said for the reading of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Pynchon, Hughes or Proust. However, it also means that all of them are less marketable than the Madonnas and Dan Browns of the world, because enjoying Madonna and Dan Brown is far easier, and requires less preparation to appreciate.
Does all of this mean that there is or could be an objective list ranking of works of art? Of course not. To suggest that subjectivity enters not into the world of art appreciation is as foolish as is the claim that the black velvet painting of the babe is the artistic equivalent of the Mona Lisa. I can’t think of any two painters I know that agree on what pieces are best; I can’t think of two musicians I know that have identical thoughts about how they would rank composers. And in any group, there is always some small subset of works where some find artistic merit and others see a passing fad. But this is different from art relativism; all musicians, painters and writers I know recognize levels of artistic achievement in other’s works, even when they don’t like them.
This mixed symbiosis of objectivity and subjectivity goes against our modern culture’s love of definitive labeling and ranking. This can be frustrating – and can seem like just a whole bunch of bulls**t – for those that haven’t yet taken the time to study a particular art form. Believe me, I know. I certainly feel this way a lot about the visual arts. (Seriously, it’s hard for me not to think my visual artist friends are having me on about Malevich’s Black Square.)
And it never ends. The more you learn about a particular study of art, the more you struggle with yourself and others about where the highest plains of genius lie. All of this, however, is what makes artistic achievement so profound, so transcendent. To paraphrase Tom Hanks from A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”
And black velvet paintings just aren’t that hard.