Another $0.02 on Art

Tom Van Dyke

Tom Van Dyke, businessman, musician, bon vivant and game-show champ (The Joker's Wild, and Win Ben Stein's Money), knows lots of stuff, although not quite everything yet. A past inactive to The American Spectator Online, the late great Reform Club blog, and currently on religion and the American Founding at American Creation, TVD continues to write on matters of both great and small importance from his ranch type style tract house high on a hill above Los Angeles.

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81 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    After all the discussions of the past week, there probably is no need for me to say that I agree with you.  But I’ll say it anyway.

    Plus, your brevity and use of imagery was powerful and to the point.  Well spoke.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Merci, Tod.  I feel sorry for our new friend Karl, and remember the sense of astonishment he’s clearly feeling now at the most patent of nonsense, that there’s no virtue in or even possibility of telling the difference between your ass and a hole in the ground.

      I can only affirm that neither this folly or his astonishment at it is anything new: Centuries ago, the wise and clever Dr Johnson said of its espouters:

      “Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.”


      • Jaybird in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Assuming that people who don’t see X aren’t being honest about whether they see X is… well, it does a good job of mirroring those who claim that those who claim to see X are making X up.

        If they don’t see X, maybe it’s because they can’t (rather than that they do and aren’t being honest or that they close their eyes and are being honest about how they aren’t seeing X when they would see X if only they opened their eyes) and it then becomes incumbent upon those who can see X to guide those who cannot to places where they can train themselves to see it.

        Good god, we need a better class of Brahmin.Report

  2. Will H. says:

    Genius is displayed on varying levels.
    Like Einstein pissing his pants, for instance.
    On the one hand, you could say that this is a terrible problem.
    On the other, such a statement is… well… art.Report

  3. BSK says:

    With regards to the last set of photos, what makes the latter obviously better than the former?Report

    • karl in reply to BSK says:

      Dear god almighty, here we go again.  This is one instance where tautology rules: it’s obvious because it’s obvious.  That’s what obvious means; if you don’t see the obvious then you have flawed senses.  Do you really need an explanation of what makes an elephant larger than a cow or makes olives more bitter than apples?  Some things are obvious to normal people — get with the program.

      I’m tired people who know better making nuisances of themselves.Report

      • BSK in reply to karl says:

        I’d rather look at the first. It’s not obvious to me. And that ignores the context required to understand both works. Show both to someone with zero knowledge of “Peanuts” or Christianity, or the knowledge of only one, and that informs their response. Art is not just a bunch of lines.

        The second one mght be harder to make, and in that regard, some might consider it superior. But that isonly one metric against which art can be measured.

        I like the first. The second is depressing to me. The first makes me smile. If you want me to say that, in this instance, I prefer a less tehnically proficient piece, so be it. The first is still obviously better to me.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to karl says:

        Karl, BSK’s question is a good one.

        One picture is a pieta sculpture; the other is a cartoon.  Maybe sculptures are inherently better than cartoons.  If so, then the sculpture is better.  Otherwise, we’re comparing granny smiths with red delicious.  Now, if Michelangelo wants to put on an animated Christmas special about a hapless little boy who wants people to tell him what Christmas is all about, then we might compare his work with Schulz’s.Report

        • karl in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

          His question is a good one for children, not for adults.  By the time we’ve grown up the interplay between artistic quality, intellectual and emotional depth, and our own reactions should be at least minimally understood.  The idea that artistic merit is based on smile-worthiness is not particularly serious, and if that’s where you’re all coming from then you can have a big soma party and smile till the cows come home.Report

          • BSK in reply to karl says:


            Who is the immature one here… The one who insists there is only one way to evaluate the world? Or the one who accepts his admittedly simplistic preferences for art as one of many possible ways of assessing the stuff?Report

            • karl in reply to BSK says:

              Citing “the interplay between artistic quality, intellectual and emotional depth, and our own reactions” doesn’t strike me as insisting there is only way to evaluate the world.

              Your and my preferences are just that — preferences, not critiques.  Investigating issues of quality and value in anything (art, food, furniture, cars, animal husbandry, you name it) means defining terms (see DD below) and setting up bases for contrast and comparison.  This is how grown-ups do it; merely elevating preferences from the personal to the universal is an immature act (and I think you know that).

              Now that the snark is out of the way, you do acknowledge multiple approaches (well, two, actually) but claim to care about only one (smile/not smile).  That’s fine — it’s your preference and you’re more than entitled to it — but “better” implies a value judgment, not just a preference.  Feeling is not critiquing.Report

            • BSK in reply to BSK says:

              The OP stated that no one would argue the Peanutsto be the equal of the Michelangelo. My point is that, depending on the criteria, one might fight it far better, far worse, equal to, or anything in between. “Better” is subjective, inherently. There is nothing wrong with this. But to claim, as the OP did and you seemed to, that there is one objective way of determining what art is better than another is wrong. Critique is just one of many methods of evaluating. As is the smile test. Neitheris better than the other… only different.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to BSK says:

      First, define “better”.  Then we’ll talk.Report

  4. David Ryan says:

    Debating qualitative differences in art is like debating the existence of God. As Mr. Blase’ observed about the latter, both effect and consensus can be observed among the adherents; and one ignores this at his or her own peril.Report

  5. Sam says:

    Jesus doesn’t meant anything to me. seeing representations of him stirs nothing in my soul other than the resentment I have for modern Christianity. Besides, Michalangelo hardly represents the entrepreneurial attitude I like inherent in my art. Charles Shultz created something from nothing; Michelangelo needed somebody else’s character, somebody else’s story to make a mark on the world. Hardly the creation of a true original.

    Whether or not I believe anything I wrote above is immaterial, especially if the counter to it is, “BUT THE OTHER THING’S JUST BETTER BECAUSE IT IS.”Report

    • karl in reply to Sam says:

      Charles Schultz invented cartoons? the comic strip? comic strips with child characters?  What exactly is “something from nothing”?  Does a sculpture carved out of a rock qualify?

      What’s with you people?  Sheesh.Report

      • BSK in reply to karl says:

        What’s wrong with us? We realize that the complexity of the human mind makes for variances in subjective judgements. What a bunch of weirdos we are.

        Michaelangelo sculpted an image done time and time again, a derivativeness the OP claims makes art less (though we all know not to expect consistency from this particular OP). Schultz created original characters. Both worked in unoriginal mediums. How hard is this to comprehend?Report

        • karl in reply to BSK says:

          “Both worked in unoriginal mediums. How hard is this to comprehend?”

          It’s so hard to comprehend that it was exactly the point I was making.  And don’t put yourself down, you’re not at all weird.

          “We realize that the complexity of the human mind makes for variances in subjective judgements.”

          Yes!  Subjective judgments — you’re free to like anything, but objective judgments should require stricter criteria than “I like it more so it’s better.”Report

          • BSK in reply to karl says:

            How do we make an objective argument for “better” without objective criteria? Objective criteria are measurable. Few criteria relating to art are.Report

          • Sam in reply to karl says:


            Isn’t, “I like it more so its better” what you argued earlier in this thread? You wrote this: “This is one instance where tautology rules: it’s obvious because it’s obvious.” That’s the criteria you proposed above.


            • karl in reply to Sam says:

              No.  “Obvious” has nothing to do with my preferences — received wisdom makes some things obvious to the uninitiated.  As someone who grew up in urban America in the late 20th century, some things are obvious without specialized knowledge: Lincoln was a more important political figure than Benjamin Harrison (although a clever person could make the opposite case which, however admirable in its ingenuity, wouldn’t be taken seriously); vegetables and fruit juices are better for you than whiskey and cigarettes (although… seriously); Michelangelo was a greater artistic than Charles Schultz (although… seriously).

              As for personal preferences: I don’t like olives, but I wouldn’t say that a loaf of Wonder Bread is better than an artisanal olive loaf just because I can eat one and not the other — that would be childish.Report

  6. MFarmer says:

    My perspective in these arguments is that we can objectively judge art to a certain point — all people who understand art will likely agree that a work in question is art worthy of consideration and has reached the certain point — but then above this level which separates art from non-art, subjectivity comes into play — you like one work of art, and I like the other, but they’ve both been determined as significant art above a certain level that distinguishes both from non-art, insignificant art. This probably doesn’t make sense.Report

  7. Chris says:

    The idea that execution and degree of difficulty — a facile formula that is meant, I assume, as a bit of a place marker rather than an actual aesthetic theory (it’s difficult to tell — you leave everything unargued, as usual) — gets to what makes some art better than other art is, well, it’s common but it’s unfortunate. Art is certainly about execution, but degree of difficulty is something that is at best almost impossible to ascertain much less describe, and at worst is entirely orthogonal to the aesthetic worth of a piece of art. This, for example, is not particularly difficult (I could probably replicate it):

    But it is something I appreciate enough to have a print hanging in my home.

    The value of art comes in something that has little to do with how difficult it is physically to produce, or how well it is produced. It’s barely even related to those things. It has to do with how we relate to it, and there are both subjective and objective dimensions to that. You won’t even begin to scratch the surface of what makes some art better than other art until you delve into that relationship.Report

    • Chris in reply to Chris says:

      By the way, a part of this relationship is the context, and I don’t mean that so simply as “Michelangelo was a Christian.” Sure, so were a lot of artists who produced works with similar themes, but Michelangelo’s stands out for a reason, and part of that reason is the aesthetic context — what came before it, what came after it (which includes who and what it influenced, which is an important part of this complex, nonlinear equation), and where it places itself in all of that. That’s why I love Matisse, despite the fact that much of his work looks like it was produced by color-blind high school art students. It’s why I understand the appeal of Pollock, even if I can’t stand it myself. Pollock producing what he did today, or 200 years ago, would have been considered shit, but it’s not shit for reasons that have almost nothing to do with difficulty and execution. I don’t mean that context is everything, but it’s important enough that any discussion of this stuff is off the mark without including it.

      Also, comparing Peanuts to Michelangelo is a bit like comparing apples to lawnmowers. It’s not just that there’s a very real distinction between high art and folk art, but they were also produced for two entirely different purposes. Oh, maybe purposes have something to do with it as well?Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

      The value of art comes in something that has little to do with how difficult it is physically to produce, or how well it is produced. It’s barely even related to those things. It has to do with how we relate to it, and there are both subjective and objective dimensions to that.

      I ultimately agree with this, because I think the value of art ultimately has to do with giving pleasure to people for whom it is made, kind of like Roger’s maxim of creating value for others (which has definitely been one of the more valuable ideas I’ve gained while hanging around here).

      But I certainly think that appreciation for craft has its place: we should be aware of the work that has gone into creating the artifacts we encounter (not only artwork, though, which is part of why this isn’t a sufficient account of artistic value!).  I do think this recognition can enhance our actual experience of an artwork. Certainly it does for my experience of Pieta (which I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing in person) and of really fine performances of Baroque masterpieces such as the Barandenburg concertos I’ve seen on YouTube, and I think we have to assume it contributes to people’s enjoyment of the Sistine frescoes (also never seen).  Knowledge about the creation of a work can magnify our direct enjoyment of it.

      But craft, effort, skill and difficulty aren’t ultimately the whole story of the artistic value of art. That’s just one side of the story. Art is meant to create an involuntary, naive response in the uninformed experiencer. The audience member should not need to appreciate the difficulty, effort, and skill of the work in order for the work to have its effect on her.  That is the business of the artist.  A work that consumed great effort and required great skill to create but that creates little direct response in an  observer uninformed about these things (uninformed as to the details of its creation, that is; enough familiarity with the works genre that the work potentially might move a person is required for judging its ability to do so) is ultimately of little value – or in any case two works that required the same high amount of effort to create are not of equal value if one moves many of those who experience it and another doesn’t.  Indeed, we might even say that people who appreciate art primarily on the basis of an assessment of the difficulty and execution of the creation (alternatively, the level of skill and effort that went into it) have unmoored their evaluation from the ultimate purpose of all art, which is to create a response in the experiencer, or else purely to express oneself (though ultimately nearly every artist, I belive is seeking to at least go beyond expression to communication of some sort, which then comes back to creating a response).  This is something that artists themselves rarely lose sight of – for them effort, craft, and skill merely happen to be the necessary means to (the necessary means for…) their end of expression, communication, or creation, and “level of difficulty” an incidental quantity that is simply a function of the requirements of the creation itself.Report

      • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Oh, I don’t mean to imply that appreciation for craft doesn’t have its place. I just mean that it doesn’t tell you much about the artistic value of something. Or at least, it doesn’t tell you much about it without a whole host of other factors included.

        As someone who once sculped a beautiful curved block out of a square one, I appreciate how difficult Michelangelo’s scultupre was to some degree because I know that I couldn’t even approximate it, but there are lots of sculptures like that. There are very few that I look at with awe, though.Report

  8. BlaiseP says:

    Art is bunk.   The trouble started when people started signing their names to the things they did.   Sure, we find a few initials left by the stone masons who worked on some of the cathedrals but the great Buddhist artists never signed their names and I don’t see Roebling’s signature on the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Funny you should put up the Pieta.   Michelangelo was hanging around, listening to what others were saying about the piece.   Ears at keyholes shall never hear good things said of their owners and someone thought the Pieta might be by someone else.   So Michelangelo went back and carved a sash onto Mary reading MICHAEL. ANGELUS. BONAROTUS. FLORENT. FACIEBAT

    Great art, sure.  But not quite the same.   For all the exquisite joy and loveliness of Picasso’s Hands with Flowers, was the signature completely necessary?   It’s rather like that bit of Monty Python where Palin sticks his head into the frame and says “I won’t interrupt this sketch for a pound.”


    • karl in reply to BlaiseP says:

      So what exactly is bunk — art or an artist’s (justifiable?) pride in his work?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to karl says:

        Look, we’ve been at this for some time around here, beating on the straw man of what constitutes a Great work of art.   The whole idea of Great Art is preposterous.   Picasso wipes his bum on a piece of canvas and someone’s going to buy it.   Nabokov gave specific instructions to publish no more of his work after his death but his heirs and assigns just couldn’t resist squeezing a few more shekels out of his moldering corpse.  Michelangelo scurries back to his studio for a fine point chisel and hammer so nobody else will confuse his work for that of others.

        The signature becomes a standard bit of the painting during the Impressionist period. It wasn’t before.  It’s at this time when the artist, not the art, becomes the focus of the market.

        If the art is so great, what’s the artist still doing in the frame?   Has his signature added anything of substance to the piece?   Well, if you’re Picasso, you’ve added very considerable value to the piece.  Once he became famous, Picasso cranked the press like he was printing money, in point of fact, that’s how he treated his pieces and the idiot buying public just couldn’t get enough of it.

        Justifiable pride.  Hogwash.   It’s just pride.  Art is a racket.Report

        • karl in reply to BlaiseP says:

          I assume you object to authors’ names on their works, as well.  And musicians’ names on songs and recordings.  Did an artist scare you when you were a child?Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to karl says:

            Heh.   I’ve been an artist and musician for quite a while.  Let’s just put it this way, anyone who thinks the Art Business is about Art is sadly mistaken.   It is about who will buy it and why.   The only critics that matter are the A&R weasels and the buying public and if there is no accounting for tastes, there is for sales.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to karl says:

            Allow me to expand on that thought.  Many of the musicians and arrangers you will hear on big productions are not credited.

            I write software because I grew to hate the music and art business.  I used to do these tight pen and ink renderings, nice enough things, I did a few medical illustrations and sold them.   My wife used to do these abstract pastels, couldn’t sell any of them.   I came home to find her cutting out my renderings and gluing them onto her pieces.   These pieces sold for 1500 to 2000 each.   We did a few dozen of them.   They paid for our second car. No explaining why the combination sold and the individual stuff wouldn’t.

            The art dealers are all sleazy crooks.  The music business is beyond repulsive.  It’s all about the latest trend, important people coming to your shows.   Technique doesn’t matter.  Skill and composition doesn’t matter.   When Michelangelo was working and Tintoretto was busily copping his chops. it was no different then, they were all vying for the same patrons who wanted status symbols for their walls.   How much of what we call Great Art was just so much wall candy?

            Swanning around and saying Michelangelo is so much better than Charles Schulz, well, there was an old Peanuts cartoon which reveals the whole trick.  Linus shows Charlie Brown a drawing.   Charlie Brown says “I note that you drew him with his hands behind his back. This is because you, yourself, have feelings of insecurity.”  Linus yells back at him: “No. I did that because I, myself, can’t draw hands!”Report

            • Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I love and recall that one, BlaiseP, after these many decades.  Limitations in technique such as this were addressed infra, and why Picasso’s choice and your kid’s rendition of the same thing are not the same thing.

              I do however, share your skepticism if not disdain for “context”  if the work doesn’t stand up on its own merits.  I chose Michelangelo’s Pieta not for its context, but in the belief that even a religion-hating Philistine could still appreciate its beauty and patent excellence.

              Most can, I still believe, and got the point.  Not all have gone to milk the bull—nor do I think that such willed ignorance will ever achieve critical mass, where it’s as easy to call the ugly beautiful as it is to recognize the truly beautiful as beautiful.

              Although at the moment the latter course seems quite contrarian in fora like this, this is not representative of the real world, fortunately.



            • karl in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I remember that cartoon!  Liked it but took it for a slap at psychology, not art criticism.

              Too bad about your bitterness, though; so what if old wall candy (good phrase) turns into Great Art (or “turns out to be great art” — that’s a distinction for another argument) — let the rest of us enjoy those old masters with our cocked heads and one raised eyebrow.


              • BlaiseP in reply to karl says:

                I’m not bitter at all.  Architecture is possessed of the same effete madness, fashion is even worse and I pay close attention to all of them.   I just don’t take all this nonsense seriously.

                Every freshman English class has Prufrock inflicted on them but very few see Prufrock as anything but an insecure little man, worried about what the women who come and go / talking of Michelangelo might think of him.   He sees right through these goddamn poseurs.

                And would it have been worth it, after all,
                After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
                Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
                Would it have been worth while,
                To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
                To have squeezed the universe into a ball
                To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
                To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
                Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
                If one, settling a pillow by her head,
                Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
                That is not it, at all.”

                Karl, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since the 1960s it’s this:  fashion comes and goes but bullshit goes on forever.   No sooner does some musician emerge onto The Scene than ten thousand people who can’t play a C scale will tell him how wonderful he is.  The only people worth paying attention to in either the art or the music world are those who have the attention of other artists.   Those are the originals and they never got the attention they deserve when they needed it.    Others would emulate them and make big bucks in so doing.   Everyone knows Michelangelo and nobody knows Ghirlandaio his master who sent him to the Medicis.Report

              • karl in reply to BlaiseP says:

                A Ghirlandaio shout-out!  Don’t know how pluses to give you for that one — you are now truly the man.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to karl says:

                Oh he’s just tremendous.   Of course you know about Vasari’s little biography of him but others might not.

                The loss of so great a man was a great grief to his friends; and many excellent foreign painters, hearing that he was dead, wrote to his relatives lamenting his most untimely death. The disciples that he left were David and Benedetto Ghirlandajo, Bastiano Mainardi da San Gimignano, the Florentine Michelagnolo Buonarroti, Francesco Granaccio, Niccold Cieco, Jacopo del Tedesco, Jacopo dell’ Indaco, Baldino Baldinelli, and other masters, all Florentines. He died in 1495.

                Domenico enriched the art of painting by working in mosaic with a manner more modern than was shown by any of the innumerable Tuscans who essayed it, as is proved by the works that he wrought, few though they may be. Wherefore he has deserved to be held in honour and esteem for such rich and undying benefits to art, and to be celebrated with extraordinary praises after his death.

                Would that any of us would be so admired and our passing so bitterly grieved as by that band of lustrous and talented people.Report

  9. Burt Likko says:

    Michaelangelo’s Pieta, in my opinion, is a remarkable work because it captures something timeless and emotionally powerful — the mother grieving for the son she must bury, her grief and shock, the pain still resident on the lifeless body of a man tortured to death. Other Pietas had been done before, and since, but this one is the best of the many I’ve seen.

    YMMV. Which is part of the point — maybe you think there are better Pietas out there. Maybe you want to sneer at Michaelangelo for not inventing his own mythology and instead choosing a pre-existing myth* as his subject matter. We each get to make our own subjective judgments about them. You could, I suppose, look at the Pieta and shrug your shoulders dismissively, saying, “Eh.” To do so is to take a stance against the prevailing culture. Perhaps you do this unconsciously, perhaps you do so in good faith; perhaps you are engaged in an act of rebellion against the prevailing culture. I can imagine someone being moved to stronger emotion by A Charlie Brown Christmas than the Pieta, but that person must necessarily be operating from a different stance towards our prevailing culture than I am; and based on the consensus of other peoples’ responses to these two works of art, I suspect my assessment of the emotional impact is in relatively close congruity with that of the prevailing culture.

    So if you want to be absolutist about art lacking inherent worth, I suppose I have to agree. All art lacks inherent value. All art is inherently devoid of utility. You can’t use a painting the way you use a hammer or a knife or gasoline. Of course, gold is also lacking in any substantial inherent value. It’s a metal, and for most purposes it’s an unusably soft one at that. Gold is prized, culturally, for a commonly-held perception of its color being beautiful under certain conditions. But if you don’t find the look of gold appealing, then why would you pay hundreds of dollars to buy a necklace or a ring made of it? At the same time, you also must acknowledge that you live in a world where a lot of other people seem to think that gold is valuable, that it is beautiful.

    If all that means to you is that you have an economic opportunity to sell something at a profit to the next greater fool unable to divorce himself from his irrational cultural framework, then on what will you spend that money after you get it — and after you’ve achieved a material threshold sufficient to secure survival, why is what you spend your money on more intrinsically valuable than the Pieta?


    * I emphasize, “myth” does not imply falsity, but rather the fundamental nature of a story to the culture in which it is resident.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “[A]fter you’ve achieved a material threshold sufficient to secure survival, why is what you spend your money on more intrinsically valuable than the Pieta?”

      I see what you did there, Likko.Report

    • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

      So if you want to be absolutist about art lacking inherent worth, I suppose I have to agree. All art lacks inherent value. All art is inherently devoid of utility. You can’t use a painting the way you use a hammer or a knife or gasoline.

      In this series of sentences, you’ve argued against yourself. Utility is the opposite of inherent value. It’s value that comes from an external relationship. Utility is value, in fact, that comes entirely from something else. A hammer is useful because I have a nail, and I need to push it into some hard surface. Otherwise, a hammer is useless. Hammer’s are valuable, in other words, because of something about the way I relate to the world outside of hammers. Art is valuable because of a relationship as well, but that relationship is only about the art, or at least a part of it is. In a sense, then, if there’s any human creation that has intrinsic value, it is art.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Also, gold is an incredibly useful metal.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

        So if that’s a better way to describe “intrinsic value” (as opposed to my hamfisted equation of value with utility) then does all art have equal intrinsic value? Or is some of it more intrinsically valuable than others?

        Art is, or at least can be, a cultural milestone against which one can triangulate oneself and others. I intend to offer a provisional definition of “good” art as that which best (as in “most effectively”) enables this sort of cultural orientation. I want to include an element of aesthetic pleasantness in the definition of “good” art but this will always be subjective to the individual.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Burt Likko says:

          There’s an odd phenomenon going on in the crime world.   As it gets harder to hide financial transactions between crooks, they’ve taken to using art as payment for their dirty work.   So yes, there is an intrinsic value to a good deal of art.Report

          • Burt Likko in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Some practical questions, albeit only half-serious: don’t I still have to liquidate the art in order to convert the proceeds of my crime into hookers and blow? And how am I to know whether I’m being paid good value for my work as a criminal when I get painting “X” instead of sculpture “Y”?

            What could possibly go wrong?Report

        • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

          In answer to your question, is some art more intrinsically valuable than other art, my answer is yes, but…

          I’d put ellipses after the yes and the but if it wouldn’t look odd. The yes has to do with the fact that I think art is valuable for art’s sake, that is, good art justifies itself (it doens’t need a nail and a hard surface). The but has to do with the fact that the art still needs a relationship, not one that involes me needing to push a nail into a hard surface, but there is still some need in me that makes art valuable, without which it’d just be paint on a surface, or oddly angled stone, or dark splotches on paper, or an unnatural combination of tones.

          I think you’re right about the “cultural milestone” piece, though the part about triangulating oneself and others is a bit dangerous. This isn’t so much about art as about interpersonal relationships, and its a function that art serves, to be sure, but that many cultural products serve (like, say, iPod headphones in the mid-2000s). Art has a social aspect, but that’s not all it is, and it’s hard to get value out of the social aspect alone.Report

    • Sam in reply to Burt Likko says:

      -Because it has more meaning to you, whatever it is, than your Pieta does.

      -I can’t figure out a way to make the distinction that I want to make – things can have great value to us while being intrinsically valueless. My heart will always twitch, slightly, when I hear the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Soul To Squeeze”, not because it is a superior piece of music, not because it is a transcendent bit of human achievement, not because it is harmonic heaven, but because it was the song playing when I first danced with a girl. That memory is what makes that song important to me, even if it is otherwise forgettable to millions of other people. Whereas Michelangelo’s Pieta has no meaning to me, nor does it move in any particular way. Perhaps this wouldn’t be true if I were to see it in person. I don’t know.

      What I do know is that I don’t make these valuations for reasons that I sit down and think out. I’m not trying to over-elevate a pop song. I’m not trying to be dismissive of Michelangelo’s work. But one triggers a memory in me; the other is a block of stone. I don’t say that to be glib. I say it because it is an accurate reflection of my relationship with that song and that sculpture.

      What would you rather have me to? Lie? Tell you that the Pieta moves me emotionally when it doesn’t? Propose to share an experience with you that I simply don’t? Tell you that Michelangelo’s work is vastly superior in every imaginable way even if I don’t actually believe that it is? I don’t ask these questions to pick a fight – always a danger in TVD’s thread – but because I don’t actually know the answers.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

        I think everyone’s on board with you telling it like you see it.

        My only question is this, tied into the other thread.

        If you believe that there is (or may be) a moral fabric to the universe, then you accept at least the possibility that there is a path to achieving some wisdom regarding some small fragment of that fabric.

        You may never know Good and Evil entire, but you can figure out a few bits of each.

        This is different from believing that there is no moral fabric to the universe.

        So the actual question that is of importance is: do you think the question (whether art has intrinsic value) is important… or at least interesting?  Maybe you don’t see it, maybe you think it is unlikely, but that’s not the same thing as, “This is a bunch of hooey.”

        Hell, if you don’t, that ain’t no thing.  But if you think that the question is actually interesting, then you’ll take a different approach than if you think the question is not interesting.Report

        • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          I think it is both important and interesting. I’m not sure the impact this has upon our conversation going forward though. If I didn’t think it was important and interesting, I’d just be trolling, right? (And incidentally, I don’t hold it against another person who finds the entire inquiry uninteresting.)Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

            Hell, I go down the rabbit hole from time to time for all sorts of reasons, there’s nothing that says you *have* to be a troll to go down the rabbit hole.

            Okay.  Well… if the question is interesting, then why is the question interesting?  Is it interesting because you want to know what the intrinsic value of art is (if it exists) or it will change your artistic preferences (if it exists in one way… or maybe if it doesn’t exist in another entirely) or is it interesting because of the social context of the question or for some other reasons or these reasons and some other reasons or just because it’s Sunday evening?

            (sometimes, it’s because it’s Sunday evening, for me)

            Here’s the sticky widget: you might not know the answer to that question.  You just know it’s an interesting question, but you don’t know why.  That’s a fair answer, too.Report

            • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              I think there are various reasons that it is interesting. There are surely  social and class elements to all of this, one which shouldn’t be ignored even if I was to concede that some art is superior to other art. There are the personal experiences I have had with this attitude, both being on the receiving end from other people and doing it myself. There are the conversations I’ve had about this topic, which I’ve always found the most stimulating, if for no other reason than it is the position I think I feel the strongest about having.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Sam says:

        Then perhaps both Pieta and Soul to Squeeze have done their job — they have caused both you and I to position ourselves within our shared culture. Those positions differ, as it turns out, and that is only to be expected. I maintain that to be moved by the Pieta is more common than the more blase reaction you report, and one’s response either with or in opposition to consensus is indicative of something about the particular individual within the culture. 

        (Open Arms by Journey was my Soul to Squeeze. Once again, art positions us within the culture, this time in part by age.)Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Wow, I really, really disagree that this is the basic animating purpose of art (though I think it is very much a resultant function of it in the event), but I’m really glad you’ve articulated since it allowed me to consider the idea and have an insight into a view very different from mine.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

            …allowing people to position themselves within the culture that is.

            Moving people, though, that is much closer to my view of the purpose of art.  Maybe right on the money, in fact. (My previous attempt was that the ultimate purpose was to provide pleasure [often experienced as ex post facto appreciation of a work’s expansion of or contribution to the richness of one’s overall set of experiences and sensations in life, or in recognition of meaning or insight that has been gained by experiencing the work, but in other cases experienced directly as pleasure] that makes life more livable by softening or giving relief from the unpleasantness that the necessary parts of life impose on us.) I think I’m marginally still with my previous attempt, but “moving people” is certainly simpler, and works more or less just as well analytically.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

              …Thinking about it a bit more, I think giving pleasure is the basic aim, and moving people is what happens when artwork is extremely successful at this.  Incidentally, I don’t think all art does, nor should, aim for the highest levels of achievement.Report

              • Sam in reply to Michael Drew says:

                That interpretation of art might influence (perhaps strongly) your enjoyment of it though. Not everyone is going to define art’s purpose in the same way, which at its very base creates a scenario in which interpretation is up in the air.Report

              • NoPublic in reply to Michael Drew says:

                I disagree.  Great Art can give pain as well as pleasure.  I would maintain that in my case I am more often moved by art which produces sorrow than pleasure.  Unless I am a masochist (a position not without its supporting documentation) this is not a pleasurable thing.  Nonetheless, that art stays with me over the years.Report

              • Kim in reply to NoPublic says:

                I tend to believe that art that kills the consumer is Not Great Art.

                Art that causes a significant amount of consumers to wet their pants in public?? I’m Hoping that’s not great art! (what do you think?)Report

              • karl in reply to Kim says:

                Earlier, I had to ponder the value of smile-inducing art, now it’s the… oh, never mind.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to NoPublic says:

                I don’t believe people want to experience sorrow, ever.  I think it is a first-order mistake to think that what you feel when you see on screen the sorrow of a parent grieving for a dead child is sorrow.  It’s not even pity, which you would feel for such a person if you were actually with them.  Rather, it’s the experience of considering such things in art, and it’s not the same.  I maintain that, finally, you are engaging with that artwork because you want the pleasure of the experience of knowing your life was richer for experiencing it.  As I mentioned, though, I can definitely see expanding the aim to say that it is to give pleasure or move the audience.  It’s just that I don’t think that we want to be moved by art for any other reason than that, finally, it is a pleasurable experience when we distance ourselves enough to reflect on it, even if it felt a lot like sorrow at the time.

                Sorrow is what you feel when your child is hurt, or when you hurt someone out of carelessness.  We never want to feel that.  What we feel while experiencing art is something different – it is fantastical, imagined, or vicarious emotion (about fictional characters – perhaps I need to carve out an exception for documentaries), and, ultimately, we wouldn’t engage it if we weren’t doing so seeking the pleasure of enriching our lives.Report

              • NoPublic in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Wow.  Invalidate my experience much?

                I don’t even know how to respond to this dreck.

                “Art gives pleasure”

                “Some art causes me sorrow”

                “No it doesn’t, you just are too ignorant to know what you’re actually feeling is pleasure”


                Trust me when I say I’ve been involved in memory and sensory studies out the wazoo.  I’ve seen fMRI images of my brain under stimulus so many times I can pick them out of a random lineup.  You’re quite simply wrong.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to NoPublic says:

                Sad songs they say so much.

                (NoPublic’s right on this score, IIRC my armchair neurology readings.  You get lots of neurological feedback from art that instills sadness)Report

              • Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

                +1 to NoPublic’s comment.

                and my own two cents.

                NOBODY goes to a Haunted House to feel happy. They go to feel scared.  You Should Not be happy after watching someone get killed over something stupid in a drama.


  10. Matty says:

    I’m struggling with this whole discussion, maybe if I ask a question or two it will clarify things.

    You have in front of you two new artworks, they depict the same scene in different ways and you know nothing about the artists.

    Would you be able to tell me that one is a superior piece of art?

    If yes, can you tell me why it is superior, are there criteria I should look for or will you just point at one and announce that its superiority needs no explanation?

    If you do just point, why should I take your word for it?


    • BSK in reply to Matty says:


      Excellent questions.  I believe there have been experiments done where critics were shown various pieces of art with different information and their response changed with the information, even though the pieces themselves stayed the same.

      It is similar to the experiments done with wine, wherein people insist wine tastes differently when they are told the price or vintage.Report

      • Walter McQuie in reply to BSK says:

        There’s a post from yesterday on The Online Photographer titled Context and Significance that responds to an earlier post about the experience at a gallery that doesn’t include any captions or even identify the photographers. The linked post has one photo posted seven times, first with a long blank space, then twice with made up captions, then with increasingly detailed background information. I thought the photo wasn’t very moving, but had slightly more interest in it with the full background explained.

        Someone who has studied art appreciation in college might be able to make a persuasive case using the language they learned there, for one of the other. Of course it might make little sense to anyone who hasn’t picked up the lingo.

        Even if I make that case to you, instead of just pointing, you should only take my word for it if that serves a useful purpose for you. That purpose might have something to do with appreciating art. It might have to do with our social relationship. Or maybe you might be looking to invest in such art and I have some expertise.Report

    • karl in reply to Matty says:

      It’s not about superior; however, any opinion I have about the piece’s relative merit should be demonstrable according to whatever criteria I use.  This critique should be applied to the work itself — not my reactions to it; your critique can be based on a completely different set of criteria.  As long as we agree on the intellectual validity of our respective critiques harmony will reign, whichever one we each prefer.

      If, on the other hand, you want a shortcut and just take my word for it, feel free.


      • Matty in reply to karl says:

        This is the kind of answer I was looking for, now can you actually describe the criteria you would use to judge artistic merit?Report

      • Matty in reply to karl says:

        A further clarification if I may. I have I think been misinterpreting one side of this debate as arguing that it is a universal fact that everyone ought to prefer the Pieta to Peanuts. Would it be more accurate to say that there are learnable criteria on which one ‘scores’ better and these criteria are the ones used by most art critics?


        • Kim in reply to Matty says:

          I’d put it this way — every form of art, high or low, has standards of quality. Puns can be judged too!

          In comedy, it’s as much timing, execution, as content. I’ve watched great comedians muff the timing and spoil an entire joke by letting the “laugh here” go on too long.Report

        • Chris in reply to Matty says:

          As I said somewhere above, I’m not sure it makes any sense to compare the two. They’re in different categories, which is not a value judgment, but a practical one. Peanuts is entertainment, and the Pieta is something very different from entertainment. Entertainment can, of course, be art, but it’s first goal is to entertain us. I’m not sure there’s really a calculation that says which is more valuable at any given time: being entertained or being moved by great art.

          On the other hand, I suspect that Peanuts won’t make much sense in a couple centuries, where as when archeologists discover the Pieta 3000 years from now, and put it in a museum of ancient southern European art, or ancient art from the strange middle eastern cult of rebirth that dominated so much of the ancient world, people are still going to appreciate it. That may say something about their relative long term value.Report