“Hang him on my wall”: Why Museum Failures Concern Me


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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97 Responses

  1. Avatar Kim says:

    I take it you’ve never played Thief?
    Videogames are actually really good at immersion and scale.

    (oil paintings, on the other hand, have a degree of three dimensionality that would be really hard to model without tons of work).

    The Smithsonian and the Met are not museums, they are institutions. Institutions have a great deal more cultural and intellectual value than museums.Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      Thief was a good game series.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        If you haven’t replayed it with the new engine, I highly recommend it. The sound effects are now working as intended!
        [Also, thief has TONS of awesome, awesome fanmissions. They removed the one that gave a playtester a heart attack (and put up a less scary version)]Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      “Videogames are actually really good at immersion and scale.”

      Not really unless one has a TV screen that is proportional to the Wake of the Medusa or the Nightwatch. Thief might be a fun game but I doubt it is going to produce Stendhal Syndrome:


      The point on the Met and Smithsonian is interesting and potentially valid. When does a museum become an institution?Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        imma strap you into a seat with headphones in a dark room and have you play amnesia or gone home, thun. tunes would change!Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I’m not sure of this. We have pletnty of examples of people going into ecstasy and expericing something close to Stendhal syndrome at rock concerts. We know that lots of people are really into video games. I fail to see why a person can’t experience something thats at least close to Stendhal syndrome from a video game. The reason we don’t know about it is becuase they probably never thought to write down their experiences or if they did lack the elegance and fame of Stendhal.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I agree with Lee.
        If video games can cause heart attacks, they can cause … that.
        (and yes, I have experienced a sense of awe while playing…
        though any heart palpitations were probably from an “oh, no, I might Fall!”
        Yes, it is a game, but immersion.)Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @newdealer — You are doing that thing where you discount the experience of others because you personally have not had it.

        Don’t do that thing.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Museums are places that hold old and dusty things.
        Institutions are dynamic places where new things get done. Actual research, more understanding of the world around us. New Art.

        Pittsburgh’s museums don’t qualify as institutions (few do), but they do at least try.Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    Do you think they ought to close down the Museum of Sex? I think it’s safe to say that most of the art there was not designed to be displayed in a museum…

    (And I wonder if you’d advocate the restoration of a bordello, in order to more properly display the art.)Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      The Museum of Sex? God what a crock that was. Here I was expecting Japanese woodblock prints of sex, pictures of Greek urns with men “anatomically enlarged”, etc. What I got was some bullshit crap, porn clips, and “art”. The only thing of interest were the postcards of trashy novels from the 50s, like “Sorority Sex Kitten”.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        … I guess they only have so much space (I know someone who’s donated some rare works, so it’s not like they don’t have stuff in the backrooms).

        Besides, the Greeks always had men “anatomically undersized” (see Michelangelo’s David as well), it was satyrs and centaurs that they upsized.

        The Carnegie had a bowdlerized exhibit of ukioye (where courtesans became “women”) a few months back.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I’ve never been in the Museum of Sex but if thats what they have than it is indeed a crock. Humans have been making porn or erotic art if you prefer since pre-history. You can acutally create a decent museum of the porn and sexual objects of different cultures and eras.

        I’m guessing there are several reasons why the Museum of Sex doesn’t organize itself around the sexual objects of different places and times. One is that its a more blatantly commercial institution than the Met. The board probably made a correct guess that the patrons of the Museum of Sex would be more interested in contemporary sex stuff than past sex stuff. There might also be procurement costs to.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        have you been to any small museums? The Frick is running an Americana exhibit. It’s the only rotating exhibit they’ve got this year. A few years ago they had one devoted to the Art of Pittsburgh.

        This is what small museums do, they have a permanent collection, and then they have some “spotlight” exhibit.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I was at the Frick in January. They had an exhibit of paintings from the Mauritshuis museum. The most famous being Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. My girlfriend and I went to see the Goldfinch which like the Mona Lisa is a tiny and intimate painting. Then we enjoyed the very excellent Turner’s at the Frick.

        The Frick and the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museums are excellent.

        The De Young in SF has great special exhibits but a not so great permanent collection. SFMoma has a great permanent collection and it got better in recent years because of a large donation from the Fisher family. The Fisher’s founded the GAP.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Oh, pardon my provinciality, but I believe we are talking about two different museums.

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Kim, I always enjoy the unexpected questions you pose! So, about restoring a bordello, I actually think an old and venerable bordello might make an interesting restoration site as is. I’ve never actually been inside a bordello (although I did go to grad school- ba-dum-bah!), so I don’t know much about the art. Is there art that is created specifically for bordellos? Are there bordello artists? How are they paid? Do I want to know? Do you know any personally? I think it would be an interesting project to make art specifically intended for viewing before and after sex with a prostitute.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        although I did go to grad school- ba-dum-bah

        Not having gone to grad school, I don’t get it.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I was in a bordello in pompeii (yes, with my high school teachers). They had pornographic frescoes.

        I did actually know someone who designed artistic clothing for bordellos (she did a lot of fashion design, and was rather famous, in the limited scene). She was getting paid by the Mob, so I presume cash.

        I have also visited a renaissance festival on an old bordello’s grounds. I presume most of the more erotic stonework was done on commission, or bought from specific erotic stores.

        Love Hotels in Japan seem to run to “how crazy of a room can we design.”

        In America, however, the trend seems to run towards architectural art (secret passages and other spy stuff).

        …how do I know so much about this stuff??

        (also, I am laughing at your grad school joke).Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Great post!

    I don’t think it is ironic that you noticed Foucault’s critiques of knowledge centers are seemingly identical in many ways to current right-wing critiques of museums and other cultural and knowledge institutions.

    Politics does not really operate on a straight line. The more apt nature is that politics operates in a circle and the far-left and far-right have much more in common with each than they think. The differences are in the details. The far-left and far-right people I know or read every now and then are all radical utopians and often pastoralists. They distrust big cities and industrialization. Now the ideal rural community probably looks a bit different to each. Perhaps the right goes for Tolkien’s Shire and the left for something more communal and pagan. They would equally distrust museums and other cultural organizations along lines that you mention above because it presents a view of culture that they disagree with firmly. They both reject the idea of a universality in art.

    Though the right-wing often tries to have it both ways when it comes to art and culture. The Koch Brothers are huge supporters of Lincoln Center and the Met. However, this will be conveniently ignored by the right when they do their culture blasting which is for a different audience.

    You might be hitting upon LWA’s concept of modernity and small-r republicanism making the ideas of national culture or the importance of culture be unseemly. We have splintered into a million different taste tribes and all the tribes (myself include) either resent being told that their preferred culture is lesser than what is presented at the Met or MOMA or in the NY Review of Books. Or we resent being told that something we perceive as lesser is on par or equal to our culture.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Out of curiosity, if there were a boring and derivative contemporary artist who, for whatever reason, wanted to make a new Pieta, what are the odds that this statue getting an NEA subsidy would qualify as violating the whole “church and state” thing?

    My immediate inclination is to say “the odds are good” but… I would. Is there someone out there who *KNOWS*?Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Individual artists can no longer receive NEA subsidies.

      Hypothetically if they could: I imagine he would be more likely rejected because of the derivative nature before the subject matter nature.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Thanks, Mapplethorpe!

        I imagine he would be more likely rejected because of the derivative nature before the subject matter nature.

        I imagine we now have another piece of the puzzle as to why conservatives might find reasons to go elsewhere with their entertainment dollar.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        To be fair, I would reject an NEA grant if it seemed derivative of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Judy Chicago, Richard Serra, Frida Kahlo, Joseph Cornell or any other major modern artist. Or I would support the NEA rejecting such a grant application.

        I would support an NEA grant to bring the Pieta to the US for a tour or other renaissance art even if it was of a religious nature.

        I think there can be conservative art that is worthy of NEA grants.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Is not being derivative a criterion for receiving an NEA grant?Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      there’s a very clear place for the government to provide a public space (and money, presumably) for free expression of religions. If the guy who works with Elephant shit, and the Jew who is doing abstract art, and the Muslim who is poking good humored fun at Islam — if they’re all funded, then you’re probably okay.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I don’t know about Chris Ofili’s funding status at this minute but I’m under the impression that “Religious Satire” is not an establishment of religion in the same way that “Religious Iconography” would be. Jews doing abstract art strikes me as having Jewishness be particularly uninteresting for the example. The first Muslim…ish person poking good humored fun at Islam to come to mind still has a fatwa on his head… and I don’t know that he gets “funding” as much as “advances” and “residuals”.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Well, Ofili is British and the most recent issue with him was the Tate buying one of his pieces while he’s sitting on the board of trustees. The issue with the Sensation show was that it was a traveling exhibition funded by Charles Saatchi (to boost the value of art he owned, in my opinion), but appeared in the Brooklyn Museum, which gets a grant from the city.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Was what I was referencing.

        And maybe the guys who want a Satanic Statue should get a grant, along with the spaghetti monster thing? I don’t see much of a problem provided money is distributed evenly (or, at least, provided one can put down a reasonable reason why “you’re the only one who believes this, so we aren’t funding it”)Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Personally, I think artists receiving government patronage problems regardless of the subject matter.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I don’t really have a problem with specific artists receiving patronage, I just think that the artists should be SO VERY FREAKING GOOD that their choice would be mostly above reproach (unlikely, I know, as I’m one of the people who hates, for example, Klee and Rothko and other people (people with class, even) tell me that I just don’t understand what they’re doing).

        In the absence of SO VERY FREAKING GOOD, it makes sense to me to say that Bob Ross deserves patronage because he’s bringing the whole “being an artist” to thousands and thousands of people who, otherwise, would never take brush to canvas.

        But I also understand that this puts me in the “wacky cuckoo” category.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        How do we define government patronage?

        Is it problematic for the government to fund museums, theatres, symphonies, so they can have reduced ticket prices and increased access? Or free lectures/classes for the public?

        Is it problematic for the government to give money to a theatre company so they can put on a free production of Shakespeare or an American classic and also pay their actors, designers, etc?

        What are your thoughts on the WPA and the manual murals and other public art created by such?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I don’t think it’s problematic ethically. I just think artists and art institutions put themselves in a vulnerable position when they get money from governments because those governments then think they can ‘draw the line’ about the subject matter of the art. It might not happen in the case of Shakespeare, but given some of the controversies that have arisen in the US, I wouldn’t bank on that.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I back “public” art a lot more than I back “museum art.”
        I think good art should be where people are, not in some special
        (painful?) place, that is annoying to get to.

        It sends a real message when you get kids to go around
        painting murals on condemned buildings.
        “We haven’t forgotten about you. We’re trying to make this better.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        If I’m going to be subsidizing art, I’d prefer it to be art that can be easily reproduced and provided to everybody. So I’d prefer a concert (with cds made available for purchase in addition to the cds donated to local libraries) to a painting. In that vein, I’d prefer plays (and DVDs of the recordings of the performances) to statues or other art that everybody agrees aren’t done justice through vague reproductions on LED screens.

        *IF*, however, we want to cover art like oil paintings and whatnot, it seems to me that we’d be better off by subsidizing Bob Ross’s work than by picking a painting and driving it around the country. More people will be embiggened by that kind of subsidy.

        I mean, what do we *WANT* to do by supporting art? What are we hoping to accomplish, reduce, increase, or otherwise measurably change?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        What are your thoughts on the WPA and the manual murals and other public art created by such?

        I tend to like them, but the ones that I like the most are most likely to be considered bland. I like the idea of multi-ethnic groups of comrades working together and taking occasional breaks to stand in the sunrise, smiling, looking forward to the future.

        I’m less of a fan of the shit that ends up at DIA. (Have you been to DIA? Have you seen the murals that they’re putting up there? Creepy!)Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Is it problematic for the government to fund museums, theatres, symphonies, so they can have reduced ticket prices and increased access? Or free lectures/classes for the public?

        Is it problematic for the government to give money to a theatre company so they can put on a free production of Shakespeare or an American classic and also pay their actors, designers, etc?

        Yes. The question is misleading, because it treats the money as “the government’s,” period. What we should be asking is “is it problematic for the government to take money from some people to pay for the pleasures of other people?” Or, “is it problematic for the government to require that Peter pay for Paul’s pleasures.”

        Keep in mind that “problematic” != automatically, necessarily, and inevitable illegitimate. But to deny that those things are problematic seems to me to be quite cavalier with other people’s money. That it funds things you value more than they do is not a justification; rather it raises the question of why if you value it more than they do you don’t just pay for it yourself?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        This seems to be an issue for the United States and the United States alone as far as I can tell. I think there are controversies in other countries but not to the level that happens in the US.

        The Royal Court manages to produce shocking and controversial theatre like Sarah Kane’s Blasted. This can get a storming damnation from an MP every now and then but no one has threatened the Royal Court’s government funding as far as I can tell.Report

      • Excellent piece, Rufus.

        NewDealer wrote:
        Is it problematic for the government to fund museums, theatres, symphonies, so they can have reduced ticket prices and increased access? Or free lectures/classes for the public?

        I’ve struggled trying to write this comment this morning without sounding like a hick. It can be problematic for the national government to fund things without regard to where. The Smithsonian is a wonderful institution and the museums are terrific. But they’re in Washington, DC. For someone living in Denver, a visit to the Smithsonian requires, at a minimum, a flight across the continent and back at not-inconsiderable cost, a lot of overpriced food and lodging (assuming I’m seeing even a modest fraction of the total that’s on display), etc. Access is about more than just ticket prices; access can be about geography, particularly in a country as physically large as the US.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        ND, we don’t know if this is a problem in the United States alone. For all we know, there could be lots of citizens that aren’t that happy with their tax money being used to fund controversal art and that they are quite vocal about it. Its just that the political system in Europe heavily protects the art funding from democratic interference. It should be noted that a lot of less controversal and more openly commercial art and entertainment gets funded through taxes in order to difuse some of the anger. It would be like the NEA providing funding for five popular and mainstream Broadway musicals in exchange for every controversial play.

        The United States also has more openly and conservatively religious people than other developed countries. They are exercising their democratic rights by protesting the funding of art by the government that offends them.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        sure, but at some point, you’re looking at diminishing returns. if I’m going to fund art in the middle of absolute nowhere, i’m going to at least ask it to be cheap [2x the price of red barn paint, fine. 50x — wait, why?]Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Interestingly enough, we have an example of the BBC caving to religious fundies in the last few days!


        Asifa Lahore asked, “When will it be accepted to be Muslim and gay?” on a recent episode of the BBC show Free Speech. As it turns out, after speaking with a local mosque, they decided not to discuss that question.

        In the interesting of pointing out that both sides do it, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Boston or New York or wherever didn’t allow a LGBT float.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I like DIA’s. I like Austins. I like Pittsburgh’s — be they tame, be they crazy — it’s art where something would have just been plain and boring.

        Maybe not every building needs to be a piece of art. But I’m always glad to see ’em. Particularly public buildings.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        Fair points but I think this is part of the divide seemingly between liberals and/or libertarians/conservatives. When does money belong to people and when does it not? The Government prints money and has all sorts of laws and programs that make money have legitimacy and value. This goes from the FDIC to the Federal Reserve and many more. A national currency is more convenient than every bank printing their own notes. In my mind, this gives legitimacy to taxes at reasonable levels and spending from those taxes.

        Yet many others seem to think that money automatically belongs to the people and the government has no legitimate control over it.

        I am of the “Taxes are the price we pay for living in civilized society” kind of guy.


        Fair point. I think money should go all over the United States though and include supporting tours of art even if it means creating ad hoc spaces and renting out convention centers.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        There’s a big gulf between “gov’t can control one penny of my money” and “everything I personally like is part of that civilized society that people should just STFU and be happy to be fund.” And in that big gulf is where arts funding is politically problematic. It’s problematic as an empirical fact–it’s not something on which there is real consensus*–and it’s theoretically problematic, particularly when the demand is for public funding of something that is primarily an upper SES entertainment.

        *Some arts funding is empirically non-problematic in having consensus or near-consensus support. There is no considerable constituency opposing art classes in K-12 schools, the school play, or the Hirshhorn.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Awesome post, Rufus.Report

  6. Avatar LWA says:

    Tangent to Jaybird’s comment, there are reasons why the conservative movement has largely been alienated from the art world.
    I am not familiar with Foucault’s writing, and am probably mining similar territory (badly), but the idea that there is somehow objective art seems impossible to me. All art premises a worldview, a position and accepts a set of assumptions of reality.

    The assumptions and cultural attitudes of the Modern movement largely diverged from the attitudes and assumptions of the mainstream culture. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives worldviews are generally ignored, when they aren’t being challenged by the avant garde.

    My argument isn’t that they are right or wrong- My argument is a bit more basic- that there is a recognizable art community, that has its own belief systems, sacred ideas, taboo ideas, its own assumptions and definable boundaries of acceptable thought.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Did I not mention the piece at the Carnegie International on Utopias? Because that definitely deals with our hopes and dreams — and does so in a very concrete way that I’m certain most conservatives would enjoy.Report

  7. Avatar LWA says:

    “Great art endures because it plucks a secret string in us and sounds a note somewhat beyond the level of language. We can’t fully articulate it, but we can hear it resonating inside, sounding out the contours of our internal landscape.”

    Thank you, by the way, for expressing so eloquently what I have been long struggling to say.

    This is my personal critique of the modern art movement, which is the rejection of intuitive beauty in favor of scholastic didacticism.

    I have come to think that the highest purpose of art is to achieve a level of transcendent beauty- beauty which is essentially egalitarian, since every eye can see it, yet rare and difficult to accomplish, since it can’t be reduced to formula or algorithm.

    My problem with Piss Christ isn’t that it is blasphemous- its that it is weak and toothless. It offers smug reassurance to those who already have accepted its message, is confusing to those who haven’t, and in general strikes only at the outer most thin veneer of our awareness.
    It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      I think the damn thing looks pretty, and it’s a good use of light and shadow.


      I just went to a modern art exhibition, and the didacticism didn’t stand out to me, even when it was present (i did review it on this site).

      What of when we can reduce beauty to an algorithm? is it not then art?Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Are there any examples of modern and/or abstract art that you feel fit the quote above?Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      What about the ability of art to challenge conventions and challenge assumptions? I think that is a more important function of art than providing transcendent beauty. Art should get people out of their shells and cause them to think and re-examine what they believe.

      The idea of what is transcendent beauty also changes, its not static. Most people find Van Gogh’s paintaings wonderful these days but when they were actually created not so much.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Yeah. I like art that’s about breaking things, be they concepts or hypocrisy.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I’m not sure why these functions are particularly at odds with one another anyway. I found the film Tree of Life a thing of rare and entrancing beauty when I saw it in the theater. But at least half the audience walked out and didn’t come back after the first half-hour or so. It certainly challenged narrative assumptions anyway.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Art should get people out of their shells and cause them to think and re-examine what they believe.

        My problem is with taking money from people to do this on their behalf without their consent. At least the argument that the purpose of art is to produce transcendent beauty is likely to result in people attempting to achieve transcendent beauty (hey, maybe one of them will get there and then, at least, you’ll have some transcendent beauty).Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        i think art encouraging critical thinking is a good thing, myself.
        and easier than making “transcendent beauty”Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Jaybird, I said nothing about how art should be funded. I’m just pointing out an alternative value for art than what LWA wrote. It probably shouldn’t be funded by funds directly from the government. Art produced under those conditions loses a lot of its confrontational power even if no funding even if no strings attached.

        That being said, I’m not really buying into your idea about taking money from people without their consent and using it for things they don’t aprove of. Money is a creature of the government. Without a state or government of some sort, there is no money. People have consented to the government use of money by paying their taxes and hopefully participating in elections. God knows that Bush II administration did a lot of things with my tax money that I didn’t like. Publicly funding controversial art is a lot less deadly than the national security state.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Yeah, but you’d think that “encourages critical thinking” would be measurable enough to actually use as a for reals justification rather than as a fallback position on what would have happened had these hillbillies not wanted to spend their money on yet another Cirque du Soleil show.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        My problem with the whole “well, I didn’t approve of how Bush II spent money, therefore we should be able to spend money on X” argument is that there isn’t *ANYTHING* that we can’t put in X.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think most good art — including Cirque de Soleil (which I’ve never seen) can encourage critical thinking.

        And studies? We do that thing called science:

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Jaybird, lots of people besides hillbillies enjoy the Cirque Du Soleil. I’m not necessarily against government subsidizing things like Broadway musicals or the Cirque Du Soleil as long as its reflected in lower ticket prices so more people can see it. I actually think that funding art and entertainment that accessible to most people is a good and necessary trade off in order to get government to subsidize high art. My main problem when government subsidizes things like sports stadiums and other commercial benefit is that the owners pocket the money and the public gets little benefit. Ticket prices remain astromonically large.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        pirates tickets start at $14. That’s far from outrageous.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      Ah, you’re wrong about Piss Christ. It is indeed a work of transcendent beauty.

      But I’d say you’re too limited in your idea of art anyway. Is art really about just one thing, and you get to choose what that one thing is? Sure great art plucks a string in us, but in many of us less culturally rigidified types, there is more than just the one string.Report

    • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

      Piss Christ is not intended to be blasphemous as near as I can tell. Serrano’s genius is in getting people to think it is even when it is not.

      In fact, it may very well be intended as a stab against a certain kind of inauthentic, not-Christian-enough belief (which is the belief of the people criticizing him) in a false, plastic Jesus. Our pissing on Jesus is turned beautiful by his light., which is not emanating from the plastic idol, but from outside of the frame.

      I suppose this is a bit cliche, but it is also a really beautiful aspect of Christianity. Maybe its most beautiful aspect.

      I also suspect that the medium is not piss at all. Serrano just said that.

      The fact that people can’t see the difference between the Piss Christ and the racist Danish cartoon depictions of the prophet is absurd to me.Report

      • Avatar LWA says:

        “It makes people to think” is one of the weaker defenses of art.
        In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a worse one.
        Spray painting “N***ger on a wall is guaranteed to “make people think”. It is “Controversial”, It “provokes discussion” and does just about any other tired platitude.
        Heck, I can probably find someone somewhere who will say “As an individual, I think it is the greatest work of art ever created in the history of mankind and no one can argue with my personal interpretation>”

        It does all that, but what it doesn’t do is stir anyone’s soul, it doesn’t convey a larger truth, it doesn’t allow us to see a transcendent meaning to our existence.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        of course it conveys a larger truth. One of the most fundamental, in fact. As long as there is propaganda, people will look down on others.


        Now, a good piece of art captures the entirety of the “conversation” not merely the superiority of one.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      My problem with Piss Christ … It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality.

      Who is this “us” you’re talking about? Did you mean to write “I”? or “me and some other people I know who don’t like it”?

      As usual for you, you’ve subsumed all individuals into a collective, and in so doing conveniently obscured the actuality of individual experience, of differing experience, as you regularly obscure differing needs, wants, and values in the name of a collective good that, conveniently, suits your particularly needs, wants, and values.

      Please don’t speak for the “us.” They can each speak for themselves.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        I’d add that this comment

        I have come to think that the highest purpose of art is to achieve a level of transcendent beauty

        is one of many conceptions of the purpose of art (including the conception that art doesn’t really have a capital-P Purpose) and that for many people one of the purposes of art is to very specifically appeal to left-brain rationality in order to shake people out of certain unreflective modes of thought, or predispositions to accept certain entrenched forms of “logic”, or challenge existing conceptions of rationality, etc.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Oops. I linked this to the wrong comment. Shoulda been upthread a bit.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        But it works so well attached to my comment. 😉Report

      • Avatar LWA says:

        Is art entirely a personal, private understanding?
        Or is that too sweeping a generalization in the other direction?

        Point taken, there are differing understandings
        But isn’t there also a communal understanding, a set of shared references that give it power, beyond “I like it, don’t ask me why”?

        It should be obvious, that if we stress only the personal, private understanding of things, then that equates things beyond all reason.
        All ideas are equal, all expressions hold the same value, and there is no shared reference point which allows a hierarchical valuation.

        I don’t think that’s what you are saying. So if there is some shared reference point, some way by which we can jointly say “This is art, and that is not”, or “this is valuable, and that is not” then how do we arrive at it?

        The status quo is that the art community I mentioned, acts as the arbiters of taste.

        They do in fact, issue such statements as “It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality” and those statements are given authority.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        The status quo is that the art community I mentioned, acts as the arbiters of taste.
        They do in fact, issue such statements as “It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality” and those statements are given authority.

        Uh, huh, and what has this arts community said about Piss Christ? Art critic Lucy Lippard said it was a “darkly beautiful” image, in which the “crucifix becomes virtually monumental as it floats…in a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious.”

        Poet Andrew Hudgins in andres Serrano, 1987, wrote;
        “If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
        if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
        hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
        if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
        we would assume it was too beautiful.
        We would assume it was the resurrection,
        glory, Christ transformed to light by light
        because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
        and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.”

        My wife, an artist, agrees it is beautiful.

        This arts community that you say is the arbiter of our tastes… either it is non-unanimous–because they, like “us” don’t all respond the same–or you are wrong about what they have arbitered about Piss Christ.Report

      • Avatar LWA says:

        Asserting that there exists an arts community isn’t to say it is unanimous, only that there is a recognizable body of opinion and they speak with Authority.

        Your post reinforces this assertion- you quote them as authorities, voices that we should recognize as having more importance than say, Joe the cashier down at the Food Lion.

        My opinion- and it is a decidedly minority opinion- is that the prevailing arts establishment rejects beauty as the purpose of art in favor of a scholastic didacticism.Report

      • Avatar LWA says:

        Actually, I think there was a miscommunication in your post- when I said they issue such statements, I meant about art in general, not Serrano’s work.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        You said, “My problem with Piss Christ isn’t that it is blasphemous- its that ..It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality.”

        That’s specifically about Piss Christ, and in response to my rejection of your claim to speak for “us” in how Piss Christ strikes us, you wrote, “They [the art community] do in fact, issue such statements as “It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality”…” If there’s miscommunication, it’s on your end, as you shift from making that claim yourself to attributing it to “the arts community.”

        Your post reinforces this assertion- you quote them as authorities, voices that we should recognize as having more importance than say, Joe the cashier down at the Food Lion

        No, I simply quote them as rebuttal of your claims about Piss Christ. You said it “strikes us ONLY,” and I reported that it doesn’t strike me–Mr. Right Brain rational–that way, nor does it strike these people to whom you attribute such authority that way.

        So it comes back to your claim that “It strikes us ONLY on the level of language and left brain rationality.” And again I ask, who is this “us”? Why do you think you can make such a generalization? Why do you dare to speak for any “us,” and assert that we “ONLY” experience the work at the rational level?

        Just who, besides yourself, do you think is in this “us”?Report

      • Avatar LWA says:

        Your point seems to be that it is not possible to speak generally about art- that asserting that a work of art “strikes us as so and so” is invalid, that we can’t possibly claim to speak for people generally.

        Essentially, this is the “all art is personal” POV.
        Except it isn’t at all.

        Pick up any history of art, or article on art criticism. Lucy Lippard, for example. Was she saying it was beautiful, only to her personal eyes, and did she hasten to say that this in no way was authoritative, that this could not possibly be true generally?
        If she did, she should be fired as a critic.

        Criticism is filled with such sweeping statements, telling us- with all the authority of received wisdom- what Picasso means, or why Structuralism is important, or what the ramifications of perspective space is.

        Which again is my point. There does exist a salon system of art authorities, who control the agenda of what history books record as important.

        I spoke in the same way- asserting that Serrano’s work – for most people generally- means very little. If you disagree with it, fine.

        But a larger point remains- avant-garde art does mean very little, for the majority of people. It isn’t popular or as well loved as low art, and I doubt any one can argue that point.

        Whether that it is a good thing or bad, is an opinion.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Your point seems to be that it is not possible to speak generally about art- that asserting that a work of art “strikes us as so and so” is invalid, that we can’t possibly claim to speak for people generally.

        No, the criticism is about the “ONLY.” If it can “ONLY” strike us rationally, how is it that it struck me, and still does, irrationally, intuitively and aesthetically as a work of beauty? Do I not exist? Am I not obe of “us”? Is your rationalistic reaction more valid than my intuitive reaction? How would you justify such a claim?

        Do you still stand by your original claim that Piss Christ can ONLY strike us rationally, in the face of a claim that it did indeed strike some others differently? How do you defend that claim now?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I had the opportunity to informally interview an art judge the other week. He would tell you that being an art judge (part of the “salon” system, if you want to count a cryptographer as part of “the system”) is all about persuasion. Finding a theme and making it sound convincing enough to persuade the other judges.

        What’s avant-garde, and what’s not again? Tezuka works with art high and low… it’s not like people have to choose one or the other.Report

  8. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Let’s look at another cultural institution, libraries:


    According to a recent Pew report, a lot of Americans really love their libraries but the deeper data suggests that only well-educated and largely white and wealthy Americans use their libraries.

    The author of the piece above says he can find an Avengers DVD but not a serious book on Christianity.

    This seems untrue based on my experiences with the SF Public library. The users seem rather diverse and I often appear to be the only thirty something white guy when I go to the library. I can get the Avengers DVD and also Korean TV series and CDs of all music genres and a serious biography of JMW Turner and the latest fiction.

    Should we stop funding libraries because most of the users are wealthy or should we fund them more because 90 percent of Americans 16 and older really like the idea of a well-funded public library?Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Another view:


      Sample quote:

      Perhaps one problem here is that American pop culture does not usually promote learning for its own sake. Whereas being “smart” or “well-read” used to be a coveted thing in American society, it is now promoted mostly within certain circles or cultural cliques. Otherwise, it’s treated as being “nerdy” or “snobby.” The people American pop culture awards the most attention usually fall within the entertainment genre—be it an athlete, celebrity, pop artist or TV star. While some of these jobs require a good education, not all do—and the pop star’s intellectual life is rarely broadcast to the general public. We fixate on their romantic life, physical appearance, workout regimen, diet, social engagements, favorite movies, etc. What they read, whether they have a favorite author, where they went to college—few ask these questions.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think american pop culture does promote learning for its own sake.
        Worth contemplating whether Cannae or the 95 theses is better to learn about, in this day and age.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I have to go to work right now, alas, but I’ll say that my own views are considerably more in line with the American Conservative piece than the Federalist one, and that this is a whole other topic that is well worth considering.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        So spending 15 minutes a day reading the 5 foot shelf is your idea of promoting culture and learning?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I think I’ll post on this too, actually, if it’s okay. I will give due credit for you bringing this to my attention and, of course, you’re free to post on it as well.Report

    • I’m partial to libraries, if only because it provides a response to “How are people supposed to learn important stuff if we don’t send everybody to college?!” It would be a tragedy to lose that retort.

      More seriously, this actually makes a fair point. I am supportive of libraries, and no not just because of the above. But art galleries are of less interest to me. Even though libraries may tend to serve the well-to-do, the importance of universal access is much more apparent to me than subsidized access to some art show.

      The last time I used a library regularly, it was when we just moved to Arapaho. My primary interest was that it was the only Internet connection I had for a spell. Most of the reading I do I can afford to simply buy and ship or buy and download. It seems to me that if libraries do tend to service people like me, that doesn’t seem to be the best investment of public money. But I guess I’m cool with it anyway because it’s a sort of a “Should you ever be interested, we’ve got a place for you to go, even if you don’t have much in the way of money.”

      I’m admittedly kinda skeptical of the whole DVD angle. If it works in getting people in there and then getting them reading, that’s cool. I’d just like to see some indication that it’s working in that respect.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Eh, not even get them reading. Get them checking out other DVDs. “Ooooh. Here’s a DVD of some weird robot movie? Metropolis? Eh, whatever. It’s Wednesday. Might as well.”

        Maybe they’ll say something like “huh… watching that made me feel funny… maybe there are other movies like that?”

        And, it seems to me, that if we’re subsidizing art, a response like *THAT* is one of the reasons we’re subsidizing it for.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        dvds are media. libraries check out media. etc.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        You’d actually be surprised what a wide swath of the public uses art galleries and museums. It’s not as homogeneous as people tend to think.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        yeah, science museums tend to be daycare/distraction for all sorts of kids.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      The writer of that Federalist thing is an idiot or so ill informed as to be incapable of knowing a damn thing about his subject.

      I could not finish reading the article, it was so stupid.

      He asks, “How can a building that houses the internet continue to innovate?”

      HOW CAN IT NOT??? The more information you have, the harder it is to FIND WHAT YOU NEED! And that’s what a library is all about.

      You don’t need to step foot into the Carnegie Library to get value from it…
      um, wow. I never clicked on that before.

      But I’ve been to tons of other pages, guides. Free to the public, and well categorized and searchable.Report

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