If you’re not already a part of the Partially Examined Life Facebook group, you should go check it out. There’s a bunch of really smart people from all different backgrounds and perspectives having very stimulating discussions on there every single day. One of the things that’s great about it is that the community tends to hold everyone accountable -Â Â to rigorous thinking;Â to civil standards of discourse – and most posters are interested in always elevating the level of the conversation.
On Wednesday, group member Josean Figueroa posted the above video of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger, accompanied by the caption “Some aesthetics discussion: Why do some people value this unspeakable trash?” A few people voted to have the thread deleted, hitting it with the “Not Philosophy” stamp. But others stood up for it. The phrasing was provocative, sure, but there was some genuine philosophical meat on that bone.
As the conversation developed, it began to circle around that age old question: “But is it art?” I was glad to see that the discussion had grown into something genuinely philosophical, but disappointed that most posters seemed to share Josean’s basic outlook. The general consensus appeared to be that not only was the Warhol video “not art,” but it was emblematic of everything wrong with most of what’s been regarded as “high art” since the 1960s (if not the 1910s).
So consider the following a modest defense of Andy Warhol (Let’s ignore for a moment that the video was not made by Warhol, but rather by filmmaker Jorgen Leth – it bears all the traces of Warhol’s work) and of modern art in general. What makes this kind of stuff different from, say, Renaissance fresco or Dutch still life, is that it often takes some knowledge of the history of art and the discourse surrounding it in order to begin to appreciate the work. So this defense will mostly take the form of a history lesson. This is all very compressed and quite oversimplified, but it’s more or less the Standard Account as presented in Art History 101…
All of modern art can be said to beÂ in some way a reaction to the invention of photography.
The traditional Western theories of aesthetics were based in mimesis, the reproduction of reality. But with the invention of photography the traditional mimetic criterion was called into question, since it could now be fulfilled automatically by the device of the camera (many early reports of cameras described them as “drawing machines”). Initially there were attempts to replace the mimetic theory with a Romantic theory of expression. These attempts played out both in aesthetic philosophy and in art itself. The obvious point of reference here is impressionism – if photography had usurped painting’s mimetic role, and done a far better job at it than painting could ever achieve, then one thing painting could still do was to depict the way phenomena are subjectively perceived. Expressionism took a similar tack by retreating from attempts at objective depiction and instead infusing the image of the external world with internal emotional states. (Abstract expressionism later took this a step further by removing any representational element whatsoever and depicting internal states “directly” via abstract forms.)
But you also see this in early “art photography,” like that of Steiglitz and Man Ray. There was a big debate over whether or not photography could be considered art. Looking at a beautiful photograph, one could ask whether it was the photograph that was beautiful, or simply the object. How could these be disentangled? How could photography be judged? The initial answer proposed was that for photography to be considered art, it couldn’t merely reproduce reality, but had to alter it. And because of this you see during that period lots of filters, dramatic lighting, multiple exposures, long exposures, and other studio trickery.
Early cinema went through essentially theÂ same early phase. Theorists like Rudolf Arnheim andÂ BÃ©la BalÃ¡zs located the artistic element of film-making in how it could manipulate reality. The French “impressionist” filmmakers, like Jean Epstein, made heavy use of optical devices and effects, and the Russian “montage” filmmakers, like Sergei Eisenstein, explored how editing could be emotionally and intellectually expressive.
It was only a few decades later, after photography and film had been granted institutional recognition, that these defensive, reactionary stipulations could be dropped. In the 50s and 60s,Â film theorists likeÂ AndrÃ© Bazin andÂ Siegfried Kracauer completely reversed prior assumptions by locating the artistic element of film in its ability to recreate reality. In the 70s, color photographers like William Eggleston fought for the acceptance of color photography as an art form. Prior to this, art photography was associated strictly with black and white. Color photography, being closer to reality, was associated with amateur snapshots. Eggleston likewise rejected traditional conceptions of photographic beauty and what counted as worthy “artistic” subject matter, choosing to shoot mundane objects and environments.
By this point, however, the art world had already long abandoned a reactionary stance toward the innovations of photography and had instead incorporated its insights. Ideas of “framing” and juxtaposition (borrowed from photography and cinema, respectively, and made conceptual) became increasingly important to the definition and evaluation of art. Art more and more came to be seen as an act of plucking something out of the world and setting it in relation to other things – what philosopher of art Arthur Danto called “the transfiguration of the commonplace” and literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization” or “estrangement.”
Shklovsky describes this new perspective in his famous essay “Art as Technique”:
The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object
In particular, the thing is set in relation to other things similarly plucked out, i.e. other art, hence art history, art discourse. Naturally, this leads to a stronger emphasis on conceptualism, but it does not wholly rule out traditional aesthetic considerations – Warhol was as concerned with the question of beauty, in his own way, as Monet.
This development can already be seen in the work of cubists like Picasso and Braque, who pasted newspaper clippings, oil cloth, etc. directly onto the canvas. Its apotheosis is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal turned upside down), or, according to Danto, Warhol’s exact replicas of Brillo boxes. In the Facebook thread, poster Carl Dobsky writes that “an aesthetic experience can be encountered in Nature. This does not mean something is Art. Aesthetic experiences of Art seem to be of a different order.” But this is part of the traditional account of aesthetics that has been deliberately challenged by modern art. The entire thrust of the avant-garde tradition since Dada has been precisely to actively challenge the distinction between art and life, between “natural” and “artistic,” to try to see how far the dividing line between them could be compressed, blurred, or erased. What is left over after the attempt seems to be this: art is a way of requesting attention, observation and contemplation from the spectator, and whether an artist isÂ goodÂ depends on whether the energy expended attending, observing, and contemplating proves to be worthwhile.
What I think is most troubling about this situation to many people is that it is typically not immediately apparent whether a work of art of this kind is worth making the effort to engage with. So it’s much easier to dismiss something out of hand, especially if you’ve made earnest attempts at engaging with that sort of thing in the past and reaped few rewards (which is common – there’s a lot of bad art out there).
Philosopher Stanley Cavell writes about this issue a lot, both from the perspective of the spectator (who has no pre-determined criteria with which to judge) and from the perspective of the artist (who has the burden of having to constantly “invent his own medium”). Many of the comments in the Facebook thread seemed to be accusing Warhol of being something like a fraud. Those who feel this way might be interested to read Cavell’s essay “Music Discomposed,” wherein he writes:
There is no one feature, or definite set of features, which may be described in technical handbooks, and no specific tests by which [an artworkâ€™s] fraudulence can be detected and exposed. Other frauds and impostors, like forgers and counterfeiters, admit clear outcomes, conclude in dramatic discoveries â€” the impostor is unmasked at the ball, you find the counterfeiters working over their press, the forger is caught signing another manâ€™s name, or he confesses. There are no such proofs possible for the assertion that the art accepted by a public is fraudulent; the artist himself may not know.
For Cavell, this is not a reason to reject modernist art wholesale. It is simply a difficult consequence of the modernist predicament. The difficulty in judgment comes with the territory – it’s a challenge we must accept if we wish to engage with modern art at all.
The other complaint I sensed from the thread has to do with a lack of skill. Shouldn’t artists be skillful? Isn’t Warhol just a talentless hack whose only skill is being clever? But this can be easily rejected. What is called “artistic” skill is actually a matter of craft. Its relationship to art making is complex, but one thing is for sure: being skilled at painting or drawing or sculpting or writing or acting or whatever else is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a good artist. The entire question of whether Warhol deserves to be called a “genius,” considering he did “nothing,” seems to me an attempt at smuggling in a rather petty ethical discussion (about money, celebrity and journalism) under the guise of aesthetics. It’s the most banal kind of “my kid could paint that” philistinism.
To update the history to the present day, I think Danto is more or less correct when he says that we live in an era “after the end of art history.” Today, “anything goes.” After the 60s, the art world saw a push toward more non-object-based art (whether conceptual or performative) at the same exact time that it saw the return of traditional mediums, representation, and even realism. And for the first time these two threads were not opposed, but intermingled. Some anecdotal evidence: I’m an artist and went to art school. Most of the artists I know who work in traditional mediums don’t feel threatened by more conceptual work, and none of the artists I know working in performance or video art or installation feel like their work is part of some avant-garde fighting to dismantle representationalism. Those battles are over. Everyone seems to understand that the traditional aesthetic considerations can’t be ignored (even if they’re opposed), but also that one must be at least marginally aware of the entire history of art and theoretical discourse I’ve just outlined (even if they’re doing figure painting). They also all understand that there are no universal criteria for what makes good art – each work suggests its own, and it is up to the spectator to determine how best to judge each. Most don’t even see “art” as a single, definable category, but more as a set of overlapping practices and histories linked by “family resemblances.”
If I may play armchair psychologist for a moment, I feel that underlying the type of aggressive anti-modernist reaction embodied in that Facebook thread is the fear of anti-foundationalism, a fear which often manifests itself in accusations of “relativism.” It’s somewhat to be expected, considering that the partisans of the opposing side often like to playfully “revel in the void” as a form of provocation. But what I see embodied in the attitudes of the contemporary art makers I just described is what I might call a “pragmatist compromise.” The lack of foundations is admitted to, grappled with, and life goes on. If you’re looking to enrich your appreciation of the vast diversity of human cultural production, it’s an attitude I’d recommend trying on for size.