This essay comes out of left field, but it does not come out of a vacuum, which would be an environment not very hospitable to left field players. It comes in part out of many years of reviewing art that I felt should be defended passionately even though I often had no personal enthusiasm for it, and another trigger was probably James Elkins’ Facebook post about his upcoming lecture in a general series titled “Failure,” a post in which he says, “I’ll be emphasizing things that don’t work (perhaps never did),” in this case with regard to a still-popular aesthetic theory. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is one of the great untrue statements of all time, but it is untrue only because the words themselves don’t quite fit the phenomena they are meant to describe; their meanings are elastic, but they are not meaningless even if they are slippery enough to give rise to Shakespeare’s memorable aphorism. Linguistic philosophy is not much help here, and perhaps never was, so we might as well start out:
The Festival of Insignificance, or, Trying to Get At the Question of Good Bad Art, and a Good Many Other Elusive or Paradoxical Types of Art, Besides
At the moment when Captain Obvious finally grasps why he will sometimes cross the Atlantic to re-experience a completely unimportant painting or video but has long made it a point to avoid some of the world’s greatest works of art, word comes that an English translation will soon be published of Milan Kundera’s new novel titled The Festival of Insignificance.
That has nothing to do with what follows, except that the probably meandering meditation I am about to write has to do with grasping why insignificant things so often seem more worth celebrating than significant ones, even if we accept the greater significance of the things we find uninteresting.
You can argue, and most arguers do, that “there’s no accounting for taste.” This is equivalent to saying that taste is completely a matter of things that happened to us before we were two years old—if we are irresistibly attracted to or repelled by some currently fashionable sophisticated phenomenon (whether in art, fashion, cuisine, music, movies, whatever), it is a logical development of some pleasurable or traumatic simple experience in early childhood. And thus it is not worth analyzing how our later experiences turned this happy or unhappy moment into our present passionately or casually felt aesthetic position, unless it is somehow going to help us clear up our psychological messes.
Most people don’t think it’s equivalent to that; they just think that aesthetic preferences are too weirdly arbitrary to make sense of, even though they can be pushed in one direction or another if you try hard enough, just as most of us learned to like spinach or rutabagas after a childhood spent detesting them.
The “ingrained preferences” versus the “pushing in one direction” don’t seem to be sufficiently analyzed most of the time. And indeed, a good many preferences seem to be ascribable to quite elementary forces: no matter how we tart them up, our transient “likes” actually come about because everyone else is liking it, or the flavor appeals to the hard-wired inclination towards sweet or salty, or the event turns us on sexually for the ordinary evolutionary reasons that drive us towards reproducing our kind.
But there are so many preferences that are not so ascribable. And these too are ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, because everything human is ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, including our responses to gods and angels if such happen to exist. On that level, anything that happens is natural, but some things happen so infrequently, or lead to such dysfunctional or destructive consequences, that we cannot help but call them unnatural in one case or supernatural in another.
This is a very strange definitional detour to take en route to getting at the phenomenon of “art that’s so bad it’s good,” or of completely unimportant artworks we’ll cross oceans to see again, while we’ll make it a point to avoid the world’s greatest art if there is any way of doing so. This reaction varies according to transitory moods, of course (John Berryman’s line of acedia-laden verse about “literature bores me, especially great literature”) but there must be a combination of psychological and neurological underpinnings to this that are also based in the way the world itself works—the objective environmental structures that have resulted in our responses surviving instead of the responses mostly killed off in previous generations of our particular lineage, even though they survive robustly in other particular lineages wending their way through the world.
It would be good if we could get to the point of being able to argue out the dimensions and meaning of that general insight, if we can ever agree that it is an insight; we are always going to have to disagree about whether culture or nature plays the greater role in all this, because sometimes it is one, and sometimes it is the other, even in the same person at almost the same moment.
At a certain level of self-awareness, I can make a rational argument that an artwork has what they used to call “significant form”—that the component parts of the aesthetic machinery function together with enormous and consistent complexity—but that I hate everything about it. I can also confess that although some artworks have no redeeming aesthetic qualities, I love them anyway, because I’m just that kind of guy. (That’s the phenomenon of which we can say we probably don’t want to go there, to use the idiom we apply to “not wanting to delve too deeply into causation in this particular case.” See also: the general problem of “fast and slow thinking,” and why there are cases in which there is no point in trying to swap one for the other, although it is worth considering why there is no point in doing so.)
Hence it would be really interesting to approach the development or refinement of aesthetic taste in terms of expanding the range of consistent aesthetic operations to which we respond positively. (Historically it has been a matter of replacing one set of preferred operations with another, or narrowing the number of operations to which we respond, instead of learning new ways of evaluating the success of the operations. This is not a good thing, in my view. Neither is the unreflective assumption that there is no way to evaluate sets of operations and one set is as good as another. Indoctrination and indifferent relativism both suck.) There are an immense number of consistent operations, and it is what allows us to argue over whether a graffiti wall is a good one or a bad one at the same time that we argue over whether an example of Japanese calligraphy is successful or unsuccessful, or over why some kitsch is unendurably awful on all fronts while other kitsch has such intriguing underlying compositional elements that it is actually worth keeping around us in spite of being appallingly sentimental or exploitative of stereotypes. (In such cases we do have to keep our wits about us to avoid being pulled helplessly into the responses to which evolution predisposes us. Incidentally, it is interesting that in this year’s lingo we would probably just say “because evolution,” which is a locution that is used both for things that are too obvious to be worth spelling out and things that are too complicated to spell out without completely losing your train of thought.)
E. H. Gombrich floundered around on the edges of such questions, but that was an awfully long time ago, and the floundering was immense. The few books that have been written more recently on such problems of causation, or even of straightening out our systematically misleading terminology and categories for such problems, have been as unreadable, and mostly as wrongheaded, as this essay most likely is.
But hey, I had to write it anyway.