The Emperor’s New Art: A Parable
by John Michael Greer, originally published by The Archdruid Report | TODAY 8-12-16
Last week’s episode of the Retrotopia narrative ended up launching, rather to my surprise, an extensive discussion about the nature of art. The spark that set off this unexpected blaze was a passing comment on the part of the story’s protagonist, who described the abstract paintings on the walls of the Atlantic Republic embassy in Toledo in somewhat rude language. That was meant as a throwaway line, one more display of the way the protagonist’s views had changed during his visit to my imaginary Lakeland Republic—but it fielded me a minor flurry of denunciation from people who couldn’t stand the fact that a character of mine had expressed a lack of appreciation for one variety of modern art.
Those of my readers who’ve come in for bullying from the art crowd know exactly what sort of thing those tirades included. Those who’ve evaded that experience so far—well, I was told that I had no right to have an opinion on the subject, that I don’t know anything about art, that I obviously prefer Norman Rockwell, that I’m offended by intellectual challenges, that I’m offended by new techniques and media, that I feel threatened by modern art, that I’m in favor of censorship, and that I’d change my mind if I just stood in front of an abstract expressionist canvas and tried to understand my reactions.
It’s worth noting that none of these claims happens to be true, but let’s set that aside for a moment and take a look at what happened. I had a character in a story express an opinion about art—an opinion, by the way, that was relevant to the story and also to the character—and that was enough to send some of my readers into a fair imitation of a Donald Duck splutterfest. This isn’t the first time, or the hundred and first time, that I’ve watched that same sequence unfold. Across the spectrum of contemporary art, if you display a lack of enthusiasm for anything produced by someone whose claim to the status of “artist” is accepted by the art scene, you can expect to field something of the kind.
That can be highly entertaining—I certainly found the latest round of it a source of wry amusement—but it’s also relevant to the subject of the current series of posts on education for the deindustrial era. One of the core things you should expect to get from any education worth the name is the ability to sort out gold from garbage: to recognize, in the fields of learning and creativity, the differences between genuine insight, recycled cliché, and pretentious noise. To get that ability, it’s crucial to recognize that there are two kinds of bad practice in the arts, sciences, and scholarship.
The first of them can be called, without too much distortion, lowbrow trash. What defines lowbrow trash is that it rehashes the overfamiliar. It deploys stereotyped effects in stereotyped ways to evoke stereotyped sentiment. It tends to be popular among the poor, because people who have to bear the brutal insecurities every complex society inflicts on its more vulnerable members desperately need the reassurance of the familiar, and if black velvet paintings of dogs playing poker are what’s available to meet that need, then that’s what will go on their walls. (There are better options, but these days those generally aren’t available to the poor.) The apotheosis of lowbrow trash is kitsch, which wallows so enthusiastically in rehashed sentiment that it achieves unintentional self-parody.
There is also, as it happens, lowbrow trash in scholarship and science. Here you find the histories that regurgitate every currently accepted stereotype about this or that corner of the past, the scientific papers that “prove” some bit of conventional wisdom by excluding contradictory data—this is easy to do if you know your way around experimental design—and so on. These also have their own forms of kitsch, though you often need a little more specialized education to catch the unintentional self-parody.
That said, lowbrow trash is only one side of the picture. There’s another side, and since this entire discussion started with a bit of fiction, I don’t think it’s out of line to ask my readers to gather around old Father Goose for a few minutes and listen to a story called “The Emperor’s New Art.”
This all happened right after the events of “The Emperor’s New Clothes;” any of my readers who don’t happen to know that tale can find a pleasant online version here. The two fraudulent tailors who’d sold the emperor a suit of nonexistent clothes were marched to the nearest border and thrown out of the empire with a warning never to return. They had very little money and knew better to try the same scam on the ruler of the next empire over, since even in those days, news traveled fast. So there they sat on a stone fence, trying to figure out what they were going to do.
“I know,” said the taller of the two. “The emperor of this land is an art lover. We can become painters.”
“But neither of us knows the first thing about painting!” the shorter tailor replied.
“Neither of us knows the first thing about making clothing, either,” the taller one reminded him. “Let’s see if we have enough money between us to buy some art supplies.”
Now since this is a fairy tale, there was an art supply store waiting just down the road, and the two found they had just enough money between them to buy a canvas, some brushes, a set of paints in flimsy tubes, and a spray bottle of fixative. That didn’t leave them enough money to rent a studio, or even a room for the night, and the day was almost over, so they found a dry place under some trees and went to sleep with their art supplies safe, as they thought, between them.
Late that night a stray dog came trotting by. He was not too bright, and to him, the tubes of paint looked like puppy treats. He sneaked up between the two tailors and gobbled up the paint tubes in three quick gulps, breaking them open with his teeth in the process. Before he could trot away, though, the first mouthful of paint hit his stomach and made it lurch. The second mouthful made it lurch again, and the third—well, to make a long and somewhat anatomical story short, he proceeded to throw up the paint, along with everything else he’d eaten that evening, right onto the canvas. He then backed away, and ran off to find some tasty grass to settle his stomach.
The two tailors woke at sunrise to find their paint tubes gone and a great deal of technicolor dog barf all over their one canvas. “Oh, no!” cried the shorter tailor. “Our art supplies are spoiled and we have no money to buy more. We’ll never become famous painters now!”
“Nonsense,” said the taller one. “You never did have enough imagination.” He carefully dried the canvas in the sun and sprayed fixative over it. “Here is our first masterpiece.”
So they proceeded to the palace of the emperor. On the way they grew beards and let their hair get long, and they stole an assortment of ill-fitting clothing from clotheslines along the way so they could look eccentric and bohemian. So attired, they presented themselves to the imperial art committee and said, “We are great artists, so brilliant, so avant-garde, and so tormented by our talent that our work can only be understood by the truly sophisticated. Ordinary people—well! Ordinary people look at our paintings and say, ‘That looks like dog barf,’ but that simply shows how pedestrian their tastes are, how little they understand the true sublimity of which art is capable. But you, ladies and gentlemen, you are persons of refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity. We know that you will appreciate—” He held up the canvas on which the dog had thrown up. “—the first great work of the Borborygmist school of art!”
Now of course the first thought of every member of the imperial art committee was, “That looks like dog barf.” As soon as that thought entered their minds, though, every one of them thought, “Oh, no! Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian and I don’t understand the true sublimity of which art is capable?” So none of them said anything at first. Then one, who felt a little more insecure than the others and felt he had to prove that he didn’t have pedestrian tastes, said, “This is indeed a great work of art.” All the others thought, “He must have refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity.” So they all began to praise the painting, and the more they looked at it, the more they succeeded in convincing themselves that it couldn’t be what it obviously was, that is, a canvas on which a dog had thrown up.
So the two artists sold the painting to the Emperor for a tidy sum. The Emperor didn’t actually think much of it—his first thought on seeing it was, “That looks like dog barf”—but since all the members of the imperial art committee insisted that it was a great masterpiece and only people with pedestrian tastes thought it looked like dog barf, he kept his mouth shut and tried to convince himself that it really was a masterpiece. One day, though, when the painting had been put on display for the public, and the artists and the members of the art committee and the Emperor himself were standing there beaming, a little child came up, took one look at the painting, and said, “That looks like dog barf.”
The artists, the committee members, and the Emperor all looked down their noses at the child and said, “Child, you obviously know nothing about art.” So the child went away, and the artists lived happily ever after—and that, my children, is most of what you need to know about the history of modern art.
That is to say, lowbrow trash is not the only kind of trash that needs to be recognized as such by the educated person. There is also highbrow trash. Where lowbrow trash communicates overfamiliar sentiments in overfamiliar ways, highbrow trash avoids communication by saying nothing that can be interpreted outside of a narrow circle of cognoscenti. It’s meant to exclude, so that its purveyors and connoisseurs can feel superior to those who those who don’t get it. As lowbrow trash appeals to the poor, who need the comforts of familiarity in an insecure world, highbrow trash appeals to the affluent, who tend to be sheltered from adversity and so get bored easily, and who also tend to flock to anything that will allow them to parade their supposed superiority to the poor.
There’s plenty of highbrow trash in the realms of scholarship and the sciences, just as there’s plenty of lowbrow trash there. As with lowbrow trash, too, there’s a far end to the spectrum, a point at which it achieves self-parody and becomes unintentionally funny. There is unfortunately no common word for this latter, no equivalent word to kitsch, so one needs to be coined; the term I have in mind is “warhol.”
This is not to express any lack of respect for Andy Warhol, whose name provides that label. Quite the contrary, I admire the man immensely. He was arguably the twentieth century’s greatest satirist, a comic genius so versatile and so subtle that some of the butts of his humor haven’t yet realized that the joke was on them. This was the man who meticulously copied a supermarket box of Brillo pads and sold that as a work of art. No less a philosopher than Arthur Danto spent a good fraction of his career trying to come up with an aesthetic philosophy and a definition of art that would allow Warhol’s Brillo box to keep its status as an artwork, and never seems to have gotten the joke.
There is, as it happens, precisely one theory of art that justifies the claim that Warhol’s Brillo box is art. It’s the theory that there are certain very, very special people called “artists” who are so tremendously creative, so overwhelmingly sensitive, so dripping with sheer aesthetic oomph, that anything they treat as art is, ipse dixit, art. If an eight-year-old boy hangs a urinal on a nail on the wall for people to see, that’s a prank, but if Marcel Duchamp does it, it’s a great work of art. Why? Because art oozes out of every pore of his body, that’s why, and there’s a puddle of it on the urinal to this day. It’s understandable that artists should find this way of defining art congenial to their egos, but it’s just as understandable that Andy Warhol’s wicked sense of humor would zero in on so comically arrogant a claim, and push it past its logical extreme into rank absurdity.
Let us please get real: a urinal does not become a work of art because an artist sticks it on a wall, nor does a Brillo box become a work of art because Andy Warhol decides to pull the art world’s collective leg. Plenty of other examples could be added—there’s no shortage of highbrow trash these days, and no shortage of warhol, either—and an important part of education is developing a strong enough personal sense of aesthetic and intellectual taste that when a couple of former tailors come along with dog barf on a canvas and insist that this is the first great masterpiece of the Borborygmist school of art, the educated person is confident enough to say, “No, that’s dog barf.”
How do you develop that kind of personal sense? There’s a very simple, straightforward way; it’s been standard practice in every literate society for thousands of years, and the current intellectual climate in today’s United States treats it as three steps lower than evil incarnate.
That is to say, you have a canon.
A canon is a set of works in any given field that are generally accepted as masterpieces. In a healthy culture, pretty much every educated person has encountered and studied the works that belong to the canon of that culture. The word “canon” literally means “measure,” and that’s what a canon does: it gives you something to measure other works of the same kind. Let’s take literature as an example. There are, in every literature and every branch of literature, certain works that stand head and shoulders above the rest, and an important part of education consists of reading those works, thinking about them, studying them, figuring out what makes them great (and also where they stumble), and developing a personal sense of literary taste by exposure to them. Is the canon the only thing you read? Of course not—what’s the use of a means of measuring if you don’t use it to measure something other than itself?
A canon, by the way, is always contested, it’s always in flux, and it’s always unfair. Different works rise up into the canon and drift back out of it in response to the vagaries of taste. There have been times when Shakespeare’s plays were cast out from the canon as too vulgar, and novels most people now find insufferably stuffy were considered marvels of literary genius. That’s inevitable, because a canon is always and only a summary of the collective aesthetic and intellectual taste of an age, and inevitably suffers from the blind spots of the age. If there’s some kind of absolute ideal of beauty or sublimity out there, of the sort Plato imagined, it’s not accessible to mere human beings. All we have to work with is our own, hopefully more or less educated reactions to works of art, science, and scholarship.
So each culture in each age, with rare exceptions, adapts the canon of arts, sciences, and scholarship that it considers important, adding some works and deleting others, on the basis of its own inevitably flawed perceptions, and proceeds to use that as a basis for education. The exceptions are periods like the present, when the schism in society anatomized by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History shatters the sense of shared values that binds a society together, and you end up with a polarized mess in which the dominant minority and the internal proletariat glare at each other across a wasteland of smoking ruins. At such times, the dominant minority plunges with gusto into highbrow trash, the internal proletariat plunges with equal verve into lowbrow trash, and both sides pretend that those are the only two possible options—that those who don’t like abstract expressionism must therefore love Norman Rockwell, and vice versa.
That’s not good for art, or for that matter science or scholarship. One of the things that individuals who care about any of these things can contribute to their welfare is to cast aside the dubious enticements of both kinds of trash, try to construct some approximation of a canon in the fields that matter to them, and educate themselves in the time-honored method of repeated exposure to, and reflection on, really first-rate works. It’s from such efforts, once the schism in society completes its trajectory, that a new canon emerges, and the heritage of the past gets handed on to guide the creative minds of the future.
A couple of additional notes may be useful here. First, just because you’ve identified something as trash, highbrow or lowbrow, doesn’t mean you have to avoid it. Trash can be fun. I inherit from my misspent youth, for example, an amused delight in really bad fantasy fiction, the kind of thing that Poul Anderson anatomized brilliantly in his essay “On Thud and Blunder,” and there are books I keep on hand when I want to wallow in that sort of thing. For all I know, there are people who have a similar reaction to abstract expressionist paintings, though I admit I’ve never met one.
Second, just because you know it’s good doesn’t mean you have to like it. I don’t happen to like Italian opera, for example. I know that it contains a good selection of world-class masterpieces, but they’re not to my taste, and so I leave them to those who delight in them. I have a similar reaction to rap music, and to a variety of other art genres. My wife has a BFA in art history, and we routinely visit art museums when we travel, but our tastes differ somewhat—she’s gaga for the Impressionists, who I find pleasant but not the overwhelming experience they are for her; our roles reverse when it comes to the French Symbolists; by mutual consent, we avoid the modern art wing altogether and make a beeline for the Japanese gallery and the medieval and Renaissance European collections. Meanwhile, other people are making their own choices, and so should you.
Finally, laughter is an appropriate response to art. It’s an even more appropriate response to highbrow or lowbrow trash, and of course it’s all but inescapable when you encounter kitsch or warhol. If the reaction you have when you stand in front of a canvas covered with dog barf is hysterical giggling, by all means giggle. It’s a salutary corrective to the cult of humorlessness that so often obsesses the purveyors and connoisseurs of highbrow trash.
With that in mind, we can proceed to…
Homework Assignment #3
As previously noted, since this sequence of posts is on education, there’s going to be homework. Your homework for the next month or so is to find three works in one field of art, science, or scholarship. One should be a work of lowbrow trash, one should be a work of highbrow trash, and the third should be a classic. All of them should be in the same genre—for example, you might choose three science fiction novels, or three paintings, or three operas, or three historical essays, or three books on physics.
The highbrow trash will probably be hardest to find, as this goes into and out of style in various genres, while lowbrow trash is eternal. If you happen to choose science fiction, for example, most of the over-the-top highbrow trash appeared in the New Wave era of the 1970s, when a good many writers decided to prove that SF was High Literature, and got pompous, humorless, and dull in the usual way. Lowbrow trash? Any bookstore or public library will have it by the yard; look for clichés that were already dated when the original Star Trek premiered. Classics? By and large, old Hugo Award winners qualify.
Put some time into all three works. Notice the difference in your responses to them. Also notice the objective differences in them. Don’t hesitate to laugh where appropriate.