Right and Wrong in Art
Updated: Jun 19
Good Art, Bad Art... and Valid Art
How can anyone possibly say what is valid art and what isn't? What should be torn down, put in a museum, or both? Who is the judge and why should anyone else listen? And if there is such a judge, who appointed them? On what authority and on what criteria is that appointment grounded?
The lessons of the History of Art show that there are no easy answers to any of these question. The reality is that, throughout history, "someone" gets to say something is "good art" and "valid art" and the rest of us are expected to agree or be treated with derision, as ignorant philistines. Or, better still, burnt at the stake.
The problem is that what this "someone" says cannot be intrinsically "true". Instead, it is usually an ideologically driven statement.
Historically, this is obvious: in the past, Art was the most evident form of expression and the powers that be took considerable interest in what was expressed. They also applied considerable coercion to make the message palatable to them. They press ganged God into their service. Whatever ideology served power, that same ideology told art what to express.
With the Impressionists, there was a break with the Academy that, in those days, embodied the ideology of power. There was a brief flowering of the notion of the artist as one gifted with not just the ability of expression, but also granted a full Freedom of Expression, to express exactly what they wanted, how they wanted, even when this involved raising fingers to power.
But the blooms of any Spring soon wither.
Art Critics and the New Academy
In the present age, "someone" is back with a vengeance. "Someone" is no longer a part of the "Establishment" itself, but is instead, in a perverse distortion of all that is right with raising fingers, a signed up member of a Parallel Establishment, a sort of New Academy but one that does not serve power but Illuminated Opinion (as opposed to Public Opinion). And this "someone" is just as dictatorial and ruthless as to who will exhibit and where. Or not.
And it is all driven not by art or aesthetics, but by ideology.
It strikes me that this situation evolved organically:
A life spent expressing yourself has always involved being at the mercy of patrons who buy (or exhibit) your art for exhibition on the wall space they control. In the modern age, these "patrons" are institutions and businesses. These organisations, whilst eager to cash in on tax breaks and other benefits of supporting the Arts, paradoxically have no knowledge of what Art is, so they need "someone" else to decide for them:
Enter the Art Critics and the Galleries. Especially the Art Critics, because often the Galleries are just, themselves, businesses that sell art and so rely on Art Critics to tell them which artist is hot and which not.
From Theo Van Gogh to Ruskin and beyond, Art Critics and Galleries started having an extraordinary influence on Art. Influence is power, and the institutions of power soon becomes infested with ideology. And there you have it:
Any institution will inevitably be taken over by ideology, and the institutions of Art are no exception.
The ideology that has conquered the institutions of Art is the ideology of the Woke, the notion that Right and Wrong are absolute notions, and that these notions are self evident. Anyone who denies these notions is morally deserving of persecution out of the Art World.
The Problem with Absolute Rights and Absolute Wrongs
The problem is the death of the conversation that was once Art.
Recapping, Art is seen as being subject to a set of rules that must be followed. These rules are based on a self evident Absolute Right and so there is nothing left to be discussed. If you want a career in Art, you must agree with the institutional view of this Parallel Establishment.
Yet Art is not about Absolutes. Instead, it is, I believe, a conversation and an enquiry about how we understand Reality and how we perceive it and think about it. To say what Art is and isn't is to say that we know what Reality is, and this is not true.
This is the problem with ideologies: they dictate how to think about reality on the assumption that Reality is fully known and understood. This is a denial of Art:
Art exists because precisely because we don't know what Reality is, and we certainly do not understand it, nor is it self evident!
In this way, the New Academy, imbued with the ideology of the Woke Movement, vastly reduces the richness of the conversation and the enquiry that are art's essential social functions.
Is this image good art, bad art, valid art? Is it even art? Is it authentic art? Do I need to be English to paint this picture about English neo Nazi hooligan football fans? Should there be a rule banning swastika's in art? Should such images be tolerated? Or is it part of the social conversation about human realities that is "art"? Who decides? Who can say what art is?
To Every Action, there is an Equal and Opposite Reaction
The woke movement considers that the only valid objective, and indeed the only possible objective, is “ownership” of the issues at stake. They believe that if you control language (who can say what and in what way and on what terms), you "own" the battlefield. The movement wants to tell us what to think.
This uncompromising posture is a reaction to the past, where attitudes and language were forcefully, and often brutally, dictated to minorities and / or victims by either an elite (eg, by wealth) or by a majority (eg, by working class xenophobia). Or, more often than not, both. It is, in other words, a reaction to abuse, that has often been on an industrial scale.
But a lesson is never learnt. Little wonder, then, that the woke reaction has inherited many of the attributes and methods of the monster it fights: History has shown that such methods and attributes are highly effective tools, fit for the purpose at hand.
The problem is that, in the name of addressing horrific injustices, new distortions are foisted upon us all. Twist anyone's arm and you will discover that where there is distortion there is pain. And the first thing people do when they are in pain, is react.
So you enter into tit-for-tat territory and society splits into factions, negating the most well intended efforts. The conflict takes over from the conversation, and once people stop the jaw-jaw, war-war inevitably follows, to paraphrase Churchill.
Yes, yes, I know. Churchill was not an enlightened man, at least, not according to our present perspectives.
As the Argentines would say, Churchill was no "nene de pecho", no babe at the breast. Instead, he was an Imperialist, who called Gandhi (the very epitomy of political enlightenment) a "half naked fakir".
Yet Churchill was also instrumental in not appeasing fascism, which has to be a good thing, at least if you subscribe to liberal democracy, on which our tolerant societies are based.
This ambiguity is wasted on those who strive for absolute truths such as, errrmmmm..., fascism. Or the woke movement, to whom no saint can possibly have any attribute of the devil.
Do they not know that absolute truths are the seeds of intolerance, or do they not care?
To Wokedom, ownership of an issue is based solely on “authenticity”, ie, it should be restricted to those who are negatively impacted by the issue in question, and everything else should be cancelled, from history to language and beyond.
This means you cannot paint about issues of race unless your skin is of a certain colour, even if you have a valid point to make, one that is not overtly racist. Yet there is no reason for such a point to exist, regardless of who makes it or what their skin colour is.
As a result, the discussion loses, which is surely the opposite of what is needed.
The social aspects of ART are, IMHO, all about shining a light on issues in a way that allows them to be seen from a new perspective. It simply isn’t true that the only valid perspectives are perspectives that are internal to a given group, and that posture is both flawed and intolerant, not to mention autocratic; it is imbued with a rigid ideology that attempts to unilaterally arbiter what can and can’t be expressed and by whom.
Can a Scot, like me, express any valid idea about English hooligans and their contradictions?
I don't see why not. It is an interesting subject, and highly relevant to our time. Authenticity has many aspects, not just belonging to the category that is referred to. In other words, I am for freedom of expression.
The issue for absolutists, is that this implies tolerance of other points of view that you may not share.
Tolerance does not imply a free for all. It does not imply that we should tolerate a majority or an elite that feels entitled, by whatever criteria, to dictate the terms of social engagement, thereby disenfranchising a certain group from society's benefits.
The point to understand, the point that negates this negative aspect of tolerance, is that everything has a limit, even tolerance:
There is no reason to tolerate human actions that cause active, intentional harm to innocent others, just for the sake of tolerance.
Of course, you have to define the usage here of the words "cause", "intentional", "harm" and "innocent", but in this context (a blog post, not an academic treatise) I will rely on common sense to fill in these gaping holes in the formality of my argument.
The woke movement, with its absolutist zeal, does not accept this:
Right and Wrong are absolute concepts. Implicit in Absolute Ideas is the fact that there can be no conversation, mediation or consensus. Right should cancel Wrong, Now. End of. Never mind any debate about definitions or conventions.
But Reality is always inconsistent with absolutes, and so absolutes are not consistent with any idea of how real societies work.
This shows the autocratic heart of such movements. This is what makes them declare war with tolerance and the values of liberal democracy. And ultimately, it is a declaration of war with reality itself.
Real societies are a conversation, not a monologue that dictates absolutes truths to the unwashed by the enlightened.
The point is actually far more trivial than the woke movement and its lacquey, the institutions of Art, would have you believe:
Quite simply, the only requirement to be a useful and valid part of the conversation about any issue is to make a contribution towards resolving the issue.
It has NOTHING to do with authenticity, or what groups you belong to.
Art is a means of expression and, as such, is just one way of conducting this conversation between different positions. It follows that "authenticity" does not dictate what the subject of your art should, or even can, be.
The Way of the Woke
But that is not the Woke Way:
The Woke Way is the uncritical imposition of new kinds of cancellation, exclusion and unyielding rules, on the sole basis that, as you are the depository of absolute truths, you are right and everyone who disagrees is wrong.
When it comes to something as complex as modern societies, it is much more useful to have a plurality of views rather than attempting to reinstate yet another monolithic point of view.
There have been a lot of those throughout History. And it is History that shows that such practices only lead to further injustices and abuse.
So don't cancel History. Embrace its contradictions with your worldview and engage instead in a conversation with those who see things differently.
And give back unto Art that which belongs to Art:
Engagement in a conversation about how to grasp some small aspect of Reality.