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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A HAPPY STORY FOR THESE TERRIBLE TIMES

In these terrible times, one must take pleasure where one can. My latest find is a story in the Arts section of today's NY TIMES. It seems that for some years now, an art forger named Mark A. Landis has been going around the country, sometimes claiming to be a Catholic priest, donating to museums and art galleries paintings that he represents as by genuine, minor artists, but which are actually his forgeries. He asks nothing in return, and does not even accept documentation for tax deduction purposes. Sometimes the museums pretty quickly discover that the paintings are forgeries. Sometimes not.

All he seems to want is for his paintings to be hung in galleries and museums. Who can blame him? When shapeless scribbles and blank canvasses sell for millions and are oohed and aahed at by supposed art experts, why shouldn't his genuinely carefully painted works be accepted as genuine?

I am, I openly acknowledge, something of a philistine when it comes to modern art. I do not even like mature Picassos or Pollack dribble paintings, let alone their secondary imitators. The art world is now on to Landis, who has disappeared from view. But sooner or later, the authorities [both law enfofrcement and artistic] will catch up with him, and then they will undoubtedly try to charge him with some crime.

I think I shall pull several of my unpublished essays from my file cabinet and present them to Harvard as hitherto unknown lesser efforts by some minor philosopher. Perhaps I will present them in honor of Willard van Orman Quine, my old teacher. How else am I going to shoehorn my way into the Houghton Rare Book Library?

23 comments:

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

"...shapeless scribbles and blank canvasses sell for millions and are oohed and aahed at by supposed art experts..."

OK, I'll take the bait. I understand that you may not like most of the stuff that's on display at the Centre Pompidou, but surely you don't think that the curators are not art experts?

David Pilavin said...

Modern Art is like Continental Philosphy -- sure, it has its experts but alas...


btw -- for anybody who thought art [in its traditional sense] is dead -- see this: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Jim H. said...

It's been done.

john c. halasz said...

Analytic philosophy is like neo-classical economics: it cultivates vulgar scientism and philistine resentment.

(Sorry...I couldn't resist).

David Pilavin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Pilavin said...

I do not mind the comparison -- but perhaps Prof. Wolff would..

john c. halasz said...

I don't know what the house rules are here, but according to general blog rules, when a commenter makes an obviously stupid remark, one responds in kind, (with dead-pan irony).

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

john c. halasz:

Yes, I believe that's the rule. Nice snark!

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

On a more serious note, why the disparaging attitude toward expertise in modern art? The most common answer I find elsewhere (I am not attributing this to anyone commenting here) is along the lines of, "Anyone could do that!" Now of course, not just anyone could create a convincing forgery of, say, a Rothko painting -- the truth is that very, very few people have the knowledge of Rothko's work, the eye for color and composition, and the facility with oil paint to manage it. But let's set all of that aside. I will agree that it's to forge a Rhothko than it is to forge a Vermeer. So the people who say this seem to be thinking that the value of a type of expertise is positively correlated with how difficult it is to fool the experts. That just seems bizarre to me. Clearly there are forms of expertise far more infallible than any form of art expertise that are of no value at all.

Anyway, I'd be interesting to know what the anti-modernists commenting here think. Note that the article Bob is referring to highlights the fact that it isn't very difficult to fool people who are experts in "carefully painted" work either.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

I mean "...that it's EASIER to forge a Rhothko ..."

David Pilavin said...

"when a commenter makes an obviously stupid remark, one responds in kind"

Well -- maybe my remark was stupid [for some reasons unbeknown to me] -- but *obviously* stupid?

Maybe this is obvious only to those who subscribe to some specific set of bon-ton dogmas ..





" I'd be interesting to know what the anti-modernists commenting here think"

I cannot speak for others, but my main reason to dislike Modern [etc.] Art is that much of it is plain ugly..

[But those, of course, are very "stupid" grounds for favoring or disfavoring art, isn't it?]

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

D. Pilavin,

Of course, what you find ugly many others will find beautiful. I understand why you dislike what you find ugly. I hope you also understand why others like what they find beautiful, which may well be the same thing that you find ugly. Everyone likes what they find beautiful and dislikes what they find ugly.

In any case, I'm not sure what beauty has to do with art. Perhaps you're confusing art with decoration.

Artistic merit and beauty are clearly different things. Were they the same thing, Duchamp's urinals and bicycle wheels would have been unanimously disqualified as art 90+ years ago. But instead they now inhabit the most vaunted public art museums in the West. I saw these things most recently at the Pompidou a few months ago. They were not any more beautiful to look at than innumerable other urinals and bicycle wheels I have seen. If you're looking for beauty in modern art, then I'd say you're missing it's whole point.

Or go back a bit further in time. German expressionism was not merely neutral-looking, unlike Duchamp's ready-mades, but was positively ugly and intended to be perceived as such. But I don't think you'll find any art experts nowadays who will dispute that the expressionist movement produced some great art.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Just to clear up potential confusion, let me point out that the discussion of "liking" in the first paragraph of my previous comment is logically independent of the claims about aesthetic merit in the second. One can like things that (even by one's own lights) lack any artistic merit, and one can find them beautiful as well. E.g., one may both like and find beautiful a pornographic photograph without thinking it has any artistic merit.

David Pilavin said...

"Of course, what you find ugly many others will find beautiful. I understand why you dislike what you find ugly. I hope you also understand why others like what they find beautiful, which may well be the same thing that you find ugly. Everyone likes what they find beautiful and dislikes what they find ugly."


I certainly do understand this fact and I respect other people's tastes.

With two qualifications, though:

1) As you say so yourself, much of Modern Art does not even attempt at being beautiful nor is it claimed such by the connoisseurs.

2) When considering other people's tastes, I take into account the differences -- both innate and acquired -- that naturally exist among people and affect our respective tastes -- which I deeply respect. But I also take into account the "Emperor's-New-Clothes" effect -- for which I have nothing but contempt.

Now, I obviously cannot provide any rigid criterion to distinguish between cases involving the former source of artistic preferences vs. those involving the latter, however, it seems to me, some commonsense would do -- however fallible.




"In any case, I'm not sure what beauty has to do with art."

If you would have written this sentence at any point in time prior to the beginning of the 20-th century -- in fact, at any point of time prior to the post-WWI period -- most people -- cultured people at that! -- would have deemed you crazy. Now -- this obviously does not entail that you are wrong: the same probably would have been true of the sentence "a flying machine is possible". But what it does indicate is this: the definition/sense of the word "Art" has shifted significantly over the past hundred years. Which is fine -- I see no point arguing over words.

However, in view of this fact, it should be clear why some educated, cultured, sophisticated, refined, and sensitive people who enjoy and appreciate Art in the former sense of the word, would find no [genuine] interest whatsoever in much of what is called "Art" nowdays.

[to be followed]

David Pilavin said...

[continued]

"Perhaps you're confusing art with decoration."

Much of the great visual art created prior to the 20-th century was indeed "decoration". Consider for example Michelangelo's frescos... [and much of great non-visual art was "entertainment".. And this includes Shakespeare and Mozart]. Most of the art created prior to the 20-th century was not meant to inhabit Museums but pleasure the laity...



"Artistic merit and beauty are clearly different things. Were they the same thing, Duchamp's urinals and bicycle wheels would have been unanimously disqualified as art 90+ years ago. "


Well, if you ask me....





"If you're looking for beauty in modern art, then I'd say you're missing it's whole point."

Maybe so -- but this is a point that I do not mind missing..






"One can like things that (even by one's own lights) lack any artistic merit, and one can find them beautiful as well. E.g., one may both like and find beautiful a pornographic photograph without thinking it has any artistic merit. "

Here one must distinguish between aesthetic pleasure [which, pace Kant, I deem as one kind of sensual pleasures] and other kinds of sensual pleasures. A pornographic picture may be aesthetically gratifying, but aesthetics are usually not what interests people viewing pornography.

Another distinction that must be drawn -- which is the distinction that you point to -- is the one between aesthetically satisfactory and artistically accomplished. A rose may be the most beautiful thing in the world, but if is not artistically accomplished -- simply because it is not a work of art [at least not in the literal sense of "work of art"].

Like in the case of all human endeavors, we may judge a work of art using [at least] two independent criteria : (1) The effort invested therein ; (2) The end result.

There may be great effort involved producing a no-good final result. In such a case, I would appreciate the effort, but I would deem it a wasted effort.

David Pilavin said...

One final point:

You write: "But I don't think you'll find any art experts nowadays who will dispute that the expressionist movement produced some great art."

Actually -- I personally would not dispute this either. But, to elucidate the general principle with an apt analogy, you would not find Christian theologians who would deny that Christianity is a great thing, nor would you find Continental experts on Continental Philosophy who would deny that it is great, nor you would find expert-psychoanalists that would deny the greatness of psychoanalysis. The same goes for shamans, physiognomists, astrologers, and what have you. You get the point.. Obviously, "inside" experts in any field praise their field -- if only because their sustenace depends on it. Now -- in all of those cases, external criticism does exist. Often, however, it is ignored by the in-crowd as unworthy of consideration, because voiced by the uninitiated.

Same goes for external criticisms of the Art establishments.

If you would like an example of the latter, see Ephraim Kishon's last book "Picasso's Sweet Revenge" (2004) or the "Manifestoes" of the Art Renewal Center, on the site to which I provided a link above [and here I do it again: http://www.artrenewal.org/]

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Atavism on this blog runs deep. I am not going to try to argue with it. I will just note that America's two greatest contributions to the world'd "high culture" were jazz music and abstract expressionism. That is atavistic enough of me, since both reached their peak well before I was born.

David Pilavin said...

Yesterday, my remarks were obviously stupid and now they are only atavistic -- well, I must have made some progress in the past day..

:-)

john c. halasz said...

Umm... David Pilavin,- (aside from the conundrum of explaining the obviousness of stupidity to its author),- there is 1) the matter of a demand for ready made intelligibility and "clarity", whereby any difficulty must only be due to "trickery", which combines both dogmatism and an appeal to ignorance, and 2) the matter of large over-generalizations about both continental philosophy, (which is not quite a geographical category), and modern(ist) art, (which is not quite an historical, nor a continuous category), such that there is an obvious "confusion of scope" between each and all, a kind of inverted form of the fallacy of composition. To put in in a T-sentence, clank means "clank".

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

"[T]he definition/sense of the word "Art" has shifted significantly over the past hundred years. Which is fine -- I see no point arguing over words. "

I think you're on to something there, David. Of course when I use the word "art" I defer to the experts in my community and I mean by it what they mean by it. Had I been writing the same words 150 years ago, I they would have meant something different, and what they would have meant would probably been absurd, perhaps even analytically false.

You seem to grant that *given* that I mean by "art" what the experts mean by it, what I am saying is correct. Well, then, we don't disagree on anything of substance. Perhaps we disagree on whether what is called "art" now is something that should be valued and placed in museums (I think it should be). But that's not a very interesting disagreement. You're not going to change my mind on this and I am not going to change yours -- unless you make an effort to get acquainted with modern(ist) art. And no, I don't think looking at a few samples, or even many samples, or even a representative range of samples, is acquaintance enough for appreciation. In order to appreciate (almost) any kind of art, one has to know a good deal about the culture that produced it. Imagine someone who is absolutely ignorant of 17th century Spanish history, and of all European history, who knows nothing about the religion practised then, how people dressed then, what furniture looked like, etc., etc., being presented with a Velasquez painting. For all they know, it represents an extraterrestrial scene. They'll probably think it looks very strange. They probably won't like it very much -- most likely they'd find it too weird to find it beautiful. What should we say about this person's reaction to the painting? Should we say (a) that the person just doesn't like Velasquez' work or (b) that the person is in no position to like or dislike Velasquez because they lack the background knowledge required for appreciating it? Surely the latter.

I would suggest that you're in the same position with respect to the modern art that you disparage. The fact is that to appreciate something like German expressionism or Dadaism or Futurism or what have you, one has to know a great deal more than one has to know in order to appreciate Velasquez. It's not enough that one be familiar with cultures and historical eras in which these movements were set; one also has to be familiar with the subcultures that produced them, what other arists were doing, and the art "theories" to which the artists subscribed (scare quotes because there isn't much in the way of theory, but one definitely needs to know a bit about how the people who produced the art were thinking).

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

The ability to appreciate art is not innate. It has to be learned, and the fact is that you need to learn more to appreciate Duchamp than you do to appreciate Velasquez. (NB: This applies to literature -- one has to be taught to appreciate novels -- and perhaps especially to music. E.g., I didn't like like Jazz when I was 5 years old, and I would have been horrified by atonal stuff like Varèse had I been exposed to it. Nowadays that's pretty much all I listen to. What happened in the intervening years was that I learned enough about music to be able to appreciate these things. The atonal still sounds atonal, but because of my background knowledge I can pick up other things that I appreciate in it.)

You say:

"But, to elucidate the general principle with an apt analogy, you would not find Christian theologians who would deny that Christianity is a great thing, nor would you find Continental experts on Continental Philosophy who would deny that it is great, nor you would find expert-psychoanalists that would deny the greatness of psychoanalysis. The same goes for shamans, physiognomists, astrologers, and what have you. You get the point..."

Actually, I don't get the point. Art isn't in the business of making claims about the origin of the world, curing diseases, or predicting your future. Christianity, shamanism, and astrology are, and they are no good at these things. Artists, on the other hand, are in the business of creating art, and they're pretty good at it -- or at least the most famous ones have been. What is good art supposed to do? Clearly not cure diseases, etc. It's supposed to be appreciated by those who participate in the institution of art as writers, reviewers, historians, curators, museum-goes, art collectors, readers of literature on art, etc. It's pretty clear that the audience doesn't include you, so the fact that you're not impressed by what artists have been doing since the 1860s (that is, technically, what counts as modern) does not indicate any failing on the artists' part.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

As for the "external criticism" you link, I don't plan to read it as I think it will be a waste of time. I don't like opera -- I don't know enough about it to be able to appreciate -- and so I don't go to the opera, but I think it would be rather silly of me to write an anti-opera manifesto and to seriously expect any opera fan to read it (except for laughs, maybe).

Actually, the opera analogy might help here. It probably doesn't work this way in the US, but many countries in Europe have national operas that receive significant government support. Of course, only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population of any of these countries ever goes to see an opera. The rest of us aren't capable of appreciating it. You can say all the same things about the opera institution that you have said about the institution of art. Why do taxpayers have to subsidize this elite hobby? Well, we've decided that it's an important part of our cultural heritage, so we preserve it, even if only a handful of people enjoy it. Same goes for Duchamp's urinals and bycycle wheels.

John C. Halasz on "the conundrum of explaining the obviousness of stupidity to its author" -- wise words. I don't know why I tried. This will be my last comment on the topic.

David Pilavin said...

"..-- wise words."

Very wise words indeed.

In fact, I would adopt those wise words and use them whenever I have a disagreement with anybody on any topic whatsoever..