I’m not a professional philosopher. I’m not even a particularly well qualified amateur. But I am interested in aesthetics, the drivers behind why I find some contemporary art so unappealing, and how we got to where we are. I have a broader view of the value of contemporary art than some. For example, I think that even work that doesn’t inspire us to our highest values can be profoundly moving if it helps us understand the world. For example, Bill Viola’s video art helps us to develop an almost Zen-like sensitivity to our surroundings even if, for example, the animal carcasses in “I do not know what it is I am like” are ugly and grotesque. But, I do have limits and I do think that a lot of art from the 1960’s on is dysfunctional and of limited value. My contention is that much of what I don’t like stems from philosophy and sociology systems that promote subjectivism and relativism. And, I think that, no surprise, the postmodern intellectuals are part of the problem with postmodern art.
Let’s begin with Lyotard. He does not seem like a bad guy. Lyotard even agrees with some of us that there is such a thing as “objective truth”. In my book, that’s good! It does not seem like it would lead too far astray from the path of inspiration and beauty. Unfortunately, Lyotard quickly undoes any notion of objective value when he states that, because of the limited amount of knowledge which can be processed by our human brains, we can never know objective truth. What that amounts to is Lyotard’s contention that there is no such thing as “certainty”; just relatively more or less effective interpretations of reality. In many ways I understand that. After all, to take my Bill Viola example again, just because I view a carcass as “ugly” doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t view that as part of the “beauty of natural processes”. And here is an odd one. I love Mark Rothko’s work and I can sit in Rothko Chapel in Houston for hours. Something about his use of color profoundly affects me. I guarantee that I know people who are far more well-educated about philosophy, intellectual history, and art theory than I who are not moved, in the least, by Rothko. So, I really do get Lyotard in relation to art. But I feel like he leads us down a dangerous path because to deny certainty leads to intellectual uncertainty, then moral relativism, then the “free for all” that is conceptual art. Is that bad? Well…. to me, yes. It implies that you don’t need to inspire, you don’t need to create and promote beauty, you don’t need fundamental skills, and you don’t need to even know what you are trying to accomplish. Lyotard is correct that the amount of available information is beyond our mental neurological processing capacity; but I don’t think it follows that nothing is objectively knowable. I prefer to view the problem from Nozick’s perspective – you can’t have certainty unless an objective fact is invariant under all possible transformations. About some things we indeed have no capacity for certainty. But about other we DO. From that perspective, I don’t see why we can’t put intellectual boundaries around art and say it should have objective values.
What about the good monsieur Derrida? Well, back in the 1960’s he was one of philosophy’s rock stars. For that reason, he had an enormous effect on the intellectual world. His notion of “deconstruction” set the foundation for a lot of the 60’s. In a very tiny nutshell, deconstruction is essentially repetitive linguistic analysis. To me, that sounds pretty cool. What does not seems as cool is the idea that the language to which this analysis is applied is a closed self-referential system that is independent of anything else. Big deal, you say – but it IS a big deal. That’s because Derrida takes his notion of language independence to the extreme. Ultimately, it leads to his critique of ideas as independent of language. If language refers only to language. then how do you objectively express thoughts and feelings and knowledge. In Derrida’s worldview, you can’t. Language is our way of communicating and it can’t objectively represent anything. So, to Derrida, everything is subjective until it is nestled into a particular interpretation. This leads to something even scarier than Lyotard’s uncertainty. It leads to absolute relativism. Apply that idea to something like, say, morality. When you look at Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Bashir, and other genocidal rulers, it seems to me that moral relativism is the key to most of the biggest disasters in history. So, I can’t see relativism as a way to live in a manner appropriate to human existence. We can argue about what we think art should communicate – motivation, inspiration, connectedness to our environment, awareness of tragedies, whatever – but surely there is a case to be made that it should, in one way or another, help us to better understand how best to be human. Derrida leads us far astray.
Foucault scares me even more than the others. This is because Foucault simply denies that rational knowledge produces objective accounts of reality or that it even represents human progress. He comes to this conclusion by way of the idea that even though we may presume that our own personal classification schema represent objective reality, there are actually many alternative classification schema. To Foucault, a classification scheme is a culture-specific interpretation embedded in language. This was a commonly taught philosophy when I was in art history classes; remember that I said I had a textbook called “The Social Construction of Reality”. What scares me about this philosophy is that it makes the entire world one or relativity and subjectivity. It says that ethics, morality, how we deal with others, and what our creative efforts should teach are dependent on how our culture describes and interprets. In such a system, Nazi culture could make 10 million murders morally acceptable; Chinese communist culture could make man-made famine morally acceptable; Radical Muslim culture could make blowing up the World Trade Center morally acceptable; and all because of cultural interpretive conventions. I simply refuse to accept a philosophy that denies objective moral standards. Where art is concerned, if morality is subjective then using the creative process to communicate to morally cognizant animals is subjective. This means that a painting that motivates one to kill Jews, a painting that motivates one to aspire to compassion for all living beings, a painting that increases the viewer’s perceptual sensitivity, a painting that teaches the viewer that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, and a painting that motivates one to achieve the best within themselves are morally equivalent; they depend on relative cultural subjectivity. In my humble opinion as one who is not a philosopher, this is nothing short of horse shit. Interestingly though, there are people who I really respect, like Bernard-Henri Levy, who would be as disgusted with moral relativism as I, yet still call Foucault one of their “Masters”. It may be that I am not educated enough to understand all of Foucault’s arguments. But, I think I have a viable interpretation and I don’t like it.
I hope you can see why my interpretations of the work of Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault make their notions of deconstruction, subjectivity, and cultural relativism seem like a nightmare. And I hope you can see why my “nightmare of aesthetics” comes from the way that these philosophers deny the objective moral drive to create art. In my humble opinion what makes so much of this art boring, uninspiring, ugly, violent, and sometimes genuinely disgusting is the prevalence of this type of thinking within the intellectual theory that drove the second half of the 20th century. I’m not really one of those guys who thinks that everything must be rational, objective, beautiful, and inspiring. But when the opposite of those characteristics is the foundation of aesthetic theory, then the value of art is significantly diminished.
Just my opinion 🙂