The Ribena test

by John Quiggin on July 29, 2005

In the July edition of Prospect Erik Tarloff reviews What Good are the Arts? by John Carey. Tarloff’s critique (subscription-only link I think, but give it a try) is summed up in the write-off

If I prefer Ribena to Château Lafite, does that make me a fool? No. It’s just a matter of taste—as it is for art. That is John Carey’s thesis, and it’s wrong
I haven’t read Carey’s book yet, but as far as I’m concerned, Tarloff is wrong. Not having read the book, I won’t assert that Carey is right, but he is certainly raising the right questions.

The difference between ‘Art’ (I’ll defend the scare quotes later) and mass-produced cultural products is, in most respects, just like the difference between Château Lafite and Ribena. One takes a lot of skill and indefinable talent to produce, and an experienced palate to appreciate , and the other is cheaply produced in bulk and reliably appeals to basic tastes we all possess[1]

In fact, this comparison is too favorable to ‘Art’ since a lot of stuff produced under that banner, and accepted by its official representatives, has none of the merits of Château Lafite, while lots of things that don’t make into the canon are subtle and complex.

Right at the end of his piece, Tarloff implicitly concedes all this. He says

I believe the difference is real. Having been lucky enough to have tasted and enjoyed both Ribena and Château Lafite, I do believe that for those willing or equipped to appreciate it, the latter provides a more satisfying and more complex nexus of pleasures. Yes, damn it, absolutely

So, let’s agree that in most areas of human endeavour, things can be done with skill and effort, in a way that will only be fully appreciated by someone who has themselves put in a fair amount of effort, or they can be done in a cheap and superficially appealing way, and that the latter will often succeed in the market. Until about the beginning of the 19th century, the term ‘art’ was used in relation to the first way of doing things, with no particular restriction. We still speak of the “Vintner’s Art for example.

It was only in the 19th century that an idea of capital-A Art came to be accepted. In its most extreme Romantic form, Art was the immortal and transcendent product of individual genius, free from and superior to, all social restraints. This transcendent spirit had only a tiny range of modes of expression: painting, sculpture, a restricted range of music, drama and, at a pinch, literature. In a watered-down form, this is still pretty much the official ideology of Art, and the one that Tarloff, with some obvious embarrassment, is trying to defend.

It’s not really possible to refute this theory, only to observe that, if you take it all seriously, the number of cultural productions that qualify as Art must be very small indeed. Maybe Ulysses and Beethoven’s 5th are immortal and transcendental products of genius, but this is an all-or-nothing category. Once you expand it beyond a handful of works, the problem of drawing the line becomes insurmountable. Is anyone seriously going to claim, say, that Monet is an immortal genius, and Manet a mere craftsman, or that Manet is in, but Renoir is out (feel free to substitute your own implied ranking).

And once you abandon the full-blown Romantic genius theory, there is no defensible position to fall back on short of the conclusion that Château Lafite is the product of art, and Ribena is not.

Having got to this point, what can we say in relation to the social significance of art? The values embodied in art are more important, and fragile, in some domains (broadly speaking, those associated with the capitalised term ‘Culture’) than in others. As far as private consumption goods like alcoholic beverages, or houses and their furnishings, are concerned, we can generally rely on individual preferences, expressed through the market, to strike a reasonable balance between cost and quality.

Culture is, in large measure, a public good (in the economic sense, that it is at least partly non-rival and non-excludable) and is much more complicated. As with other public goods, it may be under-supplied and may merit a public subsidy. More importantly, it doesn’t just emerge as a product of spontaneous order, in the way that market goods typically do. Individual cultural productions both constitute and are generated by, the culture as a whole. So, if we care about it, we have to take an individual and collective interest in what is happening. It’s for this reason, and not because chamber music is categorically different from champagne, that art matters.

fn1. Disclaimer: I don’t possess the required sophistication, and have never tasted Château Lafite, so I’m taking Tarloff’s example on faith, mentally substituting Wirra Wirra Church Block

{ 38 comments }

1

Brendan 07.29.05 at 5:42 am

Incidentally, there’s an amusing misprint in Tarloff’s review in which, in the context of talking about the ‘immortality’ of great art, he then goes on to talk about the ‘immorality’ of great art. A look at the lives of the great artists might well lead you to think that the second thesis is a lot more defensible than the first.

In any case, I think Tarloff puts his finger on the problem with Carey’s thesis. The question is not whether it’s ‘true’ or not, it’s ‘Does Carey actually believe what he is writing?’.

As some rent-a-quote Ulster Unionist said on Channel 4 news the other day, “Words mean nothing: deeds mean everything”, a statement I fully agree with incidentally (this makes an improbable link between this topic and what I was saying earlier about the Keyboard Kommandos of the “pro-invasion left”).

In other words, if Carey really believed what he was saying he would quit his cushy academic job, stop writing about opera and Dickens, and start reviewing EastEnders for the Sun.

Instead he spoils it all by having a second part of his book in which he backtracks furiously and attempts to justify all the great literature he has just been attacking in the first half.

But you really can’t have it both ways. If you are going to say that “aesthetics” as a discipline doesn’t exist, that it’s all “subjective” and that Hollyoaks, or, for that matter, “Charlie’s Anals” or “Toilet Orgies Uncut” really are as good as (or better than) “King Lear” then for God’s sake just say so, and don’t prevaricate or backtrack.

Otherwise the implication is that Carey is just striking poses he doesn’t really believe in because he knows it will be ‘controversial’ and will lead to lots of ‘debate’ in the book pages of the Guardain.

2

Ray 07.29.05 at 6:20 am

Carey is not arguing that there are no pleasures to be found in Opera that can’t be found in Eastenders – he’d probably agree with the idea expressed above that certain pleasures require some work to create and some work to appreciate. There’s no reason not to enjoy opera, if you want to put the work in.

His argument is that appreciating art doesn’t make you a better person. China ducks and The Three Graces are equally likely to make you give to charity. (“One of the few commentators he quotes with admiration is Marghanita Laski, who asked how many people who have achieved ecstatic experiences through art have been induced to do charity work that involves ‘personal contact with people who are physically disgusting’.”) An encyclopedic knowledge of Battlestar Galactica will develop the mind as much as an encyclopedic knowledge of Puccini. Literature is different because it can develop the reader’s empathy with other people. (There’s also a suggestion that creating art is beneficial, though the therapetic effects have nothing to do with the quality of the art produced)
Its definitely a controversial position, but its also reasonably valid. The LRB has a good review (which I quoted) but its subscriber-only.

3

paul 07.29.05 at 8:07 am

Should we mention the enormous class distinction going on here? Developing a palate suitable for appreciating a good wine costs you (or someone whose largesse you enjoy) thousands of dollars, and maintaining it costs thousands or tens of thousands more (keeping in mind that there is a limited range of meals, in both content and ambiance, with which it would not be sacrilege to pop open a serious vintage). The (ostensibly) simpler, mass-produced, reliable stuff, whether wine, literature or drama, can typically be enjoyed and even pondered in a world that doesn’t come with hours at a time to set aside for reverent silence.

So maybe developing a fully-refined taste for Verdi or Vermeer or Cos doesn’t make you a better person, but of necessity it makes you a different person from one who enjoys the subtleties of humbler works.

4

Henry 07.29.05 at 8:51 am

There’s an on-topic bit in an interview between Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant (I don’t have it to hand, so am going on imperfect memory here). They’re discussing Bourdieu’s book “Distinction,” which is more or less a full-on attack on the notion that good taste is any more than a weapon employed by some social groups to privilege themselves vis-a-vis others. Bourdieu however acknowledges, if my memory is right, that there is a theory of art and taste that does provide a real distinction – that is that “high” art has a history it refers to of previous art, and thus requires a more complex sense of discrimination to appreciate than “low” art. If anyone has the text to hand (it’s in “Invitation to Reflexive Sociology,” I lost my copy years ago) the relevant para(s) might be interesting.

5

freddie 07.29.05 at 8:58 am

“Art ils anything you can get away with.”–

lowbrow,middlebrow,highbrow?

if it is mass produced or is intended for general popular audience, it is NOT art but production, as in Shakespeare

What was fashionable on one century or decade ils not today. Nor tomorrow?

Who decides?

Film is not art–

Classical music is art–the rest is , well, the rest

and on and on and on

6

bob mcmanus 07.29.05 at 9:40 am

“he then goes on to talk about the ‘immorality’ of great art.”

Never mind the personal lives of the artists, are great works of art usually to some degree subversive of their societies? Maybe not Dante or Bach cantatas, but then again…

Secondly, is the time or effort or wealth required to appreciate great art alienating? Is the xenophilia gained in refined experience a social good?

I myself have never watched “Friends” or “Seinfeld” or read a Rowling book, and feel somewhat guilty about it.

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.29.05 at 9:47 am

C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent little book on the subject (dealing mostly with books) called “An Experiment In Criticism” where he develops an explanation of artistic worth which allows both for taste and independent judgment of worth (one of his key innovations is suggesting that it is much safer for a critic to identify a work as good rather than bad because of the always present possibility that they just don’t get it.)

8

Steve LaBonne 07.29.05 at 9:57 am

“Maybe not Dante”? The Florentine oligarchy and several popes, among many others, would have been a bit surprised to hear about his lack of subversiveness…

“Your words will be like the wind, striking most at the highest places.” -Cacciaguida in Paradiso XVII

9

David Reed 07.29.05 at 10:10 am

I hope it is not out of place here to recall the name of David Hume. His Essays on “The Standard of Taste” and related issues address all of the matters discussed in this thread, including the the ways in which it might make sense to talk of a relationship between having ‘good taste’ and having a ‘good character.’ For those who haven’t read these essays or haven’t read them in years, a real treat awaits.
Cheers!

10

tim 07.29.05 at 10:23 am

Once you expand it beyond a handful of works, the problem of drawing the line becomes insurmountable. Is anyone seriously going to claim, say, that Monet is an immortal genius, and Manet a mere craftsman, or that Manet is in, but Renoir is out (feel free to substitute your own implied ranking).

Can’t we retire, once and for all, the idea that because no fine line can be drawn, no distinction exists?

Here. I’ll help:

These days, in these parts, it starts getting on toward dark around 8:30. But it’s not really dark enough to be called night yet. A little later, it is darker still, but still not really dark. One can never establish that precise fine line between day and night. But that doesn’t mean that one is as dark as the other, or that there are no systematic differences between them.

11

des von bladet 07.29.05 at 10:45 am

I don’t see why Romantic Geniosity should be a binary property immune to soritisiation, for sure, but I certainly agree with John Quiggin that the Romantic conception of art (along with the Romantic conception of everything else) is broke. Silly Romantics! Stop it at once!

12

engels 07.29.05 at 10:56 am

Henry – I didn’t think Distinction argues that cultural taste is “nothing but” a means of perpetuating social distinctions although the book is an extended argument that it is importantly that. Isn’t the acknowledgment of which you speak also part of the argument of the book?

one of [C.S. Lewis’s] key innovations is suggesting that it is much safer for a critic to identify a work as good rather than bad because of the always present possibility that they just don’t get it

Not that this has deterred some people.

13

T. Gracchus 07.29.05 at 11:16 am

It is very hard to understand what you have in mind by “taste” in this context. It appears utterly standardless. Would you mind explaining?

14

Steve Burton 07.29.05 at 11:55 am

This is a very confusing post.

Where, exactly, does John Quiggin think that Tarloff goes wrong, and why? I can’t figure it out.

15

Dan Simon 07.29.05 at 2:57 pm

The problem with the “labor theory of art” is that I worked really, really hard on those poems about loneliness that I wrote in junior high school, and appreciating them–really, truly appreciating them–requires the reader to work even harder. Does that make the satisfaction of appreciation greater? No doubt–who doesn’t feel a warm glow after such a hard-won achievement? But I’d hope that that alone doesn’t qualify me as a great artist.

Putting aside the beverage analogies, I don’t see why “popular” and “great” are at all in conflict. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Monet have been enjoyed more, with greater intensity, over more time, by more people, than any of their “pop” counterparts–no? Isn’t that what makes them great?

The real problem starts, of course, when you want to lump Joyce, Berg and de Kooning in with the greats, because they have a cult following among self-styled cognoscenti. The notion that difficulty contributes to greatness arises, I believe, from the desire of such cultists to win undeserved glory for their objects of worship–and thus, by association, undeserved credit for their own idiosyncratic tastes.

16

joe o 07.29.05 at 4:16 pm

Whitman criticizes the labour theory of art in “song of myself”:

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the
earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

17

anon 07.29.05 at 4:40 pm

The notion that difficulty contributes to greatness arises, I believe, from the desire of such cultists to win undeserved glory for their objects of worship—and thus, by association, undeserved credit for their own idiosyncratic tastes.

No, it’s just a misunderstood mirror of the original definition of “artistic greatness” which was, and remains, simply a status signifier. Hence the curious sense of grievance over the assignment of this category.

If I enjoy the music of Beethoven, what difference could it make for somebody else to decide that he and Eddie Van Halen can be described with the same adjectives? None at all — but it turns out that very few of the people who like Beethoven actually like Beethoven.

At some point in history there were folks who stupidly believed the vague explanations that had been elicited from status apologists — “eh, Beethoven is more complicated than your pop music”. So these naifs, who didn’t understand that they were simply being brushed off, went out and found complicated things to admire all by themselves.

They don’t happen to like Joyce or Berg either.

18

catfish 07.29.05 at 4:44 pm

What John Q. is talking about cannot be reduced to a labor theory of art, because it involves a level of _skill_ in adition to effort. Junior high poetry may indeed involve a lot of effort, but it would be difficult to argue that it demonstrates much skill on the part of the author.

19

Dan Simon 07.29.05 at 5:00 pm

What John Q. is talking about cannot be reduced to a labor theory of art, because it involves a level of skill in adition to effort. Junior high poetry may indeed involve a lot of effort, but it would be difficult to argue that it demonstrates much skill on the part of the author.

I believe you’re begging the question. How do you deduce that Shakespeare had poetic skill, while I didn’t? Presumably you’re drawing an inference from the observation that his poetry is great, whereas mine never was. And what entitles you to say that? Well, that’s precisely the question at issue, isn’t it?

20

rollo 07.29.05 at 5:07 pm

The thing about good wine, whether it’s expensive or not, is not that it tastes good, though it does – it’s that it gets you high in a good way.
Learning to recognize that in the glass isn’t hard to do so much as it requires an awareness of one’s own body and mind and the way things taken into the system affect them, for good or ill.

Not only does aesthetic discernment trump subjectivity, it trumps codified morality as well.
Every heinous thing is ugly – whether it’s illegal or not.
At their highest the good and the beautiful are synonymous.

21

John Quiggin 07.29.05 at 5:18 pm

Tim (and Des), I think for Romantic geniosity to do the kind of work that it is supposed to for theories of Art, including those implicit in Tarloff’s argument, it has to be a binary category, to which individual creators or products are assigned or not, and the class ‘artistic genius’ has to be small. In particular, some binary categorical claim is needed for Tarloff’s opening assertion that a bottle of wine is inherently incapable of being a work of Art.

If you try a sorites argument on this, I suggest you must end up conceding my claim that all skilled craft products embody art to a greater or lesser degree.

22

james 07.29.05 at 5:19 pm

Art as a description of ability implies an indefinable superiority of talent between individuals of equal skill. Art as an object can only ever represent the opinion of the observer. This of coarse brings us back to the saying “One man’s garbage is another man’s art”.

23

anon 07.29.05 at 5:30 pm

The thing about good wine, whether it’s expensive or not, is not that it tastes good, though it does – it’s that it gets you high in a good way.

I agree completely, and am pleased that you have put the matter on an empirical basis. True, many people will be found who can’t replicate the experience, but this merely tells us they are low and insensitive and only want to get drunk anyway.

24

paul 07.29.05 at 6:22 pm

20 and 23 bring up a category that I think should be crucial to this discussion but really isn’t — that of appropriateness. Good wine, good art, good kitsch are all good because of their appropriateness to their settings. If I serve that ’45 D’Yquem with the beeves wellington instead of after the dessert course, neither one is going to taste very good, and I would have done better with a nice chilean plonk or possibly even watered Ribena.

The shelves of many of us are chock full of “good bad novels” or ditto videos — the finest examples of their genres (in the same way that one of my english teachers once pegged Vonnegut as “a major minor writer”). And they are exactly the things that one would read or watch under particular circumstances. Those circumstances, however, have been decreed as inferior to the ones under which one would declaim Pound or stare, eyes bleeding, at van gogh’s wheatfield with crows…

25

joe o 07.29.05 at 6:26 pm

You should do something about the bleeding eyes. That could be serious.

26

bob mcmanus 07.29.05 at 8:26 pm

ARC

The self-proclaimed “Eye of the Storm” which will be overjoyed to show you why, objectively, Picasso completely sucks.

27

seth edenbaum 07.29.05 at 9:33 pm

Art is the complex and subtle thing.

It doesn’t matter how it got that way, or why.

more later (maybe)

eesh…

28

tvd 07.29.05 at 9:58 pm

Culture is, in large measure, a public good (in the economic sense, that it is at least partly non-rival and non-excludable) and is much more complicated.

Apparently offered as self-evident, especially the opening salvo. Still, I agree. I feel that way about professional wrestling; the nation would be a far poorer place without it. It’s modern American ballet. (Ms. Tharp, take note! Back it with some Motörhead or Metallica, and it would be so bitchen.)

As with other public goods, it may be under-supplied and may merit a public subsidy.

Ah. “Public” means “government,” yes? The government is obliged to provide all desirable goods. Cool. I’m in desperate need of a backrub, I admit. Gov. Schwarzenegger, chop, chop, and don’t break any of my blood vessels. A chorus of “Du, Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen” or “Edelweiss” wouldn’t hurt, either.

More importantly, it doesn’t just emerge as a product of spontaneous order, in the way that market goods typically do.

It emerges too damn spontaneously hereabouts. I live in Los Angeles—this place is lousy with artists, lemme tellya. I got cussed out in rhyme the other day. I definitely could get behind a government relocation program and share our embarrassment of riches. (I understand Montana is underserved in the one-woman show department. Works for me, a win-win.)

Seriously, I of course do support culture. I think the government should certainly fill the conservatory function (and this includes for folk art) for forms that aren’t commercially viable. Man should not lose the ability to play Beethoven, or hand-paint china.

And our public education system should indeed fulfill its purpose and teach the young all the art appreciation it can, ideally in an analytic fashion, even if the case is made why Tupac is superior to Whitman.

But I shudder at the art that has been created on my government dime, no more worthy that the odes to tractors that the Soviet age generated. I do not want the government anywhere near determining what is good art, or bad art, or art/not art at all.

Shakespeare was pop art, and even Beethoven had to make things sound good. And when the artist puts more in than entertainment requires, that is the soul of art. But it is its own reward.

I had to study why Van Halen moved (certain) people as much as the Beatles, but, folks, they did, in the same way Whitman did. “Hot For Teacher” is “Song of Myself” with crappier words but much better lead guitar.

And I trust the guy who spent the fruit of an hour’s labor at McDonald’s to buy their album more than any government arbiter who has nothing so real at stake. David Lee Roth celebrated himself and sung himself too.

Art is whatever feeds the human spirit, which is insatiable. When that need is addressed, man ponies up the dough, spontaneously.

29

dr ngo 07.29.05 at 11:04 pm

I encountered this paradox (?) some 40 years ago as an undergraduate reading Jeremy Bentham: “Pushpin is as good as poetry if pushpin is what you like.” (Pushpin, I am given to understand, is a pub game of sorts.)

My English teacher, whom I greatly admired, wanted us all to repudiate this passionately, but I never could find, for myself, a convincing refutation of this utilitarian argument.

I therefore – not immediately, but eventually – followed the advice suggested in #1 above and left the academic pursuit of “Art” (in this case in the form of literature) for that of history, which, although it may and should be written elegantly, does not demand aesthetic justification. I have spent the last 40 years enjoying all manner of art (including music and painting) without ever having to worry about whether or how I might justify it.

30

James Wimberley 07.30.05 at 4:28 am

Chateau Lafite quenches thirst (like Ribena) and makes you drunk (unlike Ribena). Shakespeare’s and Aeschylus’ plays tell gripping stories with lots of violence and in the former case of jokes. Bach and Mozart wrote singable tunes. Michaelangelo decorated a ceiling. Of course they did other things as well. The modern heresy is to ignore the continuum of high and popular aesthetic pleasure, so that you got the elitist puritanism of twentieth-century avant-garde art. Stockhausen’s famously insensitive jibe about 9/11 is symptomatic of a wider disconnect.

31

rea 07.30.05 at 7:34 am

You say,”At their highest the good and the beautiful are synonymous.”

And I say, “But our sources say Socrates was ugly. Was he not good?”

Whereupon, you say either, “But Socrates had a beauty that transcended the mere physical!” in which case I point out that rather than making a statement about the relationship of the two properties, “good” and “beautiful,” you are simply adjusting the meaning of “beautiful” to correspond to “good,” and thereby saying nothing at all . . .

OR, you say, “Yes, Socrates was very bad!” in which case I applaud your consistency but wonder what on earth you arre talking about . . .

32

seth edenbaum 07.30.05 at 9:33 am

You’re talking about art, but what you want to talk about is esthetics.

” ‘The aesthetic’ is the supporting structure of any argument, the manner that supports or as often or not contradicts the stated point.”

You don’t think you want a lawyer with a stammer and thirteen other nervous ticks to argue your case before a jury; you want an orator, an actor. Maybe the guy with the stutter can write the closing argument but you don’t want him up on the stage.
In language if not in numbers rhetoric counts. Socrates was an orator memorialized in the brilliant writing of his boy toy Plato.
Was he right, even once, in the sense that a mathematician can be right?
Sentience is an ambiguous state. I’m amazed at those who can say with a straight face that what is not concrete can not be judged at all. Plato was brilliant but Mozart: well, it’s all in the mind of the beholder in’t it?
But all brilliance is brilliance within an enclosed system
Was Salieri better than Mozart, Vivaldi better than Bach? Was Edward Everett’s the two hour spiel at Gettysburg better than this!!?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And by the way Mr Wemberly, mushroom clouds are beautiful, and I know no one who would argue otherwise.

33

seth edenbaum 07.30.05 at 9:36 am

You’re talking about art, but what you want to talk about is esthetics.

” ‘The aesthetic’ is the supporting structure of any argument, the manner that supports or as often or not contradicts the stated point.”

You don’t think you want a lawyer with a stammer and thirteen other nervous ticks to argue your case before a jury; you want an orator, an actor. Maybe the guy with the stutter can write the closing argument but you don’t want him up on the stage.
In language if not in numbers rhetoric counts. Socrates was an orator memorialized in the brilliant writing of his boy toy Plato.
Was he right, even once, in the sense that a mathematician can be right?
Sentience is an ambiguous state. I’m amazed at those who can say with a straight face that what is not concrete can not be judged at all. Plato was brilliant but Mozart: well, it’s all in the mind of the beholder in’t it?
But all brilliance is brilliance within an enclosed system
Was Salieri better than Mozart, Vivaldi better than Bach? Was Edward Everett’s the two hour spiel at Gettysburg better than this!!?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And by the way Mr Wimberly, mushroom clouds are beautiful, and I know no one who would argue otherwise.

34

James Wimberley 07.30.05 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for correcting my name.
Yes, the mushroom clouds are both vile and beautiful, and so are tsunamis (Hokusai’s most famous print is about one), and so was the collapse of the twin towers. Part of the horror of watching it on TV was precisely that we knew this pleasure to be a a guilty one, the breach of an important taboo. Stockhausen’s comment (see http://c250.columbia.edu/dkv/eseminars/1341/web/s02/1341_02_2.html) was wrong because you have to be a moral imbecile in such a case to give priority, like Nero, to the aesthetic response over the social one of revulsion and pity.
I doubt whether this breach simply fits on the bottom end of a scale of high/low art. We do however expect artists to take away the horror and re-present it to us as art, like lymphocytes digesting an antigen and presenting fragments of it to the cells that can produce antibodies to the invader. That’s my way of looking at the problem of catharsis.

Public executions and Roman gladiatorial fights were a great popular entertainment, that is to say they gave aesthetic pleasure. What did Bentham have to say about the former, and was this consistent with his utilitarianism?

35

rollo 07.31.05 at 3:31 pm

You don’t mean the mushroom clouds are beautiful, you mean the photographs you’ve seen of them are. Like the rest of us, you have a hard time separating the image of the thing from the thing itself.
And when I said “at their highest” I meant that.
On the way up there’s perfidious beauty in abundance, seductive and misleading, tragic and deceptively incomplete.
There’s a real beauty in a gunshot wound (or Warhol’s car wrecks) that can be captured by the eye or the camera.
And when rea says “But our sources say Socrates was ugly. Was he not good?” he uses the language to reassemble partial truths into an outline of the whole.
Our sources say Socrates was ugly to look at.The totality of Socrates is unknowable from this vantage.
The spectra of the Socratic presence including as they will his mind’s workings, they will present more of an aesthetic experience than would his visage alone. To someone. Or thing.

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Tracy W 08.01.05 at 1:48 am

I for a while was at the state where I defined “great art” as “art that makes me see the world in a different way”.

So Monet is great because when I saw his work I understood what my art teachers were meaning when they waffled on about painting the light, not the colour. Shakespeare is great because he picks out and deliminates the opposing feelings of love. Unfortunately this definition meant I had to regard Colin McCahn as great since after I saw his works I saw New Zealand hills in a different way. Thinking Colin McCahn is great is depressing.

However, more dangerously, it then occurred to me that this means that who is great varies depending on which order you encounter artists. If I had seen Turner before Monet, would that mean that Turner was great and Monet wasn’t?

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Tracy W 08.01.05 at 1:52 am

Incidentally, if putting heaps of skill and effort, in a way that will only be fully appreciated by someone who has themselves put in a fair amount of effort, is a sign of quality, then, and knowing what I do of food technologists, then Ribena is an art.

Large companies put vast amounts of effort and skill into designing foods that will appeal to large numbers of consumers, and producing them in highly consistent, low-cost ways. If you have not gone to the effort of discovering how they do this process, you will not be able to fully appreciate the level of skill and talent involved. And some of this skill is undefinable, e.g. how do the taste-buds of a practised taster really operate? How do you design an effective marketing campaign?

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tom lynch 08.01.05 at 9:31 am

Tarloff writes “those who genuinely appreciate opera probably extend some effort in order to reap maximal pleasure from it. One need not grant it any abstract hierarchical superiority to suggest it presents a more demanding experience than, say, lying supine on one’s plush sofa watching Celebrity Love Island.”

The example Tarloff puts forward is extreme enough (apparently carrying with it the implication that Art may not be appreciated whilst “supine”) that the assertion it is there to support – “one need not grant it any abstract hierarchical superiority” (what on Earth is that mutant, waffling, tautologous noun phrase anyway? How can one have superiority without a hierarchy?) – immediately falls into question.

The algebra seems quite simple. Academic writers and arbiters of good taste (like Tarloff) are members in, and products of, a powerful class in society. It is in the interests and to the satisfaction of powerful classes to raise up walled gardens, differentiating themselves through a shared and exclusive set of indicators.

It is no coincidence that the Art favoured by this class tends to be quite “good” in some quasi-objective way. They’ve had hundreds of years to select the best bits for themselves and then arrange the system of education so it’s a bloody challenge for anyone to enjoy Art who doesn’t hail from the right neighbourhood.

Ask anyone who follows “indie” music (the label “indie” is a hell of a giveaway in this context) – the thing is to know about the best, most obscure bands, and then keep them obscure enough that they retain their cachet. If opera was really for the masses, do you think we would glorify its (often) facile plotlines and (all too frequently) quaint period-themed costumes to the same degree?

Sorry to stray into ranting a little, I haven’t time to collect and express my thoughts quite to the degree I’d like. Whatever category of thing Tarloff is talking about, it’s not useful to call that category Art.

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