Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Obama Art: entry 3


Jackie R.I take your point to a point. The point ends with conflation between “art” and “artist” used confusingly both prescriptively and descriptively.

Does lack of talent make one a bad artist or a non artist?

Were Grace Metalious or Leon Uris bad/lesser novelists or non novelists?

I contend vociferously that Norman Rockwell was an artist. And I fact I am moved, maybe sentimentally more than critically, by his work:—lost innocence, a world of Blakean lambs?

Maybe we need a philosopher of aesthetics to discern an analytical line between those who are and are not artists and to formulate criteria for drawing the distinction?

There is obviously a limiting case to my argument but I’d argue it does not reside in Norman Rockwell.

This formulation is problematic and picks up, perhaps, the conflation I recognized at the outset: “Art must be grounded in æsthetic. Piss Christ may send a message as illustration or a photograph, but it's not art.”

The first part is question begging, assuming what you need to argue. The second part is confusing: illustration or photography can never be art or is Piss Christ just a bad instance of the art that illustration or photography comprise? I think you need to be more clear in delineating what art is and what it's conceptual boundaries are and why.

Your attempt at it—with all due understanding that you are throwing off an email in response to my thrown off email and not writing an essay for publication or whatever, but even so—I find, respectfully, raising more questions than it answers: “The degree to which a work's subject can be laid beside the point is the degree to which it is art. If the subject is the point, then it's not art.”

And I think what needs to be answered is hinted at by your formulation, in tension with your last assertion, that there can be “polemical art”, which I agree there can be.

If the point of a work is plainly its “message” but displays so much superb technique in the conveyance of the “message” so as not to be reducible to its message—I’m thinking of the classic example, The Olympiad—then it is art however polemical. But the tension arises from the fact that the point of The Olympiad cannot, can never be, be laid aside and that its point is in fact enhanced by its technical brilliance. Thus what you would seek to lay aside, to extract, from intentional propaganda—its technical superiority—to note it as art makes for better propaganda and simultaneously art of superb quality.

Therefore, we cannot lay the analytical distinction between art and non art at the feet of a work standing beside its point when what arguably allows it to so stand reinforces its point. (I also think of the great literary allegories or Milton’s epics or of 1984 and Animal Farm or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). And we must look to something else. I’m hard pressed to put my finger on it though not for want of having tried once or ten times in my life.

Finally, to give Lewis his due, he does his argument a service and gives it resonance and power by his more catholic notion of art. In the tradition of art criticism seeking to illuminate culture he linkswhat he desribes to the devotionalism he diagnoses and is relatively complex and fair minded about it:

"...But if their work is aesthetically negligible, the artists who painted Obama are of considerable historical importance. They represent the first corpus of critically successful artists who have made political art that is unashamedly sincere, free of irony, and with none of the stance of the cynical outsider that has characterized most American political art since the 1960s.

…For the longest time, when dealing with the institutions of American society, it has been the reflex of American artists to deflate or puncture. These are the actions one performs on hollow things. But the thoroughly unironic art of Fairey and his ilk suggests some sense that American institutions are solid affairs and deserving of respectful treatment. On balance, this is a positive development. It abolishes the foolish notion that the progressiveness of artists can be gauged by the extent to which they are alienated from American life.At the same time, there is something unsettling about images that offer little more political commentary than an uncomplicated adulation that borders on power worship. By showing the subjects removed from all political context, and in a beatific reverie, such art produces images that are aesthetically indistinguishable from the “dear leader” effigies that delighted the dictators of the 1930s or of our own day….”

Clearly this is a man who, as the lawyers say, knows his brief (besides writing like an angel).

I think, with further respect, you have his argument backwards and off point as I read you: “Lewis errs when he says there's not enough of the political in Obama "art". The problem with Obama "art" is that it's not art.” Lewis’s complaint as I read him is that there is in a sense too much of the political in Obama art: it’s art as the politics of devotion: not very good art at that, but art nonetheless and worth talking about in itself and for what it illuminates about who and what we are in these Obamaesque times.

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