Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Emperor's New Art: A Parable

Last week’s episode of the Retrotopia narrative ended up launching, rather to my surprise, an extensive discussion about the nature of art. The spark that set off this unexpected blaze was a passing comment on the part of the story’s protagonist, who described the abstract paintings on the walls of the Atlantic Republic embassy in Toledo in somewhat rude language. That was meant as a throwaway line, one more display of the way the protagonist’s views had changed during his visit to my imaginary Lakeland Republic—but it fielded me a minor flurry of denunciation from people who couldn’t stand the fact that a character of mine had expressed a lack of appreciation for one variety of modern art. 

Those of my readers who’ve come in for bullying from the art crowd know exactly what sort of thing those tirades included. Those who’ve evaded that experience so far—well, I was told that I had no right to have an opinion on the subject, that I don’t know anything about art, that I obviously prefer Norman Rockwell, that I’m offended by intellectual challenges, that I’m offended by new techniques and media, that I feel threatened by modern art, that I’m in favor of censorship, and that I’d change my mind if I just stood in front of an abstract expressionist canvas and tried to understand my reactions.

It’s worth noting that none of these claims happens to be true, but let’s set that aside for a moment and take a look at what happened. I had a character in a story express an opinion about art—an opinion, by the way, that was relevant to the story and also to the character—and that was enough to send some of my readers into a fair imitation of a Donald Duck splutterfest. This isn’t the first time, or the hundred and first time, that I’ve watched that same sequence unfold.  Across the spectrum of contemporary art, if you display a lack of enthusiasm for anything produced by someone whose claim to the status of “artist” is accepted by the art scene, you can expect to field something of the kind.

That can be highly entertaining—I certainly found the latest round of it a source of wry amusement—but it’s also relevant to the subject of the current series of posts on education for the deindustrial era. One of the core things you should expect to get from any education worth the name is the ability to sort out gold from garbage: to recognize, in the fields of learning and creativity, the differences between genuine insight, recycled cliché, and pretentious noise. To get that ability, it’s crucial to recognize that there are two kinds of bad practice in the arts, sciences, and scholarship.

The first of them can be called, without too much distortion, lowbrow trash. What defines lowbrow trash is that it rehashes the overfamiliar. It deploys stereotyped effects in stereotyped ways to evoke stereotyped sentiment. It tends to be popular among the poor, because people who have to bear the brutal insecurities every complex society inflicts on its more vulnerable members desperately need the reassurance of the familiar, and if black velvet paintings of dogs playing poker are what’s available to meet that need, then that’s what will go on their walls. (There are better options, but these days those generally aren’t available to the poor.) The apotheosis of lowbrow trash is kitsch, which wallows so enthusiastically in rehashed sentiment that it achieves unintentional self-parody.

There is also, as it happens, lowbrow trash in scholarship and science. Here you find the histories that regurgitate every currently accepted stereotype about this or that corner of the past, the scientific papers that “prove” some bit of conventional wisdom by excluding contradictory data—this is easy to do if you know your way around experimental design—and so on. These also have their own forms of kitsch, though you often need a little more specialized education to catch the unintentional self-parody.

That said, lowbrow trash is only one side of the picture. There’s another side, and since this entire discussion started with a bit of fiction, I don’t think it’s out of line to ask my readers to gather around old Father Goose for a few minutes and listen to a story called “The Emperor’s New Art.”

This all happened right after the events of “The Emperor’s New Clothes;” any of my readers who don’t happen to know that tale can find a pleasant online version hereThe two fraudulent tailors who’d sold the emperor a suit of nonexistent clothes were marched to the nearest border and thrown out of the empire with a warning never to return. They had very little money and knew better to try the same scam on the ruler of the next empire over, since even in those days, news traveled fast. So there they sat on a stone fence, trying to figure out what they were going to do.

“I know,” said the taller of the two. “The emperor of this land is an art lover. We can become painters.”

“But neither of us knows the first thing about painting!” the shorter tailor replied.

“Neither of us knows the first thing about making clothing, either,” the taller one reminded him. “Let’s see if we have enough money between us to buy some art supplies.”

Now since this is a fairy tale, there was an art supply store waiting just down the road, and the two found they had just enough money between them to buy a canvas, some brushes, a set of paints in flimsy tubes, and a spray bottle of fixative. That didn’t leave them enough money to rent a studio, or even a room for the night, and the day was almost over, so they found a dry place under some trees and went to sleep with their art supplies safe, as they thought, between them.

Late that night a stray dog came trotting by. He was not too bright, and to him, the tubes of paint looked like puppy treats. He sneaked up between the two tailors and gobbled up the paint tubes in three quick gulps, breaking them open with his teeth in the process. Before he could trot away, though, the first mouthful of paint hit his stomach and made it lurch. The second mouthful made it lurch again, and the third—well, to make a long and somewhat anatomical story short, he proceeded to throw up the paint, along with everything else he’d eaten that evening, right onto the canvas. He then backed away, and ran off to find some tasty grass to settle his stomach.

The two tailors woke at sunrise to find their paint tubes gone and a great deal of technicolor dog barf all over their one canvas. “Oh, no!” cried the shorter tailor. “Our art supplies are spoiled and we have no money to buy more. We’ll never become famous painters now!”

“Nonsense,” said the taller one. “You never did have enough imagination.” He carefully dried the canvas in the sun and sprayed fixative over it. “Here is our first masterpiece.”

So they proceeded to the palace of the emperor. On the way they grew beards and let their hair get long, and they stole an assortment of ill-fitting clothing from clotheslines along the way so they could look eccentric and bohemian. So attired, they presented themselves to the imperial art committee and said, “We are great artists, so brilliant, so avant-garde, and so tormented by our talent that our work can only be understood by the truly sophisticated. Ordinary people—well! Ordinary people look at our paintings and say, ‘That looks like dog barf,’ but that simply shows how pedestrian their tastes are, how little they understand the true sublimity of which art is capable. But you, ladies and gentlemen, you are persons of refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity. We know that you will appreciate—” He held up the canvas on which the dog had thrown up. “—the first great work of the Borborygmist school of art!”

Now of course the first thought of every member of the imperial art committee was, “That looks like dog barf.” As soon as that thought entered their minds, though, every one of them thought, “Oh, no! Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian and I don’t understand the true sublimity of which art is capable?” So none of them said anything at first. Then one, who felt a little more insecure than the others and felt he had to prove that he didn’t have pedestrian tastes, said, “This is indeed a great work of art.” All the others thought, “He must have refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity.” So they all began to praise the painting, and the more they looked at it, the more they succeeded in convincing themselves that it couldn’t be what it obviously was, that is, a canvas on which a dog had thrown up.

So the two artists sold the painting to the Emperor for a tidy sum. The Emperor didn’t actually think much of it—his first thought on seeing it was, “That looks like dog barf”—but since all the members of the imperial art committee insisted that it was a great masterpiece and only people with pedestrian tastes thought it looked like dog barf, he kept his mouth shut and tried to convince himself that it really was a masterpiece. One day, though, when the painting had been put on display for the public, and the artists and the members of the art committee and the Emperor himself were standing there beaming, a little child came up, took one look at the painting, and said, “That looks like dog barf.”

The artists, the committee members, and the Emperor all looked down their noses at the child and said, “Child, you obviously know nothing about art.” So the child went away, and the artists lived happily ever after—and that, my children, is most of what you need to know about the history of modern art.

That is to say, lowbrow trash is not the only kind of trash that needs to be recognized as such by the educated person. There is also highbrow trash. Where lowbrow trash communicates overfamiliar sentiments in overfamiliar ways, highbrow trash avoids communication by saying nothing that can be interpreted outside of a narrow circle of cognoscenti. It’s meant to exclude, so that its purveyors and connoisseurs can feel superior to those who those who don’t get it. As lowbrow trash appeals to the poor, who need the comforts of familiarity in an insecure world, highbrow trash appeals to the affluent, who tend to be sheltered from adversity and so get bored easily, and who also tend to flock to anything that will allow them to parade their supposed superiority to the poor.

There’s plenty of highbrow trash in the realms of scholarship and the sciences, just as there’s plenty of lowbrow trash there. As with lowbrow trash, too, there’s a far end to the spectrum, a point at which it achieves self-parody and becomes unintentionally funny. There is unfortunately no common word for this latter, no equivalent word to kitsch, so one needs to be coined; the term I have in mind is “warhol.”

This is not to express any lack of respect for Andy Warhol, whose name provides that label. Quite the contrary, I admire the man immensely. He was arguably the twentieth century’s greatest satirist, a comic genius so versatile and so subtle that some of the butts of his humor haven’t yet realized that the joke was on them. This was the man who meticulously copied a supermarket box of Brillo pads and sold that as a work of art. No less a philosopher than Arthur Danto spent a good fraction of his career trying to come up with an aesthetic philosophy and a definition of art that would allow Warhol’s Brillo box to keep its status as an artwork, and never seems to have gotten the joke.

There is, as it happens, precisely one theory of art that justifies the claim that Warhol’s Brillo box is art. It’s the theory that there are certain very, very special people called “artists” who are so tremendously creative, so overwhelmingly sensitive, so dripping with sheer aesthetic oomph, that anything they treat as art is, ipse dixit, art. If an eight-year-old boy hangs a urinal on a nail on the wall for people to see, that’s a prank, but if Marcel Duchamp does it, it’s a great work of art. Why? Because art oozes out of every pore of his body, that’s why, and there's a puddle of it on the urinal to this day. It’s understandable that artists should find this way of defining art congenial to their egos, but it’s just as understandable that Andy Warhol’s wicked sense of humor would zero in on so comically arrogant a claim, and push it past its logical extreme into rank absurdity.

Let us please get real: a urinal does not become a work of art because an artist sticks it on a wall, nor does a Brillo box become a work of art because Andy Warhol decides to pull the art world’s collective leg. Plenty of other examples could be added—there’s no shortage of highbrow trash these days, and no shortage of warhol, either—and an important part of education is developing a strong enough personal sense of aesthetic and intellectual taste that when a couple of former tailors come along with dog barf on a canvas and insist that this is the first great masterpiece of the Borborygmist school of art, the educated person is confident enough to say, “No, that’s dog barf.”

How do you develop that kind of personal sense? There’s a very simple, straightforward way; it’s been standard practice in every literate society for thousands of years, and the current intellectual climate in today’s United States treats it as three steps lower than evil incarnate.

That is to say, you have a canon. 

A canon is a set of works in any given field that are generally accepted as masterpieces. In a healthy culture, pretty much every educated person has encountered and studied the works that belong to the canon of that culture. The word “canon” literally means “measure,” and that’s what a canon does: it gives you something to measure other works of the same kind. Let’s take literature as an example. There are, in every literature and every branch of literature, certain works that stand head and shoulders above the rest, and an important part of education consists of reading those works, thinking about them, studying them, figuring out what makes them great (and also where they stumble), and developing a personal sense of literary taste by exposure to them. Is the canon the only thing you read? Of course not—what’s the use of a means of measuring if you don’t use it to measure something other than itself?
A canon, by the way, is always contested, it’s always in flux, and it’s always unfair. Different works rise up into the canon and drift back out of it in response to the vagaries of taste. There have been times when Shakespeare’s plays were cast out from the canon as too vulgar, and novels most people now find insufferably stuffy were considered marvels of literary genius. That’s inevitable, because a canon is always and only a summary of the collective aesthetic and intellectual taste of an age, and inevitably suffers from the blind spots of the age. If there’s some kind of absolute ideal of beauty or sublimity out there, of the sort Plato imagined, it’s not accessible to mere human beings. All we have to work with is our own, hopefully more or less educated reactions to works of art, science, and scholarship.

So each culture in each age, with rare exceptions, adapts the canon of arts, sciences, and scholarship that it considers important, adding some works and deleting others, on the basis of its own inevitably flawed perceptions, and proceeds to use that as a basis for education. The exceptions are periods like the present, when the schism in society anatomized by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History shatters the sense of shared values that binds a society together, and you end up with a polarized mess in which the dominant minority and the internal proletariat glare at each other across a wasteland of smoking ruins. At such times, the dominant minority plunges with gusto into highbrow trash, the internal proletariat plunges with equal verve into lowbrow trash, and both sides pretend that those are the only two possible options—that those who don’t like abstract expressionism must therefore love Norman Rockwell, and vice versa.

That’s not good for art, or for that matter science or scholarship. One of the things that individuals who care about any of these things can contribute to their welfare is to cast aside the dubious enticements of both kinds of trash, try to construct some approximation of a canon in the fields that matter to them, and educate themselves in the time-honored method of repeated exposure to, and reflection on, really first-rate works. It’s from such efforts, once the schism in society completes its trajectory, that a new canon emerges, and the heritage of the past gets handed on to guide the creative minds of the future.

A couple of additional notes may be useful here. First, just because you’ve identified something as trash, highbrow or lowbrow, doesn’t mean you have to avoid it. Trash can be fun. I inherit from my misspent youth, for example, an amused delight in really bad fantasy fiction, the kind of thing that Poul Anderson anatomized brilliantly in his essay “On Thud and Blunder,” and there are books I keep on hand when I want to wallow in that sort of thing. For all I know, there are people who have a similar reaction to abstract expressionist paintings, though I admit I’ve never met one. 

Second, just because you know it’s good doesn’t mean you have to like it. I don’t happen to like Italian opera, for example. I know that it contains a good selection of world-class masterpieces, but they’re not to my taste, and so I leave them to those who delight in them. I have a similar reaction to rap music, and to a variety of other art genres. My wife has a BFA in art history, and we routinely visit art museums when we travel, but our tastes differ somewhat—she’s gaga for the Impressionists, who I find pleasant but not the overwhelming experience they are for her; our roles reverse when it comes to the French Symbolists; by mutual consent, we avoid the modern art wing altogether and make a beeline for the Japanese gallery and the medieval and Renaissance European collections. Meanwhile, other people are making their own choices, and so should you.

Finally, laughter is an appropriate response to art. It’s an even more appropriate response to highbrow or lowbrow trash, and of course it’s all but inescapable when you encounter kitsch or warhol. If the reaction you have when you stand in front of a canvas covered with dog barf is hysterical giggling, by all means giggle. It’s a salutary corrective to the cult of humorlessness that so often obsesses the purveyors and connoisseurs of highbrow trash.

With that in mind, we can proceed to...

Homework Assignment #3

As previously noted, since this sequence of posts is on education, there’s going to be homework. Your homework for the next month or so is to find three works in one field of art, science, or scholarship. One should be a work of lowbrow trash, one should be a work of highbrow trash, and the third should be a classic. All of them should be in the same genre—for example, you might choose three science fiction novels, or three paintings, or three operas, or three historical essays, or three books on physics.

The highbrow trash will probably be hardest to find, as this goes into and out of style in various genres, while lowbrow trash is eternal. If you happen to choose science fiction, for example, most of the over-the-top highbrow trash appeared in the New Wave era of the 1970s, when a good many writers decided to prove that SF was High Literature, and got pompous, humorless, and dull in the usual way. Lowbrow trash? Any bookstore or public library will have it by the yard; look for clichés that were already dated when the original Star Trek premiered. Classics? By and large, old Hugo Award winners qualify.

Put some time into all three works. Notice the difference in your responses to them. Also notice the objective differences in them. Don’t hesitate to laugh where appropriate.

Finally, I'm pleased to say that sales of the limited edition of the first of my Weird of Hali novels, Innsmouth, are going well. One implication is that if you want a complete set of the hardback edition, you have a limited amount of time left...and the second and third novels in the series, Kingsport and Chorazin, are already written. Copies can be purchased here.


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John Michael Greer said...

By the way, the comments on last week's post ended up being partly hijacked by an increasingly circular set of arguments about the US presidential election. I'm going to impose a moratorium on further debate on that subject here. While we wait to find out which of the two most detested figures in American public life gets to preside over the next four years of our national decline and fall, a grinning scarecrow over a field of rotting grain, we have plenty of other things to talk about. 'Nuf said.

Nestorian said...


You write as follows:

"One of the core things you should expect to get from any education worth the name is the ability to sort out gold from garbage: to recognize, in the fields of learning and creativity, the differences between genuine insight, recycled cliché, and pretentious noise."

Does this language not make you a value-objectivist when it comes to art?

Not that that would be a bad thing - I would be in full agreement!

whomever said...

Oh man. So, so true. This is exemplified in modern hipster culture. "How many hipsters does it take to change a lightbulb?" "It's a very obscure number, you haven't heard of it", but of course it predates the hipsters.

I believe I confessed in a previous opera-related comment thread that I actually do like Philip Glass, even though I'm well aware he's a niche taste and you probably feel he firmly belongs in highbrow trash (and you'd probably be right). Then I had a hilarious exchange with someone at work discussing 20th century opera who nervously said "well, I've got music friends who think he's too poppy because he also writes movie music". I mean, commercially successful movie music does have to be at least SOMEWHAT accessible; no one outside the arthouse is going to sit through a movie that used Schoenberg as the score. Yet merely trying to make something at least basically accessible alone made them ultimately tainted in their eyes (or to put it another way, in what Universe is Philip Glass poppy???). Speaking of Schoenberg, my wife who was a professional opera singer thinks exactly what you just said about 12-tone, that it's just a bunch of people trying to be extra-obscure and unlistenable so they could feel superior. So I'd almost pick that for my homework but then I'd have to sit through it.

On a sort of tangent, if you are not already familiar with them you might be interested in Komer and Melamid ( These guys polled a bunch of countries about what people most and least wanted to see in art and hear in music and then tried to produce paintings and songs based on that, and lets just say the results are very very relevant to this post. The least wanted song particular is an amazing creation featuring 22 minutes of an Operatic Soprano rapping country and western lyrics intertwined with atonal and strident political messages.

Patricia Mathews said...

Opera was lowbrow trash in the early 19th, according to mystery writer/historian Barbara Hambly, author of OPERA IN NEW ORLEANS, in her afterword to her 1830s mystery "Die Upon A Kiss." The setting of the mystery is the New Orleans Opera, and the things the rival opera house owners do to the various works they're putting on is funny enough to have me snickering as soon as it started. "Cherry-Cheeked Patty?" a musician exclaims as the director decides it's just the song to perk up "The Marriage of Figaro." It gets worse. But not that much worse.

zerowastemillennial said...

It's funny - I had a visceral reaction to Klee at 8 and Rothko at 13. Sure, I like a Reinhardt or a Kandinsky or a Kline as much as the next mid-century art nerd, but Klee and Rothko are sublime experiences for me.

I'm well aware of all the talk about the CIA funding the US art scene during the Cold War, but as someone who occasionally flirts with ecstatic animist religious traditions, and who is a polytheist devotee to a pair of mad art gods, I'd be lying if I said that it didn't seem to me that some abstract expressionists weren't perhaps unwittingly moved by some spirit or another.

In fact, I wrote a whole essay on how animists might reclaim the vestiges of the Modern (not Contemporary!) art traditions.


A few notes: I do hope your jab at Duchamp was meta in some way? The toilet thing was not, by most accounts, actually a deliberate attempt to be avant-garde; I thought that it's pretty darn well understood that he was, to use contemporary lingo, "trolling" if not the gallery, then somebody else. (And if it wasn't his "work", then it was probably submitted for a Dadaist friend. Dadaism being art trolling made formal.)

Another thing that most non-painters don't know is that making a well-composed abstract piece is ridiculously difficult. And no no, I'm not talking about your Pollocks or your Malevichs; to do what Mondrian does with trees or Matisse does with paper takes a not insignificant amount of skill.

"For all I know, there are people who have a similar reaction to abstract expressionist paintings, though I admit I’ve never met one."

Most students and faculty who aren't in the fine arts department of art colleges feel similarly. I never actually understood who the elite is that's supposed to like this stuff, because I've never met an art instructor who did, nor have I met another working artist who does. It's a artificially inflated market like many others, but all art suffers from that problem - it's the nature of the gallery scene. People buy the more blandly dense stuff as investments that sit in storage rooms for a few years, not because they actually like it, and I thought that this was reasonably well-understood?

At any rate, it's always amusing to me when someone says that only the elites appreciate abstract expressionism - I've never met an elite who did. Or anybody else for that matter.

Unknown said...

Hilarious. And early too. I don't usually get to see this til come home from work.

We here in Australia were treated to a full scale demonstration of the failure of "progress" on Tuesday evening.

It was Census night and our overpaid bureau of statistics had decided that they would do the census online. The system crashed, and the BOS was very quick to blame hackers for a Denial of Service attack. The tech world very kindly pointed out that it wasn't and provided the proof. The Minister, doubtless getting very annoyed, back the tech heads.

Because I live out in banjo country my internet speed is not the best and I was given a paper version to fill in, which I have done, and it is now in the post where it will take between two and ten days to get to where ever it goes.

The blame game continues, and I imagine the prime minister, a former owner of a start up internet company, will spend the next few weeks scrubbing furiously to remove the egg from his face, given his enthusiastic promotion of the "modern, efficient" way of doing the census.

On education, my observation is that the use of canons would be far more effective if the students were told explicitly what was going on. Yours is the first explanation of the method I have seen, ever, and I was raised by a teacher, as was my father. We had a great home library and my great aunt who lived with us ran the local library and both were full of canons and all the other stuff. Had I understood the process better I think I would have got more out of the reading of the cannons.

best regards

eagle eye

eagle eye

W. B. Jorgenson said...

"I was told that...I’m in favor of censorship"

Seems frankly Orwellian, that speaking an opinion can be construed as support of censorship, doesn't it? It's also a scarily common thing though....

Avery said...

I once had a high artist ask me for a list of my favorite living artists. I offered Bill Watterson, and was told that he doesn't count because he's a "commercial" artist. The line that the artist chose to draw is unforgettable to me. Instead of Watterson being disqualified for not having a sufficiently airy philosophical motive (which would be a snobby kind of judgment, but understandable), she was choosing to exclude artists who consent to mass production of their work -- in other words, the only true modern art is art that only the ultra-rich can own, and 98% of humanity will never even be able to see. This is a sure way to figure out what sort of people are trying to hype up and push highbrow trash for career reasons, rather than simply discovering unknown classics.

For fun, here's what I would offer for the homework assignment in my home field of religious studies:

Lowbrow trash: The Da Vinci Code (2003); Zeitgeist Part I (2007) and its source material, Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (1999). Note that these products are far more interested in appealing to a desirable narrative than providing logical rigor. Their world-upending melodrama makes them more popular with the general public than the highbrow trash.

Highbrow trash: The works of Bart Ehrman, such as Misquoting Jesus (2005). These are more rigorous books, but consider how they are meant to affect your interpretation of Christianity and your beliefs about the Christians who live around you, and refer again to JMG's definition of "highbrow trash". Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might be classified as either highbrow or lowbrow trash -- I would lean towards highbrow.

Classics: Zhuangzi; Plotinus; Nagarjuna; "On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers" by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1799); "The Bugbear of Literacy" by Ananda Coomaraswamy (1944); Alone with the Alone by Henry Corbin (1969). I'm choosing just a few ancient and modern examples, in order to appeal to what I think JMG means by a "classic" and to contribute to the discussion.

Dudley Dawson said...

Great post. My apologies if some of this feels off-topic. I’m writing this after just reading all of the comments on the last article as well as the current article. Things might get jumbled.

I graduated from an MFA program a while back. Thinking back on it, I was naïve in a lot of ways. After writing on my own for several years, it seemed logical to get involved in a more intense program that would push me beyond my limits. Thing is, MFA programs don’t really push people that much. There were some exceptions, but it seemed like many of the students thought of the degree as a badge-holding position among the Art Police. This put me at odds with some of my schoolmates, many of whom seemed more interested in being told what was art rather than learning how to identify art. It’s an important distinction.

I’m a traditional storyteller. I value deep characters, humor, settings, things most book-nerds probably appreciate. That didn’t sit well with some of my colleagues. If I wasn’t at the edges of the notional space, I was relying too much on “the trappings of genre,” (their words, not mine). Storytelling didn’t appear to matter much; in fact, if a person accidentally had a moment of pleasure while reading one of my stories, people seemed to view it as a strike against me. It got a little disheartening after a while.

That’s saying something. I’ve always been my own harshest critic, yet I’ve managed to survive my own slings and arrows and keep at this for years and years, (happily, even! I come to the blank page with a smile on my face, every day!) yet these people were getting me down. Fortunately, toward the end of the program it started to sink in that I was witnessing exactly the phenomenon you describe in this article: a pack of self-proclaimed creative elites protecting the ring that they’d peed in the snow.

I’m graduated now, back on my own outside the pee circle. Life is good out here. I’m reading whatever I want again, still hacking away at the writing, and getting ever closer to having my first good novel (I think) after three prior attempts.
This is all not to say that the criticisms given to me weren’t correct or valid. Many were. Many were valuable and helpful, too. I’m not perfect. I may not even be good. But when the criticism is more about what you’re doing rather than how you’re doing it, some skepticism might be a good thing. Especially when it’s clear that the criticizer is framing the issue in terms of the art they approve of versus the art they don’t.

Thanks for writing this. A lot of us scribblers-in-obscurity read your blog and I hope we all take what you’ve said to heart. I know I did.

Great assignment, by the way!

dfr2010 said...

Years ago, as a kid, I used to watch the old live-action Batman series at the neighbors' house. In one episode, they had an art competition, with a somewhat-regular artist painting some abstract modern art piece, an artist whose pet monkey threw small paint-filled balloons at the canvas, and the Joker, who never actually touched brush to canvas. Even back then, I noticed there was nothing produced I would call art, even though the Joker's blank canvas won (because they didn't want him to loose his vandals and minions on Gotham City).

The live action Batman series was campy to the extreme, likely fits your definition of kitsch to the tee, and even included "POW!" and "BAM!" in between the punches during fit scenes. We kids loved it - and so did our fathers.

On another note, thank you! for the moratorium. I confess I've stopped reading comments on the Retrotopia posts whenever I hit the first one on the election here. That means I missed last week's histrionics, as the only one I read was congratulating you on the clever imagery you used.

Does H.P. Lovecraft count as a warhol? "Herbert West: Reanimator" struck me as parody, although "The Silver Key" seemed to be beautiful and oddly out of place in the short story anthology I first read. Or maybe Lovecraft copied his literary idol (Poe) and did both.

Esn said...

As an interesting sidenote, both what you call "lowbrow trash" and "highbrow trash" would seem to fall under what in Soviet art criticism was once known (and denounced) as "formalism", more recently defined by scholar Richard Taruskin as "the study of structure rather than meaning" (a pretty good definition, I think).

The CIA, by the way, secretly funded highbrow formalism (modern art) in order to stick it to the Soviets.

"Lowbrow trash" (examples being Hollywood summer blockbuster movies, pulp fiction, modern pop music) mechanically and crudely uses lowest-common-denominator techniques that the public is known to like, and doesn't try to go any further. "Highbrow trash" (seen in avant-garde painting, music, sculpture, dance, performance art, the animated shorts in many modern animation festivals) focuses on new unusual techniques, and again doesn't care much about MEANING, being content to "experiment" without bothering to say anything.

In a "lowbrow" blockbuster movie the viewer is meant to be wowed by the special effects and explosions. In a "highbrow" avant-garde film the viewer is meant to be wowed by the unusual cinematic language. In both cases, form takes precedence over meaning.

Personally, I sometimes like watching both, and experience them in about the same way - is it really so different to be wowed by a good explosion and action sequence vs. unusual camera techniques and lighting? Sometimes it can be pretty hard to tell whether a "formalist" artwork is highbrow or lowbrow, anyway (example: Richard Williams' unfinished animated feature "The Thief and the Cobbler". A great example of both the appeal and the danger of formalism - he was so focused on making beautiful animation that he let story and characters fall to pieces).

I think that also explains why the Western "highbrow" art movement has been so interested in appropriating commercial "kitsch" into their art in the past century. Both are formalist. There's a natural affinity.

Non-formalist art, by contrast, COMMUNICATES MEANING (not necessarily in words, of course!). It can use either "lowbrow" or "highbrow" artistic language, but it uses them appropriately, to communicate something more than just the technique itself.

By the way, Andy Warhol's equivalent in music is John Cage (and my professors in the music department were equally gaga over him as I imagine art professors are over Andy Warhol). He was just as much of a practical joker, as one can clearly see watching his televised performance of "Water Walk":

Leo Knight said...

Thanks for this. I didn't participate in last week's discussion because, in my youth, I intended to study art as a career, perhaps become an illustrator. Sadly, life happened, and I gave up on that dream.

I remember a visit with my aunt and uncle to an art museum next to the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. The modern wing made quite an impression on me.

One display looked like large cardboard shipping cartons scattered on the floor. My uncle and I touched one, until warned by the guard. They were made of metal. Warhol?

Another consisted of urethane foam impaled on lengths of rebar, looking like day-glow bugs. I will call it "dog barf on sticks." The artist was there. A viewer asked, "What's it supposed to be?" He answered, "It's not supposed to be anything." Ah, clarity. Highbrow trash?

Two pieces I liked. One was a tall prism, about ten feet tall, situated in a semicircular bay window so sunlight made rainbows across the floor. Another was a small gable roofed shed, clad inside and out with mirrors. Viewers were invited to take off their shoes and walk inside along a short, s-shaped passage, and view the ever changing reflections inside. I would call them both playful, even though art critics have overused that word for years.

Daniel Najib said...

Mr. Greer, I see we share a dislike towards Italian opera!

I missed out on the comments last week (so many to read, such little time) but this post reminds me of an art class I had to take a couple of years ago for undergrad. It was a mandatory art class, but we were lucky enough to have an instructor that liked and preferred abstract modern art, but also had an immense respect for more classical art styles as well. I never really did like art until I went to art museums and did research projects, and started to appreciate the history behind the pieces.

This will be a fun homework assignment! I have no idea yet what the highbrow and lowbrow trash pieces are going to be, but I do know what the classic will be: "Regulus", by Turner:

The painting (and the amazing history behind it) are really something: "Regulus was a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians. They sent him back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned to Carthage, having failed his mission, he was punished by having his eyelids removed. Turner’s blinding, light-filled canvas makes manifest Regulus’s plight."

G3 McK said...

Well, if you're going to have a canon, you're going to need an Academy to decide what's in and what's out. And for their decision-making they're going to need to have expense-paid meetings in expensive hotel conference rooms and dinners at highbrow restaurants, and travel first-class to get to them. And the political maneuvering to obtain membership in the Academy will be vicious.

Harold Bloom of Yale University is one of the keepers of the canon of English Literature. He gets to say what's great and what's not, and you don't. One of his pronouncements concerned Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2000, and can be found at and probably elsewhere.

Personally, I don't believe in canons. My father was a Professor of The Humanities, and he and I had extended arguments about "what is art?", which we never resolved. I finally concluded that it cannot be resolved, but that there is a related response, namely that the Mission of the Artist is to produce work that causes his or her audience to say "this is great stuff, I want more", using any means possible. Beyond that, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and both the Emperor and the child are correct.

Also, if you don't think that abstract art can have a sense of humor, you need to look more closely at the work of Ellsworth Kelly.

Cassiodorus said...

The Green Wizards and Rememberers' Guild of Pittsburgh are pleased to announce their inaugural meeting on Monday Aug. 22.

For details and future meeting announcements, please see the forum posts at

Space Seeder said...

Ok, so I'll report now on the result of last month's assignment, which it's debatable whether I did or not. I find that I can't conceive of a topic where the book would make me want to throw the book at the wall. I'd considered trying "The Secret", or an Andrea Dworkin book, but I'm forewarned about those, and would only regard them as silly. I'm forced to plead that the book I read some 25 years ago, "The World in 2050", counts as my reading, since it's the only book that ever made me want to, and actually, physically destroy it. As a reminder, it was just a laundry list of flying cars and other vaporware that we were going to have in 2050. One of the Star Trek shows gave me a reduced version of the same feeling when one of the characters announced that they don't use money anymore and that everyone was free from want, without even drawing a theoretical line from here to trektopia.

As to what point of view I think the author was writing from: I think both he and I had the same problem. We both wanted to believe in the whole caves-to-stars thing, but all we had as a way to convince ourselves that the dream was true was to repeat to ourselves insistently, "IT IS! IT IS! IT IS!" He tried to firm that up by writing and publishing his vaporware list. Probably everyone who picked it up was like me: falling back in the 'it is, it is, it is' method, but looking for a better one, and being disappointed by the book.

So, did I get the point of the assignment, or was that whistling sound I just heard the point going right by me?

"Donald Duck splutterfest": 'like!'

Eric Backos said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
We in Northeast Ohio are following Melbourne’s example by holding well-advertised monthly meetings.
The monthly joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 11:30 AM on Saturday, September 24, 2016. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat.
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

Jay Moses said...

much of the blame for the proliferation of incomprehensible silliness in art, literature and music must be assigned to academia. of course (con)artists like the ex-tailors, will try and give the public 'dog barf', but their efforts would likely come a cropper if their allies among the critics, professors and gallery owners did not throw their weight behind those efforts.
one of the best ways to see this phenomenon in action is to see what english grad students are writing their dissertations about. you may or may not be surprised to find out that phd's are being awarded for studies of comic books, sit coms, pop music and soap operas. it's not terribly surprising really; the members of the canon, however defined, have been squeezed dry. there just are no dissertations left from the likes of shakespeare, milton, marlowe or donne; or from toni morrison, walter moseley, richard wright or sherman alexie for that matter. what's a phd candidate to do if not find a way to legitimize trash, high or low?
funny anecdote: when my grandparents died some years ago their estate included numerous paintings by a new york artist named iver rose. my grandparents, long time habitues of the new york art scene, were sure that rose paintings would gain in value over the years. at the same time they were buying iver rose paintings in new york galleries in the 1950's works by twombley, rauschenberg and kline were on offer for similar prices. rose's works today fetch a few hundred dollars while the works of twombly et al sell for bazillions. a triumph of artistic excellence or clever marketing? oh well, wealth continues to elude me.

James M. Jensen II said...

Insightful post. I've always been on the "lowbrow trash" side of the fence, especially as it applies to SF and fantasy. My tastes in the latter genre are especially conservative, preferring the heroic tales of a Bilbo or Conan to the more recent attempts at "mature" fantasy that now been neatly categorized as "grimdark." I see that subgenre's attempt to shock the reader with violence and sex as utterly distasteful, which is not at all an objection to violence or sex.

I mean, if you're going to revel in a blood and guts and sex and perversity, just revel in it. Try to have fun with it. Drive your enemies before you and enjoy hearing the lamentations of their women. Don't try to pretend you're "dealing with mature issues" in a way that happens to be indistinguishable from reveling in blood and guts and sex and perversity. Ugh. [OK, getting off my soapbox.]

Switching genres, I know you didn't call them out directly, but did you have the postmodernists in mind for "highbrow trash" and even "warhol" in the realm of science and philosophy? I'm especially thinking of Foucault for the ordinary kind of highbrow trash and Derrida and Boudrillard as some of the finer examples of warhol. Then there was Feyerabend, whose Against Method outright defies the classification scheme by arguably fitting all the possibilities (lowbrow trash, highbrow trash, kitsch, warhol, masterpiece) simultaneously.

I had a postmodernist phase a while back as a way of dealing with some personal issues, but now that I'm past it I can see just how silly it was. It does look quite appealing when your main alternatives are a strangling rationalism or strangling dogmatism, though.

Jo said...

Ha, your post made me laugh. There are an increasing number of facets of modern life to which we could apply The Emperor's New Clothes fable..

Since I quit religion as a young adult, I have also fought to resist turning other aspects of life into a religion - and that is what any of the Arts can so easily turn into. And being a religion it requires an Elect, and also a whole host of Infidel Unbelievers upon which scorn can be heaped, and secret smugness, because they are destined for the fires of Hell anyway.. maybe my attitude to religion is a trifle cynical here, but bear with me, I am not talking about faith or belief, but religion as an institution. So, to extend the metaphor, the most important aspect of religion is that the Elect are right, otherwise the whole edifice crumbles. Even if the Elect begins to suspect they have been taken in, they cannot falter for a moment, because then they will turn out to have been wrong, and everything they have lived for becomes null and void. Once you have power and money and career invested in a certain trajectory, well, belief must be sustained, or a whole industry turns to dust. Thus we get giant yellow teddy bears being brained by desk lamps as public art.

Which is where I find the ending of your Emperor's New Art fable so perfect - of course nobody can possibly admit that they have been taken in. They have so much invested in being right.

Eric Backos said...

In a similar vein to this week’s ADR, some of the Wizardren are passing around a newspaper article complaining that the hipster look of vintage, formerly important shopfronts furnished with reprocessed wood and reconditioned industrial lighting are becoming banal worldwide. The article complains of the homogeneity of the look, not the coffee shops replacing important businesses like department stores and machine shops…
Being in Ohio, we have plenty of businesses that use reprocessed wood and reconditioned electrical lighting… BUT we have lots of empty buildings suited to that look. Prior to reading aforementioned article, I had no idea anyone was exporting post-industrial irony around the world and coddling it like a hothouse orchid. So – what looks entirely practical here is hipster kitsch elsewhere?
And then I went to an indoor shopping mall. The trendy clothing stores are offering a weird amalgam of work, industrial, and military surplus all in one “look.” Faux industrial spaces populated by patrons wearing faux work clothes (a situation used in a 1981 short story by William Gibson titled “Burning Chrome”… kitschy or classic?)
Hip kids are paying a premium to dress like me when I work in the yard while they stand in spaces that look like my shed to drink overpriced coffee. I had no idea one of the perks of being a poor Ruinman was being mistaken for a trendy urbanite.

Angus Wallace said...


I think you make some good points, but there's a couple of things missing (IMO)

The first is money and the bureaucratization of art funding which is a major contributor to what you've described.
The second is simply that modern art is contemporary and the personality effect of the artist remains very powerful. I'd wager that there is lots of "bad" art made in every age, but over time the "bad" stuff gets forgotten. This is yet to happen with modern art: give it a century or two ;-)

I love (some) modern art, but was rather bemused at the strident and shrill comments that appeared last week. As the saying goes: 99% of everything is crap ;-)

ps. if you don't know it, Kate Fox's wonderful book "Watching the English" talks a lot about people perceptions of low-brow and high-brow, and the status implications (with many other insights). I highly recommend it.

Cheers, Angus

James M. Jensen II said...

Re: my last comment

I didn't mean to imply that Tolkien was lowbrow trash! Conan, yes, but not Tolkien. Surely The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings deserve to be in the "masterpiece" categories. I had simply slightly changed lines of thought in my second sentence.

Talon Talonicus said...

Thanks John. I agree.

For me this behavior by the art community gives a couple of "tells".

Firstly, this is another attempt by humans to form a pyramidal social hierarchy, in the same way that bees form hives. The further up the hierarchy you go, the more status and power and wealth. Much effort is expended by individuals to improve their place in the social hierarchy (a nil sum game), either by putting themselves up or others down, in the same way that horses will kick and bite each other for hours in preference to enjoying the lush grass all around them.

The same attempts to form and manipulate the pyramidal social hierarchy can be seen in consumerism, politics, religion (but I repeat myself), science, etc. I get some wry amusement to see the same political pyramidal social hierarchy called by different names - capitalism, communism, socialism, monarchy, etc - which are essentially the same human biological community wherein a pampered elite sits on top of a struggling proletariat, the distance between them growing until the hive ruptures.

Secondly, in the humanities including the arts, it's very much about vanity. The emphasis is always on doing something new and different - hopefully to much personal acclaim and the benefits that consequently flow from the social hierarchy - as distinct from doing something intrinsically worthwhile. We would generally scorn writing more baroque music, or more sonnets in the style of Shakespeare - to do so would not allow us to advertise our own genius. In this way, art has left beauty mostly behind.

In contrast, a baker bakes bread. He didn't discover bread, he's not trying to put a new "twist" on the bread - the bread is just intrinsically worthwhile. When you need to make a sandwich, you reach for this old kind of bread.

Seeing the art community behave as it does tells me a lot about where real value lies.

Ozymandius said...

Off topic perhaps, JMG, but have you noted the debacle that is the latest Australian census.

Samwich said...

"I find that if you take the various popular song forms to their logical extremes you can arrive at almost anything from the ridiculous to the obscene- or, as they say in New York, sophisticated" - Tom Lehrer

A friend of mine recently opined that modern art was clearly some sort of criminal racket, with art dealers selling what is obviously a few dollar's worth of paint sloshed on a canvas to wealthy dupes who don't realise that it's all garbage. I suggested to him that the artists must be in on the scam as well, since they surely cannot truly believe that a few strokes with a paintbrush make a piece of cloth worth $600,000.

In light of this week's parable, I can see that what we were expressing was your recognition of the falsity of it all- the circular logic that states "intelligent and sophisticated people enjoy modern art- why is it art? Because we are intelligent and sophisticated and we say it is art. Why are we intelligent and sophisticated? Because we like this art!

The racket is just another form of gatekeeping. Modern art is very expensive- only the affluent can purchase it and 'enjoy' it. It is bewildering and ugly and stupid because it completely lacks meaning- why else do artist have to have manifestos? If your painting comes with an interpretive manual, something has gone wrong. I am sure that many artists completely believe the complex philosophical circumlocutions that they spout about how the urinal they nailed to wall represents something, but surely this is a great market for a couple of barnums? A little basic aptitude with a brush and a gift for fabricating fancy-sounding malarkey could net someone a tidy profit. Clearly the art crowd is so sophisticated that they can hardly wait to throw their money away. I wish that they'd throw it at me.

Pinku-Sensei said...

After examining your taxonomy, I realized that I'm an aficianado of music ranging from lowbrow trash to kitsch to canon, but only canon when it comes to music accompanying visual media whether from movies, television shows, or video games. My music must accompany movement for me to be interested in it. I guess that means I should enjoy ballet and Broadway musicals, too.

As for highbrow trash, I reserve that for my interest in drum and bugle corps. Yes, even marching music has its own version of highbrow trash, which the older audience who prefers lowbrow trash and kitsch despises. Speaking of which, this week is the North American drum corps championship. There will be lots of performances of highbrow trash to impress the judges. With luck, the audience will find enough lowbrow trash to entertain them and the judges and other insiders will find something from the pretentious shows to elevate into the canon. I guess I know what art I'll be examining for my homework assignment!

On another note, you were mentioned at last weekend's Board of Directors retreat for the Coffee Party. Two of our members are ministers and one of them mentioned "Climate Change Activism: A Post-Mortem" as a cautionary tale. Another was looking for an example of the Dreaded Drama Triangle in politics, so I steered her toward "American Narratives: The Rescue Game." I hope she finds that instructive.

Dylan said...

For the last homework assignment I chose to read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Funnily enough, the book spends a great many pages making the very point you've discussed this week!

And though the uncomfortable, mind-stretching views I don't agree with are definitely in there, I was pleasantly surprised to find that important parts of the book struck me as daringly truthful and insightful. I am certainly looking at the world differently thanks to Rand. I'm also having to articulate for myself where and why I disagree with her, rather than writing her off because my friends told me to, as I did before.

As for highbrow and lowbrow trash, I love Ursula K. Le Guin's summing up in her essay 'Dreams Must Explain Themselves': "Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic."

patriciaormsby said...

In defense of artistic sanity, I want to describe an interesting architectural feature of the Tokyo skyline. One of the beer companies, Asahi if I recall correctly, put up a lovely building in eastern Tokyo, which does actually resemble a glass of dark brew with some bubbles rising--very nice--and then crowned it with a piece of art so fantastically bizarre that one scratches his head in wonder that no one was able to warn either the artist or the folks commissioning him/her what this was going to look like to the rest of the world. They do have an explanation of what it was supposed to represent, but I forget it. Flying foam or some such.

One movie came out after its completion, in which one fellow lost in Tokyo's maze of streets called in to his destination from a booth and was told, "Can you see a huge golden turd from there? Yes? Okay, come towards that until you reach the gas station, then turn right..."

I suppose this might count as a highbrow atrocity, in which case I ought to look into other examples of architecture for the assignment, though it is really not my field of expertise.

I agree with your moratorium on discussing the election, and ought to extend that to the rest of my life as well. Moreover, after reading about election scandals or the other increasingly shocking events of the world's slide into collapse, I really ought to go over to my altar and recite the Ohharae no Kotoba (that is a real, true classic!) or other suitably vigorous, yet refreshing, reassuring prayer. I've asked our eldest priestess to provide me the Kannon Sutra (a good long Buddhist prayer of the Goddess of Mercy), that I intend to memorize next.

It is natural that people are going to want to talk about things like this that disturb them, and you have provided a sympathetic ear, but sometimes it just gets us nowhere.

Owen said...

I'm curious what do you think of Postmodernism? I'm guessing you think it's a load of hooey. What about the Modernism that preceded it though?

Dennis Mitchell said...

I've spent years trying to be a rustic furniture builder. I can find all three categories in my own work. Trying to find some way to make a living. Cheap hoping to be affordable. "Artsy" hoping to be desirable. The "classic" when I was just building simple furniture for my own house. My pride and joy is a comfortable log and willow chair. Not very many comfortable log chairs in this world. As for science fiction I'll vote "Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy" for all three categories.

AA said...

Not to add another category unnecessarily but I think an argument can be made for what one might call "middlebrow trash." Lowbrow at least is not pretentious, but middlebrow has pretensions to being high-brow. Unless you want to subsume it under kitsch. Walk into any Barnes and Noble and you will see middlebrow books in abundance. The culture of the suburb, one might call it -- the kind of material read by people with a US college education. The novels of Dan Brown and John Grisham. Books by Paulo Coelho. Self-help literature. How to be a more effective communicator/leader/manager. The secrets of Google/Steve Jobs/Bill Gates. On television, rubbish like "Downton Abbey."

NomadsSoul said...

IMHO - Modern Art Appreciation Is A Fitting Example Of Group Think In Action.

Carl said...

You just have to love art. Was giving a tour of our local renowned University to some visitors from Mexico and Central America. And while driving around we beheld a monster display of metal objects painted white standing vertical at an intersection. Trying to describe it by saying and there is a "??" ah-art or what ever you call it. We all laughed about how absurd the whole thing was.

William Church said...

I feel out of my depth whenever the subject of art comes up. I suppose that arises from the fact that I actually am out of my depth on practically any discussion of art.

I think Ronnie Van Zant's whiskey laced voice was incredible. I believe Gimme Shelter was the greatest rock song of all time. And I believe Dean Martin was the best singer my country has produced. I guess I am just a hillbilly.

One dabbling in the arts I feel comfortable with: literature. I feel like my readings of Aurelius and Plutarch, Teddy Roosevelt and Jefferson, even old school popular writers like Haggard and Doyle have made me a better man AND given me hours of enjoyment.

Maybe in another life I'll explore the arts more. Perhaps they could polish off a few of my more rough edges.


David, by the lake said...


I don't believe that I was a part of the circular argument portion, but to the extent that my comments contributed to the hijacking, my apologies to all.

Re SF and high/low/canon...where would you place Dune (the original, not the remainder of the series)? I've always considered it something of THE sci-fi novel, thus canon in terms of this week's discussion, but I wonder of others might see it as highbrow trash?

Again apologizing for straying OT (not election related!), but I wanted to follow up on one of my comments from two (?) weeks ago, re transportation and the environmental movement, etc. As I mentioned in that comment, I had looked into using our smaller public transit system for commuting to work. This week, I commenced that experiment. Not being in a major metro area, the public buses are almost exclusively used by those who have no other means of transportation. Needless to say, I rather stand out in the sparsely populated buses with my business-casual attire. Aside from the discomforting awareness of my own class, and the obviousness of that class, it has been a pleasant experience, including a few interesting conversations with some of the other passengers. Not related to "trash" per se, but another high/low divide... Some intentional mingling would do everyone some good, even if it is uncomfortable to begin with.

Steven said...

LOL! Made me laugh.

As for the homework assignment-for the lowbrow trash, we'll got with "Dogs Playing Poker", which hung quite proudly in my family's living room for some years before moving to my father's office

To me, this painting (actually a series) will always occasion a smile and a good laugh. But technically, its a quite good painting-other than the subjects being humanized dogs, its surprisingly realistic, and you can tell the painter knew what he was doing.

As for the highbrow trash, I think this "abstract" painting of card players will do.

The whole out-of-proportioness of it...what's this thing with trying to make your painting look like it was done by a three year old? The composition is somewhat good, and indeed I would say this artist had at least some idea of what he was doing-and puts up a rather impressive effort to convince the viewer otherwise. The sheer, intentional ugliness...if the essence of hipsterism could be distilled into one painting, I think this would be it.

And as for the classic, lets go with Cezanne's The Card Players.
I just love looking at this painting...I really enjoy the way it just draws the viewer in. I especally like how he did the facial expressions and used color to establish the atmosphere of a dim, smokey bar. I get the sense one could spend time staring at it and studying it, much more than one could with the other two. I could imagine hanging it in my living room, simply for its beauty. "Dogs Playing Poker" would be an unintentionally funny "conversation piece", and the abstract card players...gah, maybe if I needed to impress a professor or something. The Cezanne, on the other hand, I would simply enjoy seeing every day, which to my mind is the essence of good art.

Steve Morgan said...

The point about highbrow trash being intentionally exclusive reminds me of a joke.

Q. How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. (with a gleefully sarcastic tone) You mean you don't know?


Recently my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Chicago Institute of Art during a train layover. We visited many areas in our three hour tour, finding crowds thick or thin depending on how many famous works were nearby. In most areas we'd see a few people with the pre-recorded tour gadgets listening to more detail than the paintings or plaques presented. The special exhibit - art from the US during the Depression years - was particularly packed with interested patrons of all sorts.

We visited the modern wing briefly, and there we saw something unique. Amid a very thin crowd of mostly teenage art-selfie browsers, there was a tight cluster of well-to-do people following around a very pretentious man in a tailored pinstripe suit that was made to look old-fashioned. They'd stop in front of some absurdly abstract or dog-vomit-like painting, and he would lecture the well-heeled gaggle about why this particular piece was worth a lot of money - I mean, why it was "artistic".

It reminded me of nothing so much as your description of phatic communication from years ago. The highbrow tribe in the modern wing follows the art hipster who tells them how to criticize people who look at dog vomit and call it dog vomit - after all, it's what separates "us" from "them." Meanwhile, the bourgeois mill around the rest of the museum looking at the art that's at least recognizable at a glance, satisfied to be seen in such a cultural setting. The poor, of course, are not in the museum at all.

JimK said...

The Sokal hoax of 1996 was a classic unmasking of dog barf. But it is a difficult challenge to distinguish esoteric work of real value from esoteric work that is sliding into navel gazing from pseudo-esoteric work that is equivalent to dog barf. I think Jacques Derrida was making an actual contribution to philosophy but I must confess that I am not really qualified to judge!

A key experience for me was learning to hear the jazz of Miles Davis on albums like Bitches Brew and Big Fun. The first dozen or so listenings it sounded like noise to me! By now I hear those as pinnacle achievements. So I know that just because something doesn't make sense to me immediately, that doesn't mean there is no sense in it. These are delicate puzzles!

Chris Balow said...


Though I had several reasons for abandoning my childhood dream of being a novelist, you've highlighted one of them. The few people today who are still reading novels either prefer low brow trash (e.g. Twilight, 50 Shades of Gray) or high brow trash (e.g. Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo). Those who can make a living as a novelist must pander to one of those two crowds.

Oh well, there's no shortage of interesting and important roles to be played in the future that this failing empire has made for itself.

Posted before but not want Google+ said...

Howard Becker wrote a few worthy books, 'Outsiders' and 'Art Worlds.' The first studied the Us/Them break. 'Art Worlds' pretty much found that what made an artist successful was finding a (wealthy) patron, whose support provided a point of reference for others who were looking to buy.

He also wrote 'Tricks of the Trade,' which had a couple of quick wisdoms. An excellent question: "are things better or worse now than they were" is open-ended and provokes detailed response. The Machine Trick, where you assume a situation is actually functioning perfectly, and then figure out what the machine is for. And "There's never nothing going on."

Mon Seul Desir said...

Here are my candidates:

In Philosophy-----

Low brow trash: Ayn Rand, Frantz Fanon

High brow trash: Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt

Classic: Plato, Aristotle

In energy production technology-----

Low brow trash: Rossi's E-Cat

High brow trash: ITER ( very expensive trash )

Classic: James Watt steam engine


Low brow trash: Grant Wood's American Gothic [ but so well done that it quickly became a classic of kitsch ]

High brow trash: Mark Rothko's Voice of Fire [ the National Art Gallery of Canada paid $1.8 millions for... Three vertical strips of color... the museum curators were dumbfounded at the public uproar over this use of public money... ]

Classic: William Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyrs [ I visited the Clark Institute because that painting was there. Standing close, there wasn't a single brush stoke visible on a 12 foot tall canvas! ]

Jeanne Labonte said...

Caught up in personal matters last week, I missed out on the art controversy your off-the-cuff remark produced last week on the comment section. The criticism you fielded put me in mind of the tempest-in-a-teapot that was stirred up a number of years ago when an artist named David Hockney suggested that a number of Renaissance painters, among them Vermeer, used optical devices to achieve some of the photo-realistic lighting in their paintings. His idea was vigorously contested by art critics, apparently aghast at the suggestion that their beloved painters might actually have used mechanical devices rather than sheer raw talent to produce their works. It didn’t seem to matter that it was an artist who advanced the theory. Apparently stepping over the line from creating to critiquing is verboten in the rarified world of the art critic and clearly the criticism voiced by a fictional character you created is a no-no as well. I think there’s little doubt it comes across to them as the sound of a small child shrieking “He’s naked!”

Travis Marshall said...

Eric Backos "Hip kids are paying a premium to dress like me when I work in the yard while they stand in spaces that look like my shed to drink overpriced coffee. I had no idea one of the perks of being a poor Ruinman was being mistaken for a trendy urbanite" I have not laughed that hard in a while. A couple months ago I went to the LL Bean store to buy a pair of their signature boots as they are quite durable made right here in Maine and backed with a great warranty. I am actually going to use these boots for their intention. Many sizes however were unavailable due to a recent trend in hipster circles to wear work boots to cool industrial looking coffee houses that apparently resemble my shed. My wife and children are slightly embarrassed in my attire of tattered cammo pants and what ever tattered shirt happens to be at the top of my dresser if I wear them out. I can now tell them I am trendy. Wonder if the hipsters will eventually get around to putting some faux dirt under their fingernails alongside the attire? In other related stories I had on hand a bunch of reclaimed wood from old barn torn down near me. I have recouped it's cost three times over with various pieces of rough yet sturdy furniture either for our home or for sale to others. While recently while going through the craigslist I came across an ad for someone who was interested in purchasing a couple pieces of "reclaimed" wood to decorate their wedding tables. My initial thought of hey I will just get a hold of them and let them have the 15 board ft of wood for their little project. Though I got to thinking let me look up the price for reclaimed lumber. 5 dollars a board ft. Right or wrong I decided I would make a quick 75 bucks off 3 5 ft pieces of 1x6. Obscene what people will pay for a certain look. How many well built usable hand tools and cast iron pans of the last century perfectly capably of doing great work sit merely on display in someones personal museum. My guess is soon they will find them selves employed again.

Rita said...

Many years ago I had the unsettling experience of watching a film on the Nazi anti-modern art exhibit. The film showed which pieces were included and gave the Nazi propaganda sound bites about what was wrong with each piece of degenerate art. It isn't bad enough that they killed people--they hated true art as well!-- seemed to be the lesson of the film. The unsettling part, as you might guess, was that I hated some of the same stuff. OMG I hate the same art Nazis hated, what terrible things does this say about me? If I recall correctly the film went on to show the type of art the Nazis encouraged: buxom blond girls walking chubby blond babies while sturdy young men did manly things, so sickly sweet that Thomas Kinkade looks noir by comparison. Also, ironically, with a remarkable resemblance to Soviet Realism.

By some round about thought process this leads me to the market in fake collectables--i.e. the limited edition plates, figurines, specially bound editions of classics, spoons for each state, medallions of each president (in a handsome cabinet), etc. which is the very exploitive process of marketing low brow art as though it were going to increase in value like high brow art does. Usually marketed in women's magazines--at least those are the ones I see, there may be some equivalent marketed in hunting magazines, sports magazines or other more typically male markets. My question for you international readers; is this an American phenomenon, or are there equivalents in Europe, Australia or Asia?

Tidlösa said...

In Sweden, the cognoscenti consider "Lord of the Rings" to be lowbrow trash, perhaps because the common man reads it. That´s pretty ironic, considering what the elite considers sophisticated...

I admit that I like Rauschenberg´s "Monogram", but perhaps for mostly Warholian reasons, ha ha. Besides, I call it The Goat With the Tire, which, of course, is exactly what it is...

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm quite familiar with dog vomit, although to be fair, the little rotters are usually vomiting up interesting specimens that they have found in their journeys and decided unwisely to ingest. Our canine friends experience the world through the medium of their guts (and all of the associated passages into that dark place).

We have a colloquial description of Warhol's hidden but deliberate humour: "Taking the piss". Oh how he must have laughed!

Architects pull the same trick too. In one of the oldest suburbs of Melbourne which has generally Victorian era (and some earlier Georgian) housing stock, an apartment block was built which was dubbed in the media as the: Cheese grater building. Apparently, according to a quote on the architects Wikipedia page the "project won (planning) approval at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). This was largely as a result of Rijavec establishing the project’s contextual relevance in an unprecedented appraisal of Fitzroy’s urban character that reinterpreted it as Urban Jazz."

I must be a fool because I don't even understand what that last sentence means. ;-)!

Oh yeah, we've had our share of artists laughing at the public, usually at the public’s purse and expense. There was one memorable sculpture which used to be located in the middle of a round-about and honestly both my wife and I could not shake the feeling that the sculptor had fashioned two mirror imaged: oversized concrete foetuses with erections. I dare anyone to look at that art horror which was foisted onto the public at possibly great expense and not see that? I'm certainly open to other interpretations... The only thing I can think of saying when I saw that concrete thing was: WTF?

Then there was the public outrage over the hugely expensive: Yellow Peril.

Oh my, Mr John-Michael, you shall (as we all will) certainly be enjoying some fascinating comments this week! Well done you for receiving such vitriolic comments as supplied by “Repent” in the comment above. ;-)!

I'm still giggling and laughing about the dog barf story! That is hysterical. You have a definite flair for comedy.



Lucretia Heart said...


My reaction to the character in the story declaring the modern art ugly was to give an enthusiastic nod of agreement. Though I've found a few fun "warholy" (heh! "war" "holy") modern art pieces enjoyable, by and large my personal reaction to most of it is mental nausea. By that, I mean that instead of being inspiring or interesting or thought-provoking or meaningfully symbolic of the human experience-- its just crass and ugly, and obviously so!

I have friends who are talented artists who can barely sell their amazing creations. I also know people who learned the jargon and modern philosophy of... well... the "scam" for lack of a better word, to part rich people (or taxpayers thru federal funding) from their money. The modern art world today is an industry that works through rules that are all about pretension to a finer ideal aesthetic.

But when something is an obvious turn off (as most of it is) no amount of superior posturing is going to convince me some ugly trash is treasure I'm just too limited to appreciate!

THANK YOU for this post. Despite the loud protestations by the art industry, most people by far and away agree that, yes-- its just ugly and ultimately worthless. I think future generations will be completely baffled by the chaotic "original" seemingly random things we've left all over in our parks and museums... If you need a special education to "get it"-- then you DON'T get it at all!

John Michael Greer said...

Repent (offlist), many thanks, but you need to trim the profanity, or replace objectionable words with standard Archdruid Report equivalents such as "frack" and "shale."

Generally speaking, folks, I end up having to delete up to half a dozen good comments each week because somebody can't stand not using the words George Carlin made famous. If your comment doesn't appear, check for that -- it may well be the reason...

'Nuf said. On to responses -- well, on to a couple of other things, and then on to responses.

Tidlösa said...

The dogs playing poker linked to in Steven´s posting are actually quite good, compared to most modern art. You can see what the painting is supposed to represent, and it´s great fun, too. You can laugh with it, not just at it (or suspect that "it" laughs at you).

Reminds me of a modern anti-rococo parody painting (I forgot the name of the artist) who was much more beautiful than most modern art, since in order to parody the rococo it had to mimic the rococo! While the rococo isn´t my favorite, it´s a big step up compared to most modern trash...

OK, enough lowbrow art criticism for today! ;-)

Hawkcreek said...

My instructor in Art Appreciation 101 about 45 years ago defined art as, "A work of man that evokes emotion".
To me this is the yardstick I have used for years. If the only emotion I feel is amazement at the price tag, I consider it only decoration. Decoration can be nice, but it doesn't pull any strings.
This seems to work no matter if I am enjoying music, paintings, architecture, or photography.

Anthony DuClare said...

At the risk of critiquing a work that I haven't seen yet (and was on the fence about seeing, but now I must), I think the new Ghostbusters might qualify as both warhol and kitsch, with the original as an undisputed classic. The original was so funny because most of the humor was understated and deadpan, and it wasn't really trying to push any kind of message, aside from poking a little fun at the EPA. I'd be shocked if the original had a science consultant: my bit of Googling has turned up nothing, and I understood the nods to real science when I was in elementary school. Contrast this to the new Ghostbusters. For highbrow warhol, we have the reversal of gender roles so beloved of the chattering classes. We also have the very desirable portrayal of women in STEM. What takes the cake for highbrow kitsch, however, is the portrayal of science: there was a major story on NPR about how the filmmakers' science consultant (a professor of physics) went to great lengths to ground the equations seen on chalkboards and the ghostbusting equipment in the facts of cutting edge particle physics. This kind of of obsessive attention to scientific detail is appropriate for drama (witness Christopher Nolan's Interstellar), but it's a bit much for comedy, and it also seems to be trying to ride the coattails of Big Bang Theory. The lowbrow kitsch is obvious enough: overwrought CGI in contrast to the largely practical effects of the original, crude race humor, and nonstop sexual innuendo.

Perhaps the merging of warhol and kitsch into one work is a reflection of our current obsession with putting on egalitarian airs.

Owen said...

So what would Banksy's Dismaland be classified as? Trash? Art?

pygmycory said...

I ran into the 'abstract art is the best type of art, and representational art is of no value since we now have cameras' when I was just into high school and taking art classes. Result: I disagreed, subverted the assignments, and in one memorable incident came away from a week's worth of classes with my favorite item being the fat frog I'd whittled out of a spare chunk of dried plaster of paris in between things I was supposed to be doing. I kept that for years and years.

I really didn't like the sneering attitude of the abstract-enthusiast teachers. I suspected they couldn't actually draw, since they never demonstrated the skill, and were sneering at me to hide the fact. Quite possibly I was totally wrong there, but even so. It sure didn't help me learn anything, other than to avoid abstractionists.

Repent said...

Sorry, JMG- Authenticity is important to me. The original article I quoted was verbatim. None of the words that were shown are unknown to your audience. My apologies to anyone who was offended.

As an aside, the Chinese language link I sent you, if you run it through google translate was from the Chinese "Abnormal human research center" Which had reposted an article that you wrote about Druid culture and history, in the Chinese language.

Five8Charlie said...

My vote for philosophical dog vomit: Wittgenstein's "Tractatus".

Your comment about not using any of Carlin's seven word stops me from saying anything further about that high-brow dreck.

Jason Fligger said...

JMG: I am not sure what the official definition of art is. My own definition has changed over the course of my life. When I was young, I would not have considered any modern abstract painting or sculpture to be art. I would have reserved that title for some of the classics you enumerated. However, over time, I have come to really enjoy some modern art but only when I have learned something about its creator so that I can grasp the concept or idea that they are trying to express. My definition of art is now much more loose. For me, almost anything can be considered art because I have come to understand art as a personal act of expression. My art may not be considered art by others for art is in the eye of the beholder. I make a strong distinction between the words "art" and "craft". An artist may not have mastered the craft of painting very well. However, if they can express something in a way that moves me-even with crude brush strokes, then I will call it art. I think art is exactly the opposite of snobbish-it is something almost anyone can create. Not everyone is a master craftsman. The classic greats were both artists and craftsman. One probably needs both art and craft to become a classic. I'm not sure what role the art markets play but it seems that they may impact how certain works are looked at by the general public.

Bob Patterson said...

From Rudyard Kipling - “And the first rude sketch that the world has seen
was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it art?”
(Barrack Room Ballads)

Also included by Orson Welles in the film "F for Fake"

Tom Schmidt said...

At such times, the dominant minority plunges with gusto into highbrow trash, the internal proletariat plunges with equal verve into lowbrow trash, and both sides pretend that those are the only two possible options.

This is, in fact, the conflict at the heart of Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg. If the people and the elite don't agree it's art, it isn't.

As to Abstract Expressionism, I always liked Pollock. It turns out that he WASN'T just dripping paint on the canvas. His work is highly self-similar and fractal, hard to duplicate, and in fact the easiest way to create a Pollock is to have paint dripped from the branches of a wind-blown tree. Pollock was capturing the hidden symmetry in nature that Mandelbrot would later explain mathematically, and ought to be the AE mascot of TAR.

Marie K said...

Andy Warhol defined art thusly: “Art is what you can get away with.” You can read a lot into that, or nothing, but either way it’s the best definition I’ve yet found. It ran through my head often during art lectures in college.

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm quite familiar with dog vomit, although to be fair, the little rotters are usually vomiting up interesting specimens that they have found in their journeys and decided unwisely to ingest. Our canine friends experience the world through the medium of their guts (and all of the associated passages into that dark place).

We have a colloquial description of Warhol's hidden but deliberate humour which is possibly not family friendly so I won’t repeat here. Oh how he must have laughed!

Architects pull the same trick too. In one of the oldest suburbs of Melbourne which has generally Victorian era (and some earlier Georgian) housing stock, an apartment block was built which was dubbed in the media as the: Cheese grater building. Apparently, according to a quote on the architects Wikipedia page the "project won (planning) approval at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). This was largely as a result of Rijavec establishing the project’s contextual relevance in an unprecedented appraisal of Fitzroy’s urban character that reinterpreted it as Urban Jazz."

I must be a fool because I don't even understand what that last sentence means. ;-)!

Oh yeah, we've had our share of artists laughing at the public, usually at the public’s purse and expense. There was one memorable sculpture which used to be located in the middle of a round-about and honestly both my wife and I could not shake the feeling that the sculptor had fashioned two mirror imaged: oversized concrete foetuses. I dare anyone to look at that art horror which was foisted onto the public at possibly great expense and not see that? I'm certainly open to other interpretations... The only thing I can think of saying when I saw that concrete thing was probably not repeatable here!

Then there was the public outrage over the hugely expensive: Yellow Peril.

Oh my, Mr John-Michael, you shall (as we all will) certainly be enjoying some fascinating comments this week! Well done you for receiving such vitriolic comments as supplied by “Repent” in the comment above. ;-)!

I'm still giggling and laughing about the dog barf story! That is hysterical. You have a definite flair for comedy.



Allan Stromfeldt Christensen said...

"Highbrow trash." That's great.

And there's no need for fairy tales or parables when you can just cite the real deal:


In February 1964, four paintings by a previously unknown avant-garde French artist named Pierre Brassau were exhibited at an art show in Göteborg, Sweden. Also at the show were works by artists from England, Denmark, Austria, Italy, and Sweden, but it was the works of the French artist that attracted all the attention.

Art critics, journalists, and students, glasses of wine in hand, silently contemplated Brassau's creations. Their praise was almost unanimous. Rolf Anderberg of the morning Posten later wrote that most of the works at the show were "ponderous," but not those of Brassau:

"Pierre Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer."

One lone critic panned Brassau's work, declaring, "Only an ape could have done this." As it turned out, this critic was correct. Pierre Brassau was, in fact, an ape. Specifically, he was a four-year-old West African chimpanzee named Peter from Sweden's Boras zoo.


The article (with pictures) continues here:

Matthew Smallwood said...


Low Brow : Karl Marx
High Brow: Zizek & Foucault (Michael)
Classic : Simone Weil

I know you've spoken your peace on Plato, and condemned him to the reification-fallacy hell, but isn't it possible that Plato experienced the Ideal Forms because humanity was spiritually less devolved and more concentrated during the time period he lived? (At least for that reason, perhaps others). I believe you mentioned this possibility on the Well of Galabes in relation to Greek art: that they actually experienced the world more flattened and with the strange bulges or curves. Jaynes gets into this with his analysis of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey & the "wine dark sea". We assume that human nature is static, and if we don't experience it, it just isn't (and wasn't) there?

Matthew Smallwood said...

Rita - the Nazis went for kitsch, and hated the high brow trash. They were half right. Wouldn't that make sense? Half the evil in the world, or more, is done by people acting for the good of other people - no different with the Nazis.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear Mr. Greer - Oddly enough, this week I'm reading "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class" (Timberg, 2015). He is concerned with not just the decline of the "high art" classes, but mostly the more rank and file "creators." Graphic designers, indi-rock musicians, architects, booksellers and record store clerks.

Your commenter AA mentioned it, but Timberg also explores a maybe, no longer extant class that he calls "middlebrow." He states: "Much of what John Cage and Jean Luc Godard and Robert Venturi and Andy Warhol produced was powerful and thrilling. But the net effect of this revolution was to destroy the middlebrow consensus - the sense that there was a shared body of artistic and intellectual touchstones that educated middle-class people should no about, that "serious" fare was somehow good for you, and that these works were to be passed down through education, journalistic coverage, and family rituals. It was the spirit that put John Cheever or George Balanchine on the cover of Time magazine, that had Leonard Bernstein on television, that made Rachel Carson famous, that provoked Playboy to commission profiles of Duke Ellington or Lester Young. And, like the liberal consensus it largely overlapped with, the middlebrow consensus was attacked from both sides. It became collateral damage of the New Right's anger and the left's postmodern push, respectively."

There are just so many interesting and thoughtful ideas in this book. On the current state of teaching literature. "What happens when a significant proportion of those who guide students' relationship to books see them merely as "texts" to be interrogated, and tell you that anyone who loves, say, Rainer Maria Rilke or Virginia Woolf for their aesthetic qualities is a dinosaur? "If anything, literary enthusiasm can be a detriment if your job is to prosecute books for their ideological crimes," Laura Miller wrote of the shifting of critical priorities. "When even English professors won't stand up for literature, is it any wonder it's failing?" Lew

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Despite being an avid reader my whole life and having appreciation for certain art, I admit I haven't paid much attention to the intellectual criticism of art and literature. Back in my school days the literature was usually my worst subject because the way I was typically on a pretty different wavelength regarding how I thought about what I was reading than the teachers. I have gained more appreciation for some of the subtleties that eluded me in those days, but still I often wonder why some classics are so popular, some classice I really enjoy and some I just don't get.

Would you say that the main factor in what gets counted toward this canon in the skill needed to produce it? I remember an experience I had when I went to a modern art gallery when I was 18 or so. I thought some of the works were interesting, most of them just didn't do anything for me, but the whole thing seemed strange to me in a way that took me a while to realize. Later, I realized that it was because the majority of the works in the gallery were ones that I, someone of very modest artistic talent and experience, could reproduce pretty easily given the materials. It's juat strange to have a whole gallery full of mostly things that don't take much talent to make.

Another question, I'm interested in your thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut, where he falls on the spectrum you've laid out? There was a time in my life when I has a bunch of people recommending him to me, so Iread "Slaughterhouse Five" the book that I had heard the most. TO me it was practically unreadable, I forced myself to finish it thinking there must be something good in there that made it so popular, but to me the world and the characters he created were completely lacking in anything interesting. I told that to a couple of people who gave me just the attitude you describe with regard to modern art. A year or so later, I was convinced to read another Vonnegut book, this time "The Sirens of Titan", with a friend insisting that I'd like that one. Well, I didn't think it was quite as bad as "Slaughterhouse Five", at least this one had a real plot, but it still was pretty dull to me and to this day I don't understand what people see in his writing that got him so popular. By contrast, I have enjoyed a few Heinlein and Clarke novels even though I don't share their worldview. They make a story compelling enough that gives me some understanding of those who do think that way, but I can't say that at all about Vonnegut. I'm left wondering if there's a genius at work that I'm unable to comprehend or if it could be considered highbrow trash.

Karen said...

Thank you Mr. Archdruid for succinctly describing the disconnect between contemporary art practice and its reception. I may fall into the cognoscenti’ class you describe. However, my particular art school's painting education was technically rigorous, steeped in classicism and went to great lengths encouraging us to learn from all of the masters who preceded us – although they would have been loath to admit it, they informally implied a canon. I am a lifelong painter and love painting all along its continuum. I have always viewed modern and contemporary art in a non-binary way, within the vastly larger history, and none of it seems that illogical or scheming within that context. More likely, it is a good example of diminishing returns as painting approaches its “notional” limits. Much of the appeal of reading your blogs for the several years is how your discussions of magic resonate with how I believe good art comes into being. Artists practice their own kind of conjuring and are always striving to change the viewer’s consciousness.

In your post last week, you stated how your preferred paintings were able to enthrall you for a good long time. I was curious, if you looked for or were aware of those artists using sacred geometry implicitly or explicitly. The use of sacred geometry to manipulate the viewer’s experience was commonly known and taught in earlier times. Now, not so much

Lastly, I encourage those interested to check out Art Prize, which started in 2009 as a huge open art show in Grand Rapids, MI, whereby the public voted for their favorite piece of art and the winner received $250,000. The following year, the elites couldn’t handle it and had to set up their own parallel juror system. It is fun to compare the winners of the public vote to the winners selected by the elite jury. Interestingly, Ran Ortner, the first year’s winning artist is also now represented by a very “elite” New York contemporary art gallery.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Rita - This is from a US point of view. I have skated along the edges of the antiques and collectibles racket for a number of years. During the past couple of years I've read several books dissecting various collector crazes. Collector plates, Beanie Babies, sports cards, Kinkade paintings, etc. etc. ad nauseam. :-). They're pretty much all classic bubbles.

Then there was the phenomenon of picking a collector niche, stock pilling loads of the stuff, publishing a book on the particular niche with an inflated price guide. Let the market simmer gently for a few months (and, maybe do an article or two in the collectible press) and then dump you stuff on the market, hopefully making a killing.

What has happened is that the internet has made a lot of the antiques and collectibles racket, more .... transparent. It turns out that things that were thought to be rare or scarce ... are not. A great example is the board game, Monopoly. The man who originally invented it was a Philadelphia Quaker. The first versions of the game were not actually "board", but a rollable canvas playing surface. When E-Bay was first getting off the ground, one of these early Monopoly games surfaced ... and, sold for an astronomical amount of money. There was media attention. Two more of the games surfaced. The price declined. More early copies of the game appeared and the price again fell. You're also dealing with a small market ... people who are interested in early board games.

Hope this partially answers your curiosity about collectibles. Lew

WwoofBum said...

"Art," as it is currently conceived, would not exist without capitalism. To be an "artist," you must be given money for what you produce, else you would be out with the other schmucks, order to make money and have no time for making "art." "Art," of whatever stripe, has only ever existed through the support of capitalists, be they Kings, who get their money by screwing the pesantry, or the 1%, who get their money by screwing the other 99%. "Artists," then, live off the screwage perpetrated by their patrons, and, if justice is ever served, should suffer the same fate.

Jo said...

Slightly off-topic, but pertinent to the Retrotopia series: Just this week I finally got my hands on a library copy of Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles, A Family, 2029-2047. Its cover art features an image of a US $100 bill, with the subtitle In God We Trusted.

This is the first mainstream novel by a well-regarded mainstream author that I have read which has as its subject a believable and imminent decline in the American way of life. And it is not pretty. If anyone has been wondering what life is like back in the Atlantic Republic, this might be your window in. By 2029 the US is already experiencing some climate and resource-overuse difficulties. New York is perpetually chilly due to the collapse of the Gulfstream, and suffers frequent 'dry-outs' when the taps stop running, as the aquifers deplete. The gulf between the haves and have nots has widened. This story follows the family fortunes of several branches of the Mandible clan. Some are just getting by, others are very well-off – one sibling has left to live a prepper lifestyle on an up-state farm.

Then, the US government makes some very stupid political decisions which leaves it stranded outside the world trade economy. Overnight the banking system collapses, as does the stock exchange. The vast majority of the wealthy US elite lose all their assets which aren't actually nailed down. The US treasury then confiscates all the gold in the country, which strips the wealthy even further. The whole fabric of society begins to fray until the US begins to resemble a third-world country. As we follow the fortunes of the Mandible clan it becomes clear that there are winners and losers in a collapsing economy, and that 'economist in academia' is not a bullet-proof choice of profession.

About halfway through this book I sank into a profound depression. I think I am fairly clear-eyed about the future, thanks to years of reading ADR, but to see a middleclass family falling apart like this really hits home. Because hey, that could be my family.. mind you, there are some moments where I just want to smack some of these characters up the side of the head for the stupid choices they have made, but then that's the point of the novel. Most of us are just not prepared to live any life outside our middle-class cocoon. To be honest, the life lived by the Mandibles is being lived in many countries and by many families right now. But again, not my family. That is what makes this novel so eerie.


Jo said...

Now, to avoid spoilers, I won't discuss the ending. But to readers of Retrotopia, the novel goes in a very interesting direction... actually, it goes in a very disturbing direction first. But hang in there..

I won't say that there aren't things that grate a little in the novel – Shriver said in an author interview that she had studied up on economics before writing the novel – it shows. Characters are endlessly discussing economic theory, which gets a bit old. And somehow, throughout the entire span of the novel, the internet continues to be available even to quite cash-strapped characters. The novel ends in a way I don't find entirely satisfying.. but overall, I found it a fascinating read, mostly because it explores such a taboo topic. The failure of the Great American Dream. Or, for the rest of us, the failure of the Great Privileged Middle-Class Project (fellow Australians, don't think we are let off the hook. In 2047 we are invaded by Indonesia. To see how that pans out, read the excellent young-adult series Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden).

However, for anyone I know who is interested in where I think the future could be heading, I could do worse than hand them a copy of The Mandibles, then just as they start to slide into deep depression, slip them a copy of Retrotopia:)

One of the big takeaways though, is the idea which JMG continually hammers away at: collapse now. Anyone who had done that in the future discussed in The Mandibles would have had much better outcomes. Not necessarily in the sense that less bad things would happen to them, but in the sense that anyone who can cook with lentils and beans and grow a potato and knows the trick to living a dignified life with very little water, power or stuff is going to get on so much better no matter what situation they find themselves in.

Max Osman said...

In defense of Pollack, i find him very good. Your mileage may vary though.

Have you read Voltaire's bastards by John Ralston Saul yet or read any of Randall Collins new sociological theories yet?

jbucks said...

@JMG; Wonderful! A quibble: although I agree with what you've written, I don't think every modern artist purposefully goes out of their way to fool audiences, as you suggest in your parable. There are many who genuinely thought they were headed into new territory that would appeal to audiences, but who went overboard and got lost in their abstract systems. An example is Schoenberg, who thought that people would whistle 12 tone tunes in the street, but of course this hasn't happened. From what I know, I'm pretty sure he was motivated by a genuine love of music, but felt he couldn't otherwise contribute anything new because the best ideas were already done. This connects to the notional space idea you introduced earlier. Anyway, it's a minor point which doesn't contradict your conclusion.

I compose music in my free time, and I've been studying the canon of the classical music to find a way to make music that is artistically sound (which doesn't fall into either the high brow trash or low brow trash categories) and which communicates to people regardless of whether they have an education in the arts or not. As in politics, in the arts there is a sharp divide between the elites and the rest of the population, and I think it's a pretty urgent task for artists to try to bridge that gap and find a middle way. That's why I've been studying the canon.

By the way, I went to art school, and a lot of what you wrote and what your readers have commented rings very true to me based on personal experience. I'm following along with great interest!

@Esn: that definition from Taruskin for formalism seems bang on to me! That's very useful, thank you.

Sheila Grace said...

Sad...I saw Duchamp's toilet in the living room of a lovely home in the gated community of the Highlands in Seattle...and Warhol's entire sports series in another...while serving Highbrow nosh with a local catering company...don't get me started on the Culinary fun I could have with Highbrow, Lowbrow and classics. Beer Butt chicken anyone?


John Michael Greer said...

Nestorian, nope. If you'll read a little further in the post you'll find that I addressed that specifically at multiple-paragraph length.

Whomever, on the few occasions I feel a pull to listen to Philip Glass, I listen to PDQ Bach's "Einstein on the Fritz" instead and get the same experience, plus giggles. The whole notion that art has to be ugly and unpleasant in order to be serious is blasphemy against the Muses, who respond by condemning the blasphemer to listen to the same piece of Schoenberg's "music" for all eternity.

Patricia, I think that overstates it a bit. Opera was the Hollywood of its day, and like Hollywood, it produced some genuine art, some lowbrow trash, and some glorious kitsch in its time. It's a pity nobody performs Meyerbeer operas any more -- they're practically on the poker playing dogs level of kitsch, and hilarious.

Zerowastemillennial, of course it's challenging to put blobs of paint in a harmonious pattern. It's even more challenging to put representational images in one, but representational painters who are any good do it all the time; it's called "composition." I sometimes think the point of modern art is to cut back sharply on the number of difficulties artists have to contend with. As for the urinal, all I know is that when I was in college, taking art history classes, it was presented as a very serious work of art.

Unknown Eagle, remember my comments last week about how every upgrade is worse than what it replaces? I rest my case. ;-)

WB, I've had people accuse me of supporting censorship because I didn't agree that everybody with an MFA ought to be publicly supported, so they can create whatever art they happen to want to create!

Avery, I don't consider Ehrman highbrow trash, because his books attempt to communicate -- they're polemic, and rather trashy polemic in places, but they don't have the defining feature of highbrow trash, which is that if you aren't an insider you have no idea what they're talking about. I don't follow theology closely enough to be able to suggest some highbrow trash for your consideration; maybe some of my Christian readers can help here.

Dudley, the best advice I ever got concerning learning to write came from science fiction editor George Scithers, who warned a room full of would-be SF authors that going to a university writing program was the last thing they should do. I've seen way too many people come out of such programs literally incapable of crafting a story that anybody would voluntarily read; I'm glad to hear that you escaped with your talent intact. Keep on writing, and I look forward to seeing your name on the back spine of a lot of good books.

Dfr2010, Lovecraft loathed the Herbert West stories; he considered them his one dip into lowbrow trash. Some of his other pieces (I'm thinking here of "The Hound" especially) stray very close to warhol territory, but he was genuinely interested in communicating with his readers; uneven as his work is, I see him as a genuine literary artist.

Esn, formalism is one part of it; of course Soviet socialist-realism artists went to the opposite extreme and made propaganda posters under the delusion that the meaning was all that mattered.

Leo, the two pieces you liked strike me as the kind of thing you'd want to have in a children's playspace; fun, but art? The rest, of course, was typical dog barf.

Daniel, Turner's certainly a good choice as a classic. Now you get the fun of finding a pair of trash pieces to pair it with.

Meg Tapley said...

JimK: Thanks for making this point. Not all great art is easily accessible. Many masterworks are able to communicate on whatever level their audience happens to be at, like the comics of Bill Watterson or the symphonies of Beethoven. But some are more challenging. They demand that the audience rise to their level, and therefore a casual observer might dismiss them as pretentious nonsense. Yet if you come to them with patience and an open mind, they reveal depth and meaning of their own.

It's interesting to study how socioeconomic status can affect people's artistic tastes - but Sturgeon's Law applies across the board. As noted by other commenters, even kitsch has its classics, and plenty of people do enjoy the music of Miles Davis and Phillip Glass.

I admit that I've never heard of anyone listening to Schoenberg for fun. Maybe someone does, but his work is mostly remembered for being a failed experiment - an innovative approach to composition that generally doesn't produce results anyone wants to listen to. Other fields surely have parallels.

Ynnothir Coll said...

While I have nothing to contribute to a discussion about art, you made a point that I found uncomfortably jarring. Regarding bad practices not only in art, but also in scholarship, you said:

"What defines lowbrow trash is that it rehashes the overfamiliar. It deploys stereotyped effects in stereotyped ways to evoke stereotyped sentiment."

I follow the curriculum of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, which you and the other Archdruids decided to provide free of charge on the AODA website. (Thank you.) Part of that curriculum calls for reading nine books on my local ecology. I made it through seven, at which point I found it necessary to find other ways to fulfill the spirit of the edict.

I could have stopped at two, really. My thought at the time was that every single book on the subject, in every local library, read like it was written for the approval of a single college professor. Your definition above cuts to the heart of it very succinctly.

Yes, the forests and wetlands of northern Indiana were destroyed long ago. Every book goes on and on about that, rehashing the overfamiliar, deploying a stereotyped effect in stereotyped ways to evoke stereotyped sentiment. Little mention is made of the fact that extensive swamps and marshes, and vast tracts of extremely mature hardwood forests, are unfit for human habitation.

By all means, let's make an effort to coexist wisely with our ecosystems, but these authors are all calling for a restoration of Indiana's original state, either explicitly or implicitly. Do they not understand what "restoration" means?

I'm happy that Indiana's conservation movement has, like me, survived this long from its birth in the '60s. In practice, good things are being done; former trash dumps are now wildlife sanctuaries (give 'em time), a lot of municipalities have composting programs, and many plots of private land are exempt from taxes provided they're left alone.

But, man, we could use some new books.

Karen said...

I hope that most of you realize that virtually any painting done since around 1400CE, in which you claim to appreciate because you’ve seen it in a museum somewhere, was made famous by the “elites” of the time it was created. That artist did something socially or visually innovative or provocative enough to become the Big Artist of their time. To show that they were “hipper than thou,” the patrons of that time embraced and promoted this new look. Read Michelangelo’s comments on the Dutch Master landscape painters. Read early reviews of any painting movement and the shrieks of horror are every bit as shrill as what one hears of abstract expressionism. This is how it has always been.

Also, keep in mind that you likely see only one or a few pieces of artwork from an artist or period. As someone who pretty much detests all sports, I don’t follow them if I can avoid it. Therefore I believe my commenting on a video of the merit of an athlete’s world breaking performance is a decent analogy. By your standards, I should be able to make really uninformed comments about how I don’t understand what the big deal is with winning 20+ Olympic medals or whatever and expect perfect equanimity from whoever hears me say that. Yet, if I walked into any sports bar in town right now, I would be told to keep my mouth shut because I didn’t know what I was talking about, or worse. How is that example different than people who spend very little time, making, looking at, thinking about or studying art feeling like they have equal insight to those of us who have literally spent our entire remembering lives being artists? Art is a very, very, old human endeavor. It has a context and a continuum, and it is not being elitist or Orwellian to point out that if you are going to criticize something of which you have little or no interest, then once in a while you will run across someone who is interested and they are going to ask you to explain yourself further. If you are thoughtful and not just reflexive in your answer, it likely will be appreciated and better yet, helpful.

John D. Wheeler said...

Long before I got to the homework assignment, my mind was already thinking about 20th century instrumental music. The examples of highbrow trash are voluminous, but I think none is quite as egregious as Max Neuhaus's interpretation of John Cage's Fontana Mix. I won't give the URL and be responsible for the exquisite pain induced, any true masochists can google it. Lowbrow trash is a bit harder; I think the movie scores of John Williams definitely have much lowbrow appeal, but I think they have enough redeeming value to be kept out of the trash category. I'm sure if I went through some soundtracks I could find imitators who deserve that classification. Figuring out what belongs in the canon is significantly harder; Stravinsky's Firebird Suite is one that I expect will hold up with time. One of the best instrumental movie soundtracks in my opinion is Ulysses's Gaze, which is almost an extended viola concerto in the form of a rondo.

John Michael Greer said...

G3 McK, no, quite the contrary. You get an Academy when the purveyors of highbrow trash get tired of the fact that nobody likes their stuff, and set out to take over the canon so they can put themselves into it. A canon in a healthy society doesn't require an institution to maintain it, because it's the expression of the society's sense of beauty, however tentative and idiosyncratic that happens to be, and no one person gets to say what is and isn't in it. As I said -- in so many words -- that a canon is always contested and always in flux.

Cassiodorus, congrats!

Space Seeder, if you paid attention to the sources of your own dislike of the book, and learned something about the strategy the author was using, you got one of the many possible points of the exercise.

Jay, good -- you've touched on another crucial issue, which is the self-defeating cult of originality in scholarship. I'll be talking about that down the road in a future post.

James, Tolkien isn't lowbrow trash, but one of the reasons he's so popular is that his tastes are relatively low of brow. Conan -- I don't think of Robert E. Howard as trash, either, though again, very low of brow. (If authors were whiskeys, Robert E Howard would be one of those old-fashioned bourbons that kicks your teeth out on the way down your throat.) Both authors were very good at what they did. There are many, many, many other fantasy authors who are much trashier. (Have you read the Brak the Barbarian stories of John Jakes? Oog.) As for "grimdark," that just means that modern fantasy has finally gotten around to wallowing in cheap sensationalism, the way literary fiction did in the 1960s. Yawn.

With regard to the postmodernists, yep. I've seen the tools of postmodernism used constructively a few times, but most of it's highbrow trash on the grand scale, and quite a bit of it is warhol.

Jo, exactly. Exactly.

Eric, funny. If you see any of the hipsters who are trying to dress like you, look down your nose at them and say, "You paid way too much for those clothes, and it shows. Tacky, really tacky." Then walk away. The results will be entertaining.

Angus, of course there are things missing -- this is a blog post, not a book. I'm going to challenge your first point, though. Bureaucratization is only an issue because bureaucrats pay big money for dog barf. Why? I covered that.

James, I used to think of Tolkien's books as masterpieces. At this point I'd put The Lord of the Rings in the same category as Gone With The Wind, a work that got its reputation because it expresses certain very popular sentiments in a way that harmonizes with certain very popular prejudices. I could be wrong, but it'll probably be for the future to decide on the status of both works.

Talon, excellent! Exactly; because the bread is good, the baker doesn't need to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for it -- he simply sells it to people who like it.

Ozymandius, only because one of my other readers posted a comment on it. It does sound like a world-class flustered cluck.

Mike said...

The thing about the urinal or the Brillo Pad box is estrangement, de-familiarization, or "re-enchantment." If mundane things that you don't normally look at / think about are put in a different context (in a gallery labeled "art"), then a you may see them with fresh eyes. "I never looked at it that way," is the aimed-for response. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But the basic idea of prodding people to see familiar things in new ways is definitely one of the accepted traditional functions of art; this is one way to do that.

The parable of abstract expressionists as con artists: There's a great tradition of cartoonists poking fun at modern art with this basic idea. Traditionally – up until the mid-20th century anyway – cartoonists largely spoke from and to the working class. So, to many of them, it was natural to see “modern art” as a con, and to portray modern artists as pulling wool over the eyes of upper-class rubes. Is it thus in real life? Sure seems like it sometimes! On the other hand, none of the abstract artists I’ve known personally thought of themselves as con artists.

Sometimes to appreciate art, it helps to know the historical, social, cultural (and sometimes, biographical) context. Even if it seems empty to you, then you can understand why it moved other people.

In experiencing art, the viewer/reader brings a lot. Whatever forms and ideas are present in the art interact with ideas, feelings, experiences in the viewer's mind. The experience is different for each person; the viewer adds meaning. As a writer, I'm sure you know this: the reader adds background details, scenes that happen off-stage between the written scenes, backstory, etc. So, when you say there's no "there" there in abstract expressionist painting, that's true for you, but someone else may still get a lot out of it. What you get out of art depends partly on what you bring to it. When your readers urge you to stand in front of a Rothko painting and listen for your deep feelings, they're saying that because they did it and it worked for them – they felt something profound. You didn't – but that only means you didn't get anything from the painting; it doesn't mean that it's not possible to get something from it. Humans have an amazing capacity to find patterns, and meaning, where they aren't obvious.

Mike said...

Varieties of art serve as "standards," not in the sense of exemplars of excellence, but in the sense of banners for certain social groups to gather 'round. They symbolize group membership. As such, art’s sometimes intended (by its buyers if not its creators) to be offensive, off-putting, or indecipherable to outsiders. This can apply equally to abstract art and to the paintings of dogs on velvet. Music tastes also serve this function, of course.

What gets included in canons is partly random and arbitrary – a matter of what happens to catch on early with a group. There was an experiment where several separate groups of young people were exposed to the same set of songs and rated them , then re-rated them after seeing how each song was assessed by their peers in the group (each group unaware of the other groups). Different songs became highly-rated in each group, depending on how they happened to do early on in that group. So much of this kind of thing is contingent.

Not all alleged trash, low or high, is really trash. If it has meaning to you, it’s not trash to you. Don’t be reluctant to value it (and not just as a silly diversion) just because someone else considers it trash; if it's meaningful and rewarding for you, provokes real feelings or interesting thoughts in your mind, has depths you see that others don't, then it's real art for you. Have that opinion, and express it freely! Don't be afraid or ashamed to appreciate and value art just because someone insists it's trash (lowbrow or highbrow). There may be meaning there that others are missing (some, you’re bringing to the table yourself). And conversely, if something looks like silly "emperor's clothes" to you, say so! Even if it's something the high-status opinion-leaders love.

Robert Honeybourne said...

The clever thing is being able to tell what will be in the canon from what is being done now: looking back is easy(er)

I have been to modern art galleries where the (modern) building has been more beautiful than the art...

If you take the view that a work of art is a thing that reflects the culture back to society so that it can be seen, I think you have to take a rather different view of abstract and modern art - especially the animals in tanks or piles of bricks. I think they truly do reflect back to us where we are!

Myself, I like French impressionists, and Renoir in particular - it's being 'drawn in' as though the space between you and the scene disappears that I like. It doesn't happen often, but it is lovely to be captivated or entranced

John Michael Greer said...

Samwich, you might consider giving it a try. Spend the next year or so paying close attention to the most nose-in-the-air end of the avant-garde art world, and then get a dog with a weak stomach and go for it. Arrogant pretense and a good mastery of the appropriate buzzwords can take you very, very far these days.

Pinku-Sensei, how fascinating. I know precisely nothing about drum and bugle corps (corpses? How do you pluralize that?) as an art form, and it's intriguing to learn that the same patterns play out there, too.

Dylan, good. One of the important steps in developing a personal sense of taste is realizing that there can be good points in very bad works, and bad points in very good ones. Another is realizing that you do need to find your own reasons for what you like and dislike, rather than just nodding and agreeing with your friends!

Patricia, funny! I have a copy (and translation) of the Oharae no Kotoba in a book of Shinto prayers and devotions; I'll reread it.

Owen, why not study them and make your own decisions?

Dennis, no, there aren't many comfortable log chairs in the world, and if you've built one, you've accomplished something.

AA, hmm! That's an interesting point, and I think a case can be made for middlebrow trash. I'll consider adding it to the analysis.

NomadsSoul, that's certainly a workable analysis, for that matter.

Carl, oh, I do love art. That's one of the reasons I detest framed dog barf.

Will, keep your rough edges. They're worth having!

David, Dune's a classic. It pushed the boundaries of the genre in a highbrow direction, but the genre responded by moving with it, to the extent that the sort of intellectual content you find in Dune was all over SF in the 1970s. That's one of the hallmarks of a classic -- it's one of the books that defines or redefines its genre, the way that Jane Eyre redefined the romance or Dracula completely transformed the Gothic-horror genre into modern supernatural horror.

As for being willing to get on a bus with -- gasp! -- poor people, excellent! That in some ways is the most important thing an aspiring politician can do right now, because those people on the bus are the silenced ones in American public life today, the people who have been excluded from our collective dialogue and whose interests no one speaks up for. Listen to them, learn from them, figure out how to appeal to them, and I'll look forward to attending your gubernatorial inauguration not too many years down the road!

Candace said...

The segment of the art world that most bothers me is fashion. I have no idea why some of the "looks" on a runway are considered so desirable. There is a famous brand of purses that has its own store in my local mall. These things can cost half of my yearly paycheck and they are so hideously ugly.

A painting or decoration is something you can choose to do with out, but clothing is't optional. Even trying to make your own clothes can be a challenge be cause the fabrics n fashion can be so ugly too.

Used clothes can be a challenge because people only give stuff they like away when it's worn out. Otherwise you can tell why someone gave away particular items of clothing. I exaggerate occasionally I'm the beneficiary of someone actually losing weight I a diet and they decided to give away their fat wardrobe. :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Steven, good! In your place, I'd probably have gone for Caravaggio rather than Cezanne, but that's merely my personal taste.

Steve, both of the times I've visited the Chicago Art Institute were also during train layovers -- I make a beeline there when I have the chance -- and that's one of the places where I simply avoid the whole modern art wing. What a splendid collection of non-dog barf pieces they have!

JimK, of course. The challenge is in learning to appreciate the new without being decoyed by dog barf. That's one of the virtues of a canon, as it gives you a basis for making such judgments. As far as I can tell, btw, Derrida is pure warhol.

Chris, no, there I have to say you're quite wrong. Highbrow trash gets the literary awards and lowbrow trash makes the most money, but there are a lot of people who read neither one. I'm watching the new deindustrial-SF magazine Into the Ruins, which is mildly highbrow and not trash at all, attract an enthusiastic and steadily growing audience, for example. The trick is to realize that there are entire publishing worlds out there that don't get into the New York Review of Books or the supermarket book stands, that there are a lot of people who already inhabit those worlds -- and that they're eager for new writers willing to give them good interesting books. I encourage you to reconsider, and give it a try!

Posted, hmm! I'll put Becker on the get-to list.

Mon Seul Desir, we'll have to disagree about Bouguereau. I admit his technical proficiency, which was stunning, and his portraits are extraordinarily good -- have you seen any of those? Worth a trip. Let him loose on a mythological theme, though, and to my eye he looks kitschy. Still, it may just be a matter of personal taste.

Jeanne, exactly.

Rita, Nazi art was the apotheosis of lowbrow trash. In Weimar Germany, the same sort of schism we've got in American culture was all over the place, with the soi-disant sophisticates looking down their noses in absolute contempt at ordinary Germans and ordinary Germans returning the favor with gusto. The Nazi Party was the political equivalent of a velvet Elvis painting, for that matter, and once it took power lowbrow trash was the order of the day. It's precisely when the middle ground is abandoned and everything is either highbrow or lowbrow trash that the sort of catastrophe that happened in Germany after 1933 is most likely to happen.

Tidlösa, I think a dog threw up on that poor goat!

Cherokee, thank you. That sentence is a keeper; I may use it in a future post when I talk about the importance of clear writing as a way to clear thinking.

Lucretia, your friends who are talented artists are in a real bind, due in large part to the maldistribution of income in the US. All the people who have money are into dog barf, and the people who don't like dog barf don't have money for art. That's one of the many reasons why a large, thriving middle class is good for a society -- it provides a large market for unpretentious art.

Hawkcreek, good. That will certainly do for a first approximation.

Esn said...


""Art," of whatever stripe, has only ever existed through the support of capitalists, be they Kings, who get their money by screwing the pesantry, or the 1%, who get their money by screwing the other 99%."

You're wrong about this. Folk art, in whatever culture, has tended to be supported by the commoners, not the elites. Around the White Sea, Pomor fishermen used to take along someone who could sing/tell the old historical bylinas (ballads) out on their boats, and he'd get a share of the catch despite doing no other work. The klezmerim made a living by playing at weddings and other public gatherings. Many other examples. All that has historically been required is a society with surplus food to give. In many other cases, people have made art for their own benefit: for example, barge-haulers and sailors singing to keep a steady rhythm going, and make the journeys less tedious. Another example: in many parts of Russia, shepherds who knew how to play a shepherd's horn (which they used to communicate with the cows) were paid more than those who didn't. Besides the work-specific horn calls, they would also learn to play melodies for their own delight. When groups of them gathered together, they would form ensembles, and eventually a steady tradition of ensemble playing was created. It sounds like this, if anyone is curious:

Alexandra said...

I'm amazed that last week's story engendered so much argle-bargling. I guess I'm a hopeless Philistine, but when I read the protagonist's distaste for the modern art in the embassy office, while I share his opinion of abstract expressionism, I just assumed it was also bad art. I mean, when have you ever seen good art in a government office? I'm sure embassies can afford a better class of art than the government offices I've had the misfortune to visit, but abstract expressionism sounds like exactly the sort of innocuous, intellectually-lazy artistic cop-out bureaucrats would love. I imagine they would choose the most mediocre exemplars too.

If I may offer my unsolicited literary review, regardless of one's own artistic preferences--which are irrelevant to Retrotopia anyway (!)--I thought the scene was well-crafted to convey a lot of mood and information in a brief passage. I could perfectly envision that office, with its tacky, banal art and all the beauty and feeling of an iProduct (which is to say, none), and how our hero's view of it had transformed.

For this month's homework, I am revisiting (in memory and internet) one of my favorite places to go as a child, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA. It was the site of my first experiences of highbrow trash, and where I realized that most contemporary art is a con job. Anyway my first highbrow trash encounter was a piece titled "Carolyn's Bag" in the contemporary art wing. It was just a small leather handbag with some books in it. My mom, whose name happened to be Carolyn, happened to have an identical bag at home, very possibly with a similar stack of books in it. I think we made some joke about how our money worries were over, now that we knew we had fine art at home. (Sadly I could not find a picture of the piece and I don't know the artist's name.)

The lowbrow trash: Any of Mel Ramos' really dated nudes lounging on junk food, let's say "Five Flavor Frieda" ( I have some doubts here, I admit; Ramos' paintings seem to be masquerading as highbrow--I mean, they're in museums...but then again some were also in Playboy. I could always go for Thomas Kinkade here or Amy Brown, but those are so easy. I'm trying to make this a little more challenging by sticking to one venue. Still I realize that a museum is likely to be a bit light on the lowbrow examples, but lowbrow can get elevated to highbrow and passed off as "irony". Well, if nothing else there are some Norman Rockwells at the Crocker I believe.

Finally for the classic, I'm going to go out on a limb a bit and rather than suggesting a time-tested artwork from days of yore, I propose the works of David Ligare, e.g., "Penelope" ( They are recognizably modern, but employ classic Impressionist themes and techniques and would make fine company for works by Cezanne or Caillebotte, for example. Yet there's a hint of the Symbolist and even the Expressionist there too. Will we be studying Ligare's paintings 500 years from now as we study Da Vincis today? Probably not. Yet I think "Penelope" can still sit comfortably within the extended family of canonical Western art.

Now I'm going to be attempting this exercise with other forms of art. It was fun, and trying to reason out why I put a piece in one category or the other is enlightening.

nuku said...

Re JMG’s post: Seems to me you are so much into riding your rocking horse named “objective value“ that you persist, against all textual evidence, in reading into/cherry picking anything however slight that might keep up the illusion that you are actually going anywhere with this tedious argument.

John Michael Greer said...

Anthony, that's an interesting analysis!

Owen, see my comment to your earlier bit.

Pygmycory, it's been my experience that a lot of people who gravitate to the really avant-garde stuff can't draw, or render a human figure in better than a five-year-old style, or do any of the other things that a competent artist used to be able to do as a matter of course. I respect Picasso because he learned the classical techniques and then chose, for his own reasons, to ignore them -- but there are too many well-paid artists these days who make ugly art because they can't do anything else.

Repent, you know the rules.

Five8Charlie, I won't argue, but my favorite example of sheer philosophical dog barf remains Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Schopenhauer insisted that it was deliberate fraud, a vast string of meaningless sentences marshalled to try to make Hegel look smarter than anyone else because nobody could understand it and everyone assumed he did, and I'm far from sure the old grouch of Frankfurt was wrong.

Jason, I'm not interested in a definition of art. I'm interested in encouraging individuals to develop a clear personal sense of aesthetic and intellectual taste.

Bob, good. Count on Kipling to have something relevant to say!

Tom, I'll take your word for it. I'm far from sure that in a double-blind test, anybody could actually tell the difference between a Jackson Pollock painting and a well-used studio dropcloth.

Marie, it's a marvelous definition, not least because it shows that Warhol was fully aware of the game he was playing!

Allan, and the thing is, the chimp paintings really were better than the others: less hackneyed, more original, more energetic and spirited. What that says about the quality of the other art on display -- well, I'll leave that to you to guess.

Matthew, that's the way the Neoplatonists interpreted him. Given his actual writings, though, I find that a stretch. I think he'd made the understandable but fatal mistake of confusing mental concepts with eternal realities -- a mistake that has been made enthusiastically many times since then.

Lew, interesting. I may need to read that.

Ozark, no, mere skill isn't enough to create a classic. There's a lot of technically accomplished kitsch out there. I'd say, though, that technical skill is the unavoidable foundation on which anything worthwhile has to be built. As for Vonnegut, I don't enjoy him at all, thus don't read him, and am therefore not the person to ask.

Karen, thank you for a thoughtful response. Yes, I'm quite familiar with the use of sacred geometry as a basic compositional principle in medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art and architecture. A facility with geometry, and a good solid grasp of its philosophical and mystical implications, was an essential part of an artist's training in those days. Are you familiar with Richard Padovan's book Proportion? Though I don't agree with some of his conclusions, it's a very good survey.

ed boyle said...


lowbrow trash- 'Like a Virgin'-Madonna
masterpiece-'dark side of the moon'
Highbrow trash(purposeful parody)white album-beatles

books-children's adventures
masterpiece-treasure island, peter pan
cooper-last of the mohicans-lowbrow trash
Alice in wonderland-highbrow/parody

Masterpiece-stranger in a strange land, heinlein, dune-herbert, solaris-lem

Religious lit.
masterpiece-job,mark, gita
High brow parody-revelations, gospel of john
low brow-fox's book of martyrs

Hamlet, oedipus rex-masterpiece
Low brow trash-rocky horror picture show
High brow trash-waiting for godot,no exit

philosophy, self help

high brow trash-being and nothingness
low brow-making friends and influencing people
Masterpiece-schopenhauer, kant, spinoza

High brow-ulysses(joyce), metamorphosis, the castle(kafka)
Low brow-moll flanders, great gatsby
Materpiece-vanity fair


Masterpiece-la gioconda
High brow-guernica(picasso),marilyn(warhol)

low brow-the scream- munch

Esn said...

"Soviet socialist-realism artists went to the opposite extreme and made propaganda posters under the delusion that the meaning was all that mattered"

The thing is, from what I gather, the anti-formalist sentiment and the emphasis on meaning (or at least, that good technique should always be put in the service of good meaning) was very much a popular view among the Soviet public, not simply a decree from on-high for propaganda purposes. Art that was both honest (realistic) and appealed to humanity's better nature - that was supposed to be the goal of socialist realism. Those ideals (not their faulty execution in Stalin's time, but the ideals themselves) seem to have been very broadly popular, and were embraced with renewed enthusiasm by the Soviet public after Stalin's death (and actually, even before, with the end of WW2). For example, here are a few quotes (translated from Russian by myself, for my thesis) from "Sredi nehozhennykh dorog, odna-moya", a collection of post-WW2 Soviet amateur "guitar poetry" songs (a roughly analogous phenomenon to Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, etc.):

"The aspiration to honesty, truthfulness, attention to the spiritual world of a person, which dominate [Soviet] amateur song, was formed precisely at that stage in the life of our society when the negative consequences of the cult of personality were revealed and started to be overcome - when a period of renewal came about, of quests and hopes, when the whole country became enveloped by an artistic uplift."

"But what makes a song live, why does it attract or not attract people? Must the music be good? Yes. The text? Yes. The performance? Yes. But then why is it not uncommon for songs that are seemingly straightforward in text and in melody to last for decades and centuries? The answer is that song represents the human soul laid bare (I am talking about real song), and it is with this quality that it attracts people. A person may show himself in a song to be manly, gentle, thoughtful, merry, sad, wrathful and so on, but must never show himself to be fake. Soulful insincerity and psychological falsehood kill a song. And neither an original melody, nor a refined text, nor a developed singing voice can then save it. How irritating are those other songs which are performed on the stage, on radio and television; those, which have not the smallest hint of true soulfulness!
During the evening meetings of the abovementioned club "Vostok," [a popular amateur song club] sociological surveys get carried out. For example: "what do you value in a song, what is it that you like in it?" It is characteristic that in the responses (and in the over two and a half decades of the club's existence several thousand of them have been collected) there is not one in which the song was loved "for the music" or "for the text". Those to whom the song is addressed tend to judge it as a synthetic work, primarily on the basis of what it carries, not how. This "how" is merely a means for carrying out the primary task."

As the author makes clear, more "officially-sanctioned" works could be seen by the public as being too "formalist"; masking their irrelevancy and dishonesty with good technique ("How irritating are those other songs which are performed on the stage, on radio and television"). Those surveys seem to indicate that antipathy to formalism was widespread among the public. So perhaps... it wasn't that Soviet socialist-realism artists went to any "extreme" under any "delusion" as you put it, but that the government adopted some genuinely publicly-popular ideas about art and used them as justification for their own goals whenever possible.

An analogous phenomenon existed in painting, too - I heartily recommend the book "Soviet Impressionist Painting" by Vern Swanson, which has plenty of examples.

John Michael Greer said...

WwoofBum, you might want to go learn what the word "capitalism" actually means, and then learn a little about the history of art. Your kind of attitude is the flipside of the posturing arrogance of the art world, and it's no less harmful.

Jo, I've heard interesting reviews of The Mandibles. Thank you for the comments on collapsing ahead of the rush -- that really does make a lot of difference!

Max, I mostly read books by dead people, so no, I haven't gotten to those yet.

Jbucks, of course! These days, artists in training get taught from day one that dog barf is good art, so it's by no means surprising that a lot of them do their best to come up with innovative, interesting dog barf. The point of the parable is the way that people suppress their own taste and common sense, and go along with the bullying and corrupt taste that dominates so much of the art world.

Sheila, I've long wondered what the people who provide goods and services to the absurdly rich think of the surroundings they work in. Thanks for confirming a guess.

Ynnothir Coll, interesting. That may be specific to your region; when I was doing the curriculum, in western Washington state, I had no problem finding a diversity of viewpoints. You might consider writing the book you want to read...

Karen, you're slipping into one of the bad habits that prevent artists from communicating with anyone outside the narrow confines of the art world: assuming that those who aren't full time artists are as uninterested and ignorant of art as you are of sports. That simply isn't the case, as a closer reading of the comments that irritated you will show. A large number of people in today's industrial nations care a great deal about art; they visit museums regularly, buy art books, and have original works and reproductions on their walls. (As you'll recall from our earlier exchange, my wife and I are two of these people, and we know quite a few others.) Such people resent the bullying they get from the art world when they express an opinion that doesn't involve the blind uncritical acceptance of whatever dog barf happens to be fashionable this week. If you and your fellow artists really do want to communicate with such people -- and in a healthy culture, they make up a significant fraction of the market for art, especially art produced by those who aren't superstars -- you need to remember that communication involves listening as well as talking, and be open to the possibility that what all these aesthetically and culturally literate people are saying might just be something that artists today need to hear.

John, good. Lowbrow trash instrumental music? My first suggestion would be to check out the more uninspired examples of TV show theme music, but that's just a guess.

Mike, if defamiliarization is art, then why do we need artists? We can just hire a seven-year-old to hang odd objects on walls, and get the same experience. In the same way, insisting that it's up to the individual viewer to bring to the work of art something that will make it meaningful is a copout. It used to be the job of the artist to evoke meaning, and a vast number of artists did that very, very well. Again, if it's all up to the viewer, we don't need artists; we can hire a chimp to splash paint across canvases, frame it, hang it on the wall, and project our own ideas of meaning onto it.

Robert, I don't agree that it's the mission of art to reflect our society back at us -- I think we all already know that the modern world is shoddy, overhyped, overpriced, and stunningly ugly. As for the canon, one basic rule is that if the artist is still alive, it's not canon. At least one generation needs to pass, and the immediate pressures of the moment give way to something else, before it becomes possible to judge whether a work of art is enduring or merely temporarily popular.

Candace, agreed! I have no idea why women put up with fashion.

jbucks said...

Thanks for your response! I wanted to quickly ask something else: you replied to a comment by Karen with: A facility with geometry, and a good solid grasp of its philosophical and mystical implications, was an essential part of an artist's training in those days. Are you familiar with Richard Padovan's book Proportion?

Do you know of other similar books that discuss proportion in terms of music? Thanks in advance!

John Michael Greer said...

Alexandra, excellent! Thank you for your comments on the passage from Retrotopia, and also for the Mel Ramos article -- oh, man, that's prime kitsch! Ligare, on the other hand, is impressive. I liked "Penelope" a great deal; if I ever get back to Sacramento, I may just make some time to see it in person.

Ed, okay, now go back, choose one set, and really explore the three works. Lists are easy; study is hard.

Esn, fascinating. I wonder if that's partly an echo of the importance of the ikon in Orthodox Christianity.

patriciaormsby said...

@Rita and LewisLucanBooks, I've seen the same phenomenon in Japan, and it probably occurs worldwide where people acquire enough spare cash to invest and spare time to investigate a few special fields. They turn to arts and antiques because they've already acquired some amount of real estate, and have been burnt to some degree with it and they see how rigged the stock market is. One dear friend, now deceased under suspicious circumstances, was an avid collector and thoroughly hated by his ex-wife and son for it. Upon retiring, he bought a sizable warehouse in a rural part of Tokyo to hold his masses of treasure. His final craze was antique teddy bears, but we suspect it was his bragging over his precious stone collection that did him in. He had lots of fun, but his adventures inspired others to aspire to his level of reckless stupidity. His son, as heir, turned the entire collection over to an antique dealer for a small sum, like $1000 or so, and this is not an uncommon phenomenon here. A TV show features people bringing in their priceless antique treasures that they hocked their kids' education fund for, knowing it was a bargain, and most of the time it turns out to be worth less than they thought, frequently less than they paid.

Esn said...


The thing that impressed me when browsing Vern Swanson's book was that many of the Soviet paintings in it, though somewhat boring in style, felt relatable, unpretentious and relevant (much like the "guitar poetry" also popular in those decades). Also, many of them were things that would not have been painted in the West at that time, particularly scenes of contemporary working lives. The artists tried to go out on in the field (sometimes on long expeditions) and paint the country around them, rather than sit in their studios working on their unique visions and styles, as was the tendency in the Western art departments at the time. They seemed to genuinely like doing it, too. It really was two very separate artistic worlds - and I'm not sure at all that the West picked the better side to support in that particular battle.

Ivan Lukic said...

Exact opposite of the canon is so called Judd's Dictum (named after American sculptor and writer Donald Judd): "if someone calls it art, it's art". Judd's Dictum has been discussed at length in the literature of Conceptual Art.

nuku said...

Fake collectables are alive, and presumably doing their job of parting fools from their money, here in New Zealand. Since I don’t as a rule read women’s mags, I only know that the ads populate magazines aimed at “seniors“.
In the world of furniture, fake rustic and fake Scandinavian are also alive and well patronised on the low-brow trash side.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, a small comment on your moratorium of posts concerning the American presidential race: in the grand scheme of things this blog is concerned with, it's not a really important thing, or is it?

Esn said...

@Mike, "Varieties of art serve as "standards,[...]"

I found this whole post of yours quite interesting, and it seems to me a good way of looking at things. Do you have a link to those studies you mentioned, though?

The idea of some group picking a deliberately ugly art to gather around so as to scare away outsiders - that seems to make a lot of sense, too.

Also, since a number of commenters here seem to have difficulty coming up with examples of lowbrow trash in music, might I recommend House? UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE-UNCE... :)

Sébastien Louchart said...


You have a knack to express things and summarize them with colorful words!
I think I'll come with my own translations of lowbrow trash and highbrow trash when I talk with my friends :D

I also wanted to participate to the site's homework. I don't have any meaningful examples for all of you because, well, I'm not that of a reader or an art enthousiast. However, some examples come to my mind and are from my trade.

In the field of software engineering, when it comes to choose whatever programming language that does the trick, there is a lot of fashion and irrational thinking. What would be considered canon are languages like Java or Python or even PHP/Javascript, everybody agrees they are general-purpose, pratical, have relatively sound foundations, are well-spread and, basically, do the job. For the lowbrow thrash end of spectrum, we have Rapid Application Development environments such as Delphi, Windev or Powerbuilder, used by "poor" IT services companies to do routine and menial jobs of implementing cheap basic business software. We can add Excel and its macro-language to the list. Those tools are frown upon many professionals precisely for being used by second grade small companies. On the other end of the spectrum, we have all the "hipster" languages whose practioners consider as "art" like Haskell, Eml and a full load of the same batch. There are mostly functional languages that popped out theoritical computer science labs and made their way to hipster programmers thanks to a few practionners who promote them the worst way possible (think of your climate change scientist from that post of yours).

Now for a precise focus on three works, let's take Python (canon but used to be HiBT), Excel/VBA (LoBT) and Haskell (the equivalent of abstract expressionism in programming languages, really dog's barf in the form of lines of computer code)

Creating a business application with Excel and VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) is cheap, easy (don't need 5 years of training and a master in comp sci) and, most of time, does the job. It's kind of eternal. Well, after a career of 20 years in the trade, I still encounter such pieces of software and some new ones are still being written. It's considered a hell to maintain and is thought to increase technical debt which to my own experience may be true because such solutions cannot scale company-wise. What make them real lowbrow trash is that small business owners and IT guy (who should know better anyway) often want and claim them to be kept as tools and methods for new developments.

The Python language is a multi-purpose language with a clear syntax, a sound mathematical foundation, a long history and a good track record at being an excellent tool for both education in software programming and design of software applications. For all of these reasons, it's considered what you labelled as canon by the community. It has drawbacks and other canon languages may be used instead but still.

The Haskell language is a functional language you can't fully understand without specific notion of functional programming that are high-end theoretical computer science. Don't get me wrong here, it's not a bad language, as any functional language it can prove very useful in some situations like any better well-spread Lisp dialect (Lisp is considered canon by the way). However, some aspects of the language are really difficult and its proponents (whom I suspect don't often understand all of it) have a great deal of overcomplexifying things just for the sake of it.

By the way, the Retrotopia story has been a thrill to me for months and it get better and better with each episode. I feel like a reader of a XIXth century newspaper waiting for his weekly dose of Alexandre Dumas (which is btw considered lowbrow trash in classical french literature in France). Would you ever consider expanding the story and publishing a novel as you did with Twilight's Last Gleaming?

Cheers from the other side.

Eric Backos said...

@ Travis Marshall – It gets worse. I’m a 48-year-old graduate student, and I usually wear work clothes to class. An undergraduate suggested that my look was “lumbersexual.” Another leapt to my defense, claiming that I was not a lumbersexual because I was not affecting the appearance.

@ JMG – In practice, a slightly embarrassed eyebrow raise is enough to communicate the tacky-tacky-tacky thought. I wonder about the iconography of workwear – fetish, kitsch, classic? Wishing for an economy that works is understandable, even if the manifestation is kitschy. The poem “To Be Of Use” by Marge Piercy might have been hippie kitsch in 1973, but seems relevant now. Conveniently, it is on

trippticket said...

Forgive me if this has already been posted, but I just found it yesterday and think it's a superb overlap of art and education that, I believe, nearly everyone in these halls will appreciate. I absolutely love it and will no doubt watch it again. Sir Ken Robinson Changes the Paradigm:

Cheers, my friends.
Tripp out.

Shane W said...

So, does this mean you won't be doing any more posts on the election? It's such a fun spectacle, though, and I thought you enjoyed it as much as anyone. There's no accounting for taste, as you said in the Trump post. Besides, your Trump post was your all time highest, most viewed post...

DaShui said...

This is just to let everyone know there are some fantastic recent interviews of our humble host posted at you tube. I assume JMG is to bashful to promote himself.

RCW - said...

Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” - G.K. Chesterton

It seems to me that anytime a judgment is made about any art form or anything else for that matter, that the mirror principle takes its place front and center. Simply put, this principle postulates that when we view an object and deem it to be good or bad, it is merely reflecting back what is deep inside us because the object itself just is.

For example, when we see "purple mountains majesty", they are reflecting our own inner majesty, beauty, tranquility, etc. Speaking only for myself (and what frightens me) is the other side of this double-edged sword rears its ugly head when I must see/hear Harridan MacBeth, the current red team nominee, and find despicable her avarice, mendacity, malevolence, etc, meaning her faults are reflecting my own deeply buried & sublimated ID the Beast.

WwoofBum said...

Capitalism, according to most of the definitions I've found, refers to an economic system in which economic decisions are made by "private" individuals, rather than public ones (like governments). What would you call an economic system in which excess labor and resources (excess above that which is required by the producers of labor and the extractors of resources for their immediate needs - "needs" as defined by Maslow) are converted into "capital" (which is then used to procure more excess labor and resources)?

There was a time (long ago) when art was produced by individuals who felt a compulsion to spend their leisure time (time not required for the exercise of labor needed to extract the resources necessary to meet their needs) decorating their cave walls or carving their mastodon tusks with something that felt significant to them.

Then the "system" came along (call it "excessism" if you don't like "capitalism"). People, not surprisingly, felt they would feel more secure if they could have a bit of excess hidden away to carry them through the hard times. Then, they needed someone to guard their excesses from others who would take them by force instead of producing their own excess. Then the guards started to feel they "deserved" their positions, and insisted that they should not have to labor, along with their fellows, in order to produce the excess.

Then the guards looked at the pretty things produced by those who had the compulsion to do so, and decided that the pretty things were simply another resource to which they deserved access without putting in any of their own labor. So they started giving some of the excess resources they were guarding to the people who produced the pretty things so that they would use their labor to produce pretty things instead of producing excess resources to meet needs of the hard times.

And they have been doing it ever since. And the artists (for the most part) have collaborated with them (since it means they can spend their time producing pretty things instead of shovelling...). And the artists, over time, have responded to the "art market" by ever more esoteric definitions of art, in order that their own pretty things would have more "value," and therefore be more deserving of the excess resources produced by the shovellers that were being held by the guards.

At least, that is the way I see it.

RCW - said...

Oops, make that the blue team; regrettably, I frequently suffer from and am prone to being too clever by half. :(

Owen said...

As a Modest Proposal, I would humbly suggest putting non-toxic coloring into a *cat* instead of a dog. Cats barf much more easily and frequently than dogs do, in my experience. Plus cats are all the rage right now and anything cat gets much more attention than anything dog. And if you're going to make trashy art, you're obviously an attention seeker. Otherwise why do it at all?

You could even film the cat barfing and call that art.

Or why subject the parts of the animal kingdom that seem to like us humans to our perverted pleasures? Why not just eat the coloring yourself and then put your own fingers down your own throat?

Or, if you're a crazy feminist woman - no need to do anything but go on your period and then stand over the canvas. Unfortunately, this has been done quite a few times already and is quickly on its way to becoming trite.

David, by the lake said...


Re your response to WB, folks accusing you of supporting censorship b/c you don't agree with the notion that all MFA graduates should be supported at public expense is akin to the assertions that you are a climate change denialist b/c you claim that the green technotopia isn't going to happen. Where do people even get this stuff?

Re your reply concerning politics and bus-riding. Yes, that thought had occurred to me. I've had a number of good conversations over these last few days, most recently regarding news that a major employer is shipping jobs over to PA. The slow grind of descent is getting evident here, if you know where to look and how to interpret what you see.

I will be making another run for city council in the spring, but I don't know about ever going above the county board level. I don't think that the state legislature would know what to do with me, even if I could get elected. And as for an executive office...well, I ain't no Fred Halliot ;)

Peter said...

I live in Grand Rapids, and have been able to watch the ArtPrize drama unfold here over the years. The jurors have always had their own pick, but was only a small 5k prize category compared to the 250k prize chosen by the public. As those in charge started to realize that the winner was only going to be works with the largest common denominator (and thus tended to favor bland, but technically skilled works and would eventually devolve into only lowbrow and middlebrow entries) they began to up the juror's category, until it equaled the grand prize. This change began in earnest after the public overwhelmingly chose a stained glass "Surfer Jesus" that was very skillfully done, but quite kitschy, and the art students that created highbrow trash were given a reason to keep competing. It's no secret here that most of the Juror's selections have very little foot traffic and even fewer votes; the category and its winners are commonly seen as being irrelevant to the actual event (very well attended, with people from all over the country and some international tourists, apparently) and mostly as the Academy's snub to what people actually like. All previous winners can be seen on the website.

To Avery, I would recommend John D Caputo for your highbrow trash, as he follows quite firmly in the postmodern footsteps of Derrida and seems unaware that he speaks only to a small circle of pseudo-religious academics. His smallest and most accessible work is a little book called "On Religion" in which he redefines religion into irrelevancy. One of his students, Peter Rollins, has some similar works, but they tend more to the middlebrow trash as they speak to aspiring-academics (and, IMHO, have more theological merit).

Caryn said...

Wow, I'm actually surprised the disagreeing comments on such a minor point hit so hard! A whole week's essay on 'What is Art, or what is trash"? I do wish I had more time this week to read and respond to more comments!

I don't recall anyone last week saying you didn't have a right to your opinions or that you were afraid or intimidated by modern art, modern materials, etc. I must have read those differently. I'm just really surprised at your reaction, JMG!

Of course there is an "Academy", (as Karen says, there always has been in one form or another since the dawn of complicated societies) telling the population what is good, what is trash, what THEY like is what everyone should like. Almost every piece or movement of visual art that we now canonize were in their own times breaking away from the chains of those Doyens of taste. Modern art, however one defines it, is no different.

As to Abstract Expressionism - I guess it's worth restating that IMHO, It is a car close to the end of the train, filling up the last of the notional space in visual artists' exploration of the absolute mania over Sigmund Freud's ideas on the human Psyche and subconscious. The whole of the 20th Century was really changed and shaped by these ideas, the Art world no less. It's actually ironic, funny and infuriating that the whole point of Abstract Expressionism is to break away from any proscribed Academy and connect with a viewer in the most basic way. So that ANY human can connect with it without being told how to react. (whether or not it is successful is another story, I personally still think it was a worthwhile endeavor to have tried.) Their is no right or wrong answer - If you like it you like it, if you don't, you don't. So the irony is that like kudzu, the arbiters of taste have grown over and taken over this form as well, and used it's very openness as the velvet rope barring entry to anyone who "doesn't get it".

Using the barest, simplest tools in the artists box, (just color, shape, texture, line…) blobs of color together - WITHOUT a definite subject. The point of forgoing a subject, (It's not a picture of a house, a sea, a horse…) is that we all have preconceived prejudices over those things and well, pretty much everything else we know. We either like or dislike horses already - so we will 'react' with that prior knowledge and feeling. Again: the experiment of engaging in a reaction without those things, to see if you can connect on some more visceral, primal level - like my little students watching in rapture the colors swirling down the drain as they wash out their paint pallets and buckets.

As for the challenge: Yes, I find it much more challenging to do than representational art, (and frankly less gratifying) because there is no anchor. Representational art is dead-easy to work with in terms of balance, proportion, etc. because the subjects are like anchors - they tell you what and where things must go in relation to each other on a canvas. The blobs of color - if you try to make the red or blue blob the anchor - the painting looks stiff, forced and contrived. It doesn't have that free floating 'swirling' down the drain' fun feeling. If you just try to rely on a happy accident - it's very unlikely the proportion and balance will end up in a pleasing composition. In class, I would tend to have the kids do an abstract expressionist painting as a background, then the next week they would study and work on architectural draftings of a temple, boat or something very tight and orderly - then the 3rd week - collage them together. The older kids always found, (as did I) the abstract bit the hardest by far. I ended up using those Hubbel telescope photos of star nurseries to help us.

Donald Hargraves said...

My Examples, from seventies and early eighties Rock (the last era I can say I followed the mainstream enough to know what I'm talking about):

• Lowbrow: Anything Early Kiss.
• Highbrow: Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans
• Classic: ChangesBowieOne (Yes it's a "Greatest Hits" album, but it's the one Greatest Hits album that makes it onto lists and it's the one greatest hits album that sticks with me when all the others get/got sold back or consigned to recorded cassette status).
• Kitsch/Warhol: Anything from "Weird Al" Yankovich

Caryn said...


Please be clear: In this I am simply trying to explain the intent. If you or any reader still disregards the whole thing outright. That's perfectly fine.

Incidentally: I am a bit surprised you didn't use Conceptual Art or even graffiti, (Abstract Expressionism is really old hat, even today!) that fills galleries these days. Conceptual art IMHO really is the caboose of this train. The concept, the meaning ascribed to the piece by Art Theorists is the main point - not the artwork itself. So the Gatekeepers have pretty much discarded the need for the artists altogether. That's where you get the urinal on the wall (and not the Duchamp humorous trolling one), or a sloppy string of shabby Christmas lights drooping in a white room = ART!!

As for the homework: Yippy!

But Hey People! Why the hate for Norman Rockwell? I personally love him. He captures the humanity, the internal emotion of every character/figure he paints with gentle understanding. (So if he is low-brow, he is my choice.)

For the same reason, Leonardo Da Vinci's "Madonna Of The Rocks" is my Classical choice. That painting makes me weep with the soulfulness captured in the figures. Just sublime.

High-brow trash that I like. Wow. Too many to choose from, so maybe I'll go with the most Warholian - old Andy himself. The Brillo Pad boxes and Campbell soup cans, Marilyn, Liz and Elvis times-6. He was definitely trolling the high brows of the art world, but also the overbearingly ubiquitous commercialism that (again like kudzu) had grown over the art world and the whole society at the time. * A commercialism incidentally that was begat also with the advent of Sigmund Freud's ideas - brought to the world by his nephew, Edward Bernaise. I find these connections really interesting.


Avery said...

JMG, I think Karen has a point: new artists and modes of art were, traditionally, discovered and funded by the elites. Which is why today's elites attempt to distinguish themselves by creating artificial scarcity for highbrow trash. The Andy Warhols of the world -- I would include Damien Hirst and Duchamp's readymades in this -- make themselves iconic by creating such obviously ridiculous work that the joke is on the elites who buy it. They are often quite open about doing so.

There are quite a few good books written on how technology has totally transformed our concepts of art and literature. On the invention of highbrow trash, there's Tom Wolfe's book The Printed Word. On the idea of what is lost through mass reproduction (in defense of the highbrow in general), there's Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. On what is gained through mass reproduction, there's Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy, which is notable for predicting the Internet in 1962. And of course, on the question of who makes art now that everything is available to everyone, there's José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses. I recommend any of these books to anyone who is feeling less confident about their own artistic tastes as a result of this discussion :)

aaa said...

I'm sure I'm not the first to point this out, but art is as much about people as it is about aesthetics. So consider this:

Start by accepting the classification into lowbrow trash, classics, and highbrow trash. Now consider that it is the ambition of artists to make progress in the world of art. Some may wish to do this through classics, but some may wish to invent new directions. Whether a genuinely new direction will be fruitful -- will develop over time into an "classic" aesthetic -- is not going to be known when it is first invented. This will come out to you as highbrow trash (and some of it really is).

Or I can make it even shorter, since some of JMG's characters seem to like jazz. There are people to whom *that* is highbrow trash, and others for whom it is lowbrow trash. (respectively, a lot of "ordinary people", and not a few classical musicians).

Farka said...

That was a thought-provoking post, especially with the ambiguities you left (deliberately?) in the definitions. It seems to me that it's a question of purpose: lowbrow trash is made for comfort/pleasure, highbrow trash for status signalling, and non-trash for communicating understanding. Of course, that means that a lot of intrinsically good art can also be used as one or both sorts of trash, depending on a person's level of understanding and interests. And it means that the classification can equally be extended to religiousness, if not to religions - the temptation to make religion a security blanket or a way of showing off is pretty pervasive.

For linguistics, three examples that strike me as unproblematic are:
Lowbrow trash: Merritt Ruhlen
Highbrow trash: Jerry Fodor
Canon: Saussure

But a lot of the big names of the field (Chomsky, for one, along with his most vocal opponents) seem to be engaged in a double game - genuinely trying to advance understanding, but at the same time status-signalling to an extent that leads them to grossly overhype fairly flimsy hypotheses. Borderline cases like that seem more typical than full-fledged highbrow trash.

william fairchild said...


Well, I reckon you irritated most everyone, on both sides of the divide, with this essay. Good job!

My Dad, who raised 4 kids, two of whom turned out to be musicians, used to mutter to himself, "Musicians, damned musicians. Always walking around with their heads on cloud nine.", when he was particularly annoyed with my brothers. The same can be said for visual artists, I've raised three. From crayons, to pastels, to colored pencils, to graphite, to digital art tablets, the girls are always doodling something.

One of them is going through an anime phase, God help me.

I don't pretend to "know anything" about art. I just like what I like. I don't care for abstracts. The only one I did like was "Tear Out You Heart and Howl At The Moon" which my mother in law painted 20 plus years ago when she was going through a divorce. I still have that painting. In fact, both her, her sister, and my wife's cousin are all artists, as are my daughters. I think there is a bad gene on her side of the family. Probably Norweigian. I can say that confidently, since I have Swedish heritage. ;)

Again, I don't get too wound up about what is acceptable. I just like what I like, and to hell with the critics.

As to the homework, in dystopian fiction, one might check out either Hunger Games or Divergent as lowbrow, A Clockwork Orange as highbrow (I find it a totally unreadable mess) and Earth Abides as a classic. But that's just my two cents, I could be wrong.

Anthony Burgess fans, fling those arrows of outrage...

Patricia Mathews said...

Some random thoughts:

(1) Science fiction high-brow trash is of two sorts. That written by sf writers trying to be highbrow, as in the New Wave stiff mentioned previously; and that written by lit-critters reinventing the wheel. For s/f fans, I suggest (re)reading Heinlein's REVOLT IN 2100 and following it with Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE. If Atwood's novel were a bit less pretentiously written, it would be the perfect prequel to the Heinlein tale, written 40 years later. More amusing in a bitter sort of way was Atwood's earlier reactions to those who wanted to put her up for a Hugo. "It is NOT science fiction! There are no spaceships or robots in it!"

(2) There is a difference between low-brow trash, and fluff. Georgette Heyer's Regency comedies of manners are fluff. Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mysteries, set in 1920s Australia, are fluff. You can tell the difference by watching the first two seasons of Miss Fisher's Mysteries on DVD - Phryne Fisher's world made acceptable to the Australian viewing audience. i.e. the overfamiliar, comfortable cliches of lowbrow trash. Hey, it's TV! Later, the writers realized who their following actually was, and went back to her thread of social criticism. But still kitsched up her love life!

(3) The "girl cooties" factor. Romance novels, especially. Lois Bujold has pointed out at length that the basic romance theme is actually quite important - that of getting the next generation born and raised - but the treatment of that theme has lent itself to a lot of lowbrow trash being written. But it's all lumped together because the theme is "trivial, fluffy grrrl stuff about loooove." Likewise the pejorative "chick lit," into which you can actually toss Jane Austen if you so desire. (Kipling knew better.)

(4) I never understood the appeal of poetry until I heard some of it set to music. Then it clicked. For Kipling fans, I recommend 2 CDs by Leslie Fish, which turned me onto poetry. Likewise, Shakespeare is marvelous when well staged or filmed, when on the printed page I'd have to dig for the gems.

Speaking of highbrow trash that isn't - the New York Times (a freebie at my local coffee shop) had a review of a "Troilus and Cressida" staged as a modern "quagmire" war - which the Siege of Troy was! - and Cressida, not as faithless and fickle, but in survival mode behind enemy lines. To me, that makes perfect sense: many of his plots are timeless. If the NYT likes is and it makes sense to the likes of me, is it highbrow trash? Or a really good interpretation?

Martin B said...

Low brow: A beach scene with horses running through the waves backlit by a setting sun.

High brow: A pile of bricks on the floor of the Tate Gallery, hailed by the art critics; most other stuff in the Tate (this was in the 1970s)

Classic: I was in an art museum in Amsterdam admiring the Van Goghs and Rembrandts when I wandered into the modern section. One room had bare white walls with nothing on them. In the middle of the room was a low platform covered with a metal plate. At one end of the metal plate stood a mystery machine that looked like a pile of junk welded together, with cog wheels, cranks, chains, motors, and one big red button.

I looked around. No one about. I pushed the big red button.

The machine groaned into life and with much squeaking and grinding hauled its way painfully across the metal plate, thrashing the chains down loudly on the plate as it moved.

I of course was panic-stricken at making so much noise in an art museum. I pushed the red button repeatedly to make it stop. I looked for an off switch or a plug to pull out. No dice. The machine moved on, inexorable, only stopping when it reached the other side of the platform.

It was only half way when I ran out of the room so I wouldn't get apprehended for causing a commotion.

Then I stopped and realized that was the whole point. It was saying something about the museum experience. I snuck back and watched from a doorway as an American backpacker came in, looked around, and pushed the big red button. I'm pleased to say he ran away even quicker than I did.

PRiZM said...

Off topic but interesting non-the-less. In the past month, two US airlines have had computer outages resulting in thousands of delays and cancellations. It's not getting a lot of coverage, and no one seems to think anything of the fact that this has happened now twice within such a short time frame. Surely this is a sign..

Delta Airlines Outage
Southwest Airlines Outage

PRiZM said...

On a more related note, I had an excellent opportunity this evening while having an English Corner class which coincidentally delved into this very topic, to test the reaction of adults and one 10 year old student to some of Andy Warhol's art. Most adults knew who Andy Warhol was and made some comment about how his art was trying to say something, but the 10 year old, especially after seeing some artwork with hand-prints said "that's something any five year old could do." This does just go to further what JMG said, that there definitely are ways to measure the quality of art.

Johnny said...


I find some “dog barf “ painting interesting because it actually sometimes is like dog barf and I’ll connect to it as a process of nature. More typically I’ll get this feeling from nature itself in puddles and debris, but sometimes I find that sort of expression of simple forces beautiful. I don’t think it exists (or it’s creators) on some higher plane than other art though, I’m ok to place it on a very low spot but still find enjoyment in it some times.
I should say I am an artist of sorts, I taught myself to draw and went to an art college, but it was much more trade oriented (why I chose there over university – a decision I am still thankful for decades later) and so my teachers would actively discourage you from being impressionistic and I always focused on representation and improving that skill set. I have a lot of respect for proper painting and like you find myself captivated for long periods of time at some of the unbelievable works people painted and valued in the past.

I also agree with you about Warhol, I remember laughing out loud once watching an interview with him where they asked him why he had moved from painting to film, he said, “because it’s easier,” he liked how you just had to push one button. That feeling became sort of the kernel for a band I formed a few years ago as a joke that is similarly lazy and comedic. People really respond to us, which is strange, but there’s this funny interaction when I try to explain what we are doing (being intentionally awful) compared to what they think we are doing which is usually push music forward in some way. We don’t play often, maybe a couple times a year, but I keep it up because it doesn’t take any work, and performing it puts me in a really strange state that I enjoy, somewhere between being incredibly embarrassed and self aware, and an almost childish giddiness that I don’t really experience at any other time. It’s so overwhelming for me that I find it pushes all other thoughts out of my head and that alone is worth wasting an evening on for me. People keep wanting us to record the music, but we’ve always declined because it doesn’t make any sense to us.

I really enjoyed this post anyway!

Johnny said...

Oh, also I thought this was interesting when it happened. Couldn't find Wei Wei's response to it, but he was not similarly amused:

Karen said...

I’m confused, listening is precisely what I want to do. Yet if I reply to an art description in a tone similar to how it was written, I’m a spluttering bully? If I raise a geeky art question that comes from being an artist, then I’m elitist, a sequestered insider? I don’t think I’ve implied uncritical acceptance, ever, because I can and have trashed contemporary art with the best of them. I WANT the dialog, but I want something meaningful. It is natural to assume that a more detailed judgment of a work of art implies that the viewer is more interested. If people want better art to look at, they need to be able to describe what they dislike in specifics. I believe you confuse my frustration with the critical writing about the art as a defense of the art. Not so. Binary pronouncements of good/bad, like/dislike aren’t helpful to artists. Tell us what you like, want, etc. I mean the nuts and bolts: colors, subject matter, paint styles, whatever and why. Gives us some idea of where to start from, very few art schools are teaching that now days. We may not like it, but I promise we listen.

I do think that those who practice a discipline such as art, science, sports, whatever, have a much different relationship and understanding of that endeavor than those who don’t regardless of how interested the non-participants are. I can read every book on magic in the world but if I don’t do the “practice” I will not become a mage.

Dug said...

I had the rare privilege over the course of six years of helping my wife create a coffee shop that morphed into one of the best jazz clubs in the American Midwest. Being a haven for two art forms widely ridiculed as extremes of hipster pretense it should have been insufferable. Instead it was a place of rare joy and discovery and shared humanity. The details of how that happened are too much for a comment on someone else's blog, but I can offer a couple of observations from the experience that are relevant to your discussion here.

Sometimes (maybe always) avant garde experiments, warhols included, influence the creation of new masterpieces later on, if only by clearing space to allow a suspension of disbelief that was unthinkable before. You alluded to this in the scene at the opera and Carr's musings on notional space. He mentions as an example late-1950s jazz of Monk and Brubeck forming a moment beyond which jazz descended into pretentious doodling. But you see it is not so. Among their other contributions to the music, Monk opened space for small shaggy dissonances that to mainstream listeners of the time sounded like sloppiness but were eventually recognized as a virtuosic kind of playfulness, Brubeck opened space for hearing coherent lyrical almost danceable grooves in devilish odd time signatures. These features, along with further adventures of characters such as Ornette Coleman (whose Harmelodic approach to composition might be compared to Schoenberg's 12 tones in orchestral art music and to most ears is equally unintelligible) straight through to modern extremes such as John Zorn, are now part of the canon. As a result, I saw suburban blue-hairs sit rapt and smiling through performances of frenetic free-form chaos and on more than one occasion saw most of a hundred-seat room reduced to tears by a piano trio way out on the edge of space. Thus the canon moves.

As for coffee, it's a bean from a mountain bush that becomes an elixir when roasted with care and served with a human touch. We prided ourselves on serving world-class espresso drinks without the icy barista attitude and delighted in coaxing soccer moms away from all the sweet flavorings to get them excited about an honest cup of black coffee. Hipsters may be the poster children for both art forms but delivered in an inclusive open-hearted way the appeal can actually be universal.

Dug in KC

Dammerung said...

Modern art was a CIA counterintelligence weapon. Not even joking - Warhol was on the payroll. The CIA looked at Soviet official sponsorship of art (of varying quality, mostly bad) and luridly declared, "We cannot allow an art gap!" and that was that.

My girlfriend still likes it though - go figure. I'll admit there are a couple Jackson Pollocks that don't irritate me by sight alone. As for me, I'm a pragmatist. I know what I like and I like looking at naked ladies, so give me Renaissance era any day.

RPC said...

Hmm, I choose opera.

Lowbrow trash: La Gioconda. It's actually quite good, but it's loaded with just about every operatic stereotype you can imagine (except horned helmets).

Highbrow trash: Pendercki's Paradise Lost. I saw the world premiere decades ago, after which it deservedly sank without a trace.

Masterpieces: I choose La Boheme and Prodana Nevesta (The Bartered Bride). Both are notable in their lack of Heroes and Evil Opponents - I especially count the latter as opening my eyes to the idea that cleverness, not just out-and-out strength, can enable one to reach one's goals.

BTW, you may know this, but in musical circles the 12-tone school are frequently referred to as the "serial killers."

John Beasley said...

Hello JMG,

Fascinating article, as usual. I would like to add that as an artist (though a mediocre one), this has been a constant struggle for me, especially through college. The ability to praise a Jackson Pollock even though I honestly can't distinguish between his paintings and a well-used apron (or Anselm Keefer, whom I like, although his landscapes seem the equivalent of atmospheric background music, lacking a melody) was trained in me through repeated art-historical essay drills. I now often tell people that a picture is only worth a thousand words because art historians are verbose blatherers, while the artist can get at most a single sentence actually into his work.

Your mention of Duchamp's toilet reminds me of a few years ago when I emphatically argued with my fellow art students that it was not art, or at a minimum the designer of that particular urinal should be the one given credit for it. The art history majors all disagreed, but the studio artists mostly agreed with me.

I've been racking my brain for a while but I'm having a hard time coming up with any famous artwork (in the "pictures that go on walls" sense) work that doesn't fall into either 'trash' definitions (though I do unironically like Rockwell and his ilk). The one group I can think of that tends to produce 'good' art consistently are book illustrators - unless my taste is wrong, and artists like John Howe are actually kitsch.

Jonathan Meijer said...

W. B. Jorgenson said...
Seems frankly Orwellian, that speaking an opinion can be construed as support of censorship, doesn't it? It's also a scarily common thing though....

I see you noticed it! It is eye-opening to see that when we individually do not fit in the false dichotomy of whatever subject is at hand, it is then very easy to feel lonely and unrepresented. But I guess this is what sets us ADR readers apart from much of the rest of society!

By the way, I saw your suggestion to start a local green wizards group in Ottawa/Gatineau. If you're still interested, get in touch with me and we can make it happen.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I also read "The Mandibles" a couple of weeks ago, and fully agree with Jo's fine review of the novel (8/10, 10:02PM). I also found your response to Lucretia, quit interesting, in light of what I'd read in "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

"Lucretia, your friends who are talented artists are in a real bind, due in large part to the maldistribution of income in the US. All the people who have money are into dog barf, and the people who don't like dog barf don't have money for art. That's one of the many reasons why a large, thriving middle class is good for a society -- it provides a large market for unpretentious art."

Timberg explores the same thing. In the face of an ever shrinking middle class, how can non elite art be supported? I also began to think about art, in general, in the face of decline. What will it look like? What forms will art take? Looking back, (I'm also an art history geek. Never got my degree, but have a lot of classes, books and exhibits under my belt) I think art will end up on more ... utilitarian items. A bit of decoration on pottery or an ax handle. To identify the owner or the maker. To make something more pleasing to the eye, but for perhaps a very small audience of one ... plus a few family and friends.

Finally, I was reminded of a comment an art teacher made to a friend of mine who was going for his MFA. That spending a lot of time on a project, even a lifetime on a projects, doesn't mean it's good. Lew

william fairchild said...

And how about zombies? I know you do love them so.

I have to mix media a bit with this one.

Lowbrow: Dawn of the Dead. World War Z (the movie) typical slasher, lots of gore. the good guys win. I might just drop The Walking Dead in there.

Highbrow: Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. Definately done with a wink and a nod to the absurd. Like a Brillo box

Classic: Night of the Living Dead (Romero certainly makes a pointed statement about race) and World War Z (the book) Max Brooks is brilliant, using a Studs Terkel like voice to answer the question what would a real zombie war look like? It ain't pretty, and it ain't all glory. Actually, there are several themes there that resonate well with a de-industrial POV. Illegal immigrants and wage class folk actually rise to the top of social strata, as they have actual skills (gardening, turning wrenches on cars) that matter. Consultants and account executives fall to the bottom. Well worth the read, IMO. It is a suprisingly relevant book, even though the subject of zombies is kinda silly.

Patricia Mathews said...

From today's Weekly Alibi via the "Ask a Mexican" column: "Nothing is more bourgeois than to be afraid to look bourgeois. Andy Warhol."

Spanish fly said...

Not very years ago, a spanish scholar (art pundit) wrote a bizarre essay, with a very expressive title if you know some words in Spanish:

Of course, he was complaining against the big modern art fraud, although he liked (and likes nowadays) good abstract art...

Nastarana said...

Dear Mr. Greer, Women put up with fashion because if we don't we are neither employable nor considered socially respectable in many contexts. One of the best parts of being retired is not having to play the clothes game any more. You might also notice that just be natural just be yourself advocates tend to come form affluent backgrounds where advantages like orthodontia, good diet, travel, and regular exercise were a available as a matter of course.

Homework submission:

children's animated film

highbrow trash: Masters of the Universe, before it became a designation for Wall Street speculators, was a technofantasy recommended to parents as a way for their kids to learn about ethics. No kidding!

the classics: any film by Mayazaki. My favorites are Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. Honorable mention to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

boring lowbrow trash: Snow White
fun lowbrow trash: Scooby and Shaggy.

stained, or painted, glass, in other words, colored glass intended to be seen with light shining through it:

low or mid brow examples can be seen in any Hallmark or gifte store. Some is quite pretty.

For an example of the classic and the highbrow trash side by side, to google images of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Rheims, France. A good example of the classic would be the north rose window, which tells the story of the Creation. The appellation 'highbrow trash', IMHO, exactly describes the modern windows of Marc Chagall. I hasten to add, before the maters start flying, that I love some of Chagall's work in other contexts, but he should never have been allowed near a cathedral.

Jason B said...

This is by far one of my more favored of your weekly posts. I think, not to defend the snobby elites who gate keep at the edge of societal artistic norms, that, to quote a Norwegian writer who has become quite controversial and celebrated at the same time of late (Karl Ove Knausgaard), "Those…who call for more intellectual depth, more spirituality, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren’t bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies, something is situated in our own heaven of images and conceptions within us and above us, where an increasingly large part of our lives is lived. The limits of that which cannot speak to us — the unfathomable — no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves." This seems to me to say a lot about the direction art has taken. Anything goes, and there are no limits placed on that irony. (just ask Jeff Koons).

Paddy P said...

The majority of works in every canon fail to pass the test of time. It's easy to ridicule a whole category of art by reference to the obvious kitsch and charlatans, but then you miss the magic. I thought you might have known that.

Vader said...

"...that I obviously prefer Norman Rockwell..."

So, they slipped a compliment into the middle of their tirade?

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Excellent discussion. I started an advanced degree in Theoretical Chemistry and then dropped out to pursue an MFA in painting paid for by the GI Bill. I should mention that I didn't make a living in either the sciences or the arts but survived instead by working most of my life as a programmer. I agree that both fields, the sciences and the arts are riddled with a lot of highbrow trash. I will break my comments up into two parts, one on the sciences and one on the arts. Here goes with art.
For me, the measure of good art is that it has to move the viewer emotionally or if you will, spiritually. This is a rather subjective measure of what makes good art, and there is good art that does not move everyone. Good by my criteria is a statistical artifact expressed in percentage of the viewers moved. I like to think that great art has great power since the viewer is helpless in its presence. Conversely, bad art leaves the viewer unmoved or simply bored or even worse, annoyed at the artist's poor attempt to manipulate the viewer's emotions.
A good deal of art since the middle of the 20th century has abandoned any attempt to appeal to the great unwashed masses and instead become insider commentary on or a reaction to art history. To talk about this kind of art, you need exposure to art history. You need to know what the artist is reacting to or commenting on. If you are an insider, you get it, if you are not, you don't. One of the aspects of an art education is that you learn how to talk about art, which is difficult if the work of art has little visible content and elicits no emotional response. What you learn is to talk, not about the piece as a standalone work but rather its meaning in an art historical context. To the initiated, an all black canvas is a reaction to the tyranny of representationalism or even to the use of color by abstract expressionism. To the uninitiated, the black canvas is simply stupid because anyone with a bucket of black paint and a roller could have created that work. And so, the ability to understand this sort of art gives the viewer insider status. The person who simply sees black paint becomes an outsider.
A few years ago, we went to an art expo, a trade show for art galleries in Los Angeles. My impression overall was that the trend in painting was an intentional effort on the part of the painters to look unschooled. To point out that these paintings looked amateurish, required no skill to produce and could have been done by anyone automatically made you an outsider, someone who did not understand the criteria which had made these paintings worth exhibiting. Painting in effect had become part of the class war in which the galleries provide the wealthy with yet another tool by which to distinguish themselves from the poor or the wannabes. Painters had abandoned any attempt to move their viewers and instead were pandering to the intellectual games of the art marketplace. The reaction I have to this kind of art, who would hang this in their house, is the same I get when looking at fashion magazines, who would wear this? Art and fashion have become barometers of decadence, the ability of the rich to flaunt their ability to buy high priced commodities that are obviously in bad taste, to say to the unrich, look, I have so much money that I can spend thousands of dollars on tasteless trash while you have to settle for cheap kitsch.

Glenn said...

Ah, my weak spot, you asked for an opinion. I can rarely turn down a survey!

Well, I'm a carpenter, so I'll rate architecture.

Low brow trash; split level suburban ranch houses of the '50's and '60's and their modern equivalent, the double-wide pre-fab (not trailers, they're totally different).

High brow trash; almost any medium size, and a few large, churches built in the '60's and '70's, some of the most hideous building in town.

For canon? Most vernacular houses. Japanese farm houses, timber frame, Norwegian Loft-stuhe. My personal favourites being the works of Maybeck, Greene and Greene, Stickley or Julia Morgan; west coast Craftsman bungalows. I know little of stonework, and never intend to live east of I-5 again (i.e. I'll be staying in seismically _interesting_ territory), so perhaps a mason or a bricklayer can help here.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Clay Dennis said...

A fairly simplistic definition of art that I have always like comes from Bali, which is known for the beauty of its handicrafts and hand made objects.

Balinese Proverb: " We have no art. We do everything as well as we can."

Perhaps that can serve to guide us past the debate on good and bad art. Did the artist hone thier talents and knowledge then create something to the best of those abilities, or did they ( like the artists in JMG's emperor fable) just slap something together for money, or status.

Ron said...

I think it is most amazing and amusing to see how you always manage to tick off all those pompous characters and/or groups, who take themselves and their opinions wayyy too serious.
To me that seems like they lack real problems, so they create some to get worked up about.
Apart from your insights, which prompt some to think about things, regardless if one agrees or not, the afore mentioned is another quality I like in you.

W. B. Jorgenson said...

Jonathan Meijer,

Excellent! For location, somewhere downtown would be best, ideally near bus routes (since I don't have a car). I see you're on the Gatineau side, so if we find somewhere that works for both of us, we have a location that works on both sides of the river.

I think for best attendance we need a weekend day, and once a month sounds like a reasonable amount, no? Even if it ends up just being the two of us to start, it's better than nothing! Plus, once we have something set up, it'll be easier to expand it.

Anyway, anyone else in the Ottawa/Gatineau area, or willing to come join us, please feel free to add your input!

william fairchild said...

@David and JMG-

Kudos on riding the bus. Some of my most interesting conversations were on the number 15 down E Colfax Ave., colloquially called the "zoo express". However I won't hold my breath for your inaugural gala. Bernie was right when he said "poor people don't vote." More specifically, they don't even register to vote. The politician who can crack that nut will go far. 40 years of promises, blah, blah, blah. Learning how to strip copper tubing and pipes from abandoned homes, or cooking meth, or working the byzantine welfare system to your advantage is much more productive.

Sorry to be such a cynic.

Karen said...

Jason B, Thanks for bringing Ove Knausgard into the conversation. As someone who attempts to specifically depict the sacredness of land and water in my artwork, his following quotes have resonated with me for the past couple of years.

“The history of art was little more than the history of man’s attempts to represent the sacred, from the animals in the first cave paintings to the dolphin frescos at Knossos, from the medieval icons to the hyperrealist angels of the baroque, from Turner’s heavenly light to van Gogh’s rain-swept villages. Art elevates us by intensifying and densifying the world. Of course, this is true only of good art; the least trace of anything awkward or amateurish, and we remain in our unelevated state, our reality of blushing, stumbling, idiotic misunderstandings and blunders. That the artists of the past century have abandoned the search for the sacred does not change what came before; it only tells us that they no longer consider the sacred to be a significant subject of investigation, that the vertical axis has been replaced by the horizontal, so that art no longer lifts us up, but turns us in.”

And…Once, Knausgaard wrote on suddenly seeing a lake in Michigan, “My eyes teared up, not because the sight was so beautiful, but because the beauty was so sudden.”

Thomas Mazanec said...

My favorite artist is Dali...which division does he fit in?

Space Seeder said...

Steven: When I looked at the highbrow trash item from your set, the players reminded me of the Easter Island statues. I wonder if the artist is trying to say something about gambling and/or extinction. I hasten to add that I sympathize with the dog barf side of last week's art debate. :-) I think it's really neat how you found three examples out of such a specific set as paintings of card players.

Rita: That's not still bothering you, I hope? I'm sure that Hitler and all the other nefarious villains of history believed that the sky is blue on a sunny day. I recently read a great summary of this point of logic: "A belief is not responsible for those who hold it."

WwoofBum: The assertion that working people have no time to make art is quite simply false. I have seen examples of this and been an example of this. As to art that arises from taxation and patronage, I disagree with the view that it's a bad thing in principle, although I support the notion that we've had enough taxpayer-funded dog barf, be it in actual painting, architecture, or whatever form.

I submit this as an example of art that I support having been publicly funded.

Spanish fly said...

In cinema directors:

-Lowbrow: Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Almodovar, Michael Bay, Uwe Boll...
-Highbrow: Antonioni, M. de Oliveira, sometimes D. Lynch, Lars von Trier, late Passolini...
-Classics: Robert Bresson, Ford, Peckinpah, Kurosawa, Kaurismaki (not all), Buñuel...

"There is 3 styles of cinema making: crappy industrial cinema, crappy auteur cinema and cinema" (apocryphal Kaurismaki).

SLClaire said...

Going back to the post on flying not long ago, have you seen this article from Forbes on Delta's computer crash earlier this week? When Forbes starts sounding like the Archdruid, you know things are getting weird ...

Steven said...

JMG: James, I used to think of Tolkien's books as masterpieces. At this point I'd put The Lord of the Rings in the same category as Gone With The Wind, a work that got its reputation because it expresses certain very popular sentiments in a way that harmonizes with certain very popular prejudices. I could be wrong, but it'll probably be for the future to decide on the status of both works.

Just curious, what exactly did you mean by this? Gone with the Wind was (aside from telling a wonderful soap-opera story) trying to do a specific thing, namely make the Confederacy and its ideals look good. I really can't find a similar agenda in Tolkien-indeed, Tolkien himself, in his forward, says he dislikes allegory and that his main purpose in writing LOTR was to tell an entertaining story. Sure, Tolkien was a conservative Catholic and it seeps into the story sometimes, but I don't think he was writing LOTR to promote conservative Catholicism or any other ideology. And, to me at least, what ideology is in LOTR is not intrusive-you have to read closely to find it.

Also, I'd add that having an agenda doesn't make a work not a masterpiece. Despite its message, I'd argue Gone with the Wind is part of any reasonable canon of American cinema, and the book would have the same status in any reasonable canon of Southern literature. I enjoy the story (though this is a matter of personal taste), and its message about the Civil War and the Confederacy is worth engaging with for all its un-PC-ness. Specifically, its a good pop-culture representation of how the South (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the US) viewed the Confederacy from the end of Reconstruction to around WWII. The deficiencies of that viewpoint are real and have been pointed out at length numerous times, but I personally don't think the demonization of the Confederacy that replaced it is necessarily any more helpful or accurate. But that's an arguement for another place.

BoysMom said...

Science fiction/fantasy; subcategory; contains fantastical monsters:
Monster Hunter International, Larry Corriea, would be our lowbrow, or in the genre's terms, pulp.
If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, Rachel Swirsky, would be our highbrow, or in the genre's terms, literary.
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne, for our classic. (Seems like they've been dead long enough, anyway!)

I do wonder why people can never separate a character's opinions from the author of the character's opinions. Obviously authors choose what to put in and what not to, though some seem to do it at a level below conscious thought, but do people really believe that the beliefs and opinions of the main character must be held by the author? What do they believe when authors write more than one series and have more than one main character?

Space Seeder said...

Karen: Sure, you would be told to shut up or worse if you said that in, as you say, a sports bar. What if you said that in a forum of people of diverse interests, like this one? I'm not sure you're really saying that you don't understand the big deal about Olympic medals, but I will! I agree with the writer who described the Games as "an ongoing garbage fire".

(I was gonna credit the writer who said that, but Google reveals it to be a common expression.)

Mr. Greer: Ok, good, but that's about all I got out of it. So what are some of the points I missed, or is that TBA?

Candace: Hear, hear! On the rare occasions that I've found myself watching a fashion runway, I've noticed that most of the looks don't make it out into the street, so I guess a lot more people than me agree with you.

Ok, outta time, off to the soup kitchen now. I look forward to taking this up again later. As a parting thought, it occurs to me that although I would never hang framed dog barf on my walls, I would certainly paint a black or navy blue background on them and then dog barf them up with miscellaneous paints myself, before furnishing and decorating. If I had walls, that is. I don't actually miss boring white boxes that much.

Dammerung said...

Oh, I'll do one for anime, because it takes all kinds.

Lowbrow Sailor Moon; Cardcaptor Sakura; Rosario Vampire
Highbrow Gundam Wing; Serial Experiments Lain; Paprika; Ergo Proxy; Death Note
Classic Neon Genesis Evangelion; Ghost in the Shell; Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Bill Pulliam said...

I've always kinda found that every system of art criticism and analysis falls flat to me. It all feels like rationalizing the non-rational. Maybe that is why it is so popular in academia, since attemtpting ot make EVERYTHING subject to rational analysis is what academica are all about. I just ask, "Was my reaction to it one that I am glad I had." Sometimes those reactions are disturbing and unpleasant, but I might be glad to have experienced them. I sometimes do sit down and wonder why I feel that way, and why this work making me feel that way I found worthwhile while under other circustances the same reaction to a different piece of work might have seemed a waste of time to me.

Take the Broadway Musical "Book of Mormon." On its face it is ultimate lowbrow trash. Except that it is so cleverly and self-consciously derivative, and just so much fun to sit through, that it rapidly has joined the Canon. And of course it is a self-parodying satire of a piece of religious lowbrow trash (using your system,) the actual Book of Mormon which was definitely half-digested mangled New Testament mixed with bad archaeology regurgitated by a dog onto blank canvas.

Howard Skillington said...

In 1979 Edward T. Cone wrote a wonderful essay titled One Hundred Metronomes, in which he proposed that a moratorium be placed upon the word ”art.” Rather than being intimidated by the possibility that their failure to appreciate anything to which the sacred A word has been applied would get them labeled as Philistines, viewers, listeners, and readers could feel free to judge a work by its objective characteristics.

If, instead of being sanctified as “art,” a piece were perforce identified simply as “dog barf on canvas,” the viewer would be free to consider how skillfully, beautifully, and interestingly the barf has been arranged, or even to conclude that dog barf as a medium is a deal-breaker which requires no further consideration.

Ed-M said...


Well I want to get this off my chest before this post is deluged by too many comments...

Here are some examples of some late Roman art. I was looking for a 4th century Roman "cubist" painting of competing chariot teams. Well I found these: the first appears to be the one I was looking for. The rest are lagniappe.

MIckGspot said...

I was going to write a long rant about the relationship between Frank Frazetta paintings and politicos: Hillary Clinton (Sea Witch) and Donald Trump (Conan the Barbarian). Respecting the Arch-druids request to leave such alone I will. In the words of the great John Carter of Mars via Edgar Rice Burroughs “I shall have to believe even though I cannot understand.”
TY Michael! ;>)

aaa said...

PS - I think Karen's comment at 8/10/16, 10:43 PM is spot on.

The main article here reads like a response to the cliquey and judgmental social attunement of the group behavior of artists and their interactions with each other, their patrons, and the public. The frequent high-sensitivity to fashion in their work and relationships, etc, and the corresponding fashion-follower element in the audiences of the work, both the in-groups and the public. Not unique to late 20th c.

One has no obligation to like or dislike any particular style, least of all an experimentalist one. But to declare that the aesthetic shortcomings are a product of the group behavior described above, and to reduce entire genres to the category of ___brow trash -- is to invite the question: How is such a phenomenon unique to the generation in question? What if my "classics" are another person's or another time's ___brow trash? This is a fun one to answer.

avalterra said...

I read this and immediately went and got some popcorn before reading the comments threads... this should be good.

For the homework I am going to do something *completely* different.


Tabatha Atwood said...

I worked in a factory from 1976- 1982. I love Soviet Realism propaganda/art. Work- I am dirty, and tired, and ground down but in the poster- clean, shiny, strong, confident, builders and leaders and it is a nice wall paper to surround my life. Likewise, with Norman Rockwell- the magazine cover is on my wall- wall papering my life. Positive and pretty- don't care if it's art.

pygmycory said...

Marching Band music: Semper Fidelis by Philip Sousa. Fun to play and to listen to, and works well for marching to. Also Colonel Bogey.

Highbrow junk: the Lord of the Rings medley one of the Calgary show bands was performing, in a manner involving large amounts of dancing around in extremely complicated patterns. This sounds like it was extremely difficult to do, and took a very long time to learn. But I bet in a year or two, no one will be doing that performance, and it will be totally forgotten. Or maybe it is just technically difficult lowbrow junk. Hard to tell.

lowbrow junk: simplified versions of pop songs intended for beginning bands.

Concert Band Music:

Classic: Gustav Holst, The Planets. Also First Suite in Eb for Military Band by Gustav Holst.

Low Brow Junk: Way too many arrangements of pop songs and christmas carols. Yawn.

High Brow Junk: A piece Fred Stride wrote for The North Vancouver Youth Band. It was difficult to play because it sounded wrong even when you played it right. There was no melody. We all hated it, and even the band master finally admitted, after we'd finally performed the dratted thing, that it was a big disappointment, and he didn't like it either! I don't think it was ever performed again.

pygmycory said...

And orchestral music:

Classics: Beethoven's Eroica symphony, also his 9th. Scherazade. Elgar's The Enigma Variations. Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto. Plus many, many others.

Lowbrow junk: arrangements of the latest popsongs.

Highbrow junk: Benjamin Britten?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Norman Rockwell was, I think, actually pretty subversive, and possibly a satirist. I came to this conclusion fairly recently after prolonged looking at some of his paintings. Reproductions don't quite catch it, for some reason. He was a good craftsman, as well.

The "Norman Rockwell decorative plates" and other things that used to be sold turned his output into lowbrow trash. When people "trash" Rockwell, they are, perhaps, making fun of the sorts of middle and working class folks that liked the Saturday Evening Post covers and bought the plates to adorn their walls. At that time everyone, including his detractors, maybe took him a little too literally. :)

Also, many thanks for the moratorium on discussion of US politics. There are, indeed, so many other worthwhile and important things to discuss. Now I feel free to join the conversation again and happy to read all the very interesting comments.

Now to get thinking on high- and low-brow trash and classics. So many good examples of each, and sometimes all three even by the same artist.

hokiangafarm said...

You are the Canon on 'how to think' I have learned so much from reading your blogs. Thanks. I enjoy being able to think critically. You also always seem to have excellent timely advice.

Shane W said...

that would properly be known as "boots and pants" music, and, yes, I was quite the aficionado back in the day. I love me a good house diva. Was quite the gay thing to do at one time...

pygmycory said...

Out of curiosity, how would people classify the Silmarillion? It's a lot less immediately accessible than the Lord of the Rings, but I actually like it as much or more. I think it is the world-building that gets me, plus the workings out of doom.

I think the Lord of the Rings is a classic: it changed the face of Fantasy literature utterly.

Elizabeth Kennett said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

"a world-class flustered cluck"

Thank you. That one's a keep.

On the subject of keeping dog barf correctly identified and in the compost pile, where it could do some good, is there anyone in the general Salem, Oregon, area interested in starting a green wizard group? I can be reached at ekennett (at) my (dot) chemeketa (dot) edu.

On the subject of art, I make my own quilts. My only absolute requirement of them is that they work in the real world providing some warmth to the sleeper they cover. As far as visual esthetics, I notice my body of work does display my learning curve, and we'll stop there.

As always, thank you for the weekly dose of sanity.

Elizabeth Ann Kennett

Sylvia Rissell said...

Ack, still not done with the previous homework...
My big observation about "Left Behind" is that the authors belief that the universe has a single, intelligent creator is mirrored by the idea that the economy has a single, intelligent controller. That is, that complex behavior created by a bunch of individual actors is not a possible explanation for whatever it is that is going on.

For this homework, I'm going to make a study of American banjo music. I'm not sure what will turn up, because the popularity of the banjo started with minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were by definition low class, as they were performed by (usually) white musicians in black face who sang songs about rural themes, in the (alleged) style of Southern enslaved musicians. Many songs that were created for minstrel performances are now cannon of a certain kind, but at the time it was the opposite of formal European music.

MawKernewek said...

How about astrophysics?

Low brow trash: most of the mainstream media's reaction to scientific news, getting the complete wrong end of the stick, I'm mainly thinking of asteroid impact scares at the moment.

Highbrow trash: String theory, and multiverse theories that make no predictions testable within our own observable Universe.

Classics: Plenty of these, from but I would highlight the development of spectroscopy, and the various strands of work that led to measuring the size of the Universe. The French philosopher Auguste Comté declared that the composition of the stars would remain forever unknown, but spectroscopy changed that. In another development, work by Henrietta Leavitt and Hubble expanded the scale of the known Universe. For example the book Measuring the Universe by Stephen Webb surveys the various ways that the Universe is measured, ranging from parallax of nearby stars, to 'standard candles' of various kinds.

A couple of links that expand on the herd mentality of faux-artisanal style with the same kind of 'reclaimed' wood tables appearing in cafés the world over, and the spread of AirBnB, which is described as becoming what it was intended to disrupt:
Welcome to Airspace

Sven Eriksen said...

Aw man, you're so gonna get trolled this week...

So I figured I'd just share with you the Scandinavian method for dealing with this, in case it gets to much (courtesy of the boys from Tumbla):

Eating the cheez burrito afterwards is optional, of course... ;-)

zach bender said...

[i edited this for length, but blogger seems to count characters differently than i do, so i have still had to break this in two, but with some of my argument now left on the cutting room floor]

to measure excellence with reference to a "canon" is tautological. what matters are the criteria for inclusion or exclusion.

someone linked a recent non sequitur comic, in which a guy buys a framed painting which looks a lot like the mona lisa -- in other words, clearly not an abstract expressionist or pop art piece -- then decides he would prefer to look at an actual tree, but through the frame, from which he has torn the painting out.

this gets to the premise which i think must be established before we can have a meaningful conversation here. what is art, and what is its function.

it seems to me we must begin by saying -- and this applies not only to visual art, but to music and literature as well -- an artwork is an artifact, something made by the artist, to which a viewer or listener or reader is invited to respond as subject.

that is just a starting point, and already we are confronted with "found object" art. in the non sequitur cartoon, the guy is somehow better able to contemplate the tree because he has placed it within a frame. so at some level we are accepting the idea that it is at least in part the act of the artist in designating the object as art that makes it art.

we can take the point that the artist's intention is significant. there is a very limited degree to which we can accept accident as art.

we have an artificer and an artifact and an audience. impliedly there is an act of communication. but this is a reciprocal arrangement. the artist works within or intentionally violates established conventions, and the audience applies those conventions in attempting to receive the communication.

here we might note that the idea of "art," in itself, may be a valid subject of discourse. the artist might wish to communicate something about the relationship between the artist and the audience, and/or about the economic ground on which the act of communication is occurring.

another consideration that sets "art" apart is that some element of the communication is occurring nonverbally, nonliterally, appealing to something other than the left brain. this is where we usually find what we call "beauty" in an artwork.

what, then, "should" be our criteria for "excellence."

[end of part one]

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ patriciaormsby - I always read your posts with great interest, being a Japanophile from way back. Probably from when I first picked up Statler's "Japanese Inn", when I was a wee small lad. I've never been to Japan, and, being poor and long in tooth, probably never will. But, shotgun toting villagers and kitsch collectors dying under mysterious circumstances aside, I'm still fascinated with the country.

I pick up odds and ends of Japanese "stuff". Baskets. I have a half dozen Hakata Urasaki figures. E-Bay has quit a few, if you're unfamiliar with them. According to some things I've read, they were made expressly for GIs, in Japan, after WWII. They're usually occupational, and, often couples. They are most decidedly low brow, but I love them. Hard to find in good shape, as they are fragile. And, impossible to clean. In general, I don't pick up anything over $200. That's about my limit for something I might break.

Other things I like. Japanese prints. I've always thought Hokusai's "Great Wave" was a great metaphor for the decline of our civilization. I really like travelogues of Japan by Westerners, and have read quit a few of them. Japanese films. Particularly "Kwaidan" by Kobayashi. The tales of Lafcadio Hearn and biographies about him.

Sigh. I'm gushing like a fan boy. I just really like Japan. Lew

zach bender said...

[part two]

my own area of interest is narrative fiction, in particular the novel.

the "canon" here would reach back to at least cervantes, and maybe forward to borges, at least. anyone might say bellow or lethem or didion has produced "excellent" work in this medium, but these may not yet be in a "canon." joyce is an interesting case, because his later work was increasingly experimental, and finnegan's wake is readable by only a handful of cognoscenti, not including me.

e.m. forster did a series of lectures a hundred years ago called "aspects of the novel," in which he examined what he then understood to be the elements constituting novel-length narrative fiction -- story, plot, "flat" and "rounded" characters, etc. an excellent starting point for looking at modernist and post-modernist (and post-post-modernist) experimental fiction.

if a writer decides to discard story, for example, does that mean we are no longer looking at "art"? it is certainly true that the readership for such work would be slim. but it may not be nonexistent.

so my argument would be, a work of art can be judged by roughly the following criteria:

- what was the artist attempting to communicate
- was that communication successful
- what tools did the artist employ -- in particular, what tools did s/he employ to attempt the nonliteral, nonverbal communication
- did s/he employ those tools skillfully
- if the artist intentionally violated an established convention, was this done with a "purpose" that coincides with the intended communication
- again, was that attempt successful, did s/he do this skillfully

the "canon" can be a useful benchmark against which to measure these criteria, but it is not in itself definitive of what does or does not constitute "excellence."

onething said...

JMG, I'm afraid you have really done it this time, and Cherokee, surely it is a pair of lungs and those little knoblies at the bottom are perhaps arteries?

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

I almost succeeded in completing the homework on the topic, "Abraham Lincoln historical literature;"

Lowbrow trash: "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer --Book AND Movie! Yes, I admit to having read the book AND seen the movie. As much fun as Star Trek!

Canon: "The Civil War" A PBS series I thought was well-done. Also I liked the fiddle tune Ashokan Farewell..."

Highbrow trash: I tried searching "Abraham Lincoln" and "Feminist Deconstruction" to see what would come up. I got "Literary Criticisms of Law" by Guyora Binder, but was not permitted to even look at an abstract without full registration on the "Project Muse" website. Not sure if it dealt with Lincoln or not, but it sort of fulfills the idea of restricted access. If Thomas Pynchon ever writes a sequel to "Mason & Dixon" about Lincoln, that would probably qualify.

Patricia Mathews said...

Okay - speaking of what's cheesy and what's not:

Lowbrow trash: Velveeta
Highbrow trash: runny, stinky cheeses with hifalutin' names
Classic: Tillamook extra sharp cheddar.

You said the baker doesn't try to be cutting edge, but just turns out a good loaf.

Low-brow trash: Wonder Bread
Highbrow Trash: gluten-free, fat-free, organic, made with obscure imported seeds from the far corners of the world.
Classic: a good artisan sourdough. Or whole wheat (wholemeal for you Australians) or various ryes.

Lowbrow trash: Mexican food from a well-known mass market fast food chain who once had a Chihuahua advertising its products. (With many a gagster putting variations in the doggie's mouth such as "Yo guiero ... mas dinero!" (or "una perrita para mi amor." Or ruder versions thereof.) With lemonade made from a powdered mix

Classics: enchiladas, burritos, and huevos rancheros made with red or green chile sauces, pinto beans, and a good cheese - cheddar, Monterey jack, "Mexican mix" with rabbit food on top. With coffee or a Mexican beer.

Highbrow trash: pseudo-Norteno food made with black beans, whole wheat flour tortillas, chopped green chile, and any imported cheese other than queso. With a fine wine. Oops! I complained about that once before! Forgive me!

WwoofBum said...

Space Seeder, I made no assertion that working people have no time to make art. In fact I, at least, implied that it was, at one time, nothing but working people who produced all art. I would, however, assert that "professional artists," those who spend all their time "making art," are therefore not working people.

Hubertus Hauger said...

I see, it all depends on my point of view. High- or lowbrow and than real quality.

I remember once a history film did mention roman oil-lamps. The sophisticated bronze one, its imitation made of earth ware with greenish enamel covering its surface and the common factory-lamp.

First I saw the bronze as the quality because its real, the enamel a highbrow because it pretends and the factory as lowbrow because its for the poor. But considering a more humble approach than the enamel changes for the quality, bronze for a pompous highbrow and the factory remains poor. Another twist again, seeing it from an environmentalist perspective the factory is the simplest so quality, the bronze is a waste to show up as highbrow and the enamel is pretentious kitsch.

So I see, it depends on my standpoint, where to place something into a canon of quality, highbrow or lowbrow. Its pure arbitrary.

John Michael Greer said...

Jbucks, I wish I did. The esoteric philosophy of music has only been an occasional interest of mine, whereas sacred geometry is something I've done pretty intensively, including long sessions with a compass, straightedge, and pen. If any readers do know of books on proportion in music, I'd be delighted to hear of them.

Esn, fair enough -- I'll have to take the time to look into that as time permits. I admit most of my exposure to Socialist Realism was by way of retro-kitsch posters in Archie McPhee's Seattle store, back when they were still in Ballard.

Ivan, I therefore state that everything is art. Since everything is art, we no longer need artists. I wonder how the producers of Conceptual Art would like that...

Bruno, exactly. As one of my commenters sensibly pointed out last week, Rome in its final years saw all kinds of frantic contests to decide which of an assortment of nonentities would become the next Emperor of the West. None of it made a bit of difference.

Sébastien, as I know precisely nothing about any of the software you've mentioned, I'll smile and nod and pretend to know what you're talking about. Interesting, though, that the same trichotomy applies to software design. As for a book version of Retrotopia, why, yes, I've already got a publisher lined up and done initial edits to the earlier post. It should be out in time for Christmas.

Eric, that's totally fascinating -- of course it's about longing for an economy in which people actually produce goods and services, rather than manipulating abstractions. Hmm -- that has political implications, about which I will have to do some serious thinking.

Trippticket, thanks for the link!

Shane, no doubt I'll do other posts on the subject of the US presidential campaign, but I'll ask everyone to remember what's written above the comment box --
"Courteous, concise comments relevant to the topic of the current week's post are welcome" -- and leave commentary on the election to those posts, and to other forums.

DaShui, I have a hard time keeping track of what's where. I do a fair number of podcasts -- they're free publicity -- and if somebody wants to assemble a list and post it somewhere, I'll happily put up a link here.

RCW, the Chesterton quote is good. I'm less sure about your general claim -- of course the viewer brings something to the experience, but so does the experience...

WwoofBum, no, capitalism is specifically that form of economic organization in which the ownership of the means of production is mediated by market exchanges of shares of ownership and commoditized debt. It's distinct from mercantilism, feudalism, and other economic forms that are also based on private ownership of the means of production. As for art, there again, you're quite simply wrong; the extent to which art goes to the people you're calling the "guards" varies dramatically from one society to another; in societies as different as late feudal Japan and early modern Holland, for example, a very large amount of art was bought by the middle classes. If you're going to make claims about history, it really would help if you could get past the kind of simplistic generalization you've offered here, and grapple with some actual history!

Owen, well, it was just a parable, you know. If you want to film a cat barfing and call it art, by all means; get an MFA first, and surround it with a hedge of impenetrable jargon, and you may be able to make it work.

David, it's exactly because you're not a Fred Halliot that I look forward to attending your gubernatorial inauguration. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Peter, I wonder if the stained glass Surfer Jesus won because everyone was delighted by the parody!

Caryn, I'd encourage you to go back and read last week's comments by Over The Hill and Karen. As for abstract expressionism, I get that it was a failed attempt to speak directly to the unconscious et al.; the point I was trying to raise had less to do with the art itself and more with the bullying and snobbery that anybody outside the art world can count on facing if they point out that (a) the attempt failed and (b) a great deal of it really does look like dog barf. As for Norman Rockwell, I admire his technical proficiency and find much of his subject matter stickily sentimental to the point of gagging: the mid-20th century Middle America notion of what Middle America was or at least ought to be, folded back on itself to an almost parodic degree.

Donald, I ain't arguing -- well, except for Weird Al. Conscious parody is its own thing, and he did it brilliantly.

Avery, of course new artists and new artistic modes have been funded by elites since the days of Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt, if not before. The social function of the fine arts has always been the manufacture of collectibles for the well-to-do. I'm not at all sure how that's relevant to any of the points I've tried to make here.

AAA, I don't know many people who would consider, say, Louis Armstrong to be highbrow trash, though there's unquestionably a fair amount of more recent jazz that would qualify as highbrow trash by my definition. Still, the point I tried to make in my discussion of the evolution and function of a canon is precisely that these categories are specific to a given culture and a given age, and arise out of the collective taste of that culture and age. Put another way, they're part of a collective conversation about the nature of aesthetic experience. When one group of people -- let's say, artists -- stop talking to the rest, or express themselves only in an invented language that's specifically designed to keep anyone else from understanding them, something has gone wrong with the conversation. That's what I'm trying to say, you know.

Farka, of course! You get highbrow art that isn't trash, but always contains an element of status signalling, and lowbrow art that isn't trash, either, but always contains an appeal to the familiar and comfortable. There's a spectrum with kitsch on one end and warhol on the other, and as with most such spectrums, the ends circle around behind the stage and get up to various activities in the dark.

William, I'd pretty much agree with you about the dystopian fiction.

Patricia, good. Yes, there is also fluff. My wife is a fan of Georgette Heyer's novels -- they're an important part of her comfort reading -- and much of it is capable fluff. Fluff has its place and its value. A lot of genre fiction is fluff, and a very good thing to read at the end of a long day when you need something familiar and fun, with just enough of a twist to keep it from getting boring. As for "chick lit" et al., I look forward to the time when people can simply deal with the fact that, by and large, men and women tend to have somewhat different tastes, and one such taste isn't intrinsically better than the other. Full disclosure: I've read some of Georgette Heyer's Regency comedies of manners, and enjoyed them, without any discernible loss of masculinity!

Martin, funny. I'd have to have been there to decide whether I'd count the machine as first-class warhol -- when your work of art is making an ironic commentary on the framing of art, we're getting into levels of recursiveness that Andy would have adored -- but it must have been something to watch.

Jeanne Labonte said...

Most of the examples of low-brow and high-brow trash that I can think of have already been mentioned here. I did recently come across one of the more bizarre renditions (at least to me) of Ride Of the Valkyries, done at the Met no less. The Valkyries sing with gusto and come riding in on…on…on...uh…well, I know what it looked like to me, though I can’t bring myself to type it. The link is below. I call it high-brow trash but perhaps I am just not cultured enough to appreciate it. It certainly got a lot of applause from the audience….

Karen said...

@Zach Bender, “so my argument would be, a work of art can be judged by roughly the following criteria:
- what was the artist attempting to communicate
- was that communication successful
- what tools did the artist employ -- in particular, what tools did s/he employ to attempt the nonliteral, nonverbal communication
- did s/he employ those tools skillfully
- if the artist intentionally violated an established convention, was this done with a "purpose" that coincides with the intended communication”
This is excellent, it just got copied and pasted into my file of excellent art thoughts and printed out for my hardcopy notebook. It will be duly credited. Thank you.

@Bill Pulliam "Was my reaction to it one that I am glad I had." Sometimes those reactions are disturbing and unpleasant, but I might be glad to have experienced them. I sometimes do sit down and wonder why I feel that way, and why this work making me feel that way I found worthwhile while under other circumstances the same reaction to a different piece of work might have seemed a waste of time to me.”

Also added to my collection of excellent art thoughts.

I find writing very difficult, I communicate through the visual, so I really appreciate these and other gems as the appear.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

+2 on the modern art. I have heard trained architects say ' the more time you spend studying architecture the less everyone else like what you design.' For good reason, I might add.

roseredloon said...

I'm having so much fun reading these comments. I have one browser tab open to search google for images, another to search youtube for videos, and a third for following links. I'll just cheat off everyone else's homework this week.

John Michael Greer said...

Prizm, I hadn't heard about the second outage. Yes, that's a sign. As for ways of determining the validity of art, doesn't that set of rules for evil overlords suggest that running your plan past an average ten year old child, to see if he or she can find any obvious flaws in it, is a necessity? The same may be true for art. If the child says "That looks like dog barf," it may be time to reconsider...

Johnny, I hope you do decide to record your music someday, in exactly the same spirit as you perform -- making the most intentionally awful album you possibly can, with cover art et al. to match. I'd pay for a copy.

Karen, seems to me that you're still trying to channel the dialogue into directions that don't deal with the points that I, and quite a number of commenters here, are trying to raise. What you choose to paint isn't the issue -- for all I care, you can make dog barf paintings with certified organic dog barf; it's no skin off my back. The issue is that I had a fictional character make an offhand remark about abstract art, and you and Over The Hill took it upon yourselves to come charging on here to chastise me for daring to criticize something that the art world has sanctified as Art. From there, I went into a discussion of the role of groupthink, class prejudice, and snobbery in raising barriers between the art world and everyone else. That's not a new discussion; people -- countless thousands of people -- have been trying to have it with the art world for a century now, and they've been brushed aside with the kind of language you used toward me in your first comment last week. Until a significant number of people in the art world abandon that attitude, the barriers to communication are going to stay in place...because it's not the rest of us who raised them, you know.

Dug, I've never been to Kansas City and so haven't had the chance to hear any of the music your venue is playing. If I manage it, I hope you have something other than coffee available; it gives me migraines. In the Seattle scene, back when I lived there, avant-garde jazz was the butt of constant jokes, and earned it. You'd see half a dozen bunches of guys, mostly white proto-hipsters, playing pretentious doodling noises at busking spots during the Folklife Festival, and everyone hurrying past to get to something worth a listen. Do you have something different going on? Obviously, I'm in no position to say.

Dammerung, looking at naked people of your preferred gender is the oldest tradition in art -- the Venus of Willendorf, anyone? If you want to get highbrow about it, which is a pleasant change of pace, Kenneth Clark's The Nude is well worth reading -- accessible to those outside the art scene, but insightful and intelligent.

RPC, no, I didn't know that. Hah!

John, funny. Book illustration is a very demanding art form, and yes, some stunningly good work has been done there.

Lewis, then I'll definitely have to read Timberg as circumstances permit.

William, I'll take your word on it. Zombies bore me to death. ;-)

Patricia, thank you! The man was a master of the double- and triple-bind.

Spanish Fly, that's the funniest thing I've seen in weeks. Thank you.

Nastarana, fair enough.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, that's a very good point. It seems to me that when people say "I may not know art, but I know what I like," they're actually addressing this. They can't define or defend their aesthetic tastes intellectually, but aesthetic experience is not intellectual in nature. Just as you can enjoy the flavor of a beer without being able to define the chemical constituents responsible, or even identify the strain of hops that was used, the appreciation of art is distinct from its intellectual formulation.

Paddy, not so. The canon consists precisely of those works that do withstand the test of time, and I spent plenty of time trying to find magic in canvases full of dog barf back when I was still much less confident of my own tastes, and more vulnerable to the head games sketched out in my parable.

Bill Pulliam said...

I also find myself pondering another question within this framework... where do you put a piece that is clearly and deliberately referencing specific works from the canon, but incorporates them in innovative and surprising ways within an original work? The example that comes to mind most immediately is an odd-ball one. I just recently saw "The Devil's Rejects," a Rob Zombie horror film from the mid 20-aughts. The horror slasher is definitely a minor taste of mine; generally I only like the really truly canonical ones (think "the Haunting", "The Exorcist," "Silence of the Lambs") or the really good comedy satires (eg."Dale and Tucker vs. Evil," "The Cabin in the Woods"). I had never seen "Devil's Rejects" though I had been kind of curious about it, so a young friend brought it over the other night to show it to me. I was expecting pure lowbrow trash. But I was entranced. Sure the sadism was extreme (though the gore was actually restrained, considering the context), but the filming style was original and engrossing, the character development of both victims and evil ones was well beyond expectations, and the integration of classic 70s southern rock into the storyline was fascinating. And there were references to many of the classic films of the genra. But it stood alone as a coherent piece, not a collage, in spite of being woven from clearly identifiable canonical elements. And in the final scene, as the antiheroes' denouement is almost certainly approaching, when the opening chords of "Free Bird" appeared I gasped and laughed out loud, just amazed that he was really going to do that, AND get away with it, all while simultaneously quoting Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Thelma and Louise.

So is this another category? Or is this actually what all works do, just sometimes more overtly and sometimes less so?

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

I'd like to try my hand at highbrow analysis;
In German, the name 'Warhol' is derived from 'WARum HOL es' which means, "Why get it?" Ignoring the actual meaning of "Andrew" (gk; Manly), one can use literary deconstruction to break it down into 'and' & 'drew.'
Shoehorning it back together to meet my preconceived notions, one sees, 'And drew-why get it?,' which can be interpreted as 'Why get anything this guy drew?'
Clearly he was no 'Thomas Kinkaide, Painter of Light'...

Space Seeder said...

MawKernewek, re: scientific highbrow trash.

Bingo!! Bingo!! Bingo * 10 ** (googleplex)

I have two questions for you:

1) Do you say the same thing about exoplanets, and

2) Do you ever suspect that Stephen Hawking has been diverting colonic gas through his vocoder for his entire career? That is to say, he's in the business of peddling road apples and knows it? (Not that I blame him. "Fraudulent Physicist" is a better career than "Bedsore Collector".)

Regardless, we are not leaving this Earth, ever, and so any so-called "knowledge" we gain about other locations is not only unverifiable but utterly, utterly useless.

Same with cosmology: I once read a book by Lawrence Krauss, who is this puppy dog that follows Richard Dawkins aroun--I mean, an American theoretical physicist and cosmologist. In this book, he states that any intelligent civilization that appears more than about 2 trillion years hence will be unable to determine the nature and history of the universe, because vital clues like the cosmic background radiation will be gone by then.

So... What in the God Unblessed 7734 makes us think that we have all the clues now, and that our beliefs about cosmology aren't just an overflowing crockpot of mushy aromatic brown shale?? And even if they're not! Who cares??

Science: If it aint got directly to do with life on Earth, it shouldn't be funded. Unless it's self-funded. JMG has a great idea for this in his book "After Progress".

Shane W said...

First off:
about the last assignment. I read The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. I found it slow going at first, because every sentence I was refuting his logical fallacies. For example, he equated all religion with the Abrahamic faiths, and misunderstood the faiths by fixating on the passages where they supposedly violate reality. Even as a non-believer, I can certainly see where the basis of faith is your belief and relationship to God, Jesus, or Mohammad. Either the faith and its God and prophets speak to you and you "see the light" and believe, or it doesn't, and you don't believe. Jesus turning water into wine, or God parting the Red Sea, is secondary to that. After starting out laughing out loud at the logical fallacies, the misunderstandings of religion, the apocalyptic fear mongering if we don't slay faith in its tracks, I finally just got bored with it and just wanted to be done with it. I guess it was a good exercise in challenging my thinking, because I was constantly questioning the text, "Why is he equating Abrahamic beliefs with all religion? Why is he saying that the basis of Christianity is something other than a connection to Christ? Why is he exaggerating the threat of terrorism? How can we possibly get people to stop believing in their religion?, etc"
I'm wondering if this qualifies as highbrow trash. As an undergraduate psych major, I assisted a professor teaching a group theory/group dynamics class. She invited a group of us to this "experiential group weekend" at UCLA. It was very much a group about nothing--a metagroup. The group existed solely to navel gaze and be all about the itself, and the dynamics that arose out of the group. It was broken down into something like Plenaries in the auditorium, large group, and small group breakout sessions. As best I can recall, you were only supposed to focus on each other in the moment, and not bring in anything not related to the group (spouses, the commute, what you had for dinner, your past, etc.) Needless to say, this is the closest I've gotten to Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Study, and it ranks right up there with one of the most bizarre and disturbing things I've ever participated in. Now, me being the (shale)disturber that I am, I'll admit that I certainly lobbed a few grenades and appreciated the effects, but there was way more to it than that. I really think it demonstrated how bad people can get/be in a void without any structure. A nasty fault line appeared based on class between the wealthier UCLA students and us poor Cal State students from the South Bay.
(As an aside, putting my gift as a (shale)disturber to productive use is something I hope to get from the practice of magic.)

Eric Backos said...

Hey, John... regarding your response

Eric, that's totally fascinating -- of course it's about longing for an economy in which people actually produce goods and services, rather than manipulating abstractions. Hmm -- that has political implications, about which I will have to do some serious thinking.

I'd be pleased to discuss the matter with you and the Wizardren. My angle has been to examine what desires the manifested symbols represent... I'm emailable at my name, all lower case, one word at gmail-you-know-the-rest.

Shane W said...

In an art class I took in college(university), Duchamp's urinal was presented as an ironic absurdity, and I wasn't aware that it was ever taken any other way. Dadaism seemed like a postwar rebellion from the horrors of WW I.

Shane W said...

BTW, for those wanting to discuss the presidential election, I went ahead and created a forum on Green Wizards, so you can hop on over there and comment away to your hearts content...

trippticket said...

@ Shane and Aron Blue:

I cut another round of zinnias at the cabin today that were intended for one of your tables!

Hope all is well.

Dug said...

JMG, I'm sad to say we closed the place a year ago. If you're interested in some of the details, here's the story the local NPR affiliate ran when we closed.<> Once the legal dust settles, we'll be opening again, something different but with the same spirit. We will (and always have) had lots to offer for thirst besides coffee. More importantly …

Yes, there is serious, mind-bending and beautiful jazz being made today. Really, whatever part of the jazz spectrum you want to explore, someone's changing people's lives with it every night, not just talking about KC, but globally. In KC you get an exceptional slice of that. If you put off your visit until the middle of next year, I hope to be able by then to welcome you and everyone else and show you exactly what I mean.

That said, you're still right. Lots of avant garde jazz hurts and deserves to be the butt of better jokes. Even the best of it often requires an audience with a sense of humor.

nuku said...

@pygmycory, I was just about to ask JGM his opinion of the Silmarillion when your comment came through.
Despite the general opinion that its a “difficult read” “too many characters” etc., I consider it to be a deep and engaging piece of work, well worth whatever effort it takes to follow all the stories and the threads of meaning. It was after all, Tolkein’s “life work“ started in 1914 while on hospital leave during WW1, and constantly revised, reworked, (and unfinished) until his death in 1973 at age 81.
I am especially moved by the opening Ainulindalë “Creation“ section in which the demi-gods literally sing the world into existence, and Melkor— “whom Ilúvatar had given the "greatest power and knowledge" of all the Ainur — broke from the harmony of the music to develop his own song. I find this creation myth so much more interesting than the one in the Christian Bible.
Other themes explored in other stories are Fate, Power, Pride, Loyalty, Vengence, Artiface, Immortality, and much more.
By casting these tales in a mythological setting, a whole created world, and being told in a kind of “high” language Tolkien has created a classic which belongs IMHO in the canon of modern English literature.
By contrast, The Lord OF The Rings, while a wonderful tale and much more accessible to all ages of readers, doesn’t have the depth and scope (after all its all set in a small time-span in The Third Age of Middle Earth).

I note also that Frank Herbert‘s “Dune“ gained much of its power as a story because Herbert, like Tolkien, created a whole world that stands “behind“ and informs the story.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ pygmycory - (Getting ready to dodge slings, arrows and stones, here :-) I have never particularly cared for fantasy. No, not even Tolkien. I defend to the death anyone that likes it. Different strokes for different folks. It's just not MY particular cup of tea. When asked WHY I don't particularly like fantasy, about the only thing I can come up with is that there's too many long names with too many consonants in them. :-).

It's kind of like my experience with sushi. Been there. Done that. It's ok. Same with snails. Had them twice. Once they were VERY bad and once they were VERY good. But in both cases, there are just so many other things I would rather eat. Same with books. So many books, so little time. My taste (if I can call it that) is so all over the place. I suppose I could call it "catholic" (in the worldly sense) or, eclectic. But I don't expect anyone to like, or dislike the same things I do.

But, to your question. In my very small corner of the book trade, when the Silmarillion came out, we always referred to it as the Silly-marillion. Maybe we were just fatigued by all the Tolkien hoop-la, or, that it was just a little precious. "Lost" manuscript found in Tolkien's garage after he died. I think, in general, the Hobbit and the trilogy are well thought of and of great value. The Silmarillion? Not so much. But still worth a read. Lew

Melissa M. said...

Goodness, as a 'failed' artist, that was a fun post! Poor tummy-aching doggie...

@ Wwoofbum, If, without rancor, you can swing by a nearby art festival and ask a few artists manning their booths about what it's like to be an artist, (or merely ask them what time they set up and break down their booth) I'd recommend it.

@ Karen, A good question! And one I will answer in perhaps, too much depth.

First, I want it to be technically proficient. I am not going to care about something that looks like a five year old did it, unless it was done by a five year old that I care about. Good balance, good composition, and whatever materials are used, well used.

Second, the artist has to actively be trying to communicate something to the audience. This doesn't even have to be deep. A lowbrow velvet painting of horsies might be saying, "hey, there are things in this world that are beautiful and free." On the other hand, one of Alexander Calder's mobiles might be saying, "Hey! This balances! Cool, huh?"

Third, art is traditionally easy on the eyes. Or at least, surviving art from virtually any time period is easy on the eyes. Maybe this is because the ugly art didn't survive, but there it is. So unless the artist has a very good reason like communicating an ugly concept, or wants to be an unfettered rebel applauded by an elite group of cutting edge trend setters, (wait a minute...) it should be easy on the eyes.

When all three aspects are combined, you have a skilled artist meeting their audience halfway with things that are pleasurable to run your eyes over. It's a gesture of respect to the audience, and people need very little education to pick up on this. It gives people the opportunity to connect if they're willing.

However, a lot of art these days fails on all three counts. When you step into a gallery, and see something that looks slapped together by a five-year-old, and the most polite and meaningful message you can charitably imagine the artist saying is, "yeah... I wanted to see what a badly painted blue wall would look like and am astonished that I got paid for it." then people have no reason to give a flying rats rear end.

Regarding the nuts and bolts of style, color, subject matter, etc, that's really up to the artist, depending on where their skill and desire lies.

And I'll break this into two posts, focusing on my general reflections to Mr. Greer's original post in my second.

Melissa M. said...

To ramble further, from my skills making furniture...

Lowbrow junk: Lazy boy recliner (in its defense, very comfortable)

Highbrow junk: Perillo lounge chair (in its defense, it looks functional, non-agonizing, and doesn't make me want to back away whimpering like so many of its modern 'cousins')

Classic: Windsor chair (Light, strong, massively overdone, but it's not merely for nostalgia that the form's been around more than 250 years. I've seen examples that left my heart pounding for all the right reasons.)

My own story of the art world: I have a 'would you like fries with that?' degree and took some classes offering basic introductions to different mediums. Then transferring to another college, I tried to get into their sculpture program, but not having a prerequisite that was offered in my timeframe, the teacher rejected me. I wish I could buy her a beer to thank her. She spared me having to unlearn so much.

After graduating, I tried to build a client base, take commissions, and go to art shows. And discovered that an uncomfortable number of people had this glazed, misty-eyed look at this entertaining oddity prancing about and making pretty things for their pleasure. They had a want, an entertaining story, a fantasy, a feather in their cap, and I had a need. Money. When wants meet needs, it does not lead to an even relationship. So when at a fair, well-to-do people attempted to bargain me down with cutesy smiles, clearly entertained by the 'game' of haggling with a real artist at a real festival and I was estimating that after overhead I was making fast food wages at best, I started to hate people.

Don't get me wrong, there were wonderful people too, (and I pray that if they read this and recognize me, they recognize themselves as well) but even their sheer awesomeness wasn't enough to counterbalance the soul sucking aspects that they had no control over.

Thankfully I backed out before I burned out, and now sell supplies at a specialty shop to grumpy contractors. Grumpy contractors are so, so easy to deal with. These days, I gently decline commissions (sympathetically abstaining from cracking out an ear-to-ear freedom-inspired grin when I do so) but still make things for my own pleasure, and occasionally to spoil a family member or close friend. My newest work is called 'Watering Can' which I'm fashioning out of copper sheet, annealed refrigeration pipe, and lead free solder. Given the hours and materials I couldn't sell it and profit for a dime under $200, but it'll look mighty nice sitting on my bathroom toilet tank, and it'll keep my plants hydrated. If my sister asks very nicely, she can have 'Watering Can II' for Christmas. But I do miss the art world a little. So if the SF MOMA wants one too, I'll break my 'no commission' rule, and even drill holes in the bottom for a small surcharge of $9800.

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