January 26, 2010

The End of Art

The realization, or at least the thought that the truth you seek is that there is no 'truth' is the most aliening thing possible. This is why the project is outside of the mainstream and had been limited to people in academe. For example; in science theory leads to practice which feeds new theory. Theory and practice reinforce each other in a 400-year quest to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. There are still some big things science doesn't know, but many of these are testable.

In art, as is my experience, theory leads practice -the actual artistic objects - to and over the abyss. Critical theory loosed from reality does not fill in gaps as scientific practice does, but creates more uncertainty. To compare, I would like to look at a specific scientific endeavor. Someone, somewhere at some time had a question. What are stars made of? A pretty simple question which has been debated and given over to a part of knowledge until people start asking the right questions and challenging the wrong authorities. Thank you, strivers of the Enlightenment. So now, with the right equipment and knowledge people all over the world can measure the emission spectra -the light given off - of even a dead star and figure out what elements came together to create this star that is no longer in existence. This neat little trick was available even before quantum theory solidified the understanding of the mechanism of how we are able to determine this. In this scenario, theory leads observation which helps drive theory.

In art, two observers in the same room can view or experience the same art, no matter the media or mode and you would be surprised to find parallels in the interpretations, let alone find that your two observers came about with the exact same data to 'explain' what is being observed. Forget Heisenberg, this is the artistic uncertainty principle. This subjectivity is brought to light even if the two observers are trained critics using the same critical mode of interpertation and discourse (ie. Two marxist, two femminists, two deconstructionists, etc.). This is not to say that these modes do not have explanatory power or that they can not help us appreciate art in any way. This is fundamentally untrue, but the problem here is that these interpretations, no matter what the framework used or how interesting or suprising the end product creates, are intensely personal.

Part of the problem here is that you step away from the act of creation and you allow 'no meaning' to have a meaning in of itself. If there is no qualification of the art in creating a metric of value, I feel that your system of measurement has slipped out of your control and is essentially valueless. In not making value judgements you slip away from the functionality of citicism and lose the majority. If just just by naming what a work of art is, we give credence to a functional criticism. The American Film Institute ranks films by quality or genre, but we have to have common consent what a quality film is before we can claim any sort of value to these rankings. By one metric, the best films ever are _Titanic_, _The Dark Knight_, and _Avatar_. Now, few critics at the papers or the academy will have the same top three, but to have a valid argument we need to first understand and accept the criteria we judge these lists on.

Arguing for an instrumental criticism I think is rooted in my sympathy for Aristotle and my own scientific background. He was a scientists, perhaps the first that we can speak truly and give that name. For him, a work of art was something to be observed, no more or no less. His _Poetics_ stands next to his scientific 'philosophy' as observations and judgment on what works and what does. The arguments once you lay the criteria for judgment on a binary or spectrum is whether the object under observation fits. "Is this a fish or fowl?" then becomes the same question as, "Does this work move you towards catharsis?" or "Are the unities obeyed?". You naturally have to set comparison into definitions. This is not to say that art should have been set and static since the classical age. Art tests boundaries. Without these boundaries art has nothing to drive against nor towards. My feeling is that you have a situation where everything speaks to everything else but ignores it and pretends to be separate but is not; forever suspended in this liminal space that isn't "Il n'y a pas une texte, Il y a une texte"

If you ask me, and no one is, I think the main divide between modernism and its later manifestations that we now collectively call 'postmodernism' is not stylistic. The divide is not temporal. I do not want to fall down the intentional fallacy slope here, but the difference artistically, not critically is one of attitude and intent. For me, in the vein I have been arguing, the sense is that the modernist writers and the painters and the composers and poets and playwrights had a much more noble sense of earnest-ness in the art that they were creating compared to the more modern 'post-modernism'. I know that this is not a new criticism, but it is important for me as I continually structure and define my world around myself. The irony pervasive in the art today disables the acolyte of the former modes of expression. I blame Flann O'Brien. I think he woke up one day and decided to mock himself. Art is much worse because of that morning.

The question remains to be asked: "What now?" And I have to throw up my shoulders in a shrug. I feel that we are at an artistic and theoretical dead end that has persisted for twenty years or so. We may have proclaimed the "End of History" too soon, but are we at the end of art?