The Fallacy of Art Appreciation
Is art as good for us as it is popularly presumed to be?

A DIDACTIC EXTENSION OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT PROJECT, art appreciation ranks among the idols of our time. Museums expand and multiply, cultural stuffs pile up, and art-gazing swells into a devotional activity. Ordained appreciators broadcast the lux et veritas of the new faith in a ritual torrent of papers, panels, journals, monographs, exhibition catalogs, lectures, artists’ biographies and docent sermons. Today, study of art mimics the communal role bible study once held in our shared public life.

John Henry Newman saw it coming. A century and a half ago, he forecast the eventual sacralizing of “accomplishments.” Acquaintance with art and music—with the refinements we credit as culture—would one day be confused with religious experience. Writing in the 1990s, Louis Dupré seconded the cardinal’s prediction: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself. It offers some of the emotional benefits of religion, without exacting the high price faith demands.”

Inspecting Art

By now, we take art appreciation so for granted that we never hesitate in our assumption that it is an unqualified good. We trust that the proliferation of it—and our participation in it—signals cultural vitality. We do not stop to consider that appreciation, dispensed under the banner of education, is an ideology fueled by Panglossian presumption. Our aesthetic ambition, simultaneously pious and market driven, is the smiling face of materialism in our time. We mistake the arts to be a “higher” pursuit, in blissful disregard of Aldous Huxley’s reprove: “High brow; low loins.” Pursuit of masterpieces trumps the pursuit of holiness for all the obvious reasons.

Art is good for us, a moral tonic, the thinking goes. The motif repeats in deathless variation. Chief among them is the emergence of art as a crucial factor in—to repeat the latest cant phrase—human flourishing. The arts are important, intoned the National Endowment for the Arts in a study on the role of art in civic life, because they “enhance the study of other areas of the basic curriculum.” They serve “special needs” and aid in the acquisition of vocational skills, especially those vital to the Information Age. Luminous with potential for public service, the arts “contribute to family unity and growth.”

For brevity’s sake, skip past the rickety, embattled old formula of transfer of training. Stay with the NEA’s more mischievous assertion: the self-regarding linkage of arts education to the integrity of the home. It takes museum-quality cheek to anchor family—and, by extension, societal—cohesion in the fine arts; but such is the totalizing nature of the new dispensation. Untroubled by the absence of any supporting evidence, James Cuno, director of the Courtauld, tells us that “museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world.” Looking at art makes us a “happier, wiser, more complete people” croons John Walsh, director emeritus of the Getty. James Wood, director the Art Institute of Chicago, offers the art museum as “a center that holds” amidst societal longing for meaning and value. Neil MacGregor, past director of the National Gallery in London, reminds us that the institution’s gilded founders believed that even the plodding classes had a right to the “consolation” of art.

Precisely how art’s consolations differ from those of fly fishing, the beauty of prime numbers, or the mundane epiphanies of living, does not lend itself to close scrutiny. What matters is grooming disciples for a mass market spirituality free of the costs of religious faith and exalted by bromides clustered around the romance of creativity—a conception cramped and corseted by the arts.

And it is never too soon to lace each other into this reductive postulate. Hardly a museum exists that does not feature family- and child-friendly activities and projects. Toddler Thursdays, Tuesdays for Tots, stroller tours, interactive online play stations, films and workshops for tykes and teens alike are box office stables. Local libraries and community centers offer their own variations. What were once rainy-day activities and ordinary pleasures have evolved into civic rituals supposed conducive to socialization. Not only is everyone an artist, as Joseph Beuys proclaimed; but the family that crayons together, stays together.

So much high-minded hectoring is premised on the fallacy that if we understand a work of art, we will assent to it. Attention does not extend to the possibility of rejecting certain artists or works because we do, indeed, understand them. (The possibility increases exponentially as art moves closer to us along the timeline.) Neither does it admit the necessity of decoding the grounds on which even canonical art is valued. The very terms of comprehension come to us fixed and amplified by an interdependent nexus of art industry exegetes: critics, curators, academics, foundation and museum directors, dealers, public relations and marketing pros, and collectors.

Prestige purchasers, many of them museum trustees, have a substantial stake in shaping the benchmarks of artistic quality. And shape it they do, glad-handing around the high rent district to confer cultural legitimacy on specific artists, including those in their own collections. They underwrite museum exhibitions, commission essays, and cultivate curators, editors and écrivains d’art. Journalistic invocations of genius flaunt vocabulary borrowed from science or philosophy (e.g. “the ontological nature of painterly motion;” “conquest of the structuration of space;” “new metaphysics of the pictorial substance”). In this way, the caché of rigorous, systematic disciplines can pass on, unearned, to every tchotchke in a Whitney Biennial.

Add to the machinery of consensus—call it the sociology of taste—the influence of major auction houses. Christie’s and Sotheby’s, no longer simply brokers, have mushroomed into international agencies of promotion. Both have established “education” programs that support the products they bring to market. Sotheby’s Institute of Art, with branches in New York, London and Singapore, imparts those “professional skills” needed “to interpret contemporary art.” Decrypted, that means you can sell any flimflam if you know how to dress it as Art. $51, 527. gets you three semesters of coaching in the ethos, manners and patois of the game. 

David Lynch, Nihilistic Delusion (1993)

Christie’s Education, follows suit with a corresponding blend of business training and mystification. Its online brochure cites “aesthetic well-being,” together with social status, as a rationale for buying art. Standard-issue artspeak, esthetic well-being is a hollow phrase, vacant of any intrinsic meaning. It lends itself to whatever claims an artist or institution states in a press release. Like so much of the lexicon of art appreciation, the wording is a conceptual blank, a gesture-for-hire, no more than a rental space available for whatever posture or sensibility draws box office.

Celebrity plays its own role in conjuring cultural value. It is a swizzle stick for stirring up shallow responses to work by recognized names. Who but Prada rabble, woozy from citron martinis, could applaud an exhibition of film maker David Lynch’s dog-patch aesthetic? Or James Franco’s adolescent graphic spurts? Yet, timed to this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, the press went on a publicity jag, hailing Franco as Hollywood’s latest Renaissance man and a talented artist to boot. All marks are meaningful; all doodles are drawings. It is a road for nihilists.

James Franco, Waz Up? (2006)

Celebrity anti-art arrives in a straight line of descent from the drugged-out doodling of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  By aggressive retreat from any visual criteria, uncontrolled, impulsive mark-making removes itself from judgment. Apologists can support it solely on the basis of expression, the appreciator’s all-purpose solvent. But expression and creative imagination are not the same. There are many kinds of expression: burping, twitching, and blinking are each expressions of something. So are bad teeth and stains on your tie. Mere trumpeting of expression does no honor to art; but it does provide an avenue to celebrity. Basquiat admitted that celebrity mattered more to him than the quality of his art. Lynch and Franco, already well known, can coast on notoriety.

Art appreciation both creates celebrity and feeds on it. Few readers will remember Yoko Ono’s “bold performance” of Cut Piece, the 1964 stunt that brought her international recognition as a voice for global harmony. You might, though, have caught her reenactment a few years ago in Paris. Ono sat on a darkened stage dressed in black flowing silk. The audience was invited to consummate the artwork by snipping off pieces of her wardrobe with scissors provided by the house. Participants were then instructed to send the clippings to a loved one in the name of world peace.

Back in '64, undressing a nubile, 31-year-old Yoko Ono lent the necessary sexual frisson to what was, at bottom, a strip show. High-minded honky-tonk for bien pensants. Uncovering the same woman, some 40 years later, offered more poignant possibilities. Black bra and panties on an elderly exhibitionist, together with self-referential bleating about peace ("I was just here to say imagine world peace. … I'm hoping these things will help.") ought to squelch any chance of seriousness. But art appreciation induces a certain gullibility. Ono distributed bits of her wardrobe as if they were relics of the True Cross. Britain’s The Independent fell for it, declaring the event part of her “enduring request for world peace.”

Grandstanding in the arts has become a habit, like churchgoing. By making noises about some pretense at social redemption or another, artists put themselves beyond the reach of criticism. Any relation between stated intent and actual achievement is rendered undiscussable. Right-thinking short circuits traditional categories of judgment. It hardly matters if a "work" is good or bad. It's about Peace, Justice, Choice, Hope, or some other fine abstraction. How could anyone find fault with that?

While flawed assumptions of art’s authority does the most damage in the contemporary arena, it distorts public grasp of historic works as well. Take, as one example, Roger Scruton’s response to Manet’s Olympia, in his 2009 handbook of essays, Beauty. Even a cultural critic as clear-eyed as he succumbs to appreciation’s packaged insights.

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863)

Manet’s boulevardienne, modeled after Titian’s Venus, was greeted with dismay in its time. And for good reasons having nothing to do with prudery. In 1863, the year Olympia was painted, syphilis was a serial killer in France. To ignore that is not to see the painting at all, or to glimpse it only partially. Infected husbands brought the disease home to their wives, who passed it, in utero, to children. Whole families were devastated by it. It has been estimated that, at the time, one out of five people were infected. (Manet, a syphilitic like his father, died horribly of complications.) Without that public health perspective, today’s audience can have no grasp whatever of what the painting meant in Manet’s Paris.

Scruton skirts any reference to the art of the work, e.g. paint handling, or other barometers of craft. Instead, he celebrates it as an exemplum of “self-identity and self-awareness.” He heads down the creative writing path with phrasing that echoes the feminist rhetoric of his own time and milieu: “[Olympia’s] knowing expression neither offers the body nor withholds it, but nevertheless has its own way of saying that this body is wholly mine.” Oh, please, Roger! How self-possessed could any prostitute have been in nineteenth century France? It was rife with cholera and tuberculosis no less than syphilis. Contagion was an ever-present danger and antibiotics not yet invented.

Scruton’s gloss illustrates a crucial hazard of synthetic appreciation: the substitution of art history for history itself. We moderns are amused to think that Manet’s contemporaries were shocked or outraged by the painting. How quaint, how moralistic, those bourgeoisie. But Manet’s audience understood Olympia better than a modern philosopher glancing back through the narrow lens of art. Scruton looks and sees only self-assurance, a hard-bitten poise. Manet’s public, bereft of the safeguards of modern medicine, saw a source of infection.

In sum, art is an instrument thoroughly of this world. It is not revelation, as litanies of appreciation pretend. It has no lessons or sanctions for behavior. It can oblige any purpose, soothe any heart from the blessed to the cursed. We are lulled into granting art undue deference because of its ancient alliance with powers of great magnitude and consequence. Once upon a time, art served the sovereignty of the Church and the dominion of princes. It facilitated contemplation of the the Christian story and, later, the contemplation of cosmic order as that was thought manifest in monarchy, dynasty and empire. Yesterday’s handmaid of the state, art today is something else altogether.

While it remains the lifeblood of those who make it, art is less important to the true meaning of culture—something distinct from the culture trade—than our tutors would have us think. W.H. Auden had it about right: “The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, for good and evil, than the apostle. . . . However much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them.”


This essay first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The City, a journal of Houston Baptist University, edited by Benjamin Domenich.

Copyright 2011 Maureen Mullarkey

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