Monday, October 13, 2014

a shilling's worth

Cheap Art Is Bad Art

I am sorry to say, the great tendency of this age is to expend its genius in perishable art of this kind, as if it were a triumph to burn its thoughts away in bonfires. There is a vast quantity of intellect and of labour consumed annually in our cheap illustrated publications; you triumph in them; and you think it is so grand a thing to get so many woodcuts for a penny. Why, woodcuts, penny and all, are as much lost to you as if you had invested your money in gossamer. More lost, for the gossamer could only tickle your face, and glitter in your eyes; it could not catch your feet and trip you up: but the bad art can, and does; for you can't like good woodcuts as long as you look at the bad ones. If we were at this moment to come across a Titian woodcut, or a Durer woodcut, we should not like it—those of us at least who are accustomed to the cheap work of the day. We don't like, and can't like, that long; but when we are tired of one bad cheap thing, we throw it aside and buy another bad cheap thing; and, so keep looking at bad things all our lives. Now, the very men who do all that quick bad work for us are capable of doing perfect work. Only, perfect work can't be hurried, and therefore it can't be cheap beyond a certain point. But suppose you pay twelve times as much as you do now, and you have one woodcut for a shilling instead of twelve; and the one woodcut for a shilling is as good as art can be, so that you will never tire of looking at it; and is struck on good paper with good ink, so that you will never wear it out by handling it; while you are sick of your penny-each cuts by the end of the week, and have torn them mostly in half too. Isn't your shilling's worth the best bargain?
--John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art, 1857

13 comments:

  1. There is a real failure to understand the variety of responses to art, isn't there? Thank goodness Ruskin never knew about television or the Beatles.

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    1. I tend to think that TV is the burning away of thoughts in bonfires, and I'll bet Ruskin would've been a Beatles fan. I can see him standing in Venice, fingertips on chin, gazing up at the domes of St Mark's and humming, very softly to himself, the first verse of "Eleanor Rigby."

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    2. That failure seems to have become particularly virulent during the first part of the twentieth century when Ruskinian paternalism was discarded and the High Culture voices decided that everyone outside their circle was irredeemably lost. It wasn't until I read a strong expression of that idea in -- it might have been José Ortega y Gasset -- that I appreciated the confoundingness of the Pop artists.

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    3. That's what I was trying to say. Ruskin would have been like Adorno whining about jazz. If those 12 woodcuts were from a Best of The Far Side set or formed three vintage Peanuts strips, it was a shilling well spent.

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    4. I don't think Ruskin is attacking pop art as a whole (whatever "pop art" is supposed to be) so much as he's talking about works that are deliberately manufactured as consumable goods, of no real value and to be replaced almost immediately with other similar low-value consumable goods made without any artistic impulse on the part of the craftsman. Like, say, "Grand Theft Auto" movies or inspirational posters with kittens hanging from tree branches.

      In the larger context of this essay, he's also saying that artists are generally only able to find employment in what are more or less craft factories, cranking out identical tchachkies for an indifferent public who only care if the tchachkies are the color of the week.

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    5. I didn't even know there was a Grand Theft Auto movie. Ruskin can't mean that sort of thing because there is no way its creators "are capable of doing perfect work," no matter how much they slow down.

      If only Jack Kirby had been able to slow down! No, I don't think that was Kirby's problem.

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    6. "...whatever "pop art" is supposed to be ...": I was thinking of Warhol and Lichtenstein and other artists who took those consumable goods and painted them on canvases and brought them into galleries and otherwise confused the language of fine art with the language of those things that had been classified as disposable non-art, saying, thereby, that the matters circulating around those non-arts were not so lightly dismissible, and also opening the way for Robert Hughes (who thought nonetheless that Warhol's influence was pernicious) to refer to the cartoonist Crumb as "the Brueghel of the 20th century." Is it worth pointing out that the older Ruskin had such a crush on the popular, mass-produced children's book illustrations of Kate Greenaway that he started writing her fan letters? " "I lay awake half (no, a quarter) of last night thinking of the hundred things I want to say to you—and never shall get said!—and I'm giddy and weary, and now can't say even half or a quarter of one out of the hundred."

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    7. I confess myself bemused by the reactions to this excerpt. I don't think that because Ruskin became enthusiastic about Greenaway means that most mass-produced articles have artistic value. I am also suspicious of Warhol and Lichtenstein: the former I think wanted to be creative but could only be a personality, an entertainer who put found images he liked into frames, as it were; the latter I think traded heavily on irony and his works are clumsy commentary (at best, and if that) on mass cultural entertainment. That this stuff made its way into galleries does not make it fine art (another vague term, yes). I know I sound like an old man here. But I think Warhol knew his limitations when he called his studio "Factory," and Lichtenstein is amusing for a while but does grow stale quickly. Possibly there was no Brueghel of the 20th century and Hughes just wanted the pop art he liked to be more important (another useless term) than it is. We all want the world to love our favorite pop songs, but that does not make them art.

      Why I posted this in the first place, maybe, is because the old houses in my neighborhood are being torn down and replaced by cheaply-built multistory boxes that all look more or less identical, and there are quite a few high-rise buildings (with underground parking and retail on the ground floor, of course) being built on the major streets, and they are all certainly ugly and not built to last. I look at the new releases in bookstores and I see much the same thing, and the same is true of course for the new releases in music. In 400 years, my claim is, people will not be listening to the Beatles but they will still (the specialists in ancient music, that is) know who Dowling was. I am also simply cranky today, but I do think that history is likely to winnow away most of the celebrated pop art of today.

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    8. Likely? Certain. Yet I live today. Those folks in the future can have their own fun.

      Actually, how I would love to hear their pop music. Oh well.

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    9. Ironically, perhaps, Meine Frau und ich are going to a pop art show this week, featuring works by Warhol and Lichtenstein among others.

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  2. While appreciatingthe limitations of Ruskin's viewpoint, I do feel there is a kernel of truth in what he says. Yes, it is easy to point out works created quickly and perhaps without much thought, if any, of art, but which have nonetheless lasted, and which succeeding generations have found enriching. But these are exceptions rather than the general rule. In general, Ruskin is possibly right in what he says. But the question he doesn't address is "Does it matter?" If something that is cheap and mass-produced can give me pleasure, perhaps even an intense pleasure, then why should I care whether or not it is likely to last?

    To complicate matters further, there's the question of nostalgia - an illness to which I am increasingly susceptible with growing years. A cheap pop tune that i used to jump up and down to when I was 13 or so, or a simple illustration from a children's book I used to read, gives me intense pleasure. It is easy to say that the pleasure does not come from the inherent quality of the work, but how else am I to judge "inherent quality" of anything other than in terms of how it affects me? I suppose teh answer is that the pop tune, or the illustration, will have little or no effect on someone who has not grown up with it. But once again - why should I care how it affects others?

    So I don't think I disagree too much with what Ruskin is saying. He is surely right in thinking that the cheap and mass-produced don't, in general, have much lasting value. But this leads to rather more interesting questions, I think.

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    1. The issue is a moral one, I think. If mere passing pleasure is all that matters, then certainly Ruskin has no argument at all, because pleasure is cheap and easily had; it's probably the primary commodity on the market. But I think--and I think Ruskin argues this as well--that pleasure is a selfish little thing that serves mostly to reinforce our prejudices about ourselves and a steady diet of cheap selfish little pleasures actually reduces our humanity and is therefore a bad thing. A steady diet of mere pleasure works to blind us of the possibility of real beauty (and here I at least don't mean any particular aesthetic or cultural measure of beauty), of the ability to experience the sublime, of having what Seamus Heaney called having your heart blown wide open by the world. Beauty, the experience of the sublime, is foreign to most people. Beauty, the experience of the sublime, is what I think we get from "art" (a term I won't define), and it bursts us open and makes our view of the world larger, forcing our awareness to encompass individuals beyond ourselves, making us better humans. I know people whose primary reaction to moments of the sublime is confusion and embarrassment, because they lack the experiential grounding to understand the sublime, they lack an immediate culture in which they can discuss and share experiences of the sublime, and so instead they seek pleasure in order to feel something, even if all they feel is a punch up down at the pub or the weak excitement of a game show on TV. The high points of our lives become then just these mere moments of pleasure, all essentially the same, none of them transformative, all of them essentially small and self-directed and diminishing of our humanity in the long run. So I would say that it does matter. And how. Not that we need to eliminate pleasure, but we can't substitute pleasure for the transfigurative bliss of beauty. Loads of cheap art and pop music, no matter the fuzzy pink glow they put around our hearts, are not the equivalent of sublime experience. I like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but it only reinforces my baser instincts toward self importance, and that's not a good thing at all. The place of Holbein's portrait of Christ in the tomb can't be taken by a painting of a sad clown. Or, if it can, then we're all just sad clowns.

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