Having just finished re-reading ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams, which is absolutely worth a second and eventually a third visitation in my opinion, I think I can declare this a summer of good books. My next goal is to wrap up reading ‘Barney’s Version’ (which was interrupted by WD — somehow rabbits crossing countryside to set up a new warren in England are a little more compelling than an angry old Jewish man with memory loss living in Montreal), then I’ll tackle ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver, which comes with a high recommendation from
Books on loan from folks include ‘Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’ by Umberto Eco, given to me some time back by
Somebody out there has my ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ and ‘Batgirl: Year One’, but I’m damned if I can remember who. I’m sure there are several other soldiers still MIA from my bookshelves, and to them I say good luck and good night, may your new home treat you well.
For anyone out there looking for some truly stimulating summer reading, I thought I should highlight two books that I was talking to
After working through some Plato and other earlier thinkers who meditated on the nature of art, we started into Danto‘s book ‘After the End of Art’ and Scruton‘s wryly titled ‘An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture’.
These books are excellent. I can’t recommend them enough, especially in tandem.
Long-ass comparative book review
Personally, I found Scruton infuriating as hell in his pessimism but engaging, thought-provoking and funny. His premise is that essentially, art is dead and we have fallen victim to sentimentality and pap. He’s mildly obsessed with Wagner and the whole ‘twilight of the gods’ idea, and he talks with a cheerful morbidity about common, high, and popular culture. His loathing of pop culture is expounded upon in three scathing chapters, in which Foucault, Derrida and youth culture (including pop music a la Spice Girls, etc) are declared morally bankrupt, worthless and devoid of all purpose. The chapter on youth culture (‘Yoofanasia’) is hysterical and slightly bittersweet, in that Scruton must know that the audience who are in most dire need of hearing his arguments will never bother to pick up this book, and even if they did, they would likely be unable to comprehend (or maybe even read) his arguments against the skewed priorities and preoccupations of their hollow lives.
The book isn’t exactly popular in academic circles, since the man basically craps all over post-modernism. I’d like to say that this book is not exclusively negative, since Scruton is a passionate advocate of high culture and its ability to provoke humanistic epiphanies, but all of his examples are from way back when, and everything contemporary is written off as a loss. In the first chapter, Scruton claims to be railing against modern nihilism, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by reading his work. He offers no solutions to the problems he presents, except maybe leaping into a time machine and stealing Wagner and Jesus, since “art is the consolation prize for our loss of religion.” The question is, what is to be done about culture, and why should it matter? Scruton’s book is long on complaints and short on answers, but is still well worth reading.
Danto is a lot easier to swallow, even though he starts with the same premise as Scruton: art is dead. Or perhaps I should use Miracle Max’s terminology “mostly dead”. Okay, not so much “dead” as “over”, “ended”, “fini”. Scruton’s coroner’s report puts the time of death at around oh, the Baroque period. Maybe, mayyybe Rococo, but that’s pushing it. Danto is a lot more generous; the corpse of art is still warm, since it only started pushing up daisies (by his definition) around 1964.
Danto also has some similar ideas to Scruton when it comes to art replacing religion, or at least museums replacing churches; he’s just not nearly as bummed out about it. So what if art is dead? Long live art! When “art” showed up in the 15th century, courtesy Vasari, we were looking for perfect representations of beauty. When photography came around in the 1880s, we started to refine “art” as an intriguing and innovative use of materials and illusion. Finally, in the 1960s, with the influx of Minimalism, Op Art, Post-painterly abstraction, Hard-edge painting, New realism, Performance art, Fluxus, Junk art and all that other weird bullshit that I personally blame on Yoko Ono, we shifted purpose and intent yet again.
What Danto is really doing here is trying to redefine our use and abuse of the word “art” to refer to a specific activity and product at a specific time that is no longer being produced. The ongoing historical development of art as movements and salons has come to an end and now pluralism reigns in the artworld. There are no set conditions that determine what is and what is not an artwork, so that means that anything, from a urinal to an umbrella stand to a fluorescent light tucked in a corner can be called a work of art.
There are obvious consequences to this kind of lawlessness and plurality. Art criticism becomes much harder because all basic guidelines of appreciation and evaluation have disappeared. Every artwork has to be taken as an individual, with no point of comparison. The philosophy of art has to change.
The extreme deviation of our methods of producing, displaying and circulating contemporary art from the great narrative and schools of practice that traditionally defined art throughout history is an inescapable truth. But Danto isn’t sure we all need to go slitting our wrists over it. Different doesn’t mean wrong, and he sees a golden age as possible if we can just let go of narrow Kantian perceptions of beauty as an essential feature of “good” art.
In brief: if you want your next trip to a museum to be a really meaningful and enriching experience, or you just want to sound hella smart at your next cocktail party, pick up these two excellent books and leave them in your bathroom for a few weeks. The Scruton is only a piddling 173 pages long and it has BIG margins and a large typeface. You’ll rip through it. Danto is a little heavier, clocking in at 262 pages (and smaller margins), but it is elegantly written and if you do a chapter a week, you’ll be laughing.
Happy summer reading, everyone!