There are very few people that have any criteria for the judgment of the visual in art, any language for the discussion of the visual in art, or any strong emotional response to the aesthetic aspects of pictures or sculpture. This latter point could be construed as the cause or effect of the two preceding observations, but either way, it’s the most important of the three.
All that said, there are very few people who are actually numb to the visual, because an overwhelming majority feels something like awe (or at least feels something) when witnessing a magnificent sunset, a mountain shrouded in mist, or a crystalline lake with a surface as still as glass.
Many of the people who have no criteria for the judgment of the visual in art are, surprisingly, artists, curators and critics. Many of them would not dispute this statement. This constituency obviously requires some kind of substitute criteria from which to make or judge art. Their priorities can be loosely grouped under three categories:
- Critique: Political, cultural, identity-based, language-based, or specifically aimed at the institutions of art itself.
- Proximity to the Zeitgeist: The extent to which a given work of art is an accurate reflection (or critique) of our moment in history, our present.
- Sociology: The attempt to discuss not the merits of a given work, but to situate it within a cultural context. This is related to but distinct from the above, because it often seeks to take works that don’t self-consciously express the zeitgeist and fit them in to a certain conception of it nonetheless. This methodology belongs more specifically to critics and curators than artists.
The first and last can quickly devolve into propaganda and cultural anthropology, respectively, and these things have nothing to do with my experience of a Titian. And advertising, entertainment, and social media express the zeitgeist vastly better than any artist could ever dream of doing. The artist or curator will often try to sidestep this obvious truth by applying a veneer of critique, but that’s a pretty flimsy sleight of hand to say the least.
The Graduate Degree has definitely diminished the importance of the visual. All emerging artists have MFA’s, and this is a fairly recent development when considered in the overall history of art. The discussion of the emotional response to the color relationships in a given work doesn’t make sense within a context in which people are working towards an advanced degree – a similar degree to the kind that doctors, lawyers, engineers, and physicists are seeking. It must be intellectualized in order to appear the equal to those other professional pursuits, and subjective reflections on the poetic can seem amateurish by comparison. The go-to replacement is the dissection of subject (see items #1, 2, and 3, above) which is often framed by French philosophy of the 60’s and 70’s (somewhat inexplicably).
Is it possible to reconnect what Clive Bell called the aesthetic emotion to visual art? It clearly still exists in relation to the afore-mentioned sunsets and lakes, even among the most jaded New York post-modernists, many of whom can’t wait to escape to their pastoral upstate retreats in the summer months (I know a lot of them). It’s also a non-controversial response to instrumental music; anyone who feels nothing when listening to the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of Rhapsody in Blue must have no pulse.
Oddly enough, I’m optimistic, and for a variety of reasons:
Post-modernism failed to create anything really durable in art or theoretics. Viewed another way, it could be a victim of its own success – the critique of the myth of durability was part of the program. Thus perhaps it didn’t die, but simply evanesced.
Art that seeks to emphasize the articulation of space and light and atmosphere, and that actively engages with scale and color, has, since the 1960’s, often been disparaged as academic and institutional. Presumably, these latter terms refer to that which is being broadly taught in the big schools, shown at the big institutions, and written about in the big journals. The formal and poetic certainly does not fit that description at present, and if you’re not sure what I’m driving at, see items #1, 2, and 3, above.
History is a pendulum, whether you believe in the historical narrative or not. When I was an undergrad, works that emphasized subject at the expense of the visual were routinely written off as illustration. Today the illustrative is very much in vogue and the visual is now just as reflexively written off as decorative. It’s very easy to imagine this changing again within my lifetime (I’m very healthy for my age).
And finally, because of my freshman students, who are uniquely open to a discussion of the visual, can participate in that discussion with intelligence, and produce work that often delights me. Granted, a lot can happen on the journey from bright-eyed freshman to cool-eyed grad student that might set things off on another track entirely. But hope, as they say, springs eternal.