Today's post is part of the continuing debate with my good friend, Ted Stoltz, over at Notablogtm.com. You'll notice a change in the title of my post from last week. I realized that the title, "Objective of the Imagination" is not a very debatelike title. Since this is a debate, I want to reflect that.
Now, as per our rules, we have a 1,500 word limit. I usually start out way over and have to pare down. This week, I'm doing something a bit different. I used quotes from Ted's posts and put in responses to specific points. I am not counting the quotes from Ted's post as part of my word count. Cry foul if you must, folks, I had no other way of getting my points in and the responses wouldn't make much sense without Ted's part. Besides, this makes it seem a bit more like a live debate, so it'll flow better. The only problem is, unlike a real debate, Ted can't immediately respond to one of my points, so you'll just have to wait until Monday for his end. Because I am taking this tactic, I won't count against Ted when he uses quotes from my post. He usually comes under the word limit by a bit more, anyway, so it's not as big a deal for him. If you add up the words that I wrote, you'll find they come in under 1,500 words.
Also, I used material from his Wednesday post, I Just Got To Level 20 in Sending Email. There are no rules against this, but I want to play fair, so I'm just letting you know. Ted, if you like, grab anything from any of my other posts.
Ted: I asked about the absolute standards of beauty, not beauty itself. While a working definition of beauty is helpful, it is not where the disagreement lies. Since Paul’s argument is that beauty in art is based on objective standards, we need to know what these objective standards are. Paul attempts to define one of them by saying, “Men find fertile women beautiful because we have a natural instinct to produce offspring.”
Paul: Our sense of what's beautiful arrives to us from the outside world. Instinctually, what we find beautiful is what will do us good. Ugly, what will do us harm. Consistency and comfort we find beautiful, which is why soft pillowy clouds are beautiful. Jaggedness and hardness we find ugly, such as sharp rocks at the bottom of a chasm. In art, we can represent an ugly subject in a beautiful way, using our skill at our craft to make use of symmetry, the golden mean, balance, what have you. We can also represent beautiful things in an ugly way, such as a poor drawing of a large eyed puppy. Just because someone sucks at representing something doesn't mean that thing isn't beautiful. The poor drawing of the puppy may be horrible to us because of its poor lines, jagged edges, and lack of balance. It has become a monster. The technical cannot be separated form the conceptual without both suffering. A person must have the technique to represent his idea accurately, and he must have a good idea to execute.
"Yes, but what about things that can do us harm but we still find beautiful, like an erupting volcano?" Alright, good point. Here we deal with a mixture of several aspects. One, we probably do not find it beautiful, per se, but perhaps "powerful" and "awe inspiring." I would find a 3,000 foot tall pile of rotting corpses really impressive ("How on earth did they do that?"), but I certainly wouldn't find it beautiful. Besides, if we are there to actually witness a volcano erupting, assuming we were from a far away vantage point and wouldn't get hurt, there are aspects we would find beautiful. The roundness and softness of the billowing cloud, the symmetry and balance of the mountain, etc. These aspects by themselves are beautiful, though we would be terrified out of our wits at what they combined into.
Ted: The “normalcy” of humanity is not borne of some objectivity existing either inside or outside the brain. The normalcy in the human condition is nothing more than the hump of the bell curve. We define normal by looking at the traits that most people have. But the standard distribution itself yields extremes—which must also be considered normal. A world which did not have a standard distribution—where everyone is the same—would be the abnormal world. It wouldn’t correspond with our observations. To say that someone’s standards are abnormal because they fall outside the “normal” range (whatever that is) may be true in the semantic sense, but it certainly should not be used as leverage against them. These people will always exist, and the fact that they do exist in a certain percentage is normal. Furthermore, they must be taken into account, and not simply dismissed as abnormal.
Paul: Ok, if you want the word "normal" to mean "mathematical average." I'm using normal to mean "functions well." Sure, everyone being the same would be a strange world. The people in our world have wide ranges of being smart/stupid, tall/short, that sort of thing. Some people have good imaginations, some don't. Life ain't fair. Some people can more easily recognize beauty, some can't. Ed Wood wouldn't know a good film if it bit him in the can. Orson Welles did. What's the difference? Something objective because we're rating them as artists. Anytime we say something is "good," "bad," "right," or "wrong," we are appealing to something from without.
John Williams is a superior guitarist to, say, me. It's not just craft, he makes superior choices to myself when playing a piece of music. He knows that to affect an audience, he must perform a piece with "hills and valleys," in other words, slight changes in tempo, dynamics, and tambre. If I believe that the same piece must be performed flat throughout, I am not just an inferior player, I am an inferior artist. The piece will not affect the audience as well as if it were performed by him. Now, I know that pieces must be performed with such hills and valleys, but that may not be the case for someone else. Is his artistic vision inferior? Sure. Until he learns what it takes to write or perform a piece that will move an audience, he ain't goin' anywhere artistically. He'll play to a small fraction of people who also don't grow and perform pieces very flat. And yes, their experience of the music will be worse, because without those hills and valleys, they won't be carried anywhere by the music.
Ted: Furthermore, this view point could be argued to confirm my initial claim, not refute it. Whether or not you personally agree with other people’s standards is completely beside the point. Paul said, “Sure, we can say we believe everything’s subjective, but we sure don’t function that way.” Disregarding the fact that I made no such claim as “everything” being subjective—who sure doesn’t function that way? Obviously some people do; you just called them a problem! The standards must be subjective, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this “problem”.
Paul: I meant "function well." Sure, insane people function. People who mutilate themselves for fun function. They don't function well.
Ted: Couldn’t two people with subjective opinions of beauty still find some common ground, and thereby not be lonely?
Paul: Yes, but they're appealing to something outside of themselves to do it! They're saying, "Hey, I enjoy this thing, and you enjoy this thing, let's both enjoy it!" It's no longer just in their individual heads (if it ever was), but between them for both of them to look at outside of themselves.
Ted: The utter chaos that happens in games doesn’t really get recognized for what it is because there’s no real risk there. I know the study talks about how games prepare one to be a risk-taker, but let’s be honest. They don’t. There isn’t really a real risk in an online game. There’s a lot of inconvenience, but it never impacts your real-life life. Because of this, the game is hugely tolerant of error. It has to be, not just because there are a lot of stupid people playing, but because it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. Nobody would play a game where, when you die, you’re dead and that’s it. That’s no fun, and nobody plays games to have not-fun. So in games today, you can screw around all day—you can have your utter chaos—and still get things accomplished with cursing and an utter lack of organization and only the most rudimentary chain of command because the game is extremely forgiving.
Paul: Are video games art with objective standards for enjoyment? You bet. Someone makes a game where you die once and that's it? I agree with you, that guy's an idiot who made poor art. *PS, this is the one taken from the Wednesday post.
Ted: I don’t understand the claim that we’d be able to literally do anything. (We’d be able to do literally everything? Fly, perhaps? Why should this be true?)
Paul: I meant "literally anything in art." If I take a tree and plant it in my living room, is it my work? Nope, that tree was made by nature, not me. If it's art, it's God's art, not mine.
Ted: Why should you be concerned about what other people’s standards of beauty are?
Paul: Because people with inferior conceptions of what is beautiful try to tell us that the 5,000 years of artists believing in something outside themselves that compels them to make art is resulting from a false philosophy (though that philosophy produced the greatest works of art this world has ever seen) and we need to accept that Fountain and 4'33" are just as good because human thought has really advanced in the last 30 years. Second, these same people are becoming in charge of the art world and are telling people that they can do what they like, as long as it makes them feel good. I'm all for feeling good, but I'm also for growing intellectually and artistically, which ultimately results in my feeling better than if I lived in the narrow conceptions of my own mind.
Sometimes we don't like what's best for us at first, but we learn to like it and eventually like it better than what we liked before. If someone tells me McDonald's hamburgers are better than filet mignons, I don't deny that he feels that they taste better. I also believe that he has an inferior palate and would benefit in the long run from trying out filet mignons. If he still doesn't like them, then I won't use him as my restaurant guide. Nor will I ask him where to take my boss for lunch.
Ted: It doesn’t matter how much you study the masters, or drive for that “objective standard” because there is no objective standard. You can’t make work everyone likes. So you make work for you.
Paul: Calling them "the Masters" means they have something the rest of us don't have. Do they not only have better skill, but better imaginations? Sure. Not only do they represent images better, but they also pick images depending on their beauty (if they use images at all, abstractionists take the parts down to their core: Light, Shade, Texture, but still rely on the standards of beauty). Is a well executed painting of a puppy more beautiful than a well executed painting of a rotting corpse? Sure. The pic of the corpse may be beautiful, but it's not as
beautiful, because it has an ugly subject.
I won't be able to make work everyone likes. In fact, there are plenty of people I hope don't like my work. I want my work to appeal to people with high levels of imagination as well as craft. Whether I will achieve that, I don't know. I am certainly not (at least right now) on the level of people like Johann Sebastian Bach, Mel Blanc, or Ernest Hemingway. I may never be, but it is the high level that they attained that pushes me to continue.
Ted: Is there ugliness? Sure. Is it full of amateurish mistakes? Of course. Does some of this ugly, amateur work get picked up and make it big? Absolutely. This doesn’t mean there is a more noble standard to which we should all be striving, but it may mean that you find yourself unable rest until you get recognition for your not-ugly, not-amateur work. If you truly have great work, the ugly stuff shouldn’t bother you. But even if you have the greatest work of all, you will still have people who find your stuff ugly, boring, or trite.
Paul: So there are
objective standards in art? If we can say something us ugly, there is an objective standard of beauty to which we aspire. The ugly stuff bothers me because the average person 100 years ago could identify something as good art. In J.S. Bach's time, average people could play an instrument, read sheet music, and compose music, as well. Artists from every field were reaching to the world as fellow artists, something which has been lost. Now, the average musician plays to people who don't know anything about music, and therefore they cannot critique his performance and aid him in improving. If the average artist shows someone a picture, the person says, "I don't know art, but that looks good to me." The average beer drinker thinks Miller Lite is "the good stuff." It drags down the overall quality of what we do, and people can't tell the difference anymore. Art has suffered. I have no problem with certain people finding my art crappy, if they're poor artists. If an artist is good enough, his work will appeal to experts and laymen alike, and aid in restoring the artist's place in reaching out to fellow artists.
Now, when I talk about what art is
and what it is not
, I refer mostly to the involvement of the "artist," not just the quality of the end product. John Cage did not "write" 4'33'' because any aspects of performance are totally out of his control. The credit for the "performances" should go to the audience shifting in their chairs, and the traffic going by the theater. His prepared piano material, however, is art. It's just bad
art. Besides, sometimes the propaganda surrounding a great piece of art is true. We see it and say to ourselves, "Wow, this is beautiful. How could anyone not find this beautiful?"