Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Objective Value in Art

"Art is like a joke: if you have to explain it then it sucks"

I recently visited the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and got embroiled in a conversation on the value of art, and in particular the value of modern art. This is an age old question, and more specifically this question: does art have (can art have) objective value, or is its value purely subjective? Surely the value of art resides in the effect (the affect) it has on the observer, so the value of art is by very nature a subjective thing.

Art has value if it produces a worthwhile affect (including whether or not we like it), if it moves (or resonates) emotionally with the viewer, if it stimulates the viewer to intellectual thought, or if the art provides some commentary on society, humanity or the world around us (does the art "speak to us"). Modern art attempts to do this in abstraction, by removing recognisable representation of the world it can (potentially) speak to a deeper part of us than merely the conscious and rational mind. Abstraction can (in theory) evoke primal feelings and thought patterns we aren't even aware are part of us.

Artists have, with the collusion of museums, placed literally "random trash" on display - with the apparent argument that the emotional response created, the thought processes stimulated, provide the value in such artwork. But if the value in art is the affect on the viewers (possibly a big if) then this is something we can determine. The artistic skill, and therefore to some extent, the artistic merit in any piece of art is the ability of that art to create a response beyond the response created by something that took no artistic skill. It is likely that there is some value in people going to museums and engaging with themselves as they view artwork - this is the value in viewing "random trash" and perceiving how that affects them and what commentary it makes on society. We can use "random crap in a frame" (or random blobs on a canvas), art that takes no artistic skill to create, as control art. Art only takes genuine artistic skill, has objective value beyond the subjective response that a person creates for themself, if on average it tends to create a stronger response than work that takes no skill to produce.

So here's an experiment I'd love to see, from any modern artist brave enough to test if their work has objective artistic merit. Create a piece of art using as little skill as possible, in as short a time as possible, say "random crap in a frame". Show viewers this piece of art along with a "genuine" piece of art and ask viewers to report their response to engaging with both pieces of art (in a blind test of course - the viewers don't know which piece of art is real). The response can be measured in various axes including emotional connection, appreciation (how much the viewers like the art) and intellectual stimulation. If the "genuine" art has real artistic merit then it should produce a measurably stronger response, on average when shown to enough viewers to produce a statistically significant result, than "random crap". Then we could really know whether or not the emperor is wearing any clothes... The random crap provides the control for the baseline response to being in a museum or art gallery and having to think about art, the subjective part of the experience.

This has lots of caveats of course, some genuine and some not. It maybe that the work of any individual artist is produced from a particular cultural context and only really speaks to, resonates with, people who have (or understand) that cultural context. This could very well be true, but whilst it means that the art may have been significant it also means that the art hasn't stood the test of time and is perhaps no longer significant. The claim of the artistic community may also be that modern art in particular takes particular depth and understanding to engage with - that only people who "get it" will respond to it. This claim that "we speak a different language to you" smacks of elitism (and bullshit) to me, in particular because it's unfalsifiable and actually indistinguishable from genuine bullshit. Meaning it probably is bullshit. At the very best it means the art is inaccessible and impenetrable, not qualities of "good art".

There could also be other flaws with any particular implementation of this experiment. If the "genuine art" is recognisable to any portion of the audience this will skew the result, the genuine art should also be of a similar "type" to the "crap art" so that any prejudice against modern art applies equally to both pieces.

A further criticsim could be that everything comes with cultural context. Even random crap that appears to have taken no effort to produce is a product of the time and culture of the person making it. I would hope that it's still clear that a good artist is one that can elevate us beyond the "mere average" of our current cultural context, and produce something that evokes a deeper response. If the skill of an artist is to produce nothing beyond what our current age provides for free, with no skill involved, then that artist can hardly claim artistic merit of their own.

So art can have objective value, value beyond the subjective response of any individual to that art. And potentially we can explore and know that value.