Saturday 21 November 2015

Jackson Pollock and Historical Perspective

In the second of my two recent posts (here and here) about reaching an objective judgement about the quality of works of art  (and in particular, music) I proposed some criteria for reaching such a judgement.

I also mentioned that Jackson Pollock's name had been mentioned in this regard, and now I want to return to that, and as a result propose one further criterion.

I do not like Pollock's work. I find it does not move me; I am not sure what it is trying to do, and therefore cannot evaluate how well it does it. I question whether it really demonstrates any skill, or any insight. So, in my judgement, it does not meet many of the criteria I proposed. However, I also recognise that all of that is a subjective perspective, and at least in part based on my ignorance. Others clearly think it is art of stature.

I compare my reaction to Pollock with my reaction to Mondrian. At first glance, I had a similar view of Mondrian's work; but the more I see of it, (particularly originals - his work does not reproduce well, I find) the more I question that. I think he really is onto something, though I would struggle to say what.

But again, I recognise that is a subjective view. And there is (a large) part of me that wonders if most modern art has lost its way, and is pulling a fast one, as it were. And that too is a subjective view.

So I am prepared to hold fire, and not have a strong opinion (well, I do on Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, but the less said about them, the better). Nor do I find there are many cultural or artistic critics in whom I have sufficient confidence to accept their judgements pro or contra

The same is true of some modern music: serialism does nothing for me, for example. But that may be a failing in me, not least due to a lack of education and understanding.

But the most important additional criterion, I think, is the judgment of time. Artistic judgements are subject to fashion. Even Shakespeare was out of vogue for a period, and during the Restoration there was a marked trend to improve his plays to conform to current tastes. But over time that shakes down: the genius of Beethoven or Van Gogh is clearer with historical perspective.

So I am happy to remain agnostic about Pollock and Mondrian, and let our descendants be the judges. But that does not, I think, detract from my central thesis that one can make objective statements about the quality of art. It just suggests that education, understanding and perspective may all be necessary in order to do so.


Patricius said...

Funny how tastes differ! I'm more of a Jackson Pollock fan myself but then my musical tastes include Les Dawson's piano playing - all wrong notes but definitely in the right order!

Ttony said...

The, or at least a, point is that if there are objective criteria for saying whether something described as a "work of art" is good or bad, then you (one, we, they) have to be able to articulate the criteria. So: Tracey Emin's Bed = bad, Leonardo's Mona Lisa = good; can be argued against a checklist of conditions. Do this for every work of art, and, hey presto! you have a canon.

As far as I can tell, the alternative to this is "what I recognise as art" or (better? worse?) "what people like us recognise as art".

Until the end of the 18th Century I think just about everybody would have said the former; by the end of the twentieth century just about everybody would have said the latter.

This is a contribution to the discussion, not a conclusion.

Ben Trovato said...

Patricius: I will pray for you!


Thanks: you may be right, but I think you go too far, too fast. I would argue that one could agree that there must be such criteria, without necessarily agreeing what the criteria are; and also even once has agreed the criteria, one could argue about the assessment of various pieces of art against such criteria. So a definite canon might be more of a theoretical possibility than a realised one. Plenty of scope for robust debate, in other words; and I prefer that to reducing everything to completely subjective criteria, and finally arriving at a place where one colludes with a judgement that One Direction produced better music than Palestrina.

Ttony said...

So how can we say objectively that Palestrina is good and One Direction is bad?

Ben Trovato said...

I would go with better and worse, rather than good and bad.

And using the criteria I proposed in a previous post, I could happily justify such an evaluation.

What Palestrina is striving to do is more worthy; his craftsmanship is better; his music more reliably and repeatedly elicits the emotional response it is designed to do; and so on. One could argue about any of those, but not with much credibility...

Ben Trovato said...

Though if I'm really honest, I might argue the other way. We just know that Palestrina is better than One Direction: Now let's find the explanation for that knowledge (and hence my criteria etc).

Ttony said...

"We just know that Palestrina is better than One Direction: Now let's find the explanation for that knowledge (and hence my criteria etc)."

We just know because there is:

a. an objective standard; or
b. a source of prophecy available to us to be able to apply the standard; or
c. because the opinion of people like us counts.

I think I probably believe in all three, all three in that order. There is a real difference, somewhere deep down, between good art and bad art. I can't describe it, but I can show you an example of each and, if you have - what? an informed conscience? a traditional education? - you will agree with me. And the fact that we agree, squares rather than doubles the value of our judgement. It's not about shared taste: Tchaikovsky puts paid to that.

Worth, worthiness, are important. That's why modern hymnsters can't creep past the line alleging that their subject matter is important enough to make what they do "art". If you believed in what the Church says the words mean, and you knew the difference between good and bad art, you couldn't write "The Israeli Mass", or the "Echo Our Father", and you wouldn't dream of composing - you wouldn't dare compose - Shine, Jesus Shine (importantly, either the words or the tune, never mind both).

Again, this is continuing the conversation, not reaching a conclusion.

(And where do we put bad art that some people might find enjoyable? The Swedish Rhapsody? Jack Vettriano? Tchaikovesky? Whoops!!!)

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks, Ttony: I think we are close to agreeing on that.

I think one can enjoy bad art, and even legitimately: as Noel Coward pointed out: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

I am aware my taste for much of the music I like, for example, is more about the associations it has, the memories it evokes and so forth. I don't think that invalidates the notion of objectively good art.

Part-time Pilgrim said...

But unless you can articulate why "Shine, Jesus, Shine" is bad then the discussion of its lack of merit (and therefore removal from the Canon) becomes something close to gnosticism ("You wouldn't understand but we do") which is certainly un-Catholic . Or it's a tyranny of the taste of Ben, Ttony and Part which isn't much better.

Ben Trovato said...

Do the criteria I suggested not suggest a reasonable way of explaining that judgement?

Part-time Pilgrim said...

Well take the first one: how is Shine, Jesus, Shine not doing what it set out to do skillfully? I don't think for a moment it is put I would be hard pushed to say why not.

Ben Trovato said...

Yes, it might be hard to describe though one could turn to a musician for advice. But it is so cliche-ridden...

Off the top of my head, (and at the risk of exposing my ignorance) I think the chord progression is something of a cliche, for starters... G D C Am D... The rhythm is very repetitive with no development and an over-reliance on syncopation; and as for the melody: the third and fourth line of the verse are very lame, and the final line a cliche. The chorus has a strong hook, but otherwise does little, it repeats without development, and again is resolved in a cliche. But I'm no musician - I am sure a competent one could give a far more precise analysis.