Art, Entertainment, and Postmodernism

Recently I had a debate with the reddit user baal_zebub over the distinction between art and entertainment. What follows is a somewhat reduced down version of the debate. It is still really long though, so don’t read this if you’re in a hurry.

In my post on seven mistakes in reviewing, I commented on how Elfen Lied failed as a piece of art, but was good as entertainment. In response, baal_zebub (here’s a link to his blog) replied:

In my opinion, you should be able to approach everything with the same level of seriousness and scrutiny. Particularly your example of Elfen Lied is of concern to me, as the logic it seems to follow is that “Elfen Lied is bad, and therefore not art, and therefore it would be misguided to attempt to review it on an analytical level.”

Anything, regardless of quality – a subjective matter, anyways – can be analyzed.

It may be a waste of time to bring an analytical approach to bear on Elfen Lied for reviewing purposes. But for purely analytical purposes, I think there is a lot of worth to be said about that show and many other shows of purported low quality.

My response:

When I was thinking specifically of anime as art, I’m sort of referring to something that fits in to that nebulous “world of art” that is really a combination of brilliance, pretense, and personal expression. You can call almost anything art, and there will be a good argument you’re right. I think if I were to attempt a distinction between art and entertainment, it would be that art never compromises the intentions of the creator. Perhaps I should be using Art with a capital A here…

Elfen Lied is actually one of my favorite shows, and I would never call it “bad” per se. But, looking at it from the perspective that one would use to scrutinize Art, I feel like it doesn’t hold that much value. And that’s perfectly fine IMO. Art critics are often accused of being “close-minded parasites” (actual quote from drunk brother-in-law), and artists themselves often sneer at the critics (while admitting they do play a valuable role). Maybe “Art” is just a specific ideal that fails to represent the breadth of quality, but since it’s an ideal that many care about, I still think it has merit.

Him

My point is there’s no reason that those are two different things. It’s an undue distinction. A very large camp of criticism today is devoted to studying basic things like candy wrappers with the same level of scrutiny and seriousness as Hemingway.

Me

I also agree that it is an undue distinction. I stick to “depth” whenever I can, but I try to accomodate others’ vocabulary a bit.

I am thankful that such species of postmodernism that devote themselves to studying candy wrappers don’t fully dominate the sphere. Though they’re in vogue, I think it’s pretty clear that a large portion of the intellectualocracy doesn’t take them seriously. If you look at the reviews after a gallery opens, I think you’ll mostly find obsession with quality in different terms than the reviews of the latest box-office hit.

Him

While you are denying the distinction, you seem to be exhibiting a negative view point of new criticism. If you don’t believe there is a distinction between what is and isn’t art, why would you be thankful that a movement firmly based upon that idea isn’t taken seriously? I find the whole philosophy of new criticism to be rooted in the idea that what is widely considered art isn’t any more important or relevant to a society than any other product of said society, and therefore it is all equally worthy of note and consideration.

I furthermore find it interesting that you say that this idea is only “in vogue.” All of the analytical writers I’ve talked to firmly consider us to be in the age of post-modernism, and that these ideas are very much the standard in academia. I mean, If you peruse journals of critical writing I think you’ll find an overwhelming fixation on post-structural theory, which very much denies that Art versus art distinction.

While I agree that critics writing about art galleries and critics writing about movies are going to be discussing things at very different calibers, those are two different kinds of writing to two different audiences. My point is that this art distinction is no longer the overwhelming perspective in academia, and hasn’t been for awhile.

Me

I’m not flat out denying the distinction. By claiming that it’s undue, I mean that it is a mediocre distinction. Let me use an analogy to make an example: I could make a distinction between different races, but why should I? I accept that there is a distinction to be made, but I don’t accept that in ought to be made. The reason is that it’s too vague. Although it sounds a bit more pretentious, a distinction I like better is between “serious art” and “entertainment”.

As an age, post-modernism will pass. Academia is a history of intellectual fashion, with very much the same sorts of paradigm shifts that accompany the sciences. It’s also interesting to note that literary theory often follows philosophy, which, as far as I can tell, is moving away from post-structuralism. It’s hard to say what it’s switching to, but in my course in contemporary philosophy, I noticed that the amount of post-structuralist sentiment seemed to drop off a bit in the 90’s.

Him

If you consider there to be a difference, then what is it? What are the guidelines for distinguishing between the two, objectively, and where do they come from? Why should any guidelines between the two be considered authoritative?

I also heartily agree that post-modernism is an age, and we are on the back end of it. However, I still believe that, back end or no, it’s the age we’re in. I have also heavily considered what comes next after you’ve thoroughly torn apart the idea of art and meaning. Once we’ve deconstructed everything, where do we go? It seems a flimsy suggestion to say that we will simply reconstruct and return to a trend of structuralism – that would seem like intellectual back tracking.

Me

The only possible way to distinguish between the two objectively is to observe the speaking habits of those that use this distinction. Because, the very act of definition is subjective, and as a result, the only way to determine a definition is to observe usage. Hence why, in the dictionary, the entry “literally” now has two opposite definitions. Because there is no God above saying “this is what ‘literally’ means”, the lexicographer has no choice but to accept common usage.

Comparing this problem to distinguishing races, there isn’t a simple objective solution. What if you’re half and half? If one guy says you’re black and another guy says you’re white, to which authority can you appeal?

These problems belong to all categories. Seeking the objective in this case is a fool’s quest. All you can hope for is intersubjective consensus, and the only authority you can appeal to is usage. And on that regard, I can not claim the expertise to define Art, but perhaps I could suggest two criteria: Art must be unbridled and expression. Without expression it is craft, and with commercial bridling it is kitsch, both of which fit under lower case art.

Regarding post-modernism. I think we are more firmly entrenched in post-modernism than we are, or ever were, in post-structuralism. When Lyotard said (paraphrasing) “the postmodern condition is a distrust of grand narratives”, I think he hit a nerve and that this sentiment isn’t going anywhere. On the other hand, post-structuralism was a response to structuralism, which was based on an outdated linguistic model. Post-modernism will evolve, whereas post-structuralism will suffer the same fate as Freudianism.

To prove that post-modernism and post-structuralism are on the wane, I offer the following two Google analyses, which seem to pinpoint the peak of popularity for both at 1997:

ngrams graph on “postmodernismngrams graph on “post structuralism”

Regarding what will replace postmodernism, I observed in my philosophy course a sort of return to the modern, that remained tempered by postmodern sentiment. There also seemed to be a revitalization of pragmatism occurring alongside it. Most importantly though, it seems like we’re stepping back from cynical relativism without seeking to reaffirm the universal, if that makes any sort of sense. It’s hard to say though, because the post-post-modernist school of thought is in its infancy and doesn’t even have a proper name yet.

Him

I understand that approach to definitions, but I think the problem with that is no one can rightly agree on what should and shouldn’t be called art. More than other things, art is a personally divisive term, and the majority of people simply refer to things as art and others as not art, rather than defining a guide line by which something is called art or not.

I also believe that there is no objective way to view art or define it. But, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the idea of intersubjective consensus. This strikes me as a justification for relativistic morality, a justification that leads to the conclusion that morality doesn’t exist at all. That is, if morality is a subjective creation defined by consensus, then throughout different ages and places morality is completely different. Considering this, there is no way of judging or considering what is moral, as it really just comes down to a product of the times. In that way, I’ve heard people insist that in relativistic morality, morality ceases to exist. Similarly, if the idea of art is being defined in this manner, does art as a concept cease to exist? Are we just left with a meaningless, shifting moniker to refer to whatever pleases people at that time and place?

I’m further interested in your guidelines – especially differing between what is an art and what is a craft. Why can there not be expression in craft? I think there would be many craftsman who say they express themselves in their craft. Considering how interpretative much of “art” is, I think that would be fair. Furthermore, there are many forms of things that are referred to as crafts that are widely considered art – architecture, carpentry, so on. Do those things cease to be craft because people perceive expression? Furthermore, how do we decide if there is an expression or not? Consult the creator? If not, then we would not be defining expression merely by what we perceive as expressive? In that anything, again, could be art.

Also, I’m not sure I entirely understand what you mean as commercial bridling. I’m understanding you to mean “anything made with commercial motivations,” because in that any decision that is made concerning the product could potentially be construed as having been tempered by commercial considerations. This being said, can anything produced for profit be called art? How can anyone know if any decision concerning the product was made under commercial constraints or considerations? If this is how you meant that guideline, then I would have to disagree, as I think any artist could continue to produce expressively even under commercial constraints.

Besides, I think both of these guidelines require some understanding of intent to achieve. How can we know what was expressive, and what was being expressed? How can we know where and where not commercial constraints dwelt during production, and whether or not that significantly impacted artistic vision or the creative process? At any rate, why is it that something produced sheerly for commercial purposes is ‘kitsch’ and not art? Can something kitschy be art, even if not made for commercial purposes?

I’ve heard of post-post-modernism, but haven’t had a chance to read any literature that strikes of it. Is there anything you could point me in the direction of? After we’ve developed such distrust for the “grand narrative” – something I entirely agree has occurred and is a dead-end – how is it that we can back away from the cynical relativism it caused? Once you’ve opened your eyes to the idea, how do you justify turning away from it? While I agree literary criticism has basically reached a dead-end in that, is it intellectually honest to deny the idea simply because it ceases to progress?

Me

I don’t think there are many works defined as post-postmodernist, mainly because it is a silly term that describes a field in its infancy. However, let me recommend you read up on some Richard Rorty, specifically the essays “Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism” and “Science as Solidarity”. It’s basically a revival of pragmatism a la Dewey and James, and offers up a pretty strong alternative to postmodernism. It’s very home-grown too, you can see a reflection of the differences between the American left and the European left when contrasting pragmatism to post-modernism. I would say that a lot of recent (post?)postmodernism has incorporated his thought and that of other pragmatists.

Another guy to look into when you get the time is Jurgen Habermas. He comes from a marxist tradition, but was also influenced by the American pragmatist tradition (among many other veins of thought). Like Rorty, he steps back from the pessimism of postmodern thought, seeking a more democratic “communicative ethics”, and defending the enlightenment/modernism to a greater degree than is common.

Looking at these two authors should provide a gist of the trends I described in philosophy (return to the modern tempered by postmodern sentiment, revitalization of pragmatism). They will also show you some interesting ways to avoid relativism. Here’s a good quote from rorty:

We would like to substitute the idea of “unforced agreement” for that of “objectivity”.

“Unforced agreement between whom? Us? The Nazis? Any arbitrary culture or Group?” The answer, of course, is “us”. This necessarily ethnocencric answer simply says that we must work by our own lights. Beliefs suggested by another culture must be tested by trying to weave them together with the beliefs we already have. On the other hand, we can always enlarge the scope of “us” by regarding other people, or cultures, as members of the same community of inquiry as ourselves—by treating them as part of the group among whom unforced agreement is to be sought. What we cannot do is rise above all human communities, actual and possible. We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence – mere agreement – to something like “correspondence’ with reality as it is in itself”.

One way to read this is that rather than denying universal truth, it denies our access to it. And rather than throw it all out for a subjectivist version, it substitutes in the idea of “unforced agreement” (rather like my earlier phrase “inter-subjective”). It does make morality culturally relative, but does so in the name of practicality while not denying the possibility of universal morality. It’s kind of a neat way to recover the essence of relativity by shifting the terms of the debate and thus escaping the logical contradictions of saying things like “all truth is relative”. Anyways, the point is that our sense of morality is quite defined by our thrown-ness (a Heideggar term for the circumstances that we are thrown into when we are born), but that ought not to make our sense of morality any less legitimate.

Likewise with definitions. I bring them up again because this to me is the clearest example of intersubjective consensus untainted by falsely placing all value in some inaccesible “objective reality”. Objectivity has always been a red herring, and attacking inherently intersubjective constructs for their lack of objectivity is almost some sort of metaphysical straw man. When I say cat, the coherence model of truth says I am talking about these 4-legged felines, not bats or vases. This is, at more or less abstract levels, what I believe all public truths reduce down to. “Art” straddles the line between public and private truth, and this is part of the confusion. The other part of the confusion is decoherence, often intentional (see DuChamp’s Urinal).

As for art and craft, let me once again take a semantic approach and take a different idea of definition than the common one of necessary and sufficient conditions. Wittgenstein (one of my favorite philosophers) back in the day challenged this idea of definition by asking “what is a game?” It turns out that no list of conditions can define ‘game’, yet most understandings of the word shared a continuity. So what’s going on here? Well, he theorized that we all have a prototype of a ‘game’ in our consciousness, and it is this prototype that defines the word. As we get further and further away from this prototype, we get less and less comfortable with using the word. But, it is silly to try and define exactly where the boundary where the word no longer feels right is, that is like trying to argue where the line between a pile and a heap is. You can keep putting grains of sand on it, but you’re not going to all of a sudden say “aha, now with one more grain of sand it has become a heap!”

The reason I went off on that tangent is that I totally buy into the prototype conception of definitions, and I think making that distinction is very relevant to answering your questions. I here define the prototype of Art as unbridled expression. I argue that the further we get from this prototype, the less it feels like Art. And, once we reach a certain distance from this prototype, we tend to use the lower-case “art”. Likewise with craft. The prototype of craft is functional; a chair-maker makes chairs to be sat in. It should function both as decoration and butt-rest. The more expressive this chair becomes, the less we feel like using the word craft. Once he’s made a chair that is like the Mona Lisa, we are calling it Art instead. The same sort of argument can be made of commercial work. The more it is influenced by commercial considerations, the less it feels right to call it Art. There can certainly be some leeway before one feels the word is no longer right, after all, artists need their daily bread just like the rest of us.

Him

I see now what you mean by post-modernism tempered by pragmatism. I see the usefulness of the approach concerning ethics which has a practical bottom-line at some point, and therefore I believe requires progression. I don’t feel, however, that art needs tempering in this sense because it doesn’t require practicality. I suppose I don’t see why it is necessary to differentiate between what should be and shouldn’t be art.

Ultimately I suppose I’m agreeing with this pragmatic approach, especially keeping in mind the concept of definitions you bring up. This is a lot to think on, I’ll definitely have to consider it all.

This is where our debate ends. I thought it was interesting and fun, so with his permission I reposted it on here.

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