Ellen Stuttle

Michelle Marder Kamhi's "Who Says That's Art?"

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On a current thread pertaining to the December 2014 issue of JARS, reference was made to a book recently published by Michelle Marder Kamhi:

Who Says That's Art?

A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts

I bought the book (Amazon link). I've read the Preface, the Introduction ("If Art Can Be Anything, Then It Is Nothing"), and Chapter 3 ("What's Wrong with 'Abstract Art'?").

To my surprise, I'm enjoying the writing style. I found the writing style of What Art Is by Kamhi and Torres (2000) tedious, and I never managed to read more than a few sections of that work. With this book, however, I'm looking forward to continuing.

I wanted to start discussion before I read further, since on the basis of Chapter 3 - "What's Wrong with 'Abstract Art'?" - I've come to a conclusion by which I feel enlightened.

My conclusion is that if I defined "art" the way Kamhi does, I'd agree that "abstract art" (she means the painting and sculpture designated by that term) isn't art. I think it is art, but that's because I have a more inclusive definition than Kamhi's (and Rand's).

I'll open with a quote from the Introduction. The quote is from a section titled "What This Book Argues."

Jonathan is one of the people who have leveled the charge Kamhi addresses briefly in the last paragraph.

Who Says That's Art?

Introduction, from the section "What This Book Argues"

pp. 8-9

[bold emphasis added]

[T]he concept of art dealt with in this book is that of "fine art" (as distinct from the "decorative arts"). Tracing that concept back to its roots reveals that the works it originally referred to consisted, essentially, of imagery in two or three dimensions. The decisive turning point in the breakdown of the concept of art, in my view, was the invention of "abstract" painting and sculpture in the early years of the twentieth century. On that key point, I differ from the vast majority of critics, including those of a conservative bent.

Conservative critics generally reject postmodernism in the visual arts - as exemplified by Warhol's Brillo Boxes and Hirst's pickled shark. Yet they champion modernism, represented pre-eminently by abstract work. Unlike most combatants in this culture war, I say "a plague on both their houses." In my view, modernism's rejection of imagery through the invention of abstract painting and sculpture had fatal consequences for art as a vehicle of meaning. Significantly, the often bizarre forms of postmodernist expression that dominate today's art scene owe their very invention to "abstract art." They originated in a direct reaction by many in the mid-twentieth-century artworld against the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, as epitomized by the work of Jackson Pollock. As I see it, that reaction was justified in principle, though not in the unprecedented forms it took.

[....]

Artworld partisans will of course declare that to appreciate "cutting-edge" work one must be aware of art history and theory. One of the chief aims of this book, therefore, is to debunk the now prevailing views on these subjects - and thereby to reveal just how shaky the artworld's theoretical foundation is. Instead of legitimizing "art" that consists of pickled sharks and canned excrement, such theorizing may properly be laughed into oblivion.

Some will no doubt say (as others already have in regard to my earlier writing along these lines) that I am merely attempting to establish my personal taste as universal, by arguing that the sort of work I prefer is the only true art. On the contrary, a good deal of what qualifies as art in my view isn't to my taste at all. By the same token, I find at least some of the work that I don't regard as art to be pleasant, amusing, or appealing in some other respect. The issue of liking something is quite separate from that of deciding what category it belongs to, though the two matters are often conflated.

Ellen

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Looks like a terrific read, Ellen. The intro title says it all.

"If art can be *anything*, then..." (...then all bets are off).

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Looks like a terrific read, Ellen. The intro title says it all.

"If art can be *anything*, then..." (...then all bets are off).

Yes. All bets should be off.

--Brant

art is as art does--let the consumer rule!--not Rand and the estheticians: estheticians follow on behind sometimes referred to and sometimes not--they can make good, even great, educators, but lousy moralists

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Looks like a terrific read, Ellen.

I was very interested by the history of "abstract art" in Chapter 3, the only chapter (plus Intro and Preface) I've read thus far. Among other details, it gave me background for understanding the "vibes" I sensed among a group of Malevich followers I encountered in Budapest the summer of 2009.

The book's available on Kindle, if you have Kindle access. (I'm reading it in paperback, but a bound book could take awhile to ship to South Africa.)

Ellen

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Looks like a terrific read, Ellen. The intro title says it all.

"If art can be *anything*, then..." (...then all bets are off).

Yes. All bets should be off.

--Brant

art is as art does--let the consumer rule!--not Rand and the estheticians: estheticians follow on behind sometimes referred to and sometimes not--they can make good, even great, educators, but lousy moralists

Heh. Well, I have this spare toilet bowl - mounted on a pedestal, nicely lit in the art gallery and a fancy title - someone will love it and take it home (for a few hundred thou). I just know it symbolizes -- something.

Damn: it's been done, already!

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Poetic justice. The artist plays the fool and goes home with the fool's money.

--Brant

there's art in the "art."

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Looks like a terrific read, Ellen.

I was very interested by the history of "abstract art" in Chapter 3, the only chapter (plus Intro and Preface) I've read thus far. Among other details, it gave me background for understanding the "vibes" I sensed among a group of Malevich followers I encountered in Budapest the summer of 2009.

The book's available on Kindle, if you have Kindle access. (I'm reading it in paperback, but a bound book could take awhile to ship to South Africa.)

Ellen

For me, abstract art, some, and very occasionally, can be quite enjoyable. A steady stream of it, with nothing representational and realistic to view, could probably have me - literally - losing my mind.

If I have it right, Rand had the insight that contemplating visual art is -or can be likened to- the inductive process. Precisely as with reality, our vision takes in the referents in the whole picture, from which the mind eventually forms concepts or abstractions. Concepts the artist deems important.

(As contrasted with literature which is the reverse: there, ready-made concepts - words - are presented to the reader which his mind "deductively" forms pictures of).

It seems to me possible that the abstract movement began with some artists attempting to shortcut and reverse that process of concrete-> abstraction, by trying to paint from 'referents' in their own minds--their own, formed abstractions and concepts. Which has to create in the viewer a state of epistemological confusion.

(I think it may be said that abstract art is the "arbitrary assertion" of the art world!)

I shall order the book, Ellen.

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"If Art Can Be Anything, Then It Is Nothing"

That truth reminded me of a parallel...

"When people stop believing in God,they don't believe in nothingthey believe in anything."

-- G.K. Chesterton:

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Jonathan is one of the people who have leveled the charge Kamhi addresses briefly in the last paragraph.

Actually, the charge that I've leveled involves more than Kamhi's attempting to establish her personal tastes as universal. Her tastes are involved in her assertions, but they are not the core of her standard of judging what is or is not art. Rather, the core is that she is attempting to establish her personal aesthetic limitations as universal -- her lack of response, or lack of depth of response. In other words, if Kamhi gets little or nothing out of a work of art, then she asserts that the work in question is not art for anyone and everyone, not just for her.

She is sensitive to the abstract compositions of sound (music) to the point of having deep feelings and believing that they are communicating deep meaning to her, so those compositions are labeled "art," but when someone else claims to experience the same depth of feeling and communicated meaning in the abstract compositions of visual forms and colors -- be they architectural compositions or abstract paintings or sculptures -- then those compositions are not labeled "art" if Kamhi also didn't happen to experience the same depth.

J

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Who Says That's Art?

Introduction, from the section "What This Book Argues"

pp. 8-9

[bold emphasis added]

[T]he concept of art dealt with in this book is that of "fine art" (as distinct from the "decorative arts"). Tracing that concept back to its roots reveals that the works it originally referred to consisted, essentially, of imagery in two or three dimensions. The decisive turning point in the breakdown of the concept of art, in my view, was the invention of "abstract" painting and sculpture in the early years of the twentieth century. On that key point, I differ from the vast majority of critics, including those of a conservative bent.

Since architecture has been considered a valid art form a lot longer than abstract painting, I'd think that, according to Kamhi's mindset, the turning point of "the breakdown of the concept of art" should be the day that someone first claimed that architecture was an art form. Kamhi thinks that architecture is not art. Therefore anyone's classifying it as art must be just as evil and destructive as their classifying any other non-art form as art, no?

J

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"If Art Can Be Anything, Then It Is Nothing"

That truth reminded me of a parallel...

"When people stop believing in God,they don't believe in nothingthey believe in anything."

-- G.K. Chesterton:

A quote from the world's greatest half wit as in some value and some wit but not enough wit for great wit and not enough value for great value but it's very well expressed even if very wrong and even if sometimes very right and here he's not right but not greatly wrong.

--Brant

my half-assed evaluation

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Looks like a terrific read, Ellen. The intro title says it all.

"If art can be *anything*, then..." (...then all bets are off).

I wonder who the individuals are who believed that "art can be anything." Does Kamhi quote anyone as saying that?

I think that if we were to consistently apply Kamhi's rules of art to all art -- to remove any double standards and to actually scientifically test her assumptions and assertions about the various art forms -- almost nothing would qualify as art.

And that really is the way that she rolls. She seems to like eliminating art forms. She even invents her own little technical reasons for doing so. For example, there are certain objects in reality which are arbitrarily out of bounds for a painter to paint. He may paint flowers and fruit, but he may not paint soup cans or soap boxes. If he re-creates those, he is somehow not creating art, even though they are likenesses of things in reality just as flowers and fruit are. And he can't use photography whatsoever. He may refer directly to visual reality when painting, but may not use photographic reference. If he paints from photographs, he's just "copying" or "recording" reality, but if he paints from reality, he is somehow not just copying or recording reality.

If limited to a choice between "art can be anything" and Kamhi's "art can be nothing" mindset (or "art can be the few things which I say"), I think the vast majority of people would choose the former.

J

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Among other details, it gave me background for understanding the "vibes" I sensed among a group of Malevich followers I encountered in Budapest the summer of 2009.

What was the vibe? Was it something along the lines of their judging their favorite art (or the art that they personally responded to most deeply) to be the only true art?

J

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A quote from the world's greatest half wit ...

Some Chesterton fans and followers aren't sure about the provenance of the pithy saying. At the Chesterton.org, an article sorts through the various citings/sightings: "When Man Ceases to Worship God."

Attempts to track the epigram in Chesterton’s own writings can only be described as incomplete at best. For example, an Illinoisian, John Peterson, claimed that the quote was actually an amalgamation of three passages:

There may have been a time when people found it easy to believe in anything. But we are finding it vastly easier to disbelieve anything. [
Illustrated London News
, March 21, 1914]

The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority. [
Illustrated London News
, April 26, 1924]

A man who refuses to have his own philosophy will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy. [“The Revival of Philosophy,”
The Common Man
(1930)]

More plausibly, Robin Rader of Zambia argued that the epigram can be found divided between two adjacent Father Brown stories:

It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense. [“The Oracle of the Dog” (1923)]

You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything. [“The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924)]

It's nice to invoke god/s now and again at Objectivist Living. Were the epigram close to true, then we OLers who have no faith in a personal (or even half-way attentive) God are but a mad assemblage of 'anything goes' beliefs and pet theories, in persistent logical conflict with each other, staggering from one materialist conundrum to the next, with morality a sinkhole, faithlessness an existential terror.

In other words, if the saying is just-so, then we are almost all depraved beings without the framework of faith in the supernatural.

I think that notion is countered by what actually unites almost all posters: a reverence for human reason, an attachment to reality and the tools of rational inquiry. Even in the most outlying areas (like J Neil Schulman's god-encounters), it is in the language of reason that notions of a spirit-world are justified (of course we have had many characters come and go who only tentatively accept reason as best practice).

Greg's touting of his spiritual beliefs and his pithy sayings are entertaining, but he has not to my knowledge ever assembled his notions into a coherent written whole. So a convenient quoat from a Catholic writer is just that, a rather smug categorical denunciation of the faithless, via pseudo-logic.

On an Objectiv-ish forum, it's sort of funny. Greg is implying that we agnostic/atheist are all lost, lost, lost without God.

-- as for the subject of It Ain't Art, I am sometimes baffled by the prices paid for what Kamhi (and likely Rand) categorize as NotArt. For example, this triptych by Francis Bacon hauled in $142 million.

Three_Studies_of_Lucian_Freud.jpg

Even if Rand/Kamhi/Torres/etc are entirely correct about It Ain't Art ... do their explanations of why humans value NotArt make sense? Why on earth is Francis Bacon's work of NotArt valued so highly? Will the 'art world' even have Kamhi's flights of erudition on its radar?

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My conclusion is that if I defined "art" the way Kamhi does, I'd agree that "abstract art" (she means the painting and sculpture designated by that term) isn't art. I think it is art, but that's because I have a more inclusive definition than Kamhi's (and Rand's).

Ellen,

This is the same conclusion I have about several of Rand's views.

The error resides in taking a subset and calling it the whole, or taking a category and pretending it is the entire enchilada. I've been calling this a scope problem with Rand for some time now.

I haven't read Kamhi's book (I have her earlier one with Torres, still unread, and the new one is on my wishlist), but I bet if the word "art" were replaced by the phrase "romantic realism," her entire argument would make plenty of sense to everybody.

Except, maybe for one. I'm not in agreement with Rand's "sense of life" psychological fuel basis for artistic resonance. After doing a lot of reading on storytelling, psychology, neuroscience, etc. (admittedly leaning toward works aimed at non-specialists), I'm becoming more and more convinced that mental patterns are. Including story patterns. Archetype patterns. Visual patterns. Sound patterns. And so on.

Can art be used as spiritual fuel, so to speak? I think so. Is that the reason art exists. I don't think so. It's deeper on an epistemological level.

And this comes from my conviction that the mind is able to integrate reality according to patterns (like concepts and narratives) because the mind itself is made up of the same stuff as the rest of the universe, therefore these patterns must exist to be perceived, abstracted and integrated along with the specific details of specific cases. Not in a Plato forms manner, but as a fundamental element of existence itself.

Also, I find severing emotions from story (or narrative if you will) a bit difficult to grok right now. I used to think of emotions as something standalone, but now I cannot think of them divorced from the experience of living, which unfolds in stories. Maybe chemical imbalances work for standalone emotions, but I still imagine them with stories.

(I state this from introspecting on my experiences of feeling acute paranoia with crack cocaine--some of that stuff got outright funny afterward, but not during times when my heart was leaping through my throat like when I was 100% convinced a bunch of cops was going to come busting through the slit underneath the door--how's that for a story? :) I would need to read more on chemical imbalances and story to be certain of this at a universal level, but for now, I bet story is always involved in emotions whether chemical imbalances are or not.)

I believe one of the functions of art is to induce a person into a kind so trance where his or her inner stories in autobiographical memory (and maybe semantic memory--I'm still working this through) can run in a free association manner, sort of like conscious dreaming, and these inner stories are attached to emotions and memories of emotions, which in turn become attached to the art being observed. As for narrative art like literature, I believe people have the capacity to experience the new narrative without forgetting their own--letting it run on top of their own and gathering and aligning emotions from these autobiographical memories through unconscious similarities, so to speak. Thus a mental web is constructed instead of a straight line. And a three-dimensional web at that.

I'm thinking out loud right now and I'm out of time. Sorry if that doesn't make perfect sense. :)

Michael

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I didn't think of Chesterton being re-arraigned.

As for Francis Bacon, it's not about his art but some idiot forking over $142 million for some of it.

--Brant

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Poetic justice. The artist plays the fool and goes home with the fool's money.

Indeed...

...and each deserves the other as their values are a perfect match.

Greg

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Greg is implying that we agnostic/atheist are all lost, lost, lost without God.

...not if you live as if there was a God to Whom you are morally accountable for your actions. It's actions that make a man... not beliefs. It's God's job to reveal Himself... and a fools errand to try to believe. Anyone who learns to love what's good and right enough to actually do it... they will know God...and not merely believe.

Greg

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"If Art Can Be Anything, Then It Is Nothing"

That truth reminded me of a parallel...

"When people stop believing in God,they don't believe in nothingthey believe in anything."

-- G.K. Chesterton:

A quote from the world's greatest half wit as in some value and some wit but not enough wit for great wit and not enough value for great value but it's very well expressed even if very wrong and even if sometimes very right and here he's not right but not greatly wrong.

People are built to believe in something... anything. The existence of the US government is undeniable proof that hundreds of millions of "rational" fools believe in big government.

Greg

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The sheep are protected by the shepherd not knowing they're to be fleeced if not eaten. They don't even know they're sheep.

--Brant

the silence of the lamb chops

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Greg is implying that we agnostic/atheist are all lost, lost, lost without God.

...not if you live as if there was a God to Whom you are morally accountable for your actions. It's actions that make a man... not beliefs. It's God's job to reveal Himself... and a fools errand to try to believe. Anyone who learns to love what's good and right enough to actually do it... they will know God...and not merely believe.

Greg

If you think your God is hypothetical and not real that's a weak stew to sustain a moral life. If you don't believe in God then "believe" in reality--which is quite believable--or reality is God. In the context and premise of what is and is not real comes right moral knowledge and action--that is, the right (moral) philosophy for life on earth.

--Brant

but this "God" is not a moral actor; "He" merely acts in the way "He" is (sans all choice) and humans try not to bump into but use "Him" so "He" cannot be "Our Father who art in heaven," meaning it's up to us to be adult or get on with growing up as an expression of self-responsibility

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If you think your God is hypothetical and not real that's a weak stew to sustain a moral life.

Wow...do you realize the implication of what you said, Brant? If it's true, that means that if there is no God there is no reason to do what's morally right.

But even beyond that truth, what people think or believe doesn't matter, because only what people actually do makes this world what it is.

If you don't believe in God then "believe" in reality--which is quite believable--or reality is God.

That's a perfectly rational conclusion, and one that I share. It's not even necessary to connect reality to God, and many people don't because so many people doing evil under the color of the authority of His name have poisoned it. In fact the act of doing evil in God's name is the only one for which there is no forgiveness. It's the ultimate self damnation, because it encourages others to hate God and turn to evil. Our purpose here is to help others become better people... not worse.

In the context and premise of what is and is not real comes right moral knowledge and action--that is, the right (moral) philosophy for life on earth.

Yes... and it's a sublimely beautiful design. Doing what's morally right is acting in harmony with reality, and it is the key that opens the door to living a happy, meaning-filled, productive life.

--Brant

but this "God" is not a moral actor; "He" merely acts in the way "He" is (sans all choice) and humans try not to bump into but use "Him" so "He" cannot be "Our Father who art in heaven," meaning it's up to us to be adult or get on with growing up as an expression of self-responsibility

Being morally accountable to God (Reality) is being responsible for yourself, but I understand what you're getting at. Growing to love doing what's right for its own sake is what it means to be an adult.

Greg

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Kamhi: "Moreover, if art can be virtually anything, everyday logic suggests that it is then nothing in particular."

False. Logic, everyday or otherwise, makes no such suggestion.

Matter can be virtually anything. Does "everyday logic" therefore suggest that it is nothing in particular? No. Matter has a specific identity. The concept of matter has a specific meaning to us despite its capability of being virtually anything.

Anyway, in what I've read of the book so far, I am entirely correct in having identified Kamhi as attempting to establish her own personal aesthetic limitations and lack of depth of response to art as the universal standard by which to judge what is or is not art for all of mankind. I'm looking forward to discovering if it ever crosses her mind to consider the possibility that different people have different sensitivities to the arts, and that she should perhaps contemplate how she might measure and gauge such sensitivities, including her own, rather than just arbitrarily and arrogantly assuming that hers are naturally the universal defining standard and limit.

J

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Jonathan is one of the people who have leveled the charge Kamhi addresses briefly in the last paragraph.

Actually, the charge that I've leveled involves more than Kamhi's attempting to establish her personal tastes as universal. Her tastes are involved in her assertions, but they are not the core of her standard of judging what is or is not art. Rather, the core is that she is attempting to establish her personal aesthetic limitations as universal -- her lack of response, or lack of depth of response. In other words, if Kamhi gets little or nothing out of a work of art, then she asserts that the work in question is not art for anyone and everyone, not just for her.

She is sensitive to the abstract compositions of sound (music) to the point of having deep feelings and believing that they are communicating deep meaning to her, so those compositions are labeled "art," but when someone else claims to experience the same depth of feeling and communicated meaning in the abstract compositions of visual forms and colors -- be they architectural compositions or abstract paintings or sculptures -- then those compositions are not labeled "art" if Kamhi also didn't happen to experience the same depth.

J

Thus far - I've read most of the first chapter, and skipped around reading bits here and there, in addition to the parts I'd read when I last posted - I see no basis for your assessments.

Ellen

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