art and nausea

Reuben Strayer

4.27.00 for the LLM Journal

A few weeks ago I showed my study group a Dali painting I had printed on my spanking new Epson Stylus 750 color inkjet printer. My purpose in showing the Dali was not to spark a discussion on the merits and demerits of surrealism or Dali's talent, but to demonstrate how cool my printer is. So I say, "is this awesome or what." A group member responds, "Dali is overrated." I felt nauseous. It took me a few hours to figure out why, and it is this.

There are no objective standards by which art is judged. Good art is art that is liked by many and that is all that good art is. So it is at best simply nonsense to say an artist is overrated - If lots of people like an artist, she is a good artist. But nonsensical comments don't make me nauseous. What is implied in "Dali is overrated," is that Dali is not a good artist because he is widely liked. So what does the person who thinks Dali is overrated call good art? Good art is art that has been judged good art by the art establishment. The art establishment consists of critics their readers. The critics decide what is good art, and they write about it. The readers read it, and thus is formed a sort of cult. The people who read the art critics know what good art is, and they can talk about good art with other people who read art critics (or people who have spent enough time around people who read art critics). This is a great conversation piece, and since people who read art critics (or people who have spent enough time around people who read art critics) generally don't have much of interest to say, being a member of the art establishment is useful just for this purpose. This would not sustain the art establishment, however.

What drives the art establishment is the fact that knowing what the art critics call good art is associated with high intellect. I'm not sure why this is so, but I suppose it has something to do with centuries past, when only the rich and educated had the time or means to actually see any art, so that talking about art became an indication of wealth and education. I won't say that anyone can see art these days, but certainly in the rich countries paintings are available to most. So to preserve artistic knowledge as an indication of wealth and education, it became necessary not to see and judge paintings for yourself but to know what art critics think is good art. I am suddenly reminded of a Whit Stillman flick where somebody says, "I don't read literature. I read literary criticism."

What kind of art do art critics label good art? It's not random. Since the whole purpose of the artistic establishment is to enable members to identify each other (and, more importantly, to enable members to identify nonmembers), it is important that nonmembers not agree with the art critics by accident. Thus good art must be such that any person who doesn't read art criticism would look at good art and hate it. Yes, as soon as an artist's work is well-received by the public, she is dismissed as an artist by the establishment, which after consideration turns out to be if you'll excuse the image and institution that basically sucks its own dick. The country club is not a place for people who are interested in golf, it is a place for people who are interested in membership for its own sake and golf is just an excuse to demonstrate membership. Members of the art establishment are similarly uninterested in art. Declaring that Dali is overrated is not making a comment about art but announcing membership. Thus, nausea.