One of the biggest problems in our politics is that people don’t think for themselves. We let radio and television hosts, pundits and politicians tell us what to believe. And one of the biggest problems in our arts is that people don’t enjoy for themselves. We let museum curators, gallery owners, critics and professors tell us what to feel.
A recent battle in the art world illustrates the point. The billionaire Ronald Perelman is suing the multimillionaire art dealer Larry Gagosian on the grounds, among others, that Gagosian overvalued an unfinished sculpture of Popeye (yes, the Sailor Man) by Jeff Koons. Perelman purchased this item for $4 million.
In parallel to the David of Michelangelo, I will refer to the disputed work as the Popeye. A judge will eventually decide what the Popeye is really worth. My own view is that it is worth precisely what its component materials are worth, or perhaps a bit less, due to the costs that would be incurred in hauling it away and melting it down or crushing it. If called as an expert witness, I will testify to that effect.
Of course, people whine about postmodern art or Jeff Koons or whatever all the time. But I come with a cure, for Perelman and for us all: Stop letting other people tell you what to like.
Believe this: Your own actual preferences are more or less as good as anyone else’s. You should start with that premise, even if it’s false, for if you don’t trust your own taste, you will be surrounded by things you don’t like.
So if you really do dislike something, whether it’s by Robert Rauschenberg or the
Decemberists, Philip Glass or Marcel Proust, Bruce Springsteen or Martha Graham, just say so. I have a doctorate in aesthetics, and I give you permission.
If, as I often do, you express aloud your view that Allen Ginsberg sucks, you’re not hurting anyone. And it’s just possible you have a point. Stop pretending to like Picasso.
I think the last Taylor Swift album is a better, more important and more interesting work of art than “Finnegans Wake.” I think “Fast Five” — which, amazingly, features both Vin Diesel and the Rock — is a better film than “Lincoln,” obviously and by a long way. There, I said it.
I imagine you might despise me now or regard me as a philistine. I’m good with that.
One good thing about the authorities at the upper end of the art world — for example the top galleries of New York — is that they can be ignored. I propose we do so. In this, the worst of all possible aesthetic worlds, taste is dictated by people like Gagosian and is commonly confused with cash or cachet. There’s art, for example, in Oklahoma, or Gabon; perhaps we should concentrate on that for a while.
The basic structure of our aesthetic culture is this: The authorities tell you who’s a
genius, and because you do not want to appear unsophisticated or uncomprehending, you simulate appreciation. This is a formula for aesthetic disaster on the Popeye scale. If you pretend to like things you don’t, you will undergo aesthetic and financial suffering. You’ll be paying for things — movie or museum tickets, for example — and getting back only irritation or boredom. You will impoverish your very soul.
Of course, people can learn to like something they don’t like now, and there can be good reasons to try. That a top art dealer is telling you it’s good, however, or that it costs $4 million, or that it’s hanging at MOMA, or that it got a good review in the New Yorker, I propose, does not in itself provide such a reason.
The learning can start with an argument, as long as people sincerely say what they
actually think. So let’s yell a bit at each other about “Lincoln.” That is one of the things art, or in this case “art,” is for. That would be fun, and it could potentially be clarifying with regard to what “Lincoln” means and whether it’s good.
But if we’re scared to state our actual opinions frankly — or if we reach the terrible point of self-abandonment at which we have no idea what we like anymore — no communication about art can take place. We’ve created a situation in which art is something that cultural authorities merely inflict on people — no doubt, in their delusions, for those people’s own good.
If we let people like Gagosian tell us what art is or what important art is or what good art is, we, like Perelman, deserve the art we get and the price we pay.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. His most recent book is “Political Aesthetics.”