Aesthetic Relativism and Art

Recently, in an artist’s Facebook group, a person posted up a short video in which a professor of art said modern art sucks and aesthetic relativism is to blame. (He also blamed the Impressionists but that will have to be another blog post because it’s just too much to cover in one post.) I’m not sure if the poster was trying to start a discussion or trolling or what their actual motivation was for posting the 5 minute lecture. I commented to the post with something along the lines of “Overly simplistic argument with cherry-picked artwork.” Which it was, and still is, and always will be. But then the same video resurfaced within days from another poster. So here are some reasons why the professor’s argument sucks. [By the way, I will not name him or his pseudo university, it’s a non accredited website, because I don’t want them to even get one click off of anything I write.]

The lecturer’s basic premise is that aesthetic relativism ruined art. Aesthetic relativism is just one part of a larger philosophical discussion about relativism (which holds that there is no absolute, IE. singular, truth because truth is relative) but we’ll double down on the aesthetics part of the phrase just for argument’s sake. So essentially, since beauty is relative, then art is also relative. What is beautiful to me may not be beautiful to you. My art may be a cacophonous mess to you. The presenter in the video manages to make the statement “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” sound like a laughable concept. However, aesthetic relativism has an important place in the world of art and art history and not just to make people who hate modern art feel confused about the definition of beauty. Aesthetic relativism explains individual tastes and preferences. Yet the concept applies to not only individual people but also to cultures, time periods, and societies. It explains the various art movements throughout every era as artists have worked to create and execute images that display their influences, cultures, and societies. Aesthetic relativism also covers the multitude of other variables such as gender, race, age, and socio-economic status as well. What privileged, older merchants from Florence found to be aesthetically pleasing may not be pleasing to a 21st century American teenager from the working class. What has value and artistic merit in one time, or in one culture, does not automatically have value and merit in a different one. And that’s okay. Because one culture or time is not necessarily better than another. Right? Well that depends who you ask, apparently.

The professor, for example, seems to greatly dislike all modern artwork and finds little value in any of it. He would like artists to aspire to a higher level of excellence like that practiced by the artists of the Renaissance and he laid out some hallmarks of what he considers to be the gold standard of art creation to which today’s artists would need to conform. Presumably he would be willing to formalize the standards for all of us, write it down, and distribute it to those he thought were worthy as well. But what would this type of codifying do to the creative process of art? Well, it would mean that the whole process of creating and then executing the work would be done according to a predetermined set of standards in order to attain a piece that conforms to a single definition of beauty, or artistic merit – to code – like you want your house’s wiring done only with art. That’s crazy, you might say.

But codifying art is not as crazy as it sounds and it’s been done before. The Egyptians had formulas for their artwork and rather strict rules existed for the early religious art of a couple of different religions. The French raised the bar even higher by arranging a hierarchy within artistic disciplines. The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture considered historical paintings/sculptures (scenes of mythological or biblical narratives or actual events from history) to be the most prestigious work followed by historic portraits, landscapes, other portraiture, scenes of daily life, and lastly (as well as leastly) still life painting. The artists themselves were accorded respect based not only on their ability but also on which types of works they churned out. A still life painter, regardless of ability, got very little love. The Academy system lasted for a couple hundred years but there were various problems with everyone conforming to one standard.

Also notice how in the above hierarchy there is really no leeway given for textiles or really any mediums other than paint and stone or bronze. Plus consider that when the Academy talked about painting they typically meant oil paint. Acrylic paint, my chosen medium, wasn’t even commercially available until the 1950’s for example. They never had to consider spray paint, airbrush or even photography as an art form let alone computer generated art. And while conventions in art may change every few generations or so the basic principles of art are pretty standard (consider proportion and perspective.) In societies or time periods where all artistic principles and conventions are rigidly formalized, however, a conformity of images evolves. No one takes chances, pushes the envelope, for good or bad. There is no artistic progress and one artist becomes indistinguishable from another in style, medium, and content. Some people are not even considered artists because their chosen medium isn’t recognized by the governing bodies (or just by the dominant society.) Art becomes less about personal expression and, well, to be blunt, boring because the medium is muted and the message is the one the prevailing majority supports. There is no room for dissent.

Ultimately, the professor’s message sounds a lot like the older generations perpetual complaint “You kids call that music?” Just because he is unable to appreciate the beauty of today’s art he assumes it doesn’t exist. Art today is incredibly diverse and exists in more mediums than the Masters ever even envisioned. The technical tools and mathematical precision available to artists today is equally impressive. Some artwork is every bit as stunning and inspiring as work created centuries ago while other work is more compelling, shocking and thought provoking. And, although there is rampant inequality in the art world, the range and breadth of variety among living artists is incredible. Art is now acknowledged to exist and be produced worldwide in every culture on the planet. Why regress to a viewpoint that places the highest value on the artwork of dead, European, Christian, white men?