Trends in Artistic and Textual Criticism

In yesterday’s post, “Consumerism and the Wow Factor,” I ended by hinting that if our subjective reaction is artworks is all that matters—as indeed must be the case when the consumerist imperative becomes paramount as it is in the output of someone like Jeff Koons—then the aesthetic aspects of a work collapse into merely the response the work generates for the viewer. Ergo, the factors and activities that at one time were central to the interpretive taskfor example, exploring the intent of the artist and the original context of the work, to say nothing of aesthetic considerations internal to the work—can be cast aside for the all-important feeling the work produces in the consumer. Understanding a work on its own terms (for example, by appreciating the original context or authorial intent in which meaning is grounded) is replaced by understanding work on our terms, particularly whether it delivers the feelings we look to art to produce.

To the degree that consumerist art eviscerates context and artistic intent from the hermeneutical matrix, it conjoins with a number of modern trends within criticism

One such trend is the movement that popularized the, so called, “intentional fallacy.” This movement in 20th century literary criticism erroneously claimed that the interpretative act could be bracketed off from historical information concerning the author/artist. I addressed this in my earlier articles, “Artistic Intent” and tangentially in “Modern Biblical Studies Meets Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Defense of Historical Scholarship.” Some of my comments in the former are worth repeating now as we grapple with new possibilities in AI-generated art:

Critics do not merely attend to a work’s independent meaning, they attend to a work’s meaning as an artwork. When we attend to a work as an artwork we are attending to more than merely its meaning (in the case of poems) or merely its appearance (in the case of paintings) or merely its sound (in the case of music). Let me prove that this is so, starting with poetry.

If we were attending only to the meaning of a poem then it would not make any difference whether it was written with artistic intent, that is to say, by a human being rather than a computer or an ape. Hence, all the predicates we might apply to the meaning of the poem we should be able to use whether or not it had a human creator. But this is not so, for many aesthetic predicates that we commonly apply to poems would be meaningless when predicated to the computer generated poem. Consider such predicates as ‘witty’, ‘intelligent’, ‘insightful’, ‘controlled’, ‘suppressed’, ‘overdone’, etc., which presuppose a creative intelligence behind them. To attend to the poem as an artwork is, therefore, to already be aware of more than merely the meaning of the words themselves: it is to be aware of their meaning as an intended artwork.

Similarly, to attend to a visual artwork is to attend to more than merely its appearance, but rather its intended appearance as an artwork. Imagine a piece of wood cut by a wood worker for the purposes of slitting into a joint of a wall. Imagine further that this piece of wood looks identical to an artwork found in a museum. Place the two side by side and they are indistinguishable. But it still matters aesthetically which is the one made with the artistic intentions, for just as with the poem, there are many aesthetic qualities – qualities such as clumsy, controlled, innovative, vulgar, simplistic, etc. – that can be applied only to the piece of wood that we know was made with artistic intention. Thus, to attend to it as an artwork is already to be aware of more than merely its appearance. To do otherwise, and merely to take the object at face value, entails ridding our vocabulary of a wealth of aesthetic predicates and, in so doing, limit the potential enjoyment that might be derived from the work….

I have suggested that our knowledge of intention informs the way we attend to artworks. This occurs at every level of how we attend to such works. If our evaluation and interpretation is of an aesthetic nature, then there is no theoretical limit on the extent to which knowledge of intention may affect this evaluation and interpretation. Knowing that Milton was blind when he wrote his poem “on blindness” affects our aesthetic response, though Beardlsey denies this. Similarly, we may enjoy an apparently serious poem in a way that is different to our enjoyment of the same poem once we have learned that it was written as a joke or mock parody. Knowing that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, or that in Bach and Handel’s day the oboe and flute were intended to be reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s flute informs and enhances our aesthetic response.

It should be clear now why it is not possible to draw a sharp distinction between external considerations (about the artist, his history and biographical details) and internal considerations (those relating to the aesthetic features of the work itself) since the former informs the later.

Another trend that has worked to eviscerate the central role of context in the interpretative task is the postmodern (and in particularly Germanic) conceit that—at the risk of gross oversimplification—because there can be a multiplicity of interpretations to any given text, no one interpretation can be given primacy, even interpretations rooted in the intent of the artist/author (which, in many varieties of postmodernism, is inaccessible anyway); ergo, texts have no meanings and all particularized readings collapse into misreadings. I addressed this in my 2014 article, “John Milbank and the Life of Pi.”

Another trend that has contributed to the death of context as a criterion of aesthetic appreciation has been the role of romanticism and the cult of the artist. At first glance it might seem that the cult of the artist as an inspired individual (an idea that arose in the later half of the 18th century and became a dominant motif throughout the 19th century) would bring a fresh awareness of the role factors like artistic intent and a work’s context should play in the interpretative endeavor, but paradoxically the reverse ended up the case. In chapter 3 of James K. A. Smith’s book, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, Smith discusses how a feature of modern secularism is the emergence of art as an autonomous entity and institution disembedded from religious, political, liturgical contexts, so that “what we see in modernity, however, is a shift whereby the aesthetic aspect is distilled and disclosed for its own sake and as the object of interest.” This disembedding of a work from its context to make the work something that can be packaged for mass consumption involved neglecting the original context of a work even when that context provided a central matrix for its original aesthetic appeal. Smith, drawing on and citing Taylor, makes the following observation:

So now we go to hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor (a liturgical work whose “home,” as it were, is in worship) in a concert hall to “appreciate” it as a work of art disembedded from that liturgical home. This is a “desemanticisation and resemanticisation” whereby the art is decontextualized from its religious origins and then recontextualized as “art.”

Thus Taylor sees the emergence of “absolute music” as the culmination of this disembedding (ab-solute in the sense of music that is ab-solved of connection to such contexts). Whereas the music that accompanied the Mass or even the play was tethered to action and a story, engendering responses within a community of practice that knew the references, “with the new music, we have the response in some way captured, made real, there unfolding before us; but the object isn’t there. The music moves us very strongly, because it is moved, as it were; it captures, expresses, incarnates being profoundly moved. (Think of Beethoven quartets.) What what at? What is teh object? Is there an object?” p. 355). Nevertheless, we can’t quite shake our feeling that “there must be an object.” And so, Taylor suggests, even this disembedded art “trades on resonances of the cosmic in us” (p. 356). And conveniently, art is never going to ask of you anything you wouldn’t want to do. So we get significance without any ascetic moral burden.

These observations can be pushed even further now that technological advances have made possible an enormous drift toward unbundling a work as an object of reception from a work as an object of creation. I discussed this point in my article, “Unbundled Reality and the Anti-Poetry of Pokémon Go.” From that article:

See Also

It isn’t only in the book industry that content is being unbundling from context. In the music industry it is now routine to buy a specific track without the entire album or to listen to a single movement of a symphony or concerto outside the context of the entire work. The same process is also occurring in the higher education industry where the experience of taking a class is becoming unbundled from the larger university context, a context that has traditionally included mentorship and valuable peer interaction.

Journalism was unbundled long ago when newspapers went digital and reporters started being trained to orient their writing towards search engines and page views instead of crafting their stories in a way that might only make sense in the context of the newspaper as a whole. (See the 2007 Wall Street Journal article, ‘Google This: U.K. Papers Vie to Buy Search Terms.’)

Along similar lines, I’ve been told that one of the advantages to the convergence of the television with the computer is the ease at which it will hasten the fragmentation of context, as people can begin to be provided with the best scenes from their favorite movies without needing to wade through the entire film. As attention spans continue to atrophy, it is being forecasted that people will increasingly prefer to get to the essence of what they enjoy about a particular movie without the larger narrative context of the story as a whole. The Fandango “MOVIECLIPS channel” on Youtube already provides what they describe as “the best moments, scenes, and famous lines from all of your favorite films.”

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with unbundling content from context. However, we would do well to consider the human implications of these developments. The way we think about ourselves has often been mediated through our approach to art in general and texts in particular.  This behooves us to consider the anthropological implications of navigating a world of emergent meanings that are continually in flux.

Consider that a person is a kind of text. A person, like a good story, cannot be understood independent of his or her context, which is always a complex fabric of experiences, relations and (most importantly) embeddedness in time and place. Understanding people, like texts, require attentive surrender to this context.


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