The Modernist shell game

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The Modernist shell game

From Mark Junge

Published before 2005


As pressed for time as I am to get some painting done, I wanted to look into the "everything is art" and "art vs. good art" ideas.

If I understand you correctly, you don't seem to have a set of "Manmade Things" which is divided into subsets including "Art," "Furniture," "Weapons," "Plumbing Fixtures" or whatever. Everything is kind of the same but is either good, bad or - possibly - somewhere in the middle: the shades of gray.

I can only repeat what I and others have essentially been saying: using the word "art" in this way has a diluting effect. Art is no longer a particular class of objects.

One point distinguishes paintings from chairs, toilets and bullets: the painting exists solely to elicit an aesthetic experience (which needs its own definition) in the viewer. It really has no other function: it doesn't contribute to the structural integrity of a building, you can't sit on it, dig a hole with it, use it for transportation or to drive a wood screw. (Well, I guess you could do all these things with a painting, but other objects would do a better job.) This is what distinguishes an artfully-made chair from a sculpture - one, although handsomely designed, is clearly made to sit on, while the other is to look at. Viewing art can (hopefully) make your life better (perhaps the more effective the art is at doing this, the more "good" it is), but as such, it isn't functional in the way that almost everything else manmade is functional. I maintain that art is in a class by itself under the subset called "Art." Along these lines, the "good" or "bad" characteristics of art or any other manmade object eludes, I assume, to how well the item does its job, unless you're also delving into value judgments of a given item. Thus, the gas chambers at Auschwitz were "good" in the sense that they were more efficient and less "messy" at killing Jews than were firing squads. However, the gas chambers were "bad" because they were morally reprehensible.

With this in mind, I'm sometimes unclear exactly what you mean when you say art or anything else is good or bad. Are you referring to an object's formal qualities and its ability to cause an aesthetic experience, or to standards of conduct that declares some actions to be good (i.e., godly) or bad/evil (i.e., satanic)? Or both at the same time?