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Feeling vs Knowing

ART TIMES January February 2009

Ought AN ART critic “know” — or ought he “feel”? Ought he do both? Can he do both? Not really an idle question — and it's been around for some time, most often discussed in journals dealing with aesthetics (such as the one I receive from The American Society of Aesthetics). Some have argued — cogently — for critics to not "define", but rather to reveal one's "impression" of a work of art (Pater). They contend that 'beauty', for example, is an indefinable abstract and, no matter how knowledgeable one might be, one simply cannot arrive at a definitive characterization of what it “is” (regardless of what the definition of 'is' is, ex-presidents notwithstanding). Critics, then, ought only know what they feel and can only ask, “What effect does it produce on me.”   This argument is extended even more forcibly by those who claim that, when we come right down to it, not only can we not strictly define an abstraction — we can't even properly define non-abstractions (Herder). This is because, the argument goes, we 'inherit' a language replete with both abstractions and non-abstractions and, we are so far removed from the origins of words, that we only know “things” at second-hand, completely ignorant of the thought processes involved in the human effort of 'defining' things in the first place. They claim that some, especially critics, merely mouth words and concepts without really knowing what they are talking about (pace, Socrates). Along these lines, I believe it was Ben Shahn who once compared critics to eunuchs — they knew all the technical moves and terminology, but couldn't do it themselves. Nice image — and probably not too far off the mark, either. The conundrum of “knowing” or “feeling” becomes particularly sticky when we come to art. I've often discovered, for example, that the more I was moved by an artist's work, the less was I able to put into words what I was seeing or of how it was done — “knowledge” failed me; conversely, the more I knew what an artist was 'doing', the less emotional effect I would experience — “feeling” failed me. Turning the question on its head, what ought art do? Make us know, or feel? Or, ought it do both? Can it do both? Some very latest “cutting edge” critics (Danto, for one) even suggest that the very paradigm that brought the concept of “art” into being has collapsed, no longer applicable to what is now termed as “art” — indeed, he calls into question the very notion of “art,” claiming that since no rules can be brought to bear on a definition of it, any object has the right to be called “art.” He gives credit to what is called “Pop” art for the collapse, and to Warhol specifically for his “genius” in bringing it about (cf. his book After the End of Art). Thus, in this view, as far as “art” is concerned, we are back to a pre-Cennini age, another period of “Dark Ages”, a time in the past in which people simply made things — usually for other reasons than for creating “art” since no one at that time had ever thought of placing these objects apart as “art.” Today, the line once drawn between a box of brillo and a picture of a box of brillo has, for some, blurred for all time and there is no longer felt to be a distinction between art and non-art. If Arthur Danto is correct in his assumptions, we might say we are now in a “Danto's Inferno” where the terms “art” and “artist” are no longer relevant, each of us reduced to naked sinners maneuvering for position in a series of concentric circles of a modern-day, artscene Hell. So, then — ought a critic feel or know? Which would you, as an artist, prefer critiquing your art  — someone who responds, or someone who pontificates?