Scott Sumner  

Cultural Philistines and Marxism

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The Forgotten Man/Woman... My Retirement...

I guess if I'm going to pretend to write about art, I'd better at least bring in some economics. So here goes.

First a disclaimer. Here I'll try to employ a non-pejorative definition of 'philistine'---let's make it a simple descriptive term for people of conservative artistic taste who find most modern and edgy art to be ugly, pretentious and/or phony. (In the spirit of how the gay pride movement embraced the term 'queer', or the way that feminists should embrace the term 'spinster', instead of the appalling "bachelorette", which makes unmarried women seem slightly embarrassed not to be men.)

I'd like to discriminate between two views of the aesthetic experience:

1. When viewing art, the mind is a sort of blank movie screen. The eye objectively transmits images to this screen in the brain, where each person (with adequate eyesight) sees essentially the same thing. If someone likes something that looks ugly to you, they are being pretentious, or they've been somehow duped.

2. Each person's brain is different, because of both innate differences and education/experience. Thus when we look at art we each see something very different (in terms of expressive possibilities---we may all perceive the same shapes and colors.) The aesthetic experience is very subjective.

This second view is actually not quite equivalent to the Latin phrase, "De gustibus non est disputandum", as arguments about art can serve an educative function. But it's close.

The first view is often associated with people who are more "conservative", and yet it seems fundamentally Marxist in a couple respects.

1. The Marxists emphasized that there were certain important truths about the world, and people that did not recognize those truths suffered from "false consciousness".

2. Because there is one objectively best type of clothing (in their view), it makes no sense to have different companies produce different fashions. Just figure out the best type of clothing (say the Mao suit) and have a government factory produce millions of copies for everyone to wear.

The Austrian critique of the Marxist view is that tastes differ, and a free market is an excellent way to cater to these diverse tastes. No one central planner can understand what pleases millions of individual people whom they have never met.

In the comment section of my previous post, I was struck by how may people were confident that millions of museum-goers who enjoy modern art (and are often very highly educated and intelligent) are in some sense "wrong". (And yet I suspect almost none of the commenters were Marxists.)

If you think about it, this is an extraordinary state of affairs. It would be like non-biologists, people with no advanced training in biology, being confident that biologists are wrong about evolution, because it goes against common sense that the highly complex human eye could have simply evolved. Or non-physicists rejecting quantum mechanics because it seems too "weird". Why do we tend to defer to expertise in physics and biology, but not in art and economics?

In the past, commenters have argued that physicists and biologist have produced valuable things, whereas economists have not. I don't think that's true of economists, but let's say it is. Modern art also passes the "value" test; some of these paintings sell for more than $100 million.

I get why Marxists reject the market test---"false consciousness"---but why do right wing philistines reject the market test? And does their view of the formation of tastes and preferences in some way provide aid and comfort to Marxists?

Perhaps Trump and Corbyn are not opposites, but rather are both at the opposite end of the spectrum from sophisticated cosmopolitan urbanites (who will vote for Corbyn until they discover his true agenda--returning the UK to the culturally drab 1950s.)

PS. I lost power yesterday, and so only got around to answering comments to my previous post this morning.

PPS. Below I added two pictures, one of a man in a Mao suit, and another of Jimi Hendrix during the hippie era. Which image is more appealing to America conservatives: an image of cultural conformity under Chinese communism that led to the death of millions, or the image of a vibrant capitalist enterprise, full of diversity, which exploded on the scene in the 1960s?

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
David R Henderson writes:

Sweet! But then that’s just my opinion.

Floccina writes:

Makes me think of habanero pepers. No small child would like habanero pepers but as a person gets exposed to more picant peppers litte by little he start to seek more of the experience. With art I think we today are exposed to so much good art that we seek seek more unusual art. I would not say habanero pepers tase good (or any beer for that matter) but I do like a little spice and I understad aquired tastes. I think there is objective good tasting food and art and aquired tastes.

Matthew Moore writes:

My major concern with modern / abstract art isn't so much its aesthetic (which I do tend to think is mostly a question of culture / personality / taste) but rather that it doesn't seem to have one.

I would love to see 100 modern art critics independently rank 10 unseen pieces by unknown artists, together with their reasons. I suspect the rankings and reasons would not correlate nearly as well, as in, for example, portraiture, photography or theatre.

My suspicion is that the critical consensus on modern artworks is largely the result of herding and signalling.

Wallace Forman writes:

"The Austrian critique of the Marxist view is that tastes differ, and a free market is an excellent way to cater to these diverse tastes. No one central planner can understand what pleases millions of individual people whom they have never met."

This is a nice point to keep in mind, but I don't think it really captures what is going on with phenomena like fashion, style, and art. People don't just "have" innate and different tastes in art, they specifically *cultivate* tastes by looking around at the tastes of others, and trying to match the tastes of those groups with which they wish to affiliate. How else to explain the correlations in, say, musical tastes by geography, race, social clique, class, nationality, and so forth? I think most studies will tend to rule out a purely genetic explanation for these sorts of variations in taste.

One taste people sometimes try to cultivate is the taste of people with a sophisticated understanding of a particular medium, perhaps to signal their intelligence and skill for complex aesthetic matching. Indeed, the notion of a "Philistine" draws upon around the idea of a person with undeveloped and common tastes. They have not learned to appreciate what people "in the know" like.

A perhaps good way for people to signal their sophistication is to coordinate their cultivated tastes around 1) what is aesthetically unappealing to most uncultivated tastes (ugly), 2) what is uncommon or not desired as art by most people (strange) 3) whatever is popular within the clique of knowledgeable people (popular), particularly if not popular outside the clique. These features are fairly consistent with Caplan's theory, and I think appreciation of modern art is probably associated with people who have pretensions to sophistication.

(Other people, of course, just want to feel edified when they go to the museum. The Asch test and others Caplan mentions is evidence of conformity - what's your reason for doubting conformity as a force?)

FWIW, Caplan did give a fair indication of what he meant by modern art at the beginning of his post:

"Broadly defined, I hasten to add, modernity creates great new visual art all the time; just look at graphic novels over the last forty years. But to my eyes, high-status painting and sculpture - the kind displayed in the "modern" section of museums - almost always looks like junk."

Sol writes:

Hah! Wallace's quote of Caplan just made me think of Roy Lichtenstein and his great success doing endless copies of comic book art. His working method appears to have been to find a striking comic book panel, trace it onto a bigger canvas, and sell it as his own creation with no acknowledgement to the original artist.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/deconstructing-roy-lichtenstein

Scott Sumner writes:

Matthew, Modern art critics would differ, but that was equally true in 1880. Are you saying that impressionism and post-impression have not stood the test of time?
They were once modern.

Wallace, Actually, that definition by Bryan is not very useful. It's not clear whether he is talking about modern art or contemporary art. Abstract art or recent art. What is "modern", these 100-year old Kandinskys?

https://www.google.com/search?q=kandinsky&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwigsIS3hMvWAhVozlQKHRaSAgQQ_AUICigB&biw=1022&bih=500

Or these 50-year old Warhols:

https://www.google.com/search?q=warhol+portraits&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiAhPiUhcvWAhXHwVQKHSqSCfIQ_AUICigB&biw=1022&bih=500

Or these more recent Richters:

https://www.google.com/search?q=gerhard+richter+portraits&tbm=isch&imgil=1Om3yCcj-Ai9CM%253A%253B8xj_gv_-yCw6SM%253Bhttps%25253A%25252F%25252Fthepaintingimperative.com%25252Farchive%25252Fissue-2%25252Fgerhard-richter-the-soft-machine%25252F&source=iu&pf=m&fir=1Om3yCcj-Ai9CM%253A%252C8xj_gv_-yCw6SM%252C_&usg=__7wI5zA5k0Ux2u4x14yMA7pNhnWM%3D&biw=1022&bih=500&ved=0ahUKEwiXvuvihMvWAhUhiFQKHfB3DyEQyjcIRQ&ei=mJLOWZeSDKGQ0gLw772IAg#imgrc=1Om3yCcj-Ai9CM:

Before one criticizes modern art, one ought to at least find out what it is.

And I never suggested that taste in art is purely innate, indeed I said exactly the opposite. So you are criticizing opinions that I do not hold.

You said:

"I think appreciation of modern art is probably associated with people who have pretensions to sophistication"

That's not true of me, nor does it explain why tastes develop as a person gets older. A 40 year old can appreciate more "difficult" art than a 5 year old. I think everyone agrees with that. So why can't people differ in their ability to appreciate difficult art? It seems like critics of modern art have no overarching theory of what's going on when some people can appreciate art and others cannot.

Nor does this view explain how critics of modern art would understand my motives better than me. Why not the reverse? Suppose I argued that critics are just bitter that they can't understand modern art, so they lash out at people with better taste. Not a very appealing theory, is it? So why argue that people are trying to be pretentious? You can be pretentious without spending 6 hours at a museum, by yourself, intently looking at art. Pretentious people generally want others to observe them. The "pretentious" theory simply doesn't match the facts.

Wallace Forman writes:

"And I never suggested that taste in art is purely innate, indeed I said exactly the opposite. So you are criticizing opinions that I do not hold."

As you will, but my comment was not to characterize or criticize your account. It was to offer up what might be a better explanatory account of modern art tastes that allows modern art to be "bad" in some meaningful sense, even allowing for subjectivity in tastes.

"Before one criticizes modern art, one ought to at least find out what it is."

"Wallace's quote of Caplan just made me think of Roy Lichtenstein and his great success doing endless copies of comic book art."

The definition seems fine to me. There are museums that call themselves modern art museums. There are museum sections that describe themselves as the modern art section. They have art in them. People disproportionately (but not absolutely) tend to find the art in these places uglier, particularly if their tastes are not "educated". This has certainly been my experience. Perhaps I am wrong though and others really do think that the moniker "modern art" or "modern art museums" convey no information.

If there is anything tying the "genre" together, it may be that more recent art tends to be left to the judgment of the sophisticate insiders, since the appreciation of mass culture has not yet had time to decide what recent art will get to be famous.

"That's not true of me, nor does it explain why tastes develop as a person gets older."

Why not? Older people have more time to identify and cultivate the taste of other high-status sophisticates. Don't older people usually lay claim to sophistication? "I was young then. I'm older and wiser now."

"Nor does this view explain how critics of modern art would understand my motives better than me."

The theory could simply be that sophisticates know they are manufacturing their tastes, but can't admit it without undermining the more refined tastes they claim to have understood. But self-deception as an enabling mechanism is a normal feature of psychological models of belief.

RPLong writes:

There's another dynamic here that we haven't touched on yet, so I'd like to give it a crack.

Some books are considered literature because they are great stories, even though they are not particularly well-written in terms of prose. Take The Last of the Mohicans, for example.

Other books are considered literature because they are filled with great prose, even though the stories they tell are not particularly noteworthy. Take Ulysses by James Joyce for example.

A few amazing novels manage to combine both, but they are often derided for being "pretentious." Take Moby Dick for example.

Some books are considered great because they make powerful emotional statements, even though there are better stories and perhaps better prose out there. Take Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis for example.

Readers will often favor one dimension - most commonly "stories" - over all other dimensions, which is why there are so many people who love grocery store paperback novels and consider traditional literature to be "boring."

But those who have a passion for literature will appreciate all the different dimensions of a great book, even when some come at the expense of others. Bryan Caplan's critique appears to me to be a complaint that much of modern art does not require as much of what mbka called "craft" as older art. That may be true, but what does Caplan have to say about the other dimensions on which this art can be judged? In my book, it's all part of the process of art appreciation.

Larry writes:

Economics, unlike art, produces testable hypotheses, that gives it claim to some objectivity.

That AIs now produce listenable music suggests that something is happening other than each-to-their-own taste.

I distinguish between newer art that is pleasing to the eye (Matisse, at least) and art that is purely conceptual (soup can). The latter has no relationship to beauty, and is thus a different kind of thing, even if it does go for 100M.

dlr writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Nicholas Weininger writes:

In fact, as I understand it, the CIA funded avant-garde modern art and music in the 1950s, and the Soviets discouraged their artists and musicians from producing such, for exactly this reason. The Soviet view was that socialist realism was objectively best and appealed directly to the goodness of ordinary people, and that weird abstract stuff was degenerate and elitist; the CIA-funded modernists served to push back on that and help paint (heh) the US as a land of freedom and progress.

Steve F writes:

Scott, I really like the picture comparison. Very thought-provoking.

David Pinto writes:

I think that's a Nehru jacket, not a Mao jacket suit. So your analogy is a bit off.

Rajat writes:

Scott, your reasoning seems sound, but... another cognitive illusion perhaps, but I can't help thinking that much art (including much modern and abstract art) was about truth or beauty whereas more recently... well, I can't see either in a florescent light switching on and off or a projection of a man running towards me on a bridge.
And did it ever used to happen that random things were mistaken for art?

mbka writes:

A lot of comments here seem to be about the assumption that art was necessarily about beauty, example, Rajat's comment above. I think this is demonstrably false at the elementary degree, e.g. a Greek tragedy could contain nothing but "ugly" elements, from people to scenes to emotions, yet still be considered art by the most conservative critic.

So maybe we can then say that art is about arousing emotions of some kind, by intention of an artist (as opposed to naturally "found" emotions that arose situationally). That opens another can of worms but it's a lot more productive than getting stuck on a definition of art as esthetics.

Here I'd like to bring up another line of thought re: craft and art. Levi-Strauss (the books, not the pants - as one famous anecdote had a waiter ask him once to confirm) describes the contrast between "primitive" art and "civilized" art. In this view, one is all about meaning and the technique is unimportant (example, totem poles, simple shrines to the gods etc). The other develops technique to a deeper and deeper level until it's all about technique with hardly any meaning left. The civilizational story ends in the seeming contrast between "pretty" wallpaper and "ugly" abstract art. Note that both are devoid of overt meaning, and a lot of modern art derives its importance from developing a new way of expressing something (a technique), not from expressing new and more interesting "somethings". Same for many movies based on nothing but massive use of CGI.

If anything, and ironically, at least some modern abstract art has more meaning in it than pretty dolphin posters. Hence the revulsion of many artists and art critics to superficial prettiness and dolphin wallpaper, or muzak for that matter.

Andrew_FL writes:

Why was my reply, an innocuous praise for this post that kind of amusingly contradicted itself and the point about differing tastes by remarking about it being an "objectively" good post, deleted, without any explanation?

Scott Sumner writes:

Wallace, Again you've mischaracterized my views. I wasn't referring to people who make "claims" of sophistication, I was referring to people that understand and enjoy art that would have gone over their heads when younger.

So is your view that any taste beyond that of a five year old is phony, mere pretension? That there is no such thing as great art that is "difficult", that might take a while to appreciate? If a 5 year old doesn't "get" Hamlet, is it worse than a comic book? For that matter, how many adults can read Hamlet and truly appreciate it? I'd guess fewer than the number who enjoy "modern art". Obviously I'm citing extreme examples here, but I honestly don't get your point.

RPLong, Exactly. Just as most people prefer dime store romances to War and Peace, most people prefer pretty landscapes and paintings of kitten and flowers to modern art. Indeed they even prefer that stuff to Titian of Velasquez.

Larry, Yes, some art is pleasing to the eye and some is not, just as some art is portraits and some is landscapes. But what should we make of that difference?

The New York MOMA, the most famous "modern art" museum in the world, carries art that is much older that a contemporary art museum. The term "modern art" refers to the style of 1910---that's not exactly yesterday. Art from 2010 is generally called 'contemporary art'.

Nicholas, Great point.

David, You may be right, I relied on the internet search function.

Rajat, see mbka's excellent comment.

As an aside, I'm not a fan of most of that conceptual art that you describe. We'll see how it holds up over time.

Andrew, Not sure, but once you've explained a joke . . . :)

Wallace Forman writes:

"Wallace, Again you've mischaracterized my views."

I wasn't characterizing your views, I was articulating my own thoughts.

"So is your view that any taste beyond that of a five year old is phony, mere pretension?"

No, that is not my view, and I don't think that is a helpful way of putting it. My previous use of the word "pretension" was not relying on its pejorative sense.

quanticle writes:

What I don't understand is why Scott is saying that the recognition of certain unavoidable objective truths (with regards to art) is Marxist. It's a logical positivist notion, and while it's certainly true of Marxism, it's also true of many other philosophies.

Moreover, historically, Marxist art and reactionary art have been very similar. The closest analogue to Soviet Realism wasn't anything contemporary from the US or France, but rather the heroic imagery coming out of Nazi Germany.

andy writes:

It seems to me that this post ultimately leads to a conclusion:

There is no bad art.

Is that what you are trying to say?

Scott Sumner writes:

Wallace, Then I guess I don't see your point.

Quanticle, You said:

"What I don't understand is why Scott is saying that the recognition of certain unavoidable objective truths (with regards to art) is Marxist. It's a logical positivist notion, and while it's certainly true of Marxism, it's also true of many other philosophies."

That's not what I'm saying. Rather I'm claiming that "false consciousness" is a Marxist idea.

You said:

"Moreover, historically, Marxist art and reactionary art have been very similar."

In the previous post I linked Trump and Corbyn.

Andy, No.

Rick Hull writes:

The "Marxist" viewpoints:

1. The Marxists emphasized that there were certain important truths about the world, and people that did not recognize those truths suffered from "false consciousness".

Well, religious leaders probably hold the same view, as well as scientists and possibly Austrian economists. I wouldn't consider them Marxist.

2. Because there is one objectively best type of clothing (in their view), it makes no sense to have different companies produce different fashions. Just figure out the best type of clothing (say the Mao suit) and have a government factory produce millions of copies for everyone to wear.

This seems Marxist, yes, but not particularly conservative unless you mean fundamentalist, like Quakers or Sharia enforcers.

Back to the contrasting views of art:

1. When viewing art, the mind is a sort of blank movie screen. The eye objectively transmits images to this screen in the brain, where each person (with adequate eyesight) sees essentially the same thing. If someone likes something that looks ugly to you, they are being pretentious, or they've been somehow duped.

This doesn't seem particularly conservative. Most of the modern / contemporary / abstract art criticism coming from conservatives seems to be rooted in the apparent amount of effort and technical mastery that is on display. In this view, conservatives are not awed by a black square on a white background or Pollack's splatter paint. Art has long progressed past pretty versus ugly, centuries ago.

JdL writes:

Well said. I try not to fall into the trap of thinking my tastes are objectively better than someone else's, though sometimes it takes conscious effort. I absolutely hate rap music, for example, but it must have something going for it, because so many people like it. I'm missing the "rap gene", I like to say.

TMC writes:

I kind of like the Mao jacket, though I'd hate to see 100 people all wearing it. Hendrix's suit looks fun, but I'd REALLY hate to see 100 people wearing it.

Micke writes:

David Pinto is correct, that's a Nehru jacket. It is, however, the first Google hit for "Mao suit".

A good explanation of the differences here

IVV writes:

I just want to mention that they both look like they could be future regenerations of The Doctor.

Michael Rulle writes:

Some comments on art from someone who knows basically nothing about art---here goes.(By art I mean paintings for this comment)

Occasionally a painting just strikes one as interesting and you like it. That is probably the most typical reaction of the average person. A standard trope (though it seems perfectly reasonable to me) is if you like something it is good art for you, and if you do not it isn't.

But clearly, while valid, the above is obviously the lowest common denominator of art appreciation. Again, I think that is still okay.

But if one compares art to mathematics, (biology as you said) or economics it is a similar activity in its complexity. To truly appreciate art in the larger sense you must study it like any complex endeavor and know what you are looking at. I believe to appreciate any intellectual subject matter, which art certainly qualifies, it takes effort. But if one has interest in the topic, the effort ends up being well worth it.

Even Warhol's soup can, which really has no unique aesthetic appeal, can still be understood and appreciated as representative of popular imagery in everyday life.

Also, I am sure there are frauds out there in the art world as there are in any field. I also guess, that while no one can "fake" appreciating advanced calculus or statistics, there are probably many who can fake liking art-----but that may just be some odd bias of mine.

Even "political" art can be very interesting although it is meant to be propaganda (not by the artist though).

I probably write the above as a rationale for not really being that interested in art. I believe it takes a reasonable amount of serious effort to truly appreciate what art is about. The amount of time that takes for me is too much relative to my perceived satisfaction for doing so. That is just me.

So I am ultimately someone who defaults to "if I like it it is good for me". I do visit museums from time to time an do make an attempt to just appreciate the visuals. I also like doing so with the "headphones for art dopes"! I admit it makes it more interesting.

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