Wednesday, May 05, 2004


You may be familiar with the above phrase, not as something people actually say, but as an utterance of bourgeois philistinism which supposedly encapsulates everything that's wrong with it. There's a grain of truth in it: some art does require knowledge of its art-historical context to be understood, particularly art of the twentieth century. And philistinism is indeed something that artists, and those who want to see good art succeed, have to contend with, though it probably holds a good deal less sway over Western culture than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But it's that phrase itself, and its function as an implicit put-down, that may be more pernicious in the long run. It implies that until you know "enough" about art -- and how do you know when you've reached this point? -- you have no right to form your own opinions. But it's virtually impossible to experience a work of art (I'll use the term to cover all the arts) without asking yourself whether or not you like it. So the neophyte, anxious to avoid being a philistine, forms his opinions based not upon his own response to the work, but on having been told whether or not it's good, or on whether it reminds him of something he "knows" is good. And, having concluded that he ought to like a certain work, he tries to convince himself he really does like it. As he becomes more knowledgeable about art, he uses this knowledge not to enhance his personal response, but to expand his database of what one should and shouldn't like. Eventually, he can no longer distinguish the responses he actually has from those he's supposed to have. (This whole process is further exacerbated by the frequent practice in critical discourse of lambasting those who like or dislike the "wrong" things as subhuman morons.)

I'm speaking from personal experience; when I say "he" I mean "me." Many times I've called something good, and convinced myself that I liked it, when in reality what I meant was that I wanted to like it and hoped that someday I would like it. Undoubtedly I still do this sometimes, without being fully aware of it.

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