This post is part of a series in which I talk about the serious side of my otherwise silly book, Poker Tales. If you want to read all of my individual works on my individual chapters, or if you’re coming in in the middle and want to catch up, the full listing of all the chapters (as well as some free excerpts) can be found by clicking here or by clicking on Poker Tales in the menu at the top of the page. If you want to follow along with me in my book itself, you may click on the books at the top left-hand corner of the page. It will take you to web site where you can browse my book before you buy it.
In the beginning of the book, the Kid has just landed in Las Vegas. He is giddy as he directs the cab driver to take him to the Mirage Hotel, his favorite hotel in the city he’s been dreaming about all his life. The hotel has captured his imagination ever since he saw it in his favorite movie, Rounders.
On entering the lobby, he is struck by its vastness. But he is also a little disappointed in the shabbiness of the art works he finds there. He fixates on one statue of three Chinamen. He cannot decide what it means, determining that its lack of determinative meaning is on account of its being a work of kitsch. So he walks away. That is where the story ends. Not much to think about, but this is where the story behind the story begins.
I Fixate on Art
I was reading Julian Baggani and Peter Fosi’s The Ethics Toolkit: A Compendium of Ethical Concepts and Methods the other day—I know; how cool am I?—and I was struck by the fact that the first subject in Part I: The Grounds of Ethics is a section on ‘Aesthetics.’ They take the notion of aesthetics as containing the ‘ground’ of ethical thought very seriously, not giving any other example than Plato’s Ion (3) for dismissing the domain of art from qualification as the ultimate moral arbiter.
As a former graduate student in an English department, this seems absurd to me. Ion doesn’t dismiss art as the domain of moral behavior. It shifts the domain of virtue from a nonentity like Ion—scholars have not been able to identify an Ion who fits the profile, and this leads many (including yours truly) to believe that the never was any actual person named Ion—to Socrates. Ion has an inflated sense of himself but no sense of why he wins the poetic prizes of which he boasts. Socrates, on the other hand, can give reasons for why Ion behaves the way he does. It is a matter of having ‘art’ at his (Socrates’) disposal, rather than having Ion’s completely innate natural sense by which he can perform Homer but cannot explain how he performs.
Therefore, as I say in my Writing for People Who Hate Writing, my students can be led, as Socrates leads Ion, to the conclusion that Socrates knows what he is talking about, while Ion has no idea about why he acts the way he does. This is because Socrates has tied art to metaphysics, where he, Plato, and every English major (except me) at the University of Illinois in the early 90s held the ‘ground’ of humanity to reside.
But when I ask my students to comment on Socrates’ actual knowledge—he tells Ion that he (Ion) is an empty cipher who channels the work of the gods through himself but adds nothing to it himself—they all agree that Socrates, though in some way that they are not exactly sure of is wise, is full of s**t when it comes to explaining the actual source of all art. This is because they don’t believe in such foolish things as Socrates does (pagan gods, golden chains, people named Ion, etc.)
So my question is why so many in the English department were so convinced that they had found the answer in art if art was so distant from what we actually believe? My academic colleagues agreed with Socrates and Plato, because (I think) Plato guarantees that followers of Socrates have answers that elude ‘lesser’ men (and women if there are any in his ancient Greek world). But Plato’s answer comes from an act of sleight of hand, shifting from the limited individual—who no one in ancient Greece thought had any answers to anything; individuals were like Ion, unenlightened idiots—to the realm of a ‘guaranteed’ symbol which Socrates had access to through his special ‘demon, but which none of my students (and for that matter Aristotle, who called Plato’s Theory of Form a ‘poetic metaphor’ in one of the first acts of good sense shown in ancient philosophy) could not believe in.
I and all of my students side with Aristotle on the matter of Plato’s relying on ‘poetic metaphor.’ The academics sided with Plato. They were wise; the rest of us were stupid idiots.
Of course, I begged to differ (but who am I?). I wrote my dissertation on the influence of Aristotle (rather the usual Plato) on allegory in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance (again, how cool am I?). And my agreement with Aristotle was not enough (as I thought in the naïve youth of a graduate student) to guarantee that Aristotle has an answer to where the ‘ground’ of humanity resides (he doesn’t). He thought it resided in ‘nature,’ who he deified. But, as Plato was kind enough to point out, Aristotle, too, had a problem. It was possible that she was no more than a figment of Aristotle’s imagination. So Plato’s works were elevated and Aristotle’s work sat in the forgotten basement of Neleus of Scepsis for two hundred years before being sold to Apellicon of Teos, who brought them back to Athens in the 1st century AD.
Aristotle’s charge that the works of Plato were nothing more than “poetic metaphors” makes for an interesting problem of where, if not in this world (as Aristotle says) or in some vaguely defined ‘otherworld’ (as Aristotle said Plato believed), the aesthetic realm exists. But positing something and proving its existence or non-existence, as Aristotle and Plato had attempted to do, was no longer necessary in the academic community of 1996. It was posited as proved, even without any definitive proof as to where is exists or any need for further discussion. It could be ‘real’ or it could be an illusion of the mind. The question of ‘where’ is beside the point. It is the what, the existence of the aesthetic, that endures through the destruction of the ontological or epistemological value through the permanent and lasting domain of metaphysics, that matters.
When I was in academia, I was invited to either accept or reject the aesthetic’s fundamental existence. When I rejected it, the academic community rejected me. Their only defense was to insist that I was foolish, and that if I would only come around to their way of thinking I could be granted access to the ‘truth.’ Until that point, I was an outsider, a foolish student who (unlike Socrates) didn’t know enough to know what he didn’t know.
This is the problem that Plato had recognized with his own metaphysical systems. There is no way to prove that you are right. Nevertheless, the problem with aesthetic systems is that they rely on Plato’s alignment with metaphysics. This holds true whether we are relying on the aesthetics of Plato, on the 18th century Enlightenment system of Alexander Pope, on 19th century system of Shelley, or on the 20th century system of James Joyce. All these systems hold that aesthetic system is to found our knowledge on metaphysical truths, rather than scientific systems, which change. And this is why Baggani and Fosi have made aesthetics the basis of their chapter of ‘The Grounds of Ethics.’
Aristotle’s Microscope Invoked
The fact of the matter is that these things only make sense if we have the sense not to delve too deeply into them. The fact of the matter is that if we focus our attention too deeply on the exact nature of our ideas, they deconstruct (they fall apart for the non-academics among you). This was my point in my post on Aristotle’s microscope.
My argument was never with the fact of deconstruction, but on the response of academics to this phenomenon. They thought that the proper position of aesthetics was aligned with metaphysics, and not with science. Metaphysics has the unique position of setting unchanging goals to philosophical inquiry. Science, on the other hand, changes through time. So they rejected science and latched onto metaphysics. This aligns them with the leaders of society (the philosopher kings for those of you familiar with Plato’s Republic). But at the same time, science continues to operate within the world of time, so that whenever science turns its attention to something, the metaphysician must back away to a higher ground in order to secure himself from the depredations of science.
My standard model for this is the advance of science from Plato’s demon, to medieval mysticism, to Galileo’s theory of mechanical motion, to Descartes’ coordinate geometry, to the thought of Newton (which eliminated once and for all the need to posit Socrates’ demon), to Darwin’s fluid nature of species (which even Newton thought were fixed), to the complete relativism of Einstein (in which nothing is fixed except in relation to something else).
I make my case in ‘Why Fido Can’t Drive’ in my Writing for People Who Hate Writing.
My point about this is that, as soon as we change our scientific perspective on the universe, our metaphysics changes as well. This is why my students, who live in the post-Einstein world, don’t believe in the science of Socrates but do believe that Socrates “in some inexplicable way” is a better thinker than Ion. My job as a teacher is to point out that my students are right to doubt Socrates and to point out the reasons why they are right, which escape them. This involves me first having to dismiss the science of Socrates. But unlike Plato, I do not go to the level on which things make perfect sense. That could be, as Aristotle says, a “poetic metaphor.” I feel that my obligation is to drive my students to ‘the truth.’
This involves me with science, rather than a satisfying sense that I or my students can think whatever we want, however ridiculous. They have that right, of course, but I feel that it is my obligation to get them to agree that they don’t know what they are talking about and that their profession of optimism, while infinitely nobler than skepticism that I encountered in graduate school, must be tempered with the caution that comes from knowledge that at any point they could be wrong.
In the current environment of art, that’s okay. We expect artist to be a little bit weird and idiosyncratic (I mean that in a good way); but in the environment of business, which thrives, not on equality but on competition, if you are wrong, someone else who’s right will take all your business and you will end up working for them. That is why I subtitled my Writing for People Who Hate Writing ‘A Book for the Rest of Us.’ I still recognize the importance of equality as the foundation of ethics, but I wanted to address the needs of mathematicians, doctors, engineers, and businessmen, who need to get a leg up on their competition or who just didn’t want to be embarrassed when their boss asked them to write a report that was to be distributed to the company. Such chores require knowing more than your audience or your competition. It does not, however, amount to knowing everything. No one knows everything.
Unlimited Postmodern Art
Art has always had a component of thinkers who were interested in the metaphysics of art, but they have usually put limits on the metaphysics of art. For instance Eliot and Joyce had some of the most powerful aesthetic systems ever invented, but they managed to exclude “mere” commerce from inclusion in the art world.
Their worldview was perpetuated by a whole host of thinkers in a whole bunch of fields, until cracks started appearing in their once crackless façade. This was largely the work of Andy Warhol, who came along and decided that the reproductive qualities of art, which Modern critics like Clement Greenberg had derided as kitsch, were perfectly acceptable as art. His ‘reproduction of the faces of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Tse-Tung have made him the hero of the ‘in-crowd’ ever since.
I would say that the ‘verboten’ (‘forbidden’ for those of you who do not speak German) becomes ‘boten’ in Warhol’s universe And this involves changing the rules of art. Warhol’s model relies on stepping out of the commercial universe along the lines of Duchamp, who put a toilet in a Dada art show and dared anyone to call it not-art. In doing so, he put the art world in a bind. Art was supposed to be representative of all, and yet some things were left out of the ‘whole.’ If someone attempted to dismiss his toilet from their art show, which the Society of Independent Artists tried to do with Duchamp’s Fountain, then the world of art would be diminished.
With new rules, there was an explosion of new art on Warhol’s model, but a lot of it was bad art. For instance, here is a piece of art called ‘Andy Warhol eats a hamburger’:
As you can probably see, it’s a film of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger. And you can probably also see, it’s also easy to imitate.
And because it is so easy to imitate, it can be fun to watch someone imitating Warhol’s original eating of a hamburger.
This process of duplication reproduces art to infinity, which they say is supposed to be the point of art. But in fact it doesn’t save art from being exceptionally boring. Did you watch Warhol’s art piece all the way to the end? Neither did I. Art has become a delight to those on the inside; for the rest of us, it’s a chore.
Who Gets To Call It Art?
So who gets to call it art in a universe in which only a few really care for the stretches that must be made for a things of so little aesthetic value? (See my post on Lana Turner collapsing and search for Henry Geldzahler for my explanation of this phenomenon). The answer is not far to seek: it is the bold and daring artist who is willing to do something ‘new,’ no matter how dull the rest of us may find their work.
In such an environment, the walls put up by artists are just more proof to the ‘believers’ that the ‘non-believers’ are fools. The only solution is to come join them in their protected enclave (the Ivory Tower I think is the name for it these days). Anything else will guarantee your position as an outsider. As an outsider, no one has to listen to you.
So postmodernism has become a game of follow the leader. The way to gain entry is to allow that Andy Warhol was an artist who decontextualized art from its position as a created object, like a toilet which could be determined by its causal structure by material cause (the purpose for which it was conceived by its maker) but has been recontextualized for the metaphysical cause, which lays outside of connection to material things of any kind. Only after decontexualization could it be put in a sanitized museum and displayed as art (qua art for those of you who read Latin).
In such an environment, Andy Warhol was not (‘NOT!’) a man who got rich producing lots of art by deceiving others! I mean this. This is the same charge that Socrates levels at Ion at the end of that dialog, by the way; Ion, being a man of little character, decides he does not want to be thought of as a deceiver and so he chooses the other thing that wiser Socrates has put before him. But, as any one of my Freshman students can tell you, that doesn’t change the fact that
Andy Warhol Socrates is full of s**t. Facts is facts.
This distinction of decontextualization, meanwhile, makes it imperative that art lower itself to hithertofor unheard depths of depravity. It used to be enough to burn a flag or two. But that soon became so prosaic that artists had to go deeper, and we got Piss Christ. That, too, got imitated with a slight difference in the work of art recently purchased ‘A Fire in My Belly.’ More recently, we have had people creating ‘art works’ about killing a living president.
My reason for stepping back from this sort of art is not that we don’t have the right to express ourselves like this. We do. And it’s not I don’t enjoy the art that comes from the impulse to offend. I do. I really do.
My stepping back from this sort of art is based on my belief that the value proposition of art has gotten way out of hand with its original intent. Postmodern art was supposed to be (or at least I was foolish enough to believe people when they told me that it was intended to be) available to everyone. It was supposed to be democratic. But lately, art has been for rich art collectors, who go about in their nests of ‘in people’ talking about how ‘out people’ who live in Chicago’s south suburbs, for instance, are all idiots and fools.
This situation is even more extreme than the one which I experienced in the move from an open and more democratic world of art of the 1960s (of which I still approve) away from the closed intellectual atmosphere of the 1950s (of which I do not). By the late 70s, the ‘art is for everyone’ appeal had given way to the Studio 54 model, in which a few beautiful people were let in to the club, while the non-beautiful people (like me) were left out in the cold. I was among those who rebelled.
Having gotten into academia on the promise that it was democratic, I left academia, having chosen not to play with people who prejudge me without listening to what I have to say. I’ve gotten used to this, but I still do not like it. I probably never will, since it flies in the face of my American objection to snobbery of any sort.
Because of my American objection to snobbery of any sort, I don’t begrudge the out-sized influence of Andy Warhol, whose IQ may not have been all that high. I like him for what he is. But I also agree with the art critic Robert Hughes, the author of The Shock of the New, who I recently saw on television mocking the untutored gall of non-famous art critics who, simply by decree, can declare their own personal favorite painting a masterpiece, and who could say no? Robert Hughes thought he could, but then who is Robert Hughes (I mean, apart from an internationally recognized art critic who has spent years studying good and bad art and learning to differentiate between the two).
This puts Hughes, in my humble opinion, in the camp of ‘us, the knowing.’ Hence, I expect him to dismiss me and my work of art, Poker Tales, as little more than a bit of trash which could only appeal to ‘them, the unknowing.’
Science and Limits of Art in My Work
But my plan goes deeper than that. Poker Tales is an attempt to forgo snobbery of few those on the inside of Danto’s artworld, whose appeal is at least partly built on exclusionary principles. Once again, the ignorant are exuded by ‘those who get to call it art,’ but now those who get to own art have shifted from true aesthetes like Geldzahler to the super rich.
In a universe in which art is no longer democratic, my reasonably-priced Poker Tales appeals—or is supposed to appeal; who can say what actually will sell?—to people who are not concerned with snobby games like chess (see my dissertation on the chapter I call ‘Reykjavík’), but who like to play the ordinary and vastly-increasing-in-its-popularity game of poker. Poker is a game for every man, not just for snobs who like to build deconstructable walls and who hide behind them as though they are permanent and give them rights to judge that the uneducated ‘masses’ don’t have, on account of their not having any (or enough) education.
Yeats Vision of Poetry
But that is not to say that there are not some nuggets of deep value in the book. The first comes when he’s in the lobby of the Mirage and he sees a statue of three Chinamen. He decides it doesn’t mean anything and walks away. But art is deeper than he suspects.
I draw on a work of poetry to make my point here. The work of W. B. Yeats’ ‘Lapis Lazuli’ makes the point that hysterical women—isn’t it always hysterical women in Yeats?—are complaining about poets being gay (I can hear you snickering in the back; he means in the happy sense). These hysterical women are upset, because if something isn’t done, the town will be flattened by bombs.
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
That sounds bad. But Yeats objects that artists have always been gay (*snicker*). They perform their tragedies, of course, but gaiety (stop laughing in the back) transforms all that dread.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
So the question becomes one of perspective. Should, Yeats asks, the hysterical women react to the tragedy, or should they react to the cathartic effect of art, which transforms all that dread. He himself reacts with a humor born of his mystical vision that he has a higher purpose.
In my opinion, the scholars who reacted to me with such horror were like the hysterical women who reacted with such disdain to the actors who strutted the stage with such happy aplomb. My art work is supposed to be like the counterweight of humor, which transforms all that dread.
Of course, in Yeats, the exchange of tragedy for humor also comes with the aesthetic, metaphysical view, which Baggani and Fosi associate with the ground of aesthetics. In the metaphysical perspective, we are launched out of the world of time and into an eternal world of imagination. But this is exactly what I didn’t like in the modern world of art. It gathers us up and takes us to a world outside of time and which, unlike this world, is thought to be ‘in some way’ more permanent and real than the real.
But, on closer inspection, the whole thing deconstructs. The barriers to entry (for those of you who have a business education), and the walls of the Ivory Tower (for those of you charged with teaching the youts) are not real for those of us who have had the good fortune to have been raised in America, and not in Plato’s ancient Greece, and to have studied and taken seriously Aristotle’s notion that the whole ‘other world,’ to which Plato points us, could just be a myth. I believe I’ve made this point on my blog before this, as well.
My silly book has a serious point to it, after all.
Three Chinamen in the Desert
I make it for the first time in the art work that ‘the Kid’ stares at for a moment through the imported desert palms. It is, he thinks, a statue of three chinamen playing lutes. Well, what do you know, but those 3 chinamen are derived from Lapis Lazuli’:
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Now I return to the question I asked in the section of Comedy or Tragedy in this post: should he know this. My answer as a critic is yes, he should know this. But, as I also asked in my previous post, does he know this?, and the answer is a definitive ‘No.’
In my opinion (but then who am I?), it is what a man does after he has encountered something ‘new’ in the universe that matters. In this case, the Kid places his experience at the service of men who know more than he himself does, because he doesn’t know enough himself:
This was the sort of kitsch that his professors had warned him against in college when they had pointed him towards “authenticity” of experience in assessing artwork.
And yet, it is in turning away from his experience to the experience of ‘others,’ who know more than he himself does, he turns away from his ‘authentic’ experience of art in the actual world to a false position built up by an academic dreamer. The experience of others is only valid when it contains verifiable truths, and not something that may be a fictional construction of his or ‘others’ mind. Nothing in the academic’s position does not result from the position that only he has access to the truth that escapes ‘lesser’ men.
But—and this is really important if you want to understand my program here—it doesn’t matter. I have given up the search for ends of experience that obsessed the mos and pomos when I was in grad school.
That is why my work deals with the open world of science, which my academic colleagues turn away from, and not the gradually-contracting-to-a-select-few-rich-people-who-are-fabulously-wealthy world of metaphysical inquiry.
No one who is worth their scientific salt ever declared the search for the final answer to a scientific question permanently over for ever. Science is about middles, not ends. Like the scientific world I model my fictional world on, my world operates on abstractions—people with names like ‘the Kid’ and ‘the Old-Timer—and on actual individuals with individualizing names.
The lesson I learned at great expense of both time and effort in graduate school is that there is no foundation beneath the truth. But it is not from their understanding that there is no truth that the standing of the intellectuals comes. It is in their greater knowledge than others have of the mechanisms of art. And this extends to everything. People who know more are better off than those who know less in every field. So find your bliss and follow that, because without that, your life may not be perfect, but it will be bleaker than it has to be.
But, having been out of the ivory tower for 15 years, I am firmly committed to the Pareto model in which nature rewards some much (much, much, much) more than others. And nature operates within time, which means that you can think you’ve found an answer, but in a competitive environment, you’re only as good as the last story you’ve told. If someone comes along with a better idea than you’ve got, than the natural inequity will quickly rob you of your comfortable position which you might just have been foolish enough to believe was natural (the lesson of business is that if you think so, then too bad for you).
Art in ‘The City That Never Sleeps’
Art in the ‘city that never sleeps’ can stay awake, just like the never-sleeping, eternal art of Yeats. But in fact, the world is diurnal (shifting back and forth from day to night and back again), and individual’s need to sleep or they will go insane or die (or both). By neglecting sleep for the eternal ‘action’ of the city, the Kid betrays his actual life for a fantasy that, were he ever to actually achieve it, would kill him in short order.
By this, I want to highlight the difference between the way our minds would like the world to be (eternal, without death) and the way the world actually is. The Kid comes to Vegas hoping to have his fantasy come to life and feels at last that he’s arrived at ‘the center of the universe.’
Art, in a competitive environment is supposed to obscure. It is supposed to make the participant feel as though he is at the center of the universe. But if anyone believes it, as the Kid seems to believe it, they could be a sucker.
Likewise, my art work is not supposed to give anyone who reads it a comfortable solution to the problem of art in which art reduces all works to a comfortable equity that is missing from the world in general and which, Joni Mitchell and Rush Limbaugh like, we should restore by traveling backwards to a past whose natural equity we have lost. That is more than foolish; it is wrong, no matter how many people think so. It is wrong because it relies on a fiction, told by people who have lost the ability to compete and who erect easily deconstructable barriers to entry. Such barriers only hold as long as there is no competition. The economic world is driven by the 20% who learn the sometimes hard lessons of competition. If you think that have risen above the need to compete, you’re probably making the same mistake as Yeats, who though a great poet (the greatest) is one of the 80%.
It is with this in mind that I survey the worlds of politics and business and place myself above such petty (and tragic) pursuits. My message is delivered through a bunch of silly tales, but the underlying message is serious, at least as far as my art is concerned.
And this is why the Kid is wrong to turn away from the work of art in the garden. It’s not that he could know the poem behind it (he probably can’t). It’s that in turning away he relies on his firm knowledge of things he has no right knowing. His ‘authentic’ art, he is relying on others whose universe is founded on a false bottom.
In this, I imitate Yeats’ three Chinamen when one of them asks ‘for mournful melodies,’ and I with ‘Accomplished fingers begin to play.’ When I do play my notes in my silly book, I hope your eyes will be like the three Chinamen:
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
(*chortle* Quiet in the back! *laughter continues* Fade to black)