Sunday, December 10, 2006

What is art? What is good art?

I just skimmed through a book called Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, by John Seabrook, who has written for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The book itself suffered from lack of organization and the author's over-reliance on personal anecdotes. Seabrook often tries to fit too much into his thesis, so that everything from Bill Clinton to the Helmut Lang store in New York City's SoHo neighborhood is emblematic of the "nobrow." He should have instead devoted more of this ambition to defining what nobrow culture means, which he never sufficiently does.

Nonetheless, Seabrook reintroduces a couple of challenging questions on the subject of art and what exactly it is or isn't. One question he resurrects is whether culture hierarchies are legitimate or just manifestations of upper class hegemony. My view is that, on the one hand, the old indicators that one enjoyed high culture--season tickets to the opera, patronage of the art museum, knowledge of the Western literary canon--required a certain degree of wealth. On the other hand, that which we consider high culture today has been open and accessible to the masses in the past, from orchestral concerts to Shakespeare plays. Perhaps only more recently do we categorize these performances as highbrow. Furthermore, I think judgements of quality can certainly be made about art. The process of engaging with art is intimately connected with the act of critiquing art.

Seabrook argues that this is all moot because culture today is no longer characterized by the highbrow/lowbrow duality but rather by a unified "nobrow," where what is marketable is king. To the extent that Seabrook is right about this, I believe that a new standard can be introduced to sift through the nobrow: the authenticity of the work of art. This classification may help adjudicate the argument that ensues when one side has to defend "pedestrian" tastes against another side's charges of "elitism." For instance, two music artists may be equally marketable, popular with a mass audience, and able to produce catchy music, but one artist may be eminently more authentic than the other. The latter has composed their own work where the former is produced. Using this distinction, we can discard the inauthentic--the Avril Lavignes and Britney Spears--and then go onto debate whether the authentic artists are actually good at what they do. Thus, those of us who get tarred for disliking art simply because it is popular with a mass audience can avoid such an easy charge and get to the heart of why something is or isn't good.

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