John Link, one of the editors of newCrit and professor at Western Michigan University, asked me to write something about how art gets validated. In the effort to do so, I may have come up with a sort of unified field theory linking value in art to the social contracts surrounding it.
The short answer is that a work of art is validated when its value is accepted by the viewer. Of course, this being the contemporary art world, that simple phenomenon does not result in a simple situation.
Art can be seen to have two kinds of value. The first is aesthetic, and the second is historical.
Aesthetic value is the alignment of materials, technique, composition, and human feeling that gives art the power to work on us in the mysterious and profound way that it does. Aesthetic value is intrinsic to the art, that is, based on the materials of the art and their arrangement. Responding to aesthetic value is intuitive by nature, and results in feelings or sets of feelings. Work with a lot of aesthetic value is said to be "good."
Historical value is everything else; a list follows below. Historic value is extrinsic to the art, having to do with the social, philosophical, psychological, and physical environment in which it is made and displayed. Responding to historical value is reasoned by nature, and results in thoughts and language. Work with a lot of historical value is said to be "interesting." An abridged list of sources for historical value could include:
1. Age. This is the chief source of historical value. The Venus of Willendorf is important because it is so ancient, and would continue to be so even if rendered in a different style or otherwise formally different.
2. Impact. Work that can be seen to have influenced later work is regarded as historically valuable.
3. Derivation. Work that adopts the successes of earlier work takes on a certain amount of borrowed value if it succeeds as well. Derivation makes art appear to fit into an evolutionary family tree.
4. Conditioning. This includes the education of taste that takes place in people who look at art seriously. That education is gathered from the environment, and its flavor greatly influences the kind of art that a viewer perceives as valuable.
5. Narrative. Narratives are compelling to the human mind and can lend a work of art great interest. Narratives can be patently historical, depicting scenes from history, but even fictional narratives relate to the way myths, legends, and stories work generally. (Compare "story" to Italian storia, history.)
6. Prevailing theories. As particular ideas become compelling in the intellectual environment, art which relates to them takes on historical value.
7. Ideas. Ideas in the art itself that are compelling will lend it value in direct proportion. Ideas are historical because they are the product of the thinking of the time.
Again, these qualities are extrinsic to the art. When it comes to looking at and making art, historical value can't be shed, especially not when defined as broadly as I have here. Nor should it be. After all, art has to be made by living people, and people live in history. But the power of great art resides in its aesthetic value and is reinforced by its historical value, not the other way around. Art's aesthetic value has proven over centuries to be its enduring quality, which is why we can be bowled over by work we know little about.
One might find the above assertion elitist and retrogressive, in which case one might be a postmodernist. "Postmodernism" was an inchoate term to begin with, and it seems to be losing its ability to describe what's going on in the contemporary art world circa 2003. I mean 1990's postmodernism, as described by Lynne A. Munson:
"Postmodernism is a spinoff from deconstruction, a set of theories ... that dominated humanities scholarship throughout the 1980s and 1990s. According to deconstructionists, what we believe to be true - about past events and historical figures long considered significant, or about the merit of artistic and literary treasures - is actually a propagandistic illusion perpetuated by the powerful." (source)
In other words, aesthetic value is historical value, and that history was written by the winners. As she recounts, this viewpoint has been the M.O. for a couple of decades among our cultural institutions. If you think the power of art resides in aesthetic value, you may find yourself out of touch with contemporary art history. The reason that history is running such a course can be easily explained.
Artists are only one component of an art world that includes galleries, art historians, curators, critics, museums, and collectors. These parties make their living, or at least their reputations, by making good calls about artists and works of art. More specifically, they have to convince each other, themselves, and the viewing public, that art they say is important really is important.
To do so, they might try to rely on aesthetic value, but that presents two big problems. The first is that it cuts down drastically on the amount of product they can move. Plenty of art out there is pretty, but little of it is so beautiful as to be profound. That kind of art is consummately difficult to make. The second is that aesthetic value may be persuasive to look at, but it's impossible to talk about. That's the nature of the aesthetic response - there's just an intuitive "ah!" and no more. As was said above, the aesthetic response is intuitive rather than reasoned, resulting in feelings rather than thoughts and language. The kind of persuasion that galleries, critics, curators, etc., use on each other must take the form of language: press releases, magazine essays, monographs, discussion, and buzz.
That leaves them to talk about historical value. The chief source of historical value is age (item #1 above), but that doesn't work for an artist in the early part of his career, "emerging," as people say. Impact (#2) hasn't happened yet, if it ever will.
Derivation (#3) is a possibility, although it is seen as uncool in some circles to walk on trodden ground. Conditioning (#4) is a possibility as well, to educate taste by force, if one has the resources to advertise, publish monographs, convene panels about the artist's work, print t-shirts, and so on. Taking advantage of narrative (#5) might work if the artist uses it, but few do.
That leaves prevailing theories (#6) and ideas (#7), which have become the backbone of the beast that is the art world. Cheap, uncopyrighted, culturally sanctioned, and important-sounding, they can be used to prop up even the nastiest, most worthless art.
What we see in the contemporary art world is a triumph of historical, extrinsic value in general and theories and ideas in particular. Although great art relies on its aesthetic value and is reinforced by its historical value, the art world operates as if the reverse were true, because it would otherwise be unable to function. This give rise to a host of evils:
1. Two kinds of failed art criticism - the insipid, mush-like variety that can barely be distinguished from reportage; and the opaque, theoretical variety where ideas get blown up until they float away into the darkness. Both derive from a language-based notion that art can be explained.
2. Major collections that eschew local or unknown artists in favor of magazine-endorsed blue chip ones, and the consequent sameness among major collections all over the world. Magazines use language to purvey historical value and dutifully report market values for choice works, and it is often these qualities that capture the ears of collectors.
3. Press releases issued by museums and galleries that are spun like a top to make its artists seem important, based on ideas and intentions that are not in themselves interesting.
4. Artists who have comfortable careers making ugly, emotionally flat work - all idea and no aesthetic - because they are good at generating buzz and following prevailing theories.
Meanwhile, art based on aesthetic value appeals slowly to one person at a time, upon viewing. What it lacks in speed, it makes up for in duration. In essence there are two art histories going on - a loud, fast, exciting one based on buzz, and a reticent, slow, private one based on feeling. This is why good but anomalous figures like Balthus and Lucien Freud don't get wiped off the face of the earth. People with sharp eyes make choices about what to preserve that are independent of contemporary history. When the buzz dies down and the hyped artists go the way of all fashion, often those sharp-eyed choices remain standing on their intrinsic goodness.
Of course, we want all of this to be sorted out in our lifetimes - to see our heroes celebrated and our enemies forgotten. This is only natural, but it wrongly assumes that things are ever sorted out once and for all, or that we're the ones to do it. I've been told by an art historian that appreciation for Caravaggio only goes back about 120 years; prior to that, it was too hard for the gentle art public to separate Caravaggio the painter from Caravaggio the pedophiliac hothead.
Bouguereau is another example. Despite his unassailable place in the Salon, he was rejected along with the Salon itself by a younger generation who latched on to the Impressionists. Even so, Robert Henri noted in The Art Spirit (circa 1910) that the people who were quick to dismiss the Impressionists and the people who later were quick to dismiss the Salon painters were of the same kind. Now, Bouguereau still looks shopworn compared to Monet, but he looks inspired next to, say, Gerôme, and he is once again being considered by certain parties who don't flinch reflexively upon seeing flying babies. Being dead, I doubt it makes him feel any better, but there you go.
Nevertheless it's up to us to make the call about the work around us. The art world probably has no choice except to operate the way it does, but as individuals, we can put ourselves in front of single pieces of art and allow them to work on us. If they're good, we can hope, with reason, that they will survive the art world they were born into and endure into the future.