In Defense of Art Pluralism
Tod Kelly makes elitist art snobbery look good.
I’m something of a snob myself when it comes to the arts, and so it should come as no surprise that I agree with his case against art relativism, “the belief that in any particular study of art, all works are inherently equal,” even though I have, on some documented occasions, been known to flirt with relativism.
I’m not a relativist, however. I want to make that clear. I’m a pluralist. I affirm truth; I just think truth is not one, but many. The nutshell reason: what we call truth is something both disclosed and created by signification, by the expression of meaning through language, art, music, etc.
So I’m not an art relativist like Sam Wilkinson. I affirm that works of art give us a basis on which to judge them and compare them to one another, but only to an elusive point. I can give you reasons why George R.R. Martin is a better writer of fantasy than R.A. Salvatore, why the films of Paul Thomas Anderson are far superior to the movies of Michael Bay, or why Katie Melua should send your consciousness into heavenly flight while the songs of Britney Spears will only sputter the movement of your soul. For each of the reasons I would appeal to the works of the artist and to a set of standards by which I judge and compare them.
Sounds simple, right? Except it’s not. Even if you agree with my set of standards, you will not see, or hear, or grasp each work of art exactly the way I do. Part of this difference in our perceptions of each work is due to our respective tastes, affinities, abilities to experience and appreciate the art, and to what each of us uniquely brings to the experience. But there’s another reason, and it’s the reason that I’m an art pluralist.
Each and every work of art establishes a world of meaning distant from all others. Each has its own meaning, of course, but also its own direction, its own laws and rules and regulations. Each has its own language, its own vocabulary, and its own truth, beauty, and goodness. Each is doing its own thing, apart from all others and even apart from the intentions of the artist and the approaches of those who experience it. The differences here are not absolute, but nor are they insignificant. I can assess William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Evening Mood by the same set of standards that I assess a Renoir or Monet, but by doing so, I cease to see and respond to each work individually. In considering them together, I may make a valid judgment, so far as it goes, but I also lose sight of them and treat each as something they are not. Bouguereau’s realism is unlike any other realism; he’s clearly in a different universe than the impressionists.
In sum, it’s possible to compare two works of art, but only by abstraction and with a loss of perception. It’s impossible to compare two works while retaining each work’s fullness of expression and meaning. At the end of the day, then, while I can judge and compare works of art by a set of standards corresponding to the works themselves, I cannot ultimately make a final judgement because the differences of their worlds make them incomparable.