Art

Amateur is the next step after indie, with the breakout serendipity of non-talent being the new talent

First, there was Indie. Then there was Hipster. The next logical step is Amateur. Indie was the secret power of the connoisseur who could find treasure beyond the radio and big music stores. The indie fan lived near independent record stores and coffee shops with local budding acts. Then Myspace gave indie access to anybody who was either bored with their current music selection or had some obsessive desire to deepen their cultural purview. But then Urban Outfitters and social media-savvy music labels commercialized and repackaged that access.

But the war for obscurity and cultural elitism soldiers on, and it will probably focus on amateur acts. The aficionado who is so interested in music that they have to get to its core—which is just people sharing emotion with people—will spend their time at shitty open-mics or listen to tracks on SoundCloud from anybody with at least a thousand listens. There will be no buzz-following as the nerds seek out serendipitous discovery.

Of course, first-wave imitators, who in the previous generation were hipsters, will co-opt amateurism. Faux amateurism, in the form of willfully imperfect Etsy clothing, will be the style. But then this will be commercialized and re-packaged so that perhaps the Rebecca Blacks of the world, the people who just shell out a few grand for a vanity album, will dominate the airwaves.

Art is just pomp, like a royal parade, glittering in the distance and justifying the high culture that sponsors it

Art and hierarchy are intertwined. Art critics and curators determine what is good art. Art critics write for an audience of art buyers, who are the wealthiest of the wealthy, and curators work for museums, which are large, beautiful, well-maintained and air-conditioned showrooms for such art. Art is then a pomp for the masses, like a royal parade. It just glitters in the distance and justifies the high culture that sponsors it.

Breaking Bad is a metaphor for the impossible choices presented to the American middle-class when facing cancer

If art imitates life, then great art captures the zeitgeist. Likewise, the reason Breaking Bad is not just another interesting, dark drama is that it also speaks to the anxieties of a generation. The story of Breaking Bad starts with the main character Walt discovering not only that his career is flagging in his middle-age, but that he now has cancer. Instead of leaning on the healthcare system, he is driven to financial madness and uses his skills as a chemistry teacher to become a methamphetamine cook.

The rest of the series involves Walt being put into impossible situations that are often about the collision between the rough-and-tumble world of drug dealing and the realities of middle-class family expectations. For example, in one episode, Walt splurges on a nice car for his 16-year-old son, which Walt's wife scorns because it might draw the attention of the IRS. Walt then responds by taking the car for a joyride in an abandoned parking lot and blowing it up.

Likewise, middle-class Americans are facing declining prospects and an uncaring system, leading them to set their own American Dreams on fire.

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Can art lower humanity, engaging realism without truth, ugliness without purpose, or would that stunt become art in of itself?

Art mostly aims to elevate humanity. Even dark paintings, with sickly looking monsters, or realistic paintings with ordinary people in still moments, are designed to make human experiences magical. In these paintings, the sickly are sublime, and the ordinary have an extraordinary presence. But why can't art lower humans? Can't people be declared just as they are, without any sacredness? Can't they be encountered as banal, busy, and occasionally fun?

It would be paradoxical to have people pose for ordinary photos. And if someone captured people with candid photography, any attempts to frame the photos or curate them would be counterproductive. Perhaps creating an unbiased machine to make and curate art randomly is the only way to take the humanity out of it. But then that machine would become the work of art.

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Creativity through limitation: Technically animated GIFs are just looping videos on mute, yet they're so much bigger than that

The best way to understand Animated GIFs is in comparison to web videos. 80% of the time, web videos aren't set to auto-play, out of respect for people whose speakers are on, or for those who want to conserve bandwidth. Animated GIFs nearly always have no audio accompaniment and are on auto-play. They're also mostly guaranteed to be short and looping, so even if they get started, and you miss the sequence the first time, you'll have a second chance to catch what's happening. This unique structure makes them perfect as a form of pure ephemeral expression, like an advanced emoticon. This is why we find that the enduring home for animated GIFs is in forums and message boards, oftentimes serving as the perfect punchline.

If faces are the highest density memories we have, then art must activate the same part of the brain that does facial recognition

Great artwork activates the same part of your brain used when looking at faces. Since faces are the highest-density memories we have, when a piece of art is done well, your brain maps and absorbs it like the facial recognition system in the Terminator.

Maybe 8-bit music is inherently sad because Bowser is always there to challenge Mario, no matter how many times you beat him

8-Bit music, the kind that harks back nostalgically to early video game consoles, always sounds a bit sad. The music evokes a tragic epic. Perhaps this has to do with attitudes of Post-occupation Japan in the early 1980s, when the Nintendo Entertainment System first came out. Or it could be a common Japanese (or Eastern) musical theme which conveys that life is both suffering and joy, yin and yang, tragic and epic at the same time. Or it could have to do with the aesthetic theme of video games in general. After all, Bowser is always reborn to challenge Mario when you start a new game. In which case, maybe they should make a game where once you kill the boss, you can never kill him again.

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Mediums max out: The best films of the 1930s are as good as the best films of the 2000s, there's just more of them now

The best films of the 1930s are as good as the best films of the 2000s. While the frequency of great films has increased—since there are more films—the greatness of the exemplars in the medium peaked within a few decades of the technology maturing.

A film is like a meal. The best possible tasting meals can only go as far as our capacity for appreciation. The best cheeseburger is as enjoyable as the best sushi. No matter how many chefs or how many devices come along to aid in cooking, the best meal of 2014 will be roughly as good as the best meal of 2013. Meal quality only involves a few metrics, such as taste and texture. Achieving greatness in each metric requires expertise, but not superhuman expertise. An added difficulty comes in the timing of taste and texture, but just as sushi can be designed to deliver the right story in the first, second, and lasting seconds of chewing, the right cheeseburger can be mixed with the right milkshake to create the perfect song of a meal as well.

Likewise, our limited palates confine our appreciation of storytelling. There's a maximum amount of suspense that a film can achieve. There's a maximum sense of cleverness, since exemplars in surprise, layering and nuance can't be topped. Art direction is limited: a very soothing image flow can't be more soothing.

Room for growth exists when we break the medium into components. For example, there can still be a more perfect cheeseburger, and we have not yet met the best possible actor. But films and meals as a whole category are medleys and don't rely on the excellence of the individual components, but the overall enjoyability of the experience, for which our appetites appear congenitally limited.

Thanks to mass media, artistic talent has become a viable strategy for high evolutionary fitness

The term starving artist runs contrary to evolution's emphasis on fitness and survival, which is why evolutionists typically don't hold artistry in high-esteem. How can something be a profitable evolutionary strategy if it so frequently makes one starve? Art is not considered that practical, and therefore most explanations for its evolution ascribe it to side effects. Art is seen as an extension of child-like play, which drives growth for skills useful later in life: poetry is the play version of language acquisition, painting is the play version of design. All of this is changing, though.

Thanks to mass media, artists can now have a string of successes, whether it's books, films, or art, that catapult them to upper-class incomes. We're now seeing the emergence of artist dynasties, where the founding patriarch or matriarch is a star actor or musician. As alpha males, they produce lots of progeny through multiple marriages, and as alpha females, they have access to high-quality mates and child-rearing tools. They then raise at least one scion who continues the legacy of blockbuster artistic success. Think Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie or Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas.

The main talent driver of the past 1,000 years has been business, which parallels the ascendance of commerce and trade in the past millennium. But perhaps going forward, art will play a stronger role in shaping our evolution, now that it has been proven to be a viable path for genetic dominance.

Thanks to photography and Jackson Pollack, the stories behind paintings are now more important than the paintings themselves

The shift in paintings that occurred in the mid-twentieth century wasn't from modern to post-modern, but towards the creative use of mediums. Around the time Jackson Pollack became popular is when paintings became just as much about the story of those paintings. The conversation around Pollack has more to do with the materials and the way he moved his paint sticks. People spend less time talking about whether the paintings in of themselves are nice to look at, which they are, but instead about imagining the artist in his backyard in Long Island in a reverie, or debating whether his work is or isn't art.

There are hardly any modern paintings in museums without crucial captions or stories. There was an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art that was just a series of blue gridlines on canvas. The description said that the artist tried for decades to find the perfect combination of lines. Without reading the caption, it would be easy to think that what was in front of you wasn't art. But upon reading the caption, one could imagine the artist's thought process, after which the grid would emerge as a meditation. "If this artist spent decades drawing grids, then there must be some perfection here if I just stand in front of it long enough."

Photography stole realism from paintings, which gave artists two generations to try every non-realistic idea, such as Surrealism and Pop Art. After all that genre-play, the next, final, and logical step has been medium-play. The modern artist is tasked with focusing all of their energy into the inspiring story that will appear in the caption or the brochure. The message is now the medium.

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The aesthetics of opulence is obsolescence. Luxuries are struggles against the elements, thus preserved in decay

In black-and-white silent films, there's an inordinate amount of luxury on display. The doors are huge and open to rooms with super-high ceilings, pretty drapes, and fancy furniture. Examples include Flesh and the Devil, Foolish Wives, Intolerance, The Birth of a Nation, and The Big Parade. If silent films were all a historian had, she'd think that half of Americans lived in mansions.

This has more to do with the purchasing power of average Americans in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Since they were much poorer, opulence is portrayed as being wondrous. Today, though, the aesthetics of opulence leans closer toward gaudy, since luxury (or rather luxe) is accessible to the average American. It's almost like the only suitable place for opulence is in the self-aware cliché of Las Vegas.

However, the aesthetics of opulence are actually that of decay. When you consider marble, you often think of Ancient Greco-Roman ruins. Luxury is always preserved in decay. Because luxury is always in a constant state of struggling against the elements. Marble staircases often evoke the recurring labor and material costs needed to maintain them. Even today, it takes semi-slave labor (in the form of undocumented workers) to maintain such opulence.

You could yearn for the opposite aesthetics, for things that evoke a sense of durability and permanence. But how would you convey that? Perhaps some wisdom can be found in the convergence of sustainability, minimalism, and nature, as seen in the beautiful rash of "green" homes cropping up in liberal hubs.

But even that evokes decay. Every nice wooden home is always at least five percent below its perfect state. Is there anything that has a stable state that's the same (if not better) than how it is on day one? Is it possible to have a museum with no janitors or archivists?

Perhaps slumming is the only genuine approach. Why buy nice jeans, when pre-frayed jeans will always look as good as when you bought them? Perhaps a beach chaotically adorned with plastic bottles has more durability than whatever marble coliseum we attempt to build. Somehow, the opposite of what we want to last forever ultimately does.

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The awe of art is less about an artwork's inherent qualities as it is about who made it, when it was made, and who paid for it

Awe is a significant part of the art-appreciation experience. We often admire great works of art not necessarily because they please the senses (can anything be more pleasing that watching a sunset?) but because we are in awe of the skill of the artist. If the artist hits a note that seems novel, it's not the novelty of the image that blows us away as much as it is the novelty of the artist's skill.

Likewise, the Sistine Chapel is arguably no better than what an imitation artist could do now. This is an incredibly controversial statement, but it isn't too much of a stretch to do a side-by-side survey between works from the Masters and works from factory painters, and find that the quality assessments are equal, if not in favor of the factory painters.

And yet, we continue to go to the Sistine Chapel because the Masters were great in their time. We have the knowledge that they were operating in a league of their own. And so, what was once a contemporaneous awe has now become nostalgic or historic awe. This is combined with the awe of the curators and archivists who've had the unique financial position and longevity of interest (religions outlive nations) to maintain these artworks for so long.

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To understand so-called postmodern "ugly" art, see if the ugliness is the point, and then see if that point has been made well

The way to understand "inaccessible" or "ugly" art is to identify whether the inaccessibility or ugliness is the point of the art. For example, consider an art installation with a giant, suspended net that contains the body hair of the artist lumped in the center. From a purely visual perspective, it is not beautiful: The net isn't particularly appealing, nor is the clump of brown hair. It even conjures up unpleasant thoughts, such as the smell of the large man from whom it came.

But what makes it rise from trash to art is that every lack has purpose. Every flip dash of disgustingness is part of a message about baring oneself, in all its disgusting glory.

A dishonest piece of art that lacks intention, while simultaneously lacking intended unintention, lacks a conscious, and therefore is of a lower art form. No artist has perfect skill at their craft, and so artists must embrace their imperfections, in all its ugly, inaccessible glory.

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When you can pay $10 for a painting as good as the Renaissance masters, art has to go beyond beauty

When photography first came out, it initially spelled the end of the visual arts. But the art community adapted, went abstract, and enforced this idea of their infinite adaptability. But art has one final post-modern act to make.

Art will have to transcend its reason for existence in the first place: being the delivery mechanism for beauty. This is happening more and more as we see the prevalence of caption-based art. Modern art galleries—and even classic art galleries—are only showing works of art that become interesting once you read the caption. For example, one exhibition I encountered had a series of canvases with a few straight blue lines on them, and the caption said that the artist had spent ten years searching for the perfect arrangement of thin blue lines.

When you can pay $10 for a painting as good as the Renaissance masters, or when everywhere you look you see commodified beauty, whether it's beautifully rendered billboards or Apple Stores that look like churches, art has to go beyond beauty.

Right now, it's covering both bases, by being both aesthetically pleasing, but also with the caption, adding an extra layer of interestingness and curiosity. Those thin blue lines were beautiful to look at but would have otherwise been worthless without the caption.

But more and more, we see the beauty part diminished. One of my favorite pieces at the Tate Modern was these series of square paintings two inches thick, each representing a different period of painting. The surfaces of the paintings were flat and a single color, but they were the top layers of a cake of layers, each representing a different popular medium at the time. So one painting represented different oils that were popular in the Renaissance, while as the one next to it was based on watercolors and eventually acrylics. When you look at these paintings from the side, you can read the history of painting materials like reading the rings of a tree or layers of sediment at a fault-line.

Without the caption, these paintings are just five blandly painted blocks, i.e. absolutely worthless. Sure, the paintings were framed crisply, and at least these layers of cake were great to look at from the side, but eventually art will just let go of all pretense of beauty, even going in the opposite direction toward willful ugliness.

Willful Philistinism

The expression, "I may not know art, but I know what I like," is a defense mechanism against real or imagined culture snobs. But there is an alternative, empowering approach called willful philistinism. The Sloanes, who were a group of wealthy Britons epitomized by Princess Diana, employed this strategy. They were unembarrassed to admit disliking ballet, opera, modern art, and James Joyce. Most public intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s were left-wing, but because the Tory Sloanes were right-wing, they had to distance themselves from that culture. The Sloanes created an alternative reality of ideals wherein base taste was an object of admiration and pride.

Ironically, in dissing intellectual snobs, the Sloanes became snobs of snobbery. Whereas the typical snob rejects mainstream taste, the willful Philistine rejects those same snobs for trying too hard. So instead of cultural taste being like a spectrum, with good and bad taste being the poles, it is more like a ring. Those at the top of the pecking order, to protect their coveted position, reject the whole hierarchy itself, looping back to the bottom and identifying with plebian icons.

The Republican Party, which draws significantly more votes from the wealthy than the Democratic Party, has recapitulated willful philistinism. They've crafted messages that slam intellectualism and praise the countryside. While rural America could easily evoke illiteracy, destitution, backwardness, and naiveté, the Republicans have romanticized the farmer's life. Republicans emphasize homespun virtue and authenticity, abandoning cosmopolitan academics, and as a result, have created a strange alliance between rich and poor.