This will be my final entry in my series of posts devoted exclusively to The Art Instinct and the thoughts they provoke, though I may post a condensed summary review later. Here I wish to discuss what I said I would discuss two posts ago: virtuosos. The author of the book, Professor Denis Dutton, is obviously a lover of the arts. Partly, it’s because he has the ability to appreciate truly great works of art and if you read the book, you too will gain a fuller appreciation of the finest of fine arts.

He starts out his last chapter, devoted to “greatness in the arts,” with four assertions. I have nothing to say about them except for the second assertion: “the arts are not just crafts.” His ground for this assertion? Apparently: “the craftsman knows in advance what the end product will look like.” Yet, when the prototype of a product is developed, the craftsperson knows just as much about its exact finished form as Vermeer knew about The Girl With the Pearl Earring or Annie Leibowitz knows about Queen Elizabeth II when taking the picture. Indeed, the craftsperson actually knows a lot less about the finished product. It’s not even a true assertion. True, Leonardo had a great deal more imaginative in his works than those examples, but craft cannot logically be distinguished on these grounds from art. Indeed, I am reminded of a fun passage in Cryptonomicon, the exciting 1000 page parallel timeline thriller by Neal Stephenson. A dentist has a particularly challenging job ahead of him and he is unsure about whether he can pull it off. Through hours of labor, witnessed by no one except for perhaps a few attendants, the dentist summons every ounce of creativity and skill to the job: and succeeds. As the author writes, the dentist is proud, but not too comforting to his patient because he’s left with the knowledge that his virtuoso achievement will forever be trapped away in the operation room, never to see the light of day. Although Dutton warns us against making too much of these achievements, and I probably do so, there must be some middle ground here.

The question is actually far from academic here, too, for it has been litigated ad nauseum in U.S. courts. The reason why is because the U.S. maintains a massive catalog of tariffs for each category of goods. So every good that could possibly be traded fits into some category, the system of which is now called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Although very scary to a free trader like myself, it has well served special interests in this country since its inception. In 1892’s United States v. Perry case, a church tried to get stained glass windows into the U.S. under the duty-free category of paintings. Instead, the court found them subject to a 45% duty (think about how much that is for a second) by lumping them in with objects that had both merely ornamental and useful purposes. Because some carved marble seats had some useful value in 1916’s United States v. Olivotti & Co., they too were subject to higher duties. The ornamental purpose of a work of art finally triumphed for classification purposes in Brancusi v. United States for a sculpture that was highly abstract.

A lawyer is entitled to his digressions. In any event, there is no stipulation that craftspersons may not also demonstrate uncommon skill or virtuosity. And it is of virtuosity which Dutton seeks to speak. He ambitiously tries to “sketch the central characteristics that inhere in the very greatest works of art, the masterpieces that have withstood Hume’s Test of time….” The first characteristic is “complexity.” “Complexity does not mean sheer complicatedness but rather the densely significant interrelations of, say, poetry, plotting, and dramatic rhythm in a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear.” I can buy this. The second characteristic is “serious content. The themes of great works are love, death, and human fate.” Okay. The third characteristic is “purpose.” Dutton favors the opinions of Charles Murray (apparently a libertarian like me and I think Dutton) and Leo Tolstoy:

Murray [believes] that “great accomplishment in the arts depends upon a culture’s enjoying a well-articulated, widely held conception of the good” and that “art created in the absence of a well-articulated conception of the good is likely to be arid and ephemeral.” This falls in line with Tolstoy’s view that artistic value is achieved only when an art work expresses the authentic values of its maker, especially when those values are shared by the artist’s culture or community.

But he tempers this with a focus on the individual, again worth quoting at length:

Nevertheless, absolute seriousness of purpose comes ultimately from an individual, not just a culture, and most great artists, musicians, and writers demonstrate a rare and often obsessional commitment to solving artistic problems in themselves. With Shakespeare, Beethoven, Hokusai, and Wagner we have artists for whom the art itself is the transcendental good and not a reflection fo anything else.

It seems fair to say that the great works have been animated by purpose. Fourth, Dutton highlights “distance” and explains thusly: “the worlds [great works of art] create have little direct regard for our insistent wants and needs; still less do they show any intention on the part of their creators to ingratiate themselves with us.” The author wastes no time in revealing this statement for the broadside against the Dadaists he has fought elsewhere in the book and an entire fusillade follows against the kitsch they have engendered. The short discussion on kitsch is excellent, the best summary I have read. Still, the normally reserved Professor unleashes vituperative that can only come from a man who dearly loves the classics:

Kitsch shows you nothing genuinely new, changes nothing in your bright shining soul; to the contrary, it congratulates you for being exactly the refined person you already are. …readymade knockoffs such as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde smell suspiciously of kitsch, as does the turgid prose of critics who take them seriously. But then kitsch, money, flattery, and careerism are inevitably linked in the art world. Kitsch as pretentious, self-serving tripe can show up anywhere….

I love it. I think that the sad reality is merely as I have stated in previous posts: the market in traditional art forms, due to Dutton’s numerous arguments from “seriousness of purpose” to “cross-cultural aesthetics,” will always remain larger than the kitschy stuff. But kitsch has a place. It can help illuminate the very levels of intentionality Dutton discussed in the “uses of fiction” chapter: how many levels are we willing to tolerate or consider? Is that related to how much computation we are willing to do on price tags (in other words, why they usually end in .99 or .95)? It also is subversive in ways that can help us consider our relationship to art. I suppose the middle ground here which makes sense is: kitsch is interesting and important, but will never rank amongst the works that lift us to sublime heights.