Barthes, Part I. Objective Art, Ontological Perspectives, and World Order

If you agree that art is the aesthetic presentation of ideas, then you must logically also agree that art itself is not subjective – at least, not to the degree that people believe it to be.

A lot less of the world is subjective than most people assume it is; they conflate individual experiences as ‘equal’ and assume that there is no external controller regulating humanity. This has slowly lead to our post-truth era, the fact that a huge chunk of society believes there are no objective standards or values – that there is no God – and so, in the words of the old jazz hit, ‘anything goes.’ (Note: This is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote that God was dead – that God was not the arbiter by which society in general made their decisions of morality, law, etc – and that it was possible to replace that arbiter of society with a superman.)

It all comes down to the basic ontological belief that the world is governed by some order outside of the subjective experience. But one of the many things that result from that assertion comes the knowledge that to a large extent art is objective.

I Googled ‘art’. I found:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power…”

From Oxford dictionary. There were several similar definitions, but until we got far down the list (where people use ‘art’ in other senses such as art of conversation, or war) I found nothing that changed the sense of that basic definition.

What I didn’t find was any mention of a message, or a meaning, or theme. Obviously this must be a result of 20th century art which stretched the meaning – Warhol et al with their Empire films and their post-modern scribbles and vomit paintings, Piss Christs, piles of literal trash and toilet seats.

You can probably tell I’m not a fan.

Art is simply:

“The aesthetic presentation of ideas, which communicate emotion.”

My definition requires that you A. present an idea and B. that it be presented in and with some style. Only the emotional aspect of art is subjective, obviously – but anything can be rated and analysed based off how well it communicates its themes and concepts.

Anything lacking a message or theme apart from ‘interpret it yourself’ is not art – it’s just a personality test (and they deserve a post of their own) with no ‘artistic’ merit whatsoever.

We can rate the quality of an artwork, to some extent – because we can understand the authorial intent – and then measure how well the work itself stacks up.

If someone painted a picture, for example, of a young swallow in a field, looking up at a derelict statue overgrown by vines and vegetation, then we would be looking at a piece of artwork that proclaimed the idea of nature being more permanent than man’s achievements, by virtue of being natural and able to renew itself. Whether the artist felt positively or negatively about this idea could be communicated by the tone of the artwork – but the central theme remains the same, and how well that theme is communicated is independent of the consumer’s emotional reaction. Thus, art can be said to be objective.

Besides, I ask: if art is entirely subjective, how can there be such a thing as a ‘review?’ Surely, the contents of such a document would be useless, if there were no underlying intent to the artwork. Speaking about one’s impressions of it would be far less prevalent, useful, and popular.

I have to consider this attitude of considering art subjective in its entirety came about because most people do not analyse what they consume on a regular basis, and so when discussing it, lack any kind of proper framework in which to assess the quality – so they fall back on the subjective emotional element. As they grow older, the instinct to do this, and consider the objective components of the work less significant, grows stronger. Then, they teach the younger generation to do the same thing. And a cycle begins. I would say this behaviour began when the population at large gained literacy, perhaps during the Enlightenment, and only sped up when postmodernism entered the art scene. This would have been facilitated greatly by…

Roland Barthes (1915-80), the essayist who conceptualised the term ‘death of the author’. He wrote that ‘To give a text an Author’ and assign the intended meaning ‘is to impose a limit on that text…’ and in this respect he’s correct. It does impose a limit. Which is what you NEED, if you’re interested in creating aesthetic presentations of ideas, what you need if you’re interested in creating something people relate to and enjoy. Otherwise you end up with melted toilet seats and period blood paintings and all the rest of it.

Barthes and I have different ontological premises, so we assess the same information (authors limit texts), agree on it, and then he assumes that going forward with author-less texts and creating postmodernism is a good idea. To a certain extent, I don’t. Postmodernism was an interesting experiment, but it’s time to stop. Playing with the text was entertaining when it was Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Beingor Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves. 

It’s not so great when it’s applied to society in general and everyone loses their standards and ability to define anything without consulting the dominant groupthink – on either side.

So obviously this is yet another opportunity to wax poetic on American politics.

Not everything Donald Trump is doing, as president, is going to bring nuclear war down upon the West. He’s not going to put women in binders and start a nation-wide hunt to round up Muslims and ship them away. Can the ridiculous number of hysterical leftists on this website and across the west generally please calm the hell down? Time and time again I turn to the Shapiro argument – show me a racist/sexist/etc law, or person, and we can rail against him together. Apart from a few insane statements (because as we all know, Don likes to troll the media) no one can dredge up any proof he’s a racist, sexist, or anything elseist.

He’s not been a particularly bad president, actually, given that it’s only been a week. He’s fulfilled more than one campaign promise. Conflict with Russia or China was made basically inevitable ages ago, so it’s a good thing that now that the dogs of war are rearing up and tearing at their chains the western world is led by someone with an actual interest in protecting it, rather than some globalist hack who hasn’t even spoken to a real person in years and actively hates the values that make Europe, Britain, America, and Australia the world’s best nations.

Similarly, no one should expect him to be perfect. He’s driven by an ego that means he’ll want to stamp his name on everything – on the sides of large golden walls, on edicts, on the country in general – and he won’t rest on his laurels much, if at all. He clearly doesn’t understand the merit of free trade – making international trade more expensive by quitting the TPP is a strange idea, because goods might be American, but they’ll also cost more. It doesn’t help your economic situation, Americans. And I don’t even know what’s going on with that ‘alternative facts’ dreck. That is ridiculous, and it sounds like it. All the same, I don’t think taking Trump’s every word as gospel is a good idea. He seems to enjoy rambling, saying things he doesn’t mean, distracting people, and making inflammatory comments to see if he can. Obviously, everything the man tweets should be at least considered, because he’s literally the president. But as for how seriously it should be taken – another matter entirely.

He has made some absolutely awful comments. But that’s because he’s a product of our culture – which has slowly been poisoned by contradictory thoughts designed to sexualise and shame sexualisation simultaneously, and he’s from the pop culture, confused and awful and under fire as it is. Change the culture, by not supporting dreadful people and artists like Lena Dunham, Ariana Grande, etc etc, and you’ll never hear anyone grabbing anyone else by the whatever ever again.

You don’t need to be Christian or religious to share the western ontological view. It only requires the idea that there is some objective standard in the world – a standard of acting, being, creating, that we can aspire to – not just a formless void at the end of the universe, but some real merit for us in trying to create art, to help struggling nations, to maintain national standards so that citizens retain a basic standard of living. The western tradition, from the age of the Greeks onward, has created the best societies on Earth in terms of quality of living, equality of opportunity and situation, and technological advancement. Which is why it should be protected, but its values upheld simultaneously. Which is why the question of refugees is a lot more complex than either side likes to think – whether you’re full Trudeau or hate them god-dang brown people, get off muh property etc.

We as a society have been engaged in this same basic debate since the Enlightenment, and it’s taken form in everything the west has created and done from the French Revolution to Dostoevsky’s Devils. That is – does God exist, and if not, what replaces him for the people who don’t believe? Not anarchy, clearly. Not socialism. We don’t live in some completely alien society. The past is not a different country. It’s a case of the argument changing, from about 500 years ago, to a question of individual human freedoms. But from that point, the argument – the Great Conversation – has been continuous. And 500 years isn’t really that long, if the same civilisation is standing at the end of it.

(Remember, I’m thinking in the very long term, here. The very very long term. It’s a habit.)

The debate can only continue if we protect our national interests, and it can only continue in the same way if we honour our national values – acceptance despite race/religion etc – and while members of a certain religion remain on a completely different level of understanding – (the idea of exclusive proliferation or destruction) and avoid moderation, the debate will have to be sidetracked or at least put on hold for them to realise that they’re out of sync.

I dislike the use of that phrase, because it implies that I believe I live in some post-historical era where we’ve got it all figured out, when in fact that’s not the case, but there’s a need for the more violent sects of the world to match our most basic values.

Only then can the world discuss the question of international order in the modern era without being distracted by ISIS, a group that’s obviously wrong about how the world should be ethically ordered. It’s like trying to have a conversation at a Nickelback concert – we’re being distracted by pointless, shitty noise.

Some cultures simply don’t share the values that bring the best of whatever they can to people’s lives. The basic ontological perspectives of some people are not conducive to living humanitarian lives – and they are that way because of their cultures. The international order should work on moderating those cultures, to at the very least stop people from dying.

(Speaking of people dying, John Wetton, frontman of Asia and bassist/vocalist of ’72-’74 era Crimson died yesterday, sadly. Extraordinary musician.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s