Art Appreciation & Ernest Gellner

Art talk has become so bloated with self-consciousness that it hardly counts as conversation any more.

Certainly not as the Goncourt brothers understood the word. Not even as it is practiced over a Sam Adams Light at McFadden’s Tap. These days, art talk is known as discourse, a gray, unsmiling thing with the smell of the podium about it.

If only Ernest Gellner were still here to do for artspeech what he did for the analyst’s couch in The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985). Subtitled “The Cunning of Unreason,” the book took a scalpel to the premises of psychoanalysis and made incisions everywhere. Inconsistencies, non-sequiturs and sloppy thoughts were sliced open and bled dry. It is a philosopher’s witty put-down of the notion of cure by psychoanalysis.

A sample:

The Unconscious is like some low hostelry just across the border, where all the thieves and smugglers indulge themselves with abandon, free of the need for camouflage and disguise which they prudently adopt, for fear of the authorities, when they are on this side of the frontier. . . . [The Unconscious] is like meeting all one’s friends, enemies and acquaintances, but at the carnival and in fancy dress: one may be a bit surprised at what they get up to but there are few surprises as to personnel.

Piglet on the couch
Piglet on the couch

Full of wonderful deflations,  the book is an oblique but useful prompt to acquiring scepticism toward the claims made for art in contemporary culture. Everyone on this side of the podium—the receiving side of art appreciation—needs to arm themselves against ordained appreciators. One way to do it is to follow good minds at work on the received, unexamined wisdom about other idols of our time.

Why? Because insight into the condition of the arts derives from perspectives that come from outside the echo chamber.  Judgment on individual artists and artworks does not depend solely on the recognition of mastery. It also requires a decision as to whether the mastery was worth the effort. That is the harder part and the one most revealing of the critic. But the Fallacy of Art Appreciation works against any such decision making. The fallacy rests on the public-relations-fueled notion that if you understand a work of art, you will accept it. Whereas, in truth, if you really understand a given work, you might well reject it.

Do not expect any help from the art crowd in questioning its assumptions. You are on your own just as Gellner was pretty much alone in countering the claims made for the Viennese priest who promised to redeem the world from neurosis.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey