I read this interesting and thought-provoking article recently:
Why Star Wars should be left to the fans
The author, Will Gompertz, has some very good points, based on Marcel Duchamp, about how the spectator contributes to a piece of art being what it is. I enjoyed the article and recommend reading it. However, I want to challenge one aspect.
Gompertz quotes Duchamp,
This (the spectator contributing to the art) becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists,
and then writes,
Such as Van Gogh for example, who was not remotely successful or sought after during his lifetime. Duchamp's argument is that the spectator is part of the creative act and therefore shares ownership – and authorship – of the artwork with the artist.
I think it is a typically modern approach that sees the issue so subjectively. Therefore, I write to challenge not so much something Gompertz said specifically but rather the pervasive subjectivity that influenced him to write it this way.
As I said, I found the article very good but it was this reference to Van Gogh that started me thinking about the objective quality of art and it struck me that Gompertz only considers the issue subjectively. This is understandable given the actual complaint of Star Wars fans that prompted him to write, but, considering the above quotes, he seems to be implying that it is the spectators of Van Gogh's art who turn not just an unknown artist into a famous one but also a piece of artwork into a great work. It is clear that the subjective opinions of art appreciators bring recognition to both art and artist but the artwork still has an objective quality. "Would a tree falling in the forest make a sound if no-one heard it?" Would Van Gogh's Sunflowers still be a brilliant creation if no-one ever saw it? Yes it would.
Art, has inherent qualities, sometimes greater, sometimes lesser. Sometimes we lose understanding of the art but its objective qualities remain. In Matthieu Kassovitz' La Haine, for example, the skill with which the actors portrayed their characters, the quality of the camera work and the brilliance of Kassovitz' writing which captured the hatred of a young generation in Paris in the mid 1990s will remain a part of the film even when that generation is not there to keenly feel that hatred the film was intended to evoke (provoke?). At least I feel I was able to appreciate some of that brilliance. Now you may well argue with me about whether or not that is a true assessment of the film. You might point out that the film was made on a low budget and so had to be filmed with cheap equipment and non-professional actors. You might even convince me that it's a poor film but the material does not change in the process.
I am aware that I am simultaneously touching on some of the subjective qualities of the film and I would like to say that by highlighting the objective qualities, I don't want to deny the subjective ones. I referred to the film evoking a response from its audience and the effect would have been most keenly felt by those who were close to the events it was commenting on. Therefore, the film depends on the thoughts and emotions of its audience. Likewise, Van Gogh's art was created so that it could be valued by its spectators. But these works depend on the spectators only because of what, as works of art, they were intended to achieve and therefore can still be assessed objectively by how well they do that, though at the same time relative to other comparable works.
As much as we like to think we're important, even to the point of being the ultimate judge, Duchamp was wrong; posterity does not give the "final verdict". I chose the example of La Haine because commenting accurately and penetratingly on a social issue requires a brilliance that is harder to appreciate the further away from that society the observer stands and so it is the contemporary, intended audience that is its best judge, not posterity. Any one of us may make a judgement but none of us gives a "final verdict". We might determine what it's worth (£25 million for Van Gogh's Sunflowers) but that does not affect what it is.