Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Art and Popularity

Today is the birthday of Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. He is simultaneously one of the nation's most popular artists and a punchline for those who study aesthetics. Duke Ellington, when asked what made for good music, famously replied, "If it sounds good and feels good, then it is good." To many "good art" is utterly inaccessible and Thomas Kinkade's work is beautiful.

But, of course, beauty is not a simple experience, it is mediated through categories we acquire. A dear friend and aspiring vintner once took me wine tasting in Napa. For him, each mouthful exposed complex molecules that evoked multiple layers of flavor. To me, wine tasting went like this..."Yup, tastes like wine." What tasted good to me is not necessarily what tasted good to him. One significant difference is that I could never explain why something tasted good to me beyond, "I just like the way it tastes," whereas he could give an lengthy, in depth discussion to this same question

But while the answer may not be capable of explanation on my part, that doesn't mean my experience of pleasure is uncaused. Emile Durkheim argued in The Rules of the Sociological Method, "We can no more choose the design of our houses than the cut of our clothes - at least, the one is as much obligatory as the other." What we like is in part mediated by what we are told to like, what we learn to like.

But the fact is we, those of us without the depth of understanding about the art form, do like what we like. Is there a reason to elevate the opinions of those who understand the history and context of the art form? Is the fact that something is adored by those without the background just a cultural artifact or is indicative of a certain pre-theoretical aesthetic value? Certain works of music just catch us. It sounds good and feels good. Is that really enough to say it is good? Are there two different notions of good at work here?