“Don’t Spit on My Life”

Late last night after a concert, I hung out briefly with a group of friends, and among them was a 22-year-old undergrad visual art major who was the niece of one of the members of the group. Extremely precocious and articulate, she was extraordinarily opinionated and repeatedly professed strong disdain for virtually all contemporary art. One salient quote was, “All they do is spit on canvasses; I really resent people who waste my time.”

I was reminded of one of my favorite Public Image Ltd. songs. But rather than my typical stance of accepting the bait and defending the work she was attacking, I decided that for once it might be instructive to just hear her out. So I sat quietly as she proceeded to denounce art charlatans who have the nerve to sell work which clearly has no artistic value for tons of money, etc.

However, I have not been able to put the downright anger she felt in response to contemporary art out of my mind. How would she react to the stuff we call new music? Music is a time-based medium; therefore it would be even easier for someone to be angry about having to listen to any music he or she felt was unworthy. It is potentially a much more significant waste of time than looking at a work of visual art which can be done superficially in a matter of seconds.

On a gut emotional level, it’s difficult for me to comprehend anyone being angry with someone who creates art even if I am incapable of personally responding to it. Even if an artist—whatever the medium—only appeals to a small audience, the processes of creating and experiencing art seem to be among the few morally unassailable human activities. So, on a purely intellectual level, it’s easy to dismiss this woman’s tirade as, well, a tirade.

Yet with the debate still raging back and forth over Mark N. Grant’s polemical assertion that beauty is a wallflower in modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, the stance of this 22-year-old hits a nerve. I honestly hear beauty in an extremely wide variety of music, including numerous compositions that others have deemed gnarly and even unlistenable. I also know quite a few people who are unable to get past their boredom with music or art which adheres to past conventions of beauty. Beauty is indeed in the eyes and ears of individual beholders, which is why I’ve never given opinions, even my own, all that much credence. That said, what can we do to encourage potential audiences to be open to a wider range of aesthetic possibilities?

9 thoughts on ““Don’t Spit on My Life”

  1. philmusic

    John Waters did a film on this very subject “Pecker.”

    The disconnect can come in the visual arts when those who understand and admire the visual techniques of the old masters don’t understand how the recent techniques of conceptual artists relate back to them.

    But Frank, you don’t give enough detail to know what kind of art is being objected to.

    Anyway the only cure for the unfamiliar is experience, and at an early age before “group think” sets in.

    Phil Fried.

    Phil’s Page

    Reply
  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Phil, you are correct in your assessment that I did not “give enough detail to know what kind of art is being objected to.” Neither did she. It was a general rant against contemporary work which never got particularly specific. I asked her to name names, she basically said “all of them,” and I let it go at that. It was late and I was completely exhausted at that point, and I thought that it was more instructive to be a quiet observer for once.

    What I walked away from as a result of all of this is how easy it is for someone in an audience to dismiss something that is unfamiliar or which does not conform to an already accepted paradigm of what is “good.” I think we as a community fail to address this issue at our collective peril, not just as artists and afficionados of contemporary art, but as members of a democratic society.

    Reply
  3. Colin Holter

    I didn’t click your PiL link at first, and I assumed you were talking about “Flowers of Romance.”

    It’s a shame that people who have such knee-jerk reactions against modern art never seem to consider that actual humans make modern art.

    Reply
  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Colin,

    The PiL song is from the deceptively-accessible 1985 Album, which to me might actually rank as the band’s ultimate provocation. The music grooves, the tunes are memorable, and so are the lyrics; but it’s anything but conventional. In a way it’s sort of emblematic for my whole point herein: Album is an experimental work that actually can draw people in on a first listening without scaring them away with its experimentation which becomes clear the more you listen to it. Mind you, I write this knowing full well that much of what I love and treasure most people probably would find off-putting and never think of giving a second spin. Ah, taste…

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  5. jacobg

    Frank,

    I teach every week at public schools in the Kansas City area, and I’ve gotten similar responses from some students about contemporary music and art. I think this attitude comes from more than simply not understanding — it’s a not wanting to understand. The appreciation of most contemporary/experimental art is predicated on an attitude that new, unfamiliar experiences, enriches ones life. The fact is, however, that many people cannot or do not accept this attitude and these values, and I’m not exactly sure how to show or teach this to somebody.

    This person’s intense response also reminded me another phenomenon I’ve encountered with folks of all ages: mistaking opinion for fact. “I don’t like this piece, therefore it is objectively bad, and I can’t possibly see how anyone else could like it.” Or much more extremely, “this work does not articulate my value system, therefore it is bad, and anyone who likes this also does not share my value system, therefore they are inferior people.” I’m not implying that this is what this woman necessarily meant when she was talking about contemporary art, but I’ve found that people who have such violently negative responses to art often espouse such an attitude.

    Moreso, I think this type of response is indicative of a massive self-centeredness: “This art committed a crime because it wasted my time” says to me that this person does not value trying to understand other people. She was so caught up in her dislike of the art, that she didn’t really think about why the artist liked it enough to display it to the world (and what it says about him/her and their values), or why other people may like it (how does it appeal to other people’s value systems?). Again, I’m probably making unfair assumptions about someone I don’t know (speaking of violent reactions!), but I’m just speaking of personal experiences with this type of response.

    Finally, I’m not sure I can accept the “moral unassailability” of creating art. Playing devil’s advocate, I think many people can reasonably claim that making art is an essentially selfish activity, one primarily for the benefit of the artist. There are many activities that one can engage in that can directly benefit society (social worker, activist, teacher, environmental worker, etc.). Artists typically protest with “but I am benefiting society by giving people a a valuable aesthetic experience and contributing to culture,” but I think this is a presumptuous, if not conceited, statement. Thoughts?

    P.S. This is my first post to NMB — sorry for the long-windedness!

    Reply
  6. rtanaka

    Reactionary responses will always be there, so I don’t think it’s necessary to dwell too much on it. I’m more worried about the countless people out there too polite to express their disdain who simply stop attending and supporting new works.

    What I find distressing is that there are a lot of liberal, progressive-minded, well-educated people out there who simply don’t see the value in what we’re doing. I’ve spent most of my life being with non-artists, so the divisions between the artist and the public’s perception, to me, have always been very clear. Close-minded people will probably never open up to anything beyond the familiar, but it’s disturbing that a lot of modern art isn’t even capable of preaching to its own choir!

    In recent years I’ve become convinced that a lot of the problems lie on the artist’s side of things. It’s comforting to think otherwise, but it just turns into a blame-game with nothing really getting any better. A change in approach is needed, in my opinion.

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  7. lawrence

    Frank, I wonder if a salient feature of the rant you heard had to do with the “tons of money” involved. We all know that price tags in the visual arts dwarf anything in new music. I hear plenty of grumbling from composers about other composers who get financial rewards and fame that seem to outstrip their artistic achievements — wouldn’t that only be worse if we had composers making millions of dollars for each composition?

    On the other hand, we probably shouldn’t put too much stock in a late-night rant.

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  8. Somebody

    Well, once again it is one of those “me too” kind of articles. There is no point to this stuff. Frank, you have the easiest job in the world. Just think up some imagined “bad character” and write about how bad they are. Are you really going to apply value to music like every stupid lack luster american does? Package it up, shrink wrap it, and proclaim that this music has more value than anything else – ever, ever, ever… Only in america.

    Here’s a value story – the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra gets an anual salary of a million and a half. Now there is a value problem. Does anyone know why? Just for waving his arms around for union musians who already know how to play their part. And, how about this – what kind of values does this conductor have about “new stuff”? How does he select the music for his concerts? And how about this one- Why is there a promo picture of a composer and a fluffy cat on the front page of this web site. I think the cat looks great. Anybody else think the cat has value? And the fluffy cat looks like it is walking on a freshly written score of music. Now that has value!

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  9. Marc

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote something to the effect that attacking a novel was on a par with putting on a suit of armor to do battle with a bowl of ice cream. Tell that to your art student. First explain who Kurt Vonnegut was, just to be on the safe side.

    Reply

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