Lincoln won two Oscars, including best actor for Daniel Day
Lewis for his portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln. But,
Crispin Sartwell says, you can make your own mind up
whether you like the film. Photo by Reuters.
Crispin Sartwell believes we should stop letting other
people tells us what to like.One of the biggest problems in our
politics is that people do not think for themselves. We let
radio and television hosts, pundits and politicians tell us
what to believe. And one of the biggest problems in our arts is
that people do not enjoy for themselves. We let museum
curators, gallery owners, critics and professors tell us what
A recent battle in the art world illustrates the point.
Billionaire Ronald Perelman is suing multimillionaire art
dealer Larry Gagosian on the grounds, among others, that Mr
Gagosian overvalued an unfinished sculpture of Popeye (yes,
the Sailor Man) by Jeff Koons. Mr Perelman purchased this
item for $4 million.
In parallel to the David of Michelangelo, I will refer
to the disputed work as the Popeye. A judge will
eventually decide what the Popeye is really worth. My
own view is that it is worth precisely what its component
materials are worth, or perhaps a bit less, due to the costs
that would be incurred in hauling it away and melting it down
or crushing it. If called as an expert witness, I will
testify to that effect.
Of course, people whine about postmodern art or Jeff Koons or
whatever all the time. But I come with a cure, for Mr
Perelman and for us all. Stop letting other people tell you
what to like.
Believe this: your own actual preferences are more or less as
good as anyone else's. You should start with that premise,
even if it is false, for if you do not trust your own taste,
you will be surrounded by things you do not like.
So if you really do dislike something, whether it is by
Robert Rauschenberg or the Decemberists, Philip Glass or
Marcel Proust, Bruce Springsteen or Martha Graham, just say
so. I have a doctorate in aesthetics, and I give you
If, as I often do, you express aloud your view that Allen
Ginsberg sucks, you are not hurting anyone. And it is just
possible you have a point. Stop pretending to like Picasso.
I think the last Taylor Swift album is a better, more
important and more interesting work of art than Finnegans
Wake. I think Fast Five - which, amazingly,
features both Vin Diesel and the Rock - is a better film than
Lincoln, obviously and by a long way. There, I said it.
I imagine that you might despise me now or regard me as a
philistine. I'm good with that.
One good thing about the authorities at the upper end of the
art world - for example the top galleries of New York - is
that they can be ignored. I propose we do so. In this, the
worst of all possible aesthetic worlds, taste is dictated by
people like Mr Gagosian and is commonly confused with cash or
cachet. There is art, for example, in Oklahoma, or Gabon;
perhaps we should concentrate on that for a while.
The basic structure of our aesthetic culture is this: the
authorities tell you who is a genius, and because you do not
want to appear unsophisticated or uncomprehending, you
simulate appreciation. This is a formula for aesthetic
disaster on the Popeye scale. If you pretend to like
things you do not, you will undergo aesthetic and financial
suffering. You will be paying for things - movie or museum
tickets, for example - and getting back only irritation or
boredom. You will impoverish your very soul.
Of course, people can learn to like something they do not
like now, and there can be good reasons to try. That a top
art dealer is telling you it is good, however, or that it
costs $4 million, or that it is hanging at Moma, or that it
got a good review in the New Yorker, I propose, does
not in itself provide such a reason.
The learning can start with an argument, as long as people
sincerely say what they actually think. So let's yell a bit
at each other about Lincoln. That is one of the things
art, or in this case ''art'', is for. That would be fun, and
it could potentially be clarifying with regard to what
Lincoln means and whether it is good.
But if we are scared to state our actual opinions frankly -
or if we reach the terrible point of self-abandonment at
which we have no idea what we like anymore - no communication
about art can take place. We have created a situation in
which art is something that cultural authorities merely
inflict on people - no doubt, in their delusions, for those
people's own good.
If we let people like Mr Gagosian tell us what art is or what
important art is or what good art is, we, like Mr Perelman,
deserve the art we get and the price we pay.
• Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson
College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book
is Political Aesthetics. He wrote this
for the Los Angeles Times.