The Dangers of Artistic Relativism

I have a question for you. What is art to you?

No, I haven’t asked this already, I’m not trying to figure out what art is in general, I’m asking what art is to/for you. Have your answer? Good, because you’re probably wrong.

There is a nasty idea that has become the norm for how we view art in our society. It’s the idea of Artistic Relativism or the idea that as individuals we can all define art and we’re all inherently right in whatever opinion we hold. Not only is this idea dangerous, but it’s also something of a philosophical cancer that has become so accepted we don’t know it even exists.

So why is Artistic Relativism such a problem? It seems like it would be nice to have everyone define art for themselves, and as a fan of art it makes sense as everyone has different tastes. But personal preferences on styles aside, there can be great art that is great without you caring for the piece at all. For example many people love the impressionist movement with artists like Claude Monet. I however find the style visually disgusting. The lack of heavier contrast and brighter colors (not just pastel tones) is very unappealing to me. However, that doesn’t mean I stop acknowledging the genius behind the movement and how the style has influence other artist’s work in the process. However, Artistic Relativism creates fictional personal standards for an already established system. This system is of course is the Elements and Principles of Design as they relate to a piece of visual art. Yet if the individual defines their own system on which to judge art, we find a devaluing of standards already in place, and we then would need to redefine art (which is a problem all its own). In short, if everyone can define art for themselves, then no artist will be able to create something that as a collective art community we can find to be a pure example of excellence.

Where does this problem come from? If obviously hasn’t always been an issue within the artistic community, has it? While many of the greatest artists of all time challenged the system and foundations of what make a piece of art great, they still held true to what is compositionally and visually standard. The same uses of color, line, form, value, etc. paired with the concepts of unity, balance, movement, etc. runs like a vein of pure gold through every artistic movement in history. That is to say until we reach a more “modern” era of art. It is at a time after the movements of art deco and post-modern minimalism that we stop thinking about art as an unshakable idea, and start redefining the idea of what art is for us. Art at some point stopped being about the collective whole of both artists and patrons of the arts, to the elementary idea of “what looks good” or “what challenges other ideas.”

What you already may have guessed is what I believe to be the main cause of artistic relativism, and that is the oversaturation of images via the online experience. While I’m always an advocate for artists to share their work online, I also caution the practice of turning looking at art into simple “image browsing.” It is because of this oversaturation of images we experience daily that allows and encourages us t o treat are like it’s as meaningless and disposable as a day old newspaper. Simply looking at a piece of art and treating it with the same generic response creates a form of disconnect between the complexity of an art work and the reaction that we have to it.

Ok. Let’s boil things down to the main point here. Artistic Relativism creates a terrifying paradox for both the beginning artist and the professional alike, by reducing the craft into only what you want to know, what you like, and/or what matters to your feelings. Rather than a cloudy and weak idea of art that relativism provides, we should instead seek out the types of art that radically engage our visual, intellectual, and philosophical mindsets. Bland art that is “just trying to make a statement” or “just trying to break the rules” instead of engaging an audience; isolates, stupefies, and reduces such a viewer to a rat in a cage designed to stroke the ego of the self proclaimed artist and justify a selfish and bastardized view of the creative process.

When you create a piece of art you are designing something to be extraordinary. However, what is designed to be great should not exceed the ability for the artist (or patron) to understand that the piece is believable.