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Art as Monkey-Business

Abstract art is easy to denigrate and abuse. But sometimes one must wonder if the folks who report on the laughable craft truly appreciate its many ironies. Today, CNN "reports on an unusual Canadian artist whose vivid abstracts are making a big splash." The artist, of course, is a painting monkey. He's a hit in the art world and is presently opening his first exhibition in Toronto. (You can't make this stuff up.)

Earlier in the year, a study was celebrated by the artistic community as confirming the objective worth of abstraction. Participants in the study were shown works of abstract art by celebrated artists and works by ... monkeys. 

The non-art majors preferred the artists 56% of the time, whereas the art majors preferred them 62% of the time. When it came to judging what was art (i.e., "better"), the non-art majors picked the artists a whopping 65.5% of the time, only slightly topped (67.5%) by the art majors. "In the aesthetic domain," the researchers concluded, "people can recognize that a work is good, but still not like it." In other words, people might dislike abstract art, but they can still tell when it belongs in a museum versus a kindergarten or a zoo. (You can take a version of the test here.)

While the distinction between personal preferences and artistic aesthetics deserves closer appraisal, that is for another day. At the moment, I'd simply point out the incredibly low standard of the art community - when only slightly above half of the general population prefers the craft of a professional, master abstract artist to the work of a monkey, it requires a particularly skewered perspective to claim victory. Even the artistic community can only identify their own work about two-thirds of the time.

I actually appreciate the impressionist movement's visual critique of the cold, heartless propensities to which realism was susceptible. The origins of abstraction were noble and timely - but the point of the movement might just as poignantly been summed up in a few journal articles and op-ed pieces. The point was to sacrifice craft for meaning, perfection for emotion - they were intentionally suppressing the prevailing obsession with procedural skill in order to expose a painting's soul. They wanted to breathe life into art again.

The heirs of the movement lack the underlying and verifying skill which provided their predecessors with credibility, just as they lack an appreciation of aesthetics capable of appealing to an unpretentious soul. Scripture defines man as "only a little lower than the angels" and the ancient Greek concept of metaxy locates man between beasts and gods. By these standards, the abstract artist's craft seems to be quite a bit lower than that of the angels and heavily favoring the beast side of the god-beast ledger. It has been argued that a monkey with a typewriter and an infinite amount of time would produce Shakespeare. That may be true, but it seems a monkey with a paint brush can produce abstract art in a matter of minutes. 

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