OK, I wanted to give whoever wanted time to respond without my all too typical chiming in. But we’re now at some remove from the event itself and people have contributed thoughts that have so increased my own understanding of the speech, its context and my own reaction that I’m going to take a stab at a few of them in a full blown secondary post.
"I don't like much of [Duchamp's] work because it's so damned nihilistic. I understand that he was disillusioned with the world and civilization, etc., and that it was a reflection of contemporary thought. He doesn't convince me, though. I don't buy it. I'm not a nihilist. I don't want to tear it all down. I don't like it because I disagree with it. However, I loved arguing with it."
This raises a very important point that I might have thought to make if I was not chiefly critiquing Mr. Prager's dismissive stance. Not all art is good art. That's true. There are aspects of the 20th century that I think were dead ends or even worse. For instance, I dislike in general the tendency of 20th century art to be guided by a devotion to the avant-garde. And while I might not call Duchamp nihilistic, I do think he and others in the 20th century left little to build on in their art, little room for tradition or its development. But, like Ian, those artists I reject (Jean-Michele Basquiat for instance) I choose to reject after having given them serious consideration not a passing uninformed glace. Furthermore, this is true of every century. Frankly, I think pointillism (while cool) also leaves nowhere to really go, nothing to build upon. In my opinion, pointillists like Seurat are asking questions so narrowly focused on how we see that they seems to forget that we do see real things. But I also have, I hope, enough humility to continue to have that argument with a defender of pointillism. (Ian you might be interested in this previous conversation about art, beauty, goodness and nihilism.)
"i guess it's this: if there is an assault on truth, beauty, and goodness in today's culture, it is not being perpetrated by academics who are "revising" history. they are searching for the truth as earnestly as any of the rest of us. if there is an assault on truth, beauty, and goodness, it is being perpetrated by the vast majority of media output, media which do not even attempt to examine or portray in depth the complexity of real human lives. media which disseminate a simplistic view of the world and humanity. media which take us away from spending time interacting with and learning about and discussing this real world we live in. in short, most media not only distract us from the search for the truth, but furthermore offer something which superficially looks like the truth instead of the real truth."
Here I think I agree with Meghan .... 82%. Because I really do agree with Mr. Prager (believe it or not) that significant elements in academia are in fact attacking Truth, Beauty and Goodness. I do think, in final analysis, that most contemporary academic dialogue is carried on under the umbrella of capital R Relativ-ism if not - thank God - consistently so. But I certainly agree with Meghan that the more serious assault against Truth, Beauty and Goodness comes not from those who attack it directly but from those who mouth a commitment to the True, the Good and the Beautiful but leave no room for the genuine pursuit of them - those who, instead, bury the difficult but rewarding struggle for Truth, Beauty and Goodness beneath easy platitudes, verbiage, opinion, summaries, sound bytes, blog posts, YouTube and cliches.
"So, to to admit that I've cried over Mark Rothko's "Light Red Over Black" might make me an idiot or one who's taking part in the assault on Truth, Beauty, and Goodness? Maybe it's just two black rectangles surrounded by red to you, but I wept when I saw it....wept. To this day, it's hard to explain why, but that painting overwhelmed me and made me cry over my own broken life."
I don't know if you've ever read Rothko on his own art, but this is exactly the engagement he envisioned for his work and exactly. In his words:
"The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point."
One of the things that most got under my skin while sitting there listening to Mr. Prager's speech was this very thing. Last year one of our seniors sat in front of a painting at the Walker Art Museum for almost an hour, crying much of the time. When Mr. Prager denounced such art as foolish, he also stepped all over that experience. And that is what I could not abide in silence - or at least one of the things.
"Hey, didn't I give you a print of that Rembrandt work? Do you still have it?"
Yes, you did. I've never had the guts to frame it and hang it, but I think after this exchange it's going up. Actually, I saw one of the original prints in a San Francisco art gallery for $3,000 several years ago. Gosh I wish I would have bought it. I didn't have that kind of money then, though.
"In terms of Truth, however, I think that attaining a fairly high degree of accuracy (I did not say absolute) around the truth is in most circumstances (not all)feasible. To be explicit, however, I don't believe that the Truth is always clear, that it always comes out in the end and in many cases harm can be caused by either of these unfortunate outcomes. So....Yes, while I agree that subjectivity cannot be completely eliminated in arriving at the truth, I do think that in practice a great deal of subjectivity can be eliminated in most circumstances."
Absolutely. And if I were having this same discussion concerning a speech given by someone who had given up on Truth, Beauty and Goodness being absolute, I would say, "Don't make the mistake of confusing subjectivity with relativism. Just because we all come at a thing from our own vantage point doesn't mean we aren't, in fact, coming at something, something real."
Here is how Bishop N.T. Wright puts it in The New Testament and the People of God:
"I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of "knowing" that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence "realism"), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence "critical")"
To embrace subjectivity and the necessity of dialogue is not to embrace the absolute relativism of Truth or to consign the universe once again to chaos. We can know, if not absolutely, still with great clarity and conviction.
After we had read both Descartes and Montaigne in my senior Humane Letters seminar this year, I passed out an essay by C.S. Lewis called "On Obstinacy in Belief." I recommend it on this point. You can find it in The World's Last Night and Other Essays.
In the end, I do seriously disagree with Mr. Prager. Being provocative is not enough. But he did generate this discussion and for that I am grateful.
Keep it up if there's anything still to be said.
(All images courtesy of Picasso.)