The gold-plated man theory of art criticism
Étienne Fortier-Dubois1 recently wrote an essay extending the “straw man” metaphor of argumentative reasoning and introducing a new concept: the gold-plated man. A quick summary: Just as a strawman is a weak substitute for your enemy’s argument and a steelman is a strengthened version of that argument, Étienne’s gold-plated man is a version of that argument that has been made more interesting than was originally presented. In the essay, Étienne considers the gold-plated man in a context of debate in general. But I see a very precise application of his idea in the field of art criticism—specifically, art criticism as done by Christians.
Have you ever been in a gallery, seen a piece of art that appeared at first to be incomprehensible or arcane, and spent some time reflecting on it, only to find it more meaningful than you originally thought? Or have you ever read a critic’s discussion of a picture you had originally dismissed, only to find their comments revealing hidden meanings and significances of which you were unaware? Both of these examples are illustrative of plating the man in gold: a substitution of a boring or simplistic argument— “that painting isn’t interesting”—with a more intellectually stimulating one— “Actually there’s a lot going on in there.”
Of course, this principle can be taken to extremes. Much of what James Elkins writes about in Why are Our Pictures Puzzles? could be seen as examples of gold-plating gone amok; he mentions how some pictures have accumulated a critical literature so bloated and excessive—some pictures have become so interesting to the critics—that it would be impossible for even a specialist to absorb all that’s been said about them. These pictures have, in Elkins’ phrase, become “monstrously ambiguous.” They have gone from being interesting to being puzzling to being confusing to being a festering sore on the body of art criticism, a boil that will not heal because the scab keeps getting picked off.2
But the opposite happens just as frequently. It is all too easy to dismiss a painting if we feel we have a surface understanding of it. In my mind, this approach happens too often among Christians with reference to avant-garde art from the twentieth century. I’ve heard many variations on the theme of “art that isn’t realist or redemptive isn’t glorifying to God, and Christians shouldn’t promote that sort of pictures.” There are enormous amounts of confusing, irritating, obnoxiously puzzling pictures made in the previous 120 years, and it is sometimes baffling to come up with explanations for them. Why did Yves Klein paint so many pictures of solid blue rectangles? Why did Georges Braque feel like he needed to represent all sides of an object at once? Why did Marc Chagall paint himself with seven fingers on his left hand? Wouldn’t it be easier if artists just stuck to realism?
Artists can be a prickly bunch—their public conduct and their attitude toward their own works can be very hard to decipher, and their outlook on life is often strange, unexpected, and at times unwelcome. Artists are sometimes reluctant to explain their own creations; other times they say things just to be provocative. But all artists are real people, with wants and needs like ours, including a need to communicate; and if we wave away these pictures, refusing to dialogue with the artists who made them, we are missing out on a chance to engage with another human being about how they see the world.
Instead, we should cultivate an attitude of humility, an approach that values quietness and listening, and a willingness to be transformed and to learn. And it strikes me that this is a very Christian way to approach art criticism. Christians are supposed to be charitable towards everyone, right? Christians are supposed to be known for their graciousness and love, their kindness, their ability to empathize, and their humility.
For a Christian art lover, this attitude can be expressed as humility in the face of what we don’t know fully, or what we don’t understand. Instead of an arrogant strawman of “that art doesn’t look like objective reality so it isn’t any good,” Christian art criticism should be filled with the approach of “I don’t understand this painting, but I’m going to assume there’s something there; let me think on it some more before I state my opinion of it.”
I can think of three reasons why even the craziest3 avant-garde work should be approached by Christians with a degree of gold-platedness:
We might not know the whole meaning.
It is permitted to bring something of ourselves to an artwork.
Our cultural / interpretive position is not normative.
To illustrate the first reason, I’d like to present this painting.
I first saw this painting in a magazine article when I was probably twelve years old, and I didn’t know anything about it until many years later. For the longest time my attitude towards it was, “OK nice painting but whatever—I step on weeds all the time too.” But the real truth is deeper: Andrew Wyeth made the painting shortly after an operation during which his heart stopped and he almost died. He saw a vision of Albrecht Dürer as Death, dressed in black and coming towards him, and explained later that the weed in the painting represents his own near-death experience.4 There is very little in the painting that would lead a viewer to contemplate it in that light, but once it is explained that way it becomes much more interesting than a mere “scene from nature” painting.
T. S. Eliot once said that the poem which the reader reads may be better than that which the poet wrote, and this attitude aptly sums up my second reason. It is standard practice for art lovers to draw upon their own personal experience and cultural memory when appreciating art, and artists are aware of this and act accordingly. Different artworks will have different meanings depending on who is experiencing them; a work which one person might find boring (even after analyzing it in light of reason #1) could be full of a deep and special significance for someone else. We oughtn’t to dismiss a work of art simply because we ourselves are not moved by it; at best we can say, “I don’t understand it in the same way other people do, so I’ll have to direct my attention elsewhere.”
The third reason requires a great deal of humility to truly understand and implement. It is also the hardest, because our cultural assumptions go unnoticed so easily. But why would we study the etiquette and social customs before traveling to another country, yet not study the ways and attitudes of the art world—which, sadly, can feel like a foreign country to some Christians? As I’ve discussed before, the contemporary art scene and the Christian church can sometimes seem like bitter enemies, and it does not ease the tension when Christians act as if they know the only right way to make or understand art. As Betty Spackman says in A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch, “Did we really think we could handle the creative leadership better than those who had spent their lives struggling to produce good work?” Similarly, do we really think our expectations for the purpose of art are normative if we haven’t even bothered to know what art is being used for “in the wild”?
The common demand that Christian art ought to have a “redemptive” message, or that there should be a gospel presentation somewhere in it, is an entirely cultural expectation and simply does not correspond to how the rest of the world thinks about the use or purpose of art. For Christians to seriously engage with the world around them, we will have to get past these expectations and accept the idea that there can be powerful, vital, important art which communicates a Christian message without having any of these things in it. We have to allow all sorts and kinds of art to be interesting. We must get out our gold leaf and get to work plating the man.
A little corner of my mind has been occupied with the idea of soft power for quite a while now. A recent essay by M. J. Hines is a good summary of the concept of soft power; he focuses on the ascendancy of Korean soft power and the concurrent decline in Britian. It makes me wonder: is there a Christian soft power? Religious imagery and allusions are very common in art and music, maybe even more so than in the culture at large. This might sound too mercenary for some, but . . . can Christian artists leverage the soft power of their religion to amplify their Christian message?
Cap Stewart is asking some very hard questions about Christians’ use of video streaming services on his blog Unpop Culture. His most recent piece is very thought-provoking; even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, his ideas are worth studying for any Christian who wants the glory of God to shine forth in even their movie watching habits.
Over the weekend I fell in love with this poem about Ezra Pound’s Cantos. The poem’s sentiment is applicable to any number of “monstrous” works in the canon which simply cannot be waved away and which must be addressed head-on, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel.
The author of Atlas of Wonders and Monsters, a blog with an incredibly diverse and stimulating array of thought on matters of visual culture, art, and history. It’s well worth reading.
“Like infected wounds, such works injure the normal metabolism of art history, irritating the surrounding scholarship, spreading their inflammations to neighboring works and texts.” Elkins, Why are Our Pictures Puzzles?: on the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity, p. 126.
Okay, not all avant-garde works ought to be approached this way. If the elaborate murders in David Fincher’s film Se7en were committed as performance art, we would still be right to condemn them as murders. And when Andy Warhol or Salvador Dalí claim that they are doing it only for the money, it’s not unreasonable to have a degree of skepticism toward their artworks and to discount their communicative value accordingly.
The story is told in Anne Claasen Knutson’s Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, pp 23 and 53.