Contesting Art: From Highbrow to Nobrow

Max Ryynänen, On the Philosophy of Central European Art: The History of an Institution and Its Global Competitors (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021), 137 PP.

For some readers, the title of Max Ryynänen’s book On the Philosophy of Central European Art: The History of an Institution and Its Global Competitors, which implies an historical exposition of aesthetic-theoretical ideas in circulation in Central Europe or perhaps conceptual reflections on art emanating from there, may be misleading—particularly for those, such as the readership of ARTMargins, whose specific aesthetic and scholarly interests lie in the region. Ryynänen’s designation “Central European,” for example, does not refer to the broad if blurry acceptation typical in most contexts, meaning those countries, cultures, peoples, and languages constellated around the course of the Danube River from the Black Forest to the Black Sea and historically marked by their recent experience of state socialism. His “Central Europe” rather derives from a history of ideas behind the institution of a system of the arts, a construct strongly indebted to Paul Oskar Kristeller’s well-known essay “The Modern System of the Arts,” (originally published in 1951) as well as to later studies by Władysław Tatarkiewicz and Larry Shiner.(Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” in Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 163-227; Władysław Tatarkiewicz, The History of Six Ideas (Warsaw: University of Warsaw, Polish Academy of Sciences, 1980); Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). Like Ryynänen—and like Peter Bürger in his influential explorations of the institutions of art—I use the term “institution” to include not just official, state-sponsored entities like artist unions, academies, and state museums, but also the looser unofficial networks of galleries and exhibition spaces, studios, private collections, salons, critical writing, art periodicals, courses, media presentation, and art historical publications as constituting the institutional framework in which art subsists and persists in Europe and, certainly today, beyond Europe as well. See, for example, the essays in Peter and Christa Bürger, The Institutions of Art, translated by Loren Kruger (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), for the use of this concept in different historical contexts.))

“Central European” for Ryynänen—a professor at Helsinki’s Aalto University who writes extensively on topics related to aesthetics, edits the journals Popular Inquiry and Journal of Somaesthtics, and ranges across points of reference from local Finnish and regional Scandinavian culture to an impressive global repertoire of classical to contemporary examples—means something like an ideal-typical geo-ethnic, class, and gender preserve constructed and centered upon (part of) Europe by means of an institutional system of the arts encompassing, with some historical fluctuation, painting, sculpture, poetry, music, theater, dance, and (at times) architecture. Ryynänen evokes, as he puts it, a “geographical triangle connected (approximately) by Florence, Paris (later, London), and depending on the perspective, Berlin or Vienna. If one travels from Munich, one has to reach Scandinavia, Southern Italy, or Central Slovakia, before culture changes in any significant way. Still, most of Europe lies outside of the triangle. Europe is too big to be called the home of art. One could rather say that the triangle mentioned embodies something that could be defined in a broad way as Central European culture.” (pp. vii-viii) Much aesthetic culture—indeed, an unbounded expanse of aesthetic practices stretching across the globe—lies beyond the geocultural perimeter of Ryynänen’s artistically constructed Central Europe. Still other aesthetic practices—a further teeming mass of popular, subcultural, quotidian, ethnographic, underground activity—performed within the “Central European” territorial triangle will have been occluded in advance from view by art’s restrictive institutional value system, on grounds of class and popularity, gender, genre and medium, or ethnicity.

Equally important, and likewise subject to possible misunderstanding by the reader, is that despite its subtitle, the book is not predominantly a “history.” Rather, it is a spirited polemic against what Ryynänen takes to be the baleful effect of the Central European art institution, as both the centuries-long process of instituting art and the accumulated outcome of that process in ideas, structures, collections, and canons. Ryynänen’s preface is entitled, significantly, “Know Your Enemies,” while his introductory chapter bears the amusing title “Why Should Kids in the Suburbs Learn the Aesthetic Hobbies of the Eighteenth-Century Central European Upper Class?” He sets his task as a demolition job, opening cracks in the monolith of institutionalized art, siphoning away its “dank metaphysics,” and pursuing “a new liberty from art.” (p. 123) Animating this position are Ryynänen’s neo-pragmatist emphasis on open-ended sensuous “experience” (strongly influenced by Richard Schusterman’s “somaesthetic” reading of John Dewey (See Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992); Shusterman, Thinking Through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).) and his celebration of kitsch and popular culture against the pretentions of art, whether in its musealized traditional or modernist and contemporary forms. In a strongly personal voice, Ryynänen mingles examples from ice skating, home decoration, gymnastics, and cooking. Likewise, rock and rap music are married with erudite references to French neoclassical treatises, while etymological excursions into Japanese, Indian, and Persian art theory, and allusions to conceptual art highlight the experiential poverty that institutional art, so he claims, has wrought upon us.

Ryynänen’s chapter titles clearly delineate the thematic bases of his polemic against (Central European systematized) art: it is colonializing and culturally appropriative of others than the male European cultural élite (Chapter 2: “Diaspora, Colonialism, Overshadowed Alternatives;” Chapter 3: “Highbrow as Cultural Appropriation”). It also leads to marginalization or even suppression of a vast range of aesthetic phenomena and cultures that can and should be experienced extra-institutionally and under other conceptual covers, if conceptualized at all, than that of the art system (Chapter 4: “The Lively Arts: Kitsch, Ice Skating, and Other Attempts to Foster the Beautiful;” Chapter 5: “’A New Art Form’: How Rap Music Knocked on the Door of the Art System in the 1990s”). Ryynänen’s concluding chapter “Nobrow”  rejects wholesale the hierarchical physiognomy of cultural value embodied in the terms highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow; instead, he advocates for the intriguing hierarchy defying category of “nobrow.”

Polemic, we should acknowledge, can be engaging and even entertaining, and that is unquestionably the case with Ryynänen’s. Less often, however, does it succeed in truly altering the convictions of a reader. Still, it may mobilize not just instinctive resistances but also the pursuit of argumentative grounds for felt opposition, sharpening our sense of the stakes of our own dispositions and positions. Thus I wish, accordingly, to set out some brief observations along these lines, saying why, despite my assenting nods to many of Ryynänen’s individual points, I feel his argument as a whole leads astray.

A first objection relates to the background against which his polemical argument against institutionalized art is launched; that is, the coherent existence of the Central European art system in the first place. Ryynänen accepts that there is such a thing, again primarily on the authority of Kristeller and closely aligned accounts such as Shiner’s, but there have also been important challenges to this history of ideas. One of the most thorough and important of these is James I. Porter’s criticisms of Kristeller in his 2009 essay “Is Art Modern? Kristeller’s ‘Modern System of the Arts’ Reconsidered,” which was then incorporated in his book-length study The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience.(James I. Porter, “Is Art Modern? Kristeller’s ‘Modern System of the Arts’ Reconsidered,” British Journal of Aesthetics 49/1 (2009): 1-24; Porter, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).) Porter suggests that by conceiving of aesthetics anachronistically as a theory of art’s autonomy – dependent on the prior realization of a circumscribed “system of the arts” – Kristeller misrecognized the importance of material and sensation both in eighteenth-century aesthetic arguments and, crucially, in ancient aesthetics as well, which Kristeller didn’t think even existed. Porter bases his critique of Kristeller on an alternative reading of aesthetics explicitly indebted to John Dewey’s Art and Experience, whom Kristeller had footnoted equivocally. “Had Kristeller grasped the full import of Dewey’s aesthetics,” Porter writes, “it is doubtful he would have ever written the essay he did…. [H]e would at least have been obliged to recognize either that the system he describes was a historical construct of his own making, or else that the notion of the fine arts grouped loosely together was an ideological illusion entertained by some but not all historical agents over the centuries, but in any case a notion that was untrue, indeed incoherent, when examined in any detail.”(Porter, “Is Art Modern?”, p. 21.) Ironically, placing Dewey in the ranks of counter-art thinkers, Ryynänen must accept Kristeller’s construct uncritically—the premise that there is in fact an exclusive system of the arts—in order subsequently to reject “art” as a whole in the name of a Deweyian diversity of aesthetic experience.

A second caveat might be raised about the geocultural centering that Ryynänen’s idiosyncratic Central Europe implies. As Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s Toward a Geography of Art indicates, the geographical situation of artworks is a complex of factors including movements of materials, people, and ideas with processes of translation, transculturation, and mixing as key factors that take on different weights at different times.(Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).) Even aside from more specific objections to Kristeller’s account, the Central European system of art is a partial construct rooted predominantly in the history of ideas, little complicated by the multiple interferences that may have disrupted it, pluralized it, or opened its borders to other cultural values and practices. From those perspectives, “art” may look much less monolithic, less easy to center, and less authoritative in its putative centering function.

A third—and to my mind, rather serious—problem with Ryynänen’s account has to do with his historical leap from the eighteenth century to the recent past and present, as if, for the sake of his argument, developments within art since the eighteenth century were but a minor matter in the story he wants to tell of the crushing, colonialist influence of the Central European arts system. Having just arrived at the eighteenth century, he abruptly interjects:

We have come to the situation where the basic story of the system of arts has already

been told. This does not mean that there is no more to tell about it. One could continue

with the story of the enfants terribles of modernism and the historical avant-garde, or

with the continuing development of the polarization of high and low culture…. None

of that is important here, as this chapter was about figuring out how the system of

art was developed, and what kinds of roots it had. (p. 35)

But does this supposed genesis of the system really explain art’s function and nature in the very different context of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes, with their pulverization and reconstitution art’s institutions and inherited work-concepts? Does any loose and shifting grouping of the arts developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries adequately explain the corporatized and globalized trafficking of images that constitutes the contemporary artworld? It seems questionable to me that we should need to lay siege to long-breached ruins of an art-institutional and conceptual edifice erected three to four centuries ago.

A fourth issue has been raised forcefully in debates in cultural studies in the 1990s by commentators such as John Frow, Simon Frith, and Jim McGuigan, in response to Pierre Bourdieu’s attempt to map cultural hierarchies, mediated by taste, onto social class structure.(See John Frow, Cultural Studies and Cultural Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Jim McGuigan, Cultural Populism (London: Routledge, 1992); Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996).) These theorists noted, on the one hand, the complex, contradictory role played by intellectuals in mediating cultural and social values, and, on the other hand, the empirical reality that consumers of contemporary culture flexibly move among multiple registers of aesthetic culture just as we occupy a variety of shifting and evolving social roles in our personal spaces, workplaces, and sites of leisure. Frith, in particular, attends to the reconstitution of hierarchical taste cultures within popular forms like rock or rap, suggesting that popular cultural domains are anything but exempt from aesthetic judgements differentiating “avant-garde” and “kitsch” and various shades between. The key point for Ryynänen’s argument is: If individuals from various social locations can enjoy both artistically and nonartistically sanctioned aesthetic experiences without contradiction, and if the social implications of aesthetic experiences, occasioned by both institutionalized art and popular culture, are complexly mediated, how can one claim that “art” as such is univocally limiting, while popular aesthetic practices, at least once freed from the stigma laid on them by the art system, are liberating?

Finally, there is the matter of art itself, as manifested in specialized, professionalized disciplinary forms and spaces. The institutionalization and professionalization of art disciplines since the sixteenth century, it is hardly controversial to remark, have led to an extraordinary expansion and differentiation of artistic techniques, media, materials, themes, and expressive capacities. During their long “modern” sojourn, moreover, the Central European arts were strongly affected by the tendencies of empiricism, materialism, and technicity that also characterized the developmental thrust of the sciences and technology, investing art with centrifugal energies that belie Ryynänen notion of a univocally constraining, repressive, monolithic system. We might just as well logically argue—as was, of course, often done by both conservative and radical cultural critics—that the true legacy of European art is its chaos of forces and forms pressing ever closer to a collapse of stable, authoritative cultural values. Be that as it may, facing an argument such as the one Ryynänen poses, we must ask: Would we really want to cast art’s specific, historically developed potentials—for intensive reflection, expression, and thematic communication—out into the open sea of general aesthetic experience? At present, I remain still unpersuaded that the answer should be yes.


Tyrus Miller
Tyrus Miller is dean of the School of Humanities and a professor of English and Art History at University of California, Irvine. He is the author and editor of several books on modernism and the avant-garde, including Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (1999); Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo-Avant-Garde(2009), and Modernism and the Frankfurt School (2014). He is co-editor of the György Lukács Library of the Historical Materialism Series, Brill Press, and edited and translated for the series Lukács’s post-World War II essays in Hungarian, The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition, 1945-1948 (2013).