Ike made a post in Auroni's visual-arts-tips thread that I think warrants some separate discussion. I have in mind this extract:
I think I mostly agree with Ike, but I worry that this extract lends itself to being misread in a particular way. On the one hand, I agree with Ike that quizbowl has a somewhat strong and (to me) vaguely "non-academic" focus on "merely" pretty and gimmicky paintings that aren't necessarily all that "interesting" from a certain aesthetic point of view (the Alma-Tademas, Thomas Coles, and John Martins of the world); I also agree with Ike's implied conclusion that we should replace some of these questions with more deeply focused questions on "important" figures who may have less obvious appeal.Ike wrote:You're not getting the full story of art unless you read some scholarship and context on it. Rewarding that kind of knowledge is in my opinion a worthwhile endeavor in QB. I say this because when I started learning about painting for QB I thought the PRB was the shit for making beautiful paintings and that Alma-Tadema was actually a good artist. As it turns out, I was wrong, and if you're embarking on your adventure to learn painting for the first time I think it's more enriching (for your own edification and for the questions you are producing) to try to learn the "story of art" instead of "beautiful art" or even "art.
On the other hand, I don't think people should (mis)read Ike's post as saying that "art history means studying 'great painters'"; this is a hopelessly outdated view that would also, in its traditional (and, to be honest, more logically coherent) form exclude Rococo art, Academic Art, Pop art, and a whole lot of Impressionism. (If you don't like me lumping Thomas Cole in with Alma-Tadema, then maybe that says something!) Nowadays, some of the best art-historical work is done on popular painters whose work is not necessarily "great," since that popularity often means that they were in some ways more representative of their time and place than the "greats" were. In other words, art history isn't just an internalist account of the development of "great art," but also a study of how art is history—and that doesn't (shouldn't; can't) just include "great" art.
Here's another way to paraphrase my proposed misreading (what I'm arguing against): "there is such a thing as an academic-trash dichotomy for the (visual) arts, and we should only write questions about stuff on the academic side." My counterargument was more or less: "academics don't let that dichotomy dictate what they study anymore, so why should you?" (And they have good reason not to, since arguing like that means you also have to believe that your value system is the only valid one, which ends up putting you in pretty fascist territory.) But this leaves us with a problem, since we now have no way to exclude art objects that we probably don't want to ask about—we don't want to be writing our photography questions on celebrity Instagram accounts.
The best solution I've come across is John Lawrence's:
"Never popular[/vernacular] to begin with" (in the extremely broad senses of "popular" and "vernacular") is why we can write tossups on topics from recent "literary" fiction and "artistic" film and photography: not just because they're fantastic, but because what makes them fantastic also sets them apart from more mainstream/vernacular/popular culture, so we can more safely bet that their cultural and aesthetic importance will last. (We lose this bet, too, sometimes, but I think it's worth it.) I wish that we could extend this to tossups on French horns in '60s pop, but I recognize that there are a lot of reasonable people who think otherwise.high/academic culture is...formed of the collection of works that are still considered culturally relevant even though they are not written in the artistic vernacular of the genre as it currently exists. Another way of saying this is academic genres are those that are culturally enduring but either were never popular to begin with or were popular in a now dead mode and have survived the death of the rest of their genre.
But that leaves us with "popular in a now dead mode and have survived the death of the rest of their genre," and a problem of balance. This, I think, is the original purpose of Ike's post: he thinks that the art he finds to be of lasting aesthetic value should dominate the quizbowl distribution (without excluding old popular art that's historically informative). As I said above, I more or less agree: we need to have much more "great art" than "not-great art" in the art distribution. The real problem (what I argued above) is that we clearly need both, and it's difficult to determine a good ratio.
I think we can get at a solution by recognizing that we're not really dealing with one kind of art. Here's a trichotomy (with plenty of overlap): 1) once-popular art that is now mainly known as an object of aesthetic appreciation; 2) once-popular art that is less popular than it once was, but still mainly known "as popular art"; 3) once-popular art that is mainly known now as a cultural-historical artifact.
I think that 1) was primarily what John had in mind, and it's a big part of the arts (and literature) distribution. So far so good.
I think that 2) is Ike's main target, and I agree with him that we could use less of it. For me, Alma-Tadema questions are sort of like questions on A Christmas Carol, or Lovecraft or Asimov or someone. That is, I think they have a place (and Ike clearly agrees, since he put genre fiction into ACF Nationals last year!), but not a huge one. (This category gets pretty close to Greenbergian Kitsch, and I indeed think that we could use fewer questions on Ilya Repin and some Surrealists "as art." But I'm all for questions on Repin and nation-building or Orientalism or what-have-you; that just seems to get closer to "cultural history" to me, and I'd rather see judicious Repin clues in the history distribution instead. See the discussion of type 3) below.)
Of course, it's not at all easy to draw a line between 1) and 2)—we seem to all agree that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is art and Lovecraft is trash, and that Benny Goodman is art but Frank Sinatra is trash. As a solution, I really think we should formally take a slice out of the "trash/other" distribution and give it over to "borderline literature, arts, and history"/"high trash." (Plenty of people, including John and Matt Bollinger have advocated this in past.) This also has the benefit of letting us write on both "important" borderline trash topics (Bob Dylan) without crowding out "art" (Bach). Similarly, this gives us space to ask about haute couture, cuisine, and other arts not deemed "art" enough for quizbowl at the moment.
Finally, I think that 3) is hopelessly under-represented in quizbowl, and we could use a whole lot more of it. But not (necessarily) in the arts distribution. (The remainder of this post is more about the history distribution than the arts distribution.)
During a conversation pre-CO, I remember Chris Ray saying that European history has been hopelessly over-mined in quizbowl, especially relative to other areas of history; I agreed with him at the time, having in mind all of those brutal clues on the 7th-most important general in the Wars of Castro or who married the 3rd daughter of Philip the Amorous or whatever.
In other words, Chris and I (and probably a lot of other people) agree that European political and military history has more or less "been done" in quizbowl, and we need to get out while we still can. But that leaves open notable major areas of historical study like intellectual history, social history, historiography, and, of course—cultural history! I think that upping the dosage of type-3) art and literature as cultural history would help save the European history distribution, without just replacing history questions with art and literature. (In other words, this won't necessarily end up being a question about an artist or artwork, but instead a cultural or material trend that it represents; this is sort of what I was doing with my Alma Mahler tossup in MYSTERIUM.)
I recognize that it's difficult to write tossups "on" social history (statistics and trends don't often make great clues), but the other realms of history could easily be expanded to help save Europe. I think quizbowl could use more historiography (the kind of stuff actual history majors learn!), and a lot of the historiography that's best-known and most-studied is of Europe. There's a lot of intellectual history that ends up in the philosophy distribution that might be better as "European history of ideas." And, while we're at it, why not expand history of science (as history, not science)? I absolutely agree with a comment Kevin Koai once made in practice: it's curious that we don't write more history questions on important scientific ideas that were influential in their time, even if they're discredited now.
I recognize that people are already doing all of this, and I love it every time it happens. (In particular, when we write on recent history, we're not afraid of using clues about Eurovision contest winners, fashion designers, etc.) I'm saying we should make a concerted effort to do this more. And I'm not saying that these changes wouldn't be a good idea in other areas of history—I think American history could really use this too—but the problems with the "old way" seems most acute in Europe.
To summarize: I think the "art/trash" distinction is only useful for determining the category in which we ask about things. I think we should set aside a big chunk of the trash/other/general knowledge distribution for topics that lie reasonably close to the border (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ilya Repin; J.R.R. Tolkien and Hamilton; chess and cooking). And I think that we should drastically increase our efforts to reshape the history distribution in favor of "history of ____" and cultural and intellectual history.