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Art is Bullshit Part II Posted on January 24th

Piero Manzoni Artist’s Shit

I’ve now read On Bullshit and it’s interesting how far off the mark my speculations about bullshit were. I roughly defined bullshit as the “attempt to make style stand for substance,” and my post was mostly concerned with the process by which bullshit is created. I imagined that a bullshitter is essentially an expert in the superficial, who is able to fluidly extract and use stylistic features to create a false impression of substance. I praised the bullshitter’s inspired, jazz-like riffings on topics he knows nothing of, and pointed out that writers and artists could learn much from the bullshitter’s passionate improvisation when faced with the unknown. My take on bullshit was not surprisingly focused on its aesthetic qualities.

But Harry G. Frankfurt’s bullshit was of a different sort. Rather than discuss how bullshitters create bullshit, Frankfurt was more concerned with bullshit’s relationship with truth. Bullshit, Frankfurt claims, is very different than a lie. Sure, both bullshit and lies may be untrue, but lies at least are concerned with truth. A liar is engaged with the truth insomuch that he makes a point of saying something untrue. As Frankfurt puts it: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth…A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.” But the bullshitter has no such respect: “For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the truth nor on the false.”

The bullshitter, in Frankfurt’s conception, merely wants to get away with what he says. He doesn’t care if what he happens to say is accurate or totally inaccurate; he doesn’t care which side of the truth he falls on. Because of this, the bullshitter allows himself free play over both truth and falsehood, choosing one or another when it suits him. This gives him a wider palette than what is available to a mere liar or truth seeker. On this point, Frankfurt and I agree: “[Bullshit] is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisations, color, imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the bullshit artist.”

Though the book is short, there still seems to be a lot of meandering to get to the points summarized above. Still, several of Frankfurt’s tangential ideas are fascinating in their implications for art. At one point, Frankfurt explains that bullshit cannot be defined by being inaccurate. The bullshitter is probably as often right as he is wrong. What defines bullshit is its stubborn lack of craft. Bullshit gushes forth in an indiscriminate stream of truths, half-truths, falsehoods and nonsense. Frankfurt returns to bullshit’s linguistic nub to explain: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.”

Frankfurt implies that the problem people have with bullshit has less to do with its untruth than with its perceived laziness. Just as artists are often judged on the imagined rigor of their craft (rather than the success of its outcomes), the bullshitter is judged not by what he says but the flippancy of its creation. But Frankfurt’s real worry about bullshit—and maybe the most interesting point in the book—is that by consistently saying things without regard for their accuracy, the bullshitter loses all ability to detect truth or even reality. The bullshitter, because he does not aim to represent reality instead tries to represent himself with what he says. As Frankfurt puts it: “Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.” Frankfurt sees a contradiction in believing in the truth of one’s own nature without believing in the truth of the world beyond oneself.

Here’s where I part company with Frankfurt’s bullshit. I don’t believe that the bullshitter loses sight of the truth of the world or turns his focus to himself. I think the disconcerting thing about the bullshitter is that he lives without any vision. A truth seeker has a goal (to seek the truth) and a liar has a goal (to suppress the truth) but the bullshitter has no set goal. Even a liar has a vision of what his lies will accomplish, but the bullshitter is too fluid for a single vision. Bullshit, because it is created without foresight or fixed purpose, exists from moment to moment. Yesterday’s bullshit is different from today’s bullshit which is different than tomorrow’s. There is no through line that connects bullshit to bullshit, and the bullshitter is essentially reborn every moment.

We think of great artist and writers as having a powerful vision of the world, a singular genius that drives their life and art. This is in direct conflict with the bullshitter, who has no vision and merely adjusts for whatever is thrown in his path. The artist imposes his vision on his world; the bullshitter is imposed upon but responds with aplomb. So what’s the greater interaction with reality? The artist who asserts his same vision on the world, regardless of what he sees, or the bullshitter who spews fresh bullshit in response to every new development? I would argue that bullshit’s flexibility is actually deeply responsive to reality, like a sludge that flows over the up-and-down contours of the world, while the rigidly of artistic vision merely straddles its peaks.  

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Some Responses to “Art is Bullshit Part II” :

  1. There is certainly an art or craft to bullshitting well, just as there is to lying well, or telling the truth well. Sarah Palin, for instance, demonstrated lack of craft when she responded to the “Bush doctrine” question in a meandering manner. She could have save herself by saying, “i don’t know what the Bush Doctrine is and I bet few or our viewers do either. Why don’t you enlighten all of us?” After receiving the answer, she could have crucified the guy by asking him why he did not ask direct questions, and telling him the “Bush Doctrine” as he defined it was not exactly written in the history books, even though he used the phrase as if it had been.

    That would have been good bullshitting. That is, turning her own own ignorance into an asset. Maybe that’s my definition of bullshitting - leveraging one’s ignorance to favor whatever it is one wants.

    Commented John on January 25th, 2009.
  2. “The artist who asserts his same vision on the world, regardless of what he sees,….”

    I would argue that an artist’s vision can change and react to the world, and still carry the intent of truth-seeking.

    Commented Carla on January 26th, 2009.
  3. Thanks for stopping by! I agree I overstated the case. An artist certainly can change their vision in response to the world (most great ones do). I guess my point was that an artist, or any truth-seeker, wants to find something in the world. They want to find meaning or truth itself. The bullshitter doesn’t care either way. The sheer state of hoping to see something affects how a person sees what’s really there. Sort of like if you are looking for the image of the man on the moon, you’ll see it, but if you’re not looking for it specifically you’ll simply see the moon as it is. The bullshitter might see the world more as it is because he or she is not looking for anything (truth, meaning, etc) within it.

    Commented admin on January 26th, 2009.
  4. John,
    You could be a bullshit coach. That could be the next big thing.

    Commented admin on January 26th, 2009.
  5. Prequel comment: This two-parter set-up is humorous and insightful. I find your conclusion interesting and disturbing. I’m going to go put my fingers in my ears and hum to myself for a bit.

    Commented Carla on January 27th, 2009.
  6. I was a bullshit coach. “Bullshit coaching” was essentially what I did when I prepared grad students for the quarterly crits of their art work administered by the faculty at large. It involved strategies like first saying “thank you for showing me how much my work sucks (with perhaps a joke or two thrown in to keep it light). So now I will explore new possibilities and experiment with new ideas.” After a few months of repeating this, they were to say “my work sucked when I joined the program but now it is so much better, due to your criticism and guidance. Thanks for fixing me.” At which point they would receive their degree.

    Commented John on February 12th, 2009.
  7. We think of great artist and writers as having a powerful vision of the world..

    I’ll grant you that, while pointing out (no surprise, I’m sure) that A) most artists and writers are not great; and B) they may not be very articulate about, nor even fully aware of, what constitutes their “vision”–especially if they are non-literary artists. In that case, what is to all appearances bullshitting may be only one of many attempts to “try on” an idea or philosophy or style to see it it fits, i.e. somehow ends up feeling right, or at least containing a kernel of “truth.” Attitude matters. I suspect you’ve often found that you start out writing without knowing what path you’ll take or your conclusion will be. Even after many painful re-workings, you may publish it and realize a year later that it’s essentially bullshit–it doesn’t get at the truth as you now understand it. But writing that bullshit, thinking it, may have helped lead you to some insight. You’re not trying to bullshit, but I think you have to be willing to.

    Commented Steve Durbin on March 7th, 2009.
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