I agree with Jerry Saltz that it is a mistake to think "that art is about understanding, when, like almost everything else in the everyday world, art is about experience; it's 'I experience, therefore I am.'" Unfortunately, Saltz only muddles this valuable insight when he goes on to observe that:
Art is often political when it doesn't seem political and not political when that's all it seems to be. Neither Andy Warhol nor Donald Judd made overtly political art. Yet both changed the way the world looks and the way we look at the world. That's because art creates new thought structures. Imagine all the thought structures that either would have never existed or gone undiscovered had all of Shakespeare been lost. Art does far more than only meet the eye. It is part of the biota of the world. It exists within a holistic system.
Saltz wants to wrest art away from what he calls "neo-Cartesians," those "dogmatists, ideologues, academics, and theorists who demonize and belittle art as a gratuitous, semi-mystical, merely beautiful, purely formal amusement." This is a noble enough ambition, but, unfortunately, Saltz's own language only gives the neo-Cartesians additional reasons to dismiss the "semi-mystical" descriptions of art that too often accompany the claim that art is experience rather than a means of acquiring knowledge. What exactly is a "new thought structure"? What's new about it, the thought or the structure? Shouldn't the encounter with art give us a new way of structuring experience rather than our thoughts, and isn't the emphasis on "thought structure" just another way of conceding that the Cartesian approach to art is correct--that what art provides is "ideas"?
The "biota" of the world? Is this just a way of saying that art is a "natural" or "organic" product of the human imagination, itself a biologically determined phenomenon? (Thus no artistic creation is "unnatural" in the way some dogmatists of the religious kind sometimes maintain.) If so, why the clumsily scientific term "biota"? Isn't this also just a concession to the intellectualized approach to art favored by the academics and theorists? Except that in this context the word seems emptied of all meaning, a frivolous gesture toward science that no scientist could take seriously.
As for "holistic," Saltz never really gets around to explaining what he means in using the term to illuminate works of art, aside from a concluding story about the difference between cats and dogs, through which "holistic" is also equated with "nonlinear," "indirect," and "circuitous." I can see the relationship between these latter three concepts, but how they work to create something "holistic" remains a mystery to me. All in all, Saltz's language is precisely of the vague, inconsistent, "mystical" sort that gives aestheticism (even the metaphysicalized aestheticism Saltz seems to favor) a bad name.
Saltz seems to be one of those embarrased aesthetes who appreciates beauty but who doesn't himself want to settle for the "merely beautiful" (like those literary critics who scoff at the "merely literary"). Art needs some transcendental plumping-up, even if only to protect it from the intellectuals and pedants who might trample on it otherwise. I, for one don't see the need to reassure everyone that "art is often political when it doesn't seem political," even if most present-day "theorists" can see only the political implications of whatever art or literature they deign to consider, and I can't agree that artists like Warhol and Judd "changed the way the world looks" or the way I "look at the world." Warhol marginally did change the way art looks (at least for me), but his experiments in the demystification of "Art" did nothing to affect my perception of "the world." Nor did they need to.