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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 5: What is Art? (I)

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    • 06/15/2006 http://www.galilean-library.org/site/uploads/

    By /index.php?/user/8-davidm/">David Misialowski (2006)

    Before moving on to discuss Picasso and the main art trends of the 20th century, I thought I'd tackle the vexing, "But is it art?" question that so many people voice when confronted with images that look like wild distortions of reality, or like nothing in the real world at all.

    We have already seen an excellent overview of aesthetics, and some of what I write might overlap with this work. I have always wondered about the "what is art?" question, but because I do draw and paint, I never worried about it too much. That might sound surprising, but I don't think it is, since I imagine at least some people who love to do a certain thing rarely philosophize about why they love it so much, or what it is, exactly, that they do. Does a bird ask why it sings?

    I have come to the following tentative conclusions:

    • It is probably impossible to define art –- that is, attempts to demarcate between art and non-art seem futile, because:

      • It is probably a logical mistake to try to define art – an example of a flaw in language use, or in conceptualization.

      • Even if we could define art, discussion of what constitutes good art and bad art is largely meaningless, an example of the apparent fallacy of trying to derive prescriptive statements from descriptive premises. This is true if you say art is good or bad in the sense of approval or disapproval, and if you mean those terms in the sense of art being good with respect to how well it meets the criteria of art, then you have to establish criteria that probably can't be established.

      [*]The art that we have, and appreciate (or not) is entirely contingent: there was nothing inevitable about it.

      [*]It seems reasonable to suppose that there exist untold numbers of artworks (of all sorts, including music and literature) that have never seen the light of day but that, had they come to be known, would be venerated at least as much as the art that we in fact venerate, and perhaps more so. Think of all that we lost in literature because of the arson at Alexandria.

      [*]Be that as it may, veneration of art is unwarranted, since art cannot be defined and since discussions of good and bad art founder on logical fallacies, as mentioned above. Certainly, art can be appreciated (or not), and it can inspire (or not) thought and reflection.

      [*]To the extent that art can be discussed in terms of value, it is a cultural construct, an example of valuation arrived at by inersubjective consent.

      [*]The evolution of art can be likened to biological descent with modification, with types of art being "species" that are adapted to their cultural niches. As with biological species, it bears repeating that the art that evolved was contingent, and, again, should not be thought of in terms of "good" or "bad", but rather in terms of adaptive strategies, where culture, in the case of art, replaces nature as the selector. Just so, species in nature are not "well evolved" or "poorly evolved" (good or bad) but equally successful, with success defined by their very existence.

    As Paul Newall has demonstrated in his essays on the philosophy of science, science is theory laden, and there is no single "scientific method" or ironclad definition of science. If that is true for science, why wouldn't we expect it to be true for art? Indeed, it can perhaps be argued that art theorizing and science theorizing share similar strategies and objectives, and I'll return to this subject later. The good news is that if everything I have said above is true, then we can say these conclusions argue for art proliferation rather than constriction, even as similar observations with regard to the sciences argue for the proliferation of theories. And, all things being equal, I think it is better to have more things in the world that we call "art" rather than fewer things, if only because variety is pleasurable.

    There is another sense in which we can ask, "What is art?" and that is in the ontological sense: What sort of being does art have? Is it wholly physical? Is it mental? Is it the interplay between the physical and mental? Does it have some abstract reality, as mathematics seems to have? And what is color? What does it mean to have the experience of, say, seeing red? I'll touch on these questions, too, in a later installment, but the initial sense of the question "But is it art?" seems more pressing, because practically speaking, it bears on the issue of why particular works of art hang in museums and others don't; indeed, it makes one wonder why we hang works in museums at all.

    The "But is it art?" question elides into the question, "What is art?" (not yet in the ontological sense) because to ask whether a particular work is art, seems to require that we define art. But as I hope to show, as soon as we try to do this we wander down a labyrinth that seems to have no center and no exit.

    To simplify this discussion, by "art" I will be referring to visual art, yet the problem is common to all the arts. Suppose we define art stipulatively: in the case of visual expression, it is the intentional arrangement of pictorial marks on some surface for some purpose. Right away we run into problems: first, we have to explain why this arrangement of marks must be intentional; indeed there are artists who claim to work from the subconscious, and say that the marks that they make (or the words that they write, in the case of literature) seem to be dictated to them from some hidden source, perhaps a subconscious or even spiritual one. So we have a counterexample to intentionality. Consequently we have to modify our definition to say, "Art is the arrangement of pictorial marks on some surface for some purpose", dropping the word "intentional".

    What about purpose? Why must art have a purpose? Certainly some works of art do have a purpose; the Sistine Chapel art was intended to inspire religious devotion and awe (and also, perhaps, to flatter the ecclesiastical authorities of that period, and aid in legitimizing their power). But many other works of art, particularly in the modern period, seem to have been made for their own sake. Perhaps that can be called a purpose, but it doesn’t seem to be a purpose in the same sense that, for instance, a car is built for the purpose of providing transportation. So maybe we have to drop "purpose" from our definition. If so, we are left with: "Art is the arrangement of pictorial marks on some surface".

    Of course, this definition subsumes under the term "art" everything from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel to the doodles that you might make on a napkin while drinking your morning coffee. And now one must ask, if both are works of art, why is the Sistine Chapel reproduced in art books and your doodles aren’t? In reply we might say, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is good art, and your doodles are bad art (or at least not as good as Michelangelo's works). But now we have just pushed the problem one step back: After all, most people suppose that the term "art" incorporates some value system, some presupposition that "art" just means good art – for after all, the opposite of art is artless. If this is correct, then to ask, "What distinguishes good art from bad art?" really is to ask, again, what art is/ So we are back to square one: needing a definition of art.

    Recall Zola said that, for the painter, subject is a pretext to painting. Anyone who takes instruction in drawing and painting might quickly see why this is so. In drawing from the live figure, the very first thing you learn is that if you are to have any hope of grasping what is before you, then you must abstract the figure down to lines, curves, ellipses and other forms. These forms, obviously, are not the person being drawn — the drawing is not the thing itself. (I hope philosophers can agree at least on that much!) So what we have are marks on a sheet of paper and not a real person on a sheet of paper. The tension arises between emphasizing the marks in and of themselves and investing them with, or discovering therein, an aesthetic reality, or in manipulating the marks further to evoke the illusion, on paper, of a real figure. But no matter how "realistically" one works the marks, they are still marks. The so-called formalist suggests that since, in the final analysis, there are only marks, then the marks are what give aesthetic pleasure, and not anything that the marks denote. On this account, subject is secondary, if not irrelevant. This idea seems to be the one that Cezanne incorporated, especially in his late art, as I have tried to show.

    Consider the following Cezanne rendering of three figures:

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    Why did he leave this work so unfinished? Was it because he was not competent enough to bring off a finished study? Surely not. He left it unfinished deliberately, because he was seeking after underlying form, rather than mere description. On the formalist account, the aesthetic pleasure that we derive from a picture of the human form has little to do with the actual illusion of a person, but everything to do with the formal arrangement of the pictorial elements. So, for example, the formalist would say that the reclining figure at the center of the work holds our interest, not because it is a picture of a human being, but because of the interplay of the interlocking curves. These interlocking curves happen to suggest a person, but even if they suggested nothing in the real world at all, they would still hold our attention because of their music-like rhythm and energy. With this idea in mind, we now have what we might call an "art status" explanation for works like those of Jackson Pollock:

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    The reason why, on the formalist account, it is possible and even desirable to create such unfinished figure studies (or, better, works like Pollock's) is that such studies bring to our attention the significant form that underlies what the marks denote. If this is right, it provides a robust account of why nonrepresentational art is not just valid but successful, and perhaps even privileged.

    In his 1914 book Art, Clive Bell coined the term "significant form" as a way of explicating the work of Cezanne in particular, and to show why this work should be judged superior to works that lack significant form to one degree or another. Examples of the latter would be illustrations that are concerned mainly with visual reportage, with likenesses and storytelling — the very things, as it turns out, that many (most?) people are in fact attuned to. But one must ask, if people are attuned to visual reportage, and need to have "significant form" pointed out to them, then how significant, really, can this "significant form" be?

    In his 2003 book The Art Question, Nigel Warburton subjected "significant form" to the scalpel of philosophical critique and concluded that it was viciously circular and hence content-free. He points out that Bell defines "significant form" as patterns, lines or shapes that have the power to arouse an aesthetic emotion in us when we view them. But surely, while patterns, lines or shapes are, or combine to elucidate, form, it is an open question as to what makes these forms significant. Well, Bell says, what makes them significant, is that they arouse an aesthetic emotion. The problem is that under this account, the phrases "significant form" and "aesthetic emotion" are defined purely one in terms of the other, and hence the account is circular and provides no information. What Bell really seems to be saying is that,"“You'll appreciate significant form when you see it, because you'll have an aesthetic emotion; and if you don't have this emotion, then you can’t appreciate significant form." And now Bell's move is reduced to elitism: it seems to be nothing more than an attempt, by him, to elevate his aesthetic emotion to objective aesthetic emotion. This might do for him, but it can't provide any independent definition of art.

    Bell tried to find a common denominator that was true for all art, whether for The Sistine Chapel or works by Rembrandt. He also intended this definition to serve as a filter that would explain why your doodle on a napkin is not a work of art, whereas the Sistine Chapel is. But as Warburton pointed out, his attempt was circular and hence failed. It also incorporated the presumption that we must have a "common denominator" applicable to all art. As Bell wrote: "For either all works of art have some common quality, or when we speak of 'works of art' we gibber." But as we shall see, this statement probably constitutes a false dichotomy. It might turn out that all works of art do not have a common quality or, if they do, it is a trivial one. But it doesn’t follow from this that when we speak of art we "gibber". (Well, maybe I gibber, but this doesn't mean that we all do.)

    Does this mean that there is no such thing as significant form, and the whole project of Cezanne is erroneous? No, but it does mean we still have no demarcation criteria to separate significant form from mere form, or art from non-art. Moreover, even if Bell's explanation wasn’t circular, one has to wonder how it would account for minimalist art? What is the significant form of the following work by Mondrian?

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    Or this by Joseph Albers?

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    Or this by Ad Reinhardt?

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    The minimalist project seems, at least in part, an effort to deny form, significant or otherwise. These works were made long after Bell wrote his book, so it is possible that if Bell had been around to consider them, he would have deemed them not to be art. But here lies the problem with his, and potentially any, definition of art: it forecloses on creativity. The effort to define art begins to sound like the effort to define science: you can define them only at the risk of leaving out potential alternative concepts or art of science that may themselves prove, someday, to be fruitful, even if they are not currently so. To define in advance potential fruitfulness out of existence does not, in itself, seem to be a fruitful endeavor.

    Another problem with elevating significant form, whatever that might be, to a privileged status is that to do so seems to ignore, or by implication downgrade, so many actualworks that we call art that crucially and obviously depend on other factors. Consider this Van Gogh self-portrait that we have already seen:

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    It is true that this work is full of form, significant or otherwise, but who can contest the idea that what gives this painting its scintillating power is the expression on Van Gogh's depicted face? Even if we did not know that Van Gogh painted this work during a period of anguish, we would sense his anguish, or at least a certain severe intensity of feeling, from his expression. This is the sort of visual reportage that Bell would have us believe is secondary or even irrelevant to art. Surely Van Gogh would have found such a conclusion perverse.

    Formalism was not a new idea when Bell formulated his theory of significant form, going back at least to Kant (and undoubtedly much further, in various guises), who believed that aesthetics, or beauty, was founded on a handful of principles: it was free of concepts, it was objective, it was beheld with disinterest by the spectator, and there was, so to say, a moral obligation to appreciate it.

    For a work to be free of concepts, Kant appeared to believe, meant that the cognitive faculties were free to roam, uncontaminated by some prior concept of the thing under scrutiny. This seems like the idea of the "innocent eye" that many artists have espoused: a baseless concept, evidently, as all viewing is necessarily theory-laden. One can't escape one’s memories, dreams, concepts and prejudices in viewing a work of art or anything else, any more than the scientist can escape his presuppositions in formulating a theory, constructing a hypothesis or even deciding what to study.

    Objectivity, Kant supposes, has to do with the fact that human sensibility is universal, and people may be expected to come to the same judgments of beauty when their cognitive faculties are in free play, unhindered by concepts. Even if one were to accept the "innocent eye" presupposition that this thesis implies, many philosophers would vigorously contest this notion, and indeed it seems to beg the question of what is beauty by incorporating the definition of it in a premise rather than in a conclusion.

    By disinterest, Kant meant that the beholder of beauty had no personal stake in the matter; beauty, he suggests, holds one’s attention for its own sake. That is perhaps true, but certainly vulnerable to objection and counterexamples. If one finds a woman beautiful and wishes to possess her, one would have to argue, under Kant's account, that the beautiful woman did not really fit the bill for beauty.

    And finally, by moral obligation, Kant apparently believes that because judgments of beauty are disinterested, we are able to rise above ourselves and enter into a state of selflessness: "The enjoyment of nature is the mark of a good soul", Kant wrote; but again, one could contest this conclusion. It presupposes, among other things, that selflessness is a good thing; what if it’s a bad thing instead? Or what if there is no evaluative conclusion to be drawn from that state of selflessness (even supposing such a state is possible in the first place)? And anyway, what’s so obviously great about nature? Indeed, some artists think that nature is artless, for a the most part, a hodgepodge of clashing colors and meaningless forms, and it is the task of the artist to impose form on this melee, or maybe tease it out. One could argue that this was Cezanne's strategy.

    It should also be noted that Kant's formalist conception of beauty might rule out the aesthetics of painting altogether, because it might be argued, under his hypothesis, that the visual arts are hindered, or contaminated, by concepts. For Kant, evidently, beauty lies in nature, in the free, abstracted and concept-free play of light and shadow in a field of flowers, for example. I'll avoid wandering down this road, as it is too much of a detour from the path of this discussion, but if we take this idea seriously than it seems we would have to conclude that making art is superfluous. And in fact, many people have thought that the arts – all the arts – are a kind of illegitimate substitute for real life: that one’s goal ought to be, not to make art, but to live art – to be an artist of life. Unfortunately, since I am something of a potzer at real life (like a lot of people) further discussion of "the art of living", as we might call it, is beyond my competence. I shall leave that topic to the estimable Oprah.

    What else? One school of thought, which many artists subscribe to, is that a work of art is judged to be art, or to be good or bad art, according to whether the artist, in executing the work, achieves the goals that he set for himself.

    Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t work either, for a number of reasons. One problem, already mentioned, is that the artist might not always know what his objective is; he might be working from subconscious or even spiritual wellsprings. Second, while it's true that many artists meticulously plan their works, and then execute their plans (The Sistine Chapel is a good example), many others do not. A great many artists will say that their work evolves during the process, and frequently what they produce surprises them, rather in the nature of a revelation or a discovery. And there is a more perplexing problem yet: Consider, for example, the following painting by El Greco, which we saw in the introduction.

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    The figures are greatly elongated, and thus anatomically incorrect. It is supposed that El Greco elongated them intentionally, for the purpose of dramatic effect. It is even held, in the case of El Greco, that this was an artistically wise decision. But suppose new historical records are uncovered, in which we find El Greco admitting that he strove to replicate human anatomy as precisely as possible, but was too much of a bungler to do so. Would this mean that El Greco’s works would suddenly cease to be art? That seems absurd.

    Finally, if the intention of the artist is all that matters, or even if it is just paramount in judging art, what happens if the artist's intention is to produce a single red dot on a canvas? Surely that is not hard to do; indeed anyone could do it. So, if the artist succeeds in his goal of producing a red dot on a clear surface, has he produced a work of art? Or has he merely produced a red dot on a clear surface, with nothing else to be said about it?

    What about creativity as a definition of art? That is, perhaps we could say that a work is art, if it shows creativity. But how would we define creativity? It could be argued that anything that has been created, shows creativity by definition. One might counter that a work is truly creative if it bears the stamp of the individual who created it, the so-called "presence of the artist" that we saw in the chapter on impressionism, when discussing Pissarro. But why is this important? The modern Western world makes a fetish of creativity, but many art traditions, the Islamic tradition for instance, discourage "the presence of the artist" in favor of impersonal, patterned design that follows from certain learned formulas. So creativity, by itself, can’t serve as a definition comprising all art.

    In his book, Warburton, in addition to examining "significant" form, analyzed other possible definitions for art, including emotional expression, institutional theory, and Wittgensteinian family resemblance. In the next installment, I'll briefly summarize each of these, and then turn to the idea of conceptual schemes. I think, for now, that the idea of conceptual schemes, in conjunction with family resemblance, offers the best way of arriving at tentative though defeasible conclusions in defining art, to the limited extent that it can be defined. I will then offer a hypothesis of my own, in which I will liken the development of art to biological descent with modification.


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