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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 6: What is Art? (II)

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    • 06/16/2006

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

    In The Principles of Art, first published in 1938, the Oxford philosopher R. G. Collingwood wrote: "The artist proper is a person who, grappling with the problem of expressing a certain emotion, says, 'I want to get this clear'."

    Emotional Expression

    In The Principles of Art, first published in 1938, the Oxford philosopher R. G. Collingwood wrote: "The artist proper is a person who, grappling with the problem of expressing a certain emotion, says, 'I want to get this clear'." For Collingwood, art was, in part, a technical problem, though he was careful to distinguish it from mere craft – as in, say, the planning or making of a table also involves getting something "clear", but is not generally thought to be an example of making art. On Collingwood's account, what the artist was striving to get clear was a certain emotion, an inchoate feeling about himself or the world that he then articulated visually. If he succeeded in his endeavor, then presumably the viewer would somehow imaginatively enter into the work, and experience the same, or a similar, emotion. This doctrine might be called expressionist, and in addition to it, Collingwood was an idealist: He believed that a work of art did not even need to be embodied, but could be composed and exist entirely in the mind of the artist.

    Collingwood tried to distinguish emotionally expressive art – indeed, it appears, he defined art as emotionally expressive – from what he termed "art-so-called": magic art and amusement art. An example of magic art, in the field of painting, might be propaganda posters that are intended to arouse a certain feeling of patriotism, which might then be channeled into the appropriate context (such as manipulating people to go to war for their country, for example). Amusement art is intended to, well, amuse people. Funny drawings of people – caricatures, for example – are examples of amusement art.

    Can Collingwood's definitions suffice as a description of art proper? It would seem not. What about the minimalist art that we have already seen? What emotion is being worked out in them? None that are readily apparent, unless we wish to expand the definition of emotion to cover all expressed (or non-expressed) painted works, in which case Collingwood’s account reduces to circularity. Also, how could it account, for example, for the following work by Warhol?


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    Or what about this "work", The Fountain, by Duchamp from 1917?


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    The Fountain (really a urinal, obviously) was an example of what is known as a readymade, and today such found, or selected, objects, are widely viewed as valid art. Maybe it's a mistake to do that, but if so, we need a clear reason why it's a mistake – which just means, alas, that we need a watertight definition of what constitutes art, something that so far has eluded us. When Duchamp, who as we can see signed his "work" R. Mutt, submitted it to an exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, the organizers of the show rejected it. Duchamp responded by writing, "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view - he created a new thought for the object."

    It's also unclear why so-called magic art and amusement art fail to qualify as art proper. Picasso made many paintings intended to amuse other people, or just himself. What about the following charming cartoons by Picasso?


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    Were these not art? And it could be argued that most Renaissance paintings were examples of magic art, under Collingwood's definition, because they were concerned with religious themes, and the goal of the artists who made them does not appear to have been getting clear on their own emotions, but rather stimulating or validating religious impulses in others.

    Collingwood's account of art is certainly true for some works - it fits much better with the Van Gogh self-portrait that we have already seen, for example, than does Bell's "significant form" account – but it hardly can provide a definition for all art, unless we are prepared to concede that many works we admire are not really art. The Sistine Chapel, for example, might seem to be a paradigmatic case of Magic Art, and hence not really art at all, if Collingwood is right. The biggest problem, though, is that there is no reason to take Collingwood's distinctions seriously, in my view. They don't seem to derive from any evidence, but have a strongly ad hoc flavor – they are made up.


    Artworld can readily account for everything from the Sistine Chapel to minimalist art to Duchamp's fountain, as well as the wide variety of installation art and computer art that we see today. It can account for just about everything! This is its great strength – but also, perhaps, its biggest weakness. After all, if everything is art, or at least potentially art, as Artworld suggests, then we could just as easily say that nothing is art. A theory that by definition accounts for everything does not seem to provide any information about anything in particular. Artworld might be seen as a way of accounting for what is sometimes called the transfiguration of the commonplace. In his 1964 essay introducing Artworld, Arthur Danto discussed what made Duchamp's "fountain" a work of art, rather than just another urinal. Or consider Warhol again, this time his "artwork" of a plywood Brillo box:


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    According to Danto, what made Warhol's Brillo box art was not that, unlike cardboard Brillo boxes, it was constructed of plywood, for that surely would be implausible; but rather that Warhol, in presenting it as a work of art, conferred, or invoked, a certain theory of art, like an aura or something, that made the thing art. In his essay, Danto wrote:

    What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of
    other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art, and in order to see it as part of the artworld, one must have mastered a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting. It could not have been art fifty years ago. But then there could not have been, everything being equal, flight insurance in the Middle Ages, or Etruscan typewriter erasers. The world has to be ready for certain things, the artworld no less than the real one. It is the role of artistic theories, these days as always, to make the artworld, and art, possible. It would, I should think, never have occurred to the painters of Lascaux that they were producing art on those walls. Not unless there were neolithic aestheticians.

    Influenced by Danto, George Dickie developed the so-called Institutional Theory of Art, which contends that the status of artwork is conferred upon a painting, an object, or potentially anything by members of the Artworld, who are not necessarily just other artists, museum directors, curators, critics and the like, but anyone who is interested in art. On this account, it might be possible to confer art status on a glob of grass. To do so, one might merely present the grass for appreciation. By appreciation, Dickie did not mean evaluative, as in "good" or "bad" art, but to be appreciated as art.

    The Artworld idea might have something in common with scientific theorizing: When the impressionists made their works, those works might not, at first, have been legitimate art, because they did not correspond to the prevailing "theory" of art at the time, which is that it ought to be mimetic. Then, when the impressionists presented their art for appreciation, it acquired a theory about it, the theory being that efforts to depict the effects of sunlight on natural objects out of doors were valid. Under this idea, art theorists, like their scientific counterparts with respect to observed phenomenon, sought to extend art theory to bring under its purview new kinds of painting that required an explanation or a justification.

    In his book Warburton pointed out several potential problems with Institutional Theory, one of which is that it seems circular: Works of art are presented for appreciation by the Artworld. And who are members of the Artworld? Those who present works of art for appreciation. Also, it seems one could declare, in advance, that every person or object in the world, from a blade of grass to Osama bin Laden, was a work of art. Who could gainsay him, if Institutional Theory is right? At all events, the idea is that works of art do not exist in isolation, but in a certain context. A Brillo Box in one context is a work of art, and in a different context it is just a box with Brillo pads in it. Just like sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and other times it is something else.

    Family Resemblance

    Since all the attempts mooted so far to define art, or to appraise it as good or bad in some way, seem flawed, or at least open to serious objection, it's possible that art can't be defined. That was the position of Morris Wertz, who argued, not just that it was hard to define art, but that it was logically impossible to do so. He took his cue from Wittgenstein, arguing that art was an "open concept", or a "family resemblance" term. This comports with Wittgenstein's discussion, in his Philosophical Investigations, of games. Games, Wittgenstein said, share no single common denominator, and so it's a mistake to try to find one. Rather, we identify games by their family resemblance - by the way certain properties of games, in certain contexts, overlap, but with no single property common to all. Wittgenstein wrote: "Consider for example the proceedings that we call 'games'. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? - Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'" - but look and see whether there is anything common to all. - For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!’"

    He later writes: "I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than 'family resemblances'; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: 'games' form a family."

    And just so, Wertz argues, art forms a family. But one might object (or maybe it could be argued that Wittgenstein picked a bad term) that families do have an underlying common denominator, the unifying principle of their genetic relatedness. And it is this genetic relation that seems analogous to what we want for a definition of art: some underlying, though perhaps hidden and exceedingly difficult to descry, common trait. But, maybe Wittgenstein is right (never mind the objection that the term family resemblance really does imply a common denominator) and there is little or nothing in common, art-wise, between a Rembrandt painting, say, and a plywood Brillo box by Warhol, except for a few vague or trivial overlaps (both are exhibited in museums, for instance). In that case, we don't have to worry about this whole subject! We can spend our time on more practical problems, like securing a reliable supply of Harp's lager. (And I suppose Wittgenstein’s diagnosis of language and concepts was intended to show that there are many things in philosophy we don't really have to worry about, since the worry arises from a mistake of applying language. But that's a topic others are much more competent to discuss.)

    Conceptual Schemes

    The idea of "conceptual schemes" goes beyond art to ideas of truth, language, perception, reality and so on, and like anything in philosophy is widely debated. If conceptual schemes fail to make sense generally, then the idea probably can’t be applied to art particularly. For now, though, it seems (to me) to make sense. With respect to aesthetics, "conceptual schemes", defended by Roger Taylor, means that "art" can only be defined with respect to the conceptual point of view with which it is viewed. If, according to the conceptual scheme (which could arise from an extensive web of presuppositions, conditioning, prior education, innate personal taste, cultural exposure and many other factors besides) you think that a painting of Elvis on black velvet is art, and that works by Picasso aren't, then Elvis on black velvet is art, for you, and Picasso works aren't, and there is nothing more to be said.

    What's interesting about this idea is that, combined with the "open" art concept touted by Wertz and inspired by Wittgenstein, it seems possible for one's point of view of art to change or evolve (which, like biological evolution, doesn't necessarily mean progress) in such a way that one’s conceptual schemes can change. Maybe someone thinks Elvis and black velvet is paradigmatic art, but possibly, given more information, he might come to see Picasso works as paradigmatic art, too. The reverse could also happen - someone who reveres Picasso might have, so to say, a paradigm shift, and incorporate Elvis on black velvet works under his conceptual scheme along with Picasso works.

    "Conceptual schemes" stands in counterpoint to the thesis that there is High Art and maybe Low Art, or Popular Art, and the former stands out because its subject matter is more complex or its forms are more interesting to look at. Of course, High Art vs. Low Art presupposes what we seek: some standard to differentiate between "interesting" and "not-so-interesting" forms; or between complex and not-as-complex. (And if complexity is vital as a criterion of art, it seems minimalist art falls outside the art net.)

    High Art vs. Low Art sounds like a return to the idea of significant form. But the exponent of such a theory might point out what seems to be a potential flaw in conceptual schemes: While it's true that some person who likes Picasso might be persuaded to broaden his conceptual scheme to encompass paintings of Elvis on black velvet, and vice versa; and while it's possible, it seems, that someone could undergo such a paradigm shift that he would stop liking the Elvis paintings and embrace Picasso, it does not seem plausible to suppose that very many people, if any, would stop liking Picassos (or, more precisely, cease to think of Picasso works as art, or at least as good art) and embrace pictures on velvet of Elvis instead. Since there are few if any examples of such a thing happening, it could be argued that there must indeed be some quality of Picasso works that decisively sets them above paintings of Elvis on black velvet, and it is just this demarcation we must grasp, but have failed to do.

    Art as an Evolutionary Process

    In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled one of the world's first commercial oil wells in Titusville, Penn. A few years later, in the other hemisphere, Edouard Manet painted his picture of a picnic that, as we have already seen, scandalized the art establishment and was rejected for inclusion in an exhibition approved by the Academy. Here, again, is that picture:


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    What in the world does an oil well have to do with a picture by Manet, or either one with the idea of art as an evolutionary process? Drake's drill began the Oil Age, and that age has led to a massive proliferation of population, wealth, food, technical innovation, and cultural fragmentation and diversity (as well as to more war, pollution, urbanization, suburban sprawl, overcrowding, and many other problems). I shall argue that a profitable way to think of art is to think of different types of art as different species, with some species subsumed under varying genera. These artworks, or types of art, have evolved to adapt to different cultural niches, or environments - and many of these environments came into existence as a direct result of the explosive rise in population and technical innovation that was touched off by the Industrial Revolution, and in particular by the Oil Age.

    The kind of art that we talk about when we refer to the 20th century, the art of the modern, would not have been possible in an earlier age, because the social, economic and political conditions that gave rise to this art would not have existed except for the Oil Age. One might liken the bursting forth, the immense and sometimes bewildering proliferation of artistic species in the 20th century, to the Cambrian Explosion. This art evolved to fit the niches that were made possible by the exponential growth of peoples and cultures that resulted from oil-based industrialization. They don't call it oil painting for nothing.

    In biology, the well-attested theory of evolution involves, fundamentally although not entirely, a two-step process: descent with modification. Replicators produce imperfect copies of themselves, which are then acted upon, or modified, by the environment. In turn, the successful replicators modify the environment that has acted upon them (think of all the ways that humans have modified the environment that originally molded them). A mutation in an individual might, or might not, benefit it, depending on the environment in which it happens to find itself. A beneficial mutation just means that it gives the individual a "leg up" over other individuals of its own species, or those of other species, in finding food and mates. Gradually this mutation begins to spread through the population, and over a period of time might lead to speciation.

    Life on earth started 3.8 billion years ago in the form of prokaryotes, simple one-celled organisms, and for a couple of billion years there was stasis. There were few if any selective pressures to drive the prokaryotes away from equilibrium, probably because there was plenty of food for all and plenty of vacant niches into which they could expand. A couple of billion years ago eukaryotes, multi-celled creatures, emerged, and then again there was a long period of stasis until the Cambrian Explosion, about half a billion years ago. Eyes, teeth, fins, and body plans emerged, and then an evolutionary arms race commenced that continues to this day.

    A similar thing has occurred in art, I would suggest. The idea of the artist as a risk-taker, an explorer, a creator who is constantly testing the boundaries of the acceptable, is a modern myth. Most art, throughout history, has been stable and predictable, and artists were the heirs of traditions. If anything they were more artisans then artists. They were expected to create in a certain way, and this is still true of surviving traditions like Islamic art. I think this is because the cultural niches in which the artists created, which may be likened to environmental niches occupied by creatures in the natural world, were for the most part stable and predictable. When such cultural niches fell apart due to pressures like famine or war, what followed was not a proliferation of new cultural niches, but a diminution of them, or a change to new niches that themselves became stable. The art that adapted to these niches was consonant with the stability of the niches, and the felt needs of their inhabitants, which in most cases were necessarily modest.

    A famous case in biology involves a frame-shift mutation that allowed a Japanese bacterium to eat nylon. That was a lucky break for the bug, because there happened to be some nylon lying around to eat. It shouldn't be thought that the mutation occurred in response to the presence of the nylon; quite the contrary. The mutation was a lucky break, but because the nylon was present, the nylon-eating bugs quickly proliferated: the mutation spread.

    These sorts of beneficial mutations can only occur in the presence of heterogeneous and proliferating environments. In the absence of such environments, life responds with prolonged periods of stasis, like the immense time that simple prokaryotes dominated the world. Frame-shift mutations enabling the eating of nylon, or other bizarre behaviors, probably happened innumerable times in the past, but were either useless or deleterious to the organism, and so did not spread through the population.

    So too with art. In periods of stasis - prolonged, stable cultures with well-worn traditions - the sort of mutations that might have produced the grandiose distortions of Picasso, or even the much more subdued (in retrospect) inventions of the impressionists - undoubtedly occurred many times. It's hard to imagine the impressionists were the first people ever to come up with the idea of painting out of doors with the specific goal of capturing the fleeting effects of sunlight on surfaces. It's even hard to imagine (although a little less so) that Picasso was the first artist to dream up the idea of painting a face in such a way to make it seem, simultaneously, a profile and a face staring straight at the artist. Undoubtedly most of the "innovations" of modern art were dreamed up many times, but they were innovations, so to say, without the nylon lying around that would allow them to spread. A painter who decided to create minimalist works, or to pursue abstract expressionism, at the time of Rembrandt, simply would have lacked the requisite cultural environment to nourish his efforts. The mutation of inventing such an art would have lacked an environmental scaffolding to bootstrap it: the prevailing environment would have selected against it. It took the fragmentation and proliferation of cultures, enabled by the rise the industrial revolution and specifically by the age of oil, to provide the environments in which artist mutations could flourish and spread. It is no accident that vast numbers of new species of art arose specifically in the 20th century. It is just because a vast number of new cultural environments rose in which such new art could find the food of understanding and approval.

    To return to the family likeness concept, we see that maybe there really is at least a vague sort of common denominator that underlies all art, be it Rembrandts or Brillo boxes. These species of art, no matter how seemingly different on the surface, evolved, in response to changing environments (cultural niches) and they did so from a common ancestor. (The cave paintings of 40,000 years ago?) In the same way, species as different as millipedes and humans also have something in common: if you go back far enough in time along the ever-proliferating tree of life, you will find a root node at which a common ancestor of millipedes and humans once dwelt. Thus all life is related, and by the same measure all works of art are related. Go back far enough in time, and today's Brillo Boxes and yesterday's Cezannes and Rembrandts can be traced to a common ancestor, a root node on the tree of art.

    Under this account, we might say that certain works of art, while superficially quite different, in fact bear many similarities, and that these similarities can be accounted for by appealing to an aesthetic equivalent of the biological concept of convergent evolution. So, while a Van Gogh seems to be wildly different from the works of the academics, they bear traces of convergent artistic evolution, in that each, in differing ways, is essentially mimetic. Other works, like minimalism or abstract expressionism, dwell on more distant limbs of the tree of art, but have their own convergences with each other.

    So, too, if we take this metaphor seriously, we must admit that species and genera of art, like life, are contingent; and that if the tape of history were rewound and played again, we would be liable to get works of art very different from what we have. Also, if we wish to push this account to its logical conclusion, we must admit that all art is "good" in the sense that it successful, success being defined by its very existence.

    Also, under the art-as-evolution thesis, just as certain species of art are "selected" by fitting in with cultural niches, the art then changes those niches, the way that life itself, on earth, changed the atmosphere, over an immense period of time, into an oxygen-rich one (and the way that humans are currently, it seems, producing a greenhouse effect). If a cultural niche "selects" Picasso art because that art corresponds to some felt need of the cultural environment, then the presence of these works can condition future generations (and different cultural niches) to an appreciation of it, which in turn can inspire new kinds of art.

    We cannot provide an iron-clad definition of art, or an evaluative one of what constitutes "good" or "bad" art, because this would entail foreclosing on art that departs from the definition, and there is no obvious reason why we should do this except for prejudice. But we can take the idea of family resemblance seriously, and suggest that art has a genetic basis, that it goes through a process similar to biological descent with modification, and that new art arises to fill new cultural niches, which are akin to new environments in the natural world becoming amenable to new species. If the world becomes so variegated that for the first time in history, nylon is lying around so that a chance mutation allows nylon-eating bugs to spread, so too if the cultural world becomes variegated in a like manner, we will have, so to say, "nylon-eating art mutations" (Brillo boxes as art? Picasso distortions as art?) finding a home and spreading, whereas at no time previous could they have found such homes, because the homes did not exist in the cultural environment.

    What about the future of art? If the above is right, art proliferation will depend on continued cultural proliferation. Some might say the reverse is beginning to take place, because of the cultural leveling entailed by globalization. Others dispute this, saying that globalization is not producing a leveling of cultures, but instead a cross-fertilization of them that will open up new niches for new species of art. Think about how, in the late 19th century, the arrival, for the first of time, of extensive examples of Japanese art into Western Europe inspired Van Gogh's work.

    Globalization, though, depends on intensive energy growth. We have reason to believe that this energy growth will stall, or even go into decline. We have reason to think that the world is at or near the peak of global oil and natural gas production; that the production of these two resources will go into decline; and that no alternative energy source will have the energy density or the economic scalability to replace them. We do not know that this will come about, but we have reason to think it might. If it does, the world will contract, and with it, cultural niches will begin to vanish. Globalization will end. We might experience, not art proliferation, but art die-off - and population die-off, too.

    James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency, has argued that because of energy shortages, the world is going to contract. Population will sharply decline, and living will become intensely local again. Aesthetically, Kunstler apparently believes, the art of modernism, particularly architecture, was a grotesque manifestation of the deformities of modern life: an anti-beautiful art that reflected the tensions and bleakness of urbanization, poverty, war, overcrowding, suburban sprawl, and the ethic of the car, which allowed (even encouraged) us to despoil our living environments because people could go whizzing past them at 80 miles an hour, without having actually to look at what they had wrought.

    If the modern world goes into reverse, as Kunstler argues is inevitable, then art will contract: the kind of environments that nourish it will vanish, one by one; indeed, just as a practical matter it will be harder to do art of any kind, much less experimental art, because artists will lack the leisure time and resources to continue their investigations. We will then, Kunster argues, return to the traditional, normative standards of beauty and craft as our definitions of art. On this account, we might expect to return, at the end of the oil age, to where we started at the dawn of it: the art of mid-19th century France, perhaps, as enforced by academic and classical standards. Whether this art was beautiful is a matter of opinion - we are back to the problem of an objective definition of art, or a feasible standard to demarcate good from bad - but for all that, if Kunstler is right, it might be what we, again, get.

    What should we conclude? Perhaps just that the old folk adage is right: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Why should it take two essays, comprising more than 8,000 words, to explore or justify an adage that is a mere eight words long? Because I have hoped to make these philosophical essays, and philosophers, to use philosophy jargon, like to unpack things, especially if they seem self-evident and are only eight words long.

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