Cycladic figurine
But is it Art?

I was talking recently to a friend who completed a Falmouth College of Art’s degree course and he described how much academic work was involved in completing an arts degree these days.  Lengthy essays have to be written, and the various theories about what art is and what meaning it has have to be studied and elaborated upon.  All very good and well, but what if you just love creating things but are not very academic?  Surely art history is full of (mostly undiagnosed) dyslexics, academically underperforming, emotionally damaged, stubborn or just plain rebellious individuals? Wouldn’t most of these have been screened out and rejected by current art degrees such as the above?


I’ve been reading Cynthia Freeland’s excellent “But is it art?: An introduction to Art Theory”.  I’m loving it, intend to finish it, and then to read no more about art theory for some time after, because, frankly, how much theorising about art can one really handle? And how much does it help one’s practice?


But, the book has triggered thinking, as a good book should, and Ms Freeland, in a post-modern non-linear way, goes through the various ideas and definitions about what art is or is thought to be over the centuries. Plato and Aristotle get a mention, as do Hume and Kant, before more recent art philosophers like John Dewey and Arthur Danto are reviewed.  The older definitions heavily depend on a notion of objective beauty, but the more modern ones appear to get their knickers in a twist, or are extremely vague.  This is not surprising considering the complexity and diversity of modern art.  For example, Danto helpfully concludes that “a work of art is an object that embodies a meaning” and “nothing is an artwork without an interpretation that constitutes it as such”.


I’m always for simplifying things wherever possible, as in my view complexity generally points to confused understanding.  Why not have a negative definition of art, where positive definitions fail, that is to say, define what art is not, and what is left falls in the category of art?


Firstly, art appears to be (on this planet anyway) a human product.  Animals share with us characteristics like the urge for survival and procreation, as well as playfulness and idleness, but I’m not aware of animals creating what we would call art.  This is important, as it points to art being a defining element of what it is to be human, as opposed to us being a mammal alongside other mammals, just more successful at survival and procreation than the others.


But, as Cynthia Freeland discusses at length in her book, we tend to incorporate ornamental religious objects from historic and non-western cultures into our cannon of what is art, even though the original producers may not have seen them as art.  And we increasingly include creative ideas and intentionally provocative or thought provoking works into the pantheon of what is true art, even if they have (for example) required little technical skill to produce them.


This is why I feel a negative definition of art is more useful than a convoluted and complicated positive definition. What about this one: Art is an intentionally made work not made for the purpose of survival, procreation or play.  I’ve only added play because play is so clearly displayed by many animal species, and whilst delightful, it does not appear to me to fall under the category of artful expression.  It does have in common with art however that it has no direct bearing on survival (but no doubt an indirect one).


The qualification that is needed on the above is that many items, products, etc. are made with a utilitarian purpose (ultimately with survival in mind) but have been made beautiful or have been beautified.  This roughly equates to our current understanding of “crafts” and “design”, and it is the non-utilitarian aspects of the work that make it art.


I think the negative definition as highlighted above is pretty complete, and is a lot clearer than existing attempts at positive definitions.  It does not completely eliminate confusion.  For example, a lot of expensively ornamented, artfully made, or individually designed objects are made to bolster the purchaser’s  status and marketability in society, bringing it into the realm of survival and procreation.  And I recently learned that Rubens’ paintings of English monarchs were part of a diplomatic charm offensive by the Catholic powers of Europe.  This goes to show that clear boundaries do not exist. But the general thrust of my argument is clear:


From sharks in formaldehyde (Damien Hirst) to abstract coloured squares (Piet Mondriaan) to prehistoric Cycladic stone figurines, all these works had a cultural meaning and value (as defined by their times) that went beyond pure survival, procreation or play.  Beyond that all definitions of art become very wordy and speculative.


Be the first to post a comment.

Previously published:

All 14 blog entries