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
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?
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
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
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.