What is Art?

Art as Theology: Chapter Eight

      1. Defining Art
      2. This is Art?
      3. Redactor of the Soul
      4. The Miracle Farm
      5. Modernity

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“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.” (Pablo Picasso, interviewed 1935)
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Defining Art

The cave paintings of Lascaux would only have been reached after a dangerous descent. As far as is known, they would only have been seen by the light of torches. The best guess about their purpose seems to be that they played some role in an important mystical or religious ritual. Everything about them speaks against their having anything in common with what we think we understand as works of art. Yet, for all that, what could look more like works of art?

“Equivalent VIII could be reached quite easily after moving through the Tate entrance. It was well lit and surrounded by many objects widely agreed to be works of art. Critical and historical descriptions and interpretations were freely available. Everything around it spoke in favour of its having everything in common with what we think we understand as a work of art. Yet, for all that, what could look less like a work of art?” (Ground, 1989. Page 102). Art critic Ian Ground is describing cave paintings of exquisitely rendered bison, antelope and deer, as opposed to an art installation by the title ‘Equivalent VIII’ which is essentially a square stack of bricks, not unlike a stack you might find at a construction site.

How does one encapsulate art in a description? “Given the evidence of world art history, the critic cannot honestly maintain that there is a uniform formal test of excellence, a single set of aesthetic coordinates to which the valid art of all times and all places conforms.” concludes Barbara Rose (Rose, 1988. Page 216; also: Rosenburg, 1964. Pages 250-251). To suggest that aesthetic beauty is the key to art appreciation rules out vast amounts of art. Picasso's ‘Guernica’ or Grunewald's ‘Crucifiction’ from the Isenheim Altarpiece exude pain and suffering, repelling the viewer for the event remembered. Art is not always pleasant.

Some art imitates reality. A lot of art bears no resemblance to anything in the known world. A Chalder sculpture is more difficult to compare to reality than a Rorschach inkblot, (Richardson, 1986, pp.13-23). The best art comes from artists who really don't know what the soul of their art is. The painter Henri Matisse puts it very well: “I had the good fortune once to have Rodin's advice about my drawings, which were shown him by a friend. However, the advice he gave didn't suit me in any respect, and Rodin showed on this occassion only his nitpicking side. He couldn't do otherwise. For the best of what the masters have is beyond them. Not understanding it, they couldn't teach it.” (quoted in Lipsey, 1988. Page 253).

To define art, the art critic must take the pragmatic approach, Rose suggests, comparing a given piece of art with the experience of previous exposure to a wide variety of art, which a good critic must cultivate. Ultimately, Rose claims, “[the critic's] reaction is entirely subjective and intuitive.” She continues, “The eye of the critic is as good as the critic's character, experience, and sensibility.” (Rose, 1988. Page 216). Art is whatever we think art is.

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This is Art?

Ian Ground begins his book Art or Bunk? with a discussion of Carle Andre's ‘Equivalent VIII’, purchased by London's Tate Gallery in 1972, as an example of the difficulty faced when defining art. This piece is a two high stack of ordinary bricks laid out flat on the floor. It resembles nothing except a rectangular stack of bricks. Its aesthetic virtues are not apparent. There is nothing unique about the materials or techniques used to construct the piece. Despite the 4,000£ price, it would appear that anyone could make an indistinguishable replica for less than $100. His question, “is this art, or is it bunk?”.

According to Ground, “works of art must be defined as objects created to provoke our aesthetic interest, not because this is all they ever do, but because this is the only thing we can say about works of art that is always and everywhere true.” (Ground, 1989, pg.16). Art is something to provoke a dynamic interplay between the artist's work and the audience. “In art, the idea has to intervene at some stage,” (Rosenburg, 1964, pg.231).

A beautiful sunset or a striking mountain vista may be aesthetically interesting, but we would not call them art. Similarly a beautifully decorated room or lively table setting might visually please, but we would not likely call them art. Whereas, Marcel Duchamp's ‘Fountain’, an ordinary porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt” for the 1917 exhibition of the New York Society of Independent Artists, is widely considered to be a ground breaking work of modern art, (Arnason, pg.305). This urinal is no different from any other urinal of its type. Initially refused for acceptance, ‘The Fountain’ got its showing and is now an icon of modern art. What makes this urinal art, as opposed to long rows of urinals in any large restroom?

Duchamp's urinal is different because it means something different. It has been placed before us by the artist to arrest and challenge our aesthetic sensibilities. Because of where we find it, because of the artist who places it there, because of the name he gives it, we are challenged by it and must consider it apart from other urinals.

Roger Lipsey quotes Duschamp, “Here is the real ‘burning up of aesthetics’ promised in [Duschamp's] early notes. Anaesthia replaces aesthetics. Visual indifference replaces taste. ‘I force myself to contradict myself,’ he once said, ‘so as to avoid conforming to my own taste.’ His crises of respect led, with brilliance and sincerity, to assertion of art's opposite—for example, to capping off the great tradition of ornate fountains in public squares by exhibiting a urinal. A pseudonymous article defending exhibition of the urinal, thought to have been written by Duchamp, adds another central thought:

“ ‘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 the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.’

“On the liberatingly destructive side (the ‘vitriol of the possible,’ Duchamp wrote in his notes), Readymades showed for the first time that one can slip free of the bonds of tradition and received ideas about art. Duchamp revealed the invisible web of agreements governing the creation and exhibition of painting and sculpture to be a series of conventions, not beyond good-humored yet serious assault.” (Lipsey, 1988, pp.111-112). The artist is not simply a craftsman whose product is randomly culled for art. The artist is a voice directed at the community of aesthetes.

A counterfeit dollar is not a dollar, even if it is indistinguishable from other bills. Knowing its falseness, we would consider it entirely different from other bills. The guarantee of the U.S. Treasury makes the US dollar different from a copy. A well done forgery of a painting or sculpture has all the visible elements of the original, but if the audience discovers the ruse they are embarrassed and insulted, (Aldrich, 1963, pp.80-81). While the skill of the artist is mimicked well, perhaps better than the original, the voice of the artist is turned into a hollow echo. The communication between artist and audience is suddenly sifted through an intermediary and the edge is dulled.

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Redactor of the Soul

Theologian Paul Tillich tells us that “art is the highest form of play.” (Tillich, 1987, page 4). Tillich, even more so than Ground, sees art as a vision expressed by the artist in such a way that it transforms reality into something not itself. For Tillich, art has the power to anticipate possibilities beyond, (Tillich, 1987, pages 18-21). Two things emerge from Tillich's vision of art: one is that art is always in relationship to the audience. The artist, consciously or unconsciously, expresses something which is understood, consciously or unconsciously, by the audience. A painting or a song that does not communicate an aesthetic vision to a viewer or a listener is not art. Ground's admiration of Duchamp revolves around Duchamp's ability to turn artistic conventions on their head through his aesthetic dialogue. Duchamp's brush strokes are not important; his ability to communicate an aesthetic vision is important.

The second point of Tillich's vision of art is colored by his theological vision. The valuation of art turns on its ability to reveal the unconditional ground of being (God). For instance, Tillich devalues much of Renaissance painting because it fails to transcend the human dimension. He asks, “are the Madonnas and Crucifixions and Resurrections and biblical stories of the Renaissance painters real creations of art? They are not! They are visions of human perfection; no one can fail to see the religious dimension in this as in every art. What is missing in them is the experience of the spirit that, as the hymn has it, ‘breaks the limits of our form.’ What is missing is the breaching power of the expressive.” (Tillich, 1987, page 209).

Tillich is suggesting that any form of art which remains hostage to human fancy, to human ideas of art, or that remains fully human is lacking a fundamental element, a spiritual link beyond the human moment. Art becomes art when it reaches beyond our daily being to Being itself. This vision of transcendence becomes a hazardously subjective affair. Who defines the quality of that transcendence? If we use Tillich as a guide, the art of Renaissance humanists is not art. Needless to say, many contemporary humanists would disagree.

Tillich has touched an important point. His governing principles of what is and is not art aside, we are all governed by subjective tastes and understandings by which we judge the worthiness of a given piece. For myself, I think Duchamp's ‘Fountain’ is an interesting statement, more of a gauntlet thrown down in front of the arts community, but I don't really think of it as art as such. To me, Andre's ‘Equivalent VIII’ appears to be derivative of a long series of gauntlets. It seems to me a silly expression, like a hobo in the park ranting about corporate greed. Obviously the Tate Gallery doesn't agree with me. So there you have it. Art touches the soul, or it doesn't. If art doesn't connect my soul to something that wasn't being touched before, it is not my art.

In Hegel's terms, “What makes [the artist] an artist is his ability to organize sense objects in such a way that they will serve to call attention to the indicative nature of sense perceptions. If the artist succeeds, then the observer of his work will suddenly see more than the mere imagery; he will also see in an intellectual sense the underlying concept of which the imagery is supposed to be a manifestation. If the artist fails, then no underlying concept has appeared.” (Kaminsky, Hegel on Art, 1962. Pages 27-28).

The best way to explain this is to say that art is a window that brings something hard to see up into the light. Tillich's quarrel with Renaissance art is that it brings nothing to light. It preserves a pretty picture, possibly dressing it up a bit, like air-brushing a year-book photo. Modern art takes up the challenge by confronting artistic conventions, discarding them, mocking them, but does Modern Art genuinely reveal anything new about who we are? What does it bring into the light? Does it speak to me?

The art that I keep around me: mostly my grandfather's paintings. They speak to me in a way that they won't to other people. Of those, certain ones speak to me with particular strength. One is a painting of a couple riding horses on the beach. There are things unspoken in the interaction of this couple that touch me. Another is a man ploughing with three horses. This one speaks of the preacher/pastor following the triune God. There is a pastel of bull dog wounded and bandaged, with his young pup looking up to him with a worried look. As a dad, I got knocked around a bit. The picture means something unique to me. Sketches of my home town growing up remind me of who I am. None of it will ever be seen in a museum, but it all speaks to me in particular ways. It informs my soul.

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The Miracle Farm

Can any piece be art if it requires an explanation before the significance of the aesthetics come into view? To say so would seem to make art an insider's game. Only those knowing the secrets can understand and appreciate. To suggest that non-aesthetic factors are essential to a work of art, seems to reduce the importance of aesthetics altogether.

What if Jennifer's ant farm produces the perfect likeness of the Mona Lisa, apart from the fact that it would be declared a miracle that the Virgin Mother has appeared in Jenny's farm, could we say that these ants have created a work of art? If the farm visits every state fair in the country and is bought by the Smithsonian for an astounding price, can we now say that it is art? Somehow, we know that Da Vinci intentionally created the ‘Mona Lisa’, creating a rare masterpiece. For all we know, however, Leonardo was trying to paint a nobleman and botched the painting before every getting to the beard. If we were to discover this, would our estimation of the work be altered?

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp created ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’, perhaps his one piece more notorious than ‘The Fountain’. This is a large photograph of the ‘Mona Lisa’ with a mustache and beard penned in. If it were discovered that the original sitter for the ‘Mona Lisa’ was a bearded man, what would become of Duchamp's poke at the master? While we believe in Da Vinci's genius, we may be mistaken. Duchamp may not have played a trick on the art world, but on himself. We do not want to make aesthetics beholding to invisible, non-aesthetic, factors, but how else is it possible to navigate the meaning of the aesthetics, or ply the slippery subject of artistic value, and most especially find aesthetic value in a pile of bricks or a urinal?

In any work of art there is a complex interplay between the artist's intentions, the work of art and the observer's aesthetic understanding. The observation of a work of art sparks within the observer an aesthetic response, conditioned by what the observer perceives to be the artist's intentions and further conditioned by the observer's attitude to those perceived intentions. This may be further tailored by information about the artist, the artist's intentions, the artistic tradition out of which the piece sprung or against which the artist reacted. In the end, the art work must remain central. If the aspirations of the artist fail to materialize in the piece, the piece fails as a piece of art.

The audience in an essential participant in the aesthetics of art. “If the concept of art, under which an object is produced, frustrates the best efforts of the audience to see the object as a work, as meant, then the object thereby fails to be a work of art. It is irrelevant that the object may, nevertheless, be beautiful, charming or intriguing.” (Ground, 1989, pg.89). In the case of some modern art, the audience had to be forged after the piece's initial failures at recognition. Let me further complexify this discussion by supposing that a treasure trove of early Egyptian art were discovered, pieces dazzling and exciting to us, but considered abominable to the Egyptians at the time. They were not art to the Eqyptians, but now they are? Will they never be art? Or did their potential make them art all along? Must the artist be held hostage by the perceptions of the audience?

John Cage built a reputation by involving chance in the creation of music. He might toss a few objects onto the piano's strings and then play the piece, excepting the random intrusions. He would toss beans onto blank sheets of music staffs and play the results. But as commentator Lipsey observes, “chance behaves badly like the idiot it is. Cage's ideas are effective cultural criticism, forcing basic questions, and his music is effective as a full-dress working-out of his critical ideas. It cannot be denied that he has brought authentic spiritual ideas and a liberating attitude of play to the enterprise of Western art. But his art for the most part doesn't work.” (Lipsey, 1988, pg.124). Cage is an extreme case of an artist whose message is more potent than his aesthetic appeal. Cage's aesthetic image alone is rude and awkward for most of us. For many, Cage's comment on Western aesthetics is powerful enough to make his music compelling.

Art is in the dialogue. The artist is not without limits, even though our Western democratic cultural mix imposes fewer and fewer limits, the artist is still in dialogue with the audience. Neither is the audience left to grasp willy-nilly for subjective meanings in a piece. The audience has rules and intentions, written or unwritten, to look for in the work. Virgil C. Aldrich calls this ‘prehension’, (Aldrich, 1963, pp.21-27). “A work of art is a material thing produced for prehension as an aesthetic object.” (Aldrich, 1963, pg.88). The audience is brought to the work with apprehensions and desires. The successful artist manipulates these apprehensions and desires as surely as they work the media and materials of the work of art.

We finally return to Barbara Rose's suggestion that the understanding of art is subjective, but a subjectivity heavily groomed by extensive experience and the talent of good taste.

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“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” (Oscar Wilde)

The pastures of the modern art world yielding the work of artists from Pleistocene caves to the present and from every corner of the planet can overwhelm with richness. Any modern city has at least one art museum displaying astounding original work from many times and places. Does this incredible bounty create a deeper aesthetic appreciation or a dearth of understanding covered by a shallow knowledge of much.

“Today, an object splits into a swarm of images of itself, clones, copies. The more famous an object is—the supreme example is perhaps the Mona Lisa—the more cultural meaning it is assumed to have, and the more ‘unique’ people say it is. But the more it breeds. How many people by now can say that their experience of the Mona Lisa as a painting is more vivid than their memory of it as a postcard? Very few; perhaps only those who have seen ‘her’ with the glass off, out of the moisture and temperature controlled cabinet in which she hangs on the Louvre wall, and without the swarm of tourists and guides in front. To most people, the painting is a green, sub aqueous ghost, a dimly perceived mould from which all the millions of replicated smiles are run off. Its ‘uniqueness’ is a function of its ability to multiply images of itself.” (Hughes, 1980, pg.325).

Are we simply afraid not to appreciate something that we ‘should’ appreciate. Are we now in the situation that a piece placed in a museum or gallery forces us to admire its significance. Duchamp complained, “I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” (Lucie-Smith, 1969, pg.11).

“Indeed there were very many objects in the traditions of the ‘sixties’ and ‘seventies’ which were the result of a desire to produce deliberately unintelligible objects. That despite the efforts of such artists, many critics, philosophers and audiences continue to find everything from objects buried at the bottom of 1 kilometer holes to people sitting in baths of offal aesthetically intelligible (as earlier they did with Duchamp's Fountain) must be testament to the difficulty of the task to be accomplished.

“...works which merely reflect their origins fail as art because they are incapable of rewarding the sort of interest we normally call aesthetic.” (Ground, 1989, pg.114).

The modernist appreciation of art is so afraid to fail to appreciate the next revolution that critics seem ready to do battle over dung covered Madonnas and crucifixes soaked in urine. “Modern art is a form of anxiety, and anxiety is the result of self-consciousness.” (Rosenberg, 1964, pg.166). Modern art seems to be boiling down to what has philosophical raison d'être is anything that is new and challenging. What happens when there are no more revolutions possible? It would appear that the current miasma of art is a result.

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