But is it Art? - Part I
How is it possible to determine if something is or is not art?
Is it possible for there to be a single universally acceptable notion for what art is?
“This is my bed. If someone else installs it, it’s just dirty linen. If I do it, it’s art.” [Tracy Emin, 2000]
This essay is an attempt to try and arrive at a clearer picture of the notion of what art could be.
Questions on Art
What Art is and the notions of beauty are defined by the society of a particular place, in a particular historical time period and by the institutional framework that exists there at that moment. Thus we cannot judge the work of one society by the criteria of judgment which belongs to another place or time.
Today the global hegemony of Modernism and new sociotechnological developments are attempting to create some sort of universal homogenized value for Art and Beauty.
Perhaps the first artist to seriously question art was Marcel Duchamp when he began to use ordinary manufactured objects, modified or reoriented them as an antidote to what he called ‘retinal art.’ Examples such as, the bottle rack, the comb, the bicycle wheel, the urinal and a composition called ‘Why not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy,’ were what he called ready-mades or ordinary objects elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of the artist. [Breton 1924] The readymade defied the conventional notion that art must be beautiful.
Similarly Picasso’s Bulls head made in 1942 out of a bicycle saddle and handlebars both questioned and mocked art with its simplicity and sophistication. These works marked a point of departure for art from which it never looked back.
By the 1960’s it was no longer clear what was and what was not art. Art could simply be anything. A performance by an artist teaching dance that looks the same as a dance teacher instructing her students, metal junk lying around could be the work of Anthony Caro or just junk. Art was simply now defined by the presence of an embodied meaning, that could be interpreted by the viewer.
Archeology of Change
How did such a change occur? Throughout history we see man copying images that represent something that was pleasing to him. What the classical Greeks philosophy termed as Mimesis. It became a record of his perception and feelings. People of every culture did the same thing, they decorated, carved, made images, produced sounds and danced to express and represent their desires. [Kristeller, 1965] Much of this was created to express their feelings such as joy, love, anger, fear, sadness, disgust and even astonishment.
In ‘the Republic’, Plato speaks of beauty as being an empirical property that exists in all natural things, and Beauty being the very essence of Nature. He saw it as an integral part of human nature and relates it to the basic goodness, sensitivity and taste of man. But the purpose of Beauty was simply, to be beautiful. [Plato, BC 360]
Society primarily produced products to supplement their needs which they decorated mimetically. Over time these developed into manifestations that were peculiar to the cultural needs of the society. As religion developed into a major binding factor, most artistic representations remained focused primarily on spiritual themes and social messages but without embodied messages. [Bramann 1998]
The notion of Art as a separate entity from craft, developed somewhere in the 18th century when artists discovered the importance of aesthetic perception and turned their work into objects for aesthetic contemplation. Thereby making art exist for its own sake and it became associated with the special ability or genius of the artist. The artist was able, with the help of this gift, to see and present the world in a different manner.
“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes important, for our consideration and application of these things and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” [James, 1972:91]
Aesthetics was derived from the Greek ‘Aeshtikos’ to suggest, ‘things perceived by the senses’, and was introduced to the world in a book by Alexander Baumgarten called ‘Aesthetica’ in 1739. In it he describes in a very systematic manner the relation of perception with psychology, beauty, pleasure and art. [Allen, 2008]
18th century industrialization and mechanization of Europe had led to the creation of a new middle class who had the luxury of leisure time to develop aesthetics needs. Much of what they learned was from newspapers, magazines, books and critics or experts of artwork who could guide this new middle class’s perceptions and appreciation. [Goldman 1995] Aesthetic and moral development of man became the objective of life. Society began to value good taste, good judgment and good moral attitude. Theories of Beauty, taste and aesthetic judgment became serious topics of debate among several philosophers like Kant and Hegel.
Emanuel Kant, in ‘Critique of the Power of Judgement’ (1790) begins with the words, “in order to decide whether anything is beautiful or not…” [Bernard, 1914] He goes on to suggest that beauty should be judged in an impartial and disinterested manner. He calls that ‘the judgement of taste’ as one that is unbiased and without interest or motive in it or in the purpose it serves. He concluded that it was man’s inherent human weakness towards Beauty that made the need for art important. [Pasagui, 2010] Friedrich Hegel recognized that the artists were now searching for self realization. This was removing the need for realistic artwork and he comments,
“Art is and remains for us, on the side of its highest possibilities, a thing of the past” [Hegel, 1823]
That is a reference to the freedom of the artist to express without the restrictions prevalent in the artworld at that time. This freedom to express was the foundation stone of what we today call Modern art.