‘Do You Call That Art?’ a Conversation
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Published: Mon, 05 Feb 2018
T: Do you call that art? I just don’t see how something like could be called art, I just don’t see it. Where is the form, where is the beauty? Is that not what art is for; to hint at universal truths, to uncover answers to fundamental questions about our human condition? To make us experience a kind of immortal truth, Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (Keats, 1908: 14) Is that not what Keats said? To be honest I fail to see how an unmade bed surrounded by the detritus of a good night out can be classed as either. It is just sensationalism, pure sensationalism and should not be allowed into an art gallery.
S: I suppose it has some merits doesn’t it?
T: No, none at all as far as I am concerned. What does it say? What does it mean? Where is the skill in its construction? Why, anyone could make that, look, it is only made out of every day items, there’s no paint, no clay, no stone, none of the traditional tools of the artist. My six year old child could have made that, in fact he does every morning after a restless night.
S: I read some interesting reviews on it.
T: What do reviewers know? Listen to this: La Giaconda is, in the truest sense, Leonardo’s masterpiece, the revealing instance of his mode of thought and work. In suggestiveness, only the Melancholia of Durer is comparable to it; and no crude symbolism disturbs the effect of its subdued and graceful mystery (Pater, 1948: 264) That is both a reviewer and artist coming together in a perfect symbiosis of artistic appreciation, Walter Pater was a man of great intellect and understood the genius of Da Vinci in an intimate way. What is spoken of here lifts the everyday into the world of aesthetics and art, it transforms the daily life, it consoles and palliates, it makes the hardships seem worthwhile and the little pains of life worth bearing.
S: Yes, I see that, but does that not apply to artists like Tracey Emin and Damian Hurst too?
T: Do you feel palliated by this unmade bed? Do you feel as though your pain is soothed by a bisected sheep? These images serve only to make us feel worse, to highlight our pain, to capitalise on our misfortunes. These are the things that modern art work on, these are the emotions that they stir up; depression, sadness and alienation. Is that art? Is that worth bothering about, buying or funding?
S: I don’t know, perhaps if we were to look at them more carefully. Isn’t art just a matter of taste anyway?
T: Ah but taste is a complex thing and has been hotly debated in art history and philosophy. In some ways it goes right to the heart of our experience of art and literature as a whole. Two of the most interesting and most important theories concerning taste come, of course, from the English thinker David Hume and Immanuel Kant, both of these philosophers, in their own way, asserted the existence and importance of the notion of taste and aesthetic judgment. Hume saw that education and experience would enable men (and women) to acquire taste; the more art we see, the more books we read, the more films we see and the more music we listen to the more we learn about what is good and what is bad in art.
For instance, if I had only seen one picture in my entire life, say of a cottage in a mountain glade surrounded by pink and blue flowers, then it goes without saying that this must be the best painting I know and, ipso facto that I must be of the opinion that this is the best painting in the world. The same, I suppose, goes for a situation where the only sculpture I had seen was this unmade bed, then I would naturally think it was masterpiece and hail it as the finest work of art ever made. Well, according to
David Hume, the more I see the more educated I become, the more my taste develops. Therefore if I were to view, say, Eugene Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios, that depicts a scene from the Greco-Turkish war of 1824 and is painted with both subtlety and strength, I would automatically think this was better than an unmade bed. If I then chanced to view a Renoir or a Rossetti then I might think that these were better. You see how this works? You see how, through education and experience my taste broadens and becomes more refined.
S: But I still do not see who defines what is good and what is bad for the rest of us? Taste is relative isn’t it?
T: To an extent, says Hume, but taste as a benchmark and as a standard is set by those who are educated most. It stands to reason, does it not, that those who are educated and experienced most will know the most about a particular given subject. When your car needs a service what sort of mechanic do you choose?
S: A good one?
T: Yes, a good one, but what is a good mechanic? Is it a good mechanic someone who has had no or very little experience with cars, is it someone who has only ever seen or worked on one car the whole of their lives? No, you would choose the mechanic with the most experience, the mechanic who has worked on hundreds, perhaps thousands of cars.
S: Yes, I suppose I would.
T: So, could we not say that that mechanic is an expert, at least over the other mechanic who has seen very few cars?
T: Well, it would that mechanic who sets the standard. What if he told you your engine needed replacing?
S: I would believe him.
T: Exactly, and if the inexperience mechanic told you it didn’t, who would you believe? Who would you think was telling you the right thing?
S: Probably the experienced mechanic, he after all is more educated and more experienced so he must know what he is talking about.
T: So why is it so different with taste? Why is it so difficult to believe that those with most experience set the taste for the rest of us? Taste is ‘intersubjective’, it is founded on agreement and consensus. This was Hume’s great notion. It does not exist as an objective notion nor purly subjective but somewhere in between. Joshua Reynolds encapsulates it well when he says The arts would lie open for ever to caprice and casualty, if those who are to judge of their excellencies had no settled principles by which they are to regulate their decisions, and the merit or defect of performances were to be determined by unguided fancy (Reynolds, 1992: 182). Although, of course, Reynolds himself saw taste as being intrinsically fixed and established in the nature of things.
S: So, what about Kant? How did he see taste and aesthetic judgement?
T: For Kant, taste came secondary to the notion of beauty. There was, he thought such a notion as intrinsic beauty; a beauty that existed outside of taste, outside of the capriciousness of fashion, a beauty that is, to quote Keats again A Joy forever. Kant’s philosophy extended far and wide, his works like The Critique of Pure Reason and The Critique of Practical Reason sought to classify and quantify exactly what it was to be human, not just in an ontological sense but in the sense of how we experience the world; how we perceive things and, most importantly, how we reason about these things. In fact Bertrand Russell says in his A History of Western Philosophy that According to Kant, the outer world causes only the matter of sensation, but our mental apparatus orders this matter in space and time, and supplies concepts by means of which we understand experience. (Russell, 1979: 680)
In order to experience the world, thought Kant, we label many of the things we sense, often in ways that are unconscious or arbitrary. Take this bench, for instance, we both know this is a bench and that it is for sitting on but we only know this because it has certain characteristics as distinct from, say, that fire extinguisher over there. It is made of wood, it is flat, it has four legs etc. etc. The bench is out in the world (Cummiskey, 1996: 78) and thus our experience of it informs our idea of what it is. For Kant there was no such thing as an a priori knowledge; nothing, he said could be divorced from our experience of it.
S: But how, then, if we know this is a bench through our perception of it out in the world can we ever know beauty. Beauty, after all is not out in the world, it is surely a priori? We must have an idea of beauty before something can be classed as beautiful. I understand that, for Hume this is based on consensus, but this does not fit in with Kant’s ideas.
T: For Kant, beauty does exist in the world but not, perhaps in the way that we might assume. He noticed that we classify and label things according to the purpose they have for us as human beings. We have a notion of the bench because it is good for us to sit down on and take a rest every now and then. Beauty on the other hand can not be eaten or smelt or even touched, however it is in every culture every civilisation known to man so, in some ways at least, it must be intrinsic to our needs. Beauty and art have a purposeless purpose.
S: How can a purpose be purposeless?
T: Let me explain: when I see a picture by Monet for instance, it inspires feelings in me of contemplation and of emotion. I am touched by the delicate brushwork, I am moved by the images. If I see a beautiful flower I feel the same thing. I do not find the flower beautiful because I want to eat it or because it gives me an actual benefit in the real world but because it promotes a kind of internal pleasure, a psychological harmony. This is what Kant thought of the beautiful.
If we begin to attach meaning to art by deliberately making it ugly or adapting it for our own psychological or socio-political ends we ruin its initial purity and lose a valuable part of its nature. Kant said Taste is the faculty of estimating an object or mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object of such a delight is called beautiful(Kant, 1972: 479). This is why Kant regarded Nature as representing a higher plain than man made art, simply because it does not have the other aspects, the poetic, artificial meaning.
This unmade bed is neither of these situations, it is neither a depiction of the sublime in Nature not does it evoke a universal response. It simply is, like the unmade bed that it mirrors, because of this is can not be art. However, if we take a picture from the Romantic movement of Nineteenth century, for example, such as Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1838) or Landscape with a Distant River and Bay (1840) we can see that what the artist is striving for is a universal achievement of beauty; a beauty that is invested in the very paint he uses, a beauty that arises from the purity of the image; the colours, the brushwork, the setting.
S: So, for Kant, the artist is the translator of that sense of beauty?
T: Yes, for Kant, only the artist or the man of genius can truly be said to be a translator of these universal truths. His theories gave way to the march of the Romantic movement in Europe and artists like Turner, William Etty and Landseer and writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. Let us think, for example, of the painting
The Leaping Horse by John Constable (1825). What do we see in this painting? We see the majesty of Nature, not only in terms of the visual images of the sky, the clouds and the trees but in the way that this is translated through the human experience. The figure in the foreground is pictured not merely against Nature but in it, existing within it and being a part of it. There is a directness of vision here that reflects Kant’s assertions on the place of the artist within society. The artist’s role, he said, was to translate the experience of the sublime, of the beauty of Nature, into the synthetic medium of art.
This unmade bed, or the bisected sheep of Hurst or even the daubings of Jackson Pollock do not attempt to do this and so, in my opinion at least, are not art in the slightest.
A: I beg to differ with you.
They turn to see A standing behind them.
A: What do you see there?
S: I see an unmade bed, I see rubbish, I see magazines, tissues, cigarette butts.
A: I see an idea, a concept, a representation of truth. As you said, truth is beauty, right?
T: No, actually what I said was Beauty is truth and truth beauty there is a world of difference between those two ideas.
A: Yes perhaps, and I would agree with you, maybe this work is not about beauty in the Kantian sense, it is not about a universal notion of what is beautiful, what is sublime but it has everything to do with what the world means to us and how we interpret our own experiences of life. In his first manifesto on Surrealism, Breton says The marvellous is not the same in every period of history: it partakes in some obscure way of a sort of general revelation only the fragments of which come down to us: they are the romantic ruins, the modern mannequin or any other symbol capable of affecting the human sensibility(Breton, 1990: 16). All we have now are shards of aesthetic philosophy that have made their way down to us.
S: So you are saying Kant and Hume were wrong?
A: No, I am saying they were right in their time. We have been let down by their structures; the notions of truth and beauty no longer mean anything to us in this postmodern age.
T: Postmodern? Does that word even mean anything?
A: Well, yes, Modernism as a philosophical construct can be seen to stem from the Enlightenment of the mid Eighteenth century.
S: I thought Modernism happen just after the First World War?
A: Yes in a way, the artistic and literary movement hails from then but, in terms of philosophy and, of course, aesthetics, Modernism can be seen to be founded much earlier with thinkers such as Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Bishop Berkely and others. Later, of course, this manifested itself in philosophies of Kant, Hegel and Marx.
S: So, what do these thinkers tell us about what art is and why this work should be called art?
A: Well it was not so much what they said about art that is of importance as how they say it. Modernism, as Jean Francois Lyotard says in his study The Postmodern
Condition: A Report on Knowledge, relied on ‘metanarratives’, all encompassing notions like truth, beauty, the body and even the self to provide a foundation for its philosophies. The Enlightenment is considered the birth of the modern because it asserted the primacy of the individual consciousness and the reason upon which it was based; it signalled a split from the religious dogma and the superstition of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. The art, the music and the literature all reflected the birth of this new idea.
Postmodernism is not so much the rejection of this as a melancholic outcome of its demise and failures. I am sure there is not one thinker in the whole postmodern canon who would not find it agreeable to rely on concrete notions like beauty and truth, but what are they? That is what postmodernism asks us, they have failed us. Foucault’s poetic evocation at the end of his history of human sciences is as good as any at expression this idea:
As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.
If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.(Foucault, 1997: 387)
The postmodern condition recognises no hierarchy of taste; it does not see taste as being universal or being classifiable in any meaningful way. With technological advances like the internet and reprographics what now is beautiful? What can even be considered original? This is the point that Walter Benjamin makes in his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
S: So, the Modernist artists were the beginning of this, after all they experimented with style and content didn’t they? As Ezra Pound said, they sought always to Make it new.
A: Could we not see artistic Modernism as not so much the beginning of something new as the end of something old? Its theoretical foundations are clearly based in a number of thinkers all of which assert the importance of teleological thinking: Freud, Marx, Hegel etc. If we examine, for instance Guillaume Apollinaire’s series of essays and articles on the Cubists, we can see that we characterises both Cubism and Apollinaire is the sense of revolution; in both art and in conceptions of beauty. He says Greek art has a purely human conception of beauty. It took man as the measure of perfection. The art of the new painters takes the infinite universe as its ideal, and it is to the fourth dimension alone that we owe this new measure of perfection.(Harrison and Wood, 1997: 178)
We can see here how, even though the nature of the artist’s vision has changed, his or her place hasn’t. The Cubists and, indeed the Moderns as a whole (especially in terms of its literature) asserted the validity of the artist in exactly the same way as our friend here has pointed out that Kant did.
T: Which I see as being a testament to the correctness of Kant’s vision.
A: It was this that the Moderns desperately strove to cling on to, all of their experimentation, all of their theorising, all of their invention can be seen as merely an attempt to cover up the fact that what was dying, what was losing its validity was them; their special place as artists, writers and thinkers. In the postmodern age all things are equally valid as art, all things are equally worthy even an unmade bed.
How does a painting like David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (1914) or even Picasso’s Guernica (1937) reflect the ideals of Kant? They are obviously beautiful pictures and yet they have the power to terrify and to inspire awe, they do not palliate or console so much as remind us of our own death and mortality. How do they fit in with your scheme?
T: You have answered your own question, they are sublime paintings. They remind us of our own place as human beings. I agree with you, times change and so does art but the notion of the artist as a translator of human emotion is an important one. Picasso was a visionary, his art was beautiful, it made one think, to cogitate, to realise one’s own humanity. OK, not in the same representative way as, say Constable or Rossetti but, then again, neither did Turner, Monet or any of the Impressionists. The subtle play of colour and light, for instance in La Promenade (1875) or even the famous Waterlilies (1905) is nothing but the distillation of experience both in terms of the artist’s heightened sensibility and training. The same can be said of Picasso or Braque or any of the so called Moderns that you speak of.
The form is of no importance, forms and fashions change, what matters is the importance of the artist. There are recent artists who manage to combine both an artistic brilliance with a clear understanding of exactly what art means. Take someone like Lucien Freud, for instance, his paintings do not inspire one in the traditional sense of the word. They do not remind one of beauty in the same way Botticelli does or Poussin, however he asks questions about the human condition whilst displaying an artistic talent, or skill if you will. Freud’s pictures are about what is like to be human, about what it is like to have a body that is constantly dying, that is betraying the young person that you still are on the inside. His naked self portraits are concerned with my point exactly: with the place of the artist in society. It is their role to exorcise the ghosts.
A: Art should not be a religious experience.
T: You are wrong, that’s exactly what it should be.
A: Art is about reflecting what’s here and now not what is eternal. The work of Tracey Emin is as valid as Lucien Freud, as valid as Picasso as valid as Turner and as valid as Rembrandt because it is a product of a time that recognises no universal truths, no absolute hierarchies and no metanarratives.
T: But how, then do you judge? How do you decide what should be in an art gallery and what isn’t? Do you simply open the doors and let everyone in?
T: But that’s absurd, where would that led us?
A: What are you afraid of? What have you got to lose?
S: What is there to lose by the destruction of the discourses of truth and beauty?
A: Well, this is at the heart of the question of whether this work is a work of art. What is there to lose by saying it isn’t? We have seen the failure of realism in describing the truth about the human condition and we have seen the failure of abstraction in describing the truth about human emotions and mind. The only thing left for us to do is to suggest that it is the truth itself that is non-existent.
S: So there is no truth left.
A: There is no universal truth, the same as there is no universal sense of beauty. What is beauty after all? The Japanese have a notion they call Wabisabi, it makes up almost all of their aesthetic appreciation. Roughly translated it means imperfect or incomplete, modest or humble. It is as far from our traditional notions of Western aesthetics as we could get. There is none of the grandeur of the sublime, none of the intricacies of Vermeer or Zoffany just the simplicity of line and the imperfection of creativity.
S: You mean Wabisabi actively encourages imperfection?
A: Yes, it is an intrinsic ingredient of the Japanese aesthetic, but the important point is that aesthetic notions change from country to country from time to time, therefore it is an impossibility for them to be a universal ideal as our friend here seems to think.
S: But is it art, this unmade bed?
A: Is it in an art gallery?
A: It must be art then.
T: So you are saying anything that is in an art gallery is art, how ridiculous. That means anything I bring into this gallery could be called art. My dog? The shoes on my feet? The flask I have in my bag? At least we know where we are with the universal notion of beauty. It may not be perfect, in fact it may far from perfect but it is solid, it is not ever-changing or open to this mumbo jumbo that you are talking of. You speak as though everyone were an artist, as though everyone could lay claim to being a
Picasso or a Matisse.
A: Well, in a way, yes, I am. For postmodernism to work we must adopt a number of responsibilities and positions as well as reject old ones. We must be aware of our actions, Of course that means realising that, perhaps, the whole system of aesthetics needs re-evaluating. Media such as the Internet and increased access to cheap means of publishing means that it is becoming easier and easier to publish one’s work and get it to a wide audience. Many musicians have found this out and have started making their work available for Internet downloads and many artists are using technology to challenge the boundaries of the traditional routes into the art world. This has got to be a good thing hasn’t it?
S: So, what you are saying is that because of changes in society, because of this postmodernism thing the old ideas about what is beautiful, what is true, what is art become irrelevant. In their place is a series of individual judgements based on context. If I put a light switch into a gallery as a light switch it is not art, if I put it in as art then it is?
S: So it has a linguistic base your argument? If I say something is art, it is?
T: This all sounds like rubbish to me. Art has a function in the real world, to be beautiful or at least to make us realise our own humanity or humanness. If we do not draw boundaries, if we don’t make distinctions between art and the rest of the world we cheapen art.
A: Or we elevate life!
T: Take for example Hegel’s aesthetics theory. For Kant, existence, and along with it art and culture, could only be witnessed in a subjective sense, in other words only bits of the larger picture could be seen by anyone at any one time. It would be impossible to see the whole. Hegel disagreed with this and stated that, if we used reason, we could look at the entire universe at once.
S: But that’s clearly impossible isn’t it? How can we look at anything other than through subjectivity?
T: Think about the philosophy of science, physics, chemistry, do they not claim to be able to look at the entire world at once? There is no suggestion in medicine, for instance that we find a cure for TB in a subjective way. An integral part of the truth of the discovery is that it is reproducible, objective and quantifiable, in other words that it is being viewed in some kind of universal way. Israel Knox has a fine quote about Hegel’s method Hegel exalted reason to an eminence from which it could have an adequate and coördinated knowledge of the whole of reality — of reality as the incessant temporal forward march of the Absolute, of Spirit, of God.(Knox,1958: 81). It is reason that is at the basis of scientific discovery so why can not reason be at the heart of Aesthetic theory?
A: Because reason is an outmoded construct.
T: Let me finish! For Hegel, art is a reflection of Geist, which can be translated as either spirit or mind. In Hegel the two are much the same thing the mind and the spirit could be thought of as the defining entity in man; it is the thing that distinguishes him from anything else. His humanness, if you will. Geist is a manifestation of the order of the universe, the phenomenology of Geist is existence and its highest expression is art and philosophy. In this Hegel disagrees with Kant who, as we saw, thought that Nature was the most beautiful of all things. If art is an expression of Geist and Geist itself is a manifestation of the orderliness or reason of the universe, then it follows that the greatest art must be that which mirrors most succinctly this universal sense. For Hegel, art transcends nature precisely because it is a manifestation of man’s spirit.
You see, Hegel believed in a system he called dialectics. In the Preface to his Phenomenology of Spirit (1977) (or mind, of course) he outlined his grand scheme of things and one that he was to go on to relate to art in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (1993) of the 1820s. The dialectic is the grand working of history, it describes how progression can be achieved by thesis, antithesis and synthesis rather than relying on the idea of a continual advancement. In art, as in everything, first an antithesis establishes an idea, say the classical period of art; here we have a number of philosophies, ways of seeing and ideas that go up to making what we know about the world.
However this is very rarely enough, this is never would we call exhaustive. Our culture, in order to progress, needs an antithesis. The classical period of art then, gave way to a period of Romanticism whereby artists and writers developed startling new ideas and notions that would transform art into something completely new.
This second notion is the antithesis, it describes not a backward movement but a negation that can propel things forward; that can ensure a synthesis is formed that unites the two and causes forward momentum. For Hegel, this happens in all walks of life, from ideas and science to art and literature. He takes the great periods of art and shows how they interacted with each, succeeding schools challenging preceding schools and so on until eventually there will be an end to art where we have reached a final stage of enlightenment and there is no longer any need for dialectics. Hegel sees that reflected in his own age, with its use of reason and beauty and its synthesis of ideas and notions.
Look at this bed, I see no spirit in this, I see no manifestation of Geist here, I see a manifestation of damp and mildew but very little else. This is not art because it does not conform to any of the notions I have been talking about, there is nothing here of the majesty of the universe nothing that lifts us above our everyday experience, in fact it is our everyday experience.
S: I can see how Hegel’s philosophy makes art seem reasonable and structured, I can see that there is a progression from one idea to another. After all, if you look at a painting of the classical period it looks nothing like a painting of today, does it? Hegel must be right; art must be a reflection of some universal spirit that finds its expression in an ever progressing artistic movement.
A: But, of course, if that is the case where is the end point?
S: The end point?
A: Yes, according to Hegel and the other philosophers of Modernism like Marx, the dialectical process inevitably advances, it has to lead to some end point. In Marx it was the glories of revolution and a Marxist state, in Hegel it was the enlightened mind. For their philosophies to have any form of truth in them this end point needs to taken into account but, where is this end point? Where has it gone? We have had almost 150 years of Marxism and over 200 hundred years of Hegelianism but still there is no sign of reaching the end point that they speak of. Consider this, for Hegel the crowning glory of civilization was his own, and therefore our, age. This was the time at which art and literature, music and culture reached its highest point, the point at which Geist was reflected most in society’s artifacts.
T: Yes, that is what I said.
A: According to that philosophy there can only be progression, there can only be forward motion through dialectics; art, literature, culture can only get better.
T: Yes, surly.
A: But where is this enlightened society? If anything, society is getting more dangerous, more violent. The canonical image is that of Auschwitz, how can Auschwitz be a symbol of a society getting more enlightened and reflecting the reason of the universal unity? If anything it is a sign that it is getting less enlightened. What about the Russian Gulags, they challenge both Hegel and Marx and the same time! On the one hand they make us question the idealist dialectic of Hegel by suggesting that, far from getting more and more enlightened, society is getting more and more barbaric and, on the other, it questions Marx’s dialectical materialism by asking where is this glorious revolution that was promised? What we have is not a series of structured progressions based around thesis and antithesis at all but an ad hoc collection of ideas that are organised retrospectively by history.
S: So what does this mean for art?
A: Well it means that, not only are the ideas in Hegel’s aesthetics challenged but also that his very methodology is as well. It was this failure that Adorno and Horkheimer traced in their ground breaking work The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997). It is not so much that postmodernism negates modernism or reason but that it shows up its failings. In an interesting reworking of Odysseus and the Sirens in their book, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that there is forever a socio-political aspect to art that precludes it from ever being a universal given. Odysseus plugs the ears of his sailors with wax so that they can not hear the song of the Sirens but he ties himself to the mast, fully able to hear.
S: What does this mean for art though?
A: Well, it means, for one thing that the experience of the Siren’s song (a clear symbol for art) depends upon who you are in the ship. If you are a sailor you only know the dangers of the song, you are blissfully unaware of its terrible beauty and alluring qualities and if you are Odysseus you are know the beauty and the terror but you have the pain and responsibility of denial. The song remains the same, only the listeners change.
S: So the value of art,
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