Monday, June 3, 2013

What is Art?

I suppose some people who got better grades than me in university and graduate school will snicker and chalk it up to intellectual inferiority, and maybe they'd be correct. Nevertheless, I'm willing to admit that I am uneasy being in the same room with elaborate theories or thought structures pertaining to human behavior. So I am extremely reluctant to indulge in that sort of activity, being more comfortable with rules of thumb couched in probabilistic terms. (Theorizing done regarding the physical sciences is different because the subject matter does not possess volition.)

Why am I gun-shy? Perhaps because I was exposed to such theorizing in graduate school and couldn't see the sense of it (my IQ was never stellar). For example, in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington, Stewart Dodd was still around; years before, he had written about reducing human sociological behavior to something like mathematical formulas. I chalk up that effort of his as an exercise in trying something to find out if it was really workable. It turns out that it wasn't, though fans of Isaac Asimov's Hari Seldon might disagree.

And then there was social theorist Talcott Parsons of Harvard who many at Washington and at Dear Old Penn worshiped in those days. I never worshiped him, but nevertheless forced myself to plow through some of his writings because I might have had to deal with his ideas in my Ph.D. examinations. As best I remember, his structure was elaborate and had many details, all of which were considered very important. Another failed effort, in my opinion.

So what does this have to do with art?

Reducing it to a matter of definition. The current Art Establishment seems to hold that just about anything can be considered art if a few people (for instance, an "artist," an art galley and an art reporter or critic) proclaim something as "art." And if someone fails to recognize that something is "art," well, they must be closed-minded or maybe have some other cultural or even mental deficiency. But if just about anything can be art, then art is nothing special. So how can that be, given that certain art objects are worth a good deal of money and might be found and venerated in large museums? A tricky situation, here.

Consider this "art" object, an assemblage titled "My Bed" by Tracey Emin. This article treats it as art, offering as justification that Emin put a good deal of thought and work into its creation.

Now consider "My Desktop," in the image above -- a photo I took just before writing this post. I did not put a lot of thought and energy into creating the fascinating tactile ensemble you see in the photo, but it is not entirely haphazard, either. Objects have their places. Near the upper right are bits of computer equipment. Next to it are writing instruments. Notes and notepads are at either end of the desk, and so on.

To some people, my desktop could, perhaps should be considered art. I don't think it is art. I do not think Emin's "My Bed" is art either. To me it is a kind of public relations stunt related to marketing the Tracey Emin brand and, by the way, has the virtue of being sold for real Pounds Sterling.

As I noted, in our modernist world, the definition of art lies in the eye or mind of the beholder. Some behold "My Bed" as art, other do not. However, it seems that Art Establishment beholders and their followers are definitely more equal than others -- especially compared to those dull-witted philistines incapable of appreciating the nuances of great works of art such as Emin's "My Bed."

Given my distrust of theoretical systems, I'm not going to offer a rigid definition of art, even though I disagree with the current art-is-just-about-anything ethos. But I will toss out an idea. Did you ever notice that young children supplied with a pencil, crayon or some similar tool and a surface to mark on, seem to enjoy creating images of objects they know in their world. This is the nub of art. Their messy beds are not.


dearieme said...

You are much too kind about Talcott Parsons, Don. He wrote pretentious tosh.

Donald Pittenger said...

dearieme -- Maybe it's because I actually heard him speak once at Penn. Can't remember a thing he said, of course.

Isaac Asimov (who I cited in this post) also spoke at Penn way back then. He was funnier, but spent much of his time harping on overpopulation.

Augustin Tougas said...

For my part, I've boiled it down do this :

If an object has no other purpose but the intention to show something.

This was notoriously challenged by Duchamp and the concept of readymades.

In other words, "My Bed" by Emin, is a work of art because it is now presented in this manner. It goes back to being an normal bed as soon as somebody uses it for what it was originally designed. Sleeping, mainly.

"My Desktop" by Pittenger is not an artwork because it is understood in the premise that it has another purpose, which is a workspace.

All the rest, in my opinion, is to decide whether it is a good or bad piece of art.

Robert Hughes said : "(...)it's become all the more important to decide for yourself whether a wok of art is just a little feat of novelty or whether it actually has something fresh and vital to say."

And later : "(...)and today, I think we're left with a more modest but equally difficult task for art to do. And that is : to be beautiful. To manifest beauty."

A great man.

Unknown said...

"My Bed" is art because it is meant to be art. It no longer functions as a bed. It has been stripped of practical function and has been recreated as an object of aesthetic and contextual consideration.

Your desk could be art, if you had meant it to be, but you didn't. Your desk still functions as a desk. You do not offer it up as an object to be considered aesthetically or philosophically--you use it as a desk.

The photograph you took could be art, if you meant it to be. But you took it simply as a way to create an image for discussion in this blog entry.

Art has to do with intention. Duchamp's readymades are great testament to how this works.

Donald Pittenger said...

Evan -- I don't buy the argument that intention is the sole criterion for defining art. If that's the case, then anything can be art if a self-appointed artist makes the claim.

When it comes to the nub of it, I define what art is (for myself) and I don't give a rip what the "artist," the MoMA, the New York Times art critic or a bunch of academicians think is art.

And of course you are entirely welcome to have your definition of art even though it differs from mine. There is nothing wrong with thinking for oneself.