The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is Art?

Art in the singular, is a more difficult concept to grasp and to define, than that of the arts plural. We can arrive at a fairly reasonable understanding of what the arts are by simply naming them – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature and so on. We only run into difficulties when differences of opinion arise as to whether something should be classified as an art or not. Some people speak of every human endeavour as being, at least potentially, an art. Others restrict the term to activities which are creative. There are those who would restrict it even further by distinguishing between two kinds of creative activities. The first kind are activities in which something is created to serve a practical utilitarian function. An example would be the act of making a chair for somebody to sit in. The second kind of creative activities involve the creation of things that do not have that kind of practical use but which are rather intended to be enjoyed for themselves Those who make such a distinction would call the first kind of activities crafts and the second kind of activities arts.

However widely or narrowly we choose to draw the circle around what we include in the category of the arts we tend to agree that the arts are human activities which involve the exercising of skill and knowledge. Even the person who seems to trivialize the concept by speaking of “the art of twiddling one’s thumbs” does not, by this expression, mean to include every individual who in a moment of extreme boredom takes to distracting his attention in this manner. Rather, he is suggesting that there is a kind of skill which can be applied to thumb-twiddling , which elevates the thumb-twiddler who masters it to a degree of superiority over the amateur who merely dabbles in thumb-twiddling.

“Art” is more difficult to grasp than “the arts” because it is a more abstract concept. Philosophy professors tend to use geometrical illustrations in explaining Plato’s concept of the Forms to their students. The Form of a triangle is an abstract three-sided figure as opposed to an actual triangle drawn out on a piece of paper. We frequently use the word art in such a way that the relationship between art and the arts is similar to that between the abstract concept of a triangle and a triangle you can see on a page before you. From this perspective art is the category to which each of the arts belongs. We also, however, use the word art to refer collectively to that which is produced by the arts. Thus, if we were in a museum filled with sculptures and paintings we could make a gesture taking in all the objects on display and say that they are art, although this second meaning would probably be more properly expressed by “works of art” or “artwork”.

Another way in which we use the word art is as a standard by which we qualitatively judge works of art. We might look at a painting that we really admire and say “Now that’s art!” Conversely, we might look at a museum exhibit that we find loathsome and say “This is supposed to be art?”

It is not always clear what exactly we mean when we use the word art this way. It is common today, to treat such judgments as being simply an expression of one’s personal likes and dislikes and therefore having little to no objective value. Now there is obviously some truth to that. There is always a subjective element in our evaluation of works of beauty. We call this element taste and arguing about matters of taste has long been considered to be a pointless exercise.

There is a difference, however, between a pointless argument about matters of taste and a discussion about the quality of a person’s sense of taste. If I say “I like this and dislike that” and you say “I like that and dislike this” we may give reasons for our likes and dislikes but by doing so we will not be able to prove the other person “wrong” or ourselves “right” in our opinions. “Right” and “wrong” are not judgments that apply to cases of “I like” and “I dislike”. This is what the person who first coined the Latin adage de gustibus non est disputandem obviously had in mind.

We do, however, speak of people having “good taste” and “bad taste”. Is this also a completely subjective judgment or can we arrive at an objective standard by which we evaluate people’s tastes?

We should not be too quick to answer no. There is another way of looking at our use of the word art as a qualitative judgment. When we look at two paintings and say that one is art and that the other is not, we may simply be saying that we like the one and dislike the other, but we might also be saying that we see indications of skill, talent, expertise, and inspiration in the one painting that are lacking in the other painting. If it is the latter we mean then our judgment is not entirely subjective but is an evaluation of specific qualities that we are looking for in the paintings and measuring against a standard.

If that is the case then when we say a person has good taste we may be saying more than just that his likes and dislikes are similar to our own. What we describe as good taste might be simply a high degree of correlation between someone’s personal likes and dislikes on the one hand and the standard of excellence by which we judge the quality of an artist’s work on the other.

Now a case can be made that the standards by which we judge such things as skill, knowledge, and talent are also subjective. If, after having spent an evening at the concert hall listening to a Bach concerto and a Haydn symphony, I come home and find that my neighbor is listening to a recording of some punk screaming obscene lyrics about sex, drugs, and violence to the accompaniment of screeching electric guitars that sound like chalkboard scratches and the heavy pounding of drums that produce an instant headache, I would not be inclined to use the word “music” to describe my neighbor’s acoustical preferences. “Cacophonous noise” or “bloody awful racket” would be the descriptive words that I would most likely use.

Is that simply a matter of taste?

Many would say yes, and on actual occasions where a situation resembling the one which I have described above has occurred I have had it pointed out to me that the band that I, with my prehistoric opinions on music was so rudely dismissing as untalented noisemakers, consisted of members who had actually studied music at a conservatory from an early age and possessed masters degrees in music.

Such arguments do not usually impress me because for someone with such training and talent (you need talent to get into a conservatory) to waste their skills in this way strikes me as being blasphemy of a similar nature to that of an ordained Christian priest celebrating at a Black Mass. There is an interesting point to be made about this kind of argument however. The person who points to the orthodox musical education of someone who has made a career out of generating noise pollution does not appeal to any intrinsic quality or value in the product of their preferred artist. They rather, appeal to the fact that he has the established capacity to produce music that meets the standards by which I have negatively assessed the music he actually does produce.

Does this argument not therefore uphold the very standards it seeks to dismiss as arbitrary, subjective, and artificial?

The idea that good art requires skill which involves a mixture of innate talent and acquired learning which can be evaluated by a set of standards points to the root meaning of the word art. It is derived ultimately from the Latin word ars. This word, like its Greek equivalent techne, refers to a productive skill that was generally passed on from father to son. There was no distinction originally between an art and a craft. The meaning of art has evolved and been refined over the centuries. It is only in the last couple of centuries however that it has been in danger of being cut off from its root meaning entirely.

Those who dismiss the idea that art can be judged as good or bad on the basis of established societal and cultural standards frequently embrace the recent idea that the primary function of art is the external expression of the artists inner feelings. This idea can produce some pretty strange ways of thinking.

My maternal grandmother is a painter, mostly of watercolour landscapes of the terrain around the farm in southwestern Manitoba where she lived most of her life. She has frequently told me that others have said that her painting is “not art”. When I asked her what the reasoning was behind this bizarre assessment she said that it was because she just painted places that she saw whereas a real artist paints what is on the inside.

Think about what that implies if taken to its logical conclusion. The landscapes of Peter Paul Rubens, Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Thomas Gainsborough would have to be dismissed from the category of “art”. So would Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s drawings of wooded corridors and paintings of waterfalls and beautiful gardens. That is not all. Still-life painting would be excluded by this and much portrait painting as well.

The ideas that art exists only or primarily to express the inner feelings of the artist and that art can only be judged subjectively are in major conflict with the reality of art, the function it has historically served, and how the best art has been produced through the centuries. Art is a vital part of culture, which is the product and life of a community and society. The health of a society’s culture is reflected in it’s art and art which exists for no reason other than to express the feelings of narcissistic and egotistical artists does not reflect a healthy culture. It reflects the culture of a society where social atomization has taken place and the sense of community has been terribly compromised.

Historically, the great masters created works of art depicting religious and classical themes for the palaces of the royalty and aristocracy and for the churches which were the cultural centres of traditional societies, and portraits, landscapes and still-lifes for middle class clients. It was commonly and universally understood by the artists and by their patrons and clients that the purpose of art was beauty. Beauty is what artists sought to create and beauty is what patrons and clients wished to purchase.

Beauty, it has commonly been said, is in the eye of the beholder. Undoubtedly, there is a great deal of truth to that. If beauty were entirely subjective, however, art would be impossible. If a culture did not possess a common understanding at some level of what is aesthetically pleasing artists would not know what to create and their patrons and clients would not know what to buy.

The idea of beauty has come under attack in recent decades. The attacks are generally overreactions to ways in which the concept of beauty has been misused. Beauty is a quality that we look for in people as well as in places, objects, and what we call art. Some people greatly exaggerate the importance of beauty in relation to other personal qualities. This kind of exaggeration can manifest itself in a number of negative ways. Vanity can arise out of obsession with one’s own beauty. Or, if one is obsessed with attaining beauty this can lead to self-destructive behaviour such as starving oneself. People who value physical beauty over all other desirable qualities display the trait we call “shallowness” which is a negative trait.

These tendencies have been present among human beings since the earliest times and the traditional way of dealing with them has been to encourage people to show moderation in balance in how they how they look at beauty in themselves and in other people. You are beautiful? That’s good but it doesn’t mean much if you are spoiled, arrogant, and inconsiderate of others. You do not think you are beautiful? Then look at the other good qualities you possess and maximize those. In your assessment of other people place greater value on character traits like honesty, dependability, and kindness than upon physical traits.

This has always been the sensible approach to human beauty but some now feel that the problems described above require the radical solution of challenging and overthrowing the very concept of beauty itself. This has tremendous implications for how we understand art. For we cannot separate the concept of physical human beauty from the concept of beauty in general. The depiction of human beauty has been a part of art for millennia. Moreover, the depiction of human beauty in an idealized rather than a realistic form was one of the primary goals of some of the most important artists in the history of Western art.

This was what ancient Greek and Roman sculptors sought to achieve and what the artists of the Renaissance, who looked to the Greeks and Romans for their inspiration, also sought after. When art seeks to depict beauty in a balanced, harmonious, ideal form that is a perfected version of the beauty we see in the world around us, this is called classicism, after the Classical Era in ancient Athens. Classical idealism has historically been balanced by other competing tendencies. Caravaggio introduced a kind of realism into art by depicting ordinary people in everyday situations as they look in real life, even using this style in his depiction of people in extraordinary situations, such as his paintings of the conversion of St. Paul and the crucifixion of St. Peter. The balancing of the ideal with the real itself achieved in a way the classical ideal of balance.

Whichever vision guided the artist however, of the ideal, the real, or something that was not quite either or a combination of both, his goal was to show people, places, and objects which other people like would want to look at and which would draw them back to look at them again and again. This is what defines beauty – the quality of being desirable to the senses of sight or, in the case of music, sound.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the 20th century revolution in the arts was the rejection on the part of many of the idea that art should be beautiful. Throughout history, art has been made depicting things which are not beautiful. The Last Judgment is a common theme in religious art and the damned being sent off to Hell, or dragged there by demons, is not something that can be depicted in an aesthetically pleasing way. The purpose of such paintings is to produce moral and spiritual reflection. Quentin Massys for some reason painted the portrait that has come to be known as The Ugly Duchess. The entire oeuvre of Hieronymous Bosch could not be described as beautiful in any conventional sense of the term. These kinds of painting, however, were understood to be exceptions to the rule. They depicted ugly subjects for reasons which were considered sufficient to overrule the general understanding that artwork was to be beautiful.

That is very different from the later 20th Century idea that there is no necessary connection between art and the beautiful, that the latter is entirely subjective, and that art exists as a vehicle of the artist’s self-expression which is apparently so valuable to society that it deserves to be funded from the public purse. This idea is fatal to the concept of art for the only justification for thinking of art as something unique within the general category of the application of human knowledge and skill to the making of things (the original meaning of the word “art”) is that art is the making of things which are beautiful.

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