But is it art… again!

Ive been confronted recently by the philosophy of art, so this posting is just an extended musing about recent reading.

An argument advanced by one of my BTEC tutors during a lecture on Saturday is that when something ordinary is considered as art it acquires a deeper significance. That is, no-one thought much about Duchamps urinal until he signed it and put it on exhibition. Slices of everyday life – photographs perhaps – which wed pass by without a second thought, become objects of contemplation when hung on a gallery wall. A dangerous argument, because taken to its logical conclusions, it implies that:
1. it doesnt matter what the actual art work is. (Duchamp could just have easily signed a toilet seat, or chain.)
2. The value of the art object depends entirely on the spectators response, and that will vary from person to person. Is a cynical male chauvinists response to Orlan as valid as a feminist art critics response? (According to Bourdieu, all our aesthetic responses are socially and culturally determined, so art can only show me what I am able to see in it anyway.)
3. Or is it just the fact that there is a response, and the extent of that response, that counts? (In other words, is art only art if it shocks us?)
4. The value of the art object also depends on the spectator being told that it is an art object, and who tells him that? The art world establishment, as far as I can see. (According to Wikipedia “The piece was rejected when he submitted it to the unjuried 1917 Society of Independent Artists; however, when it was discovered that Duchamp was actually the artist, it was almost immediately accepted as artwork.” This quote from Wikipedia has no source, but it is at least true that art establishment opinions of Fountain have varied greatly!)
Why is Tracey Emins unmade bed a work of art, when mine isnt? Because enough people think it is.

Examples given in the lecture on Saturday included:

1. Orlan, the French feminist who has undergone plastic surgery to make herself first beautiful and then odd, all of it filmed, and during which she read extracts from feminist works. (An article in Art Forum in 1993 quotes “a French psychoanalytical periodical that devoted an entire issue to her” as saying that “she isnt crazy, but that she ought to be protected from both the ethics and esthetics of ..[her plastic surgeon>”.)

2. Chris Burden, who had himself shot in a public performance in 1971. Enough people get shot these days without him adding to the number. It was very contrived and arty: he clearly had himself shot with a very small calibre gun (or even an air rifle). If he was really sincere, and had had himself shot by the IRA (with an Armalite) or the Viet Cong (with an AK47) there wouldnt just have been a neat little round hole and a thin trickle of blood. No, he wanted to recover in time to enjoy his reputation. Anyone going to this sort of art event should also wonder whether they are putting themselves in the place of Stanley Milgrams experimental subjects. Is the right response (a) to watch voyeuristically and feel really good about your high art credentials, (b) to persuade the poor man into therapy for self-harming, or (c) just to stay away? Mr Burden later became a Professor at UCLA but (according to Wikipedia) “resigned in 2005 due to a controversy over the universitys alleged mishandling of a graduate students classroom performance piece that echoed one of Burdens own performance pieces, and made several faculty members including Burden … feel unsafe. The performance allegedly involved a loaded gun, but authorities were unable to substantiate this.” (Theres an interesting recent littoral art project called I shot Chris Burden, a blog which says: “We are now living in an age when an artist can be assasinated and the art world remains silent. Theo van Gogh was murdered by a conspiracy of fanatics who lost their sense of humor. There is a tremendous level of anger and hostility among many within the art blogging community. “I Shot Chris Burden” was a test for that presence. I am troubled by the fact that many within the art blogging community have lost their sense of humor as well.”)

3. Carolee Schneeman, who in 1975 printed a copy of a critical review of her work on a long strip of paper, stuffed it into her vagina, and then in a performance art exhibition called Interior Scroll, pulled it out again, reading it aloud as she did so. You can read symbolism and a message into it if you want, but quite similar things are available on many internet porn sites. Is it art solely because of the artists intention that it should be considered as art? If so, does this apply to Arno Breker?(By the way, I loved the text accompanying Schneemans 1995 installation, Vulvas Morphia: “A visceral sequence of photographs and text in which a Vulvic personification presents an ironic analysis juxtaposing slides and text to undermine Lacanian semiotics, gender issues, Marxism, the male art establishment, religious and cultural taboos.” Thats right, darling, you tell em.)

After dipping into the literature Ive come to the conclusion that there are two ways of thinking about art, and they are often confused in our minds.

The first approach is the philosophical enquiry: what is art? what makes good art good, and bad art bad (or non-art non-art)?

Kants idea that art is a disinterested interest – something we look at for its own sake, and not for any other – eg we look at a landscape painting for what it looks like, not to see how to get somewhere, or if it is raining, or if we are under threat. Taste comes into it, and if we consistently refuse to acknowledge our own best judgements about what is tasteful, we let ourselvs down. As Roger Scruton summarises Kants view: “you can pretend to ignore the degradation of music, the spoliation of thelandscape, the destruction of the town, but in your heat you will gradually be subdued and even destroyed by these things. Aesthetic judgement is a part of practical reason, and our truest guide to the environment. It is by aesthetic judgement that we adapt the world to ourselves and ourselves to the world.”

Heidegger, since the tutor quoted him. (Ive learned the hard way never to read Heidegger in the original, so Ive drawn on George Steiners book and on Heideggers Philosophy of Art by Prof Julian Young) Heidegger follows Kants view that the aesthetic state is disinterested, but claims that this makes art of peripheral importance. (Something you do to relax, a hobby like stamp-collecting). Hegel thought that art had died, because science and reason were now able to present the illumination that had previously come through art. (People read the Bible, rather than looking at Giottos paintings; or they read Freud, rather than going to see Oedipus Rex.) All that was then left was the aesthetic or hobby view of art. No, says Heidegger, art is the happening of truth…. only if great art returns can there occur a decisive confrontation with the destitution of the age… the return of great art therefore is something we need more than anything else.” Being Heidegger, he adds that art is only one of the ways truth happens – another may be the act that founds a political state. In these charismatic events, truth happens. (Written in 1936 when Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party. Im not suggesting that Heidegger was seriously involved in Nazism, or that any Nazi leaders drew inspiration from him or had even heard of him. But I do maintain that, if you tried to live out Heideggers philosophy to the full, you might end up remarkably like Reinhard Heydrich. Sorry for the digression.) Heidegger asserts that successful art does not require valid art theory (the ancient Greeks managed without theory) but that modern art theory is bad. But he also claims that art does not have to be fine art – a Greek temple was many things, practical, activist, challenging, as well as beautiful. Similarly the boundaries of art are expanding to include things we didnt used to consider as art. (“we will understand the word art to mean quite generally every sort of capacity to bring forth truth…”)
But, Heidegger adds, this opening to truth is actually an opening to the world in which the art object exists rather than some paradigm. (Being always exists inside time – Sein und Zeit – for Heidegger, not as an independent state.) For example, Greek temples opened insights about the Greek world. As art works age, the world view changes, and they become less relevant: the world is withdrawn from the work. He also sees an ethical element: the Greek world, as opened by charismatic events such as a Greek temple, is what the Greek world ought to have been, rather than what it actually might have been at that moment. “Properly understanding ones world does not, H says, “consist in mere information and notions about something”. Rather, “he who truly knows what is, knows what he wills to do in the midst of what is…”.

Roger Scruton, in Modern Philosophy, says “Modern philosophers have had little to say about the nature of aesthetic interest; almost nothing to say about its relation to moral, religious or scientific interests. The concentration has been on the philosophy of art, and in particular on puzzles created by boring impostors like Duchamp: is this signed urinal a work of art, etc? This makes for an extremely dull literature, devoted to questions which can be answered in any way while leaving everything important exactly as it is.”

The second way of thinking about art is the art establishment view. What is good art? (or even what is art?) depend on who hangs it, who buys it, which big name did it. So many careers – dealers, galleries, critics, art historians, magazines, best-selling artists themselves – depend on this, that it has become the exact opposite of Kants disinterested interest.

If you are using art to make money, then it has to be judged by the standards of money. How much is it worth now, how much is it likely to be worth in ten years, whats my ROI? (See this posting for references to the investment view of art. It becomes a commodity or investment vehicle in exactly the same sense as pork bellies or crude oil.

Duchamps urinal now seems to me a more benign object than Scruton allows. I think he was partly drawing attention to the difference between the two views of art: art as some different category of experience, and art as financial instrument. As such I think its a work of satire rather than art. (And also it was 1917: perhaps absurdity was the only artistic response to an absurd and horrific world.)

I really dont like the idea that art has to shock us to be successful. Our taboos are so changeable. For instance, in 1907 you might have shocked people by being atheist, talking about sex, or appearing naked. In 2007, people use these pretend shocks without realising that these are last seasons taboos. Its quite safe to shock people by appearing naked in public these days. (People do it all the time). Thousands of women have plastic surgery. Thousands of women play with their genitalia in unusual ways on internet porn sites: one more in a happening makes no difference. A courageous artist would shock people by breaking a modern taboo – eg against racism, or against paedophilia – but that would lead to expulsion by the art establishment because it would be unfashionable. Can you imagine the response to a happening in which racist chants were shouted at other ethnic groups? Or in which the artists promoted far-right ideologies? It would be shocking yes, but not in the comfort zone in which art is allowed to shock us. It wouldnt sell, it would lead to complaints, the gallery might be closed down, so no-one would let it happen. It would be a wicked thing as well, of course, but then so is gratuitous self-harm or needless plastic surgery.

Art as propaganda, activism, etc., whether your cause is feminism or anything else, also makes me wonder. There are good examples of historical great art that were also propaganda. You could argue that all religious pictures are, though I think thats straining the context. Giotto must have believed in a very personal, sincere way, to paint the Scrovegni Chapel as he did: its as much a personal statement as an attempt to convert anyone. Come to think of it, all the examples of propaganda in art that I can think of are after 1800. Davids Horatii, Delacroix, Goyas horrors of war, innumerable dull Russians. By comparison, say, Holbeins portraits were more about status than political causes.

The result of confusing two theories of art – philosophical and commercial – is that we become confused ourselves. Faced with silly but commercially successful art, we wonder why the same standards dont apply to it as to Giotto. Its all too easy to assume that because one theoretical approach accepts rubbish, the other approach – and indeed the subject under discussion – is meaningless. (If a urinal is art, doesnt that somehow devalue Giottos frescos?) That would be a shame, because I do agree with Heidegger that art has a role in helping us to confront the shortcomings of our age.

Alas, one of those shortcomings is woolly thinking.

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