What is Art and What is its Job

January 16, 2019

I have been having a running discussion with an artist friend, Stephen Scott, on the subject of what is art and what is its job. Actually I have been kicking the idea around both in my head and with others for well over fifty years, but recently the topic has become more focused as I become more disturbed by what passes for art in this the first quarter of the 21st century. By art I mean visual art. I will leave other art forms to others. Certainly, these are my own opinions and frankly, at this time of my life, I do not feel like debating them. If people do not like them; it is their problem and they are free to express their own ideas. I might even like them.

Art is not half-baked sociology expressed freely in any form of visual art. Heart felt concerns about the state of the world is not enough turn an object into a work of art. Here I am limiting myself to traditional visual art, objects, and leaving out performance art, as well as video and film, not because I do not think that they are art, but because they raise another whole set of problems not central to my argument. Of course, art can process powerful content, but first it must be a work of art. This is rather a circular argument as I need to define the terms art and content which would take a book rather the poke in the eye with a stick that I attempting here. By content I simply mean subject matter and by art an object that has aesthetic powers to transform the experience of the viewer hopefully in a pleasant or powerful way. The first part of the last sentence is simplistic and the second part, at best, confusing.

Subject matter in a painting can be as simple as being a still life, landscape, or a portrait. Abstraction can also be subject matter, all be it abstract, but again raising another set of problems. Thematic subject matter like feminism, racial politics or any political content cloud the issue. One can dismiss an apple as being poorly painted and get away with it, but dismissing a painting with cultural and/or social trappings, no matter how poorly executed, is another matter for an art critic. It is a no win situation and best avoided.

I have alway been of the opinion that beauty is a safe option of approaching the question of what art is. Of course, there is the problem of definition of beauty and, leaving aside the old chestnut that it is in the eye of the beholder, that beauty is bound by culture and very culture has its own idea of beauty. Actually I do not believe this and good case can be made that beauty is more universal and tied to biology and visual psychology. Hence, we can find art from other cultures beautiful. Two recent books make this case far better than I: one, The Art Instinct (2009) by the late Denis Dutton and, two, The Origins of Creativity by Edward O. Wilson (2017), but there many others as well. My point being is that I am not being original in the idea that beauty is universal and common to us all whether one admits to it or not. Beauty is related to pleasure and pleasure is good thing therefore a good painting invokes pleasure and is a good thing. Certainly, a good painting can also invoke ideas beyond beauty and the best paintings do.

Now, what is the job of art? Is it beyond invoking the well being of pleasure? Pleasure can be enough and is something that is needed by the human race. Visual art is not the only thing that can bring us pleasure. There is literature, poetry, music, drama, and let’s not leave out sex from the long list. Again, I will limit my arguments to painting. I do understand that there were, and are, societies where idea the idea of painting does not exist, I assume that they have a concept of beauty.

Back to the job description of art. Aesthetics are at the root of what art does. I taught a course on the principles of art criticism that included the philosophy of beauty for most of my career as a university professor. It covered Western philosophers from roughly around Plato to Heidegger. Yes, I realize that it was a bunch of dead white guys, but that was made clear in the course description and there is only so much you can cover in twenty-six weeks. Yes, there is philosophy other than Western philosophy and there is a sex other than men who are and were philosophers. My students were made aware of the exclusions and we did discuss why these exclusions were central to egocentric Western thought as it evolved. What was discussed was the aesthetic object and how it was perceived as the beautiful over period of roughly two thousand years.

The aim of the beautiful is to achieve a certain sense of bliss, or whatever you want to call it, through some sort of stimulus and the case of my argument here is that a stimulus can be a visual art object. That defines the major job of an art work. Some art succeeds in doing this job and some do not. Again, leaving content aside, the art work that does not possess beauty, while perhaps worthy, is not art, but something else. There is much more to be said than is covered in this short article.

Work (Manchester) by Ford Madox Brown 1865

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