Quick thought on the What-is-Art Question
After reading and thinking about the nature of art, (and scaling my way through a dissertation on art and the politics of reality), I tried my best to come up with two wholly opposed ways of seeing it. Many people have distributed their take on such a process, and this one is mine.
I think this is an especially important thing to be thinking about today. Not only because its fun, but because we — those living in the (2017) U.S. of A. — seem to be in a deluge of wonder, or just encounter, what seems to be a very fuzzy border between “reality” and some sort of un-reality, or the world of the imagination. Art, like politics, can be thought of as always having resided in this strange-land of Representation/Creation. This analysis reveals how it is that Art is but a case of the broader phenomena that is the social construction of reality.
I’m mainly drawing from the works of John Dewey, Émile Durkheim, Walter Benjamin, Max Weber, Freud, and maybe some more Dewey. I tried my best to not take a position, yet I’m pretty sure art is what people agree art to be. Trying to be as concise as possible, it’s a pretty academic-feeling piece.
Art is that which is defined as such within a field of contestation.
Art is that which may come to be defined as art through a process characterized by a contestation within a field of meaning and power. This field is the “art world.”
In order to analyze this process works, we can see art as any object which has experienced movement from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred, as tied to a particular historic testimony. While art-objects must also engage people with a sense of emotional resonance, art-objects are those which have gained legitimacy in the art world. A move for any potential object to the realm of the sacred renders it an “art-object.” Surely, everything on Earth is a “potential object” for this process and the forces involved in the art world engage the process through meaning-making and socioeconomic manipulation.
The sacred is defined as that removed from the realm of worldly things, the world of the profane. As such, art is made sacred through its separation from daily experience. The notion of the sacred and profane is largely understood through the work of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim (1912) offers that “the sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not touch, and cannot touch with impunity” (55).
In the incredibly white, clean, and sparse gallery or museum there is silence and distance. The ever present collection of security personnel watch over those who may be in the presence of sacred objects for a fixed period of time. If touched, the objects are handled by persons designated through a process of prestige, and even they move with gloved hands. In their incredible state of separateness, objects of art enjoy the status of the sacred.
Whether the object be a great painting in the case of Rembrandt, drawings from the asylum in the case of Adolf Wölfli, or a standard urinal in the case of Marcel Duchamp, the sacred nature of the object renders them distinct from objects characterized as profane. Horkheimer and Adorno (1947) offer that, “just as the sorcerer begins the ceremony by marking out from all its surroundings the place in which the sacred forces are to come into play, each work of art is closed off from reality by its own circumference” (14).
Our ceremony of art is delineated by the museum, wherein the walls mark a significant barrier between the sacred objects and the profanity of the world. In this context, we can learn just as much about the nature of art from the glass that keeps it distance from the viewer as we can from the work itself.
However, the sacred nature of art is never without a sense of contestation. In the art world, people are always involved in deliberation regarding what counts as a sacred art-object, and what does not. This is a decision, sometimes made by collectors, organizations, foundations, or museums.
In addition to its being separate from the worldly realm of the profane, art is defined through consideration of its authenticity as tied to a unique historical testimony. For Walter Benjamin (1935), this is the “aura” of the art-object, suggesting that “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning” (4). No matter the productive conditions of the object, the aura of art is maintained so long as the object is meaningfully attached to a particular set of historical circumstances deemed important. The importance of the aura for art is made palatable in consideration of the forgery.
A nearly famous case of art forgery is that of a contemporary German artist Wolfgang Beltracchi. Prior to his discovery in 2010, Beltracchi made a fortune by forging great works of art. Those who bought Beltracchi’s pieces, often auctioned at Christies and Sotheby’s for millions of dollars, expressed great outrage and demanded that their purchases be refunded. Although the whole art world initially celebrated the works created by Beltracchi, the news that they were Beltracchis, rather than Leonardos or Van Goghs, rendered them profane. In fact, some of those who bought the pieces declared that they transformed from works of art to mere decorations.
The case of Beltracchi and his forgeries reveals the way in which art is tied to a unique historical testimony. Notice that nothing has happened to the art-object save a shift in the meaning that people attach to its history. The fact that the works of Beltracchi lost their status as works of art upon them being revealed as forgeries allows us to see the way in which art is defined by the meaning with which it is associated.
Bringing both considerations together, the character of art as sacred in context of the profane, and the character of art as tied to a particular historical testimony, allows us to see the way in which art comes to be defined as such in a field of contestation over meaning. These two characteristics are never separate, in that the aura derived from historical testimony is a characteristic of the sacred, and the lack of ties to important historical testimony is a characteristic of the profane. In the case of Beltracchi’s work, we see a process wherein the work “moved” from the sacred to the profane upon a break in a perceived historical testimony deemed meaningful.
In the case of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” we see the sacred as determined through an attachment to an important historical figure and historical moment, in that it was created by a famous artist and is said to have completely “disrupted” the art world at the time. What needs to be understood further is the process, as it will reveal the field of power wherein the meanings involved are constructed.
We may begin to consider the way that meaning becomes attached to art-objects by exploring the way in which sense perception of people may change over time, and follow this by consideration of the market-economy of the art world. Central in the process of moving from a potential object (profane) to the art-object (sacred) is the ability of the art-object to produce substantial emotional resonance among a people in a given period and region. Simply put, people must feel moved in the presence of the object in order for that object to become an art-object.
Certainly, the emotional resonance may be due to innumerable factors. Regardless of the way in which the object engages with the emotions of many, its emotional resonance is key and it is guided by the perceptive qualities of a given people which change over time.
Benjamin (1935) offers that “the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” (222). Benjamin illustrates the way in which perception is tied to history, and it is through this insight that we are able to recognize the temporal nature of emotional resonance with art-objects.
For instance, there is a great shift in the notion of perception tied with the popularization of Freud’s psychoanalysis, particularly regarding the notion of the subconscious mind. Since the popularization of Freud’s work, consumers of art actively engage with art-objects in consideration of a realm of perception unknown to those before Freud’s work, the unconscious realm. A person may stare into the great paintings of Max Ernst and assume that they are having an experience which goes beyond that of their “conscious mind.” They may consider how it is that they just don’t quite understand the piece, yet they may “know” that they are indeed delving deep into an unconscious experience that may “reveal itself to them” later on.
The surrealists engaged with Freud to the point that they published bits of his writings in their manifesto, and even exchanged letters with the doctor for a time. In this sense, the work of Max Ernst, and the emotional resonance experienced by of those who experienced it, are effects of the changing nature of perception due to the advent of psychoanalysis.
One way in which sense perception reveals itself in relation to art is founded through the actions of “art market.”
Here we see people, places, and capital involved in the art world as engaged in bouts over the nature of art through the representation of artists and their work in settings of specific interest. The art market is determined by a set of exclusive galleries, auction houses, shows, organizations, and the multimillion dollar art-school system. In the art show we see La Biennale di Venezia, an unfathomably expensive yearly art exhibition.
La Biennale features red carpet events, a global paparazzi, and is said to be one of the most important art events in the world. Those artists who show at La Biennale become tied to a particular historical legacy of great importance to the art world. From the Biennale, an art-object may arrive at the great auction house of Sotheby’s, where the representatives of art dealers and collectors regularly direct the spending of hundreds of million dollars for art-objects. The art-object may be housed by a private collector and to be placed in a municipal museum upon the collector’s death.
The artist behind this art-object would likely enjoy notoriety, with interviews in large newspapers and in the publishing of books with images of their work. Some artists, Picasso being a great case, become living icons due to their connection with the art world. With this in mind, it becomes clear that mere emotional resonance is not enough, especially if this resonance is experienced by people outside of the art world. Certainly, Mom’s opinion alone will never turn a potential-object into an art-object. Of course, the drawings from children that make it onto refrigerators in family homes are sacred.
Yet, there is a sense of degree at work here, in that an object considered sacred by the few is celebrated by the cult, not the society. The art-object of interest in this analysis is that broader phenomena, and we see the meaning over this phenomena hotly contested throughout the art market as the capital representative of the art world.
This thinking reveals that there are certain people and processes which determine the nature of art in society through an ever-changing contestation over meaning.
Art-objects never stand alone. The potential-object becomes the art-object upon a move from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane, and this process is inexorably tied to the sense of historical testimony conditioned through consideration of authenticity. The art-object engages people through emotional resonance determined by a temporally-bound organization of sense perception in a given society, while the art market reveals the way in which art-objects interact with capital in context of ever changing perceptions of emotional resonance. It is for these reasons that art is but a case of the broader phenomena that is the social construction of reality.
Art is the product of aesthetically-oriented rational action.
Art is the product of aesthetically-oriented action in that it is the end toward which a guided, and indeed profusely trained, process is aimed in context of an anticipated sensory appreciation. The orientation of action is double, in that it is at once concerned with the immediately technical considerations of production, what we will call “technique,” and by the employment of inference into the way that the product will be experienced through perceptive qualities of the consumer, what we will call “meaning.” The successful fusion of this dually-concerned action produces an intentional end, that is art.
For the artist, we see effort as guided by a future perception of their work, or, an anticipated aesthetic experience of the consumer, in that it is an anticipated sensory-based interaction with beauty. This is how the rational action of art production is oriented, it is geared toward a particular end. This analysis reveals how it is that Art is but a case of the broader phenomena, that is the rational nature activity.
Any undertaking in the production of art requires of the artist a deep interaction with perspective aesthetic experience of others. In this sense, the production of art may be seen as future-oriented, in that the artist must seek to project a sense of appreciation for beauty into an imagined scenario between the consumer and the product. In their leap toward an imagined experience, the artist is in relation with the future aesthetic orientation of others when judgments are to be made regarding the productive aspects of the work in the present. This aspect of the production maintains deep concern over meaning.
The American pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey (1922), helps us here in offering that we use our projections of future conditions to shape those of the present in order to achieve a desired outcome. He suggests “we use the foresight of the future to refine and expand present activity.” (313), and stresses that “an end-in-view is a means in present action” (226). In the case of art, “present action” is the technical doings of the artist, the splattering of paint in specific ways for Jackson Pollock.
As much as this is an activity, the “end-in-view” is the means through which the present action is accomplished. For art, the anticipation of future aesthetic appreciation drives the meaning of action in the present. In Pollock’s case, trashing about with a paint-soaked brush is just as guided by the anticipation of future perception as it is by the arm itself.
As a product of action oriented toward aesthetic appreciation, art is rational. The end guides the activity, and as such it is an oriented activity of ends founded in the projection of perceptive qualities of future experience.
The sociologist, Max Weber, gives us a lot to work with on this account. He argues that the great causal force of history is rationalization, wherein we see a shifts in the animation of activity from that of a magical, or mystic, orientation toward that of means-ends, instrumental, orientation. For Weber, this is the historical characteristic of modernity. He offers a way for us to see how the rational orientation of art is accomplished.
In breaking down an understanding of rationality in technique, Weber (1968) suggests that “the ‘technique’ of an action refers to the means employed as opposed to the meaning or end to which the action is, in the last analysis, oriented” (65), whereas the “‘rational’ technique is a choice of means which is consciously and systematically oriented to the experience and reflection of the actor” (65).
Rather than assume Weber’s analysis to be historical, one which proposes rational technique as developed from technique, per se, we may see that they can occur simultaneously in the action of the artist.
From this point of view, wherein the mere technique of an action may be seen in Pollock’s arm, the rational technique is established in his conscious orientation toward the arm, conscious here of the prospective aesthetic appreciation of the object by the future consumer. It is in the “reflection of the actor” that the art gains meaning in production. Both forms of technique occur simultaneously, and this is the character which distinguishes the arts action from other forms of action.
The rational process determining action for the artist is the very movement from mere technique to meaning, and back again, throughout the productive process. In this sense, the action producing art is double and the product engages the consumer as a fusion of technique and meaning.
We can build further to see the dual nature of artistic action in through the work of Dewey. He highlights a sense of tension between technique, or what he refers to as mechanism, and aesthetically-appreciable ends, or what he refers to as thought and feeling. Dewey (1922) suggests that “all life operates through a mechanism, and the higher the form of life the more complex, sure and flexible the mechanism” (70). In this sense, Pollock’s arm is an incredible apparatus of movement that evades scientific analysis in its complexity.
Dewey suggests that life cannot exist save mechanics, yet, “the difference between the artist and the mere technician is unmistakeable” (71). He asserts that “the artist is a masterful technician. The technique or mechanism is fused with thought and feeling” (71). As such, we can see Dewey supporting the notion that the work of the artist is beyond the technician in its productive action, and is founded through a fusing of the dual qualities of technique and feeling. Dewey offers that we may see the nature of feeling in art through an appreciation of the aptitude of the artist by asserting that “the scientific fact, is that even in his exercises, his practice for skill, an artist uses an art he already has” (71).
Dewey suggests that we, as consumers of art, are aware of the tension between mechanism and feeling and place judgment in our appreciation of art in this regard. As all art will reveal the rational character discussed above, it is perhaps best seen in art which is the product of an attempt to disrupt this very rational character of action.
Prior to the photograph, art was tasked with the reproduction of experience, especially through the practice of portraiture and landscapes. Since the invention and wide use of technologies in photography, art is said to have been “freed” from representation.Given notable exceptions, such the wildly surreal paintings of Hieronymus Bosch in the 1400’s, nearly every instance of artistic action which distances itself from representation can be traced to this technological and cultural shift in representation.
For instance, in “movements” such as Dadaism, we see a call toward the disruption of rationality in the production of art. It is here that we encounter art which is esteemed in its having “no rationality” in its production or purpose. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp placed a standard urinal in a museum and called it, “Fountain,” as part of the cause célèbre to challenge the idea that art is the product of rational action.
Yet, this instance is the very place wherein the rational character of art is most prominent. In its great call for anti-art, Dada artists produce art with an explicit purpose to elicit a particular response upon a sensory encounter with the object. Duchamp’s “Fountain” was rendered into a work of art through its explicit intention to excite reaction in others.
In this sense, “Fountain” is the product of highly-rational action. Additionally, Dada’s use of collage was seen as a way to disrupt the notion of novelty in art, to challenge the idea that the artist had to produce something wholly new as opposed to just arrange found objects in new ways. Indeed, something new was created in the collage, and it is the object of aesthetically-oriented action.
Furthermore, Dada artists proposed the notion that art could be the culmination of an array of random processes. A randomization in the process of artistic action interacts with but one facet of its dual character, the technique. Even in this regard, randomization does not disrupt the rational process, as “chance” becomes a predictable means through which materials are arranged. Chance is a technique on the same level as the proper alignment of a brush to a canvas.
Taken together, it becomes clear that art is product of aesthetically-oriented action. A consideration of the dual character of artistic production allows us to see how it is that the artist is engaged in a means-ends, rational, activity. As is discussed regarding Dadaism, it is impossible to escape the rational character of artistic production and as such art with always be the product of aesthetically-oriented action. The case of Art provides us with a great example of the larger phenomena of rationality as it presents itself through action in the social world.
So, what is art then?
I think art is whatever people make it to be, but not all people get to choose. Sacred Fountains, Piss Christs, and otherwise awesome toilets.
Benjamin, Walter. 1935. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Pp. 3–26 in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt. 1935. New York: Schocken Books.
Dewey, John. 2011 . Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Dover Publications
Durkheim, Émile. 1995 . The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Karen E. Fields, Translator. Free Press.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 1947. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments
Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited by Roth Guenther and Claus Wittich. Los Angeles: University of California Press.