Plan for the Gardens of Versailles
But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland
Diving right into Chapter 2, Freeland begins by suggesting that contemporary artists who create work using blood, urine, maggots, and plastic surgery are successors of past artists who took sex, violence, and war as their subjects. Since this type of work doesn't fit into either Kant or Hume's model for art, what theory can be applied? Freeland hopes to offer a context for today's art by visiting five historical periods in Western art:
Athens, 5th Century B.C.E.
Classical tragedy began in Athens, and gave us the theory that art imitates nature or human life. Plato labeled art as skilled craft by imitators. He found tragedy to be morally confusing to the masses. However, Artistotle disagreed and stated that imitation is not only natural for humans but even pleasurable. He felt that tragedy could educate people about adversity and offer a catharsis, although he did take exception with Euripides' Medea, where a good person chooses evil. Aristotle believed that the hero should have an unflawed character and simply makes mistakes.
Chartres, 1200 A.D.
This thriving medieval French city is home to a famous gothic-style Notre-Dame cathedral. Freeland notes that the main entry portal has statues of pagan philosophers like Artistotle and Pythagoras, amid hundreds of saints and apostles. Why? Chartres was known for its school of theology, which was really a liberal arts institution where all classical authors were studied. Therefore, the builders were influenced by these philosophers and incorporated them into the ornamentation. But, it was Thomas Aquinas who developed a theory about art at that time that became truly influential. His idea was that beauty is an essential property of God and that human art works should aspire to be God-like. Cathedral builders thus concerned themselves with proportion, light, and allegory to build what would represent God's heavenly illumination and to reveal sacred truths in the stained-glass windows, sculptures, paintings, and architecture. Hence, the role of art was a spiritual one.
The famous Gardens of Versailles, commissioned by Louis XIV, were designed by Andre' Le Notre around the theme of Apollos, the sun god. Greek mythology was important to the plan. The purpose of the garden was to signify Louis' dominance as an absolute monarch and to serve as a venue for official gatherings. Although Kant never visited the gardens, he saw engravings of them and commented that it seems strange that landscape gardening may be regarded as a kind of painting and added that it is art since it allows for the free play of imagination and that it is beautiful. Kant's ideas gave rise to new genres of landscape painting and Romantic poets.
Premier of Wagner's opera Parsifal, 1882
Richard Wagner was a Romantic who was in the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Parsifal was his last opera. Philospher Friderich Nietzche, who was in the audience on the opening-night of this five hour opera, was so impacted by Wagner's work that he wrote and published The Case of Wagner in 1888 to praise the "psychological knowingness" of this opera but also to criticize its "sick" plot. There began a clash between aesthetic and moral concerns.
Warhol's Brillo Box, 1964
According to Freeland, Warhol helped spark the transition from macho New York Abstract Expressionism to playful gender-bending postmodernism. Warhol's brillo boxes exactly replicated the ones in supermarkets, which lead art critic Arthur Danto to question whether this was art. On the other hand, philosopher George Dickie offered in defense of Warhol's work the "institutional theory of art" which states that any artifact which has been conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the art world) is art. Danto eventually concluded that a work of art is an object that embodies meaning. It is Danto's theory of art that enabled the artworld to accept the works of Warhol, Serrano, Hirst, Koons, and other "controversial" artists.
What Freeland demonstrates in this historical narrative is a broadening of the term "art" from narrow in its early history to almost all-inclusive today. The historic notions of beauty, morality, and form are very rigid by comparison. But, even today, not all that is "art" is "good art." We'll expand on this thought in the next few posts.
And now, your thoughts??