The Laws of Nature

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What is Art, Part II

I left you with a cliff-hanger yesterday as I began to venture into the second chapter of Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct. The author was just about to give us his answer to What is art? when I stopped; I'll admit that I read sections of the book just before I write the posts, so I haven't read ahead at all. Anyway, Dutton proposes to answer this age-old question by identifying those characteristic features of art that move across cultural boundaries and find universal acceptance.

Dutton lists twelve core items that either describe features of works of art or qualities of the experiences of art. These twelve items apply across cultures and throughout history. Before listing these items, he specifies that his use of the terms "art" and "arts" mean artifacts (sculptures, paintings, and decorated objects, such as tools or the human body, and scores and texts considered as objects) as well as performances (dances, music, and the composition and recitation of stories). Dutton also mentions that many of the items listed may also apply to non-art experiences and capacities. Now, here's the list:

1. Direct pleasure - this is aesthetic pleasure enjoyed as layered experiences (example: pleasures derived from responses to various aspects of a painting like color, design, message).

2. Skill and virtuosity - this means skills that are developed in an individual (rather than a tribe) that stand apart because of the level of mastery and special talent of the artist. Dutton notes that high skill is a source of pleasure and admiration even in areas that aren't art-related.

3. Style - styles are created according to rules of form, composition, or expression according to Dutton. Styles may be derived from the traditions of cultures or original individual interpretations. He mentions that strictly adhered-to styles can imprison the artist, but that in more liberal cultures where artists are free to create a new style they fiind liberation.

4. Novelty and creativity - the value of art also derives from its novelty, creativity, originality, and capacity to surprise its audience. In other words, thinking "outside the box" to find creative and unpredictable solutions is central to individual genius in art.

5. Criticism - it seems that criticism exists wherever art exists. Here, "criticism" means the dialogue between artists, the writings of professional art critics and art scholars, and the expressed opinions of the audience. Apparently, criticism exists where criteria for success itself are complex and uncertain.

6. Representation - this includes either a representation or imitation of aspects of the real world and the imagination. Part of pleasure derived from representation comes from the skill of the artist and part from the subject matter.

7. Special focus - the work of art is set apart in society as something special that desesrves singular attention. Dutton notes that this item applies to special events outside of art as well.

8. Expressive individuality - the author writes: the potential to express individual personality is generally latent in art practices, whether or not it is fully achieved.

9. Emotional saturation - works of art are emotional expressions that the author divides into two categories: 1) emotions provoked by the content of the art, and 2) the emotional "tone" of a work of art apart from its content. I'll give you a personal example: the content Vivaldi's music The Four Seasons is the four seasons (duh!). So, when I listen to it I can hear or imagine the individual seasons in the music (that's content). But, the way the music flows, swells, and combination of notes creates feelings in me that have nothing to do with the seasons (that's emotional "tone).

10. Intellectual challenge - works of art appeal to both our perceptions and intellect, and challenge us in a way that enhances the aesthetic experience. For instance, part of enjoying a mystery novel is in challenging ourselves to solve the crime before the author reveals it. We derive enjoyment from the intellectual challenge. Paintings offer the same sort of challenge when they're well-executed.

11. Art traditions and institutions - works of art gain meaning by being produced in an art world, in what are essentially socially constructed art institutions.

12. Imaginative experience - art must produce an imaginative experience for the artist and the audience. Here, the author defines "imagination" through Kant's idea that it must be free of practical concerns and from the constraints of logicl and rational understanding.

Dutton summarizes this list in a way that helps us to decide "Is it art?" He urges us to ask non-technical questions like:
Does it show skill?
Does it express emotion?
Is it like other works of art in a known tradition?
Is it pleasurable?

Near the end of this chapter, the author emphasizes the importance of the artist's intention, which isn't part of the list. This is something that our friends Pam, Caroline, and Mary (did I leave someone out??) mentioned in their comments yesterday. Dutton writes: Works of art are fundamentally intentional artifacts, even if they possess any number of nonintended meanings. So, I Duchamp's urinal and other found objects would fall under the heading of "art" if they are intentionally selected and displayed.

Finally, Dutton recognizes that there's no specific number of items listed above that need to be present in order to call something "art." So, not every item applies to every work of art and some works of art include all items. It looks like there's still some "wiggle room" to debate What is art? Therefore, the author concludes that item 12, imaginative experience, is the most important item and must be universally applied when judging what is and isn't art.

I'll add one last comment about Dutton's book - it's worth reading! My brief synopsis doesn't do justice to the "meatiness" of this book and his ideas.
And now ... your ideas?


Mark Sheeky said...

It seems rather a long and complex list to me! I once made a list of the perfect ingredients for a successful relationship but learned that you can't easily use logic to examine interpersonal emotional responses. This list reads like the one I made!

Thanks for these brilliant posts. I'm inspired once more!

Casey Klahn said...

What a great thing to have this list of 12 - certainly food for thought. Bully to your "commentors" for adding intention.

I would say that the presence of one is not enough to define what is art, but that one of the grand things of art is a level of complexity. BTW, I do respect Duchamp for his "well-ahead-of-his-timeness." But, to me, intention doesn't make it (although I wrote at length about this recently). Looks like I learned something through this post!

Another thing that I notice is my resistance to a universal cross-cultural definition of art/ aspects of art. If I were writing, I would first try for a universal description of art within the western world. Then, I would take forays out.

Thanks for taking the time to bring this book my way, Kathy.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Interesting list. Given the flexibility of applying the criteria, it doesn't seem to clearly resolve the "what is art" question. Art becomes a "fuzzy category" in which the boundaries are not clearly definable by necessary and sufficient characteristics.

I wonder whether almost any human endeavor could be classified as an art form with this definition. Many aspects of the list could apply to cooking, for example. Indeed, many of them could apply to sex. How does this definition relate to other definitions of art, and the usual struggle to distinguish art from craft? Does an entire field of endeavor classify as art if the most exemplary examples fit the definition of art? Is all cooking art if some examples of haute cuisine fit the definition?

Thanks for posting your summary of the book -- it does make me want to read it.

hw (hallie) farber said...

A lot to think about!

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - your "relationship list" is a good analogy! I feel the same way, but when Dutton stresses item 12 then there seems to be a thin boundary between art and everything else. Again ... I feel like I'm grasping at jello. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Hi Casey - I think that Dutton feels that many criteria must apply rather than just one. However, the number and type of criteria change with different situations. It's tough to wrap one's mind around this but it's also somewhat understandable. I, too, wonder about the use of "intention" when it comes to identifying art. Usually, I'm very liberal about this but there are times when I just can't buy into it. For instance, a couple of years ago I visited a newly opened art gallery and in one corner was a pile of used sandpaper. There was a label next title it with a title, artist, and price. I asked the gallery owner if it was a joke. He candidly informed me that when the remodelers finished working on the gallery right before its opening night, they had left a pile of used sandpaper on the floor. He pushed it together, gave it a title and price and - voila' - it's art. To me that's ridiculous!
I like your idea about geographical segmentation when it comes to defining art. Interesting. Thanks, Casey!

Hi Deborah - Yup ... still very "fuzzy!" I think the list is more about what ISN'T art rather than what IS art. The author does a pretty good job separating everyday activities from art when he lists these criteria, but I couldn't go into all the details. You'd probably enjoy reading the book. Thanks for your comments!

Hi Hallie - you said it! :)

Dan Kent said...

I feel like an errant member of the club. I've been so busy that I have to play catchup on your posts. You are so prolific!

Anyway, I'm going to agree with Mark about this being a "long and complex list", though I find all the aspects very interesting. Still, a US Supreme Court Justice once defined pornography as "I know it when I see it." I think, for the most part, art has the same definition!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, It seems to me that the harder you try to define art, the more it eludes definition. Fun comments!

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - the best definitions utilize common sense. Thank you!

Hi Pam - it's interesting to think about which of these "items" suits us individually. You've identified one, and that's useful. Some of them reasonated with me as well, but these items also make me feel like a small cog in a huge mechanism - like we're all small parts of a big machine. Thanks so much for your comments!

Hi Peggy - Amen to that!!

-Don said...


Mark Sheeky said...

lol Don!!! :D

Mary Paquet said...

Peggy Stermer-Cox is spot on -- art illudes definition it seems. Just for the heck of it, I checked the Webster Dictionary. No help there either. I guess we get to define art personally!l

Unknown said...

Hi Don - guess I'll have to open a cyber infirmary that dispenses cyber aspirin for all the headaches I've caused :) sorry!

Hi Mary - I've never found the dictionary to be any help when it comes to defining art (nor Wikipedia!). Thanks :)

-Don said...

Hi Kathy... Do NOT apologize for my aching brain. I thank you for it. You have made me think more about what I do over the past several weeks. I want you to know that I'm reading and trying to digest everything that you and several of our friends are saying, but sometimes time constraints stop me from elaborating on my thoughts - especially when I'm really not sure what my thoughts are on the matter.

Have you read the latest issue of Art News? There is a fascinating article titled "Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?". I'm still trying to get my brain wrapped around everything they're saying and need to read it a couple more times. I think it relates quite well to the discussion - especially the dialog between you and Mark on his blog. I will be leaving a similar comment there.

Now I must return to my current prodigal child. I plan to have an update on its status by early tomorrow morning - whether I like it or not. :-}


Unknown said...

Don - I completely understand! I can barely keep up with my own blog myself :-). I haven't seen the latest "Art News" but will take a look. Thanks. Now ... keep painting those masterpieces!