The Laws of Nature

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What is Art?

Author Denis Dutton concludes the first chapter of his book, The Art Instinct, with a synopsis of the evolution of human features and capabilities beginning in the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 11,000 years before present). The author makes the point that somewhere in this evolutionary time period, humans developed the instincts to produce and appreciate art and so, the arts were born. I like to think of it another way: the arts were born in a refrigerator! That is, Earth was in the midst of a great Ice Age when the arts were developed. Enormous contintental glaciers covered vast regions of the globe and human populations thrived in lower latitudes where vegetation could grow. But, I'm getting side-tracked.

In the second chapter, Dutton asks the timeless question What is Art? How many definitions have you seen for "art" during your lifetime? It's like trying to get a firm grip on a mass of jello. However, I'm intrigued that he decided to tackle this question and will unwrap only the first few pages of the chapter here. On the next post I tackle his set of criteria for what makes art.

Back to the introduction of What is Art? Dutton begins by asking if it's possible to define a universal aesthetic or art theory. To clarify his point, he cites the philosopher Julius Moravcsik who stresses that a transcultural investigation into art as a universal category must be distinguished from an attempt to determine the meaning of the word "art." OK, so it looks like we need to separate the two ideas and search for the boundaries and attributes that define art. The author notes the difficulty of such an endeavor because of the organic nature of "art" which changes in focus and values through time. He also sheds light on the fact that art theorists are usually influenced by cultural bias and personal idiosyncracy as well as philosophical rhetoric. Of course, all of this leads to intellectual arguments and general disagreement about what is art.

Dutton makes a clever observation about the paradoxical situation that exists in aesthetics today as a result. He states that scholars and theorists have greater access to a greater number of works of art than ever before in history but write analyses mostly about the outliers in art at the expense of attending to the center where a universal theory of art might be found. It's like defining the entirety of a forest by describing only the trees at its edge.

So, how does the author expect to overcome this paradoxical situation and provide us with the answer to What is art? He intends to go into the center of the forest and find that which naturally defines it. He will find those characteristic features of art that move across cultural boundaries and find universal acceptance.

If you want to have fun, speculate about what those characteristic features might be in advance and see how closely your ideas match his!

P.S. A personal note: I just finished all 34 canvases in oil for my show in Maine and have returned to watercolor today. It's good to make the switch about now since I was working in oils for nearly a year :)


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-Don said...

Only 34!?!? Have you been slacking off again? :-P Just kidding... What a great accomplishment. I look forward to seeing them some day. Have fun getting out the watercolors today!

I must admit that a fog has descended upon my brain this morning. It must be the late nights and early mornings I've tortured myself with lately...

Something which struck a vein with me today was art theorists usually being "influenced by cultural bias and personal idiosyncrasy as well as philosophical rhetoric." I will be intrigued how Mr. Dutton finds the middle of the forest without getting caught in this trap.


M said...

I find Dutton's observation that while scholars and theorists have greater access to works of art than ever but write mostly about the outliers in art a very interesting point. Of course the forest and the trees as a metaphor really works for me!

From my broader reading, travel and consideration of what goes on art wise in a small city, I have to agree that the art that gets discussed, written about and placed in museums/public galleries is not usually representative of what your "average" artist is producing. For me the average artist is the trend rather than the "wild and wonderful types".I'm thinking about the good old bell curve when I write this. Another observation I will make is that there seems to be a very high correlation between the artist who is also a skilled writer and thinker (or has someone equally skilled write about the work)gets more attention in the art world. Notice how I'm shying away from answering what is art.

I'll be reading other responses which might prompt more thoughts.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I live in a small southern town. I stay in touch with the world through the internet and four magazines; this is how I perceive the art world. From the perimeter of the forest inward = Art in America, Vanity Fair, Metropolitan Homes, and--closest to the center--Artist Magazine.

To me, if someone thinks it's art, on some level it is--from Stella's sculptures to old tires filled with petunias. (Design Within Reach now sells planters made from recycled tires.)

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - thanks! It's a relief to be finished with that project. Yes, I'm curious to see what Dutton writes about art as well. I read these book sections just before I write, so I'm not reading ahead. It's a cliffhanger :)

Hi Don - working toooo hard and toooo long can cause a serious effect called "brain cloud." OK - that's not a real condition, but comes close. Take a break and refresh yourself - you work too hard! BTW - my new canvases are posted on my website under the gallery labeled "Clark Island Intertidal." The series is objects I found on the beach there as well as some intertidal scenes. Nothing great, but definitely appropriate for a Maine gallery!

Hi Margaret - the bell curve is a great example! Thanks so much for offering this. Perhaps it's the mission of museums to collect from the tail end of the curve rather than closer to the mean. The defining innovations that lead to transitions in art seem to come from the tail.

Hi Hallie - you have a wonderful way of distilling things! I think you'd be much better at unwrapping Dutton's book than I am :) Thanks for offering your perspective.

Mark Sheeky said...

I don't think that something is art just because someone says it is. That could include anything from a rusty tin can to World War 2. Even on a logical level, "everything" can't potentially be given a meaningful label.

For me art must be empathic and meaningful to people, and preferably nice. Like an artifical friend.

Well done on those canvasses! That's more than I do in a year! How long did it take you from start to finish? How big? How many layers? Ooh so many questions :)

-Don said...

Oh, I beg to differ. There is some great among these new beauties. Thanks for sharing! Everyone should go check 'em out... -Don

hw (hallie) farber said...

Don's right again. I checked them out; started writing the names of the ones I really liked--there are too many to list. Beautiful work.

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layers said...

I am amazed and very impressed with the fact that you completed 34 paintings, and complete such comprehensive blog posts that seem so time consuming-- I assume you take time to eat?

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - it took me about a year, but I was also working on another series at the same time. The largest paintings are triptychs,
66"x24" each. Seven of them are 24" x 22" and the rest are miniatures,
6" x 6". The smallest ones cost me the most time since I'm naturally a large-scale painter. Too many layers to remember any more. I began the series a year ago, but didn't work full-time on it.

Hi Don - Thanks. I think they're modest compared the some of my other paintings, but lots of fun to do.

Hi Hallie - Thanks so much!

Hi Pam - Thanks as well! This is going to be an INTERESTING debate about art :) Let's see how it develops ...

M said...

Love the new work Kathy especially the 6 x 6 ones. The content is so close to my heart. I grew up near the water and from the age of 8 was allowed to go to the beach by myself. Was Mom thinking??
I continue these journeys at my summer house. I have scads of photos of such scenes which I will do something with one of these days.

Carolyn Abrams said...

I really like Pam's post about what art is. She is right. From some of the most horrible circumstances can come most powerful moving works of art. And who is to say it is not "art". Art is just a word. I think the emotional response of the creator as well as the viewer is the real "art".

Anonymous said...

The best I could offer today for a definition was not conclusive:"Art is"...that's as far as I could define.

Along the same lines as Pam's discussion. I was wondering, are cows cut up, injected with formaldehyde and in plexiglas art? I surprised myself by deciding it might depend on the context, intended meaning, artist and audience(?)

I am most curious to read a definition for art. And, I thoroughly enjoyed looking through your paintings. Congratulations!

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, the canvases are wonderful. And dang, I was in Port Clyde this summer -- just a bit too soon to see your show. You live in a wonderful area much loved by artists.

What is art? I went to the San Jose Museum of Art today to view the Chuck Close exhibit. We joined the museum and received a book on the museum's permanent collection. Among the statements was a quote from Bay Area artist William T. Wiley about the purpose of art, "for the construction of consciousness of our time and place -- the consciousness of our collective mind, heart, and body." The museum went on identify itself as a storehouse of shared values and diverse histories, recording who we are as a society. To me, this expresses Pam's view.

But then I think I am responding to two different questions -- "what is art?" is different from "what is the purpose of art?" However, I can extrapolate that art is that item that helps construct our consciousness of time and place.

Unknown said...

Hi Donna - I treat my career as an artist as threefold: scholarship, research, and teaching. The blogging is where I post what I'm learning (scholarship). The research is painting in my studio, and the teaching includes workshops around the country as well as individual private students. This best suits me, and yes, I still have time to eat :)

Hi Margaret - Thanks! I can imagine that your shoreline is very similar to mine in Maine.

Hi Carolyn - interesting point! thanks so much.

Hi Peggy - I was thinking about the cow and the shark as well. It blew my mind when I saw them at MoMA in NYC. Makes you really think about the boundaries that define art, if there are any. Thanks!

Hi Mary - No kidding! You were in Port Clyde?? Small world. If you're ever there again, send me an email and we'll get together. And, now we have three votes in support of Pam's idea about art! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and ideas about this. I guess I should read what Dutton has to say about it and write the next post ASAP! Thank you for commenting!

Mark Sheeky said...

All beautiful pictures that swish with browns and blue violets in just the best way!

To clarify; I wasn't saying that some things have no meaning! I agree that every thing can having meaning, I meant that calling everything art makes the label "art" meaningless :) I don't think meaning defines art though.