The Laws of Nature

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Another Definition for Art

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Portraits, 1966

I've just finished reading the seventh and final chapter of Cynthia Freeland's book, But is it art? and am impressed with her indepth examination of what makes art art. In the last few chapters she unfolds another definition for art as she travels through the theories of Tolstoy, Freud, Danto and others that we've previously discussed on this blog. Freeland concludes her book with this definition by the prominent environmental artist Robert Irwin: art is a continuous examination of our perceptual awareness and a continual expansion of our awareness of the world around us.

I can see why Freeland likes this definition. It treats art not only as the expression of the internal thoughts of the artist, but also as an expression of the world outside of the artist. This isn't an original thought, however. It's been offered in many different forms, but I think Irwin packaged it nicely for us.

So, when Freeland considers art in all its forms from "shock art" to "beautiful" art and everything in between, she's also providing us with the broadest possible definition for why ALL of it is art. It appears that boundaries are fuzzy and ever expanding (kind of like the worn out elastic band on an old pair of underwear!). Where do we go from here?

Next week I'll begin a new book: Art & Fear: observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking by Bayles and Orland. I hope you'll join me in that discussion, too!

Your thoughts?


Four Seasons in a Life said...

Greetings Katharine,

This last chapter of the book certainly encapsulates nicely and is parallel to what I have just been reading by Joseph Campbell that some artists and writers are gods, the creators of symbols, the myths for others to believe in.

What comes to mind as an example is Pollack and his drip paintings that was considered questionable art by many then, but today is being worship as art.

What remains a challenge is to find who is speaking the truth.

Wishing you a wonderful weekend,

Carolyn Abrams said...

I like her explanation of this definition...broad and all inclusive. I have also seen various definitions of art that just seem to tweak each other in one direction or another depending on where the definers focus is. ...skill, beauty, talent, taste etc. My favorite is truth and self-expression. I believe this is why i make art. Because i wasn't born with a talent i like learning new art skills. I'm not a big fan of shock art so i guess beauty is also a focus for me.

Thank you for reviewing this book Kathy!

Stan Kurth said...

Hi Kathy -

I often feel that I am a medium of sorts grasping at images ever so fleetingly streaming across my consciousness from the collective unconscious of the human spirit. I try to hold some of them captive.

I just finished Art & Fear about a month ago. It is a book that every serious artist should read again and again and again.

Unknown said...

Hi Egmont - "truth" is as elusive as "art" when it comes to finding a precise definition. It's different for each of us. I wish you a speedy recovery!!

Hi Carolyn - this is one of the very few times I must strongly disagree with you: you WERE born with talent!! How could you think that you weren't??

Hi Stan- it's good to know that you recommend the next book I'm reviewing. I look forward to your comments!

hw (hallie) farber said...

Bacon's painting and Irwin's statement are perfectly matched.

Eva said...

Interesting post and also interesting that you chose Francis Bacon to illustrate it.After reading and watching videos on YouTube about him, his shocking paintings are really mirrors of his life.

Dan Kent said...

I love this definition, though I do not think it is so expansive as to include everything, and I would again exclude shock art as lacking sincerity on either count - but I guess I'd have to read minds to know for sure.

As for your question - where do we go from here - excluding technology for a moment, I have often wondered what if anything is being done in this decade in fine arts that is new. I know there must be new movements out there, right? Where are they, and what are they? I'd love to know.

Finally, I have a foolish grin on my face because you are about to lead us in a discussion about one of my absolutely favorite books - the book, I think, that made me pick up the brush again after decades. I pick it up whenever I need a boost. I am looking forward to it.

And, by the way, Carolyn, as you will see in "Art and Fear", the concept of "born talent" is totally overrated - really.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy- I'm back- sort of. Still trying to retrieve my blog URL. I'll figure it out I'm sure! Anyway- I look forward to discussing your next book topic- the title hits home.
Pam- (who has begun to resurface after a very brief absence).

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - yes, I thought that Bacon's painting would be perfect for this definition. Thanks.

Hi Eva - scary, isn't it??

Hi Dan - it seems like the trend in art is to incorporate more and more technology (electronics) and/or to produce work that is shocking. At least, that's what I'm seeing in museums dedicated to contemporary art. So, I doubt that I'll ever be on the cutting-edge of art or a trend-setter. But, I don't care anyway. I'm glad you recommend this book! Can't wait to get into it and to read your comments.

Hi Pam - how great to hear from you again!! I'm glad you're back and I hope you can resurrect your blog. I look forward to seeing your new posts and to your comments here.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I'd never seen Irwin's definition of art before, and I'm intrigued. If perceptual awareness is defined expansively, this definition would say that my academic work in psychology is art. When I teach students about psychology, I encourage them to re-examine their experiences and their perception of the world and I offer new ways of viewing their experiences of the world and themselves. So is every lecture and discussion then a type of "performance art"?

I would also argue that it is not enough for an artist to examine and expand their perceptual awareness of the world -- there must be some product or performance that encapsulates these examinations and expansions. If it all resides in my head, I don't think it is art yet. Does the definition assume that the artist expands the awareness of others? If so, then I think the assumption of some product or performance is built into the definition.

Does all art result in an expanded awareness of the world around us? Is that necessary for all art? What defines this expanded awareness? I'm struggling a bit here, trying to apply this to performance arts like dance. What do you think?

I'm looking forward to your discussion of Art and Fear -- I love that book.

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - thanks for asking the essential questions. If I had the answers I'd write a book. But, I think you're correct in challenging such a broad definition. It does seem to need some boundaries, as you suggest.