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The Nature of Art as a Problematic of Aesthetics
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-05 10:09:58
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By now the reader who has followed the various views and definitions of art by various philosophers and art experts as here presented is perhaps more aware of the eclectic, head-spinning nature of those views and may be wondering which are their guiding threads. As already pointed out, those postings are basically slightly revised classroom lectures on a course on aesthetics which I teach regularly at Barry University in Miami. I decided to take advantage of one of the technological wonders of our times (the on-line course) and share them with others. Perhaps it is now time to spell out some of those threads as a guide the reader and/or student. The first introductory item I usually place on the class discussion table is the indisputable historical fact that, beginning with Plato, and for more than two millennia, there has been in the West a dialectical philosophical dialogue on the nature of art. The dialogue is indeed spirited and ongoing. It begins with Plato’s discussion of the forms but continues with the implications of the digital revolution, as we have already amply seen.

The simple all encompassing question “What is the nature and the definition of Art” is accompanied throughout history by corollary questions such as: “Is art synonymous with beauty or does it encompass the ugly and the abhorrent also?” or “Is a literal definition even possible?” or “What makes something a work of art?” or “Do the artist’s intentions make it art?” or “Does the so called artworld make it art?” or “Are judgments about Art objective or are they simply a matter of taste?” or “Is one artistic or aesthetic judgment as good as another?” or closer to our times, this thorny question: “Is contemporary art still art or is it a mere instrument of ideological provocation and propaganda?” Some of those questions are in conflict with each other because they derive from different assumptions.

Moreover, the range of those questions is philosophically wide and deep and first rate Western philosophers have tried their mettle and attempted to answer them. Just to mention a few whose point of view we have already briefly explored in Ovi: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Freud, Collingwood, Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Weitz, Goodman, Danto, Dickie, Beardsley, Walton, Barthes, Piper, Derrida, Korsmeyer, Bordieu, Jegede, Appiah, Davis, they have all taken up the challenge of defining (or perhaps refusing to define) art. The dialogue and debate are far from over, although to their credit it can safely be said that rarely have they spilled over into the personal, for indeed to characterize an argumentum ad hominem as philosophy is nothing less than an oxymoron. The debate, at least at that level of intellectual competency, has always been enlightening and inspiring and much can be learned from it as long as we keeps an open mind.

Let us first take a brief look at some of those conflicting views. The assertion that the intention of the artist is a crucial element in determining that something is a work of art stands in conflict with the assertion that it is the artworld that determines who is an artist in the first place, and what is a work of art. Indeed, this authoritative and institutional approach of the artworld seems to be more inclusive than its rival theories since it includes the viewers who also determine how the work is received; it does not depend on mere qualities intrinsic to the work. Also, the assertion that judgments about works of art are simply a matter of taste (Hume) stands in conflict with the assertion that those judgments are objective and based on universal reason (Kant). The case of Impressionism, as indeed all great schools of painting, would suggest that judgments about art cannot be a mere matter of individual taste or preference, in the eye of the beholder as the saying goes, especially if that eye is defective and cannot distinguish colors. Not many would agree today with the viewers who in 1880 claimed, erroneously by hindsight, that a Monet landscape was poorly executed and therefore not a genuine work of art. The assertion that one aesthetic judgment is as good as any other stands in conflict with the assertion that some individuals are much better qualified than others to make judgments about art.

It is worth mentioning here that the term “aesthetics,” since the times of Immanuel Kant, who coined it in the 18th century, has been used as synonymous for “philosophy of art.” It derives from the Greek word aisthanesthai which means to perceive; practically synonymous with “sensory.” This indicates that philosophers of that time saw our experience of beauty, be it natural or artistic, as primarily a sensory matter. Since then aesthetics has become the accepted characterization of the philosophical study of art. Later, Hegel restricted it to artistic works made by man, thus eliminating natural beauty,  also, for Hegel, aesthetics is no longer exclusively concerned with beauty per se. That of course begs the question: what exactly are aesthetic properties? That is an important consideration since philosophers such as Heidegger, Danto and Goodman, as we have already considered, all agree that art objects have properties that are not present in other things, albeit they don’t all agree as to what those properties are. Which begs the question: don’t we need to agree first that something is a work of art before we attribute such artistic properties to it, or can we attribute those properties to anything at all as long as we choose to view it as art? If I am able to admire the simplicity of my computer’s keyboard, does that make it a work of art independent of its utility as a means of communication?  In other words, which is the cart and which is the horse here?

And that brings us to the most thorny issue of all: Is contemporary art still art? Its critics have called it “the rule of surprise novelty and provocation,” having little to do with genuine art. It would be enough to read the fierce controversies in newspapers over public funding of art, to realize why some hostile critics believe that Mapplethorpe’s confrontational photography, Karen Finley performance art, or Nigerian painter Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary, seem to them to have lost touch with the values realized in earlier art. Heidegger for one, as we have also seen, in his The Origin of the Work of Art reveals an aspiration that art should return to what he considers its authentic mission: the revelation of the historical world that produced it. On the other hand there are other philosophers, such as Danto, Piper, Korsmeyer, who challenge the very idea of art with a mission and see in contemporary art possibilities for novel expression. So, the dialogue goes on and it is good that it does. It would appear that art is integral part of man’s historical journey and consequently it changes as the journey takes different routes and the destination of that journey becomes clearer. After all, the jury on the whole of man’s history is still out and so is the jury on the whole of man’s artistic production through time and space.

Having explored some of the conflicting views of art and its definition, we are left with this challenge: How are we to understand art? How are we to interpret the great success of a contemporary play such as Art by Yasmina Reza which raises those very questions? Could it be that ordinary people are just as concerned with the issue as the enlightened intelligentsia? Of course painting and the visual arts in general remain paradigmatic of the quintessential art form. Schopenhauer would not agree, he thought music had that role, but he is the exception not the rule. Yet, the privileging of an art form over another could also be seen as a bias affecting the general applicability of any theory of art presented.

If we survey the various philosophers mentioned above we will discover that it is possible to reduce their answers to the question What is the nature of art? to three basic groups: the first group, the most prevalent to be sure, do attempt a definition of art. This is the approach taken by the first philosopher to be interested in art, Plato, who defines it as imitation. This search for a clear definition continues throughout the centuries, even among those who rejected Plato’s definition. Especially with the advent of analytic philosophy at the turn of the 20th century, a style influenced by mathematical logic, the project seems to have become of specifying necessary conditions for the application of the concept “art.” It is felt by these philosophers that for the term to be meaningful, there must be criteria by which to tell what is and what is not a work of art. In surveying and assessing the validity of those definitions of art one has to keep well in mind the distinction between what is classificatory and the evaluative sense of the term “art.” Most attempts are classificatory, that is to say, they try to distinguish what is art from what is not. For example, the imitation theory of Plato proposes that only those things that are imitations of “the real world” are works of art. A white canvas on a wall would be excluded from the class of artwork for it imitates nothing.

Sometimes art is not used in this descriptive way, but rather in an evaluating manner, as when we judge that the white canvas on a wall is not art because it isn’t something a knowledgeable art lover should take very seriously, which of course leaves no room for judging a second rate or inferior work of art. Let us take one purported definition, that of art as a communication of emotion between the creator and the audience. Any object, be it a painting, a poem, a symphony, would fail to be art if it failed to achieve that kind of communication. Here too, the possibility of art being done badly is precluded, but in philosophy too the possibility of doing bad philosophy remains open for philosophy to remain philosophy.

The tendency is to think about art objects in abstraction from anything else, as analytical philosophy tends to do, but even a white canvas can be art only because it is situated in a complex set of relationships. Other elements include the artist as creator of the work as well as the audience experiencing it, plus the conventions governing the art form and art as a whole, modes of artistic training, etc. Here philosophers differ as to which elements are crucial. As we have seen, some, such as Collingwood, focus on the artist even excluding the work itself. Even more counter-intuitively the French literary theorist Roland Barthes thinks of the audience as the real site of artistic meaning. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, view the whole complex of relationships as crucial. So when one wishes to define the nature of art, one must decide for oneself which relationship is most important or you must conclude with Heidegger that the whole should be the object of the definition rather than any of its aspects.

The second approach to the central question of the philosophy of art, what makes something a work of art?, is skepticism about the very possibility of a definition. This is how the skeptic argues: art is itself a phenomenon which by its very nature defeats all attempts to define it. Given that originality is a central value, at least in contemporary art, the artist (be he a painter, or composer, or writer) is constantly trying to break the boundaries of what is considered art. Certainly Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain did so. Duchamp took a mass produced urinal, signed it with the name “R. Mutt,” gave it the title Fountain, and then submitted it for exhibition. Now, if the mere act of naming, signing, and displaying a mass-produced urinal could result in a work of art, how can we specify in advance what sorts of things can be so defined? After all, isn’t art precisely the sort of phenomenon that breaks conventions and challenges the previous convictions about what are is? And if that is so, doesn’t its very nature dictate the impossibility of definition?

These doubts about the possibility to define art were raised in the later part of the 20th century. Within the British analytic tradition we have Morris Weitz which we have also explored; while within the continental European tradition we have Jacques Derrida. To be sure, while they have radically different conceptions of what is the function of philosophy, they nevertheless agree that the philosophical tradition was mistaken in assuming that the appropriate goal for the philosophy of art was defining art’s nature. They both, in their own way, see art as defying the theorist’s ability to conceptualize it.

This approach to the definition of art is an instance of the broader strategy of anti-essentialism, a philosophic position going all the way back to Aristotle proposing that a variety of different particulars can all be referred to by the same word, or fall under the same concept—only if there is a common essence or nature that they all share. For example, the reason each of us can be called a person is that there is an essence to personhood which we all possess. Entities lacking the essence, such as stones and sticks are not persons. While sometimes the boundary may not be very clear (computers with rational properties, or extra intelligent animals like dolphins, for example), most of the times it is possible to distinguish between things that do and things that do not possess this essence.

This will to define art’s nature is an instance of essentialism. It assumes that art has an essence that can be identified theoretically. Finding this essence allows us to determine whether any given object is or is not art. But it is exactly this essentialism that has come under fire in the 20th century. What is at issue is the adequacy of the Aristotelian account of how our conceptual schemes, or our language, work. It is no longer taken as logical that recourse to essences is necessary to explain our ability to refer to a class of objects by a common term. The bases of the traditional account of essences has been exposed as inadequate. For example, the Aristotelian adage that man is a rational animal, privileges rationality which according to the same Aristotle men possess in abundance and women conspicuously lack, while ignoring imagination, intuition, emotions, charcteristics in which women excel. In other words, this search for essences may hide unacknowledged political agendas which identify certain characteristics as essential to a given type, and stigmatize other characteristics as defects. Descartes did something like that with his debunking of fairy tales and literary works of imagination which he considered suitable for children but not worthy of people with a full fledged rationality, a rationality robbed or intuition, imagination and feelings. The 19th century partially corrected that blind spot with Rousseau’s famous slogan “I feel, therefore I am,” but Vico had already pointed out the fallacy in the previous century (1730) in his magnum opus The New Science.

In a similar way, when it comes to defining art, attempts at a definition have been used both to legitimize certain types of art and denigrate others. For example, Clive Bell’s “significant form” champions post-impressionist painting and excludes the naturalistic world. African artists such as Jegede and Appiah whom we have also examined, point out the bias of Eurocentric art based on abstract principles of universality against Afrocentric art based on the particularity of individual cultures. The issue is far from resolved. In the absence of necessary and sufficient conditions which the essentialist project privileges, how should we understand the functioning of general terms such as “art”? If anything and everything can be art, then logically, nothing is art.

The third approach to a definition of art is the contextual approach as championed by the thought of Hegel. He treated art as a form of philosophical, and ultimately timeless, truth, but he also characterizes it as a series of stages of development realized in different historically and culturally specific contexts. Vico had already postulated three cyclical developments of history (corsi and ricorsi: a spiral moving forward toward an ultimate telos or goal) in the 18th century, but he was largely ignored. Subsequent philosophers, although not as confident as Hegel in the ultimate progression of art toward Truth (a sort of inevitable progress or manifest destiny), nevertheless took from him the idea that the nature of art could be understood properly only as expression of those contexts. Rather than trying to develop a single abstract definition of art these modern theorists (such as Walter Benjamin, Douglas Davis) have focused on art’s changing social role; they don’t treat art as a unitary phenomenon, but, without dismissing the possibility of a definition, they emphasize the socially conditioned transformations in its nature.

There are various reasons why these philosophers, many of them influenced by Karl Marx’s philosophy, are not interested in defining art. They think that those definitions are too abstract and arrive at too high a level of generality. As far as they are concerned, it is more important to understand the actual or concrete functioning of art in particular historical and social contexts than it is to devise a definition that will apply to all contexts. They are suspicious of the universalizing totalizing tendencies of Western philosophy. They follow Marx’s claims about the nature of society and operate within a framework that treats economic and material issues as basic. For them all that is generally called “culture,” including art, is part of the superstructure. They are convinced that the developments of the material base are decisive in the understanding cultural changes in the superstructure. Consequently, to understand art it is important to take note of the changes in the general material structure of society. For example, fundamental changes in the social organization of production and exchange associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie, is as important as understanding changes in the mode of artistic production.

As Marx quips in the first volume of Das Kapital, to illustrate this point, Don Quixote suffered for not realizing that knight errantry was incompatible with all economic structures; this explains why photographically reproduced art and the development of computer-related graphics’ technology interest these philosophers. Indeed, from their point of view, the very nature of art is fundamentally altered by such material or technological developments. With the development of technologies of reproductions—first the photograph and the copying machine, now the computer, it appears that art objects, or at least replicas of them can be endlessly disseminated. Instead of having to travel to Paris to see the Mona Lisa, we can now call up and infinite number of images of the original while sitting at my terminal. We can even “enhance” those images at our heart’s content. Indeed, for all those theorists that operate in this third paradigm, the focus now shifts to this crucial question “How do such developments in the mode of artistic production and dissemination affect art’s very being?” There is wide agreement that these developments are important and decisive, not so on the nature of their effects.

Another fundamental issue for those theorists within the third paradigm is the role that art plays in society. There is a general consensus for the view, which dates back to Kant, that art as requiring our disinterested contemplation, that is to say, an awareness untainted by specific interests, desires, or concerns is simply inadequate to the understanding of the function of art. The question, then shifts to art’s relation to social structures, be they economic, gender, racial or sexual.

On the one hand, the arts are often seen as challenging prevailing social norms. The artist is conceived as a rebel who stands apart from society to condemn it. Think of Manet’s Lunch on the grass. Here art celebrates the potential of the human species and condemns society for suppressing it. As Habermas has aptly put it: “Art satisfies an emancipatory interest, the desire to be free of unnecessary and oppressive social constraints.” But on the other hand, it is hard to ignore the role that some art, especially popular art, plays in society. Adorno’s phrase “the Culture Industry” indicates how art has been assimilated into the same structures that dominate the production of material goods. We can all recall films that more than genuine works of art, are cultural products that serve to strengthen or solidify the status quo and potentially oppressive social relationships. They may be executed artistically and be aesthetically pleasing, but they are also propaganda. “Triumph of the Will” is a case in point. Philosophers concerned with those social functions of art will continue to ask whether the arts in our time function to challenge or support these relationships. They will undoubtedly continue to investigate how changes in the production and dissemination of artworks affect their meaning.

The above begs this question: Has art’s cultural authority been undermined by technological and social development? How does art function to support the dominant social order? Has the culture industry succeeded in bypassing and even cashing in on gestures of artistic transgression? Or does art continue to play a socially and culturally subversive role? Philosophers have puzzled over art as long as philosophy has existed. The development of the arts of the 20th century, especially in painting, have only deepened the puzzlement. Originally, it seemed evident that art generally strove to accurately represent what it depicted.  That theory was left behind once in the late 19th century and 20th century of schools of painting that eschewed accuracy of representation. It is enough to think of post-impressionist painters such as Van Gogh and Munch whose paintings seem more concerned with depicting the artist’s anguish than representing anything. With the advent of abstract and conceptual art, all the traditional approaches to understanding art were discarded.

These historical development explain why the 20th century has provided such rich and lively discussions in the philosophy of art. As Collingwood points out, art as we understand it was not distinguished from its earlier meaning of an activity requiring specialized skills. Hence, not until the 19th century did the philosophy of art come into its own as a distinct philosophic discipline. But even 19th century reflections on art do not reveal the intensity of puzzlement and perplexity that clearly marks 20th century discussions.

The artwork displayed in museums of contemporary art bear only a faint resemblance to the works in museums dedicated to the art of earlier ages. To return to the play Art, mentioned above the three protagonists of that play almost dissolve their friendship because of a deep disagreement over the nature of art. Indeed, the French take their artistic allegiances very seriously. Most of us do not go that far, nevertheless we do share the same perplexities and anxieties about contemporary works of art. Not for nothing our post-modern world has been called “the age of anxiety.” The ongoing dialogue among philosophers on the nature of art may not put to rest those perplexities and anxieties of ours but it may help us in two ways: not to reinvent the wheel, and to better understand the arts’ troubling presence in our contemporary world, for without understanding no true judgment is possible either.

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Sand2009-01-05 10:39:57
Now that everything has been made crystal clear in art we can move on to murkier areas.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 15:27:09
To areas where the blue bottle fly likes to fly? Good idea, so that we will not have to throw out a delicious chocolate cake crafted with so much effort and skill, for, alas, it cannot tell the difference between one and the other.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 15:31:27
In any case, refrain your slanderous horses and put your sword back in the scabbard, for there are more presentations and clarification on art down the line.

Sand2009-01-05 16:15:42
It seems I struck a sensitive spot. Still no cheek turning. Have you become a Muslim?

Sand2009-01-05 17:05:45
It seems very strange to me that the total confusion you have dished up so far as to the nature of art, which I merely recognized, is characterized by you as slanderous.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 19:19:41
The concusion about art is in the eye of the beholder who in his eagerness to grind his favorite axe would not recotnize a valid definition of art if it came from a Picasso or a Da Vinci themselves. The worst calamity is not to be sick, but to be sick and not even to know it.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 19:20:43
Errata: concusion ought to be confusion.

Sand2009-01-05 19:51:26
Paparella you have totally demonstrated you haven't the faintest conception of the nature of art, what the many roles it plays in society are, what and why an artist does in creating it and which of the several confusing and confused opinions of your several authorities you think has any validity. Because you are a complete intellectual coward you need an authority to tell you anything about anything and since you have openly confessed you have no internal processes for analyzing and deciding anything (and believe this process betrays some sort of mental illness) or originating any opinion on any subject you are merely some sort of dumb data bank. I don't need either Picasso or Da Vinci to dictate to me their opinions because I do the stuff myself and I am well aware of what and how I do it and why it is done, things you have no clue to at all. I have spent over 70 years in many of the aspects of the field and you have merely heisted various and conflicting opinions and do not know which ones have validity and which do not.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 21:37:57
Is that what the visiting voices told you about the above article? Tell them to re-read it after taking the medication and without any animus suspending judgment as to its author. If they are capable of doing that they may find the answer to their anxiety there and give you better counsel that does not make you look so foolish.

A. J.2009-01-05 23:03:07
Mr. Paparella, why bother so much with somebody who has by now demonstrated to the magazine's readership how little he is interested in discussing issues with any sort of objectivity and civility. He only promotes and defends his own particular biased views. By giving him the importance of a reply which he does not deserve you only embolden him.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 23:59:34
That may be so, A.J., whomever you may be wherever you may be, but on the other hand the interesting thing about Ovi, which attracted me to it from the beginning, is that as a magazine of opinion respectful of free speech, everybody is encouraged to offer their opinion. Don’t get me wrong. It is not that I don’t appreciate your sympathy for having to deal with a boor who mistakes personal insults for well reasoned arguments, but on the other hand if everybody agreed on everything and complimented each other’s biases, then you’d have a mutual admiration society and nothing would truly be learned. So, the toleration of boors is a risk that free speech has to take, for real learning goes on by vigorous questioning and answering without descending to the personal as Socrates well taught us 23 centuries ago. Besides, once in a while I even get arrogant biased boors in my classroom who are not there to learn anything but to teach and show how much more erudite and smarter they are than the professor. In ancient Greece they were known as sophists. I have developed a thick skin to their likes. Usually they are not well liked by their peers and very rarely they manage to learn anything at all. They already know it all. Be that as it may, thanks. I assume you have been learning something, despite the distasteful diatribes following my contributions and usually initiated by the self-declared Grand Inquisitor in residence of political correctness. Every forum has its clowns.

Jonathan Christie2009-01-06 04:50:35
Personally, I'd like to thank the author for these essays, generally.

Art seems so palpably important to us, yet even more difficult to nail down to timeless concepts, as some practices of philosophy might find convenient, but I respect and love that.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-06 09:55:07
Thanks. Indeed, the purpose of the essays which are classroom lectures for a course on the philosophy of art or aesthetics, is not to present a definitive once and for all definition of art dear to totalitarian bullysh personalities, but rather to promote a convivial discussion on the subject. Most of the times that is achievable in class. It is refreshing to see that this time, notwith standing the attempt at diatribe and aspersion of the usual shallow critic in residence, at least two of you have come out of the woodwork to let me know that you have found the exercise presented in this forum useful for an ongoing reflection on the nature of art. I hope it happens more frequently, for if it does it will undoubtedly improve the overall image of the magazine.

A. J.2009-01-06 20:42:42
Thanks for the reply, Mr. Paparella. I understand that a bully cannot be encouraged, but on the other hand, it seems to me that to ignore him may be more effective in the long run. He may simply give up after a while. Thanks again for the interesting views by experts in the theory of art and your comprehensive summation. I look forward to reading and discussing perhaps your future contributions.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-07 00:04:57
Perhaps you have a valid point, Mr. A.J. Perhaps it was a mistake from the beginning to even bother with replying to someone who is either incapable or unwilling to carry on a proper intellectual discussion without resorting to personal insults. I think I'll sleep on it. In any case, I am glad you found the presentations on art interesting. I hope my students will too.

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