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Angles on Art

by Grant Bartley

What is art? Immanuel Kant, in his 1790 book Critique of Judgement, asked why we judge certain things to be beautiful and if we can apply this judgement to the appreciation of art. This indicates the Western understanding of art up until the Twentieth Century as being primarily about beauty. But then the paradigm shifted tangentially. In his Brief Life of the man, Sir Alistair MacFarlane argues that the harbinger of this change was painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp. In 1917 Duchamp exhibited an inverted urinal as a statue. After that act of art subversion, the anaesthetic revolution spread. Nowadays the paradigm for art, putting it roughly, is that anything goes. This does include stuff found on the street: I’ve seen a bicycle wheel, an old mattress, and other bits of old tat presented reverently in art galleries. An art work doesn’t even have to be made; and certainly not by the artist – Damien Hirst’s pieces, for example, are often constructed on his behalf by craftsman who have the skills he lacks. The artwork doesn’t even have to be a thing: a room with lights flashing on and off, or someone running through a gallery, can be a work of art.

Since ‘art’ is a purely humanly-constructed idea – it is not a natural kind of thing, like a dog or a rock – this does allow that ultimately, ‘art’ is whatever we mean by it. So now the art question becomes, ‘On what basis do we give the word ‘art’ one meaning rather than another?’ This question is answered in various ways by readers in this issue’s Question of the Month: ‘What is Art/Beauty?’. Before that in ‘The Hard Case of Duchamp’s Fountain’, Launt Thompson develops an argument for why an upturned urinal and other such critically-challenging work must be considered art, even according to a traditional argument of Aristotle’s. Now, presenting something in a gallery is enough to make it art, for the contemporary understanding is that art is whatever an artist designates as art.

Along with this shift in what art is came a shift in the idea of what art is for. Before the Twentieth Century, the purpose of art was considered to be to please the senses and refine the sensibilities (‘taste’). Now, most seem to consider it to be the purpose of art to stimulate new ways of viewing the world. By presenting things in novel ways (putting everyday objects in galleries is only one approach), the viewer is provoked to see things from new angles, and so gain new ways of seeing.

Like all cultural moments, this shift in perspective on art itself is but a step in the history of thought. Indeed, only one reason art is valuable for society is that it is often at the spearhead of a culture’s evolving thought and attitudes. In her article, Siobhan Lyons traces the shift from romanticism through modernism to postmodernism, to try to spy out what is coming after postmodernism. She argues that even now there’s a shift back towards the modernist values of, let’s say, ‘individualistic emotional expression’. But as she concedes, this is only one type of post-postmodern possibility out of several that are floating about and no clear age-defining cultural movement has yet emerged. This suggests, what I think is most likely, that the new art culture will come to be seen as pluralist. If modernism can be summarised as the rejection of traditional values; and postmodernism as the rejection of all values; perhaps we can define pluralism as the acceptance of all (sets of) values, anti-pluralism excepted. Daniel Vargas Gómez argues in our lead article ‘Art As An Encounter’ that all artworks display some of their creators’ values, and that we should value them for this. So perhaps his wish is coming true, albeit in unexpected ways.

Wherever we go from here, art has broken free of the gilded cage of formal beauty, and this has opened up the creative horizon. The postmodern shift in the ideals of art away from prescribed values has indeed resulted in an explosion of artistic possibilities; and without a doubt many new ways of doing art have delivered many wonderful creations that would have been otherwise inconceivable. In this sense, Duchamp and his peers inaugurated a very positive change. However, the sidelining of values of beauty and technical skill undoubtably also means that something precious has been lost.

According to MacFarlane, Duchamp forced the art world to confront two questions: ‘What is to be deemed art?’, and ‘Who decides?’ But this didn’t overthrow the power of the art establishment, as Duchamp may have hoped. Rather, our cultural arbiters of artistic value reacted by adopting the somewhat meaningless view that anything (that is, everything) is art. Consequently, the theoretical criterion for a work of art to be admired has become not its splendour nor the fineness of its construction, but the cleverness of its concept within art culture; whilst the practical criteria for judging one work better than another seem to be the fame of the artist and the price it fetches in the market. Yet surely there is something wrong with the art world if a work of art is not to be judged by its quality, but simply by the cleverness of its concept? So although it seems the answer to the question ‘What is Art?’ has been won for this epoch by the answer ‘Anything that someone in the art community calls art’, the question of whether a particular artwork is any good is not settled by the opinions of curators and critics through their puppet-mastery of opinion and the high-end market. Instead, whether a work is good is a question to be decided by the individual – by you – for whatever reasons and with whatever criteria you wish to use for your judgement; including many diverse ideals of beauty and skill. How much you might be able to sell it for is really beside the point.

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