Friday, January 19, 2007

Theories of art

Nowhere are we more easily tripped up than in defining what is truly "art." While few people quibble with the sublime beauty of the Mona Lisa, or the timeless majesty of the Parthenon, a general consensus about some works of art leads us to disturbing and difficult questions like "Who gets to say what art is?" or "What is it about this artwork that makes it beautiful?" We do know that while the artist is trying to relate directly to his or her intended audience, the process of defining and appreciating art is facilitated by the theoretician and critic, who give us insight into the work, its nature and its place in the history of culture.

There are many related theories of art. Aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty; aesthetic discussions engage us in disputes about the best way to define art. One theoretical point of view, for example, is that it is a mistake even to try to define art or beauty, insofar as they have no essence, and therefore can have no definition. Another is that art is a cluster of related concepts rather than a single concept. Examples of this approach include Morris Weitz and Berys Gaut.

At the same time, general descriptions of the nature of art can be separated from determinations of beauty and called “theories of art,” but are always ringed with the determination of the relative artistic value of the work.

Another approach is to say that “art” is socially or culturally rooted, and that "art" is that whatever artists, schools and museums say it is. This "institutional definition of art" has been championed by George Dickie. This theory smacks of elitism, and has its populist critics. Most people, at first blush, cannot see the artistry of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal; that is, until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp said they were art, by placing them in a context to be viewed as art (i.e., the art gallery). This contextualization of art cum definition is a common, if overused, feature of conceptual art, prevalent since the 1960s; notably, the Stuckist art movement critiques this tendency.

Proceduralists often suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it, art, not any inherent feature of an object, or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world after its introduction to society at large. For John Dewey, for instance, if the writer intended a piece to be a poem, it is one whether other poets acknowledge it or not. Whereas if exactly the same set of word was written by a journalist, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article latter, these would not be a poem. Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, claims that what makes something art or not is how it is experienced by its audience, not by the intention of its creator. Functionalists, like Monroe Beardsley argue that whether or not a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context, the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context (carrying wine), and an artistic function in another context (helping us to appreciate the beauty of the human figure).


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