What is Art?

'Fountain'_by_Marcel_Duchamp_(replica)“That’s not art!” is a not uncommon reaction to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. As we ponder the mounted urinal with letters scrawled across it, the question equally arises, “if it isn’t art, why isn’t it art?” And this must naturally lead to the fundamental question, “what is art anyway?” This confusion that comes to the average person when encountering certain “modern art” is further confused by the general ambiguity and broad use of the term “art” in a variety of contexts. For we sometimes speak of the “medical arts,” the “performing arts,” the “liberal arts,” “the culinary arts,” or we may even speak of the “art of basketball,” or the “art of living well.” So, what exactly is “art” and how do we know if something like Fountain would constitute a work of art?

The purpose of this essay is neither to offer an evaluation of whether Fountain is “art” nor whether if it is art, whether it is good or bad. Rather, this essay seeks to outline a beginning taxonomy through which we could possibly consider these questions. A single definition of “art” seems unlikely to account fully for the variety of objects and activities that we normally speak of as “arts.” For this reason, classifying different kinds of “arts” might possibly help us to understand the variety of ways we experience art in the world.

The first major division of “art” is the somewhat self-referential distinction of art as a “cause” on the one hand, and as an “effect” on the other. When we speak of art as a “cause,” it refers to the rules that govern an action and the skills needed to achieve some end; thus we speak of the “art of basket-weaving” or the “art of ship-building,” etc.  Art as an “effect,” refers to the “work of art” that is produced as a result of the actions of the one operating under the rules and skills of production. So the cause of the basket is the “art of basket weaving,” and the effect of basket-weaving is the “basket” which is produced. Both these (cause and effect) are properly “arts.”

We can refer to that which is produced as an “artifact,” but not all “arts” (as a cause) produce artifacts (as an effect). For example, the “medical arts” (as a cause) refers to all the scientific knowledge concerning the health of the body, along with the various skills needed to attain that health (like surgery or diagnosis). However, the one practicing the “medical arts” does not produce an “artifact.” Instead, the “health of the body” is the effect of the causal “medical arts.” Similarly, the “art of logic” (cause) produces syllogisms (effect), and the “art of governing” (cause) leads to the “act of ruling” (effect), but neither produce artifacts.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliThe two notions of art, however, are not on equal footing logically. For “art as cause” is the fundamental meaning of “art;” while “art as effect” is derivative or dependent (as is the case with all cause and effect relationships). Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Kant all seem to agree on this point. Aristotle defines “art” as “identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a9-10).  And likewise says Thomas, “Art is nothing else but the right reason about certain works to be made. . . . Art, properly speaking, is an operative habit” (Thomas, Summa Theologica, I-II. Q. 57 A. 3). The cause is fundamental because it must come prior to the effect—without knowledge of “how-to” there can be nothing produced.

On this account, all actions have an “art”—it is the “know-how” to produce a desired effect, and all “arts as effects” will have a corresponding series of rules governing their production. (This statement is not entirely accurate, as will be seen below. For, according to Kant, the distinguishing characteristic of the “fine arts” is precisely the lack of universal governing rules, and yet there being an effect desired by the work of the artist.  How these two ideas can work together consistently will be explored below.) Hence Thomas’ reference to art as “right reason” concerning things “to be made”. And so points out Kant that “every art presupposes rules which are laid down as the foundation which first enables a product, if it is to be called one of art, to be represented as possible” (Kant, Critique of Judgement, 136.).

Art, therefore, is like science in that it involves a kind of speculative knowledge concerning the nature of reality. However, “science,” properly speaking, aims at knowledge of “what is,” while “art” aims at knowledge of “how to make X” or how to achieve a desired effect. In some cases there is clear overlap between “science” and “art”—as is the case of the “science of medicine” and the “art of medicine.” For without the “science of medicine” it is dubious that a doctor could achieve the health of the body, which is the desired effect of the “art of medicine.” On the other hand, some arts seem to be able to operate somewhat independently of the corresponding science. For example, it seems that a person can be quite capable in the “musical arts” yet have little knowledge “music theory”—and vice-versa.

adler4The remaining discussions of the various kinds of “art” all deal with arts as “effects.” In the first major sub-division of “art as effect” we can distinguish between arts which produce something outside of the artist and arts which work on the mind of the artist (i.e., those which do not produce something outside the artist). The latter of these are called “liberal arts” and are most closely associated with education. According to Mortimer J. Adler, “the liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished…once all were acquired, the student was “free” to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act” (Adler, What Is Liberal Education?). Traditionally the liberal arts were seven in number, constituting the language and mathematics arts necessary for the student to be “free” to know and to act in the world.

The former arts (those which produce something outside the artist) are variously called the “mechanical arts,” the “servile arts,” or the “practical arts.” What they have all in common is some end beyond the formation of the human mind. For example, the “medical arts” would fall under this category because the end of the art is something produced outside of the doctor (i.e., the health of the body of the patient). Hence, in this category would fall all manner of “arts” which will need to be further divided—for within this category of arts would include such things as the “art of carpentry,” the “art of the pianist,” the “medical arts,” and even the “fine arts.”

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)In further separating the “arts” at this point, Immanuel Kant is most instructive. According to Kant, when it comes to arts which produce something outside the artist, there are two broad categories: the “mechanical arts” and the “aesthetic arts.” The difference between the two are the ends the artist has in mind when creating the artwork. To understand the difference, we must go back the original distinction between “art as cause” and “art as effect.” There it was argued that all “art” is created according to the “universal reason”—that is according to some rule. These “arts” are here called the “mechanical arts”—they are arts made for some use. And hence they are sometimes called the “useful arts.” Here would include certain “industrial arts” like carpentry, ship-building, etc.

However, according to Kant, the “aesthetic arts” have no “useful” purpose in mind when they are created, or rather, they are not created according to a “universal rule”. The consequence of this, is that there is no “right or wrong” to the “aesthetic arts” in the same way there is a “right or wrong” in the production of a chair. For the chair, there are universal rules of carpentry by which the artisan works, but not so the painting. There is no “right or wrong” way to paint the Flint Hills. Furthermore, the painting of the Flint Hills is not made for some use in the same way that the chair is made for sitting.

“Aesthetics arts,” however, are not without an end, for the artist must have some end in mind when acting, otherwise he would not act. According to Kant, the end of these arts is pleasure. As such, Kant distinguishes between two kinds of “aesthetic arts:” “agreeable arts” and “fine arts.” The “agreeable arts” have pleasure as “sensation” as their end. Here Kant seems to have in mind perhaps the “culinary arts” and such “arts” as are pure enjoyment, as in “entertaining narrative, the art of engaging the whole [dinner] table in unrestrained and sprightly conversation, or with jest and laughter inducing a certain air of gaiety” (Kant, Critique of Judgement, 134-135).

And so we have finally arrived at the distinguishing features of the “fine arts.” The “fine arts” belong to that broad category of arts which are effects of human actions and which produce something outside of the one acting, and yet are ones for which there is no use. But unlike the “agreeable arts,” the “fine arts” are presented not as objects of “sensational enjoyment” but of a pleasure aimed at “modes of cognition.” That is, they are presented as objects of Beauty. Kant seems to have in mind Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of Beauty: “Beauty,” says Thomas, “relates to the cognitive faculty; for beautiful things are those which please when seen” (Thomas, Summa Theologica, I. Q. 5 A. 4). And by “seen” Thomas and Kant have in mind “seen by the mind.” So, if we ask the question, “what is that painting for?” the answer is “for enjoyment, for contemplation.”

Kant also denies that “fine arts” are meant to communicate something. Because “fine arts” are not made according to a universal rule, and although they present Beauty to the mind for contemplation, the “fine arts” are devoid of concepts. That is, they are not meant to “mean” one thing or another. Says Kant, the “fine arts” do not “permit of the judgement upon the beauty of its product being derived from any rule that has a concept for its determining ground” (Kant, Critique of Judgement, 136). So to ask, “what does this painting ‘mean’?” is to misunderstand the “fine arts.” “Fine arts” are presented to the mind as an object of Beauty for contemplation, which is what Thomas indicates is the nature of “beautiful things.”

German_School_(16th_century)_-_The_Lute_PlayerOne final division of “arts” should be addressed. Within the “fine arts” we can distinguish between “plastic arts” and “performing arts.” Both of these would contain the characteristics described for “fine arts” above. The difference here is that “plastic arts” would constitute whole, or completed art forms which involve the manipulation of matter. Such things as painting, sculpting, ceramics, etc. would fall into this category of “fine arts.” The “performing arts,” by contrast, are “fine arts” which are always “in progress” in their presentation. Such art forms as theatre or “musical arts” would fall into this category. A musical performance, by its nature, is always in “progress” of presentation, unlike a sculpture which is a completed whole.

If we now return to our original queries concerning Duchamp’s Fountain, we now have the conceptual categories with which to place it. The original urinal that Duchamp repurposed would seem to fall under that category of industrial arts which produce ceramic fixtures. The fixtures are made for certain uses according to universal rules. The question, however, whether something can be repurposed and presented as “fine art” by merely scrawling some letters on an object and calling it “fine art” is not something we are capable of evaluating at this point. The general direction of the discussion would seem to allow for such a piece as constituting “fine art.” If it is a “fine art” we are still left with the question of whether it is any good. Kant would seem to indicate that that question itself violates the nature of the “fine arts” and Beauty. What we have not explored in this essay is the true nature of Beauty and whether it has an objective definition. Thomas indicates it does, Kant that it does not. The method by which we could evaluate Fountain would have to settle this definition first, for the “fine arts” depends upon presentation of “art” as an object of Beauty for contemplation. If Beauty does have objective content we could possibly evaluate Fountain as either “good” or “bad,” but if Beauty has no objective content the most we could say is that we either find Fountain “enjoyable” or “unenjoyable” as a judgment of the mind. What we have seen, nevertheless, is that Fountain falls generally within the definition of “fine arts,” and what we mean by the “fine arts.” So, yes, that’s art!

Pity the Beautiful

Pity the Beautiful
BY DANA GIOIA

Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.

Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.

The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.

Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

A Thought on Suffering and “Game of Thrones”

The internets are all abuzz about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I am a latecomer to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, I admit. The first book, Game of Thrones, was published in 1996 and has since risen to the heights of most “Best Fantasy” book lists. At some point I read one of those lists, bought the book, and it sat on my shelf for several years (always in the “to read” category). Then, when the HBO series came out I watched the first episode and quite frankly, couldn’t keep the characters straight (not to mention the tremendous backstory that sets up all the events!). So, I decided I would read the books since they had a nice index in the back with full family lines and this would get me more of the backstory necessary to fully appreciate the story.

Well, I was hooked. I stopped watching the TV series, bought the rest of the books, and was overwhelmed by Westeros and Essos for nearly 3 months. I then went back to the TV series and have been pleasantly entertained by the adaptation.

Now, back to Season 3, Episode 9. I have to admit that I was quite tickled by the reactions filmed by those who knew what was coming of those who did not. Martin is an author that seems to enjoy killing off characters you love and the Red Wedding (as it’s known) is a slaughterhouse for beloved heroes.

There is a part of me that is resentful of the reaction of those who have not read the books. “Read the books, they’re so much better, and you get so much more out of it.”

I had the exact same reaction to the Red Wedding when I read the books that TV fans had this week. And that’s what bothers me. It seems that everyone had an amazing shared experience of horror and disbelief that I suffered through alone. I remembering slamming the book down and charging outside for a breath of fresh air. Looking back now, I would have loved to commiserate with fellow readers, share my suffering with theirs. But I was all alone. No one to confide in, no one to vent to without sounding deranged. So when people had the same reaction this week, I was resentful and condescending because the emotions of the event were no longer fresh for me. Time has healed the experience, but for others it is fresh. I must not forget my own experience and extend to them the “shoulder to cry on” that I lacked. This all might seem a bit overstated since we’re just talking about a fictional story, but I think it illustrates just how real and how powerful art and beauty can move us.

And this is what I take from this experience: suffering (whether at the hands of some real-life problem or at the hands of some sadistic author) is often best managed in community. Even the suffering experienced through art is best a shared experience.

This does not mean I’ll stop reading the books (who knows how many years before The Winds of Winter is released anyway) because there is a depth and breadth of story and character that cannot be match by television or film (it’s simply a limit of the medium). This may, however, call for a book group with whom I can journey through this drama.

Happy Birthday to Søren Kierkegaard!

There is far too much of Kierkegaard worth quoting. So, here are just a few gems:

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.

Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.

One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger into existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? … How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but was thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? … How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

You have surely noticed among schoolboys, that the one that is regarded by all as the boldest is the one who has no fear of his father, who dares to say to the others, “Do you think I am afraid of him?” On the other hand, if they sense that one of their number is actually and literally afraid of his father, they will readily ridicule him a little. Alas, in men’s fear-ridden rushing together into a crowd (for why indeed does a man rush into a crowd except because he is afraid!) there, too, it is a mark of boldness not to be afraid, not even of God. And if someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid — not of the crowd, but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule. The ridicule is usually glossed over somewhat and it is said: a man should love God. Yes, to be sure, God knows that man’s highest consolation is that God is love and that man is permitted to love Him. But let us not become too forward, and foolishly, yes, blasphemously, dismiss the tradition of our fathers, established by God Himself: that really and truly a man should fear God. This fear is known to the man who is himself conscious of being an individual, and thereby is conscious of his eternal responsibility before God.

~Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

kierkegaard2

Is There Beauty in Sodom?

ANNA AKHMATOVA

Lot’s Wife

The just man followed then his angel
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight

Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.

She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.

~Richard Wilbur, from his Collected Poems: 1943-2004.

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Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.

~Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Sex, Flesh, and Love

Do I have your attention? Consider this passage that I just ran across:

You see nothing apart from a woman’s body. It was not like that in our day. The more passionately I was in love, the less physical she became for me. Today you see legs, and ankles, and things like that, you undress the woman you love, for me, though…the object of my love was always clad in bronze. Far from undressing those we love, we strove, like the good son of Noah, to cover up their nakedness. But you wouldn’t understand any of that.

Leo Tolstoy, “After the Ball”