Degrees of art
Post #1081 • November 6, 2007, 12:49 PM • 127 Comments
A couple of weeks ago I did my best to get rid of the subjective world. To recap, and restate a bit more clearly, the subjective world doesn't exist. We experience a subjective world because our brains can't feel themselves function. Much goes on in them that other people never find out about, but much goes on in them that we never find out about either. We similarly experience a flat earth because we can't detect its curvature by walking around the neighborhood. But the earth is a sphere and our brains are electrically charged appendages of the living crust upon it. That electricity moves around a complicated set of pathways, but has no physical form apart from them. The content of that electricity and some supporting chemical reactions, what we usually refer to as "us," also has no form apart from them. The brain has a clever way of recording interactions between us and things that are not us, and can imagine scenarios based on those records. People who have studied the problem have an idea about how it does this, but we can't sit around and feel it going on. We can only observe the part that takes place in view of conscious awareness. If you try to imagine how much you know but aren't thinking about at the moment, you have to admit that conscious awareness must constitute a tiny fraction of total mental activity. It moves around on a material template and directs limited parts of it, but has no shape outside of it.
Today I'm going to try to get rid of conceptual art.
Individual instances of art lie somewhere on a continuum between objects that exist for the sake of form and objects that exist for the sake of an idea. Ideas cling to all human endeavors, even the purest exercises in the manipulation of shape. The notion that manipulating shapes would make for a fine afternoon, or a fine life, finds support in a lot of good writing and has a subtle, motivating idea to go with the act itself. At the other end of the spectrum, even the most concept-driven work still has some kind of a form - a photograph, a bit of text, some representation of the act. Conventionally we might call things "formal art" or "conceptual art," but we really ought to call the art "more formal" or "more conceptual."
Edward Winkleman brought a particular piece to my attention that might seem to lie off of that spectrum. In 1960, Stanley Brouwn declared that all the shoe stores in Amsterdam constituted an exhibition of his work. I'm going to do something that I have heretofore refrained from: disqualify this as art. I would put it among acts of philosophy, with art as its topic. (Anyone who finds such things beautiful ought to look at Astonish Yourself by Roger-Pol Droit. 101 art-making opportunities await! Not really.) I have found it hard to disprove that something is art. Instead I have held more defensible ground: anything presented as art is art, so let's talk about how good it is. But it cedes too much, so I'm advancing. Things that don't have any form are not art.
The pure play of concept-free forms is art. The pure play of form-free concepts is philosophy. The continuum lies between them.
This implies that things become less and less art as they move away from the formal pole. I haven't seen it asserted elsewhere that something exists as art by degrees, but it would explain a lot. For one, it would explain the difficulty of defining art, a category of seemingly infinite scope and a wide, fuzzy border. It would also suggest how philosophical effort can go so far concerning itself with certain art objects - such things have proportionately less art and more philosophy. This is not in itself a value judgment, but a description. Art is not an achievement to which things ought to aspire. Rather, creators ought to land somewhere on that continuum and work in any way that interests them, and do it well.
It ought not trouble the proponents of more conceptual art that it has less art than more formal art. The conceptual tendency undermined art as an honorific category. Dada, Fluxus, and their antecedents sought from their inceptions to include the mass-produced, the democratic, the unskilled, the cheap, and the unserious into the realm of art. This is also not a value judgment. Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell could make detritus sing. But the singing is formal. The rest is detritus. Marble, by itself, has no more lofty a status as far as art goes, except for its plasticity and potential attractiveness.
We have arranged parts of the material template for our pleasure, which we experience when our awareness contacts them. This last sentence is a complicated way of describing a common phenomenon - looking at a painting, reading a line of poetry, sitting in a good chair. The two poles of the continuum represent two sorts of pleasure: the pleasure of looking, embodied by art, and the pleasure of thinking, embodied by philosophy. A given point on the continuum represents the degree to which an object relies on the pleasures of looking or thinking to function at its best.
What makes for pleasurable thinking? Dense associations, challenging intellectual propositions, an exploration of pressing issues, and the like. A more conceptual object may succeed at such things. But such success is philosophical success, not artistic success. Pleasurable looking denotes artistic success. What makes for pleasurable looking? Good form. In theory one could make an object that triumphs both formally and philosophically. In practice, no such object seems to exist. Philosophy is inherently linguistic - writing and dialogue serve it well, while shape may serve at most as something to hang writing and dialogue upon. More conceptual art succeeds when it proves able to spawn a copious amount of thinking, as well as writing and dialogue, which are the manifested activities of thinking. Form may act as a poetic condensation of an idea, and may as such have value, but it can't beat language for clarity and thorough exploration. Our great philosophers have been talkers and writers.
So what's wrong with enjoying more-conceptual art objects for their philosophical richness? Nothing at all, as long as the person doing the enjoying understands that such objects have less art than more formal works, that the enjoyment is philosophical rather than artistic in nature, and that the philosophical richness is not artistic richness. I personally like art for the art, but by all means, go nuts.