So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.
My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. I enjoy art and, in fact, my favourite genres are photojournalism and photo-realist painting. Both schools often touted as not art at all. My view is that photo-realism adds something almost intangible which is the slippery essence of art.
But any debate on art quickly falls into what is / isn’t art. From there you get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’. These are often pretty distracting traps of little consequence. At a push I came up with a simple triad of qualities to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.
Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.
All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it. If a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. But that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend its message. There’s no magic number in consensus but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object. In fact, it is probably easier to say try and think of a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some. Which is different, of course, to not liking what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.
It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.
The most obvious quality. Obviously, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence.
The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.
The mix of all these three, by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.
Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. These are all linked to choice. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become like a piece of art overtime because of the context has changed (scarcity and changes in train design now reveals the art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, such as the Mona Lisa, or some novels.
The creation of art turns it into a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate as to what is art. That is a question rather of what do we mean by the value of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.
Debates around art tend to miss the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking. Or in modernity maths and programming can be an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. And that is why now it has gone beyond design, not least because people are compelled to buy and hang prints of it on their walls with no intention of it serving its original purpose.
Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’ It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.
Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.
I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.