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. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.
But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use 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 absolutely 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 both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. 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 the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.
The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…
The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.
The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and 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. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or 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, or some novels.
The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it 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.
Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered 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. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with 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’.