it's art, Jim, but not as we know it

Portrait of Maya with her Doll, 1938,
by Pablo Picasso I apologise in advance for this re-hashing of the tired old debate on the meaning, nature and purpose of art. But it's a dirty job that someone's gotta do, so it might as well be me. I don't know much about art, but I know what I like! ;-)

Like beauty, art is said to be in the eye of the beholder. That's another way of saying there are no absolute criteria for judging art*. Art-consumers make aesthetic judgments according to their individual, subjective tastes.

So are there any valid, objective ways to measure, assess and compare the relative aesthetic merits of works of art? And if there are, are those ways productive?

One way to at least make a start is in terms of craftsmanship --- expertise in applying tools and techniques to achieve specific and measurable outcomes. It's entirely valid, possible and meaningful, for instance, to measure proficiency in applying the "vanishing point" technique for achieving realistic depth-perspective. Or the chiaroscuro technique for creating a realistic sense of three dimensional volume in a two dimensional painting or drawing.

Craftsmanship is the only one left standing when other methodologies have been sacrificed on the altar of subjectivity. Let's look at those others.

How about emotional intensity --- the extent to which one is "moved" by the art? Many people would be "moved" to tears by an artwork depicting a suffering person or animal. But that doesn't make a painting of a starving dog a great work of art. Nor does it rule out the opposite possibility. After all, Bacon's paintings of rotting flesh are deemed to be great art.

Symmetry? Dis-symmetry is no more or less "artworthy" than symmetry. In fact, dis-symmetry can be highly effective in capturing peoples' attention.

Balance? An unbalanced composition can be more dynamic, more fraught with emotional drama, than a balanced composition.

Artworks in which mathematical relationships (eg phi, the "golden ratio") are used in the composition are no more or less inherently aesthetically compulsive or dynamic than artworks with broken symmetries, failed relationships, unbalanced contexts.

detail from Guernica, 1937, by Pablo PicassoMany colours, few colours, complexity, simplicity, realism, surrealism, high contrast, low contrast --- are there in fact any qualities that can help establish valid metrics for assessing art?

"Beauty" doesn't do it: nobody can tell me what beauty is. As far as I can tell, all attempts lead to an infinite regress: great art is characterised by beauty; beauty is characterized by ... (and so on and so forth). In any case, ugliness can be beautiful, or at least not be disqualified from being art. (These days "ugly" is the new beauty!)

Picasso's Guernica (above), for example, is said to be great art by those who claim to know. Is it beautiful? You tell me.

Similar remarks apply to the works (below) of Salvador Dali and Goya. Not to mention Bosch, Breugel and Bacon --- and those are just some of the bees --- among innumerable practitioners of "dark" art (if not the dark arts!)Soft construction with beans, Salvador Dali

Nor are we talking only about the visual arts. In music, for instance, a syncopated rhythm is not fundamentally "better" or "worse" or aesthetically more pleasing than non-syncopated rhythm. Chord progressions that are enjoyed by some people are experienced as unimaginative and boring by others.

Harmony is not aesthetically "better" than disharmony. On the contrary, disharmony can be used as a technique to showcase harmony, by virtue of the contrast.

(In fact many if not all qualities can be depicted in terms of the lack of their opposite, eg hate as a lack of love, darkness as a lack of light, etc.)
Saturn devouring his son, Goya
It's not easy to measure and assess something that doesn't exist. But at least the "craftsmanship" angle opens by just a wee crack the door leading to the room where valid comparisons of artworks to each other can be made. Compare, for example, the drawings of Albrecht Durer with the drawings of a child (excluding the child of Mr and Mrs Durer, or of Mr and Mrs da Vinci, or of a few other parents you'd never know about except through their children.)

The child's art may possess many wonderful attributes --- the art may be colourful, uninhibited, full of emotion, unrestrained by convention, feature unusual perspective, involve innovative use of materials, etc --- but notwithstanding all of that, the Durer would almost inevitably feature superior craftsmanship, draughtsmanship to be specific. Does that make it "better" art? No. But a high level of craftsmanship makes it easier to "engage" with the art. Craftsmanship can facilitate the uptake of aesthetic meaning, or be an obstacle, an impediment to that uptake.

Dance is another art in which craftsmanship plays a critical role. Anyone can jump up and down and fling zir arms around roughly in time with the music. But those who claim to know would not consider the dance-works at a suburban 21st birthday party to be aesthetically in the same universe as classical ballet. (Dance is a bad example, though: the creator/choreographer is (mainly) the creative artist; the dancer (mainly) the interpretative artist.)

My bed, Tracy EminWhere is the craftsmanship in an unmade bed? Tracy Emin's "installation" artwork comprising her unmade dirty bed with used condoms and blood-stained underwear took out some major art prize or other in the UK, but I couldn't be bothered to look it up. It's a big and famous one.

Where is the craftsmanship in a pile of bricks, a dead cow suspended in a bag of formalin, an icon of the virgin Mary in a bath of urine? Where is the craftsmanship in a totally white canvas, a totally black canvas, a piece of "music" comprising total silence for two hours, etc? All of the preceding are actual, real examples of creations designated as art by those who claim to know. And all those creations have been treated as art (ie been shown in galleries, sold to wealthy but stupid patrons, written about by so-called "critics" in dire need of lobotomies, etc ).

Of course, I realise that this whole craftsmanship angle is a cop-out. Good craftsmanship does not necessarily mean good art. But bad craftsmanship can make potentially good art bad, if the craftsmanship or rather lack of it prevents the art-consumer from engaging effectively with the art. Being able to lay bricks doesn't make a good architect, though it probably helps. According to those who claim to know, Beethoven wrote his best music when he was totally deaf. (And if you ask what "best music" means, good luck getting a decent answer.)

So I think that for all its limitations as a metric for aesthetics, craftsmanship may at least provide a starting point for a more productive debate on the meaning and nature and purpose of art.

* Recently I read about a theory in which a supposed aesthetic preference for deep perspectives and open landscapes can be traced back to those ancient days when we needed to see predators and other humans coming for us from a long way away on the African plains. I think there's a lot of work to be done in identifying and analysing the evolutionary advantages of specific bits of human behaviour and culture. It goes without saying that you'd want to be selective, naturally --- it's a big field, evolutionary aesthetics. Survival of the prettiest you might say. If you were a total ....head.

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mgeorge said...

There was a finding just announced that our appreciation of music is due to it producing more of a common neurotransmitter, but this hardly explains why some of it is more popular across the population, or what evolutionary advantage music had.

Every mother would wish that her child's paintings were clebrated in a museum. I just came across a report that an "artist" from India was doing "performance art" by posing nude (against the paintings of another attist) at an exhibition in Singapore. This city state is desperately trying to establish itself as "culturally relevant", not just rat race and draconian laws.

Let me end by quoting people far more articulate than myself:
"A work of art that contains theories is like an object on which the price tag has been left."
- Alexander Pope
"Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune." - Kin Hubbard (1868-1930)
"Fashion is... barbarous, for it produces innovation without reason and imitation without benefit." - George Santayana (1863-1952)
"Abstract art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewil-dered." - Albert Camus (1913-60)
"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship... Imagination without skill gives us modern art.
- Tom Stoppard, Artist Descending a Staircase, 1972
"Art is anything you can get away with." - M McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964

Faycin A Croud said...

My favorite works of art are ones that evoke emotion in me. I have seen technically perfect artworks that are boring as a three hour lecture on the ins and outs of mathematical problems, and I have seen very "imperfect" artworks that strongly move me. I prefer those that don't make me angry, that aren't deliberately provocative, that have something of beauty even if it's a strange beauty.
I also enjoy surrealism, and I particularly like the first two pictures you chose.
I also like the word verification: forns. It's an amusing word, a nonsensical word. It inspires mirth, something that I need a lot more than anger.

masterymistery said...

Hi Faycin, yes, and in fact it's the imperfect ones that often move you the most, maybe because the imperfection suggests the emotion captured in the artwork is authentic.
Thanks for your comments.

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, as usual it's your comment that should be the post, and the post a gloss on your comment.

Remarkable that each of the quotes tells the same story as the post, but 100 times more efficiently.

the Stoppard quote in particular: "Skill without imagination is craftsmanship... Imagination without skill gives us modern art."

That's exactly what the post says, but in a much longer, clumsier more convoluted way.

evolutionary advantage of music?: morale building "team-bonding" sing songs around the campfire make the tribe more efficient because they work as a team.
Tribes that are more efficient, survive.

Similar speculations about dance.

The above 2 are a bit shaky because they assume evolution at group level rather than individual, phenotypical level.,

Drumming? Ability to maintain accurate rhythm enhances the use of drumming as a communication technique??? mmmm that's a bit far out

Hang on. I think I've got one, a real one: counting. The ability to count would have substantial evolutionary advantage. What's that got to do with music? You can't do music unless you can count... the number of notes, the intervals between notes, the rhythmic cycle ie the time signature, etc

The association between musical and mathematical ability is well established,.

But actually, this is more about the evolutionary advantage of hearing. More specifically, the evolutionary advantage of hearing, but at a level of power, richness and complexity that seems to go beyond what's needed eg by humans to conduct conversation, or track an animal.

I better stop now, before I bore myself to tears.

But clearly these are issues in dire need of exploration.

mm

mgeorge said...

I agree that arts and crafts are a natural develpment seen in all cultures, including he embellishment of practical objects and singing together to lighten toil. The utility in creating pride and getting things done is obvious. What I think we need to question is the deification of fine arts by those rolling in wealth and those seeking acceptance to their ranks, especially as symbols of token value (as opposed to pure enjoment). This is especially so when there is so much destitution in every land.

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, totally agree.

I Australia there's a lot of deification of fine art (especially in the context of the so-called "cultural cringe") but much more so re sport. The Australian Institute of Sport, financed by the taxpayer, is probably the main reason why Australia "boxes above its weight" in sport eg the Sydney Olympic games, winning far more medals per capita of participating sportsperson than would otherwise be expected.

Is deifying sport somehow worse than defying fine arts? Or vice versa? Nah -- deification of any manner or kind should be avoided at all costs.

In the previous comment I was just speculating about whether there could be a possible evolutionary basis/advantage in musical ability. Certainly there would be advantages in being able to run fast, jump high, strike hard etc

puny human said...

I also like that quote: "Skill without imagination is craftsmanship... Imagination without skill gives us modern art."

Craftmanship and care is one characteristic of art I appreciate as well. Sometimes, I'm amazed by the time that went into a complex design or pen and ink drawing made with dots.

I am also skeptical of the "art" filling our modern art musuems lately, installations and general self-aggrandizing stupidness. I am not interested in your unmade bed.

But this is not because it is not well crafted. I reject it as art because there is no vision beyond the mundane. Art, for me, is the expression of a vision, a communication beyond words. From the primitives of Grandma Moses or a child's enthusiastic scrawl to the finest egg tempra or oil, expressing the subtle curve of cheek and perfection of human form, true art enables us to see in new ways, or to see beyond what our own eyes notice. We are privileged to share the inner visions of Alex Grey for example, or the eccentric, erotic world of Jack Vettriano.

Art is vision manifest.
Best wishes,
Puny

masterymistery said...

Hi puny human,

the craftsmanship metric works pretty well, as far as it goes, but of course there's a gaping hole in the theory, and that is that the theory doesn't work in the case of great artists with poor technique or poor attitude or limited time or lack of limbs.

Someone said that "genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains"

or "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So maybe if you want to share your art on a large scale, it's not enough to have a vision, you need also the determination to get that vision out there, into the marketplace.

So the resume of the great artist should feature some stints in marketing roles!

"Art is vision manifest" Now there's a great quote., Thank you

MM

Antares said...

This discussion brings to mind an essay I wrote back in 2001 which is accessible here... to me art is essentially about making public what's private.

masterymistery said...

Antares, that essay is pretty powerful stuff, and helps put the contents of the post into perspective.

Thanks for your comments.

MM

masterymistery said...

Actually, I forgot to include the link to Antares' essay, plus a quote that I particularly like:

MAGICK RIVER: THE INNER TECHNOLOGY OF ART: Making Public the Private: "As human consciousness becomes more engrossed with density, darkness and discontent, the urge to destroy grows more compelling than the urge to create."

Nessa said...

Such an indepth discussion. I have to come back when I have more time.

masterymistery said...

Hi Nessa, the next post is about not having enough time!

Thanks for stopping by.

MM

Nessa said...

I got into a huge argument over Kazimir Malevich's White on White in an art appreciation class in college. It's well crafted, it's different, it's bull shit.

The elephants are not making art. A six year can't make art in any form either (there might be some very rare exceptions but I doubt it.)

Art, in any medium, requires a certain amount of craftsmanship, usually so the artist knows how and when to break the rules. Art is a form of communication between the artist and an unknown partner. Art says something new and it has to tell a story. Art is a new perspective.

Art is subjective and so its definition must also be subjective but what is popular and sensational is rarely art, it's usually just salacious and titillating. What does the messy bed say to you on a deep personal level? Nothing. It's just something different. What does a naked person standing in front of someone else's art say to you on a deep personal level? Nothing. It's just titillating. What does a white square on a white background say to you on a deep personal level? Nothing, except that someone thought of an angle.

Don't give me any of this deconstructing or social commentary or highlighting the absurdities of the modern world. The elephants are not communicating anything to me when they slap 9 lines in 3 colors on a canvas. The 6 year old pianist is not communicating anything to me when he performs Mozart without a flaw. The choreographer who has naked people stand still for 2 hours is just full of it.

masterymistery said...

Hi Nessa,
I wouldn't totally rule out the capacity of, say, a hyper-intelligent elephant, in some hypothetical or actual future, stochastic future, to at least understand the 'meta' meaning of art, in its cultural context, for instance, as something created to evoke thoughts and emotions relating to 'beauty', 'truth', or such.

It's a circular argument of the worst kind but what you gonna do? Everything's got to start somewhere. Even the Universe has to keep pulling itself up by its own bootstraps and continually re-invent itself into being, "moving forward"! ;-).

But there is nothing in principle, I think, preventing that which does not say something new, from being art. Nothing preventing that which does not tell a story, or tells it badly, from being art.

It's very hard if not impossible to capture all those intuitions / instincts / value judgements about what is or is not art, and use them to construct a reliable, objective and accurate measure.

So as you say, art is subjective; what makes art is subjectively determined.

Which leaves the door always open then through which hybrids, mutants and trojan horses can slyly creep!

And there's nothing we can do other than mutter to ourselves, "yes, but in my heart of hearts..."

!

Nessa said...

I think there's much striving after art but I think real Art with a capital letter is very rare and even great artists don't always create Art. I think the striving after it might be the main point and only when all of the planets align properly do we get Art.

masterymistery said...

...as is right and proper!