Friday, September 07, 2007

Culture, conservatives and the defining of art

Conservatives are funny people. Challenged to define art, 'Zen Tiger' at the NZ Conservative blog avoids the question for most of a very long page before banging on instead about marriage, homosexuality, and the threat the latter poses to the former.

Conservatives are funny people.

In reiterating the challenge, Paul L spots something Zen hasn't, "I was merely hoping that somebody might say something nice ... about something they enjoyed. That is the problem with conservatism; it is always opposed to everything."

NB: If the question really was a genuine one, and it's more important than the conservatives in the debate seem to realise, then I offer what I think is a pretty good stab at defining art in this post: Art: There's More to it Than Just Meets the Eye - Not PC.

UPDATE 1: It occurs to me that the argument neatly demonstrates what Objectivism calls the instrinsicist-subjectivist divide. What's art? Says, the conservative, "Whatever God says it is." Says the subjectivist, "Whatever we say it is." Exploding the dichotomy, the Objectivist points out that like everything else in existence art has a nature, and the nature of art is neither defined for us by God or by our feelings (nor by the feelings of a committee), but instead by the the nature of art, by the nature of human consciousness, and by the relationship between the two.

UPDATE 2: Great to see the debate engaged here in the comments section. Since I don't wish to interrupt the debate, rather than enter the fray myself may I again invite commenters simply to visit the links I've already offered, in which I point to what I think is the best definition of art so far, explain why definition is so important, and outline what gives art the power to move us so profoundly.

"Art is the technology of the soul." "Art is a shortcut to philosophy." "Art is the concretisation of metaphysics." "Truth is beauty, beauty is truth..." Clearly art is more than just decoration; something that has the power to effect us so profoundly can't be causeless (well, most of us -- Alan Gibbs excluded it seems).

It must be possible to provide an explanation for something that does this. What in the nature of art that give it this power? How does it effect us? That's what these links try to explain:

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26 Comments:

Blogger Lyndon said...

After a little though and a small amount of blog-scanning, my best punt is only slightly helpful:

'Something that provokes an aesthetic response'

You can argue about what constitutes an aesthetic response and whether a particular thing provokes one in you, or everyone, or anyone at all - which I think that at least reflects the normal lines of debates about art.

It also has the side-effect that you may be able to turn something into art just by looking at it the right way, which appeals to me.

9/06/2007 03:23:00 pm  
Blogger Comrade MOT said...

Why in your links list does Rodney Hide come in "Team red"? he might not be as libertarian as you like but he is certainly just as blue as Sephen Franks and Muriel Newman who make "team blue".

9/06/2007 04:48:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

COMRADE, you asked, "Why in your links list does Rodney Hide come in "Team red"?"

I believe it's all explained up there in 'The Key to My Blogroll.'

LYNDON, you suggested, "Something that provokes an aesthetic response."

I'd say that's a start, particularly if you can define what that "something" is.

9/06/2007 05:12:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9/06/2007 08:03:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

avoids the question for most of a very long page

Don't think of it as avoiding the question, but rather, explaining my position. The clue to this approach began with the title of the post - "Why define art?". [Note the question mark]

And would it help to take into account all that I said in the TBR thread that started this - which was quite a bit.

And whilst Paul had challenged me to define art, the conversation had actually started a few months ago when he defined Culture as only what he thought important - given that he couldn't actually recognise other cultural content (You linked to that one too). I thought that ironic since he was maintaining my definition was 'whatever I like'

And it's fairly trite to make the claim That is the problem with conservatism; it is always opposed to everything. That's so silly I don't see the point in responding.

It's also strange to me you'd claim it's more important than the conservatives in the debate seem to realise since I went to some effort to explain it in the context of other 'definitions' that get watered down - like marriage.

So when Lyndon goes with a definition tending towards 'anything' and your helpful 'define 'something' it is clear you either haven't read the thread or fully groked (excuse the cultural reference) my point.

My comment about art was really driven from an earlier question about Paul's view on culture.

Luckily I view my blog posts as art - and you ignoramuses just don't get it :-)

Anyway, back to my book by Hayek. We Conservatives even read funny.

9/06/2007 08:04:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

Correction above:

And it's fairly trite (for Paul) to make the claim: "That is the problem with conservatism; it is always opposed to everything."

That's so silly I don't see the point in responding.

9/06/2007 08:41:00 pm  
Anonymous JC said...

Art's easy to define.. it's what you like. If it has to be explained, then it isn't art to you, it's a Rubix Cube.. or a puzzle.

I like colonial bungalows in single story, in white with blue or brown facings and doors.. and a tree or two near the door, but am not impressed with multi stories where you have to clamber up, and can fall down from.

I like Michaelangelo, but not Picasso.. the Picasso fella is simply a jigsaw puzzle to me.

And 50 odd years ago, you could walk round an AMP show and find the charcoal artist, and for 2 and sixpence he would draw you in 60 to 120 seconds. It was undoubtedly you and it was undoubtedly art!

JC

9/07/2007 01:05:00 am  
Anonymous Falafulu Fisi said...

JC said...
Art's easy to define.

I agree with JC here. For those art expert readers here at Not PC, just take a visit to the Auckland Art Gallery and have a good look at some scribbled paintings over there made by young children who are still at primary school. They look like random drawing, but hey, I am no art expert but the Gallery's art guru says that they are art, so I can't argue with a guru on the definition of art.

9/07/2007 07:43:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a comment on your post Zen Tiger, "banging on instead about marriage, homosexuality, and the threat the latter poses to the former."

Homosexuals, sex on TV, the legal status of one's partnership etc etc, are not a threat to marriage.

Married people are the greatest threat to marriage. The institution of marriage needs no protection other than the protection from the parties within it.

Think about it.

9/07/2007 09:18:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

JC, you said: "Art's easy to define.. it's what you like."

So if I like lighting my farts, that makes it performance art?

No, JC, you'll have to do better than that. You could try following that link I supplied . . .

9/07/2007 09:28:00 am  
Blogger Brian S said...

Defining what is art is all very well. But what happens when a work comes along that is claimed to be art, but doesn't fit the definition? The risk is that we end up appealing to the authority of our definition and dismissing the work out of hand, rather than trying to understand that the piece may be offering some new ideas.

Definitions are not so important in art as theories and explanations. Definitions should flow from our theories, not the other way around. And as in any other subject, we should be prepared to give up our theories when better theories come along. From this point of view, then, art is - or should be - an evolving subject, where new knowledge is constantly being discovered. A new piece of art can be considered to be a conjecture, which may or may not hold water in the light of subsequent rational criticism. And from this may grow a new understanding of art, as well as better definitions.


***

PC: You wrote: "the nature of art is ... defined for us by ... the nature of art, ..."

Did you really mean that?

9/07/2007 09:47:00 am  
Anonymous JC said...

"So if I like lighting my farts, that makes it performance art?"

Well, that's less offensive than some stuff I've either seen or heard about.. at least it's funny!

I'm reminded of a TV programme about one of the finest champagne makers in France. The very refined old aristocrat who was the head of the family poured himself a glass of his best and popped an ice cube into it. When asked about the heresy he said something like "Why not, that's the way I like it".

JC

9/07/2007 02:00:00 pm  
Blogger Lyndon said...

I may be about to disappoint you, but I think I meant 'Any thing that provokes an aesthetic response' (would be art).

Normally it will be something manufactured with that intent, but the we don't often look for aesthetic gratification from things that aren't - hence the way some things really do become art just by being put in a gallery.

As to how the process works, I don't know - or at least I would want to use an awful lot of space.

I feel like there's a cluster of reactions - the particular recognition you seem to be talking about in your link, or the particular shock of having your imagination rearranged... - any one of which might be enough and might be cause by a huge array of things, subtle or overt.

I'll add in the context of the discussion I don't (all) entertainment to be art - although in a lot of form's it's difficult to do the first without the second.

And while I appreciate the analogy I tend to thing of winemaking as craft - that could just be a perspective thing.

9/07/2007 03:51:00 pm  
Blogger Lyndon said...

edit: I don't consider (all). And apostrophes etc

9/07/2007 03:52:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

Anonymous. When you quoted this:

just a comment on your post Zen Tiger, "banging on instead about marriage, homosexuality, and the threat the latter poses to the former."

That was you quoting PC who was paraphrasing what he thought I said. I didn't say that.

I agree with your point, so no problems there.

The point I was trying to make in my post, which I feel is different to PC's interpretation, is that if one redefines what a word means, then it can obviously change the meaning of the word.

Expanding the scope of 'marriage' too far ultimately waters down the meaning of the word. Just like expanding the scope of 'art' ultimately waters down the meaning of the word 'art'.

In general, I think that is a bad thing. However, the market does react and adjust. We end up not using the word 'art' as much unless we qualify it:

pop-art, classical art, post-modernist art, street art, impressionist art, aboriginal art, photographic art, contemporary art and so forth.

However, until the new genre is defined and accepted (and perhaps cunningly relegated to its own paddock by labeling it into a nice little box to protect the 'good stuff') we just precipitate the overall diffusion of the original word.

There is a lot to be said for coming up with new words to describe new things so people are clear on what they are talking about. Obviously, for some, that is the last thing wanted because they want to change society into their image of 'the way things should be'.

You can see people/groups trying their best to redefine all sorts of terms all the time.

Redefining marriage, redefine art, redefine the point at which some-one is 'human', redefine Christian, redefine fascist, redefine etc etc and you have a powerful vehicle for changing the way people think.

It's a common way to move the goal posts. I don't want the goal posts to be moved until I've had more time to think about things - thus the response "Why define art?"

9/07/2007 07:15:00 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

I would modify Lyndon's definition of Art "any thing that provokes an aesthetic response" to say "any thing that is intended to provoke an aesthetic response and which is accepted as such by the art world."

There are many things that can provoke an aesthetic response (trees, sky, etc) that are not intended to have such a response. There are others (Ferraris, Dyson vacuum cleaners etc) which have other primary functions (motoring excellence, clean floors etc), although they may still provoke an aesthetic response. Art is the preserve of things that are intended, primarily to provoke an aesthetic response and are accepted as such by the art world.

I have no problem with people who accept a particular work as Art but do not like it. I am troubled by those who say a work is not Art, without saying why.

9/07/2007 10:02:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

I'll go with the "anything that provokes a reaction" as a good line to follow in defining art.

We could go a step further:

Different reactions (and emotions) can be provoked: love, hate, anger, joy. I think the negative emotions are easy to provoke. Ones that generate feelings of joy, love, serenity, peace, or a feeling of "beauty", a stirring of the soul - these are all harder to provoke and generally this is where skill and talent can be recognised.

Thus, we now understand broadly what can constitute good art or bad art.

so to complete my circle - some of the psuedo-intellectual wankery that poses as art, is by modern societies low standards, definitely art. But it is not good art. Because it provokes little that is positive, for the majority of people.

Take a glass walled toilet display and stick a $45,000 price tag on it. Check out what the reactions are to it.

Bad art.

9/08/2007 10:39:00 pm  
Blogger Sam Finnemore said...

"Ones that generate feelings of joy, love, serenity, peace, or a feeling of "beauty", a stirring of the soul - these are all harder to provoke and generally this is where skill and talent can be recognised ... some of the psuedo-intellectual wankery that poses as art, is by modern societies low standards, definitely art. But it is not good art. Because it provokes little that is positive, for the majority of people."

I think once you start assessing art by the "positive" feelings it generates in the majority of people, you're moving away from art and towards propaganda. Also, I don't see why it's more intrinsically artistic to make people happy and comfortable and serene than to make them uncomfortable and questioning and shaken out of complacency about 'art' and 'beauty'.

There's nothing hard about persuading people to view happy pretty things, or things which reinforce their existing values. Getting people to view and think about complex and discomfiting things takes a lot more guts on the part of the artist, I think.

9/08/2007 11:33:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

Guts? So art is the ability to shock, offend, enrage - and feel brave about doing so?

That seems to be a bit dull to me. It makes art simply a medium to express an idea. Surely, that's too simple a definition for a blog like this?

9/09/2007 01:59:00 pm  
Blogger Sam Finnemore said...

"Guts? So art is the ability to shock, offend, enrage - and feel brave about doing so?

That seems to be a bit dull to me. It makes art simply a medium to express an idea. Surely, that's too simple a definition for a blog like this?"

Whoa, back up a bit. I was suggesting that it's a lot gutsier for artists to produce confrontational work rather than comforting work, from the viewpoint of persuading people to enjoy your art - and also challenging your suggestion that positive reactions are a good measure of skill in an artist. I might be wrong. But I'm not suggesting that "guts" is some kind of definition of art. Suggest you read my comment again with a bit more care.

I like Lyndon's definition of 'aesthetic response' and its side-effect, because I think that side-effect (anything looked at in the right way is art) is crucial to how modern art works. Duchamp's urinal, in a men's room, would just be a urinal, but the intent to place it in an art space transforms its meaning and the way it is viewed, and that's what makes it art - aesthetic intent.

What makes something *good* art is another question again...

9/09/2007 07:11:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

Whoa, back up a bit. I was suggesting that it's a lot gutsier for artists to produce confrontational work rather than comforting work,

Yes, I think I got that. It's gutsier to produce confrontational work. That doesn't necessarily make it great art. Thus my artistic response. The one that provoked "whoa there".

I'm a master.

And I wouldn't characterize being swept away by a brilliant artist as comforting either.

I'm not sure where the 'persuading people' comes in. The artist, in painting the ceiling, is not necessarily trying to persuade people that this is good art...that's only the effect when walking into the Sistine Chapel.

Paul's point earlier also seemed to be along the lines of a requirement to persuade:

any thing that is intended to provoke an aesthetic response and which is accepted as such by the art world."

I was left wondering how long the application took to process and how many people from the art world needed to be persuaded something was art. If I join, can I reject the aforementioned crap I think gives art a bad name...?

I like Lyndon's definition too - and you asked what makes it good art - I'm sticking with my point about provoking a response, preferably ones that stir a great and positive emotion. I remain unimpressed about the category of art that likes to display a great deal of guts to provoke a shock response for the sake of shock value. But maybe that increasingly is the definition of 'modern art' ?

If so, our culture is really going to seed...

9/09/2007 09:32:00 pm  
Anonymous Blair said...

I think in one quote Alan Gibbs defines art better than anybody I have come across:

"[The artist is not] trying to say anything. If he had wanted to say something he would have written a book. He didn't. He put paint on canvas. I like to look at it. That's why I bought it. It doesn't say anything."

That's all art is as far as I'm concerned.

9/09/2007 10:44:00 pm  
Blogger Lyndon said...

I have to say I didn't expect some much agreement. At the time my suggestion felt somewhat trite.

So ta Paul.

I think it's fair to say we expect some kind of intentional 'making' before describing, or looking at something, as art. Even if it's just the equivalent of putting quote marks around something.

I think we expect a kind of communication from art - almost always (perhap necessarily) communicating or connecting on levels normal semantics don't reach - so the idea there's not a person behind it defuses the whole project.

Whether that needs to be the work's 'primary' purpose is something I think people can disagree on, depending on what 'art' you're trying to define. I'll say that it does.

I'm still cautious about the need to be 'recognised as such'.

And I'll throw this in - I wonder if talking about emotional reactions is quite right. I feel like it needs something other or else - what that is I can't putting my finger on right now, maybe because that's the job of the art.

9/10/2007 11:49:00 am  
Blogger peter said...

The question is surely not whether something is 'art or not' because really almost anything could be considered art.

The question simply is regarding the quality of the work. So, we can ask ourselves what defines quality, but at the end of the day, again, we're all going to have different ideas. Art is a series of symbols essentially - and we may all have our own understanding of the symbols depending on the experiences we've had in our lives. For example, someone referred earlier to an artist using an aborted baby in an art work. Some people may find that disgusting, some people might find it deeply moving, some disturbing. Likewise in a more tradition painting, some people may be able to appreciate the brushstrokes, religious iconography, etc and be moved or impressed by that. Others may not be interested, because they simple haven't experienced the foreknowledge that gives access to that perception/interpretation.

So where am I going with this? Simply that, different people will have different ideas of whether a particular art work has quality to them, and that it is small minded and childish to suggest that just because I find something wonderful that everyone else ought to find it wonderful too, or that something is 'not good' and everyone else ought to agree.

However, because there are some art works considered 'better' than others, 'masterpieces' etc. And I am not suggesting some postmodern confusion: that all art works are created equal, some certainly have a stronger ability to provoke feeling and new ideas in the viewer than others. And so perhaps that could be a definition of quality: the ability to provoke new feelings and ideas.

PS the whole idea of trying to define by artistic intention is way WAY off. What is the artistic intention of a sunset? It is beautiful and effecting, and I would certainly consider it art, though I don't sense any 'intention' behind it.

9/14/2007 11:34:00 am  
Blogger peter said...

And a wee addition in response to this:

"so to complete my circle - some of the psuedo-intellectual wankery that poses as art, is by modern societies low standards, definitely art. But it is not good art. Because it provokes little that is positive, for the majority of people.

Take a glass walled toilet display and stick a $45,000 price tag on it. Check out what the reactions are to it."

Just in reference to my last post (which is guess partly a long winded agreement with Lyndon actually :D) you have to realise that some people may actually be affected and interested in the glass toilet because they have experience and knowledge you don't have.

Look, particularly these high art prizes, the art works tend to be part of a larger dialogue concerning other art that has come out before it. So, if an art critic thinks it's very interesting, then I'm not outrightly going to turn around and praise the thing until I find out a little more, but nor am I going to say it 'means nothing' either.

To put it into a more popular context, you're nothing going to understand 'scary movie' unless you've also seen the films that it reference.

Okay, so maybe some people may feel slightly left out, but in reference to this though:

"...provokes little that is positive, for the majority of people."

It seems as if you are suggesting art critics be selecting work based on whether the majority (because your definition of quality relys on the 'majority' liking it will like it rather than their own personal response. I think we can all agree it would be awful if artist's thought this way.

So then, perhaps we can say that art critics ought to 'explain' the work better to bring people into the fold so the majority can enjoy what they are. Well, perhaps that's the case, but then is it right for an art critic to then 'tell people why they should like the work'?? Surely there's a problem too, because people ought to be able to find their own responses without having them defined by someone else.

And then they have to get through the mainstream media to get the message across, who are often more interested in creating a drama and controversy than getting into the nitty gritty of complex issues.

9/14/2007 01:15:00 pm  
Blogger peter said...

Sorry, that 4th paragraph should read:

"It seems as if you are suggesting art critics be selecting work based on whether the majority will like it rather than their own personal response (because your definition of quality relys on the 'majority' liking it). I think we can all agree it would be awful if artists thought this way."

9/14/2007 01:17:00 pm  

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