But Is It Art? – Searching For Simple, Practical, And Illuminating Answers (Jakob Zaaiman)

Joseph Beuy's "Fat Chair"

Joseph Beuy’s “Fat Chair”

The following is the first installment of a two-part series.

“Art” desperately needs a handy, practical definition, not of the scholarly conceptual variety, but rather of the plain and simple sort that you can usefully take with you into a gallery, and apply directly to what you see. You want to be able to work out for yourself whether or not a Raphael masterpiece and a Duchamp readymade belong in the same exhibition, and whether or not Emin’s bed and Hirst’s shark tank are good art.

But as things currently stand, “art” is a  vague and confusing concept, seemingly covering everything from classical paintings to bizarre street performances, and as a consequence totally devoid of a single overarching and convincing meaning.

Why does this matter ? Simply because if you don’t have a clear idea of what “art” is, you don’t really know what you are looking at when you visit an art gallery. This may seem an astonishing thing to say, given that there is no agreed definition of art even among the professionals, but what other conclusion is there? And if you aren’t sure what you’re looking at, or even what you should be looking for, all you can possibly do is resort to a judgement based on your likes and dislikes, flavored with vague ideas of what you think you ‘ought to think’, picked up from reviewers and the relevant ‘experts’.

Of course there is nothing heinous about doing this – after all, it’s what everyone does when it comes to subjects they are not adequately informed about – but it rests on mistaken assumptions that are actually preventing you from seeing what an artwork might be trying to say.

Why this situation exists, and how it can be resolved, is of crucial concern to anyone interested in enjoying art, whether as a practicing artist or as a critical observer. This is not mere scholarly chatter or conceptual wordplay: it is about understanding the basic principles of art itself, and how one can best appreciate a genuine artwork.

“Art” as a problem

There are several interconnected strands to the problem of trying to grasp what art might be all about. For one thing, art does not seem to have an easily identifiable essence – a common core – that meaningfully explains itself through its hugely diverse manifestations. Even though we like to put them in one basket, painting and dance and music seem to be unrelated to one another, with no substantial connection between them, except very vaguely, as things we can ‘witness for enjoyment’. Because how do you relate a Brahms sonata to a street performance, or the Mona Lisa to a shark tank ? Why do we even call all these things ‘art’ in the first place ?

Next, there is the very real conundrum of how to relate the classical to the modern. No one has any particular problem in validating the classical, except insofar as someone might find museum pieces lifeless and remote, as well as faintly boring1. Everyone recognises the high- quality craftsmanship of the sort on display in national galleries, even if they are not particularly moved by it. Classicism – meaning crafted with exceptional skill – is the benchmark – the gold standard – by which we judge cultural artefacts, and we think of it as completely self-justifying. The problem arises with modern artworks, many of which do not seem to represent either much skill, or much significance.

So we have the problem of the diversity of unconnected art forms, coupled with the apparent incongruity of modern art in relation to its classical correlate. All of this leads to a situation where people are not only confused as to the nature of art in general, but also unable to appreciate what modern art might be trying to say.

On the other hand, there is very strong sense, throughout the wider artistic community, that you don’t need to know exactly what art is to get involved with it. You just do whatever it is you do, and let the rest – the futile chatter about ‘what is art ?’ – take care of itself. It’s as if everyone already knows what art is, even if they have difficulty articulating it in a convincing way. A musician doesn’t have to be able to define music to be a maestro, and this is what artists and critics believe is also true of art.

But the problem is that if you don’t have a clear idea of what art is trying to do, you can’t possibly enjoy modern contemporary works with any depth, and you are missing out on what art really has to offer.

Historical background

We can easily trace the origin of our difficulties with art back to the emergence of modernism – that is to say, modern experimental painting styles – in the latter part of the 19th century. It began with Impressionism, and developed from there. Until that point, we can be reasonably sure that ‘art’ equated with ‘the classical fine arts’ – dance, music, painting, and so on – and that there was no real sense that these arts were in any way problematic, or ill-defined, or confusing. Of course theorists had historically long been aware of the various philosophical difficulties associated with the arts, such as the problem of articulating aesthetic experiences in words, but this is not the same as deciding that ‘art’ itself is problematic, and that we don’t really know what it is.

What basically happened was that modernism established the possibility that artworks need not necessarily conform to strict classical standards to be taken seriously, and that stylistic experimentation was to be encouraged. But with experimentation came uncertainty, and the idea that no one knew quite where to draw the line, and that the concept of a recognisable ‘work of art’ might itself disappear in the process.

Dispensing with classical standards also means that it is no longer possible to identify serious artworks by their manifest classical form, content and technique. The presence of these standard characteristics had always been a reassuring starting point in any encounter with new material, and their absence brought immediate difficulties: perhaps it was painted by an ape, or composed by someone tone deaf, or sculpted by accident, who could tell ? Yet what is important here is not the loss of the formal features as such – they could conceivably be replaced – rather it is the destruction of the venerable idea that ‘art’ is equivalent to ‘classical fine art’. ‘Art’ then runs the risk of becoming something other than that which everyone thought it was.

The gradual introduction of a modernist sensibility also brought about changes in a general understanding, as people saw it, of the very “purpose of art”. This crucial shift in perspective is not easy to pinpoint with any great historical accuracy, even though we can be sure it happened. Because the abandoning of classical form inevitably involved the abandonment of classical narrative, and this meant in turn that painting became an aesthetic experience in itself – as opposed to an educative or religious one – which meant that people began to look at paintings for their aesthetic – that is to say, sensory – content, rather than for their cultural or spiritual worthiness. This in turn would have brought about a change in the reasons people went to galleries in the first place, resulting in exhibitions of new paintings becoming sensational social entertainments, rather than the respectful contemplation of cultural artefacts that had previously been the norm.

It is worth taking a moment to ponder here whether or not our entire modern aesthetic sensibility – that is to say, our modern ability to view crafted works in terms only of the aesthetic pleasure we can squeeze out of them, and this would include the most conservative and reactionary high camp classicism – does not in fact represent a decisive break with the past. We know, for example, that illuminated manuscripts or African fetishes are not ‘art’ in the way we think of it, even though these objects are regularly exhibited in galleries as if they were; and we can’t avoid viewing them as objects of purely aesthetic interest, not as they were intended.

This is because we now treat the world of the arts as an opportunity – first and foremost – for sensory and hedonistic pleasure, and not as some kind of spiritual, educative engagement; and there is no real call for us to recalibrate our thinking, so as to try to imagine how previous generations would have seen things. Even our commonplace idea of a standalone ‘work of art’ may have been meaningless to people of an earlier age, because art would always have been created to perform a specific worldly function directed to a specific worldly end. The idea of “art for sensual fun”, or “art for the sake of it”, is clearly something very modern, and the outcome of forces which are themselves of recent origin.

What we are keen to identify in all of this is the transition from a classical conception of art as the fine arts, to a modern conception of art as the ‘realm of the senses’. In the classical perspective, the fine arts were part of the fabric of society, decorative and enjoyable perhaps, but primarily designed to fulfil a useful function, whether as a status symbol, or means of religious instruction, or some other specific purpose. In the modern perspective, the idea which emerges from the transformative democratisation of the ‘fine arts’ into ‘art’ is that of art as something created to be enjoyed for its own sake, not as part of some grander scheme.

Appreciating Crafted Material – Aesthetics and the Aesthetic Gaze

We now need to introduce, on the back of our identification of “art for art’s sake”, an important set of ideas about ‘ways of seeing.’ This will go some way to explaining how the confusion between “art” and “crafted material” arises, and how crucial it is that the two are understood as ultimately quite different from one another, even if they share a common origin.

The road to art begins with crafted material of one kind or another, depending on the chosen medium. Most crafted material is functional and utilitarian, and constructed as technology to enhance and improve our everyday lives. We can categorise these goods as tools and machinery, and for the most part we see them only in terms of their functionality, largely disregarding their appearance. And insofar as care is taken to make tools and machinery appear attractive, this is known as ‘design’.

Then there is the realm of decorative crafting, deliberately undertaken to make our lived environment look nicer. We assess decoration by means of a particular type of looking, a specific type of gaze, and it is this distinctive form of “looking at something for its visual qualities alone” which is the origin and essence of the visual aesthetic sensibility. Other aesthetic sensibilities relate to other senses and other capacities, but it is the visual one with which we tend to be the most familiar.

As one would suspect, none of our sensibilities exist in an utterly pure form, as there are always other considerations influencing a perception. So an object can always be appraised from many different perspectives more or less at one and the same time: a painting can be enjoyed for its visual features, while simultaneously one thinks about what inspired it, and what it means, and what techniques the artist employed to realize it, and so on.

And of course the aesthetic gaze can be educated and refined by putting it to good use, and feeding it with information. The more you exercise your visual capacities, the sharper and deeper your perceptions, and the greater your powers of observation.

The aesthetic gaze – enjoying something primarily for its visual qualities alone, irrespective of other considerations – can of course be applied to anything that we can see: a landscape; faces; animals. And each visual category – each class of objects that we can look at – has something like its own rationale, and its own logical coherence operating on a continuum from, say, a casual glance, to a fascinated, fixated stare, with differing levels of valuation emerging according to circumstance, for example the experience of a ‘particularly beautiful’ sunset, as opposed to an ‘unexceptional’ one.

All this is simply an attempt to get a feel for a very basic ‘way of seeing’, in which an object – in this case an item of crafted material – is appraised on the basis of its sensorial features alone, amounting to something like a recreational experience, whether momentary, or enduring. It is this particular ‘way of seeing’ we tend to adopt when we visit art galleries and museums, insofar as we are hoping for a series of aesthetic experiences as a result of viewing the various artefacts on display.

Now when we combine the aesthetic gaze with crafted material deliberately crafted to appeal to this gaze, we arrive at what most people like to think of as “art”. There seems to be an irrefutable logic to this, in that the aesthetic gaze has as its foundation various notions of “beauty”, and crafted material which strives for beauty will naturally appeal to our aesthetic gaze. This is not as circular an argument as it may seem, because it explains the triangulated relationship between beauty and certain kinds of crafted material, and the aesthetic, sensorial, appreciation of such material. It explains what many painters and dancers and musicians are trying to achieve, and how they want their crafting to be valued.

However, sensorial aesthetics is not yet the legitimate domain of art, even if many think it is, and many would probably want it to be. This is because there is really no need to introduce the additional concept of ‘art’ to identify and explain the rationale of material crafted for sensorial delight alone: it can be fully accounted for, from its inception to its profoundest experience, by “aesthetics” and the logic of the aesthetic gaze. So how do we then get from aesthetics, to “art’”?.

Presentational Material, and the Theatrical Pretense2

So far we have identified two key types of crafted material – functional and decorative – as part of a quest for a wider understanding of the ontological origins of that which is distinctively ‘art’. All art can be traced back conceptually to crafted material of one kind or another, because – as a first principle – art cannot be accidental or naturally occurring – it requires human crafting of one kind or another, no matter how slight, for it to be what it is.

And on the basis of the fact that everything that is going to become art must, as a matter of principle, be humanly crafted, we have identified at least one major category of crafted material, namely that which is directed at our aesthetic – our sensorial – capacities. In other words, we are talking about crafted material which we contemplate, and appreciate, and enjoy, for its sensorial beauty alone, disregarding any utilitarian function it may have. And to enjoy an object in this way, we switch to a specific way of looking and seeing, namely a “standing back and admiring it for its beauty” mode, with the understanding that “beauty” is being used here in a very loose and inclusive sense, such that it can include paradoxical states such as ‘beautiful ugliness’, and so on. The switch from one type of seeing -in terms of an object’s function –  to another – its attractiveness – is pivotal.

And there is yet another non-utilitarian mode of engaging with a crafted object which is key to an understanding of art, and it is one with which we are all very familiar, even if we are not always fully aware of the precise nature. This is the ‘theatrical spectator’ mode, in which we enter into a tacit agreement with a performer, thereby allowing ourselves to be entertained theatrically; and this involves a quite different type of engagement from the strictly aesthetic or sensorial.

In a theatrical “pretense” we engage with some kind of staged narrative and unfolding story, following the action by means of verbal cues, or mimed ones, or by some other means, often not paying much attention to the aesthetics involved. We go along with the unfolding action in an agreed pretence – an implicit understanding that we are in make-believe – engaging with it as a form of entertainment.

And our understanding of the theatrical mode of entertainment is very basic to being human, and is effortlessly grasped even by very young children. The theatrical pretense can be established in a single gesture, as in someone striking a pose in a casual setting, or in pointing to an object, or it can be established more formally, as in taking a seat in an auditorium.

Now it turns out that it is this very basic and primordial theatrical relationship which is the origin of that which is distinctively “art”. Art – regardless of the medium, whether painting or dance or music or whatever – is basically a form of theater, as opposed to a form of sensorial aesthetics, which is the realm of craft. Both involve humanly crafted presentational material, and both involve characteristic modes of looking and seeing, but the paths they take, and the logic of their unfolding, is quite different one from the other. Aesthetic material is essentially about sensorial beauty, and how it can best be portrayed and appreciated; artistic material is essentially about a very specific type of narrative, and how it can best be put across.

The Arthouse Narrative – the Strange and Disturbing

Locating “art” in the realm of the theatrical – as opposed to the aesthetic – is still only a part of the story, and requires further clarification and specification if it is to identify the distinctive characteristics of art with any real explanatory force. Narrative storytelling – in a theatrical mode – can address any conceivable subject, and can be conducted in any conceivable setting – a school classroom, for example, or in the street, or in a national theatre, and even in a casual conversation – and this means that the sheer unrestricted range of options effectively empties the category of explanatory and informative value.

For “art” to distinguish itself meaningfully from “non-art”, we need to have a convincing set of characteristics which will explain why one thing ‘is what it is’, while clearly separating it from ‘that which it is not’. We also need to know, along the way, why it is that ‘art’ continues to confuse.

So what kind of theatrical narrative would qualify as distinctively ‘artistic’ ? We know that most theatrical narrative events, ordinarily speaking, simply reflect variations of the world we already inhabit, and are meant to be seen as coextensive with normality. This is as true of Shakespeare as it is of science fiction, and of a police procedural, so even if the worlds you are being invited to enter into are not those which you are very likely to experience directly, you are not meant to believe you are dealing with an alternative reality. Most theatrical narratives, from films to television to the stage, locate themselves in, and are meant to reflect, with infinite variation, normal life, as normally experienced.

But if we look around for some features which we might identify as characteristically ‘artistic’, the kindred concept of “arthouse” turns out to be very helpful. “Arthouse” cinema is usually taken to mean films with an odd, difficult, and “stylishly distinctive”, and intellectual flavor, concentrating on subjects of a bizarre nature, and deliberately positioning itself outside the mainstream. And if we drill down further, we see that what is distinctively ‘arthouse’ is not its stylish quirks or its intellectual, deviant content, but rather its strangeness, and unsettling otherness. Meaning, ultimately, that characteristically “arthouse” equates authentically with characteristically strange and disturbing, and that it does so in such a way as to distinguish it decisively from other genres with which it might share a passing resemblance.

All of which means that, as we see it, “arthouse” and “art” are effectively one and the same. For “art” to be characteristically itself, and not to be confused with something else, it has to be about the theatrical presentation of the strange and the disturbing. It uses theatrical means to orchestrate its narratives, and it does so as an invitation to an entire world of experience.

In this way, “art”, as a theatrical entertainment, reveals itself to be fundamentally quite other than aesthetic craft, which has as its objective an optimal, beautiful, sensation. Art – exactly like an unsettling film, or staged play – wants you to immerse yourself in its world, and take on its perspective, while aesthetic “craft” only wants you to marvel at its colors, and swoon at its sounds, and be dazzled by the sensations it offers. Art is a disturbing form of immersive entertainment; aesthetic craft is really just an advanced form of decoration.

Jakob Zaaiman is an artist and writer living in London and New York.  He works mainly with photographs, and is interested only in the troubling and disconcerting aspects of life which can be discovered within the ordinary.

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