Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Notes on "What Art Is" Introduction

Summary of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi

20th century: first time works "purporting to be art" which were not art were created. "Bearing little or no resemblance to the painting, sculpture, literature, music, or dance that had come before."

Art "[makes] sense of human experience."

They believe 20th century art was more like madness or fraud. It gained acceptance by the establishment, and traditional styles were pushed aside. They say this art is bizarre and the scholarly work defending it "impenetrable." "A substantial segment of the public" doesn't embrace it.

Three responses: some have mere confusion or frustration,
"others skeptical that there is anything in it to be understood or appreciated,"
"still others reject it outright, considering it beyond the pale of art"

"We maintain that the ordinary person's view, based as it is largely on common sense, is the correct one." They want to give theoretical justification to this view.

History and concept of the term "art"
A term does not equal a concept.
Term refers to different but related concepts.
Latin: arts, artis
Greek term, techne
skill, discipline, technique
"art of warfare" "art of medicine" "mechanical arts" "liberal arts"
"an ability acquired by careful study and applied to a particular undertaking."
They skill is so fundamental to the concept of art, it is part of any "legitimate uses of the term"

narrower definition dates to late 1800s, referring to collective or individual fine arts. "fine arts" dates to mid 1700s, painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance, drama

Avant-garde "attempts to appropriate...while simultaneously undermining it."

Traditional concept of art did not develop in a vacuum, was not divorced from real experience, similarities between existing art forms, and differences between art forms and things which weren't art.

Dates back to Greek concept of "mimetic arts," proven by comparisons between poetry and painting, song and dance, painting and sculpture, in ancient writings, and are found in other cultures.

Ostensive meaning is what a word refers to.
Claim Western theories of art since 1700s have obscured the referents of art by focusing on nature of art.
"In attempting to identify the essential qualities distinctive to art, theorists lost sight of the original referents of the term, and of their complex totality, and focused instead on certain attributes abstracted from the whole, such as 'beauty' or 'expression.' In so doing, they ignored the attribute of mimesis, whose relationship to art they did not fully appreciate, though it was fundamental to the original concept." [see notes for response]

Architecture was one of the first things referred to as art which was not art.
Since then, this line of thinking, which they believe flawed, was been "exploited by an art world seeking to further a variety of extra-artistic ends, from spurious political agendas to a desire for prestige and financial gain, however unearned."

p. 3-7
"What the Ordinary Person Thinks"
The authors present letters to the editor, cartoons, and parodies from tv shows to give a sense of the divide between the ordinary person and the artworld.
"banalities of Andy Warhol"
A unnamed work in the Whitney Museum of Art's biennial exhibition consisting of newspapers
Truisms by Jenny Holzer "gibberish"
Brice Marden's "Untitled" "A rectangle of two shades of mud divided by a straight line"

Summarize mainstream journalists and news talking heads:
Irving Krystol WSJ op-ed
George Will, membership in art community "involves no exacting entrance requirements"
William Rushner "simply doesn't speak to me"
Thomas Sowell "grace, beauty, or exaltation...[vs] puzzlement, boredom, or disgust"
R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr. on Serrano and Mapplethorpe "mere naughtiness in our age sells, but it is not art."
John Leo on victim art "a large puddle of plastic vomit" at the whitney museum biennial
Jeff Jacoby on the NEA, the public would never willingly support it
Morley Safer on Cy Twombly "scrawls," Jeff Koons basketballs, quotes Koons and calls it "artspeak"
Murphy Brown sit-com, and fictitious work based on Duchamp's fountain, and Robert Gober's fixtures
The story of the 18month old painting passed off as an abstract expressionist work

p. 8
"But is it art?" is the ubiquitous question
Book "But is it art: Art as activism" defines art as furthering progressive goals
"Is it art, or Just Dead Meat?"
They are upset by the use of the term in this context, unless it is something like "Art--Or Just a Hollow Sham?" which referred to Mneme.

p. 9
"The Experts Speak"
Argue that art experts obfuscate:
H.W. Janson envisions an ordinary man asking "Why is this supposed to be art?" Didn't think "there are, or ought to be, exact rules by which we can tell art from what is not art."
Call Frederick Hartt patronizing for arguing that he was hostile to contemporary art as a young man, and recommending the young student engage in constant exposure, study, and analysis.

In the authors' view contemporary should not be used to describe avant-gardism.
"Personal language" means it is inscrutable
"...he virtually ignored the requirement of objective content and meaning with respect to contemporary work..."

Erbst Gombrish "There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists."

John Canaday "inexhaustible enrichment of life"

They accuse these authors of giving short-shrift to traditional works.
They demand an objective definition.

p. 11
Transition to revision of art history texts: "gender, race, sexual preference" substitution of study of art for study of images, "aesthetic relativism and cultural pluralism"
Postmodern art history: suspicious of the idea that some works are more deserving of attention than others, suspicious of "common culture," chronology is male-dominated, masterpieces are suspect, and used to reveal "biases," "contemporary politics"

Quote James Elkins with alarm because he wants to study "images which are not art" like maps, graphs, astronomical charts, etc. "writing the history of images rather than art."

Quote critics
Roberta Smith "If an artist says it's art, it's art."
Rita Reif citing Rosenblum "If an artist makes it, it's art, regardless of the artist's intentions."
Grace Glueck "intended as art, presented as such, and...judged to be art by those qualified in such matters."

p. 12
They cite Jacques Barzun and Eliseo Bibas to state that modern art instiutions have so consistent philosophy or aim.

"Since they [modern critics] cannot discriminate between 'art' and 'non-art,' they cannot be relied on properly to discriminate between 'good' art and 'bad.'...forfeits claim to respect or consideration." all subjective opinion

p. 13
Grant that one could reject contemporary trends while not accepting the need for a theory, like John Simon. Argue that Simon still operates under a theory when he critiques film.

Argue that classifying what art is does not fall to artists, critics, or historians, but to philosophers.
Cite Steven Davis' argument to illustrate their idea that chaos and disintegration in art traces to philosophy: Davis argues that Fountain is in textbooks, taught about in art courses, has influenced artists in their manifestos and other works...that it has had undeniable impact.

p. 14
According to American Society for Aesthetics, two threats to art as an idea:
First, central question of aesthetics, what is art? becomes frustrating
Second, whether an account of art must generalize or always be art-specific

Turn to Ayn Rand as the provider of their philosophical basis
Traditional: "painting, sculpture, music, and literature (fiction, poetry, and drama)"
Mimetic, "albeit in a highly selective and often stylized manner."
They call this the position of the "ordinary person" and of 19th century philosophers like Tolstoy.

They claim that Rand does not rely on the authority of the past. (They use James W. Tuttleson as an example of a cultural conservative who criticized modern art but relied on an appeal to authority)
Rand said a civilized society should accept ideas because they are true, not because they are old or their ancestors believed them.

p. 15
These art forms are "the only forms consonant with essential features of human nature."
She rejected the idea that traditional arts are meant to convey pleasure or value through beauty.
Purpose of art is "the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically important to man."
quoting Rand, "selective re-creation of reality"
Psychological need for art, cognitive and emotional.
Esthetics is the study of art, not the study of beauty and related concepts.
Objecticism is an integrated, neo-aritotelian philosophy, which means Rand's answers to art questions relate to her whole philosophy

General observations:
Tone: the authors write in a polemic tone. They frequently put terms in quotations when they are dismissive of their opponents' views. Though they are self-described generalists, they make broad historical claims that need more historical investigation. In effect, they claim a better understanding of art than any art theorist or historian since the 1700s.

They refer to "the public" and "the ordinary person." This, in my view, is an everyman fallacy of logic. They would defend themselves by saying that by "the ordinary person's view" they mean "common sense" or the logical view. Yet, they spend a great deal of time trying to give their audience a sense of what this "ordinary person's" view is. I do not think they would spend all this time if they did not understand their audience and the rhetorical power of an everyman fallacy. What should be important is their truth claim, not their popularity. Certainly, one who has studied Ayn Rand should understand the danger of populism or tyranny by majority rule.

It's hard to argue with someone who defines their position as the common sense position and other positions as contrary to common sense, but since they put so much emphasis on Socratic logic and objective reasoning, perhaps they would respect an attempt to critique their thesis through these methods.

They offer 3 distinct attitudes without specifying which view represents their own.  It is different to be skeptical of a work's value and to reject that work as not being art to begin with.

One odd question that is hanging in the air: why do they slam philosophers of the 1700s for muddling the definition of art with their theories while simultaneously using the "traditional definition of art" which they admit originated in that time?

Second, is it enough to define art in a way which matches up with the "traditional definition"? Isn't that the fallacy of an appeal to tradition? Shouldn't the question be whether the definition is correct or incorrect? They would likely agree. What that means is, once they get to Ayn Rand's definition, that definition will be open to scrutiny.

Third, I think it odd they don't mention Plato's critique of the mimetic arts. Were they really unaware of it, or did they fear that presenting their readers with an opposing view which dates to the ancients would undermine their own argument? I find that a bit of a glaring error. It was hardly universal for the ancient world to define art as mimetic, which is a large pillar they rest upon.

Importantly, they identify beauty and expression as things which are characteristics of art, but not the fundamental definition of art. Therefore, if I could prove logically that a work is both beautiful and expressive, that would not be enough to define it as art, in their view, if it were not also mimetic. I think in this, they depart significantly from their nebulous "ordinary person" since many ordinary people might appreciate certain works or art which are beautiful and technical, but not mimetic (Van Gogh perhaps, Bill Viola, Makoto Fujimura).