01 January 2006

When was Art?

Becuase I am an idiot, I have been trying in vain to publish this post since the 29th.

Here’s a little exercise. Think for a short, short moment about your own idea of art; what it has to be/do/not be/not do. Keep it as short as you possibly can. Not a visual artist/art historian? No problem. Think instead about your idea of what freedom or justice means. Got an idea? It will probably do.

So, now think for a moment about art history (or if you had to revert to freedom, just think about history). How far back can you go before your idea of art no longer fits? For example, most people these days are happy to acknowledge photography as valid, canonized, high art. Not so 50 years ago. Another example? Greek vases. Is it only art if it was created to be art? I am sure that when the Greeks were decorating their vases they had no more artistic feeling than do these folks making these things. But don’t tell the Louvre, or the Italians.

Two important scholars form the backbone of what I have to say today. Hans Belting who wrote about image-creating before there was a thing called art, and Arthur Danto, who wrote about the end of art, which he argues took place back in the mid-1960s. It is a bit strange to think of art having started and stopped, but really, art was more like a craft or trade before the Renaissance. I don’t know if it is true that art has ended, but Danto sure makes sense when he argues for it.

Anyway, the purpose of the foregoing exercise is to emphasize that our current notion of many things (art and freedom are merely convenient examples) has very little in common with what our grandparents would say about those subjects. That in turn has little in common with what their own grandparents would say and so on throughout time. These ever evolving definitions are one reason that I have a series devoted to the problematic nature of art history. But it isn’t just an art history or a history problem. It is a problem for all of contemporary society and contemporary art. Art (freedom too) can't be everything to everyone becuase it never has been that.


Josh said...

i have seen this post for days, but haven't had time to read it. in internet time, any comments i have should have been obselete. i can't believe i'm the first commenter!

anyway, the question you pose in the title is refreshing. much more interesting than the boring 'what is art?'. because you've hit on one of the biggest problems in critical art analysis. art is different now. like many things in our age of information and specification of academic learning, art has become larger than itself. art now encompasses everything according to some.

i often think that i should have been born in the 1780s so that I could have been trained by the classicists and discovered romaticism on my own. the only thing keeping me from wishing that is my aversion to chamber pots and syphillis. unfortunately, every artistic movement since then has eroded the formality of art. i guess there should be a distinction between beauty and art. art is often dark and ugly, but calculated to be so. you wouldn't call an ugly vase art, but a pretty one is.

i think i will quit my job so i will have more time to ponder this.

Mary Ann said...

I don't know josh. A pretty vase is a pretty vase. Art is (for me) something else entirely.

Formality, formalistic constraints; are they the same thing? If so, I'd have to say that I believe art (maybe music too) flourishes under these "limitations". Order is a very high form of beauty as far as I'm concerned. But, there are of course, other forms too.

Josh said...

i think there is a more specific meaning for "formality" among artists than among musicians. we are refering to formalistic constraints. although the great composer/philosopher john cage said that though we will destroy every musical element, form cannot be destroyed because music has form inherently.. as informal (ie more freely structured) it may be.

honestly, i've never felt sure of my understanding of formal as it applies to art. perhaps a new post on formalism (i bet that's a word ;)) is in order.