Art as information in a (large) nutshellPresentation Transcript
Art informs us “ We value art because it informs us”
Gut feeling: does Art represent?
In other words, is there representative or informative art that aesthetics should explain?
Representative art has been made for thousands of years: the caves of Lascaux contain over 2,000 paintings, some dating from 30,000 years ago. Visual art has an extensive history and is highly valued as a cultural product. The net is full of images…
We do value representation in art. ‘What’s it of?’ or ‘What’s it about?’ is a key initial question of much art.
We value truth to life in plays and films, and in representative art or photography – examples abound! (Arthur Miller, Martin Scorcese, Flemish still-lives, such as Heda’s ‘Still life with lobster (1650-9)
Gut feeling: does Art represent?
In fact, for much art, if we cannot identify the object represented, then we can conclude that the art has failed. (Consider novels with protagonists who aren’t psychologically plausible, or bad paintings…)
The ability to portray objects or situations authentically is one we value.
Visual artists spend years perfecting their technical skills
Dancers spend years training their bodies…
Method Actors embed themselves in the roles that they depict…Daniel Day Lewis once spent three years learning to be a cobbler…
Certain real events, such as the Holocaust, or objects, such as bodies mutilated by torture, can seem ‘off-limits’ for art…the representation of such things in art would be too horrifying or powerful to be represented…
Representational theories in history
Plato’s account in Book X of his ‘Republic’:
Plato’s metaphysics: the ultimate reality is the Forms. Particular things or objects are simply an imperfect ‘copy’ of the Forms.
because art represents particular things, it is merely a ‘copy of a copy’.
Mimesis or copying is therefore deceptive and untruthful.
So it would be banned in an ideal society.
Aristotle: disagrees. For him, art had the capacity to:
Be morally educative (Homer, Greek Tragedy reinforce our view of the virtues
Represent reality (and truths about it) in a way that other mediums could not (the ability to reveal universals, confront us with timeless beauty etc.)
It thus fulfilled an essential, educative role (remember: the widespread illiteracy of the Athenian demos, who could learn only by listening to Homer, the drama etc)
Art as information – the syllabus
Knowledge and Understanding: Art informs us by
illuminating our experience (allowing us to see what was not visible before)
revealing ‘truths’ ( in a fashion that other media cannot)
articulating a ‘vision’ (an ideal or highly individual view of how man/society could or should be)
being epiphanic (showing us immediately the whole of an entity, making possible a flash of ‘spiritual insight’)
portraying authentically (being a genuine representation)
imitating or representing its subject convincingly or faithfully (taking the viewer in, standing in for something real)
What do all these elements share?
the value of art lies, not with any ‘aesthetic’ qualities of the artwork itself (perceptual richness, natural beauty etc.);
nor with any ‘formal’ features the work possesses (the intrinsic properties of ‘form’, ‘balance’, ‘harmony’ etc.)
nor with the emotions the work evokes or possesses intrinsically.
but rather with what a work of art can teach us.
This could be termed cognitivism: a work of art is about thoughts .
Art informs us by ‘illuminating our experience’:
light is shone on a mutual experience: we notice something that we did not notice before about an experience we share with the artist
so our view of a shared experience is changed in a ‘transformation of the commonplace’;
we re-examine our own experience ‘in a new light’;
our eyes come to see our world more clearly.
(But is art the only or the best way this might happen? Don’t we best share insights through language of a transactional kind? (Consider: being instructed…))
Art informs us ‘by revealing truths’
in ways other media can’t
Moral truths (e.g. Homer’s heroes in the Iliad and Odyssey reveal moral truths about traits the virtuous character must cultivate (bravery and cunning);
Universal/timeless truths (Michelangelo’s ‘David’ as portraying eternal youth, the timeless and universal beauty and perfection of the human ‘form’, revealing the universal in the particular);
Psychological truths (Hamlets ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy as confronting the question of whether existence is preferable to non-existence);
Religious truths (Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ as revealing the truth of genesis and creationism; Dante’s depiction of the inferno , purgatorio and paradiso );
Practical truths (cave-painting as a a means for communicating hunting skills)
(But isn’t truth a quality of propositions, and so best expressed in propositions? i.e. in statements, in language?)
(Yet language is spoken and written – and in the past, many could not read…)
Art informs us because it reveals a ‘vision’
It shows us a version of the world that is particular to the artist, unique to them, but which we can ourselves appreciate.
We see the world anew through another’s eyes.
(What if, though, this vision is so unusual we cannot appreciate it?)
(What if we can only see the world through our own eyes?)
Art informs us because it is ‘epiphanic’
Art can teach explicitly
But it can also be revelatory or ‘epiphanic’: art can show us all of a thing in its essence.
Great art shows , it does not explain. Our perception is immediate and total.
Might not this kind of epiphanic experience transcend language? Consider great music.
Hopkin’s ‘instress’ and ‘inscape’ are relevant ideas here.
(But what exactly is being conveyed in an epiphany? A conceptual insight, or some other kind? - if the former, why not in words? – if the latter, does this even make sense?)
Art informs us through a convincing or faithful imitation
Plato’s metaphysical arguments aside, is all art an imitation?
In most paintings, excepting ‘trompe l’oeil’ works, the artist is not trying to fool us or take us in.
(And ‘fool-the-eye’ paintings are not art until we realise the deceit…)
(Some? Many?) Actors do not imitate the characters they play, they ‘become’ them temporarily
Ion in Plato’s dialogue says that he is possessed when he acts…
Pere Borrell del Caso, Escaping Criticism (1874)
Art informs us through a convincing or faithful copy
Is all art a copy?
Copying presupposes an original.
Is there an original, for all art?
A successful copy accurately resembles the original.
Can this always be determined?
If experience is made possible because of a conceptual schema, then there is no experience of the world before this process of conditioning or interpretation.
So there is no original to be imitated or copied.
Issues with both imitation and copy
Can we talk, instead, of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ resemblances
Which of the two paintings opposite is a better resemblance?
Yet even a resemblance could be entirely invented.
It might not be a copy or imitation of the world, but made up of individual perceptual elements – a ‘Chimera’, if you like.
How would we tell, therefore, if a resemblance was authentic or genuine, or not?
There is some debate about whether Constable’s l andscape was painted from life, or not.
There is yet more debate about whether the figures are realistic…
Matisse’s "Pastorale, Nymphe et Faune" 1906 Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’, 1821
Issues with both imitation and copy
Is a good copy or resemblance the same as good art?
Compare two sunsets. Both are stylised and different depictions of a sunset. In thinking about which painting is better, is accuracy or the degree of resemblance to a sunset the point?
Arguably a picture’s lack of resemblance or verisimilitude has no bearing on its power.
Claude’s ‘Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) and Turner’s ‘The Scarlet Sunset’ (1830-40).
Issues with both imitation and copy
If resemblance is the main reason we value art, then wouldn’t photography always be best?
Does copying involve the creative imagination?
A good forgery is a perfect copy…but a good work of art, or art at all?
Is all art imitative?
In the visual arts there is at least the possibility that the artist is copying from reality.
But what about music or poetry or literature? Here, is the artist copying anything?
Guido Reni, Saint Sebastian, 1615-16 and Tim Hetherington, Injured marine at Restrepo Base, Afghanistan, 2008
Art informs us by representing authentically.
It can portray authentically …convincingly or faithfully.
But what is ‘authenticity’?
To represent authentically, perhaps art must have a certain realism.
But what is realism…?
Truth to experience
Domesticity, transfiguration of the mundane…
Consider the next three pictures
Woman in blue reading a letter, Johannes Vermeer, 1662-1665
Tom Hunter, Woman reading a respossession order, 1998
Jerusha West, Zizzy reading a book, 2011
Don’t they show essences? Transform the everyday, the mundane?
In the Vermeer, the background map, the blemish on the wall where a nail has been taken out, have been painted with as much attention to detail as the girl’s face.
In the Hunter, the faded paint of the room and the richness of the child’s clothes bring out the repose of the woman’s face.
In the West photograph, Zizzy reads. Both agree that it is a fair representation of her reading: it was not posed.
These images are authentic because they are realistic
Interpretation, Analysis, Application – Major issues
How is art supposed to stand for reality?
consider e.g. perspective since the Renaissance
consider e.g. keys in music being happy or sad
does all art make use of this convention of realism/illusion/representation?
how are these conventions established?
how essential are they?
through intrinsic qualities?
is there agreement about what qualities art might intrinsically possess?
Are all arts equally concerned with representing? Kurt Schwitters, ‘Das Undbild’, 1919
The majority of visual art does seem to be informative.
Religious art in particular performed an educative role
hell, heaven etc
most were illiterate
‘ how-to’ paintings…
(can we be sure of this?)
But some art seems non-representational: Bach fugues; modern Abstract art
‘ Abstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.’ [Wikipedia]
‘ Abstract art, nonfigurative art, nonobjective art, and nonrepresentational art are loosely related terms. They are similar, although perhaps not of identical meaning’. [Wikipedia]
In abstract art, representation disappears.
There is still an art work, and an artist.
Mark Rothko, ‘Orange, Tan and Purple’, 1954
Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Onement 1, 1948
Does abstract art represent?
Consider Schwitters’ collage. It is 2D, but some shapes are in front of others.
So it represents 3D space.
Does representation need to represent anything recognizable?
Surely it is still representation?
But some abstract art – Newman, Rothko – doesn’t even seem to portray in 3D.
And in all abstract art, we cannot talk about ‘authentic’ representation.
And much art – e.g. music without words – the sequence of sounds is not representational.
Are all arts equally concerned with representing?
Even if art informs us, is that why we value it as art?
If we value art because it informs us (a utilitarian view) then it would also seem the value of the artwork itself is lost (the ‘perceptually rich’ or ‘abhorrent’ aesthetic qualities; the intrinsic features of ‘harmony’ and ‘balance’, the emotions that only art can make us feel).
If this were the case, we could substitute an artwork for any other medium which brought about a similar effect (the ‘syringe’ argument – art just injects an idea into us) without loss of value.
And isn’t it the case that we value art for more than just the information it gives us?
Or is the kind of information or the way in which it gives us information important?
Is art especially informative?
‘ Art teaches us in a way no other medium can. In this respect it is unique.’ Do you agree?
Aren’t there other media which are as informative, or even more so? (Such as?)
Art just collapses into politics once its ‘aura’ of distinctiveness has gone (Walter Benjamin’s view)
What could we mean by ‘truth’ in art?
Can we even make sense of such a view given that the majority of characters etc portrayed in artworks are themselves fictitious (King Lear, Othello, Oedipus etc)?
Isn’t ‘Truth’ normally only a property of propositions?
Wouldn’t this make art simply a vehicle for these truths…? So art is disposable – just a list of instructions?
And can’t art be both ‘realistic’ and entirely implausible? (Sir Joshua Reynold’s ‘Three Muses’)
As for all the theories we are considering: is it a necessary feature of the value of art that it should be informative? (any example of art with a non-informative element is enough to suggest that it is not ).
Is it a sufficient one? There are many instances of non-art that have an informative function – textbooks and instruction manuals are informative, maps represent the world etc.
For: the majority of art is informative. It requires more than a few counter-examples to cancel out this view (many modern philosophers have appealed to this position in order to deny art status to examples of artworks that do not satisfy this criterion)…
Assessment and Evaluation
The Middle Way or idea of Explanatory Power: counter examples do rule out the necessity and the sufficiency of the view that we value art only because of its informative qualities. Nevertheless, the majority of art clearly does have informative qualities.
Assessment and Evaluation
Against: Valuing art in terms of its cognitive value means that the artwork itself – both its aesthetic and its formal and its emotional qualities – must be disregarded.
Yet this is unacceptable, since if we are going to provide an adequate account of why we value art, we need to explain aesthetic, formal and emotional qualities. ‘All Art aspires to the condition of music’, or ‘Art for art’s sake’!