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Mimetic or Representational or Informational theories of art
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Mimetic or Representational or Informational theories of art


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Here's the powerpoint I've been using in class. It's adapted from a resource provided by the excellent Ollie McAdoo.

Here's the powerpoint I've been using in class. It's adapted from a resource provided by the excellent Ollie McAdoo.

Published in: Education

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  • 1. Art informs us
  • 2. Reminder:
    • Knowledge and Understanding
    • Interpretation, Analysis, Application
    • Assessment and Evaluation…
  • 3. Art as information
    • 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)
      • beng epiphanic (showing us immediately the whole of an entity, allowing ‘spiritual insight’)
      • portraying authentically
      • imitating or representing its subject convincingly or faithfully.
  • 4. 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 .
  • 5. Representational theories in history
    • Plato’s account in Book X of his ‘Republic’
      • because art was merely a ‘copy of a copy’ (represented a reality which was itself only a pale representation of the true reality of Forms), it could not be regarded as ‘truth-functional’ and thus had no place in a ‘well run’ society.
      • Platonic view: art merely ‘copies’ ( mimesis ) the world badly.
    • 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 et
  • 6. Art informs us by ‘illuminating our experience’:
    • a ‘transformation of the commonplace’;
    • gets us to re-examine our own experience ‘in a new light’;
    • shows us something that we did not notice before about an experience we share with the artist
    • our eyes come to see our world more clearly.
  • 7. 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)
  • 8. 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?)
  • 9. But how exactly can art ‘teach’ us?
    • It can teach explicitly
    • But it can also be revelatory: perhaps ‘epiphanic’: art shows us all of a thing in its essence. It shows , it does not explain.
    • Does it need words to do this? (Consider music…)
    • Think of Heidegger’s claim that Van Gogh’s painting of shoes shows the essence of the peasant’s life: a truth released or revealed all at once…
  • 10. Art informs us by representing authentically.
    • It can portray authentically or at least imitate or represent its subject convincingly or faithfully.
    • To represent authentically, perhaps art must have a certain realism.
    • Consider the next three pictures
  • 11.  
  • 12.  
  • 13.  
  • 14. Authentic Representation
    • 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 photograph that Jerusha took, 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
  • 15. Interpretation, Analysis, Application – Major issues
    • How is art supposed to stand for reality?
    • through convention
      • consider the tradition of painting since the Renaissance that makes use of perspective
      • does all art make use of this convention of realism/illusion/representation?
    • through intrinsic qualities?
      • is there agreement about what qualities art might intrinsically possess?
  • 16. Are all arts equally concerned with representing?
    • The majority of visual art does seem to satisfy the condition of being informative.
    • Religious art in particular performed an educative role (the dangers of hell, promises of heaven and of man’s fundamental condition) at a time when the majority of the populace were illiterate.
    • Cave painting – one of the first ‘forms’ of art – performed a similar function…(can we be sure of this?)
    • But what about art that has no representative role: Abstract music, for example; the daubs of colour that form the basis of impressionist paintings; Bach Fugues; Rothko’s ‘Orange, tan and purple’? Ben Nicholson’s pieces?
  • 17. 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.
  • 18. Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Onement 1, 1948
  • 19. Origin of Abstract Art?
    • Western art, Renaissance to C19: perspective and an attempt to reproduce an illusion of visible reality.
    • For the post-Romantic artist, a tradition to react against
    • Late C19, C20: non-European art had become accessible and showed alternative ways of describing visual experience to the artist.
    • Social change in C20 (WW1, WW2) perhaps meant artists felt a need to create a new kind of art.
  • 20. Conceptual Art
    • Conceptual art  is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns.
    • Many of the works or “installations” of the artist Sol LeWitt may be constructed by anyone simply by following a set of written instructions.
    • Other notable conceptual artists include Joseph Kosuth:
  • 21. 'One and Three Chairs' (1965), by the U.S. artist, Joseph Kosuth. (Wrote highly influential text ‘Art after Philosophy’ too).
  • 22. and Michael Craig Martin, ‘An Oak Tree’, (1975). Let us make this piece now. Two readers are required.
  • 23. From abstract to conceptual…
    • Less is more:
      • abstract art removes representation from art
      • abstract art works only with perceptual elements devoid of intentionally representative capacity
      • conceptual art removes the physical embodiment of the art work from art
      • art becomes simply an idea
    • But is there less than zero? Is there art that is simpler?
  • 24. Yes. Aleatory Art
    • Aleatoric   music  (also  aleatory music  or  chance music ; from the Latin word  alea , meaning "dice") is music in which at least some element of the composition is left to chance.
    • the composer John Cage wrote aleatory music and also made aleatory visual art using a number of different chance operation generators.
    • Lessness: if abstract art removes representation from art, and then conceptual art removes the physical embodiment of the art work from art, then aleatory art removes the artist from the art…
  • 25. Etudes Australes.
    • Art made from star maps of the southern hemisphere
    • ‘ The process of composition ran as follows. First, Cage put a transparent strip of about three-quarter inch over the maps. The width of the strip limited the number of stars used. Within this width Cage was able to discern the twelve tones of the octave.
    • Then through chance operations…he transferred these tones to the available octaves for the left and right hands.
    • The resulting notes reflect only the horizontal positions of the stars, and not all stars are used, because the maps used a variety of colors, and Cage's chance operations limited the choices every time to specific colors.
    • In the end Cage would have a string of notes and use chance operations to determine which of them are to remain single tones and which are to become parts of aggregates or chords.’
  • 26. From ‘Etude no.8’
  • 27.
    • The record cover, featuring a section of the star map, and some wedges of rubber used to ‘prepare’ the piano…
    • Let us now hear a section of ‘Etude no.1’
    • Is there representation?
    • Is there an idea?
    • Is there an artist?
    • Yet is it art?
    • Must art be representational or inform us?
  • 28. 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?
  • 29. 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)
  • 30. 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’)
  • 31. Necessary? Sufficient?
    • 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.
  • 32. Assessment and Evaluation:
    • remember to argue a view
    • 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)…
  • 33.
    • The Middle Way or idea of Explanatory Power as a way of assessing the theory: 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.
  • 34.
    • 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’!
  • 35. an a) question from 2010
    • Outline and illustrate two ways in which art might illuminate experience.