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Slides for a First Year introduction to aesthetics focusing on the problems of Donald Judd's dictum. The slides relate to my chapter entitled "Art Worlds" in Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, Concepts, Contexts, edited by Matthew Rampley. Published University of Edinburgh Press, 2005

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  • Aesthetics is often used as a stand in for ‘form’. It suggests the look of something.
    It is, in fact, a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of judgement, truth, beauty and taste. Even more specifically it is concerned with how we acquire knowledge sensorially. While it might relate to art, it is not the same thing as a ‘theory of art’. Aesthetics is open to a wide range of concerns.
    As such I want to focus on a very particular question and relate this back to aesthetics from time to time in order to get some idea of what it involves.
  • Q. Is this true?
    Donald Judd's statement seems self-evident, if someone wants to call something art, who can stop them? While such an assumption appears common sense, it leads into challenging disputes.
  • Today, many people would consider Martin Elliot's lithographic poster Tennis Girl (1970) to be rather bad taste. They may or may not regard this attribute positively, but they would generally, I imagine, be unlikely to think it was an example of a serious work of art. We may decide to make precisely the same evaluation of Jeff Koons' sculpture Pliceman and Bear (1988). [Current on display in the Fruitmarket]
    A senior art world representative, such as the Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), would, however, be very likely to accept Koons' sculpture as a significant work of art while rejecting Elliot's poster. We may object to the art world representative's views, but what would this objection achieve? If it is really a case that if someone says it's art, it's art, why is the art world representative taken more seriously on such matters than most? Who or what has the power to proclaim some things works of art and not others?
    These are difficult questions to answer abstractly since what can be said to be art has changed throughout history along with its conditions of display and consumption. Today's professional art representative is very different to someone who would have been in a position to commission an artist 500 years ago. The audiences for Elliot or Koons also differ dramatically from earlier audiences. When audiences and institutions mutate, art changes as different cultural possibilities emerge. What is important to note is that these possibilities are finite at any given historical moment. This is one reason that only a limited number of people have been able to proclaim something to be art and have their opinion taken seriously. Moreover, this authority has only been vested in artists themselves for a relatively short period of history.
  • The idea of fine art dates back at least to the Renaissance when artists became responsible for the production of large works such as mural commissions.
    In part, this sense of independent ‘genius’ was an illusion. Like today's gallery directors and collectors, rich patrons were in a position to give artists such as Leonardo a sense of freedom. At the same time, financial autonomy from church patronage began to allow artists to explore secular themes. Resultantly, they became 'Renaissance men', important scholars in many fields of knowledge. Given this, it is unsurprising that, during the early modern era, painting and sculpture began to be considered part of the liberal arts such as poetry. Art was siphoned off from other craft skills, skills which were now perceived to be the province of merchants and the labouring classes. This division of labour marks the origins of the way many people today use the term art. To many, art is still shorthand for 'well crafted'. To a Renaissance artist such as Leonardo, however, this was insufficient. Art was above craft; it was part of a higher order of human production. This division between secular art (scholarly and independent) and religious art (a tool of Christian propaganda) was aided by the Protestant attack on images. Bolstered by the wealth of Protestant merchants, iconoclasm created the locale for the urbane art lover to break away from the need for art to serve an overt ideological function, in search of artistic freedom.
    See E.H. Gombrich, “The Renaissance Conception of Artistic Progress”, Norm and Form, London: Phaidon, 1966.
  • In the early modern era, large mural commissions provided by the church and rich merchant patrons gave artists greater responsibility for the production of intellectually and technically ambitious works. In Rome, Michelangelo Buonarroti produced murals for the Sistine Chapel Vault, (1508-12), paintings which are symptomatic of the artist's new sense of authority. Michelangelo's control over the intellectual content and practical execution of the murals signified that he was not simply a proficient technician, but an individual who could respond to Christian doctrine on his own terms. By conceiving and painting his work alone, Michelangelo distanced his practice from that of fellow craftsmen and collective workers such as masons, housebuilders, locksmiths, tinker, weavers, spinners, tailors, watchmakers, and jewellers. Michelangelo was seen to perform in an independent realm, unconstrained by rules.
    The following passage reveals that Michelangelo was able to negotiate a degree of autonomy from his patrons: “As soon as I had begun this work, I realised that it would be but a poor thing, and I told the Pope how, in my opinion, the placing of the Apostles there alone would have very poor effect. He asked why, and I replied, ‘Because, they also were poor.’ He then gave me fresh instructions, which left me free to do as I thought best, saying that he would satisfy me, and I was right to paint right down to the pictures below.” Michelangelo Buonarroti, Letter to Ser Giovan Franceso Fattucci in Rome, Florence, January 1524.
  • 1) C.P. Snow 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures. Snow's basic thesis was that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. This split between art and science emerged at the end of the 18th Century.
    Hence, by the end of the 18th century, artists were given further reason to systematically define their activities in terms of what they were not. Like natural science, art became increasingly exclusive, a professional activity engaged in as a form of specialist knowledge. Modern industrialised society of this period was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge to achieve order. Thus modernity relied increasingly on establishing binary oppositions between ‘order’ and ‘disorder’, constructing ‘disorder’ as a foil. Similarly, in choosing the terms by which they wished their work to be received, artists rejected numerous unwarranted associations. In the Renaissance, this meant differentiating ‘high’ art from the merely artisanal.
  • By the late 18th Century, it meant separating art from ‘science’. Rather than support the totalising claims of science and the industrial ‘progress’ of enlightenment reason, Romantic conceptions of art and the artist held that the world was too complex to be mapped out in its entirety. Faced by the demystifying challenge of rigorous scientific method, art increasingly became a haven for the irrational and the sublime in this period, a means of dealing with things that cannot be easily understood or represented and thus providing distraction from modernity, from the enormous cultural, political, social and economic changes wrought by the industrial revolution.
  • 2) Rise of aesthetic Modernism - set of beliefs about art which sees it as primarily visual rather than intellectual.
    Art is a haven for the irrational and the sublime (that which cannot be understood or represented.)
    This creates a distance between the supporters of science (the new industrial classes, new money) and the aristocracy who take the culture of art as their own (hence the term 'high' art.)
    In this sense the 'fine' of fine art denotes taste, it is socially exclusive, a rejection of the democratising claims of modern knowledge. The conditions of production and reception were further mutated by the development of mercantile capitalism spawned by the industrial revolution. New money created new tastes, bringing an even greater sense of the artist’s autonomy from the world. Artists were able to split from their patrons with the introduction of art dealers and the art market. Patronage no longer had to be sought from rich merchants, the church or the state; artists could begin to make works speculatively for the market. Towards the end of the 19th century artists became vocal in their rejection of the established academies of art. Artists were also increasingly successful in establishing their own systems of support and education such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the New English Art Club, the Salon des Refuses and the Vienna Secession. In all, these developments had the effect of escalating the sense that art was a separate realm from the rest of culture, generating the related illusions of aesthetic autonomy and artistic self-sufficiency.
  • We can also identify increasing efforts being made by artists and philosophers to separate aesthetic questions from more narrowly focussed moral and political debates. By the middle of the nineteenth century, these aesthetic concerns – having been developed to an immensely sophisticated level – began to materialise explicitly in the fine arts. This quest for artistic self-sufficiency reaches a sophisticated state of self-awareness by the late 19th century when artists began to think of their works as having no relationship with the outside world: “Art never expresses anything but itself. […] She develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols, her reflections, her echoes.” James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874), is a good example of an artist seeking to make their work self-sufficient, demanding that it be observed by a gaze unobstructed by bourgeois values of practical efficiency (what does it do?) and morality (what does it tell us?) Whistler famously defended this painting in court, arguing that its main concern was not with the reliable depiction of a firework display in London’s Cremorne Gardens, but with forms (colours, lines and masses) and relations of forms. Whistler later stated that art should “stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding it with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, love, patriotism and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘arrangements' and ‘harmonies’.” Conspicuously, Whistler’s conception of art is based on a further set of exclusions. Whistler excludes the sentimental, moralising literary content popular in his day; perhaps for fear that such associations are insufficiently pictorial. In place of literary elements, Whistler alludes to music, an art form that he believed had no representational value, one appreciated for its formal or aesthetic values alone. Whistler, then, was in favour of art being used to denote visual cultural production, and as such he explicitly rejected the intellectual, political and moral functions previously thought to be central to art.
    ‘Vivian’ in Oscar Wilde’s satirical manifesto, The Decay of Lying: A Dialogue, in James Knowles, ed., The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, Vol. XXV, January-June 1889, London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., p.51.
    The art critic John Ruskin famously condemned Whistler's painting in 1877, accusing him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public's face”'. Whistler sued for libel and won.
    James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Ten O’Clock Lecture at Princes Hall, Piccadilly, London, London: Chatto & Windus, 1885, republished in Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: As Pleasingly Exemplified in Many Instances, Wherein the Serious Ones of This Earth, Carefully Exasperated, Have Been Prettily Spurred on to Unseemliness and Indiscretion, While Overcome by an Undue Sense of Right, London: Heinemann, 1890.
    This is clearly denoted by the Nocturne element of his title and his equation of the artistic sense of “eye” with that of the “ear”.
  • With the rise of mercantile capitalism, the artist gains a sense of autonomy from the world. Artists split from their patrons with the introduction of art dealers and the art market. This increases the sense that fine art is a separate realm from the rest of culture - the illusion of 'aesthetic autonomy' (artistic self-sufficiency).
    This created the view of art we know as formalism or FUNCTIONALISM.
    Idea associated with Immanuel Kant, Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg among others and aestheticism:
    The idea that something is art because it performs particular functions, for example creating a feeling of elation.
  • This notion of formal visual experimentation can be found in many artworks in the ensuing century. For example, Morris Louis’ acrylic painting Floral (1959) was, in his own words, about “colour and form, that's all.” Such a definition of art is related to the theory of aesthetic formalism, an idea associated with figures such as the philosopher Immanuel Kant and critics such as Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. While such writers wrote in different centuries and held widely differing ideas, their theories of art, tended to promote the idea that something becomes art because it performs particular functions. Indeed, numerous people hold functionalist theories of art without realising.
  • Some benefits of functionalism:
    For example, to claim that art should make you happy or should give you a feeling of elation is to require that it fulfil these functions in order to claim art status or ‘arthood’. This claim, that art is defined and understood by sight alone, seems relatively easy to understand. In this sense, functionalism might have a democratising effect since it seemingly requires no knowledge of art history or theory, affording all with a system of comprehending art from all periods of history.
    As such, functionalism also seems to confirm our most basic responses to art (e.g. hairs standing on your neck when listening to music).
    As a universal theory of art, a meta-theory, however, functionalism is wrought with problems.
  • Some problems with functionalism:
    For Immanuel Kant Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, (1790), Volume 5, Section 43.
    an artwork was an object produced “through a will which bases its actions on reason”, which is to say that artworks are man-made, deliberately designed phenomenon. This suggests dissimilarity between our experience of art and our experience of nature, namely that art is a ‘free beauty’, whereas conscious human subjects produce art. Hence, while the ‘content’ of nature is decided by individual viewers (who may or may not find what they see pleasing), the substance of artworks is something that artists and critics attempt to establish for their viewers.
    It is clear that aesthetic effects (such as feeling elated) can be produced by natural phenomena (e.g. noise, landscapes, rust) that possess formal properties and therefore are not specific to art. As such, the act of experiencing an artefact aesthetically would not justify classifying it as an artwork. Nor is it possible to convincingly claim, as Clive Bell does Clive Bell, Art, (1914), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.8.
    that “significant form is the essential quality of a work of art, the quality which distinguishes it from all other classes of objects.” To fail to experience an artwork aesthetically would not necessarily mean that we were not witnessing an artwork, since the way we experience things need have nothing to do with how we classify things. For example, if someone states that they like the smell of roses yet do not like the smell of tulips, it does not follow that tulips are not flowers.
  • As a meta-theory of art, functionalism turns out to be too narrow. Bell even went so far as to claim that most artefacts that we most commonly think of as art were not: “I cannot believe that more than one in a hundred of the works produced between 1450 and 1850 can be properly described as a work of art.” Bell’s focus on the appearance of art over its role excludes works of art and ways of interpreting art that are primarily focused on issues of history, ideas, meaning and representation, seeing the past as an inevitable preview of his present day interests. In this, formalism is essentialist, an attempt to artificially isolate ‘art’ from the way it is revealed to us in experience in order to locate its mystery ingredients. Works of art are not necessarily autonomous objects; they are records of culture, or the world as seen by particular people at specific times. Functionalism systematically obscures and denies its social and historical determinants, perceiving art and artists as extraordinary and timeless. Clearly, art is at least the product of the historical events I have described. The simple fact that functionalist theories do not account for the way that art has always been experienced bears testimony to the fact that it is not a universal definition of art and should be an object rather than a method of analysis.
    Bell, ibid. p.46.
  • While functionalism is flawed in these senses, it does, at least, provide a direction for artists to pursue by persuasively foregrounding certain developments in art as paradigmatic and seminal (at the expense of back grounding others as unimportant.) Where does this leave us in relation to Judd’s definition of art? Does Judd also provide a direction for art though inclusion and disenfranchisement? Judd’s exasperated comment was an attempt to validate and enfranchise the art of the 1960s, a period of rapid cultural and political experimentation in which a narrow and inhospitable Modernism was supplanted by what Rosalind Krauss later called an ‘expanded field’ for art. The de-definitional impulse which swept through art practice since the 1960s, lead to a transformed conception of art based on alternate philosophical premises. Judd realised that functionalist theories were inadequate to explain the art status of works such as Piero Manzoni Artist's Shit (1961) a tin can containing the artist’s excrement. The fact that Manzoni was able to present such objects as art, and not just anyone, suggests that Judd was wrong in one sense. Indeed, to say that something is art requires that the meaning of the word 'art' have some limits. It must be possible to call something art and be wrong if the word is to have any meaning at all. Not anyone can claim arthood for what they do, only people who are socially vested to do so.
    Think of what would happen to the possibility of communication if everyone decided to use words as they wished (e.g. "if someone calls it a fish, it’s a fish").
    The ways in which this power is acquired are far more complex and negotiable than in Judd's dictum, something that suggested that a new theory of art was necessary to explain art that was multiple and open-ended.
  • A theory of art that emerged in this period is known as the institutional theory of art, or proceeduralism. Proceeduralism is a theory of art most closely associated with the philosophy of Arthur Danto and George Dickie and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. While these writers are contemporaries, they also differ in their views, although we could say that they share the idea that art is something that can only be defined in cultural terms, that it must be viewed in an historical and critical context that makes it relevant to social institutions. Art is not, in this view, produced for effect; it is simply something that is created by following a set of rules or procedures. “To see something as art”, wrote Danto, “requires something that the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, knowledge of the history of art; an artworld.” See George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis, New York, Ithaca, 1974.
    See Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1984.
    Arthur Danto, “The Artworld”, Journal of Philosophy, October 15th, 1964, p.????????????
  • For Danto, artworlds have always been constructed of the interrelated efforts of artists, the history of art, changing conditions of display, critical writings and the responses of audiences. For Danto, the production of art is highly dependent on such funded experience, what is possible in art now being reliant on what has come before.
    This theory has a number of benefits. Firstly, proceeduralism allows anything potentially to acquire art status. As such, it allows anyone potentially become an artist by following rules. In this sense, it may be more democratising that functionalist accounts since it does not seek to mystify the production of art by referring the viewer or artist to the immeasurable effects of the work. This means that intuitive definitions of art are ruled out explicitly; the 'innocent eye' found in functionalism is regarded as a socially produced myth. Moreover, it is able to account for conceptual artworks, works of art that had no tangible material or visual form and readily adapt to the expansive changing character of art. As Danto puts it: “The greater the variety of aesthetically relevant predicates, the more complex the individual members of the artworld become; and the more one knows of the entire population of the artworld, the richer one’s experience with any of its members.”  
    For Danto, this authority has strict limitations. He claims that, at any specific time, the artworld will only allow esteemed figures to propose something as art. What they might propose to be art, will, in turn, be limited by the course that such an artist has directed the artworld. To illustrate this point, he claims that the esteemed late nineteenth century painter Paul Cézanne would not have been able to present his tie as a readymade, whereas the equally revered Pablo Picasso, a multi-media artist working in the early twentieth century, might have been. See Danto, “Artworks and Real Things”, Theoria, 39, 1973.
    Arthur Danto, “The Artworld”, Journal of Philosophy, October 15th, 1964, p.????????????
  • Such a theory of art eliminates the need to think of art as exclusive since it transforms art into a descriptive rather than an evaluative term. Art is no longer 'fine', it is simply a way of describing something that carries no sense of inherent value. Indeed, all art can be judged under the same criteria since proceeduralism rejects ‘realist’ theories of representation, holding that all artworks refer to other artworks via the history of art and its social institutions rather than to the 'world'.
  • Proceeduralism has it problems nevertheless.
  • Can we talk about proceeduralist vs. perceptualist art? Perhaps we should we think of these as approaches that that inform what we think art can be?
    They enable certain ways of seeing and force us to remain on our toes when looking (Kant’s frission of aesthetic experience…..)
    Some works that seem to be invoking a proceeduralist stance might just as easily be perceptualist.
    For example, Martin Creed (recent Fruitmarket show also) describes his work as being concerned with “making nice compositions”.
    'I want to make things. I'm not sure why, but I think it's got something to do with other people. I think I want to try to communicate with other people, because I want to say "hello", because I want to express myself, and because I want to be loved'.
    This effectively a perceptualist stance (about making the inside come out and the outside go in) – but his work looks and feels proceeduralist (most people fixate on how they involve consideration of Creed’s rule-bound actions in institutional settings).
    While his works seem to be ‘autonomous’ and non-representational (so perceptualist) they are completely reliant upon what surrounds it (e.g. air, light, walls, etc.) so proceedural.
    But how can we be sure which it is? Can we have it both ways? I’ll let you decide……
    [final slide]
  • Aesthetics

    1. 1. Aesthetics
    2. 2. "If someone calls it art, it's art.” Donald Judd, “Art After Philosophy I”, Studio International, October 1969, p.134-7.
    3. 3. Martin Elliot Tennis Girl (1970) Jeff Koons Policeman and Bear (1988)
    4. 4. Renaissance 'Renaissance men’ Liberal arts
    5. 5. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel Vault, Vatican City, (1508-12).
    6. 6. 1) C.P. Snow's 1959 Rede Lecture "The Two Cultures" - split between art and science at the end of the 18th Century.
    7. 7. Joseph Wright of Derby An Experiment on a Bird in an Air-Pump (1768)
    8. 8. 2) Rise of Aesthetic Modernism Primarily visual rather than intellectual? Irrational and sublime? Not science? Taste = value?
    9. 9. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket', (1875).
    10. 10. 3) With the rise of mercantile capitalism, the artist gains a sense of autonomy from the world. Artists split from their patrons with the introduction of art dealers and the art market. This increases the sense that fine art is a separate realm from the rest of culture - the illusion of 'aesthetic autonomy' (artistic self-sufficiency). This created the view of art we know as formalism or FUNCTIONALISM. Idea associated with Immanuel Kant, Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg among others and aestheticism: The idea that something is art because it performs particular functions, for example creating a feeling of elation.
    11. 11. Morris Louis Floral, (1959)
    12. 12. Some benefits of functionalism: · Easy to understand; suggests that art is sensory, to see it is to believe it. · Might have a democratising effect since it requires no knowledge of art history or theory. · Confirms our basic responses to art (e.g. hairs standing on your neck when listening to music).
    13. 13. Some problems with functionalism: · Aesthetic effects can be produced by non-man made phenomena (e.g. noise, rust) and therefore are not specific to art. As such the presence of an aesthetic effect is not enough to justify something's arthood.
    14. 14. Some problems with functionalism: · It is narrow: leaves out history, ideas, meaning, representation, etc. · It is idealist and mystifying, sees art and artists as ‘special’. Clearly what we currently call ‘art’ (at least in Europe) is the product of the historical events described in points 1-3. It is not how art has always been viewed and therefore is not a universal definition of art.
    15. 15. Piero Manzoni, The Artist's Shit, (1961).
    16. 16. Andy Warhol Brillo Boxes (1964) Another view of art is known as PROCEEDURALISM (more commonly known as the institutional theory of art). Idea associated with Arthur Danto, George Dickie, and Pierre Bourdieu.
    17. 17. Marcel Duchamp Fountain (1917)
    18. 18. Some benefits of proceeduralism: • Defines art in cultural terms, i.e. in an historical and critical context. • Anything can potentially become art and hence anyone can potentially be an artist by following rules. • Art is a descriptive rather than an evaluative term (no longer 'fine'). • Is able to adapt to the expansive changing character of art. • All art can be judged under the same criteria since proceeduralism rejects theories of representation: (all artworks refer to other artworks not to the 'world'). • No more intuitive definitions of art; no such thing as the 'innocent eye' found in functionalism, hence art is no longer mystical and bohemian.
    19. 19. Some problems with proceeduralism: • Is the artworld really an institution in the way that the police force is? Does it have consensual values? • Favours the increased power of the institutions of high art. • From a proceeduralist point of view, anti-art is art. This is not the intention of anti-artists. • Possibly contains the seeds of its own destruction by heralding the 'end of art'. • Art is transformed into rhetoric, creating a 'linguistic turn'.
    20. 20. Martin Creed
    21. 21. the whole world + the work = the whole world Martin Creed, Work No. 232 (2000)