What follows is a guest post by Simon Fokt. Simon is a recent graduate of University of St. Andrews and a professional musician. His work focuses on classification of art, aesthetic properties and art ontology, and exploring the borderlines of art and the aesthetic. His publications include ‘Pornographic art – a case from definitions’ (British Journal of Aesthetics 52.3, 2012) and ‘Solving Wollheim’s Dilemma: A Fix for the Institutional Definition of Art’ (Metaphilosophy 44, 2013).
Aestheticism doesn’t fare very well these days. Modern artists not only aren’t very interested in making aesthetically pleasing works, but have developed a certain disdain towards them. Being aesthetically pleasing is often seen as being at best passé, and at worst an expression of artistic naivety or acclaim seeking. Of course, this is not without reasons – a great deal of aesthetic ideas have been exploited, beauty may be an obstruction on the road to art’s other aims, and the uniquely aesthetic attitude or experience may be mere myths. Though sometimes it seems that the reasoning isn’t quite right: it is true that good art rarely finds much popular acclaim, but the fact that something finds little acclaim hardly makes it better art.
I want to use this opportunity to write without the rigour imposed by analytic journal papers, and ask some normative questions: should art remain aesthetic or not? Is it good that art became largely non- or anti-aesthetic? They touch on more general issues in art evaluation: what makes (modern) artworks good? What is the role of aesthetic properties in such evaluation? These are all very big questions, and a blog post can only scratch their surface. But I only want to make a simple, practical, point: whatever non-aesthetic functions or aims art has, other disciplines and practices achieve them better. Art will keep losing the competition unless artists focus on what they are best at: achieving their ends in aesthetically rewarding ways.
An old but important criterion is a work’s moral value. Many modern artists assume the role of moral instructors, or perhaps society’s conscience. They comment on various social problems, raise awareness of poverty, exploitation and environmental issues. Although it is not commonly believed that it is art’s only or even main purpose to provide moral guidance or express moral views, this is what many artists are in fact doing. (Naturally, this need not imply that an artwork’s value should be higher if it expresses a morally agreeable message. Instead, one could hold that the value resides in how successful a work is in passing its moral message, regardless of the value of the message itself.)
Another important way of assessing art is on cognitive criteria. Art can tell us something about the world and ourselves, gives insight into personal emotions, social conventions, values, and last but not least – art itself. Art can be a tool through which we become better acquainted with ourselves and the world, thanks to which we can understand ourselves and others better.
Art can also be assessed on the basis of how well it serves a practical function – how well does it express the majesty of the state, how well does it convey the character of a company, how successful is it in convincing people to do something, how well does it help them deal with their problems, how useful it is in everyday life, etc.
Finally, art can serve a much simpler purpose: it provides pleasure and entertainment. It is meant to be fun and interesting, provide a distraction from everyday life, or just offer a pleasant way of spending time.
In any of those cases a work’s aesthetic value can be a double-sided blade. Sometimes it might distract the audience from the work’s actual message – the audience might be too busy focusing on the work’s composition, enchanted by its daintiness to notice that it’s trying to make an important point. In other cases, however, a work’s beauty may be advantageous – it may help express the positive value of whatever moral stance is presented, make conveying some meanings and concepts easier through eliciting aesthetic interest and perception of them, or simply win the piece some attention. Similarly, while on one hand beauty may divert the viewer’s attention from the work’s function, on the other it can make using the object more rewarding or pleasant, and thus enhance its functionality. Likewise, although there is a great deal of non-aesthetic entertainment to be found in art, of which dadaist and anti-art definitely provide, in most cases it is aesthetic pleasures that are sought after.
Of course, artworks can be made purely for art’s sake. Some can be still assessed on purely aesthetic criteria, or satisfying a specifically aesthetic need, providing aesthetic experiences. Art can also be seen as something that is primarily meant to be judged on its originality or inventiveness – it is creating something new, something not yet done, that really matters. Art is often seen as something that is meant to shock or push the boundaries of what is acceptable, and thus challenge the public’s received views.
Again, being aesthetically pleasing might work both ways. By tending only to the aesthetic sense, art might become rather unsophisticated and focus merely on crowd-pleasing, but the fact that a beautiful piece is more likely to gain public acclaim does not mean that beauty’s main (or sole) virtue is to make it popular. Beauty doesn’t have to always be an obstacle in other cases either. The originality and shock value of anti-art or readymades might lie in the fact that they are non-aesthetic, but Lutoslawski’s use of controlled aleatorism in music is highly original, yet produces an aesthetically pleasing effect. Jonathan Yeo’s collage portraits of modern politicians and celebrities created from pornographic magazines cuttings are aimed at shocking the public, but are not devoid of aesthetic value – indeed, it is precisely the fact that they combine pornography with fairly classical ideals of aesthetic painting that makes them shocking.
Aesthetic value is by no means a necessary feature of artworks, but neither must it be completely useless. Are there any independent reasons as to why art should or should not be aesthetic? I believe that there are. Modern art has powerful competition: virtually all of its goals are also sought for and often achieved more successfully by other disciplines. In this context, remaining aesthetic may be good for art, differentiating it from other practices, so making it unique and perhaps more worthwhile.
Art is hardly the only discipline involved in the present discussions on moral and political issues. The thoughts expressed in most artworks tend to be rather unimpressive when compared with what moral and political philosophers or critics have to say. And unsurprisingly so – it is impossible to express the detail and nuance of volumes of books and papers with a single installation. Of course, artists and philosophers have different aims – artists might be interested in tackling more specific and perhaps more immediately important issues, and they have been often considered acute observers of the social reality, able to perceive problems and highlight these to a wider audience. But while this might be true, artists are hardly the sole possessors of that power – in fact, it seems that thousands of people are quite good at it, as multiple successful satirical images, comics, and ‘demotivators’, testify. Naturally, the ways in which art and webcomics work towards their goals are quite different, but the aim, raising social awareness of a moral or political issue, may be achieved just the same. However iconoclastic it sounds, art may turn out to be less successful in achieving its aims than comics because it tends to be more difficult to access due to its institutional confinement, complexities of interpretation, or simply the fact that it is rarely free to see it.
Is art any better in expressing moral issues and advocating moral stances than web comics?
Similarly, if art is there to fulfil a cognitive function, it is once again faced with immense competition from psychology, social sciences, and humanities. Volumes have been written on the human condition, difficulties related to interpersonal relations, self-knowledge, etc., and it seems that what art offers is often somewhat naive in comparison. For example, Martin Eder is fascinated by the fact that `a porn magazine functions like the cute little animals, according to a simply coded system. All of the poses can be understood right away. That points up the way we think and how quickly everything is pigeonholed’ (U. Grosenick (eds.), Art Now, 2008, p. 84). In his art he tries to explore those issues, but it can hardly be expected that several paintings, collages, and installations can tell us more about the way our brains categorise and pigeon-hole sense-data or how stereotypes work, than years of research of Gestalt psychology, psychology of perception, psychology and sociology of cultural stereotypes, etc. – in fact most of those issues have been discussed a hundred years before Eder. (This is not to say that there aren’t areas in which art is the best source of knowledge – as Kundera claimed, novels might be the best tool we have to teach us about human emotions, dealing with suffering or understanding others; yet as evidenced by the above example, artists seem to aim at achieving much more than what they are actually good at.)
The case is no different with all sorts of other functions art can perform. Raising a company’s status is probably better done by donating to charities than building impressive office buildings and filling them with paintings. Improving the image of a country is done better through political speeches than constructing fancy International Exposition pavilions. Most art of everyday use serves its functions poorly simply because for the great majority it is unaffordable – even the most popular and mass-produced designs like the famous Wassily Chair can be almost fifty times more expensive than their close-enough non-artistic equivalents.
Surely art which aspires to be functional and serve in people’s everyday needs should be first affordable?
In all those cases it seems that art simply does not stand against its competition. The reason why it ‘stays in business’ is most often because it fulfils its functions differently than other disciplines. In particular, it can fulfil them with style, elegantly, with a unity and beauty often unachievable in any other way. People buy artistic furniture not because it is better for sitting or drinking coffee on, they buy it because it looks better. They read literature rather than psychology papers when they want to understand themselves and others better, because through the metaphor and compositional unity they can look at the subject differently. They don’t look for ethical advice in art because it makes the arguments clearer, but because it can arouse pity and fear, or inspire charitable emotions, or convey the beauty of virtue. It seems thus that if art is to serve any of the above functions successfully, it can be better (or at least different and not worse) than other disciplines if it does it by using aesthetic means.
Surely though, art doesn’t have to serve any of those functions at all! Art can be done for it’s own sake, simply to be interesting or original, to shock and push the boundaries, or just to ask and explore meta-artistic questions.
However, even here art’s rule is far from being unquestioned. This might be a bold claim, but it seems that there is simply not much to be done in the meta-art department after Duchamp, Cage and Rauschenberg. The specificity and boundaries of many media have been explored and the door to introducing pretty much anything as a new medium has been opened. Moreover, meta-issues might be better discussed by aestheticians and art theorists, or perhaps, as Danto has argued, the artists who do meta-art simply turned into theorists themselves.
Furthermore, artworks might be best at interestingly referring to other artworks, being original in the context of other works, and pushing the boundaries of art and artworld members, but viewing art in such a narrow way seems quite limited. Artists may have much wider ambitions: they want to push the boundaries of society, not just their colleagues and a couple of critics; to present something original simpliciter, not original compared to the last five years of conceptual art in the West; interesting for everyone, not just those who know modern art history in detail. But in a wider context it once again seems that art has powerful competition. The times when artists were the most shocking people out there have long passed – reality shows, extreme sports, hard pornography and body modification push personal and social boundaries way beyond what the most extreme artists ever presented. Nor is originality the strongest side of modern art – save for the fact that most works tend to be rather derivative, entertainment and advertising industries are striving for the same goal and often achieve it to a comparable or higher degree.
Is the art of even the Vienese Actionists so shocking in a world in which anonymous amateurs do similarly extreme things?
It seems that if artists were resolved to achieve the aims listed above without much use of aesthetic means and with no consideration for the aesthetic value of their works, they would find it really difficult to compete with other disciplines and practices. Consequently, art would become a less accomplished sister, worse at almost everything it does. Why then, should anyone consider it worth spending time on? And indeed, this might partially account for limited funding, low gallery attendance and artist unemployment. It is common to think that art is quite useless, and this might be partially because it aims to do things it is not particularly good at, or at least not as good at as other disciplines. Basically, we don’t need artists to get these things done.
The `something’ that made traditional artists different from scientists, social critics, cartoonists, and social activists, was the fact that they could make things not only successful in achieving a goal, but also achieving it in an elegant, internally consistent, expressive, beautiful etc. way. When they were doing `absolute’ art, art actually had its own sake – providing aesthetic experiences, satisfying the aesthetic need. The aims of art today, such as being original, shocking, interesting, etc., are hardly art’s alone, and unless artists try to achieve them while at the same time remaining aesthetic, they are not much different from advertisers, pornographers and extreme sports persons.
One could argue that the above-mentioned difficulties are not a bad thing at all. Good art is meant to be hard to make. It is a good thing that the competition with other disciplines is steep, because this requires artists to work really hard to achieve something. But where is the line between setting the standards really high, and shooting oneself in the foot? Perhaps in some cases this strategy pays off, but it takes no social scientist to notice that most modern artists are limping.
More importantly, it seems that creating something truly beautiful is often much harder than creating something witty, shocking, or taking a moral stance, and thus it does offer a true challenge. Creating a pretty and agreeable crowd-pleaser might indeed be easy, but this is surely not the same as creating something of real aesthetic value. And it might be true that past art largely exploited the potential of beauty, that nearly everything worth making has been made. But that only means that if artists want a true challenge, turning back to beauty is exactly what they should be doing.