Almost everyone takes Barnett Newman’s remark that ‘Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds’ to be insightfully true.
In spite of this the sense in which it is true is seldom clearly spelled out, and the sense in which it is not true is almost universally ignored despite the obvious ease with which it can be spelled out.
The answer to the question whether Ornithology is influential on the behaviours of birds (including their imputed actions and their fancifully imputed beliefs) turns on a notional capacity to understand what ornithologists are saying to those very few communicating organisms who share with them a common language. In the case of birds we rate this notional capacity at zero, so their situation is quite different from that of the artists whose behaviours, actions and beliefs are generally supposed to be accessible to persuasive modification.
The ungenerous attribution of a negligible capacity of some artists to understand anything that is said to them is irrelevant. It is not a sufficient reason to treat Aesthetics as uninfluential upon the putative behaviours, actions and beliefs of the generality of artists.
It is thus manifestly not the case that Aesthetics is to artists as Ornithology is to birds if ‘… as …’ is taken to mean ‘… in the way in which ….’ But if ‘… as …’ is taken, quite differently, to mean ‘… in a causally different from, but nevertheless consequentially similar to, the way in which … ,’ then the proposition that Aesthetics is to artists as Ornithology is to the birds has an insightful force. Aesthetics (we are seeking to assert in this way) is practically irrelevant to many artists very much as Ornithology is practically irrelevant to all birds; although for a different reason.
The insightfulness of this remark, however, depends upon a simultaneous acknowledgement that Aesthetics is essentially about art. Aesthetics is not essentially about the restricted set of works of art in which art is arguably discernible. As we are well aware, there are recognized works of art in which art is arguably discernible, and there are currently recognized works of art in which art is not discernible. (This is true no matter how admirable they may be on other grounds. In a similar way, there are things that are not currently recognized as works of art in which art is discernible and there are things that are not currently recognized as works of art in which art is not discernible).
The penetration of this point is often deflected by confusion about whether the characterisation ‘artist’ is properly applied to people who make things that currently qualify as works of art, or whether it is properly applied to a different cohort of makers: namely, those people who are held responsible for the discernibility of art in their artefacts, whether or not these things qualify as works of art.
I take it that the literal, non-honorific and straightforwardly classifying application of the characterization ‘artist’ is to people who make things that currently qualify as works of art. When it is applied to the makers of things that do not currently qualify as works of art (such things as spectacular cocktails, astounding mathematical theorems and amazing football goals), this must be counted a figurative and honorific usage.
It follows that Aesthetics cannot sensibly be conceived as influential upon artists unless the term ‘artist’ is used in the honorific and figurative way, to collect only the generators of discernible art, whatever the domain of artefacture. The question whether an artefact presented for classification does or does not qualify as a work of art turns on contingencies to which the discernibility of art in it is neither necessary nor sufficient.
Thus: to the extent that our application of the rubric ‘artist’ is appropriately restricted to those people who make works of art it is not necessarily the case that an engagement of their makers with Aesthetics must count as a qualifying condition for the recognition of the things that they make as works of art. To say this, however, is not to say that the putative influence of such an engagement must be uninfluential upon the makers of works of art in the same way as that in which the putative influence of an engagement with Ornithology must be uninfluential upon birds.
The influence of an engagement with Aesthetics may, but does not necessarily, shape the behaviours and activities and beliefs of artists. Contrastingly, the influence of an engagement with Ornithology does not and cannot possibly shape the behaviours, the activities and the beliefs of birds.
Notes on the Contributor
Donald Brook is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts in the Flinders University, South Australia. Among his publications most relevant to the current article are The Awful Truth About What Art Is (Artlink, Adelaide, 2008) and Get a Life (Artlink, Adelaide, 2014). Both of these books are available in print or in e-book format from the Artlink website.