- Written by David Hamilton
The Definition of Art (full version)
There is confusion about what art is. The qualities that make something art are intrinsic, not external. It is the artifice, the organising of elements, perspective, choice of colour etc, that make it art. The result is obtained by transforming reality and thus nature through human imagination and emotion and is realised by skill and technique.
A significant difference between contemporary art and traditional art is the split between form and meaning. This Cartesian duality is the split between mind and body, subject and form. The split is in all the various forms and styles and substance and meaning, of the respective art forms. In architecture contemporary buildings look like objects they are not which is why they are given comic nicknames - The Gerkhin, The Cheese Grater, or Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral, The Mersey Funnel. The form is not related to function - the interior of a modern cathedral could be anywhere.
Traditional art develops within traditional forms and it develops the forms. In his Christian paintings of the fifties Dali adapted forms to his individual vision but they are recognisably traditional forms. Dali was a genius - contemporary artists are not. They need to shock to get recognition. Real Art grows out of tradition and provides sustenance, spiritual or worldly, for people rather than negative emotions like shock or offence that are harmful.
To Marcel Duchamp it was enough for an artist to deem something "art" and put it in an art venue. But it does not matter where you stick a urinal it is always a urinal with a specific non-artistic purpose. To say something becomes art because you put it in a gallery is very muddled thinking. I had an experience in the Ikon gallery in Birmingham where the only objects with artistic qualities are the water closets and washroom taps which had pleasing curves and smooth surfaces. But they are not art: they are objects for specific non artistic purposes.
It is not the context of underpasses that makes or unmakes street artist Banksy's work art or otherwise: it does not have artistic subject matter and is just technique. Artistic subject matter is realised through qualities of artifice and held together by purpose which concentrates the artifice and technique to the goal of producing art.
George Dickie and Arthur Danto held that works of art are objects connected to various social practices. This depends on beauty as some objects like the taps or a motor car can be beautiful but because they have non-artistic functions are not art whereas a painting is. To Dickie art is about being self-assigned but you can put a car anywhere, it is always a car and its function is different from a work of art even if it is beautifully designed. When Artists begin to create they have a purpose and an artistic end in mind and to bring this into being they use appropriate technique. They do not take into account aerodynamics, say, or how fast water pours out or precisely where its trajectory will take it as these are not part of the artistic purpose. They are to engineers and designers of those objects.
This is the institutional theory of art which is a theory about the nature of art that holds that an object can only be art in the context of "the artworld". Whatever an artworld is. Danto wrote in: The Artworld: "To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry-an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an art world." That has nothing to do with the work itself but where it is. Art is practice not theory.
Nothing can make Duchamps "readymades" art because they were made for a specific non-artistic purpose. Theory does not change a pile of Brillo cartons in a supermarket into art, yet Danto thought if it was put in a gallery a substantive transformation took place. Andy Warhol's pretentious Brillo Boxes (a pile of Brillo carton, replicas actually, so they are doubly pretentious) are a pile of Brillo boxes wherever they are put.
Dickie's institutional theory can be assessed from the definition in Aesthetics: An Introduction: "A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation." On the contrary, what makes something art is the intention of producing art through artifice and technique successfully realised.
Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst have declared works to be art because they say so. They were promoted and financed by Saatchi who first declared their works art but he is not an artist. It is critics and elite art buyers who decide what is art and usually because of its commercial value but that is external to the work, not intrinsic. They are right about the commercial value of objects but not about its classification as art because designating something as art because it has commercial value is to apply external or non intrinsic criteria as the standard of judgement. Some people are supposed to think they are Napoleon or royalty but does that make them so?
This takes us back to Duchamps folly. This argument is that because he placed it in a gallery it became art. To say something like Damian Hirst's pickled shark is important is pretentious. It is supposed to make us think but by taking the shark out of context (the sea) it is rendered meaningless because it is deprived of its being which is its life, and its function to swim and hunt. It's habitat and how it lives in are essential not extraneous. A graffito by Banksy is not, it is added to the environment not part of it.
Picasso: "Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs." Well, he has dismissed proportion but that is only one part of the whole.
Commercial galleries need to appeal to a buying public and be more popular than avante garde painters yet they follow the fad of impressionistic landscapes that lose their meaning by technique over imaginative vision: the scene is obscured by splodges of paint! This obtrudes between the scene depicted and the viewer and causes a disjuncture in the meaning. This is technique over intuition; skill over the knack. By contrast the camera can elevate the knack over technique as one makes an artistic judgement on what to photograph. It gives a clear reproduction of the scene not splodgy brush strokes that could be anything from a cloud or wave or a sunbeam to just a slip of the brush. These smears festoon every commercial art gallery in the country. This effect is demonstrated by comparing these with photographs of the same scenes.
Fills our ordinary lives with meaning and provides different feelings as they have different purposes.
Trying to shock people is petty and there are many more responses. To shock is a means to the end of making themselves rich because the elites reward these attacks on our Art. It is as though they have a brief to undermine our artistic traditions. They have minor imaginations which cause only one response whereas a work by a major artist like Dali prompts several emotional responses.
A Liverpool pub, The Jacaranda, has a mural in the downstairs bar which John Lennon had a hand in painting when he was an art student, and this creates fascination and joy at the thought of someone so famous being part of it. The painting is well executed but not devoted to a high purpose, but conveys feelings because we know who was involved.
The Peter Kavanagh, also in Liverpool, has a delightful mural based on Dickens characters in the snug-bar. The story is that an artist who was a regular customer in the 1930s could not afford to pay for drinks on account, so he painted the mural. It produces delight and merriment, adds to the pubs character and raises it above the ordinary. ]
Statues are stylised and used to convey various human qualities. Military heroes say, were shown in proud and honourable poses that suggested authority, fortitude, steadfastness such as Lord Nelson's famous column in Trafalgar Square. They were cast in forms that conveyed meaning but contemporary public art fails in that elementary intention as the meaning is disjunctured.
I spent a few days in Shrewsbury recently. It has honoured its famous local Charles Darwin by "public art". But does it succeed in its purpose? One known as Quantum Leap is dissociated meaning as the form is not directly linked to the subject so there is no representation. The title Quantum Leap actually refers to something in physics not evolutionary biology which was Darwin's study. It is probably the contemporary informal term for making a major leap forward but applied to something celebrating Darwin confuses rather than elucidates. These contemporary artefacts arouse no curiosity and one does not feel inclined to enquire about them. They cannot be taken seriously as there is no spirit of genius behind them; rather, a commercial motive which are part of contemporary popular fashion and do not gain gravity from tradition. Quantum Leap looks like an armadillo crossed with a pack of cards and seems to be influenced by popular film Jurassic Park rather than Darwin.
The Darwin Gate is three separate structures which unite to create an apparently solid structure. What does it mean? How does the form convey the meaning? The sculpture apparently combines the form of a Saxon helmet with a Norman window inspired by features of St Mary's Church which Darwin attended as a boy. They claim that as darkness descends defused light shines through the columns suggesting stained glass windows with the tops of the posts resemble ecclesiastical arches. When it unites it resembles the shape of a church window. However, there is no connection with Darwin and the transmission of meaning to the public is split. It is called The Eggbeater.
Even ordinary works can, if in surprising places, prompt a myriad of responses. The Nags Head in Shrewsbury, has an unusual and painting with an obscure origin. It has an unusual context in being on the inside door of a cupboard in a room above the pub. There is a strange atmosphere up there, where the temperature can plummet in seconds. Some think the painting depicts Neptune, others, the Devil. It is thought to be by a prisoner of war during World War II but staff at the local Rowley's House Museum purvey only a mystic tale but no accurate record. One told me it is of a woman who committed suicide by jumping from an upstairs window. In this legend it is said that the female figure will return if painted over. The painting is not of a woman but there is an ambiguity as the figure has feminine legs which are disproportionately long and thick, and a short body. This painting prompts wonder, amusement, mystification, delight.
Rowley's House museum holds the excellent Morning View of Coalbrookdale by William Williamse. (3) An important function of both painting and photography is to reflection a way of life or, as in this case, a defining historical era. There is too little representation of ways of life in contemporary art and fiction and people need this affirmation of themselves. These engaging paintings convey a powerful impression of the impact of early industrialisation on a still natural landscape. There are many forms of art which convey something important to people and prompt a variety of responses. Shock is just one: it is negative and it is unimportant.
Saint Alkmunds church in Shrewsbury, has a beautiful and moving stained glass in the east window. This is The Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Francis Egington. In this the Virgin Mary at the end of her journey through life and about to ascend to heaven. She is standing on the firm ground of the cross; with the Bible as the word of god for guidance and the sacraments represented by the chalice. The struggles of life are symbolised by thistles on the path. She is looking up in faith at the symbolic crown with her arms outstretched and open to heavenly influence as if she were asking and waiting to be uplifted back to her home in heaven. These were developments by Egington the artist who based the work on The Assumption of Saint Mary by Guido Remi of 1638 which is a more conventional Assumption painting and has Mary being lifted by Cherubim.
As you enter the church you are transfixed and walk towards it in awe looking up. It immediately begins to form an emotional response and the feeling of awe grows as you advance. This is not an intellectual proposition but a deep feeling of transcendent emotions.
This acts like great art, on a deep, unconscious level like an archetype. It opens the imagination transmitting holy or noble feelings in contrast to the degenerate contemporary art which spreads negative and evil thoughts. Old works have a quiet authority and the viewer pauses to contemplate it with respect, as when looking at old gravestones, to recreate the departed. It is a development of traditional form and links us with our roots.
The contemporary age is one of excess of technique. Jeff Robb, who has a permanent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert, uses a method of lenticular sheets which are only sold by one firm which is in Switzerland. This is very clever and often fascinating but the subject matter is ordinary - nudes. His art is the cleverness of what he does with the subject but he does not transform the actual subject. Jeff needs specific equipment and ink cartridges to produce his results. Technique is important but should be guided by the vision not for its own sake or it is empty form.
The qualities that qualify a work as art are intrinsic to art in general but Art with a capital "A" has an elevated, sublime, purpose and is only realised by a high quality of conception and execution. A visual object or experience created through an expression of skill or imagination. The term art covers various media: painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, decorative arts, photography, and installation. The various visual arts exist within a continuum that ranges from prompting deep feeling or transcendent emotion and great skill to reproducing figures or landscape which have a mood and also prompt thought or feelings.
Kimbolton School has murals by Pellegrini. They give a sense of grandeur and seriousness and create a suitable frame of mind for study.
The modern understanding of art derived from Abbe Batteux in the 1740s who regarded the essence as an "imitation of nature" and, principally, that it caused pleasure. They cause various mental states in the beholder. He defined these mental states as pleasure and the experience of beauty. Prior to this, individual modes of art were attached to various sciences like Music to Mathmatics but this is the skill not the purpose. Kant promoted a universal criteria to decide if something was Art. He used a geometric idea of patterns of shapes and lines. In The Critique of Judgement he developed the notion of beauty as the cause of the the mental state. The problem is beauty is so abstract as to mean something different to everyone, though it is a word that describes the individual appreciation of something very pleasing.
English philosopher Michael Oakeshott described two sorts of knowledge:
"The first sort of knowledge I will call technical knowledge or knowledge of technique. In every art and science, and in every practical activity, a technique is involved. In many activities this practical knowledge is formulated into rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned, remembered, and, as we say, put into practice; but whether or not it is, or has been, precisely formulated, its chief characteristic is that it is susceptible of precise formulation, although special skill and insight.
The second sort of knowledge I will call practical, because it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) can not be formulated in rules... " In art, this equates to the distinction between natural talent or genius and the skill and technique which realises the vision and meaning. Soccer players show a high degree of skill and to great players it is natural but developed by coaching and practice, but there is no high purpose involved.
Technique or genius; skill or a knack
There is a phenomenon in English art: a seven year-old Kieron Williamson. He has an indefinable knack that is called genius. This is artistic judgement in the practice of painting when one knows instinctively what to put and where. He has natural qualities: perspective, choice of colours. He has them automatically but perspective is a technique for realising the vision and choice of colours is part of the expression of the vision.
This knack is the artistic judgement. It is a non rational process - it is intuition or instinct and it is this that technique realises. In Kieron's case it was triggered by the Devon and Cornwall landscape and "sprung full-born into life" like Athena from Zeus's head. It was instantly realised, not slowly educed. (2)
To clarify the working of the two functions of form and content, technique and vision we have a fine example from music. Music was suffering the same culture war as painting and was dominated by atonal styles and was saved from an unexpected quarter. It was a paradox:
What we know as the culture wars and political correctness could not have made progress if it had not been adopted by the popular musicians of the 1960s. The words to The Beatles hit Get Back were developed from a spoof of Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech. Paul McCartney later turned into a more conventional rock song.
McCartney and John Lennon wrote melodies and through harmony revived tonal music. Atonalists were destroying traditional classical music as composers Schoenburg and Stockhausen did with water gurgling down a drain noises. The Beatles natural musical genius was realised through the technique of producer George Martin: The Beatles were raw talent, Martin supplied the form.
McCartney and Lennon upported the New Left and McCartney had a single banned by the BBC for apparently supporting the IRA; Lennon was figurehead of the New Left-Politically Correct movement and his records like the album "Sometime in New York City" promoted it. He donated to The Black Panthers and The IRA.
Atonal composers disdained their audiences as Bourgoise but Lennon and McCartney brought them together. Martin's skill at realising their meaning added to the whole and triumphed over the split between form and meaning in contemporary music.
Martin wrote the orchestral arrangements and instrumentation in collaboration with them. It was Martin's idea to put a string quartet on "Yesterday". To demonstrate his point he played it in the style of Bach to show what "voicings" could be used. To realise "Penny Lane" McCartney hummed the melody, and Martin wrote it in music notation and David Mason, the classically trained trumpeter played it in a piccolo trumpet solo. Eleanor Rigby was heightened by Martin's strings-only accompaniment inspired by Bernard Hermann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho.
For "Strawberry Fields Forever", Martin combined two different takes into one. For I Am the Walrus he provided an original arrangement for brass, violins, cellos, and vocal ensemble. He worked closely with McCartney to develop the orchestral 'climax' in A Day In the Life.
The Artistic Subject
When he became a Christian, Salvador Dali found an artistic subject and the inherent spirtuality of the subject gave him a fuller, more elevated vision and he painted the masterpieces of the twentieth century. He was a skilled draftsman who developed his skills of realisation by studying Renaissance masters. Much criticism of Dali was because he supported General Franco rather than the Marxism of the orthodox Surrealists and art critics. They were ideologues and like all ideologues expected their members to conform to the manifesto or have their thinking corrected. Breton banned Dali from The Surrealist movement in 1941 and tried to ban his "Sistine Madonna" from the International Surrealism Exhibition in New York in 1960. It is said that Breton a Trotskyist, called Dalí in for questioning on his politics as his political allegiances had changed. After World War II, Dalí became close to General Franc's movement and issued statements of support. He congratulated Franco for his actions aimed "at clearing Spain of destructive forces" met him personally and painted a portrait of his granddaughter.
His fascination with the hypercube a four-dimensional cube and unfolding of a hypercube is featured in "Corpus Hypercubus" which changes the traditional form but it is still recognisable and we know what it represents. His "Last Supper" and "The Christ of St. John of the Cross" are the masterpieces of the twentieth century. This brings us to the essence of great Art: genius and inspiration.
Contemporary painters and makers of installations show contempt for the audience and do not work for the public good. They seek a response but it is a negative response. They are not geniuses and have to shock to get noticed. In fact they are not really artists - but purveyors of clever tricks without deep meaning. Art is communication but contemporary art fails to communicate because of a disjuncture between subject and beholder, form and purpose.
The indefinable knack is intuitive practice called genius. This is artistic judgement in the practice of painting when one just knows instinctively what to put or where. This knack is the artistic eye, artistic judgement and it is a non rational process - it is intuition or instinct and it is this that trained and developed technique realises." John Dryden captures it :"But genius must be born, and never can be taught." It is the technique that is taught not the genius, which is inborn, as the qualities that make a work art are intrinsic to the work, not external nor contingent on where the work is put.
The difference between nature and art is this. When I point my camera at something that pleases me I first use artistic judgement but I record natural phenomena. If I take a sunset it is reproducing nature and is not art but nature. However, if I then use the zoom function, it has the effect of condensing the distance and thereby magnifying the gold or red which is moving from nature to art because it is introducing a technique to change the reproduction of the natural phenomena and make an artistic end. I recently took several photos of a sunrise in Penzance Bay in Cornwall and sunset at Brighton. There is little technique involved and as long as you point the camera at the right thing you are away. The camera is recording natural phenomena but a meaning is conveyed from photographer to viewer as the scene automatically conveys certain emotions to the viewer. In the above examples it is natural beauty. When you look at a photograph of a landscape a chain of thought is triggered which moves from the inherent emotional state conveyed to personal and often unconscious thoughts and feelings.
A similar process occurs in art as the idea or a scene is transformed through human imagination and emotion till it becomes a work of art: transformed reality.