By far the most comprehensive and nuanced review of Who Says That’s Art? to date is that offered late last year by J. W. Bourne and D. F. Bailey on the Stuckismwales website.[*] Nine single-spaced pages long, it testifies to their close reading of the book, and to their fair-minded reflection on the various points of its argument—for both of which I’m very grateful.
As indicated by the brief excerpt I’ve posted on the reviews page for Who Says That’s Art?, Bourne and Bailey (members of the Stuckist group in Wales) found much to praise in the book—which is truly gratifying. But their agreement was by no means total. And what I especially value (as I wrote to tell them) is that rather than simply reject conclusions they disagree with, they summarized the reasons for my position and then offered their own reasons for disagreement. That is precisely the sort of intelligent debate I had hoped to stimulate.
To continue that debate, therefore, I respond here to some of the main points of contention—in the order in which they appear in the review.
Why Distinguish Between “Fine” and “Decorative” Art?
Like many in today’s artworld, Bourne and Bailey would prefer to merge the categories of “fine” and “decorative” art. In their view, since both categories “have the common ingredient of craft,”
it seems more democratic to say that they are all one. Some of us are uneasy with the Renaissance artists’ insistence that they were superior to the humble craftsman and we are not sure that such ego is appropriate in art. We feel that in Eastern art especially, fine art and decorative/useful art seem to merge into each other so that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.
The issue thus raised is mainly an epistemological (not an aesthetic) one, for it relates to the nature of concept formation. Epistemologically sound categories and concepts are based on the essential characteristics of their most representative examples. As a result, concepts are often more clearly defined than things in reality. But that doesn’t invalidate them. For example, we don’t reject the concepts “blue” and “green” because it is difficult to say whether a particular intermediate shade is “bluish green” or “greenish blue.”
Regardless of what artists at any time have said or thought, the point of distinguishing between “fine” and “decorative” art is not to declare superiority of one over the other but to recognize fundamental differences between the quintessential examples in each category. The problem with defining “art” as anything exhibiting craftsmanship is that it tells us nothing about the significant differences between a Pietà, say, and a well-crafted basket or a beautifully designed candelabrum. (It’s worth noting that the candelabrum design shown here has been attributed to no less a Renaissance master than Michelangelo; see “Even Michelangelo Designed Works of Decorative Art,” What Art Is Online, November 2002.)
As I aimed to show in Who Says That’s Art?, works traditionally referred to as “fine art”—primarily, painting and sculpture (more broadly, all two- and three-dimensional artistic representations)—have played a key role in virtually all known cultures (Eastern as well as Western), serving to embody important values in an emotionally compelling form. That functional distinction is fairly universal, even in cultures that do not express it verbally. And it clearly differs from the primarily practical function of such useful objects as baskets and candelabra.
The growing tendency to ignore that distinction has very real consequences. In my book, I cited the example of a worthless piece of “conceptual art” inspired by such “democratic” thinking. A clumsy installation of chairs by an art history student at my alma mater, it was submitted (and accepted) as her senior-thesis project. As I noted, however, it failed to convey its intended meaning, and it served no practical function. It was totally useless in every respect.
Another Case in Point: The Work of Martin Puryear
A more lamentable example of the unintended consequences of blurring the distinction between “fine” and “decorative” art is the critically acclaimed work of Martin Puryear (b. 1941)—the subject of an exhibition I’ve just seen at the Morgan Library in New York. The centerpiece of the Puryear show was a work entitled Vessel, pictured above.
Considered “one of the most important contemporary American sculptors,” Puryear regards himself as an artist because his work (unlike the traditional “crafts”) has no practical function. But he ignores what the function of “[fine] art” is—namely, the value-charged representation of things of human importance.
Why did Puryear begin to create his meticulously crafted but physically useless and ultimately baffling works of “art”? His biographical trajectory tells the whole story. In his early twenties, he spent two years with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. Tellingly, his drawings [more] from that period reveal some genuine artistic talent, applied to capturing the distinctive character of the people and places he encountered there. At the same time, he was fascinated by, and proceeded to learn about, the traditional materials and techniques of local craftspeople.
On returning to the states, Puryear obtained an MFA in “sculpture” at the Yale University School of Art. In the course of his studies there, he was exposed to (and unfortunately influenced by) the contemporary American “art” then in vogue—namely, Minimalism [more]. Thereafter, his work combined the abstract—and therefore meaningless—tendencies of Minimalism with traditional “craft.” Only in the conceptually promiscuous contemporary artworld could his work qualify as “[fine] art”—the context in which it is presented and discussed. (For more about this confusion, see “Perversely Purposeless” in Notes & Comments, Aristos, June 2008, about another Puryear exhibition.)
Puryear applies himself with great seriousness and dedication to his work. But he has been led down a lamentable dead-end by the muddled premises prevailing in the contemporary artworld. However “interesting” or “intriguing” his pieces may appear to the viewer, they remain frustratingly enigmatic, and thus flout the point of “fine art.” According to the curators of the Morgan show, Vessel “resembles a drawing in space.” But a drawing of what? In their view, it “evokes at once a beached bottle or ship and a head.” What sense can be made of that?
Surprisingly, Bourne and Bailey took issue with my use of the term “imagery” for both two- and three-dimensional work. They argued that sculpture, in particular,
is not essentially imagery; it is form. A blind person can experience sculpture by touch, with no image involved. And for sighted people a single sculptural form is equivalent to an infinite number of images. Even a two-dimensional painting may be thought of as consisting of forms rather than an image and the image thought of as an effect of the painting rather than the painting itself.
Contrary to that argument, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed., 2011) includes the following definitions of image:
- a representation of the form of a person or object, such as a painting or photograph
- a likeness, or semblance—such as a “sculptured likeness”
- a mental picture of something.
Perhaps British usage differs from American on this point.
In any case, I agree that images consist of forms. But what is crucial for art is whether those forms cohere into an intelligible whole—that is, whether they constitute an image, a likeness of something. And that would hold even with respect to a blind person. Unless one could construct a coherent mental image corresponding to the work of sculpture experienced through touch, the experience would be as meaningless as an “abstract” (nonobjective) painting is for a sighted person.
“It’s Good Having [Hirst] Around”
On this point, I cannot agree with Bourne and Bailey. Quite magnanimously they maintain that the “antics of Postmodernist artists” such as Damien Hirst and other Young British Artists “add colour and debate to the art scene” and encourage traditional artists, who paint pictures, “to question what they [themselves] are doing.” In their view, moreover, the only way to discover the proper boundaries of art is for would-be artists “to produce novel creations . . . to see if they work as art.”
As I see it, artists since time immemorial have produced “novel creations,” within tacit boundaries demarcating the essential nature of art. Countless works of value were produced in diverse cultures within those limits. In marked contrast, during the past century a completely open-ended concept of presumably artistic novelty has come to prevail. I would argue that it has led to total chaos in the artworld, with little or nothing of value being created, and a concomitant breakdown in the very concept of art. In the process, the worst pseudo art has gained ascendancy, at the expense of genuine art. It is the artworld equivalent of Gresham’s law in the monetary sphere. Bad art (more precisely, pseudo art) has been driving out good.
Bourne and Bailey note that some Stuckists are enthusiastic about Modernist styles such as Expressionism and Cubism. Expressionism is surely a legitimate style, with pre-Modern precursors. I consider the pursuit of Cubism misguided, however, because it deliberately subverts normal perception and therefore impedes understanding (see “‘Puzzling Out’ Cubism,” in Notes & Comments, Aristos, March 2015).
Is Photography a “Fine Art”?
Here I come to what is probably Bourne and Bailey’s principal reservation about my book—my view that photography is a “craft,” rather than “art.” Against my claim that a photograph (unlike a drawing or painting) is a largely mechanical product, they argue that successful photographs are “the endpoint of some fairly complex creative decisions” regarding such matters as composition, focal point, depth of field, and lighting.
Yet they acknowledge that a photograph, “[e]ven with the most professional of pre shot camera setting decisions,” often fails “to capture the magic of the scene which so enthralled us, the early golden light of morning through a light mist for example.” They further note: “This ‘expectation’ gap then becomes the subject of further extended creative decision making through post processing or ‘Photoshopping.’” Such processing is something other than “pure photography,” however, which was primarily what I was discussing.
In any case, I am prepared to accept Bourne and Bailey’s suggestion that photography “be considered at least a ‘kissing cousin’ of art.” Provided we agree that “kissing cousins” are not identical (or even fraternal) twins.
*Note: For readers unfamiliar with the term, “Stuckism” is an international art movement founded in 1999 to promote figurative painting as opposed to “conceptual art.” Its members aim to produce art with “spiritual value”—regardless of style, subject matter, or medium.