BUT IS IT ART? AN INTRODUCTION TO ART THEORY
Oxford University Press, 2002. Paperback, $11.95
[We have been] instructed on the horrors of all superficial considerations through the mother of all finger-wagging reminders: don't judge a book by its cover. I take issue. A cover can tell you a lot about a book. -- Lucas Hanft, Yale Review of Books
There was something in the artworld air during the second half of the twentieth century that caused writers of now-standard art histories to grudgingly pose the question "What is art?" (or allude to it) in the first line of their texts. Barely disguising his condescension, H. W. Janson, for example, opened his History of Art by imagining the ordinary person asking "Why is this supposed to be art?" In the revised third through fifth editions of the book, his son, Anthony Janson, changed this to read, simply, "What is art?" followed by this half-hearted observation: "Few questions provoke such heated debate, yet provide so few satisfactory answers." Similarly, Frederick Hartt asked "What is art?" to begin Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. John Canaday went even further by making the question the title of his book. Finally, E. H. Gombrich sought to sidestep the issue altogether (though he no doubt had it in mind) in The Story of Art when he proclaimed: "There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists."
What was in the air was the nagging realization on the part of scholars and critics that ever since the advent of abstract painting at the start of the century, ordinary people had been skeptical of avant-garde work, sensing that it bore little or no relation to the art of the past--that it was not art. Unwilling to address this skepticism head-on, the Jansons, Hartt, and Gombrich did not even attempt to explain what art is. Instead they bemoaned the "difficulties" inherent in defining art, and discussed the work of abstract and postmodernist figures as if the question "What is art?" had never been broached, while they largely ignored traditional realist painters and sculptors in their chapters on the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the 1990s, "What is art?" gave way to a more colloquial expression, "But is it art?" suggesting an exchange in which an alleged expert explains a "difficult" work to a skeptical person, who responds "But is it art?" The question became so ubiquitous--cropping up in titles of countless articles, reviews, and books in which the mostly implicit answer was invariably Yes--that television journalist Morley Safer made it the theme of a two-part Sixty Minutes exposé of the fraudulence and pretension of the contemporary artworld, which he entitled "Yes, But Is It Art?" Safer, unlike critics who merely pose the question rhetorically, answered it with an unambiguous No. For that he was trashed in the press and held up to ridicule on PBS's Charlie Rose show, whose fawning interviewer of artworld celebrities stacked the deck by pitting Safer against not just one "expert," but three--including Arthur C. Danto, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Columbia University and art critic of The Nation magazine.
One might expect that by the new millennium, "But is it art?" (a phrase used by Rudyard Kipling in his 1890 poem "The Conundrum of the Workshops," though his context and meaning were altogether different) would have played itself out as a critical cliché. No such luck. Two years ago, Oxford University Press--dedicated to furthering "excellence in research, scholarship, and education"--published a slickly packaged hardcover trade book entitled . . . But Is It Art?
I must confess that, while intending to give this little book (just 209 pages, and barely the size of a 5 x 7" index card) a fair reading, I approached it with no small apprehension, as I was familiar with the postmodernist proclivities of its author, who is prominent among academic philosophers of art. After just one glance at the front cover, my worst fears began to materialize. Beneath the title (the scholarly subtitle, An Introduction to Art Theory, is relegated to the book's title page), and set against the cover's white background, is a brightly colored figure of a cow. As one learns from copy facing the book's title page, the cow is one of more than 300 identical life-sized fiberglass figures made for a so-called public art project in Chicago, this one whimsically decorated by the abstract painter William Conger in geometric and biomorphic forms. Since Conger's work consists merely of abstract design, suggesting nothing about his view of cows, I had to conclude that regarding it, my answer to the title question was No. (Conger, who teaches at Northwestern University, made his cow "both in fun and as a serious work of art with art historical references," according to the publisher.) Below the cow is the author's name, Cynthia Freeland. Near the bottom of the cover, in small print, is the clincher--a quote from Danto (who is not further identified): "I know of no work that moves with so sure a footing through the battle zones of art and society today." This from a philosopher-critic who had once declared: "You can't say something's art or not art anymore. That's all finished."
As the back cover of But Is It Art? offered no information about the book's contents, apart from vague references in blurbs by three more scholarly artworld figures, I had to turn to the front cover's inside flap to learn more. There I read that "in today's art world many strange, even shocking, things qualify as art." True, most postmodernist "things" (the term is so apt) in today's artworld are indeed strange, albeit more absurd or disgusting than shocking. The question Freeland is presumably considering, however, is whether or why in her view they qualify as art. The flap copy seemed to beg the question. I also read that Freeland would explain "why innovation and controversy are valued in the arts" (not by anyone I know, I should add), and would discuss "blood, beauty, culture, money, museums, sex, and politics, clarifying contemporary and historical accounts of the nature, function, and interpretation of the arts." (Note the switch from "art," which often means only visual art--primarily painting and sculpture--to "arts," which suggests music and literature as well. She deals with both of the latter, albeit briefly). She would also "propel us into the future by surveying cutting-edge web sites, along with the latest research on the brain's role in perceiving art." So much in so few pages! (The back flap included a small color photograph of Freeland in front of what appears to be a colorful, semi-abstract painting. A short biography noted what I already knew--that she is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, Texas, specializing in the philosophy of art, among other areas.)
As the epigraph for this review suggests, you can, in some cases, judge a book by its cover. In the case of But Is It Art? the cover provided sufficient evidence. In just a few moments, I was able to surmise that the book was flawed.
Last year, Oxford issued a paperback edition of But Is It Art? The front cover is the same, but the publisher's copy, this time on the back cover, has been revised. Instead of referring to strange and shocking things qualifying as art, a more general statement is offered: "This clear, lively book provides the ideal ['invaluable,' in the hardcover copy] introduction to thinking about art." Instead of stating that Freeland considers such things as blood, money, sex, and politics, the copy notes that she discusses "the relationship of art" to them. Finally, there is the added information that she "draws on examples from Rembrandt, Goya, and Damien Hirst [more on this contemporary 'artist' below] to African nail fetishes, Indian Pueblo dancing, and MTV"--implying that such things are art, and thereby again begging the question of the book's title. One of the three original endorsements survives, and a reviewer's comment from the Independent (London) has been added. Characterizing the book as "a reader's digest of the rubric of theories that make up contemporary criticism," the reviewer deems it "a valuable book for anyone perplexed by the arcane theorizing of contemporary art." (In truth, however, much of Freeland's discussion is itself arcane, and general readers are likely to remain as perplexed as ever after reading it.) Conspicuously missing from the cover is not only Freeland's photograph--for lack of space, no doubt--but also her biography, an essential item one would think. For all the reader knows, Freeland is a freelance writer, not an art critic, much less a philosopher of art. I can only assume that in conceiving the cover for a mass market, the publisher deemed the term "philosopher" too intimidating. (Freeland, too, avoids identifying herself as a philosopher, merely noting, in one instance, that she belongs to a professional society of "people in the field of aesthetics" and later mentioning the organization by name.)
Had I first judged this edition by its cover, my assessment would have been as negative as it was for the original hardcover, perhaps even more so.
The Table of Contents
A book's table of contents, presumably written or approved by the author, provides in outline form an account of topics covered--or so one expects. In the case of But Is It Art? seven brief chapters are listed:
1 Blood and beauty; 2 Paradigms and practices; 3 Cultural crossings; 4 Money, markets, museums; 5 Gender, genius, and Guerrilla Girls; 6 Cognition, creation, comprehension; and 7 Digitizing and disseminating [Also cited are color plates, black and white illustrations, chapter references, lists of books for further reading, and an index]
What does this convey to the reader? Not much. Like the postmodernist work cited in Freeland's book, this list makes little if any sense. Then there is the matter of the alliteration. Some no doubt will find it clever. Others may dismiss it as a temporary aberration. I found it off-putting. Both the alliteration and vagueness are too calculated, too dismissive of the needs of the serious reader.
While the cover and the contents page of But Is It Art? hint at Freeland's philosophy of art and her style as a public scholar, readers may well wonder if the book itself warrants the harsh judgment I have given it. She opens her Introduction with a succinct declaration which indeed seems promising: "This is a book about what art is, what it means, and why we value it." In the very same sentence, however, she adds that it is also "a book on topics in the field loosely called art theory"--a gratuitous explanation that hints at condescension. Freeland no doubt assumed that "art theory" would be more palatable to her readers than the term "philosophy of art." She continues: "We will scrutinize many different art theories here: ritual theory, formalist theory, imitation theory, expression theory, cognitive theory, and postmodern theory--but not in order, one by one. That would be as tedious for me to write as for you to read." Her use of "we" here--disingenuously suggesting that the reader is somehow her equal, a collaborator of sorts--is consistent with the tone she often adopts, that of a grade school teacher addressing her pupils.
After outlining what a theory is, Freeland confesses that "the 'data' of art are so varied that it seems daunting to try to unify and explain them." And further:
Many modern [she means "postmodern"] artworks challenge us to figure out why, on any theory, they would count as art. My strategy here is to highlight the rich diversity of art, in order to convey the difficulty of coming up with suitable theories.
Undaunted, Freeland has apparently met the difficult challenge of determining why many postmodern works are art.
Freeland introduces "our study of art's diversity" with characteristic bluntness: "I warn you," she tells the reader, "that I have chosen shock tactics, for I will begin in the rather grisly present-day world of art, dominated by works that speak of sex or sacrilege, made with blood, dead animals, or even urine and feces." She then explains that she will "defuse the shock a little by linking such work with earlier traditions," to demonstrate that art has not always been "about . . . beauty."
In Chapter 1 ("Blood and beauty"), Freeland makes good on her promise to begin her discussion in the "grisly" world of contemporary art, by citing an early morning lecture she once attended with fellow philosophers. (In what reads like a passage from a grade-school anthology on careers, she had previously remarked: "One group of people with a strong focus on art are members of an association I belong to, the American Society for Aesthetics [ASA]. At our annual conferences, we attend lectures about art and its subfields--film, music, painting, literature[*]; we also do more fun things, like go to exhibitions and concerts.") The lecture in question, entitled "The Aesthetics of Blood in Contemporary Art," included images of a Mayan king shedding blood in a public ceremony after "piercing his own penis and drawing a reed through it three times" in order to demonstrate his "shamanistic ability to contact the land of the undead." Freeland continues (warning--the links in the following quote lead to images that some readers might find objectionable):
We saw blood poured over statues in Mali and spurting from sacrificial water buffaloes in Borneo. Some of the blood was more recent and closer to home. Buckets of blood drenched performance artists and droplets of blood oozed from the lips of Orlan [more] who is redesigning herself through plastic surgery to resemble famous beauties in Western art.
"Something was guaranteed to disgust almost everyone there," Freeland observes. What was also guaranteed, I might add, was that not a single philosopher in that room would have the sense, or the courage, to even suggest that Orlan and her fellow "performance artists" might not be artists at all, but rather charlatans--or else severely disturbed or deluded individuals. In any case, Freeland's argument blurs a crucial distinction here, that between ritual and art. All of the alleged precedents she cites for the use of bodily fluids in "contemporary art" are examples of ritual practices, not works of art.
"Fresh blood" is a common "medium" in so-called performance art, the reader learns, because it has an "eye-catching hue with a glossy sheen." Moreover, "it will stick to a surface, so you can draw or make designs with it"--especially if you happen to be an Aborigine youth and want to make "shimmering cross-hatched patterns" on your skin. Perhaps sensing the inadequacy of such examples in a book on art theory, Freeland offers a more philosophic explanation:
Blood is our human essence--Dracula sucks it up as he creates the undead. Blood can be holy or noble, the sacrificial blood of martyrs or soldiers. Spots of blood on sheets indicate the loss of virginity and passage to adulthood. Blood can also be contaminated and 'dangerous,' the blood of syphilis or Aids [sic]. Obviously, blood has a host of expressive associations.
Well, of course. Now the reader knows why some "contemporary artists" use fresh blood in their work.
In yet another example, Freeland drives home her thesis by citing (without censure, of course) Hermann Nitsch, the Viennese founder of something called the "Orgies Mystery Theatre," who "promises catharsis through a combination of music, painting, wine-pressing, and ceremonial pouring of animal blood and entrails." Curious? Have a strong stomach? "You can read all about it [and see it and hear it, I should warn] on his Web site at www.nitsch.org," Freeland adds (click on "Videos." "Das offizielle Video . . . 1998 . . . 1. Tag" will start with no further effort on your part). But is it art?
Like most postmodernist writers, Freeland argues that those who now "create work using blood, urine, maggots, and plastic surgery are successors of past artists who took sex, violence, and war as their subject." In a shameless leap of logic, she cites the Spanish master Goya, one of the towering figures of art history, as a "precursor" of the photographer Andres Serrano--a contemporary artworld mediocrity to whom Freeland devotes more than five pages. Serrano is virtually unknown to the general public for anything but his controversial Piss Christ, an image of a crucifixion said to be immersed in his own urine. One need only glance at Goya's wrenchingly powerful "Black Paintings" (most notably, Saturn Devouring His Son) or his moving depiction of a brutal execution, The Third of May, 1808, to grasp the absurd pretentiousness of her comparison. The human drama in Goya's paintings is palpable, even if one is unaware of their specific context. Such is not the case with Piss Christ. Even as explained by Serrano himself, or by critic Lucy Lippard (whom Freeland cites at length), the photograph is simplistic, and conveys no clear meaning absent its title. The same can be said of other "difficult" photographs by him, such as those in the Morgue series [more]--which, as Freeland notes, "zeroes in on gruesome dead bodies." To what meaningful end? There is none, notwithstanding the claims of Serrano and his apologists. (Moreover, as Michelle Kamhi and I argue in What Art Is, there is good reason to exclude photography from the category of art.)
Freeland also cites Damien Hirst as an example of a contemporary figure whose "difficult art" has roots in the great Western art of the past. Praising the "elegant stylization of Hirst's gleaming vitrines with suspended animals inside [preserved in formaldehyde]," she stresses the thematic content of such work--which, she claims, Hirst's titles indicate. In her view, he "confronts viewers directly with tough issues, as in the "shark piece" entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Freeland never says what these "tough issues" are. In fact, there are none.
Freeland cites major philosophers (among others, Kant and Hume) on the nature of art--with particular emphasis on John Dewey. She is also drawn to the views of Richard Anderson, an "'ethno-aesthetician'" (an anthropologist specializing in art), who proposes to define art as "culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium." Readers may find Anderson's meaning elusive. Even Freeland herself is puzzled by it, allowing that "it is not always easy to discern . . . what counts as 'culturally significant meaning'--even after careful and respectful study." Nevertheless, she says: "I would endorse this definition, and so, I suspect, would John Dewey--it sounds like a more specific version of Dewey's idea that art 'expresses the life of a community'"--a proposition which ignores that art is, first and foremost, an individual expression, not a communal one. In any case, the art theory in But Is It Art? is treated so superficially that it would be of only marginal interest to serious readers, even to those who can understand it.
Freeland favors the "cognitive" theory of art--which, in her view, holds that art is similar to language because it "communicates complex thoughts." This is a dubious proposition, since it implies that art primarily involves a direct transfer of information or knowledge. In any case, it is mainly fiction and drama among the arts that can impart "complex thoughts," though rarely as explicitly as expository prose. The expression theory, according to Freeland, holds that art communicates "something in the realm of feelings and emotions"--a view she finds too limiting. Art, she points out, "can express or communicate not just feelings but also ideas." None of the arts directly "expresses" or "communicates" either emotion or ideas, however, not even music, the art form most often thought to do so. The primary purpose of art is not communication but, rather (as Ayn Rand suggested), the objectification of values. Any "communication" that results is a by-product of that process.
Contrary to Freeland, philosopher Randall Dipert argues in his Artifacts, Art Works, and Agency, that neither "expression" nor "communication" is the purpose of art. "There is good reason not to call what art works are commonly regarded as doing 'expression,'" he writes. For one thing, expression theory would require us to believe that the artist who created a "'sad' work" was himself sad. Dipert aptly regards "communication" as an "even less satisfactory" explanation.
Freeland is mistaken on other matters as well. For instance, she blurs the line between fine and decorative art, while also distorting the role that art played in people's lives during the Renaissance, when she claims that sculpture by Michelangelo was commissioned to "adorn" public spaces, churches, and tombs. No one who has seen his David [more ] in the Academy in Florence, to cite but one obvious example, is likely to think that it was originally placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (the city's "town hall," where a modern copy now stands) merely to enhance the appearance of this fortress-like building. The sculpture represents virtues--courage and determination, for example--which the city fathers knew would inspire the Florentines, and which deeply affect visitors from every corner of the world to this day.
But Is It Art? is flawed in still other ways. Even a sympathetic reviewer, Ivan Gaskell, writing in Aesthetics Online (the official website of the American Society for Aesthetics), refers to "shortcomings" (albeit only "minor" in his view)--though he repeatedly excuses them, because "writing so as to engage a relatively uninformed readership is the most difficult of scholarly tasks." Few succeed at it, he observes, "without appearing patronizing." How true! One fault he finds with Freeland's approach is that she "jollies her readers along. Her topic must be fun." After praising her for a "refreshingly broad range of references," he properly criticizes her for making "extraordinary comparisons," summarily dismissing ideas, and abruptly changing topics (as in "'Let's switch to music history'"). These and other flaws notwithstanding, he concludes that her book offers much to stimulate even "jaded" philosophers. I think not. With the possible exception of Freeland's "extended apology for, and critical qualification of Dewey's aesthetic theories," most specialists will, I suspect, find her discussion too superficial to warrant serious consideration--if they read the book at all.
In the end, But Is It Art? (a Spanish edition of which has been published) is a deeply troubling book, not so much because of the mistaken view of art it espouses--one can profit from reading wrong ideas sincerely and clearly argued--but because of its blatantly patronizing tone and the numerous other flaws I have cited, both major and minor. It is not, as its author claims, "a book about what art is, what it means, and why we value it," but rather an extended apologia for postmodernist art and art theory. Particularly lamentable is the likely influence that the book (excerpts from which can be read on Freeland's personal web page, along with other relevant items) has already had on undergraduate philosophy students, especially those majoring in the subject. General readers can (judging it by its cover) dismiss it unread, or read it only in part, or shrug it off, once read. Students in courses where it is required reading, as it was in Freeland's Philosophy and the Arts last year, do not have such options.
* Freeland misleads the reader here. As indicated by the lecture on "The Aesthetics of Blood in Contemporary Art" which she subsequently cites, the topics of discussion at annual meetings of the ASA (of which I, too, am a member) cover much more than the four "subfields" of art she refers to. They reflect the view in the official ASA statement: "'The arts' are understood broadly to include not only traditional forms . . . but also more recent additions such as . . . earthworks, performance art [and conceptual art], . . . the crafts, . . . digital and electronic production, and various aspects of popular culture." In other words, the Society regards the concept art as open-ended, embracing virtually anything a purported artist might put forth.