In Alice and Wonderland Humpty Dumpty says that you have to master words—make them mean what you want them to mean. Of course, he is wrong. Words don’t mean what you want them to mean, they mean what we use them to mean. They only function when they are part of a language, a public system that is shared by others–and there cannot be any meaningful, private, one-speaker languages. However, we are not slaves to the language system. Words also refer to things, and things exist in their own relationships. Sometimes we should try to shape our language to make it function better in describing the things of the world.
The word, “language,” itself, is widely used in ways that can only mislead and confuse. One such confusion underlies the use of expressions such as “art is a language.” If one understands that a language is a complex system made up of elements (the words) which stand for or point to other things (most of which are outside of the system) and whose disposition is governed in a linear way by internal rules (the grammar), then art cannot be a language, and to say that it is is not even a very useful metaphor. Some people say that art is a “way of knowing”—another vacuous, opaque idea that muddies the water of any discussion. Such notions can be no more than emotive grunts and recognition signals, and their exchange may be a kind of mutual grooming as well.
You sometimes hear it said that everyone in primitive cultures is an artist. This is almost true if by “artist” we mean no more than someone who makes wooden shoes, or carves and paints a polychrome chair, or weaves a blanket. It is like saying that everyone is a “writer” since everyone knows how to write. There is a problem with such expressions. “Artist” has become a self-congratulatory, value-laden word that is tied (in popular thought) with notions of “creativity” and “self-expression.” Thus, the notion of peasant cultures in which almost everyone is an artist implies that we now live in a crass commercial society that is devoid of the life-giving power of art. (We are actually supposed to believe that life was more fulfilling for peasants!) In this view, which seems to be perennially popular, modern life is a wasteland, and we must put more art instruction in our schools as a kind of vague panacea for all of the modern ills.
The trouble with this kind of talk is that it is myth-making. There is no evidence for such curative power, and the word, “artist,” in such connections has no clear meaning. Is everyone who writes a poem a “poet” in any meaningful way? Is everyone who does macramé or paints on the weekends an “artist”? Are they automatically “artists,” however trivial and incompetent the work they produce? Is all art equally wonderful because people are being “creative” and “expressing themselves” (whatever that means)? Is there any difference between doing “art” and being an “artist”? One might ask whether someone who collects fossils as a hobby is a paleontologist, whether someone who puts a little pond in his back yard is a civil engineer, whether someone who puts a brick walk around his house is a mason, or whether someone who cooks dinner for the family is a chef.
How can we identify an appropriate meaning for a word like “art”? We can look to see how people use it, but we must also look at the history of its use to see how it relates to the use of other words, past and present. Ultimately, we may define the word—assign a meaning to it—but that meaning should be consonant with other meanings if we are not to manufacture confusion. In something over a century we have manufactured a lot of confusion about the word “art.”
Modern definitions of “art” make a complete break with the past and show little consistency among themselves. Marcel Duchamp of Nude Descending a Staircase fame said that art is whatever the artist says it is, so “art” and “artist” become self-validating terms. If this is true, everything is potentially art . . . but any word that means everything doesn’t mean anything in particular, so this definition is of no value at all. It may make people who want to be artists happy, but it simply doesn’t function in the language system.
Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Susan Langer, and others have argued the bizarre quasi-Platonist notion that some “significant form” underlies works of art, whether they are traditional or modern. In this view, we don’t respond to the subject matter or the talent shown by a work, but to the presence of this form, which triggers an aesthetic emotion. A work of art, then, is anything possessing significant form. This definition won’t do either, and for pretty much the same reasons. The artist’s intention would have little to do with whether significant form was produced or not, and random processes would produce it every bit as well. Moreover, we would expect to find this significant form occurring in landscapes, cluttered tables, the daubs of amateur painters, stacks of dirty dishes, scrap-yards, and the Pieta. And these would all have the same merit unless we are to recognize inferior significant forms, or inferior aesthetic emotions. Nonetheless, such theorizing was important in establishing a public for modern art. (It is worth noting that painters can make scrap-yards, cluttered tables, etc. meaningful as a subject for art, but that is a different matter.)
Beyond all of this, the content does contribute something: Lautrec and his nightclub performers, Raphael and his Madonnas, Ingres and his odalisques, Utrillo and his street scenes—this content has meant a great deal to people throughout the centuries, and it has provided artists with the impulse to create. “Significant form,” on the other hand, is an empty construct, the phlogiston of aesthetics, something invented just to put a foundation under modern art, and it is a circular argument to boot. What is significant form? What we respond to. What do we respond to? Significant form. Can we say anything more to identify it, characterize it, recognize it? No.
It has also been said that something is art because it arouses an emotion in the perceiver or causes her to think. This is ludicrous. Witnessing a hit-and-run accident, stepping on gum on a hot day, reading a statistic on population growth, and finding that my pocket had been picked would all be “art” according to such a definition. Someone might claim that they are not, since there is no artist. For them to be art we apparently need to have someone drop the gum to offend us, run over someone to shock us, or put a crucifix in a jar of urine or elephant dung on an image of the Madonna—oops! the last two things have actually been done by so-called “artists.” This concept is easy to parody because it is so obviously half-baked, but it is surprisingly popular.
The old definition of art was rooted in the same root meaning that appears in “artifice” and “artifact.” Art was something that is beautifully made and meaningful. The fine arts were traditionally architecture, drawing, painting, and sculpture. Poetry, music, dance, and drama were sometimes included. The first four were sometimes called the “arts of design.” Architecture was eventually dropped from this list, probably because it differs markedly from drawing, painting, and sculpture, which have a kind of unity among themselves. They deal (or dealt) with the human and other natural forms, and they are not directly useful, as a building is. In fact, the uselessness of art—in a practical sense—is probably an important part of what it is. Pottery was never included in these lists.
Much of the modern confusion in the visual arts may result from our misunderstanding of three related things, none of which is synonymous with art: design, decoration, and craftsmanship. Design is the most abstract of these for it is concerned with the possible arrangements of the elements of form, which are line, mass, value, and color. Good or bad, design is present in everything that we make, and in all aspects of the natural world, as well. Thus, a Franz Kline or Pollock has design, as does a section of the pavement with chips, cracks, tobacco stains, and spit. But that is all that they have—just design. A Monet has design, but it has a great deal more than that since it speaks to us of people and places, presents a viewpoint, endorses a human attitude.
Decoration (“ornament” is a synonym) is pattern created by certain elements of form. It is usually intended to be “pretty” and is frequently characterized by simplified shapes and repetition. The Greek Key border pattern is decorative. A quilt or basket pattern is decorative, and a small section of a bed of flowers or of a tree in autumn color might be as well. Similarly, small portions of a Monet might be decorative, but its overall effect will not be. The Pollock might be decorative but the Franz Kline is probably not, and paintings by Grandma Moses and Rie Munoz will probably tend towards decoration. Decorativeness is not fundamental to art: consider Rembrandt’s paintings, Michelangelo’s sculpture, etc.
Craftsmanship is the degree of control over materials and processes that is evident in something made. It applies to the quilt and the basket, but not to the tree. It is clearly evident in the Monet and the Munoz, but less so in the Moses. It is not clear that it exists at all in the Franz Kline or the Pollock since we can’t even be certain what effect is intended, particularly since modern notions of “creativity” permit all colors, forms, textures, and materials to be used together.
Craftsmanship, of course, brings us back to the traditional definition, and I believe that it is one of the two most important criteria in telling good art from bad. In paintings of the traditional kind, anyone who knows something about art can tell when a canvas is simply inept. The perspective may be distorted, but we can look to see whether the distortion offers compensations in terms of the composition—it may be knowledgeable and effective, or it may simply be ignorant. (We can say much the same sort of thing when talking about the traditional versus the modern in music or poetry.)
The second criterion is whether a work attempts to tell a truth. Bad art is often clichéd. A Thomas Kincaid cottage looks like any of a thousand Hallmark card cottages or the cottages of a Dickens Village, and it doesn’t look like a real cottage to be found anywhere in the world. Good art offers a visual truth, a sense of person, a sense of place, a quality of feeling. It seems important because it resonates at a personal, human level—it doesn’t merely chime in with a bumper-sticker sentiment or a critical theory.
Despite its pretensions to significance, modern art fits in perfectly with the bourgeois notion of choosing a painting or piece of sculpture to match one’s décor. An extremely modern house will differ from a Victorian house in its lack of decoration, but in place of that it will have pottery objects d’art and modern paintings to complement the shapes and colors of the walls, carpet, and furniture. This is about as much as such works can do. Now architecture can rejoin modern painting and sculpture since there is little to distinguish them. They have all lost their intimate human connections as they have become more abstract.
They have no subject matter—though the critics work to dig out metaphors with vacuous philosophical implications. But the more information a work presents (within limits) the more expressive it can be since the context provides meaning for the isolated details. Abstraction reduces the information content. As a result, it doesn’t seem possible for such art to be very expressive at all, and any pleasure we find in it is likely to come from the design that is present everywhere. As for people who claim to be transported by the beauty of modern art, I can only think of what Byron said about Keats, that he frigged himself into an ecstasy.