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Tag Archives: Arthur Danto

Eight books

Eight books that changed my mind about art and visual culture.

  1. The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, as told to André Parinaud When I found this book in my high school library it blew my teenage mind. Dali made thinking about art exciting and full of possibilities. 
  2. Theories of Modern Art, a source book by artists and critics Edited by Herschell B. Chip. This was on my first year art history reading list and I  keep on reading and rereading the various texts by artists and critics in it. It was this book that opened my mind to the theoretical and political aspects of art. 
  3. John Berger Ways of Seeing This short book is an excellent introduction to Marxist art criticism. It is also the easiest and fastest to read on the whole list, some chapters only have pictures but does not diminishes its quality.
  4. Arthur Danto The Transfiguration of the Common Place I read this when I was doing my Master’s thesis. If you want to know what is art is at a very deep Hegelian level, Danto’s institutional theory of the art world is worth reading. Danto’s art world is not about organisations defining art but a metaphor … The problem is that art world as an organisational theory is useful and Danto’s metaphor may be too subtle to be useful.
  5. Notes from the Pop Underground Edited by Peter Belsito. Expanding my idea of what was possible as art were the subjects of this collection of interviews that I found in the sale bin at Minotaur. When I bought the book I only knew about Keith Haring and Spalding Grey but this book introduced me to Art Spiegelmam, Diamonda Galas,  the Church of the Subgenius, Survival Research Labs and others. 
  6. Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces – a secret history of the Twentieth Century. The secret history of Dada, rock’n’roll and the Situationalists born from a radical negation is not explained but wonderfully retold. Marcus weaves in obscure anabaptist heretics and punk rockers gleamed before easy internet searches. I also have the CD of the book and I must share Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. I haven’t seen the stage production of the book; how many non-fiction books have stage versions?
  7. Stewart Home The Assault on Culture – Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War diligently tells the history of utopian culture from Dada to Neo-Dada in just over a hundred pages. The history of the groups that are ignored in a broad sweep from Dada to the Situationalists and Punk. In the afterword Home writes distinguishing art movements from isms, sensibilities and traditions. Home argues that: “‘Isms’ are emotional categorisations and close examination often reveals them to be intellectually incoherent.”
  8. Art in Society Edited by Paul Barker. More essays by John Berger, Dennis Potter, amongst others including Angela Carter, writing about sixties style and make-up, and a great essay by Micheal Thompson, Rubbish Theory that explains the chaotic flow of valuations of everything from used cars to art. These essays on films, popular music, marketing, design, television, theatre expanded my idea of critical examination of culture.
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Art or arts?

‘Art’, as in ‘contemporary art’ or ‘modern art’, is different from ‘the visual arts.’ This subtle distinction confuses many people including some professional artists and has been the cause of many and repeated disputes. If it weren’t for this confusion and disputes arising from it the distinction would hardly worth mentioning.

‘Art’ is a singular noun that describes a collective idea. What exactly art is never become specific, it is an opened set, like games. It does not have the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘an’ because ‘the arts’ and ‘an art’ are entirely different to ‘art’. ‘The arts’ is the vaguest of the variants as it can mean everything from the humanities, logic, rhetoric to juggling and dance. ‘An art’ is at least referring to some specific skill. Whereas ‘the visual arts’ or ‘the fine arts’ are plural nouns with a definite article that means architecture, painting, drawing and sculpture.

The differences between the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée du Louvre explains distinction between the fine arts and art. Both are the result of a royal collection, in the case of Dulwich the King of Poland-Lithuania, a country that ceased to be before the collection of fine arts could be delivered to its king. Opened to the public in 1817, it was opened to students of the Royal Academy two years earlier. Dulwich collection contained works of fine arts for students to study whereas the Louvre contained works of art.

The Louvre had opened twenty years earlier, in 1793, but had already made a revolutionary decision that would make a major difference The revolutionary difference is that the Louvre, along with a royal collection, included confiscated church property as a way of conserving them. The church altarpieces in the Louvre, decontextualised with their religious function removed, became art when displayed to be looked at as if they were paintings or sculptures.

‘Art’ emerged from the discourse about looking at things, like altarpieces in the Louvre, as if they were something like a painting or sculpture. To look at something as if it were a work visual art is the metaphoric relationship that the philosopher, Arthur Danto argues for in his institutional theory of art. It is this idea of art rather than a conspiratorial or consensus driven act of an actual institution that determines what art is.

For about a century the distinction between ‘the visual arts’ and ‘art’ was invisible, an imperceptible semantic distinction. The trajectory that started with confiscated church property continued with the items from other cultures similarly removed from their context. This was quickly followed with products of new technology, like photography and readymade found objects. It was Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that defined and illustrated the already widening schism between art and the visual arts.

Art may involve shopping, confiscating and appropriating images whereas the visual arts don’t highlight these activities. An artist may be making art or painting, sculpting and drawing or doing both.


DAMP @ Neon Parc

Why break ceramic objects (vases, plates, statues, a bathroom sink)? Why paint them with acrylic paint with references to the whole of art history (ancient Greeks to modern masters, including Picasso’s Weeping Woman) and then glue them back together again with polymer adhesive (as best as possible, given that some pieces might go missing in the process)?

Why? I was just re-reading an essay by Arthur Danto on this very subject; “Fine art and functional objects” (Danto, Embodied Meanings, critical essays and aesthetic meditations, 1994). Danto looks at an ancient Greek krater from the sixth century BCE, by the potter Euxitheos, decorated with red-figure paintings by Euphronius and considers the way that the art is now seen, as it is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as separate from the function. Danto points out that until the eighteenth century, “the distinction between painting and decoration was all bout nonexistent, and pictures were thought of as functional objects as well”. (p.300)

Danto concludes that the distinction between fine art and functionality is “historically contingent and constantly under negotiation.” (p.303) Clearly for this exhibition negotiations had broken down. In negotiating the functionality of the ceramic objects DAMP had broken them to remove their functionality. However, attempting to separate the art from its support is impossible.

Breaking the ceramics reduces their value to almost nothing, they are then transformed into art; a routine practiced by Japanese Buddhist monks, as well as, DAMP.

I walked two or three times around the “Harrison Collection” of painted ceramics by DAMP in the small single room of Neon Parc, chuckling to myself. There were plenty of details to keep looking. DAMP is a Melbourne-based art collective with a fluid membership that started in 1995.


Persons of Interest – Philosophers

The first philosopher who interested me was Bertrand Russell but I was a young and foolish teenager at the time. Then, at Monash University where went on to major in philosophy, I read, was lectured by and met Peter Singer. I appreciated both of these philosophers not only for their writing which clear and often aimed at the wider public and because of their political engagement. Russell’s popular writing engaged many issues from atheism to nuclear disarmament.

Philosophers are persons of interest. I don’t want to see them as secular saints, or exemplar human beings but just people who think too much or, at least, harder than most people. Often philosopher’s theories are wrong but that is what you learn in philosophy – how you can be wrong about what you might think is right. After majoring in philosophy at Monash and doing an MA in philosophy at La Trobe I had met and read a lot of philosophers

One thing that interested me about philosophers was that most philosophers are very interested and involved in things other than philosophy, unlike many other academics. Many philosophers are interested in science or politics and some are interested in the arts. This might appear just to be a point of trivia about philosophy but it is also one of the strengths of philosophers. (This can also be one of the great strengths of art, the wide-ranging interests and involvement of artists in other things.)

As I have noted on my About page, my art criticism has been influenced by Arthur Danto. I started to read Danto in my post-graduate studies and, as with Russell and Singer, I was also impressed with Danto’s activities outside of academic philosophy. Danto has been the art critic for The Nation, print making and running a New York gallery. Danto has been associated with the institutional theory of art but that would be a kind of mistake to associate him too closely. I have to agree with Carlin Romano in “Looking Beyond the Visiable: The Case of Arthur C. Dantwo” (Danto and His Critics, ed. Mark Rollins, Blackwell Publishing, 1993). Romano argues that a second Arthur Danto exists Romano’s “Dantwo” who is identical in almost every aspect to Danto but is not a Hegelian and more pragmatic. Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up?

On a serious note, I didn’t imagine when I started writing this post that philosophers would be topical subject but with the Federal Member for Mayo, Jamie Briggs attacking the work of Professor Paul Redding’s “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian Idealism” as a waste of taxpayer’s money, I am unpleasantly not surprised. (Read more about this on Ockham’s Beard.) The Federal Member for Mayo is not a philosopher, has no serious academic qualifications and represents the anti-intellectual, anti-science, sports-obsessed, religious and conservative Australian mob.

Finally, I would like to thank John McKenzie for his PH227.04 Introduction to Aesthetics at Monash University for introducing me to a critical way of thinking about art. Ultimately it was that course that lead to me writing this blog. (Melbourne artist Julian di Martino also took McKenzie’s course – anyone else?) It was McKenzie who first put some photocopied pages of Foucault into my hand; a rare event in a department dominated by Anglo-American philosophy. And why I’m on the subject of the interests and activities of philosophers; Foucault worked as a journalist, wrote literary criticism and was involved anti-racist campaigns, anti-human rights abuses movements and the struggle for penal reform.


Person of Interest – Marcel Duchamp

Many millions of words have been written about the art of Marcel Duchamp – I wrote my Master thesis about Duchamp’s readymades. I was wrote it in the unlikely setting of Philosophy Department of La Trobe University. I was interested in the impact of philosophy on Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades impact on the philosophy of art. Anyway that was decades ago and this blog post isn’t about my thesis – it is about the extensive influence of Duchamp on my life.

Many people still regard Duchamp as the anti-Christ of art, others as the godfather of contemporary art. David W. Galenson ranks Marcel Duchamp as the 3rd most important artist in the 20th Century by mean illustrations in a sample of texts on the history of 20th Century art. Duchamp is such a large an influential on contemporary art because he was a major influence on Man Ray, John Cage and many other artists. Duchamp is so influential on contemporary art and myself that at the top of my word.doc for drafts of this blog I have this admonition: “I will not use any excuse to mention Marcel Duchamp.”

Duchamp was at first interesting to me when I was an undergraduate studying aesthetics and other philosophical issues concerned with art because he created difficult examples for any theory. His art was about ideas and so was easily transmitted in art history books. It wasn’t until years after I became interested in Duchamp that I encounter my first actual Duchamp readymade, Hat Rack (1917) in the collection of Australian Nation Gallery Canberra and by then I knew that this was one of an edition of 8 that Duchamp made in 1964. The examples of Duchamp’s art that I have encountered are like curious relics. I really enjoyed playing with a reproduction of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel because I could touch it and see the pattern of light created by the spokes.

When I came to writing my thesis Duchamp’s readymades lead me to the writings of the philosophers Arthur Danto and Max Stirner as Stirner’s philosophy influenced Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades influenced Danto’s thinking about art. And both of these philosophers have continued to influence my thinking.

Studying Duchamp gives a good perspective on the art world and the many and varied roles in the art world. For most of his life, Duchamp wasn’t a full time artist there was a lot of chess playing and giving French lessons. When he was involved in the art world he was more often an art dealer (he represented Brancusi in the US), judging a panel for an art prize, and other exhibition organization work like catalogue design. And this is what most people forget, or don’t know, when they think about what Duchamp did – it’s like that internet meme, about what my mother thinks I do, what I think, what my friends think etc.

Duchamp reminds me that there are more positions on the chessboard of the art world than the mass of artist pawns working their way up the board to become Queens. Perhaps I am playing the position of the critical knight and art galleries as castles, bishops are collectors etc. to keep the metaphor going, even though I’ve largely played it out. Anyway the point of my metaphor is that you don’t have to be an artist in order to participate in the art world, most of the participants are not. They are the other player at the other end of the board.

Most of the participants in the art world are viewers, responders and Duchamp’s art depends on the minds of others, for the responder to join in and continue the game. (For more on Duchamp see MarcelDuchamp.Net.) It is his understanding that art exists in the minds of other people that invites people to respond to his art, to write millions of words about it or to create art inspired by him. Duchamp’s epitaph reads: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent” (Besides, it’s always the others who die.)


What is art?

Why do we need to know what is art? Without taxonomy we couldn’t know if something is good at being art, or good at promoting a good cause, or good as an investment – all very different qualities of good.

Art, whatever it is, is a word that describes a cultural expression of excess. There are other ways of dealing with the excess in a culture, besides art, from jokes to religion they come in many forms (but the difference between them is a different discussion). The excess that must be dealt with is everything from an excess of time, energy, food or any other resources. If this excess is not dealt with through some cultural expression then it becomes a threatening pollution.

Art, whatever it is, is a word with a long history and many meanings – not all of them relevant to this discussion. In recent centuries discussion about what art means have intensified. The discussion about the word art in the modern sense began in the 17th century – there were no Renaissance or ancient artists, there were painters, sculptors and architects, in those times but no artists. Some have become artists retrospectively.

Art, whatever it is, is now aware of this discussion about what is art. Arthur Danto writes about the intersection between philosophy and the arts. This intersection was, until recently, a minor intellectual crossroad of little note or interest. The artist, Williem de Kooning once remarked: “aesthetics is of as much interest to an artist as ornithology is to a bird.”  This changed, Danto argues, when art became aware of itself and its own definition. Art has become a self-conscious commentary on the philosophy of art.

The minor crossroad where art and philosophy met has become a major intersection crowded with artists and philosophers. This change has caught many people by surprise; a whole new subdivision has been built around the intersection. And although they are regular travellers on the street of art they find themselves lost and bewildered by this new development.

“Art is the kind of thing that depends for its existence upon theories: without theories of art, black paint is just black paint and nothing more.” Arthur Danto (Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p.134)

Arthur Danto found the idea of the art world readymade in some New York art gallery, a conceptual ghost left behind by Duchamp and Warhol. Danto’s original article “The Art World” (Journal of Philosophy v.61) influenced George Dickie to create his own institutional theory of art. There are other institutional theories besides that of art, Thomas Khun is well known for his institutional theory of science.

Although I have to note, as it caused me some pain when writing my thesis, that Danto has in some articles has distanced his own position from an institutional theory of art but this is a rather that calling something “art” is a metaphor. This is the same man who has written of “the collectors, critics, and curators (who are the three C’s of the artworld).” Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986 p.101) I am not alone and Carlin Romano asks “Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up” in the article “Looking Beyond the Visible: the case of Arthur C. Danto”.

The advantage of an institutional theory of art is that it does not foreclose on creative change by defining art. Other classificatory art theories that define art by the exhibited qualities of existent art are static and limited by history. And trying to find essential features is a classic myth. Today “art” includes many items not originally created to be art e.g. religious icons, altarpieces, idols etc. that were created for magico-religious purposes or anything that an artist chooses to ask to be considered as art. (“As art”, now do you see where the metaphoric implication that Danto is on about comes in?)

The art world institution is not a steady system but an unstable and chaotic one subject to multiple forces because it is an institution build up from all its parts: what Dickie calls an institution of established practice of behaviour of both the players and audience. These parts may have divergent opinions and values but the institution is not a distillation of these contradictions but whole set.

For more on classificatory disputes about art see Wikipedia.


Melbourne’s Art World

Melbourne’s art world exists in buildings, on the streets, in the minds, words and actions of people. And these people, however many there are, exist within architecture, in a greater geography and even seasons. Understanding the art world is important to contemporary art because much of contemporary art depends on the art world as a support, like Renaissance frescos depend on the walls of palaces and churches for support.

Melbourne’s art gallery season lasts from late February to November. It is too hot in December and January, along with the disruption of the many public holidays in these months. March and early April is busy but interrupted by Easter and ANZAC Day long weekends. The high artistic season for Melbourne is October, the first month after the football season where several arts festivals compete for the public’s attention. January is often a time for silly art news – a fried Sidney Nolan, paintings by a toddler and other stunts. In November and early December there are many end of year exhibitions by art students or commercial galleries showing collections from their stockroom.

Looking at Melbourne’s art world on a map (such as the ones in Art Almanac) it would appear that there are several clusters of galleries. Most of the galleries are in the CBD, Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond. There are a few clusters further out on High St. Armadale, Toorak Rd. and High St., Northcote (Melbourne street names make up for in repetition what they lack in originality). Beyond these inner city suburbs the spread of galleries gets thinner as you move further out from the CBD.

The major visual arts institutions of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) are located in the arts precinct along the St. Kilda Road spine.

In Flinders Lane there are many of Melbourne’s commercial galleries and rental spaces. Just off Flinders Lane there is the famous Hosier Lane with some of Melbourne’s best street art. There are also galleries associated with tertiary institutions in the CBD especially at RMIT which has strong visual arts and design programs.

Out of the CBD the greatest concentration of galleries is in Fitzroy and some of the most interesting are on Gertrude St. Most of the galleries in Collingwood are on the edge of Fitzroy on Smith St. or the small streets around Australian Galleries on Darby St. In Richmond most of the galleries are along the very short Albert St. High St., in Northcote has several rental spaces and artist run galleries in shop front spaces. And south of the Yarra the cluster of art galleries on High St in Armadale may look impressive but mostly it is the preserves of antique dealers and the blandest of art galleries. There is a slow move of galleries northwest towards Brunswick and North Melbourne due to affordable locations and access to public transport. The spread of art galleries is similar to the Melbourne’s street art with an inner city and inner suburban core that quickly diminishes in intensity and quality at the outer suburbs.

Melbourne’s art world also exists in the endless talk about art. Talk at gallery openings over glasses of wine, talk in studios over joints and still more talk. And the discussion is continued on websites on community radio, on the very occasional ABC TV show, in the free street papers, in the local art magazines. Melbourne’s public love an art scandal to talk about but the rest of the discussion is more important. And the sum of all this talk – forms and informs people’s idea of art in Melbourne.

How large the art world is a matter of philosophical debate. There is an Arthur Danto’s art world where a relatively few people carp endlessly about art (Danto, The State of the Art, New York, 1987, p.122). Or George Dickie’s more expansive art world that includes “every person who sees himself as a member of the art world is thereby a member.” (Dickie, Art and Aesthetics, Ithica, 1974, p.36). Howard S. Becker goes further than Dickie by including the gallery attendants, the art shop employees and paint manufactures, “all of the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which the world, and perhaps others as well, define as art.”  (Howard S. Becker Art Worlds, Berkeley, 1982, p.34)


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