The End of Art?: What Next?
Leo Segedin | May 10, 2010 | Print this essay
If we are to believe the calamitous conclusions of certain art historians and philosophers, the art world is in serious trouble. In fact, several books published during the last three decades have declared, not only the end of the art world, but also the end of art history, and, most catastrophic of all, even the end of Art itself. Such books have titles like ‘The End of the History of Art’, by the German art historian, Hans Belting — The End of Art’, by Professor of Art History and Philosophy, by Donald Kuspit — ‘After the End of Art’ by Professor of Philosophy, Arthur Danto, and ‘The End of the Art World’, by Professor of the History and Philosophy of Art, by Robert Morgan. And yet, we know that artists continue to make art, books and articles on art history continue to be published and collectors spend millions to buy paintings. What’s going on? In order to understand such conclusions, I propose to reconsider what we ordinarily think of as art history, the art world and, especially, of Art.
Just what is it that is supposed to be ending? These writers argue that artists no longer produce what can be called Fine Art — that the distinction between Fine and Popular Art has been lost or that the art market has destroyed the integrity of Fine Art in the art world. All of which may be true, but I maintain that the issue is more basic than that. I believe that what are really coming to an ‘end’ are not self evident, permanent entities or practices as these conclusions imply. Rather, what appear to be ending are temporal paradigms that art historians and philosophers themselves have created. By paradigm, I mean any cultural pattern, belief system, concept or myth that forms our sense of cultural reality. I think that it is these paradigms that have established concepts such as Fine Art, Works of Art, art history, art styles, aesthetics, expression, and are significantly shifting. These concepts exist only within these paradigms and it is their unthinking acceptance that creates their apparent reality. The descriptive language — the adjectives, the models, metaphors and analogies — used to describe such constructs have endowed specially selected objects with unique significance and qualities and, as a result, we see in such objects what we are told is in them to be seen. It is within the reality formed by such words that we interpret what artists make. Although some critics have pointed out that that this can cause viewers to project into art objects what’s not there, such paradigms do reveal qualities which might otherwise not be seen. But because there have been so many different ways of seeing art — so many different paradigms for art through history — it becomes clear that the theoretical and historical systems for classifying and explaining the objects that artists make are not objective and fixed; rather, these systems vary according to historical circumstance. So there is no consistent concept of what an art object or a history of art is. Traditional notions have been eroded, but nothing has replaced them.
Artists have not stopped making paintings and sculpture. What is ending is the dominance — the relevance — of a particular way of justifying and explaining the making of such objects. After all, a painting, no matter what the artist’s intentions, is, fundamentally, a physical object — a piece of canvas stretched on four wooden sticks or a wood panel covered with paint. Everything else is commentary. What has changed is what certain people — art historians, critics and philosophers — have written about such objects. Their ideas become ‘real’ when they permeate the general culture. The notion that a painting is an object with a special, intrinsic meaning and a history worth commenting on is a product of the dominance of the Fine Art paradigm. It is, therefore, temporal. Before its dominance, even what is now a priceless, precious object like the Mona Lisa — a poplar panel, 30 inches high and 20-7/8 inches wide — covered with oil paint — was once stashed away in a dusty closet for 200 years and then cut down to fit a particular sized frame. Now that dominance is fading.
The Fine Arts paradigm has created our sense of the significance of art objects — the reality of art — for over 250 years. If our art education started in traditional art appreciation or introductory art history courses, we were taught that the history of Art began on the walls of prehistoric caves and continued through eras, periods and styles to the walls of present day, art museums. Both art museums and art history texts presented works of art in the same chronological order. Each style was labeled and dated — Medieval, 400AD to 1400AD; Early Renaissance, 1400 to 1525; Baroque, 1600 —1785, etc. We learned to recognize the styles of the Medieval, Byzantine and Renaissance periods — the theories behind Impressionism, Post Impressionism and Cubism. We learned to discern the difference between the works of Leonardo and Raphael, between Monet and Manet. We may even have learned to tell the difference between an authentic and a fake Van Gogh. Art history consisted of the biographies of the artists who made the art, and, to a lesser extent, the patrons who supported it. Historians described the techniques and interpreted the meanings of the objects made by these artists and determined the influences artists had on each other.
There was particular interest in verifying the authenticity of works of art. The paradigm underlying such concerns was that original works of art — the products of — say — Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt and Monet — have exceptional qualities that fakes and copies do not have, that is, only in an original do we see the artist’s unique vision and expressions of the artist’s personality, feelings, creativity and imagination. Since we are not supposed to see such qualities in unoriginal works, they cannot have the same value and significance. This distinction, which was very important in establishing the market value of a work of art, underlines the intimate, but not often acknowledged relationship between the art historian and the art dealer.
While art historians allowed that opinion and judgment played a part, art history was assumed to be “a science, with definite principles and techniques, rather than a matter of intuition or guesswork” (Roskill) Art history was autonomous, unified and universal. Fine art had its own principles for development and its own internal criteria for evaluation. Art influenced art. There was the sense that art ‘moved’ in a direction, that art styles were born, grew, flowered, matured, and declined, possibly to be resurrected at a later date. Implicit also was the idea that each style had an identifiable, ideal norm which a particular work of art either strove to achieve or failed to achieve. Although the painter may have made the work, it was the historian who labeled the style, determined the norm and established the success or failure of the painter.
Woven into all these assumptions was the unstated idea that the ability to see the qualities of this ‘high’ Fine Art required a special visual and spiritual sensitivity that only a sophisticated, upper class elite possessed. The possession of paintings was, thus, a sign of high culture. Since these Fine Art qualities could only be seen and appreciated by connoisseurs, there could be no mass audience, no art public. After the French Revolution and the opening of the Louvre as the first public museum, however, art became democratized and entered the public domain. Now anybody could appreciate art. Its uplifting qualities became a public value, enriching everyone’s lives. In this capacity, Art became an antidote to the materialism of a mechanized, industrial world. Originally, a feminine or effeminate value, appreciating art and collecting it was eventually accepted as an indication of a man’s economic success and that he had earned the leisure time for spiritual pursuits.
By the end of the 1970s, however, traditional art and art history had been scrutinized by anthropologists, psychologists, ethnologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists and pop culturists. It became clear that the traditional presumptions of art professionals were not adequate to answer their challenges. The Fine art paradigm no longer described what was happening in the art world. Anthropologists had proposed that, not only Western culture, but all cultures had art. They claimed that art also reflected non–western values, served different functions and developed according to different traditions. Each culture had its own art, its own evaluative criteria and that, therefore, such art necessarily looked very different from Western art. Psychologists countered with the notion that underlying all art was a common urge to create, to give form to subconscious as well as conscious experiences, that all people shared a common aesthetic sensibility or a collective psychology. After all, they argued, a Senufu ritual mask and a Rembrandt self—portrait are both expressions of artists. Non—Western art is beautiful — has aesthetic qualities — if only we could learn to see it. Therefore, the hieratical distinction between traditional Western art and the so–called ‘primitive’ art of other cultures was deemed Eurocentric and discriminatory. The term, ‘works of art’ to distinguish them from other art objects was really judgmental rather that descriptive. Sociologists and pop culturists claimed that the distinction between Fine and Popular art really was a sign of class bias. Feminist and minority artists demanded recognition of the content and techniques of their work. Even the art of children and the insane had expressive and aesthetic qualities. As a result, non—traditional, non–western and popular arts entered the hallowed precincts of Fine Art and acquired its qualities. But, if the Fine arts included everything that every artist makes, what distinguishes the Fine Arts from everything else? Under these circumstances, it was asked, how can an art history be autonomous? What would or should it be the history of? In fact, was a unitary history of art really possible? Within these new paradigms, therefore, long established presumptions about art became dated, temporal, historical concepts rather than descriptions of existing entities. Since such concepts had a beginning, they could also have an end.
The Fine Art paradigm has not had a long history. During over 2,000 years of recorded history, the significance and status of painting and sculpture have changed radically. In Classical times, the word ‘art’ did not refer to anything like what we now call the Fine Arts. Rather, it denoted the skills, crafts or sciences. It meant technique, even technology and included medicine, the making of armor and poetry. Plato suggested that art was preceded by rational principles and rules. Aristotle included it among the intellectual virtues because it was based on knowledge. It was not mysterious; it was a skill or technique which could be taught. It had nothing to do with creativity, imagination, expression, intuition or even what we now call aesthetics. (Plato did accept inspiration as an aspect of poetry, however, he saw it as a form of ‘divine madness’ and rejected it for that reason.) Objects to which we now give high aesthetic status then had cult significance, a religious aura. The word ‘beauty’ did not have anything to do with statues or paintings or with aesthetic appreciation, but rather with ‘appropriateness to purpose’. Visual artists had low social status, not far from slavery because people who hired artists were contemptuous of manual labor. Art was not included among the Liberal Arts. Aquinas included painting and sculpture, as well as music and poetry, with shoemaking, cooking, juggling, grammar and arithmetic. The concept of beauty was not an attribute of the arts, but was treated as a metaphysical attribute of God. Art forms were not determined by the perception of the artist, but rather by church dogma. The significance of a work of art was its religious, not its aesthetic aura. Theory had to do with production.
It was not until the Renaissance that the status of painting and sculpture rose significantly. At that time, these disciplines began to separate from the crafts and ultimately to integrate with the Liberal Arts. Art with a small ‘a’ — as one of many arts and crafts — became ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, in which unique, ‘one of a kind’ ‘works of art’ were created by genius artists. The religious aura, at one time exclusively an aspect of the art object, now encompassed the artist himself. A patron wanted a ‘Michelangelo’ as much as a ‘Madonna and Child’. Even then, however, “preoccupation with these Fine Arts was not clearly marked off from fencing, horseback riding, Classical learning, and collecting of coins and metals, and natural curiositiesÓ. By Shakespeare’s time, the term could refer to any kind of book learning, such as grammar, logic, magic or astrology. But as the status of painting and sculpture rose, there was the beginning of what we would now call aesthetic appreciation, a value placed on taste and the pleasures produced by these arts.
In the seventeenth century, the Fine Arts began to be distinguished from the sciences and, in the 1700s, they finally became fully separated from the mechanical arts. The term Fine Arts itself, meaning primarily painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry, does not originate until that time when the first books on aesthetics and beauty as applied to the Fine Arts were printed. The term, ‘aesthetics’, referring to a philosophy of art, was coined by Alexander Baumgarten in 1750. Clearly, the identification of the Fine Arts as a separate cultural entity goes back only to the 18th century.
Before this separation, painting and sculpture needed no philosophical justification; everyone knew their purpose. They functioned to glorify political power, to propagate religious doctrine, to convey information or for practical or decorative purposes. It was when these arts began to lose their self–evident, practical values that art theory developed. During this time, artists, art theorists and collectors attempted to enhance their social status by giving their involvement with these arts high intellectual values. They borrowed the major status concepts and values of the dominant intellectual institutions of their society, while at the same time trying to establish for the arts their independence from them. As Jack Burnham has said, “the art myth always seeks for itself the most authoritative form of verification”. Thus Renaissance painting was given value by the argument that it deserved the same high status as literature, philosophy, poetry and musical theory because it too was based on non–manual, intellectual notions of harmonic relationships, mathematics, geometry, ‘scientific’ principles of optical projection, philosophy, theology, history and mythology as well as astrology and the occult. They also wanted to bring back to painting, sculpture and architecture the rational order that these disciplines had lost during what they called ‘the Dark Ages’. To do this, they revived the highly respected Classical ideal forms, a strategy which was repeated whenever the arts appeared to ‘degenerate’. The Renaissance, following classical notions of imitation, was responsible for the development of the representational paradigm which dominated Western art until the end of the 19th century.
Romanticism, as the dominant ideology during the 19th century, glorified the personality of the individual artist. Art, therefore, derived its validation from contemporary psychological theories about the mind, with feeling and emotion, creativity and autobiography. It was responsible for the development of the expressionist paradigm which led to Expressionism and Surrealism. The models and words were those of the psychologist, and later, the Freudian, Jungian and Kubian psychoanalyst and psycho–historian. Later, Gestalt psychology and language was used to describe aesthetic perception and responses to the visual forms of art. It underlies Greenbergian formalism and abstract art. The science metaphor is the basis for Impressionist and Neo–impressionist theory. The Abstract Expressionists of the 50’s believed in an art derived from a combination of psychoanalytical self–exploration, a biological metaphor in which paintings ‘come alive’ and Marxist notions of progress. The Conceptual artists of the 60’s and early 70’s favored models based on linguistic, structuralist and positivist philosophy. Also during this period, art objects have been created using information theory, General systems theory, ecological systems, computer theory, physical science theory and technology.
As we have seen, between the 17th and 19th centuries, as European art lost its religious and political functions, it became autonomous and useless. The universal, unitary paradigm attempted to compensate for this loss by giving art a high, uplifting, non–materialistic significance, but, since this model had no basis in the physical world, its attempts to validate itself changed over the years depending on its particular social and philosophical usefulness. Consequently there was a confusion of contradictory historical definitions, all of which remained after their original significance was lost. The anthropologist, Clifford Geertz wrote:
Something that meaningful (Art) cannot be left just to sit there bathed in pure significance and so we describe, analyze, compare, judge, classify; we erect theories about creativity, form, perception, social function; we characterize art as a language, a structure, a system, an act, a symbol, a pattern of feeling; we reach for scientific metaphors, spiritual ones, technological ones, political ones; and if all else fails, we string dark sayings together and hope that someone else will elucidate them for us.The proliferation of such incongruous definitions during these years indicate why such models were challenged when seen from each other’s perspectives or, more accurately, from within other paradigms. What we have traditionally called the Fine Arts have been defined in terms of Beauty, Taste, the Sublime, Expression, Representation, Idea, Form and Humanistic or Cultural Value. More specifically, the Visual Arts have been said to present the beauties of nature, to be the idealization of nature and the imitation, representation or interpretation of reality. Art has also been called Aesthetic or Significant Form, pleasure objectified, the intensification of experience and a spiritual truth more true than that of science. Art has been identified with the feelings expressed by the people represented in an artwork, the evocation of a state of feeling in the artist, the embodiment of such feeling in the medium of the artwork and the communication or evocation of such feeling in the viewer. Art has been explained in terms of the artist's imagination, his intuition, fantasy, subconscious, neurosis, sublimation, wish fulfillment, catharsis, the creative process and play. The artist has been assumed to have a need to bring order to nature's chaos or, it’s opposite, a 'rage for chaos', to break the bounds of traditional cultural patterns. The viewer escapes from reality or becomes more intensely and insightfully involved with reality. The viewer empathizes with the form or content of the artwork. Art has also been called a glorification of political, economic, religious, class, race and gender power. More recently, art has been analyzed as a special kind of commodity, as a non–verbal, non–discursive symbol system and as a self–referent symbol. Art has been interpreted as a text to be read in terms of meanings given to it by the reader or viewer. Art is also anything so defined by the artist or by the Art world. I remember Marshall MacLuhan saying that art was anything you could get away with and Andy Warhol saying that if it was done by an artist, it was a work of art. Such theories of art have been developed within the contexts of philosophy, history, sociology, politics, economics, Marxism, Neo–Marxism, Gestalt psychology, Psychoanalysis, anthropology, iconography, connoisseurship, biography, style analysis, archeology, physics, mathematics, biology, computer theory, systems theory, structuralism, post–structuralism, deconstructionism, Feminism and Hermeneutics.
Art historians have attempted to consolidate such contradictory definitions into single descriptions. Some writers begin with definitions which combine several ideas in one or two sentences, for example, an artwork "is the result of human effort that has defined form or order communicating the experience of the creator or the experience of others", plus "It is affected by the skilled control of the materials in its construction to project the formal and communicative concepts that the artist wished to present in his work" (to which he would later have to add the latest, newest concepts developed by contemporary artists and theoreticians ). A more problematic definition of art is presented by W.E. Kleinbaur in the introduction of his anthology, ‘Modern Perspectives in Western Art History’. Here he says that "A work of art can be defined as a man–made object of aesthetic significance with a vitality and reality of its own. Regardless of the medium of expression, a work of art is a unique, complex, irreducible, in some ways even mysterious, individual whole". Kleinbaur’s definition is not only a hybrid; it also proposes to be the history of 'unique' objects and explications of an 'irreducible', mysterious, individual whole'.
Thus, what have been described as ending by art historians and philosophers are not objective phenomena, but really are certain beliefs of the dominant Western culture. The idea that such phenomena exist, and therefore, could end, comes from the assumption that there was something called the ‘Fine Arts’. Even art historians, art critics and art philosophers themselves are products of such beliefs. Their professions did not exist before the 19th century. The paradigms developed by these new professionals determined — and were often intended to determine — what objects should be included in — or excluded from — the Pantheon of the Fine Arts and, therefore, what belonged in Art History. They begin with the belief that certain objects and experiences are significant and then attempt to rationalize this belief. Artists use such paradigms to explain and justify their work to themselves and others. Aestheticians and critics use these paradigms to justify the criteria they use to select and judge artworks. Collectors and dealers use these paradigms to establish social and economic value for works of art. Art paradigms are thus historical constructs, conceived to justify the art myths — the beliefs — which give value and significance to the art of different groups at different times and places. There is no historical support for theories of art as expression, aesthetic form and response, representation and so forth. Such theories are not — and never have been — universal descriptions or explanations of any objective, defining essence of the Fine Arts or any other kind of art.
Under these circumstances, Art obviously can no longer be considered an autonomous activity, isolated from other domains of knowledge and interpretation. As it has lost its status as a high level, spiritual phenomenon — as works of art have become multi–meaningful or meaningless objects or valuable commodities — what we still call Art has become one of many ways of explaining and representing the world. In turning any object into a potential work of art, Art today not only destroys the notion of paintings as precious objects; it destroys the rigidity with which we traditionally see and understand the world. It forces us to see the world in new ways, which, while not necessarily practical, may lead to enlightenment and pleasure. And, interestingly enough, isn’t this what traditional teachers of art appreciation have always said is one of the functions of Fine Art?
In the meantime, artists continue to work, ignoring the theoreticians.