Art Theory and Myth: But Is It Art?
Leo Segedin   |  6/14/2006 |   Print this essay

In the discussion after I gave my paper on Darger last January, Jerri stated her belief that art was any kind of creation and expression, while Annie raised the question whether a Shaker chair was a work of art. Now - however we define art, a child’s painting and a Shaker chair certainly don’t look alike. Visually they have nothing in common. Also, while a child’s painting may be creative and expressive, a Shaker chair, although it may be beautiful and skillfully made, is not creative or expressive, in that it is made according to traditional patterns.

Although both definitions seem reasonable, they are obviously incompatible. If an artist expresses himself, he is not necessarily creating beauty and if he creates beauty, he is not necessarily expressing himself. We can say that art is the creation of beautiful objects, but if we also say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, where is the beauty - in the object or in the response of the observer? We can say that the artist expresses himself, or the artist communicates his feelings, which is not the same thing. Ether way, if the observer doesn’t get those feelings, is the object the artist makes art? What if some observers get it and others don’t? How can we tell if what is on the canvas expresses anything? Do we have to be told? Is anything an artist makes a work of art? If we sit on a Shaker chair, is it still a work of art? Is anything exhibited in an art museum or gallery a work of art? And so on. So what is art?

Even among professional definers of art, the definitions of art are contradictory and incongruous. 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.

During the last few hundred years, what we have traditionally called the Fine Arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry and music) 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 natureand 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 subject of the 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, intuition, fantasy, subconscious, neurosis, the creative process, sublimation, wish fulfillment, catharsis and play. The artist has been assumed to have need to bring order to nature's chaos or a 'rage for chaos', to break the bounds of cultural patterns. The viewer escapes from reality, empathizes with the form or content of the artwork or becomes more intensely and insightfully involved with reality.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 also 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. 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.

Although many of these theories have been useful, none of them has proven ultimately to be satisfactory. The problem, I believe, lies in the assumption underlying such theories that all objects which we call works of art are entities which must have some common, definable essence and that art theories are objective, neutral, transparent perspectives on this essence. But I will argue, as others have, that art theories do not reflect ahistorical, neutral points of view. Also, because theoretical approaches to art remain unverifiable, several contradictory, incompatible or incongruous theories can exist concurrently and cannot supersede each other. I will argue further that art theories have their origin in usually uncritically held culturally and historically determined beliefs -- myths - about the significance of art and art objects. Art theories are, in fact, efforts to establish that significance and to explain and justify them.

This conception of myth is much like that of scientific paradigm except that scientific paradigms can ultimately be rejected and replaced by more encompassing ones, for example, Einstein's presumptions replacing Newton's. This has not and indeed cannot happen with the Fine Arts. Although like the scientific paradigm, art myths come to be taken for granted and are assumed to say something about the art object, such myths have no practical or scientific rationale for their existence. Scientific theories must be set up so that they can be disproved or at least confirmed in the physical world, whereas, art theories are tautologies. There is no way of establishing definitive proof whereby one art theory can refute all the others with which it competes. Thus, art myths exist side by side, fade away, are revived, modified, and made to apply to new kinds of objects.

In their attempts to explain art within the contexts of the myths, art theories do not so much discover the common essence of art as create categories of objects based on assumed commonalities and definitions. These theories are then used to determine whether an object is a work of art and to set up standards by which to judge them. But although the myths underlying these theories can at the same time be believed to be true, they are a hodgepodge of incompatible assumptions. They assume incongruous kinds of objects which require different perceptual strategies and responses. For example, in some theories, the underlying myth is that the defining essence of art is 'expression'. Now if we believe that an art object is the expression of the artist, we would perceive it in terms of how it might embody the artist's personality. We would study its line quality, selection of colors, the speed, movement and weight of paints, even drips of the brush strokes. The exaggeration or distortion as well as the choice of subject matter would be an indication of the artist's state of mind. The language of the art theory would be about creativity, the subconscious, the collective unconscious, symbol formation, motivation and inspiration.

On the other hand, the aesthetic myth – such as the idea of beauty - presupposes an object which is primarily perceptual, consisting of relationships between visual elements which can cause special 'aesthetic' feelings in an observer. When looking at such an object, we must ignore the artist's personal feelings, its representational aspects and its cultural context. We must focus only on its dynamic formal structure. Aesthetic theories attempt to describe 'aesthetic' form, feelings, attitudes and perception. They are about appreciation, taste, contemplation, empathy and pleasure.

The incompatibilities between these two theories are obvious. In the expressionist myth, the assumption of aesthetic form becomes a problem. Aesthetic considerations may actually interfere with the impact of expression. If an artist expresses himself, will his art object necessarily be beautiful or aesthetic? He may not care for the taste of the sophisticated connoisseur or society in general. He may actually want to offend that taste.

During the last several years, some artists have carried the expressionist theories to extremes. If art is the artist's expression, then anything an artist makes or does can be considered to be art. No skill is necessary. All that is necessary is that the artist be identified as an artist by the Art world. Kurt Schwitters said that anything an artist spits is art; Don Judd said, "It was done by an artist, wasn't it?" Marshall MacLuhan said that art was anything the artist could get away with. Aesthetics has nothing to do with it. There is no way of telling what an artist really intended by looking at his work or even by listening to what he says. Representational skills are irrelevant. In some cases, the artist's performance, the act of painting itself, the gestures, the process, become the work of art, the object itself, a peripheral byproduct which can be discarded. Expressionist theories can tell us nothing about artistic quality or value.

Expressionist theory can be broad enough to include the work of children, chimpanzees and the insane as well as the artworks in the museums. It can also include the work of hobbyists, the products of therapy and rehabilitation, cooking or any other creative behavior. This may seem extreme, but if we consider what has been exhibited in the Art world during the last thirty years or the problems involved in funding the National Foundation For the Arts during the same period, then we must recognize that the issues raised are serious ones.

But where is the aesthetic form? Is it in the object's perceptual characteristics or in the viewer's responses? Is it 'in the eye of the beholder?' Aesthetic theories cannot tell us anything about the artist's feelings or expression. Notions of representation become irrelevant and unnecessary. Anything can be perceived aesthetically, that is, in terms of line, shape and color. Every scene, no matter how ugly in social terms can be made beautiful with appropriate aesthetic form. Pictures of murders, perversions, obscenities, even the Holocaust can be made as attractive as wallpaper. So can the art of children, chimpanzees and the insane.

During the last several years, some artists have carried aesthetic assumptions to extremes. Duchamp with his urinals and shovels, Raushenberg with his mattresses and stuffed goats, the whole notion of found objects are examples of this. All that is necessary is that they be placed in an art context, that is, in an art museum or gallery, for aesthetic perception to occur. Ironically, the artist's intention is not only to demonstrate that any object can become aesthetic, but also that the assumption of aesthetic essence as being a primary characteristic of art is a myth. Certainly, it cannot account for the loss of status of an artwork when it is determined to be a fake, nor can it explain the value of art objects.

Similarly, the representational myth assumes an image which describes the appearance of real, imaginary or idealized things, scenes and events. Representational theories are about optics, perspective, depth and color perception, but they cannot tell us whether photographs, blueprints, x-rays, magazine illustrations and advertising can be considered to be Fine Art. They cannot tell us why one image may be more significant or valuable than another. Aesthetic form and expression become problematic. If an artist paints things as they are or as he sees them, will the artwork necessarily be beautiful or aesthetic? Taste becomes more a kind of censorship than anything else. And if he paints the way things are, how can he be expressive, creative, original or imaginative? Theories of representation must stretch to accommodate such notions.

Also, if art is 'idea', as the Conceptualists of the 60's maintained, and the artist is getting his idea across, does he need aesthetic form, expression of feeling or representation? An artist may be creative, imaginative and original, but does he need a skillfully made, permanent work of art to serve his purpose? Does he need any art object at all? Is taste necessary? And, again, what becomes of artistic quality or value?

So how do we know which theory to use? We can become aware of subjective experiences only through introspection. We can study our responses to what might be works of art. We can compare them with other experiences, find the appropriate descriptive language and read the words of others who seem to be having similar experiences. We can describe the circumstances in which these experiences occur. We can describe the objects which seem to be causing these experiences and assume the intentions of the persons making these objects. But, as I have said, there is no way of confirming any of this objectively. We can only assume certain things to be true about them and attempt to confirm these assumptions by analyzing, comparing and criticizing the words used by others - the aestheticians, art historians, art critics and artists. We study what key words have come to mean and attempt to eliminate the inconsistencies in their usage.

Some aestheticians attempt to eliminate such inconsistencies by fusing different theories. Such efforts usually result in strange hybrids which Suzanne Langer calls 'paradoxes', for example, 'fictional truths', 'impersonal feelings', or 'self-referring symbols'. Santayana defines Beauty as 'pleasure objectified' and Clive Bell proclaims 'Significant Form' which doesn't signify anything at all. When philosophizing about art, Picasso described it as "the lie which makes us see the truth".

Authors of introductory textbooks in the arts have special problems in describing their area of study. Some will focus on one definition and apply it as broadly as possible, for example, ' Art as Aesthetic Form or Experience', others, 'Art as Expression', either personal or cultural. Other authors use definitions separately as chapter or section headings, thus avoiding the problem of integrating definitions, for example, Art as Beauty', 'Art as Expression', 'Art as Truth', 'Art as Reflection of Social or Cultural Context', etc. Some writers begin with definitions which combine several ideas in one or two sentences, such as, 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).> 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". This definition is not only a hybrid, but it also proposes to be the history of 'unique' objects and explications of an 'irreducible', mysterious, individual whole'.

Art theories seem to fit some artworks of some artists better than others. Notions about representation fit Renaissance art and some of the traditions which developed out of it, but have trouble with the works of Van Gogh and other Modernists, Medieval and non-western art. Theories of expression fit Van Gogh, but Cezanne, Cubism and abstraction work better with ideas of aesthetic form. The whole idea of Significant Form was developed to explain and justify the Post-Impressionists, but becomes terribly vague and confusing when applied to traditional representational and expressive art. Art theories thus seem to create very strange and theoretically incongruous bedfellows, even though we have no trouble today accepting all such artworks as Fine Art.

The incongruities become even more obvious when we use such theories to justify the inclusion into the Art world of objects not traditionally found there. For example, are photographs art? Well yes, they represent reality and may be beautiful; but no, they are not creative or expressive because they are mechanically made. But no, they can be creative. Are paintings by children art? Well yes, they are expressive and can be beautiful; but no, they have no skill or no possible place in art history and may be ugly. Are computer images art? Well yes, the images have beautiful form; but no, they are mechanically made; but yes, some creative person programmed the computer. Are Kwakiutl masks art? Well yes, they have aesthetic form and express social values; but no, they are ugly. And so forth. Different artworks require different theories. If one doesn't fit, find another or stretch and distort existing ones even though it was not designed for that object.

Thus, art theories tend to be too rejective and reductive, or they are too global; that is, they are so narrow as to exclude objects which we believe to be Fine Art or so broad as to include objects which we reject as Fine Art. Although all such art myths exist concurrently in one form or another, however we might try, we cannot believe them all at the same time. After all, how many defining essences can an assumed entity have? If we believe in one, then what is necessary in the theories explaining the others become problematic. They seem to make significant one phenomenon at the cost of rejecting, distorting or diminishing another. In some theories, the artist disappears, in others, society, history or the viewer; in some, even the work of art disappears. The words used in different theories don't seem to be about the same kind of objects. In fact, they seem to create the very entities they purport to describe and explain. Thus, an art object in one theory might not be qualified as an art object in another. It is our assumptions, our beliefs, and our myths, which give appropriate meanings to objects. Without knowing the appropriate definition, we can not tell what to look for and which characteristics are relevant. We see what we are looking for; what we see is conceived in terms of the issues we raise, the kinds of questions we ask. What we are studying takes on the form suggested by the language we use, but art theory cannot even locate its proper subject. Is it in the artist? In the viewer? In the object? In society? Each theory focuses, not on real, existing entities in the world, but rather on different aspects of a complex matrix of subjective elements: psychological responses, attitudes, intentions, perceptual qualities, referential characteristics and social values.

Art myths may change, but the language of their theories is retained in the literature of the arts. They still exist today as part of our cultural heritage, although their original context does not. Terms like 'beauty', expression' and 'aesthetics' do not mean what they once did. This language is applied to all sorts of objects and experiences for which they were not intended. Aestheticians often tend to explore this language ignoring original agendas. This lack of historical context explains why there can be no constant entity called 'Fine Art'. If what are recognized as art objects and their definitions change over time, all that remains constant is the word 'art', but with different meanings and shifting, subjective referents. Art theories are thus ultimately inadequate and unsatisfactory as explanations of the Fine Arts.


Not only are art theories and definitions incongruous and often incompatible, they can not be supported by any long history of acceptance. In Classical times, the word 'art' did not refer to what we call the Fine Arts today. Rather, it denoted what we call the skills, crafts or sciences. It meant technique and even technology and included medicine, the making of armor and poetry. Plato suggested that art 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, but as a form of 'divine madness' and rejected it for that reason.) Objects to which we give high aesthetic status had at best cult significance, a religious aura. The word 'beauty' did not have anything to do with statues or painting, or, originally, with aesthetic appreciation, but rather with 'appropriateness to purpose'. Visual artists had low social status, not much removed from that of slavery because of contempt for manual labor among those who hired artists. Art was most certainly not included among the Liberal Arts. (Music in ancient times also referred to a lot more than what it means today. In Plato's Republic, musical education included not only music, but also poetry and dance. On the other hand, the Pythagorean discovery of numerical proportions underlying musical intervals led to music being closely identified with mathematics and astronomy.) In Medieval times, the visual arts were still included among the mechanical arts. They still remained non- mysterious skills. 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 (Fine or otherwise), but was treated as a metaphysical attribute of God. The forms of art were not determined by expression, creativity or the perception of the artist (who still had the status of a manual laborer); it was still determined by church dogma. Theory had to do with production. The significance of a work of art was its religious, not its aesthetic, aura.

The status of painting and sculpture did not rise significantly until the Renaissance. Only then did they begin to separate from the crafts and ultimately to become part of the Liberal Arts. The artist, no longer regarded as a manual laborer, began to take on the character of genius. The religious aura, until now 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 curiosities, but there was a similar increase in appreciation, a value placed on taste and pleasure produced by painting, music and poetry".

Only in the seventeenth century did the Fine Arts begin to be distinguished from the sciences and in the 1700s that they finally became fully separated from the mechanical arts and 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. Even the term Fine Arts itself, meaning primarily painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry, does not originate until that time. Thus, as we can see, the identification of the Fine Arts as a separate cultural entity or essence only goes back to the 18th century.

Before the advent of this separation, what we now call works of art were not "works of art", not aesthetic objects, but were rather made to serve a variety of social functions: to glorify political power, propagate religious doctrine, to convey information or for practical or decorative purposes. Painting and sculpture needed no philosophical justification; everyone knew what they were for. Art theory developed once these arts began to lose their self-evident practical value. At the same time, artists and collectors wanted higher status during the Renaissance and reasons were needed to create and justify such a new standing. In order to accomplish this, artists and art theoreticians borrowed the major status concepts and values (models, contexts, paradigms, metaphors, analogies, frames of reference) 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. It claimed to bring rational order back to painting, sculpture and architecture, lost during the Dark Ages, by reviving 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 myth which dominated Western art until the nineteenth century. Because Romanticism glorified the personality of the individual artist, it derived its theories from psychological notions about the mind, with feeling and emotion, creativity and autobiography. It was responsible for the development of the expressionist myth which led to Expressionism and Surrealism. The models and words were those of the psychologist, and later, the psychoanalyst (Freudian, Jungian, Kubian, etc.) and the 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. 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.

Thus, not only do art theories not define commonalities or essences among artworks; they determine - and were often intended to determine - what should be included in the Pantheon of the Fine Arts. They begin with the belief that certain objects and experiences are significant and then attempt to rationalize this belief. Artists use theory to justify their work to themselves and others. Aestheticians use theory to justify the criteria they use to select and judge artworks. Art historians use theory to determine what artworks belong in art history. Collectors and dealers use theory to establish social and economic value for works of art. Art theories are thus historical constructs, conceived to justify the art myths 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 - descriptions or explanations of any defining essence of the Fine Arts.

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