The Modern Meaning of Art

This piece has been adapted from a lecture on Art and Beauty given for a humanities program on March 27, 2017. 


In this post I tell a story about Western art in the 20th century. The story is simple: in the 20th century, art as a category of artifacts and activity was destabilized. Once a settled concept, something around which there was a relatively clear and consistent consensus, art-enterprise became an object of art-making–a target of artistic probing, teasing, disfiguring, eulogizing, and criticizing. Western art as we know it today is a concept produced by deconstructing and reconstructing art as we once knew it: as something sacred, as a way of distilling truths, the mystery of nature, beauty, or morality, or as a way of connecting with the divine. Today’s art is different because today’s art is the result of two developments: 1) the proliferation of technology through which art can be reproduced; 2) the use of art by artists and commentators to question the prevailing conventions of beauty, representation, medium, and mode of presentation.

Art to Object / Object to Art

Art of the 20th century precipitated a shift in prevailing definitions of art-enterprise. Below I provide a few illustrative examples. This shift was brought about by a dissolution between the art-object and the everyday-object. In his enlightening documentary “Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art?”, the BBC’s resident art-enthusiast Dr. James Fox (of Cambridge) delineates this category shift: art became everyday-artifacts, and everyday-artifacts became artworks.

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The translation of everyday-artifacts to artworks is most clearly encapsulated in the objet trouvé approach, a movement commenced by Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece Fountain, among others. What Fox neglects to explain, however, is how this shift was predicated on the translation of objects-of-art into everyday-objects.


Another story of the 20th century is how our lives became filled with objects. The advent of mass-production is one of the most defining material realities of life as we know it, and its impact on art is unquestionable. As John Berger notes in his seminal essays and documentary series Ways of Seeing, art used to be removed from the day-to-day lives of the common man: art was in churches, in the houses of the rich, in faraway countries, or in lofty municipal buildings. Museums for the masses are a relatively recent invention. The task of making art was equally out of reach for most. The materials of the fine arts were expensive. Take the color of gold, for example. Another documentary series by Fox (The Story of Art in Three Colours) documents how 19th century electrolytic processes made it possible to gild metal objects—from jewelry to housewares—with a thin gold layer, thus making the color of gold widely available to the broader public not just an elite few. Other technologies, such as lithography, photography, color printing presses, and later television, film, and, more recently, laser reproductions, have made some of the most foundational works of Western art available for use on a variety of surfaces of everyday-artifacts—from school binders, to coffee mugs, t-shirts, etc. The fine arts—reproduced on textiles, ceramics, music, and prints—was suddenly available everywhere.


The reproducibility of art thus eroded its status as a marker of the aristocracy and their haute monde society. Writing about this shift in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), the philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin noted: “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations that would be out of reach for the original itself. […] The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” Art thus began to appear so much in our lives that it became like any other object–and, similarly, objects became so abundant in our lives, that they overflowed in our art.

Art as Perfection

Many people found this slippage between art-object and everyday-object, and vice versa, scandalous. This is because this reorganization of the artwork/object divide undermined the traditional system for defining art. This conception of art is best encapsulated in a broad constellation of theories united by a perfectionist methodology.  Roughly put, this approach to defining and evaluating art holds that the aim of art-enterprise is to distill and translate into objects eternal and universal truths of some sort. These include divinity, virtue, and beauty. An artifact counts as a work of art if it expresses (as fully as possible) a universal and eternal idea through a medium (or several media). For instance, with respect to the ideal of “beauty”, a set of parameters is posited (i.e. that the object is in “possession of the formal property of being an ‘organic whole’ or a ‘configurational unity’” (see John Gallie, 1956) against which an artwork is evaluated. The lesser degree to which an object-artifact realizes this ideal, the weaker its case for being recognized a work of art.

Ballet is good example of an art-form grounded in perfectionist aspiration. Its aim is to position a moving body into poses that reflect the most beautiful ideal shape of the human body–the formal elements of the dancer’s body. At any point during a routine, a snapshot of the body of the dancer—if they are good–will be positioned to emphasize the symmetry of the human body.


Indeed, this can be contrasted—to some degree—with contemporary dance, which tends to emphasize the unexpected–and therefore awkward–positions into which bodies can bend.


This methodology for defining and evaluating art has its root in Platonic thinking. In the “Allegory of the Cave” the shadows projected on the walls of the cave were posited as poor formulations of their counterparts outside the cave: a shadow of an elephant cast from a puppet of an elephant by firelight is no substitute for a real elephant standing before you in full daylight. The latter is thus more valuable than the former. This applies to art in the following way: art is valuable because it can represent the expressive and formal qualities of universal and eternal ideals. Something is art if uses a medium—for example oil paint—to make that ideal manifest. For example, if we take as an example Michelangelo’s sculpture of David before he defeats Goliath, we could posit its value on the basis of the way it represents and expresses the abstract ideals of courage and faith. A work of art is thus like a shadow, but good art is mimetic of a greater abstract ideal—it provides a faithful or as-perfect-as-possible appearance of the Platonic form it is supposed to represent.


The German philosopher Joseph Pieper can be located in this way of thinking. According to him, art is a conduit, something that points towards us with a distinct realm of divine experience and knowledge. He shares with Plato the idea that art connects us with an unchanging reality from which we can reliably anchor and elucidate a virtuous life. Art is an attempt to distill the perfect representation of a reality that is not subject to the chaos of social, physical, and psychological contingencies.  For Pieper, such ideals are Platonic archetypes of divine reality:

“The artist who […] keeps the recesses of his soul in silence and simplicity, receptive to the breath of creative inspiration, which then flows […] unadulterated into the unfolding form of his work—this artist then, may just perchance create a statue such as the “Young Woman Reclining”. The statue is compellingly original, not at all a mere photographic description, because it is entirely “different” from our everyday reality. And yet, it prompts those beholding it to recall their own remembrance of the primordial archetypes veiled in this same reality.” […] “to see in contemplation […] is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality […] art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather capture the archetypes of all that is. Such art does not want to depict what everybody already sees but to make visible what not everybody sees.”


Similarly, the art critic and historian Kenneth Clark, whose fabulous and ground-breaking BBC documentary on Western art, Civilisation, aired in 1969, claims that art-making gives vent to humankind’s “pent-up need to give some permanent shape to the flux of experience, to make something perfect in their singularly imperfect existence.” (Clarke 1969: 8). In the book based on the documentary, he writes: “at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself–body and spirit–which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.” (Clarke 1969: 3)

These statements assert art as a perfection of an eternal and universal ideal in a medium. They are inadequate for evaluating much contemporary art for the following reasons. First, as you can see in the case of Duchamp’s urinal, the art of the 20th century used mediums—namely objects—that had other uses, that were constructed not for the expression of universal abstract forms, but for a particular everyday use. Art in the 20th century suggested that something could be two things at once—heck more than two things at once. Or it could be both of them at once, and neither of them, like the sculpture from the Artists Man Ray, called the Gift.


Second, this definition does not allow for works of art that are about art itself. The perfectionist concept posits ideas external to art as the conditions of art—art is a vehicle for their expression. By contrast, much art in the 20th century was not concerned with transhistorical ideas, but with the situated process of art-making. Art in the 20th century was concerned with the use (and misuse) of mediums, the value of impermanence, the experience of viewing art, the role (or lack thereof) of the artist, or the norms and institutions through which art was displayed or legitimized.

For those of the perfectionist persuasion, much art in the 20th century represents merely fatuous and superficial play; rebellious reaction waged for the sake of being obstreperous and strident. Moreover, the focus of artmaking on art-enterprise constitutes nothing more than myopic navel-gazing. Such art fails to tell us anything meaningful about the nature of the human condition, morality, or the internal mechanics of nature and life.

But the implication of this shift in artistic concern and practice does offer profound—perhaps the most profound—insight into living. In my view, art in the 20th century explores and augments the fundamental capacity of human beings to create, to express themselves, to react to others, to imprint a moment for a moment. I can’t think of any aspect of the human condition that is more valuable than this.

Art as Power

Art in the 20th century  offers art-enterprise as a means of personal and political flourishing. The reproducibility of art and the questioning of art-enterprise has expanded the possibilities of art-making, creating opportunities for art to be a means of questioning and reworking norms, and opening up the means of artistic expression to those lacking technical skills. To quote the late art critic and writer John Berger, “for the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way language surrounds us […] if the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate.” (Berger, 1972: 32-3)


However, this newly conferred power of art it is good if and only if we recognize that this revolution in the meaning and conduct of art-making contains simultaneously a revolution in the role art plays in relations of social power. In destabilizing the authority of traditional meanings and methods of art, which evaluate works of art against a universal standard of mimetic, aesthetic, or moral perfection, the artists of this revolution have repositioned art-enterprise as a possible means of democratic expression and political struggle.


Artists and their works model for us the possibility of expression that is not beholden to universal and eternal ideals in which the demos has no say, ideals of which we are not the authors because we lack the technical skills and training, or the accepted ideological covenants, or access to materials, money,  and time, or induction into institutions and associative networks (contingent on the approval of art’s gatekeepers: curators, critics, other artists, philanthropists, art sellers, philosophers, and the public at large).

Art used to be an elite project. In many respects this remains the case. But is this a natural and expected result, or does it suggest that the revolution has gone awry? I think the latter; I think we have only just began to grasp this newly fledged capacity of art. This is because art has been co-opted by the denizens of the ruling class to obfuscate the creative power of art by the oppressed.  Just as democracies are becoming increasingly controlled by elite financial and corporate interests, the creative potential of art has also been stifled by the entrenched despots of the artworld. John Berger calls this the mystification of art. The agents of this mystification include well-meaning philanthropists, museum curators, art historians, auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, art critics, politicians, teachers and professors, and artists themselves who perpetuate the idea that art is an aloof, mystical entity. This is reflected in the available ways through which we engage with art. We go to museums where we are under constant watch. We look at paintings in darkened rooms behind bullet proof glass. We marvel at the extraordinary cost of a painting by Picasso. We scoff at conceptual art, and are weirded out by the site of a performance artists. We refuse to take the time to sit with these artworks or be inspired them. Instead we consume facile art en masse: we watch Netflix for hours on end, alone, supine, and dazed; we listen to singles on iTunes and never to albums; we buy tickets in droves to see Top 40 artists, while symphonies perform for empty halls. Many of us feel that “art” is someone else’s thing.A-Hint-Of-BS

This is sad. Not because I think pop-art, such as artists like Beyoncé or artworks like Parks and Recreation are tasteless exploits (I very much love them), but because we are increasingly living in a world where our creative faculties are atrophying.

The kernel of hope offered by 20th century art is fading. Berger argues in his essays entitled “Ways of Seeing” that an understanding of how art gives us a language for constructing our world forces us to be engaged, creative participants. Knowing this language is, he contends, essential to resisting all the nefarious forms of oppression in our lives. I leave you with this quote:

“What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it – or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce – from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way language surrounds us […] Yet very few people are aware of what happened because the means of reproduction are used nearly all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did. Understandably, the masses remained uninterested and skeptical. If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate […] The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.” (Berger, 1972: 32-33)







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