Thursday, 5 November 2009
About Fine Arts
The idea that various activities such as painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry have something essential in common belongs to a particular period beginning only in the eighteenth century. It was then that the ‘fine arts’ became separated off from scientific disciplines and more mundane exercises of skill. Later, during the eras of romanticism and modernism, this became transmuted into the single notion of art. Contemporary philosophers have inherited the notion, but are no longer entirely sure what to do with it.One problem is the difficulty of defining art. Consider what is usually treated as the earliest definition: art as mimesis, or the reproduction of the world in images. For a long time painting and literature could be united under this heading (and a precedent cited in Greek thought). However, if art is to include music and architecture, as well as the non-figurative visual forms of the twentieth century, this definition will not easily suffice. Two notable definitions from the early part of this century built on the rejection of representation as a defining feature of art: art as significant form, and art as the expression of emotion. Both play down the artwork's relation to reality, in favour of perceptible aesthetic qualities of the art object itself, or of the relation between the work and the creative mind in which it originated. Earlier intimations of both can be found in the ideas of beauty and genius in Kant's theory of art. Both object-centred and artist-centred definitions of art could be used to discriminate that which was ‘properly’ art from that which was not, and such ideas helped in their day to explain the value of many progressive forms of art. But each is at best one-sided as a comprehensive definition.Successive waves of the avant-garde, together with increasing knowledge of different cultures, have shown how society's institutions accommodate radical change in what is recognized as art. It has even been suggested that the very point of the concept of art lies in its open-ended capacity to accept change. Some have offered what is called an institutional definition of art, prompted by the thought that the only common feature among artworks is just their being recognized as art by certain institutions in particular societies. It would presumably be left to history to show what these institutions were, and the various functions or values which the things called art have had within them. While there must remain appropriate standards by which one work can be judged superior to another, it would be hard to deny that the inclusion and exclusion of different activities from the status of art has served other functions in society, such as fostering élitism or class-distinction.One drawback of an institutional theory is that it cannot easily be used, as earlier theories were, to persuade us of what is peculiarly valuable about art. Sometimes it is assumed that art is a good thing to the extent that it has purely aesthetic value, as distinct from moral or cognitive or utility value. Others think, surely rightly, that art is also important as a way of gaining understanding of human behaviour, and that what value art-products have cannot be divorced from issues of truth and morality. Ideas which have had currency in past theories and which have spread into popular thinking—that art achieves a unique insight into ‘higher’ truths, or provides an elevated form of human self-realization—should not be dismissed, but in philosophy they require cautious investigation. Few philosophers, one suspects, would be quick to nominate any one value as that possessed by everything which is called art.