But is it art? an introduction to art theory Cynthia Freeland

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But is it art?
an introduction to art theory
Cynthia Freeland
Copyright © 2001. OUP Oxford. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted
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First published 2001
First published as an Oxford University Press paperback 2002
Also available in paperback as Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction
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To Herbert Garelick
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Acknowledgements
Deepest thanks to people who read and commented on
the entire manuscript: Oxford’s ‘Reader 3’ (unveiled as
Murray Smith), Jennifer McMahon, Mary McDonough,
and my parents, Alan and Betty Freeland. Carolyn
Korsmeyer made valuable suggestions, and Kristi
Gedeon was a research assistant beyond compare—
cheery, resourceful, a packhorse for heavy books!
Thanks to others for generous help with the text
or illustrations: Robert Wicks, Nora Laos, Weihong
Kronfied, Sheryl Wilhite Garcia, Jeannette Dixon, Eric
McIntyre, Lynne Brown, Rose Lange, Anne Jacobson,
William Austin, Justin Leiber, and Amy Ione. My
husband, Krist Bender, supplied technical assistance
and artistic opinions. I am much indebted to Oxford’s
capable editor, Shelley Cox. Heartfelt appreciation to
the guinea pigs for this text, my students in Philosophy
1361—you made a bigger difference than you suspect.
A more indefinite thanks for their stimulating influence
to my friends in the exciting art world of Houston. I
dedicate this book to my first professor of aesthetics,
Herbert Garelick, of Michigan State University.
vii
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Contents
Colour plates xi
Black and white illustrations xiii
Introduction xvii
1 Blood and beauty 1
2 Paradigms and purposes 30
3 Cultural crossings 60
4 Money, markets, museums 90
5 Gender, genius, and Guerrilla Girls 122
6 Cognition, creation, comprehension 148
7 Digitizing and disseminating 177
Conclusion 206
References 210
Further reading 217
Index 222
ix
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Colour plates
I Andres Serrano, Piss Christ (1987)
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
II Iznik tiles
© The British Museum
Huichol bead art
Photograph: Cynthia Freeland
III Barry McGee, Hoss
© Rice University Art Gallery. Photo: Tommy Lavergne
IV Tibetan monk erasing mandala painting
Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc. Tibetan monks sandpainting (18)
V Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Canna
© collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, gift
of Oliver James.
© ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2000
VI Francis Bacon, Triptych (May–June 1973)
© Estate of Francis Bacon/ARS, New York, and DACS,
London 2000
VII Bill Viola, Chott el-Djerid
Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photograph: Kira Petrov
VIII Jim Clarage and dadaNetCircus: Jonah and the WWWhale
(1999)
Courtesy Jim Clarage and dadaNetCircus,
www.dadanetcircus.org
xi
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Black and white illustrations
I gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the University of
Houston to support image reproduction costs for this book.
1 Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of
Someone Living (1991)
Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London. Photograph:
Anthony Oliver
2 Sandro Botticelli, detail from Birth of Venus
Archivi Alinari
3 Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring One of His Sons
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
4 Chartres Cathedral
Sonia Halliday Photographs
5 Versailles (engraving by Perelle)
Bibliothèque nationale de France
6 Scene from Robert Wilson’s staging of Wagner’s Parsifal,
Houston Grand Opera
Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera
7 Philosopher Arthur Danto pondering why Andy Warhol’s
stacked Brillo Boxes are art.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./
ARS, New York, DACS, London, and VPRO
8 Zen Buddhist garden in Japan
William Herbrechtsmeier. Photograph: Revd. John K. Rogers
xiii
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9 Nkisi nkondi nail fetish sculptures
The Menil Collection, Houston
10 Kenojuak Ashevak, Enchanted Owl
West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, Cape Dorset, Nunavut
11 Les Magiciens de la Terre exhibition, Paris 1989
Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. Photograph: Jacques
Faujour
12 Juventino Cósio Carrillo and family
Novica.com
13 J. Paul Getty Villa Museum, Malibu
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
14 Vincent Van Gogh, Irises (1889)
The J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles
15 National Gallery of Australia membership brochure
© ARS, New York, and DACS, London 2000/National Gallery
of Australia, Canberra
16 Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin
Counties, California (1972–76)
© 1976 Christo. Photograph by Jeanne-Claude
17 Scene from Chicago’s Culture in Action: Iñigo ManglanoOvalle’s Street-Level Video, Block Party/Installation, Chicago, 1994
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle
18 Guerrilla Girls poster: How Women Get Maximum Exposure
(1989)
Guerrilla Girls, New York
black and white illustrations
xiv
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19 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #14 (1978)
Courtesy Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures
20 Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
21 Brain of artist sketching portrait
© John Tchalenko
22 Shower sequence scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
(1960)
Universal Pictures/The Ronald Grant Archive
23 Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), from Le Louvre:
Collections and Palace, CD-ROM, 1997
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris
24 MANUAL, Simulacra (1987)
Courtesy MANUAL (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom)
black and white illustrations
xv
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Introduction
This is a book about what art is, what it means,
and why we value it—a book on topics in the
field loosely called art theory. We will scrutinize
many different art theories here: ritual theory, formalist
theory, imitation theory, expression theory, cognitive
theory, postmodern theory—but not in order, one by
one. That would be as tedious for me to write as for you
to read. A theory is more than a definition; it is a
framework that supplies an orderly explanation of
observed phenomena. A theory should help things
make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon
and weighty words. It should systematically unify and
organize a set of observations, building from basic principles. But the ‘data’ of art are so varied that it seems
daunting to try to unify and explain them. Many
modern artworks challenge us to figure out why, on any
theory, they would count as art. My strategy here is to
highlight the rich diversity of art, in order to convey the
difficulty of coming up with suitable theories. Theories
have practical consequences, too, guiding us in what we
value (or dislike), informing our comprehension, and
introducing new generations to our cultural heritage.
xvii
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A big problem about laying out the data for this book
is that our term ‘art’ might not even apply in many
cultures or eras. The practices and roles of artists are
amazingly multiple and elusive. Ancient and modern
tribal peoples would not distinguish art from artefact or
ritual. Medieval European Christians did not make ‘art’
as such, but tried to emulate and celebrate God’s
beauty. In classical Japanese aesthetics, art might
include things unexpected by modern Westerners, like
a garden, sword, calligraphy scroll, or tea ceremony.
Many philosophers from Plato onward have proposed theories of art and aesthetics. We shall scrutinize
some of them here, including the medieval colossus
Thomas Aquinas, the Enlightenment’s key figures
David Hume and Immanuel Kant, the notorious
iconoclast Friedrich Nietzsche, and such diverse
twentieth-century figures as John Dewey, Arthur Danto,
Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard. Of course, there
are also theorists in other fields who study art: from
sociology, art history and criticism, anthropology,
psychology, education, and more; I will refer to some of
these experts as well.
One group of people with a strong focus on art are
members of an association I belong to, the American
Society for Aesthetics. At our annual conferences we
attend lectures about art and its subfields—film, music,
introduction
xviii
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painting, literature; we also do more fun things, like go
to exhibitions and concerts. I have used the programme
and topics from one of these conferences, held in 1997
in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a loose organizing strategy
for my chapters below. Santa Fe itself offers a kind of
microcosm of the diverse arts issues and intersections I
want to consider here. Nestled in the natural beauty of
the desert and nearby mountains, the city boasts a surprising array of museums, both historic and modern. It
is as renowned for its sleek high-rent (and high-priced)
commercial galleries as for the many artisans on the
plaza selling their wares at bargain rates. The city illustrates the complex history of today’s America, mingling
a constant influx of tourists and newcomers with its
Spanish colonial heritage, enriched by Native Americans from nearby pueblos, with their marvellous
pottery, weavings, fetishes, and kachina dolls.
In approaching our study of art’s diversity, I warn you
that I have chosen shock tactics, for I will begin in the
rather grisly present-day world of art, dominated by
works that speak of sex or sacrilege, made with blood,
dead animals, or even urine and faeces (Chapter 1). My
aim is to defuse the shock a little by linking such work
with earlier traditions, to demonstrate that art has not
always been about the beauty of the Parthenon or a
Botticelli Venus. If you make it through the first
introduction
xix
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chapter, you will accompany me as we backtrack
through art’s history (Chapter 2), before circuiting the
globe in pursuit of art’s diverse manifestations (Chapter
3). Theories will be presented when it seems appropriate, in response to the data we encounter from a variety
of cultures and eras.
People in the field of aesthetics do more than try to
define what art is. We also want to explain why it is
valued, considering how much people pay for it and
where art is collected and displayed—for example,
museums (Chapter 4). What can we learn by examining
where art is exhibited, how, and how much it costs? Art
theorists also ponder questions about artists: who are
they, and what makes them special? Why do they do the
sometimes odd things they do? Recently this has led to
intense debate about whether intimate facts concerning
artists’ lives, such as their gender and sexual orientation, are relevant to their art (Chapter 5).
Among the hardest problems an art theory faces are
questions about how to settle art’s meaning through
interpretation (Chapter 6). We will consider whether
an artwork has ‘a’ meaning, and how theorists have
tried to capture or explain it—whether by studying
artists’ feelings and ideas, their childhood and
unconscious desires, or their brains(!). Finally, of
course, we all want to know what lies ahead for art in the
introduction
xx
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twenty-first century. In the age of the Internet, CDROM, and World Wide Web (Chapter 7), we can visit
museums ‘virtually’ without the aggravation of crowds
(let alone the cost of an air ticket)—but what do we miss
when we do that? And what kinds of new art are fostered
in the new media?
I hope this overview indicates the range and challenge of the issues that make the study of art so
intriguing. It seems that art always has been and always
will be important to humans; and the things artists do
will probably keep puzzling us as well as providing
insights and joy. Let’s begin our plunge into art theory.
introduction
xxi
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