Exercise 3: Reading About Art

This exercise asks us to read an excerpt from Art History: The Basics by Grant Pooke and Diana Newall (2008, Abingdon: Routledge) and make notes of anything interesting, as well as writing down any new terms or words we come across.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of words that I normally know the meaning of, but had to actually look up to see how they were being used in this context. Here’s a list, along with some other definitions that were new to me:

Arbitrary: Founded on or subject to personal whims, prejudices, etc.

Aesthetic: Relating to the philosophy of aesthetics; concerned with notions such as the beautiful and the ugly.

Disparate: Distinct in kind; essentially different; dissimilar.

Institutional Theory of Art: States that art can be deemed as such by relevant members of the artworld, rather than any external process of validation. In short, art is whatever the artworld decides it is.

Fine Art: Mediums including painting, drawing and sculpture,a s opposed to decorative, craft-based arts created for function eg. Ceramics, textiles, needlecraft and glass.

CE & BCE: Common Era and Before Common Era. Used in place of AD and BC.

Hegemonic: Leadership or predominant influence exercised by one authority over another.

Avant-garde: Translates to ‘advanced guard’. In art, it is that which is at the forefront, is innovative, and which introduces and explores new form and subject matter.

Primacy: Being first in order, rank, importance, etc.

Fetish Objects: An object, often man-made, believed to have some kind of power or inherent value, for example, objects used in religious cults.

Anthropology: Science dealing with origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs, of humankind.

Ethnography: A branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.

Primativism: Striving to emulate or recreate ‘primitive’ experiences. In art, it’s typically borrowing from non-western or prehistoric people who were perceived as being primitive.

Mise-en-scene: Translated as ‘putting on stage’. The arrangement of the scenery, props, etc.

Euphemism:The substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt. Also refers to the expression substituted. To euphemise is to speak in euphenisms to refer to something in terms of a euphemism.

Artifice: A clever expedient; ingenious stratagem; crafty or subtle deception; skill; cleverness; a skilfully contrived device; obsolete craftsmanship; cunning; ingenuity; inventiveness.

Oscillate: To swing or move to and fro like a pendulum; to cause an object to move to and fro; vibrate.

Oscillate: To swing or move to and fro like a pendulum; to cause an object to move to and fro; vibrate.

Imitationalism: Aesthetic theory focussing on realistic representation.

Formalism: Aesthetic theory placing emphasis on the formal qualities.

Emotionalism: Aesthetic theory requiring that a work of art must arouse a response of feelings, moods, or emotions in the viewer.

Modernism: The succession of art movements identified since Courbet’s realism in the 1800s, finishing with abstract art in the 1960s. Many styles are included, but there are some general principles that define it: A rejection of history and conservative values (such as realistic depiction of subjects); innovation and experimentation with form (the shapes, colours and lines that make up the work) with a tendency to abstraction; and an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes. (Taken from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/modernism)

The extract begins with a story about a piece of work by David Hensel which was submitted to the Royal Academy for inclusion in one of its shows. What was accepted, however, ended up being just the empty plinth, as the sculpture that sat on it had got separated in transit.

The chapter continues by asking the question ‘What is Art?’ And stating that art is something that artists ‘do’, and works with aesthetic status include ceramics, constructs, paintings, land art, installations, performance art, photography, and sculpture, among others. ‘Art’ refers to many different objects, practices, and processes.

The above distinctions are not applied as strongly to contemporary art, but there’s still a loose boundary between objects made for function and those made mostly for display.

A broader definition includes activities which produce work that has aesthetic value e.g. Film making, performance, and architecture. Architecture has always had a close link to painting, drawing, and sculpture. Examples would be the classical revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Bauhaus aesthetic of the 1930’s which combined art, craft, and architecture.

Contemporary definitions of art aren’t medium specific or restrictive about the nature of aesthetic value the way modernism was. These new ideas are associated with the Institutional Theory of Art explained in the glossary at the start of this post. This definition provides a vast framework for understanding many art practices, but is also so broad that it could be deemed meaningless.

Despite the many explanations explained in the extract, all definitions of art are determined by culture, language, and history, so we should look at the social and cultural origins in order to understand the concepts.

The Classical Concept of Art

Art has the longest history as a practical, craft-based activity. In ancient Greece, sculptures and mosaics would have been judged on the technical standards demonstrated, and they fulfilled practical, public, and ceremonial roles. The human form was to be represented in its most life-like sense, and any other concept of classical craft would have been foreign to these civilisations.

In the western world, cultural assumptions about what art was were linked to the origins and development of the academic subject of art history itself. Most important were the social institutions founded from the late 1500s onwards. They established standard definitions of art, ideas about how it should be looked at, and what it should do.

To label something as art implies a judgement about the image, object, or process, as well as recognising that it meets particular claims as to aesthetic and/or social value within a broader category or tradition. Attributions and meanings of art are particular to different contexts, societies and periods.

The book states that objects and practices may prevail, but the ideas and definitions of art behind them do not. They relate to the social and cultural assumptions of the societies and cultures which produce them.

Fine Art As An Exclusive Category

The extract explains that the academy-based categorisation of fine art (music, painting, sculpture, poetry and architecture) and the agreement underpinning it, demonstrate how durable and dominant such interests were. From the late 1800s onwards, many avant-garde artists produced work which challenged either the subject-matter and primacy of the distinct categories e.g. historical paintings, or the tradition of representation which they signified.

The works of Cezanne, Picasso, and Braque highlighted the importance of the still life genre to the birth of modernism. Traditional art sought to hide the flat surface of paintings and sculptures in order to make them appear more 3D, while Picasso and Braque’s development of collage explored the flat surface rather than tried to hide it.

Non-western art practices and their different ideas about aesthetics, culture, and meaning, had been deemed insignificant by academy standards. Overseas travel and imperialism, however, led to an interest in tribal masks, carvings, fabrics and fetish objects, and there were widespread ethnographic collections throughout Europe.

Avant-garde artists like Braque, Derain, Kirchner, Matisse, Picasso, and de Vlaminc popularised the cult of primitivism, but often reflected romanticised stereotypes about what primitive art and culture signified.

The book says that there is still a tendency to rate fine art as superior to installation, performance, or conceptual art practices, but that the media has tapped into the general public’s negative feelings about the criteria for what is admissible as art. The press and public fuss over the earlier mentioned ’empty plinth’ suggests how deep-rooted some of these negative ideas are.

The final section of this extract notes that, to understand the above categorisations and exclusions, it’s useful to consider the aesthetic theories which have been historically influential in shaping values and assumptions about the meaning of art. Beyond the extract, the book goes on to talk about the various aesthetic theories, often described as: literal qualities of art such as imitationalism (how realistic the work is); formal qualities of art such as the composition (the arrangement of the elements); and expressive qualities of art such as emotionalism (the emotions evoked by the piece). I went on to read more about these theories in Art Talk by Rosalind Ragans (2005, New York: Glencoe/Mcgraw-Hill).

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