Monthly Archives: September 2009

What is art?

I have wanted to write a blog post with this title for along time. According to Wikipedia

Art refers to a diverse range of human activities and artifacts, and may be used to cover all or any of the arts, including music, literature and other forms. It is most often used to refer specifically to the visual arts, including media such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking. However it can also be applied to forms of art that stimulate the other senses, such as music, an auditory art. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which considers art.

Art critic Alan Gowans says in The Unchanging Arts (1972), “To know what art is, you must define what it does. You can define art only in terms of function. High art historically grew out of low art, and the functions of low art have remained unchanged throughout history.”  Those functions might be to convert the sinner, to define the human form, to tell a story or to perpetuate power. This applies equally well to popular culture. “The Unchanging Arts” was written before the invention of video games but I think Gowans would certainly recognize them as a form of “Low Art” (not a pejorative, in his view).

The low arts, might sometimes be called crafts, or graphic or commercial art and design. They also include most photography, illustration, cartooning, architecture etc. He contends that both high art and fine art grow out of the low arts. High art fulfils the same sort of functions as low art but stands out by virtue of extraordinary skill, originality or beauty. Fine art on the other hand fulfils no function but is low art taken out of context and produced for its own sake. Remember, he was writing at the time that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were at the height of their careers. He says that the concept of fine art is largely a modern one, although he gives some examples from antiquity. Fine art is art for arts sake, unlike high art which is always for a purpose, often religious, sometimes practical.

Basically he felt that art is defined by its function not its style or method of execution. Art is (and has been for all time) produced for one of four purposes:

1. Substitute Imagery (creating a likeness). This function has been taken over almost entirely by photography and film (and now their digital equivalents), but there would be a few other examples, map-making and theatrical maquettes perhaps.
2. Beautification (and decoration). This is fairly obvious and covers everything from wallpaper to airbrushing.
3. Illustration and Narration (telling, or helping to tell, a story). Comics to epic film making.
4. Conviction and persuasion (making a point, be it religious, political or commercial). Advertising and iconography.

One of his more quotable quotes: “Once objects are saved solely as Art you may be sure that for all practical purposes they are dead, and you may suspect that the civilization collecting them for only that reason has begun to die too.” Gowans died in 2001, I wonder what he would have made of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the dawn of the 21st Century?