'THE CONCEPT 'ART'
© Donald Richardson (April, 1999)
The discussion by Tony Rogers and Rita Irwin of the concept art - or, rather, the lack of such a concept - in the Andyamathanha and Sechelt people they have been studying (Australian Art Education, 21, 2, 1998, pp36-43) is done very sensitively and is deserving of our serious consideration. It raises issues that are well known to those of us who have attempted to understand the 'art' of indigenous people and to relate it to the modern western concept of art.
However, in view of the fact that Rogers and Irwin place such (and, certainly, due) emphasis on the relationship between concepts and linguistic capacity, it is somewhat surprising that they never say what they mean by the term 'art'. Similarly, while they illustrate vividly the difficulty people in these two traditional cultures have identifying what (in western terms) could validly be called 'art', they never say what they mean by the term either.
I suppose Rogers and Irwin believe that readers of this journal will know what 'art' means and will have, in their minds, the same concept it refers to as they have - and this may not be an unreasonable assumption. In my own reading of their article I believed that what they assume (and what gave their subjects such difficulty) is that, inherent in the contemporary Western concept of what art is, is the imperative that it must involve the creative self-expression of an individual human, rather than the reproduction of time-honoured paradigms. But, I know that not everybody will share this assumption. And I am sure that many readers will have difficulty in accepting that at least some of the artefacts produced by traditional cultures cannot be called 'art'. After all, isn't there is a growing market in 'traditional art'?
Rogers and Irwin are understandably - and advisedly - sensitive to the situation; but I believe they are unduly distressed by the prospect of subsuming the artefacts of traditional people under 'the mental boxes in which Eurowestern culture likes to isolate its notions' and, thus, 'distorting the realities of the cultures'. Neither pejorative expression nor gloom or embarrassment is warranted here, in my view. If traditional cultures have no words to describe concepts westerners have identified (because they have not identified them themselves), this is a simple, observable fact which requires no apology or recrimination on either side. The situation is common in all the physical and biological sciences and in other fields as well. So, why should it not be possible - and acceptable - in art?
It may be true in some cases - but it does not necessarily follow (as Rogers and Irwin imply) - that, if a culture does not have words to describe a concept which outside observers have identified and can name, then 'constructs that exist in one culture do not necessarily exist in other cultures'. There are plenty of instances of one culture - either validly or invalidly - identifying and naming concepts in another which individuals in the latter are unaware of or do not agree exist. It may be that individuals in the less self-aware culture have simply not yet identified the concepts which do exist and which do underlie accepted practices and rituals. This may well be the case with art.
But, I am inclined to think that, in the present situation, the reverse is true; however, discussion of this issue is made difficult by the fact that we in the West have no more facility with the concept art (and, hence, the usage of the term) than the Adnyamathanha and the Sechelt have. Not only Rogers and Irwin and their subjects labour under this disability.
It is a commonplace that noone has ever defined 'art' adequately. However, while I acknowledge that there is often disagreement on what the term means, I believe that this is largely due to poor logic, historical ignorance and linguistic inconsistency among those of us who talk and write about the subject a lot. It is a matter of extreme regret to me that many critics and educators (ie those who are charged with explaining and interpreting the often arcane features of works of art to the public) are usually content to 'agree to disagree' on the matter and - what is worse - refuse to discuss it at all! Is there any wonder, then, that researchers like Rogers and Irwin have difficulty discovering what traditional people mean by the term?
Consequently, it is an imperative in their research that they 'question the very notion of art'. That they have found 'that there is no such thing as art within the traditions of either the Sechelt or Adnyamathanha peoples' is not surprising, and can be explained by the following.
WHAT ART IS
Many in the West have attempted to define art. Some of these definitions are amusing:
o art is anything you can get away with (Marshall McLuhan, 1967)
o if it sells, it's art (a director of Marlborough Fine Arts Ltd, 1950s)
These were devised in desperation about the 'state of the art' of the art of their day by people who - in spite of their involvement in the field - did not really understand the situation. There is a sly truth in the McLuhan quote, but the other one is about the art-market - rather than about art per se - and is actually (at least in the Australian context) more likely to be the reverse of the truth than otherwise.
Others are more serious, universal and to the point:
o skill, especially human skill (Concise Oxford Dictionary)
o Then shall we set down the artistsÖ.as mimics of a copy ofÖ.virtue, or of whatever else they represent, who never get in touch with the truth? (Plato)
o a corner of nature seen through a temperament (mile Zola)
o The artist is the creator of beautiful things (Oscar Wilde)
o an attempt to create pleasing forms (Herbert Read)
o People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider tha tthe aim of that activity is beauty (Leo Tolstoy)
o the ordering of what in most minds is disordered (I A Richards)
o art is vision or intuition (Benedetto Croce)
o What turns something from a piece of nature into a work of art is magic (David Hockney)
All of these (and many others I could have quoted) contain at least one element of truth, but none (perhaps) is totally adequate, and some directly contradict each other.
A minimum statement which, I believe, can be agreed upon is: art is made by humans. Spiders' webs, nests and the bowers of some birds, ant-hills, and such like are created structures which humans may admire for their ingenuity and beauty, but they differ from similar things made by humans in that the creatures which create them have no option but to do so, and their forms are dictated by genetic inheritance, not aesthetic choice. No matter how 'driven' some artists seem to be, human art is, at base, a voluntary activity.
ART AND DESIGN
Of course, art is part of the vast universe of things which humans create. But, most of the things humans make are functional (ie they are instrumental to our existence and well-being): this includes buildings, machinery, clothing, vehicles, processed foods, communications systems and such like. I believe that these things are generally agreed to belong in the category design. Even though individual examples of these things may be mass-produced and (therefore) identical to each other, a designer designed their prototypes (even if that person did not honour him/herself with the title 'designer'). The mental, practical and aesthetic processes and faculties used by designers in the development of these prototypes are identical in many ways to those used by artists - except that they are always used in the service of a specific, functional, end.
Pictures, sculptures, artists' prints and the photographic and electronic products of artists are also part of the universe of things which humans create. However, they have no functional imperative. Whereas a designer is told what to design (given a 'design-brief', in the jargon), no one tells (or can tell) an artist what to art (sic). Herein lies the - absolutely clear - distinction between art and design.
A third term that is relevant to this discussion is craft. It is an unfortunate fact that the 'art-craft debate' vitiates the issue by limiting the discussion to two terms, whereas there are three concepts to be considered. Craft in its strictest sense means skill, but - as we all know - what is admired in 'creative' functional objects is much more than the facility by which they are created. What is admired in 'creative' craft-works (as well, perhaps, as the skill with which they were made) is their creativeness, which means the creativeness of their design (or designer/s).
So - there are three concepts involved in any discussion of the things humans create:
craft - the skill of the operator as evidenced in the work
design - the realm of functional things, and
art - the realm of non-functional things.
And this related trio of concepts must apply in all human cultures, regardless of whether individual members are aware of them or not - and, to say so, cannot be condemned as cultural colonialism or 'distorting the realities' of other cultures. (We could also observe here that these distinctions are not confined to the visual world: the functional and the non-functional, and the identification of skills, are as relevant to the creation and discussion of music, drama and literature as to the visual.)
We should not be surprised that traditional cultures have no concept of art as it is known currently in the West, because the concept itself is a product of Western thought - and only in the last one hundred years or so. It may well be that theorists disagree radically on the meaning of 'art', but we only have to inspect the works of the great artists of the modernist period to understand that what they though art is is the creative self-expression of an individual. This is the evident common criterion of value that these artists held to - in spite of the diversity of their works and attitudes. But, although we can see intimations or forerunners of this attitude in the art - and read them in the writings - of earlier painters and sculptors, only in the latter part of the 19th century were the conditions such that it could achieve full and independent realization.
Before the middle of the 19th century, most pictures and sculptures were commissioned, which means that the patron provides what we now call (in relation to the designing of products) a 'design-brief', which specifies the function of the work - although not its form. A portrait has to represent a particular person, a religious or historical work a specified theme, just as an architect has to design either a church or a house. Of course, the brief allowed - and even encouraged - a certain amount of freedom of the artist to interpret the patron's wishes, just as it does the modern product designer, but the functional imperative remained nevertheless. Thus, there was virtually no pure art - even in Europe - before the middle of last century, which is the situation still in traditional cultures, as Rogers and Irwin illustrate. Because all the artefacts in these cultures are functional, the modern Western term, 'art', cannot be applied to them - a fact the Adnyamathanha and Sechelt people are obviously aware of. But these works can properly be called design - a term which would be very useful for ethnographic researchers. Functional objects are not devoid of aesthetic qualities - far from it - so designating traditional artefacts 'design' enables us to discuss these just as we do the form or performance of a Porsche. The aesthetic can be seen as a dimension of discussion which overlays all three of the concepts art, design and craft.
It will be obvious that, in all created works, more than one of the trio of concepts will be present, and the relationship between them can be a complex one. To take as an example Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling: the artist had a clear design-brief to illustrate certain passages from The Bible, and he had to fit his scheme to the format of the building itself; but he operated as an artist in his creative interpretation of his theme; and his skills in representation and in the fresco medium are evident. All three are integrated in the work, but each is, nonetheless, distinguishable and can be discussed in isolation from - or in relation to - the others. An object that is purely functional, however, has only design and craft aspects and can only validly be discussed as such.
'ART' AS AN HONORIFIC
But, it is all very well to be coolly logical about all this: the fact is that people - including even art educators - are not always logical or consistent in how they talk about art, design and craft. The most curious example of this is how we commonly use 'art' as an honorific term. We praise the Sydney Opera House as 'art', believing in so doing that we are (justly, no doubt) raising it above other, more pedestrian, architecture in terms of its originality and individuality. Yet, it is architecture, nevertheless (although some of its functionality has been criticized). Would it not be more logical to praise it as 'excellent, creative design', or use some such qualitative expression?
THE AMBIGUITY OF 'DESIGN'
Another common, yet confusing, practice is to speak of the 'design' of a work of art. By this, we usually mean the arrangement of the formal elements of a picture or sculpture - and it is valid to discuss this, of course. But it would be less confusing if we used the equivalent term 'composition' here and left 'design' to cover the field of individually-designed functional things.
In recent years, the line between art and design appears to have been blurred by those who make objects which traditionally would have been functional, but for which the purpose has been to make things which are more exhibitable (as works of art) than objects for utilitarian use. Thus, we see marvelously rich glass dishes or vases which could only minimally be used to hold liquids or food and leather pieces or silver objects which could never be worn on the human body. This is an interesting and valid current development, but it can only be seen as a whimsical discussion of the very concepts of art and design and not to invalidate the distinction made between the two which is made here and is readily observable in the real world.
This term, too, has had its confusing usage. This stems from the post-World War II 'Crafts Movement', which sponsored the production of individually-created functional objects that had been denied consumers due to the austerity of the wartime. The problem arose when 'craft' was used to cover all functional things regardless of whether they were individually designed or mass-produced - thus blurring the distinction between craft per se and design per se. Hopefully, we can avoid this difficulty now.
Unfortunately, we have not been well served by the theorists in negotiating through this linguistic chaos.
Two Australians - Bernard Smith and Donald Brook - each achieved, in his own terms, what many consider to be adequate descriptions of what art is (even though their definitions differ in significant ways). Yet both is exclusively concerned with 'high' or 'fine' art. Neither goes into any depth about the rest of the universe of things which humans make.
Smith, in his recent Modernism's History, distinguishes between what he calls 'art in the special sense' (which equates roughly with 'fine art' as in 'high' painting and sculpture, and also includes architecture, but only in its highest expression) and 'art in the general sense' (which covers all the rest of human creation, undifferentiated further, although he sometimes uses the term craft in this context).
Brook's most-quoted definition of art as 'non specific experimental modeling' (1970s) also equates only with 'fine art', emphasizing the fact that artists, properly so-called, have always pushed the avant-garde edge; but it, too, ignores the rest of human creation.
On the international scale, the eminent art-historian E H Gombrich created confusion in the minds of those who read the last page of his influential The Story of Art (1950 and many reprints) by writing: 'There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.' Unfortunately, Gombrich did not go on to tell us what artists make, if it is not art!
Even Nikolas Pevsner, whose seminal An Outline of European Architecture (1943 and many reprints) was a basic text for many trainee art educators, says that, whereas Lincoln cathedral is 'architecture', a bicycle-shed is not: it is 'a building'. Although this makes an important qualitative statement, in doing it this way Pevsner begs the questions of whether Lincoln cathedral is a building or not, and what to call a bicycle-shed which has been designed by an architect!
On the other hand, we have had greater assistance from some of the key writers on art education. Both Viktor Lowenfeld and Herbert Read always meant 'modern art' when they used the term 'art'. This is because they were concerned to have school-students express themselves freely and creatively, just as the modernist artists did when they were bringing about the revolution in art and in our intuition of what art really is in the twentieth century. Let us - as art educators - hold on to this and go forward to develop and use terminology to describe adequately and consistently the rest of the things humans make - viz 'craft' and 'design'.
Brook, Donald (1978) 'Children's Art and People's Art', Educational Philosophy and Theory, 10, 1, pp. 19-30.
Gombrich, E H (1950) The Story of Art New York: Phaidon.
Lowenfeld, Viktor (1947) Creative and Mental Growth New York: Macmillan.
Pevsner, Nikolaus (1943) An Outline of European Architecture Great Britain: Penguin.
Read, Herbert (1941) Education Through Art London: Faber.
Rykwert, Joseph (1996) The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Smith, Bernard (1998) Modernism's History Melbourne: Oxford