Prologue for a Taxonomy of the Arts

Paper presented to the DIALOGUES AND DIFFERENCES symposium at
University of Melbourne, 20-22 April, 2006

© Donald Richardson 2006


In 1970, at a conference of art educators at Adelaide University, Donald Brook, then Professor of Art at Flinders University, declared the theory of art to be in complete disarray. The position of this paper is that nothing has changed in the last 35 years and that this is a disgrace to our profession.

It proposes as a solution the recognition that the universe of things that humans make, do and perform - and have done from time immemorial - can be classified into the creative and the functional, the former being roughly equated with art and the latter with design. The position of craft and architecture in this taxonomy is discussed, as is that of entertainment and advertising.

The entire prologue is conceived within the realm of the aesthetic, which is given a broader definition than simply relating to art or beauty. Aesthetic choices result from judgments that are characterised as not primarily economic, religious, scientific, practical, political or legal. Because they are taken every day of our lives - and frequently - the aesthetic is of great relevance to human life and, therefore, to education.

Arts educators are enjoined to engage in dialogue to rationalise the theoretical problems relating to establishing a sound knowledge base to the arts field.


Why do we Need a Taxonomy of the Arts?
Since the author's student days in the 1950s, he has had little joy from the theories of art. He wondered then - and still does - about E H Gombrich's famous statement, repeated (obviously for maximum emphasis) in both the introduction and the conclusion of his The Story of Art: 'there is no such thing as Art; there are only artists'. What do artists make, then, if it is not art? And how come he named his book The Story of Art if there is no such thing? Earlier, Nikolaus Pevsner had proclaimed, in another influential book - An Outline of European Architecture - 'a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture'. So - Lincoln Cathedral is not a building? And, if Renzo Piano had designed the shed, would it still not be architecture? No one answered these questions then; nor has anyone since. And Gombrich's pronouncement has been quoted - and misquoted - often, and with particularly deleterious effect.

Art theorists proclaim their theses ex cathedra and rarely challenge each other in honest academic inquiry; consequently, we still do not have a sound theoretical basis for the structure of our subject - the more-recent predations of 'Theory' and Arthur Danto notwithstanding. This is a scandalous situation in what claims to be a profession - particularly so for arts educators, who could be expected to be better communicators than artists are.

Because the situation is so obvious and dire in the visual arts, this paper focuses on them while making some inferences to the other arts. The method used is that of the proverbial Irishman who, when asked how to get to a certain place, replied: 'Well, if I was going there, I wouldn't start from here' because nothing will be gained from examining any existing theory; instead, the author will draw on what he has observed in the real world to be first principles.

The Art/Craft Debate
In the March, 2006, issue of Art Monthly Australia, John McPhee - who, in 1980, was appointed the founding Curator of Decorative Arts at the (then) National Gallery of Australia - declared that he never had much patience with the 'art/craft debate' because he always thought that 'there was .only art' (p.9). Statements like this must grate intolerably in the minds of people like Kevin Murray, Director of Craft Victoria, whose book, Craft Unbound, McPhee was reviewing. McPhee praises the book, although he ignores the titles of both it and its author as he blithely discusses the 'artists' he claims it deals with.

Again, we have the statement of Catrina Vignando in the on-line Arts hub: 'crafts practice spans everything'..[and] 'craft objects are made by artists as unique art works (sic)'.

Here we have clear illustrations of the lack of a common understanding by three leaders in the field of two of its key terms - art and craft. Not even the country's leading art institution, the National Gallery, engaged the issue in 1980: to side-step it, it designated McPhee 'Curator of Decorative Arts' - 'a carefully-chosen job title', he admits slyly. Unfortunately, we have become inured to living with such disjunctions. Why do we have two terms if one would do? Or would it? But, which one?

However, we can't really call this a 'debate' because the protagonists simply avoid discussion. There is absolutely no dialogue about these differences. That we can leave such authoritative - yet conflicting - statements hanging in the ether without resolution or - even - discussion is a rank condemnation of our profession. Is there any wonder we are often not taken seriously by other academic disciplines?

But, a little rationalisation can easily resolve the situation, given the will to do so. If we make an empirical survey of the entire universe of things that humans make, do or perform (and have forever) (as anyone can do) we see that there really are - or should be - three concepts and terms to the debate that we should be having. Paola Antonelli, Curator of Architecture and Design at the Queens Campus of New York's Museum of Modern Art, introduced the third term - design - in her recently-published a book - Humble Masterpieces. This book lists the hundreds of small, common, manufactured objects we take for granted in our everyday lives - coat-hangers, Band-Aids, scissors, hairpins, the graphite pencil etc - that are in the Museum's collection. Antonelli calls these 'masterpieces of art and design'. (Would McPhee call them 'art'? Would Vignando call them 'craft'?) But also, two addition terms - 'decorative arts' and 'architecture' - have insinuated themselves into the discussion. And there are others the reader may know - such as 'designer-maker', 'artisan', 'craft worker' and 'tradesman'. Add to this the term 'artistic craftsmanship' that is used in the Copyright Act - which the legal profession had to devise due to the lack of cohesion and cogency in our field - and you will see that we are really in trouble.

This is why we need a taxonomy of the arts. It is a matter of professional integrity.

The Prologue
When we examine the universe of things humans make, do or perform (and have forever), we can easily see that they divide into the creative and the functional. Most things people make, do or perform are intended to be instrumental to human existence and well-being: i.e., they are functional. This term is, of course, used by designers in discussing how well a building or machine works, but it does have wider relevance. Not only should buildings, furnishings, clothing, utensils etc be functional but there is a functional imperative in advertising and entertainment as well. If an advertisement does not sell what it is intended to sell, its functionality is in question. Similarly, if a DVD or stage show does not entertain - and, thus, encourage the public to pay for it - it is as much a 'lemon' as a motor-vehicle that is always breaking down is.

In the visual field, the creation of functional things is design. Designers create not whatever they wish to but according to a design brief, which specifies exactly what is to be made. On the other hand, there can be no such thing as an 'art brief'. The test to apply with a particular work, is to ask: 'is it functional', and - if the answer is in the negative - it is clearly a work of art. Think of Pollock's Blue Poles or Rodin's The Thinker.

But - there is a complication. The creative and the functional can both be present in the one work at the same time, although these different aspects can usually be distinguished - and doing so makes discussion and appreciation of such a work more interesting and valid. An easily-accessible example of this is Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. We can discuss, for example, the nude figures and their symbolic nature, or the separate illustrative panels, as art, but we can also discuss how the work interprets the Bible story (its design) and how the two interact. Of course, Michelangelo was not totally free to express himself as Jackson Pollock was: he had to follow what we would now call the 'design brief' of the Pope (i.e., to illustrate the Old Testament story) and he also had to make the mural fit the confines, structure and style of the chapel and its ceiling.

However, we should note here that arts theorists hardly ever acknowledge design, even though 95% of the things people make and do are functional - and this is part of the problem, because the similarities and differences between art and design are key to the understanding of both.

The situation with architecture is somewhat special. Theorists usually include it under art, but, in the Australia Council, it was under its Design Board - which, however, it dropped - without explanation - several years ago. One indication of the problem is the opinion the architect, Glenn Murcutt, expressed in a recent ABC radio interview: 'if it is not art it is not architecture'. And here we see 'art' used as an honorific, not to define a field of human activity as we should use the term. Strange, this. People refer to the Sydney Opera House as 'art' - when it is clearly architecture, functional - design. But noone ever uses 'design' as an honorific: 'The Mona Lisa is a great design'? - not likely! This is another of the perpetual inconsistencies we have to articulate and resolve if we are to rise above our present defective state.

So far, it has not been necessary to use the term craft at all. So where does this concept find its true place? It is to the post-World War II 'Crafts Movement' that can largely be credited the acceptance by the art institution of such (then) new materials as welded steel, ceramic and plastic. By now, however, the point has been well and truly made and accepted. In spite of this, the (both) defensive and aggressive usage of the term by 'craft' afficionados continues. The resolution is to recognise that every work of (both) art and design has to be realised, whether by the artist/designer him/herself or other person/s - as in the case of where artisans may fabricate a steel work to the specifications of an artist or designer, or when a potter or printer realises a concept by Picasso. So, the true role of craft is to serve art and design by realising works. This - more restricted - definition of craft will only be accepted reluctantly by the craft afficionados, but it is recommended because it logically differentiates it from both art and design. The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling a few years ago, by the way, revealed that Michelangelo was a fine craftsperson/artisan as well as a designer and artist.

The other arts
These examples from the visual have their parallels in the other arts, which can only be touched on. Musicians and writers who compose incidental music or TV jingles are working as designers, not artists. Given this, it is as unreasonable to criticise the front page of The Age or a TV commercial as 'not art' as it is to criticise a symphony because it has no function. The functional and the creative have separate, but related, existences, involving the same creative faculties, and it is useful to recognise and articulate this.

And - it is worth noting that neither writers, musicians nor dancers have any problem acknowledging that there is a craft (i.e., skill) aspect to their arts, which they respect - and must rehearse. Still, many agree with McPhee that 'it is all art' anyway - an unforgivably myopic and transcendental attitude. If it is all art, there must be different kinds of art and we will still need different terms to designate them.

The Aesthetic Realm
The arts are, of course, exclusively human activities. Even though birds sing and build nests, and spiders weave wonderful webs, this is not music, architecture or textiles because animals have no option but to make or do these things. Humans, on the other hand, choose to make or do art or design if they wish to.

Practice of and experience in the arts belong to the aesthetic realm of human experience. 'Aesthetic' is another problematic term, however. Various dictionary definitions refer to a philosophy or science of art, beauty or taste. However. such characterisation is bound to generate eternal - and futile - disputes: What is art? How can 'beautiful' - which is not an objective property but a subjective judgment - be 'scientific'? And it is legend that 'there is no disputation about taste'.

Thus, at present, we can only define the aesthetic negatively - as a human sense, emotion or experience that is not primarily economic, religious, scientific, practical, political or legal. However, like ethical values, aesthetic values are applicable in any situation which involves human action or interaction - not, of course, exclusively to the arts. The implications of this are profound. And, because we make aesthetic judgments about nature as well as art, it is ridiculous to limit the aesthetic to the discussion of art and taste. There is no doubt that the omnipresence - and importance - of the aesthetic in our lives give the realm its relevance in education (for one thing, it is exploited relentlessly in advertising and entertainment).

An aesthetic judgment is characterised by the predicate 'I like (or love) it' or 'I just wanted to', and when no further justification is immediately discernible or expressable. Unfortunately, it is not sufficiently recognised that we make choices based on aesthetic judgments every day - and frequently: judgments about food, clothing, lifestyle, friends, sex and sexuality. Gardening, admiring fast or antique cars, tourism and collecting, are among the common activities that are voluntary and based on, or result in (other things being equal), non-economic, non-religious, non-scientific, non-political and non-legal personal choice. So, they are in the realm of the aesthetic. We engage in these things simply because we 'want to'.

And the aesthetic cannot be equated totally with the beautiful. It includes not only things people may 'like' but also things which just intrigue them or, even, appal or frighten them. We experience the aesthetic when we feel threatened by a thunderstorm as much as when we contemplate a sunset, or by Monet's Nympheas as much as by Goya's Disasters of War. The horror of Shakespeare's King Lear is as much 'aesthetic' as is the poetic felicity of his sonnets. And it includes what the 18th century called the sublime and sturm und drang, what the twentieth called expression, and the tragic and the comic as well as the beautiful.

Thus, the complete relevance of the aesthetic to our lives - and to education - and the argument for finding the true place of our field in the education of our children.

One of the terms we need to control is the 'arts industry'. There cannot be any such thing as an arts industry because artists function in no way as industrialists do. Industries only produces things for which there is an established, pre-existing market (otherwise they go broke!). And there can be no pre-established market for a work of art because noone will have seen it to give it a market value. However, there is an art/s market, which is the world of galleries, dealers, box-office, producers, publishers, book-sellers etc, but - there cannot be an arts industry. That artists sometimes market their products does not make the arts 'industry'. The arts are not about material existence but about enriching our humanity - and for no other purpose. If we continue to let the bean-counters and economic irrationalists dominate our profession, we will betray our charges.

Of course, we must recognise that some aspects of entertainment can truly be said to be 'an industry' - commercial films, in particular, which have to be produced with bums-on-seats in mind. And it is its commercial function that distinguishes pornography, in any medium, from true art. And, of course, industrial mass-production is the modern equivalent of the hand-crafts of old.

Finally - to leave the matter of principles to one side and contemplate the consequences of adopting the bean-counter's approach to our field - we come to the attitude of the Australian Taxation Office to those who produce art - artists and teachers like most of us. It is still not generally known that, last year, the ATO made a Ruling on to what extent an artist can deduct art-making expenses from his/her non-art earnings (as in teaching salaries). To be able to do this, the Ruling said, you have to be a 'professional' artist - to which, I suppose, we would all agree. But, because our field is in so much theoretical chaos, the ATO had to resort to the Macquarie
Dictionary to find a definition of professional artist. From the several alternatives available, it chose - not the one we would all agree with: i.e., a person who follows 'a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning.', but: one who is 'following as a business an occupation ordinarily engaged in as a pastime' (giving the example of a professional golfer). So not only is art - in the eyes of the ATO - a mere pastime (tell that to Pissarro!), but you have to be in business for the purpose of making a profit to be recognised as an artist (tell that to van Gogh!). Fortunately, this ruling was challenged recently in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by Sydney artist, Susan Pedley, who has an impressive CV as an artist, but makes little money from art. The Tribunal found in her favour, a decision that has thrown the principles of taxation of more than artists into disarray. Where that leaves artists in relation to the ATO now is not yet clear, but it should be a warning to us all to get our act in gear and take our profession out of the hands of those who have other agendas. And - as a first step - we have to let it be known that we do actually know - and agree - what we are talking about. Arts educators - because we are probably more articulate than many artists are - are the appropriate group to conduct this dialogue.