IS ART DEAD? OPEN LETTERS-
Opium Philosophie ︎
Read my full response here:
Prima facie art does not seem to be dead. We are surrounded by it almost every day. In the first open letter, Seiceanu & Oriol point to a paradox: art appears to be more vigorously alive today than ever: permeating our modern everyday lives, but there is something about art that seemingly has lost its inherent shimmer, making us postulate its death.
The theorists that postulate art’s end yearn for a time long passed, where art had a better defined and delineated role within societies and histories. Hegel, thinking back to a time where art represented spirituality in a perfect equilibrium of expression and spiritual freedom. Danto, longing for a time where one could characterize art according to the specific factors that it possessed. Baudrillard, pining for a time when art could genuinely be original. The common thread running through all arguments is the past. The current cannot succeed at recreating what was done in the past and, therefore, its future is condemned.
With this worry comes a thought about one of the most persistent ideas in art theory: the seeming impossibility of defining art. The concept of art is not static, and it never was - it is a skewed view of the past. Drawn to account for the possibility of a rational linear progression of what art could be and should become. It is not a pretty picture of the evolution of artistic expression, spiritual enlightenment, or original innovation in light of the more nostalgic theories of art. Thus, when art has become something that does not fit the philosophers’ linear picture: consumable objects or experiences, the philosophers or theorists cry out that art is dead.
The death of the definition of art seems to be a legit worry. The objection “that is not art” has ceased to be valid, everything and nothing has, therefore, become an art. The definition of it is so broad that there is no definition. Art history, however, seems to be a continual sequence of artists breaking the bounds of the definition of art: expanding the question of method and meaning as with impressionism and readymades. How can it be then that the death of art connects inherently with the non-conformity of the ideas of the theorists themselves? The questionable and commercialized coexistence of art and modern life seems to be straying away from something that should be essential to art. That is, the possibility of separating art from other non-art objects, according to Danto, one can do so through theory.
Morris Weitz, in his The Role of Theory in Aesthetics questions the art theorist project of defining and delineating the concept of art. He finds the search for a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be defined as art problematic. Art is an open concept according to Weitz, and he states that: “the very expansive, adventurous character of art, its ever-present changes and novel creations, makes it logically impossible to ensure any set of defining properties. We can, of course, choose to close the concept. But to do this with “art” or “tragedy” or “portraiture,” etc., is ludicrous since it forecloses on the very conditions of creativity in the arts.” He expounds his view by referring to Wittgenstein’s ideas about language-games from his Philosophical Investigations. We should shift our questions from what is art to how do we use the concept art? How is the word ‘art’ used in language? We should not look for the last and final definition of art but for how artworks resemble each other, looking for family resemblance. We could find some paradigm cases of art to use as a measuring stick, but that is not all-encompassing.
Furthermore, Weitz mentions two ways of elucidating the usage of the concept of art. On the one hand, there are descriptive usages; when we describe something as 'art' which is analogous to describing something as a chair. The descriptive questions entail what we do when we might find similar conditions, properties that are present in most artworks, rather than necessary conditions for a work of art to be considered art. On the other hand, evaluative usage such as “is this good art?” concerns how we praise a work of art as a work of art, what conditions constitute an excellent work of art? In his view, these usages of art are often confused, and this creates problems for the definition of art. Weitz’s clarification is, however, not bulletproof since it is from 1956, and one could say that the descriptive usage no longer applies. If we can, in the year 2020, use the word art for anything, we have to rethink the open concept of art.
If taken this way, theories of art are saved from pointlessness or inanity. Diving into the use of the concept of art, therefore opens up a whole world of possible ‘living’ definitions of art, definitions that are ‘forthcoming’. The end of art is, according to my reading of Weitz, a false view of art: it entails looking at art as a closed concept, defined logically, which is impossible since art is an empirical concept.
Is it the task of philosophy to define art? On Weitz’s view, yes – but in a different sense than before. Art might be more active than ever because of the false idea of sufficient and necessary conditions of art have been uncovered. The musician does not have to be a virtuoso, and visual art doesn’t have to be completely original to be exceptional; Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills are a good example. The worry now is, if we define art as a synthetic/empirical concept that is continuously changing, and adapting to the use of the concept it is, consequently, contingent. If everything can at some point be art, has art ended? Is it parallel to postulating arts death? Or are we merely thinking of it in the wrong way?