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Oxford University Press
But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory

But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory

by Cynthia Freeland
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From Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today's art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim—is this really art?

In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern, often sensational, works back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. In addition, Freeland guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Lastly, throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor.

It is instructive to recall that Henri Matisse himself was originally derided as a "wild beast." To horrified critics, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful. And that, writes Freeland, is art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780192853677
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2002
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 525,004
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 4.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Cynthia Freeland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, Texas. Her books include The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle, and Philosophy and Film.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Blood and beauty

A rude awakening at the Aesthetics Society

On one morning at our American Society for Aesthetics conference, a small group of people straggled into a room at 9 a.m., to be jolted awake by slides and videos on 'The Aesthetics of Blood in Contemporary Art'. We saw the blood of Mayan kings and of aboriginal Australian youths at initiation ceremonies. We saw blood poured over statues in Mali and spurting from sacrificial water buffaloes in Borneo. Some of the blood was more recent and closer to home. Buckets of blood drenched performance artists and droplets of blood oozed from the lips of Orlan, who is redesigning herself through plastic surgery to resemble famous beauties in Western art. Something was guaranteed to disgust almost everyone there.

    Why has blood been used in so much art? One reason is that it has interesting similarities to paint. Fresh blood has an eye-catching hue with a glossy sheen. It will stick to a surface, so you can draw or make designs with it (on the skin of the Aborigine youths, its shimmering crosshatched patterns evoke the archetypal era of the 'Dream Time'). Blood is our human essence—Dracula sucks it up as he creates the undead. Blood can be holy or noble, the sacrificial blood of martyrs or soldiers. Spots of blood on sheets indicate the loss of virginity and passage to adulthood. Blood can also be contaminated and 'dangerous', the blood of syphilis or Aids. Obviously, blood has a host of expressive and symbolic associations.

Blood and ritual

But does blood in kooky modern (urban, industrial, First World) art mean what it does in 'primitive' rituals? Some people advocate a theory of art as ritual: ordinary objects or acts acquire symbolic significance through incorporation into a shared belief system. When the Mayan king shed blood before the multitude in Palenque by piercing his own penis and drawing a thin reed through it three times, he exhibited his shamanistic ability to contact the land of the undead. Some artists seek to recreate a similar sense of art as ritual. Diamanda Galás fuses operatic wizardry, light shows, and glistening blood in her Plague Mass, supposedly to exorcise pain in the era of Aids. Hermann Nitsch, the Viennese founder of the Orgies Mystery Theatre, promises catharsis through a combination of music, painting, wine-pressing, and ceremonial pouring of animal blood and entrails. You can read all about it on his Web site at

    Such rituals are not altogether alien to the European tradition: there is a lot of blood in its two primary lineages, the Judaeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman. Jahweh required sacrifices as parts of His covenant with the Hebrews, and Agamemnon, like Abraham, faced a divine command to slit the throat of his own child. The blood of Jesus is so sacred that it is symbolically drunk to this day by believing Christians as promising redemption and eternal life. Western art has always reflected these myths and religious stories: Homeric heroes won godly favour by sacrificing animals, and the Roman tragedies of Lucan and Seneca piled up more body parts than Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Renaissance paintings showed the blood or lopped heads of martyrs; Shakespeare's tragedies typically concluded with swordplay and stabbings.

    A theory of art as ritual might seem plausible, since art can involve a gathering guided by certain aims, producing symbolic value by the use of ceremonies, gestures, and artefacts. Rituals of many world religions involve rich colour, design, and pageantry. But ritual theory does not account for the sometimes strange, intense activities of modern artists, as when a performance artist uses blood. For participants in a ritual, clarity and agreement of purpose are central; the ritual reinforces the community's proper relation to God or nature through gestures that everyone knows and understands. But audiences who see and react to a modern artist do not enter in with shared beliefs and values, or with prior knowledge of what will transpire. Most modern art, in the context of theatre, gallery, or concert hall, lacks the background reinforcement of pervasive community belief that provides meaning in terms of catharsis, sacrifice, or initiation. Far from audiences coming to feel part of a group, sometimes they get shocked and abandon the community. This happened in Minneapolis when performance artist Ron Athey, who is HIV-positive, cut the flesh of a fellow performer on stage and then hung blood-soaked paper towels over the audience, creating a panic. If artists just want to shock the bourgeoisie, it becomes pretty hard to distinguish the latest kind of art that gets written up in Artforum from a Marilyn Manson performance that includes Satanic rituals of animal sacrifice on stage.

    The cynical assessment is that blood in contemporary art does not forge meaningful associations, but promotes entertainment and profit. The art world is a competitive place, and artists need any edge they can get, including shock value. John Dewey pointed out in Art as Experience, in 1934, that artists must strive for novelty in response to the market:

Industry has been mechanized and an artist cannot work mechanically for mass production.... Artists find it incumbent ... to betake themselves to their work as an isolated means of 'self-expression.' In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity.

    Damien Hirst, the 'Britpack' artist who sparked controversy in the 1990s by displaying macabre high-tech exhibits of dead sharks, sliced cows, or lambs in vitrines of formaldehyde, has parlayed his notoriety into success with his popular Pharmacy restaurant in London. It is hard to imagine how Hirst's tableaux of rotting meat (complete with maggots) helped his image in the food business—but fame works in mysterious ways.

    Some of the most infamous art of recent decades became controversial because of its startling presentation of human bodies and body fluids. At the 1999 Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the most controversial artwork ('Virgin Mary' by Chris Ofili) even used elephant dung. Controversy erupted about funding of the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the late 1980s after bodies were penetrated and exposed, as blood, urine, and semen became newly prominent in art. Images like Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987) and Robert Mapplethorpe's Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977) (which showed one man urinating into another man's mouth) became key targets for critics of contemporary art.

    It is no accident that this controversial work was about religion, as well as body fluids. Symbols of pain and suffering that are central to many religions can be shocking when dislocated from their community. If they mix with more secular symbols, their meaning is threatened. Artwork that uses blood or urine enters into the public sphere without the context of either well-understood ritual significance or artistic redemption through beauty. Probably the critics of modern art are nostalgic for beautiful and uplifting art like the Sistine Chapel. There, at least the bloody scenes of martyred saints or torments of sinners at the Last Judgement were wonderfully painted, with a clear moral aim (just as the horrors of ancient tragedy were depicted through inspiring poetry). Similarly, some critics of contemporary art feel that if a body is to be shown nude, it should resemble Botticelli's Venus or Michelangelo's David. These critics seemed unable to find either beauty or morality in Serrano's infamous photograph Piss Christ (see Plate I). Senator Jesse Helms summed it up, 'I do not know Mr Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not an artist, he is a jerk.'

    Controversies about art and morality are not new, of course. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) also dealt with hard questions about morality, art, and taste, a key concern of his era. It is likely that Hume would not have approved of blasphemy, immorality, sex, or the use of body fluids as appropriate in art. He felt artists should support Enlightenment values of progress and moral improvement. The writings of Hume and his successor Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) form the basis of modern aesthetic theory, so I turn to them next.

Taste and beauty

The term 'aesthetics' derives from the Greek word for sensation or perception, aisthesis. It came into prominence as a label for the study of artistic experience (or sensibility) with Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762). The Scottish philosopher David Hume did not use this term but spoke of 'taste', a refined ability to perceive quality in an artwork. 'Taste' might seem completely subjective—we all know the saying 'there's no accounting for taste'. Some people have favourite colours and desserts, just as they prefer certain kinds of automobiles or furniture. Isn't art just like this? Perhaps you prefer Dickens and Fassbinder, while I prefer Stephen King and Austin Powers; how can you prove that your taste is better than mine? Hume and Kant both struggled with this problem. Both men believed that some works of art really are better than others, and that some people have better taste. How could they account for this?

    The two philosophers took different approaches. Hume emphasized education and experience: men of taste acquire certain abilities that lead to agreement about which authors and artworks are the best. Such people, he felt, eventually will reach consensus, and in doing so, they set a 'standard of taste' which is universal. These experts can differentiate works of high quality from less good works. Hume said men of taste must 'preserve minds free from prejudice', but thought no one should enjoy immoral attitudes or 'vicious manners' in art (his examples included Muslim and Roman Catholic art marred by over-zealousness). Sceptics now criticize the narrowness of this view, saying that Hume's taste-arbiters only acquired their values through cultural indoctrination.

    Kant too spoke about judgements of taste but he was more concerned with explaining judgements of Beauty. He aimed to show that good judgements in aesthetics are grounded in features of artworks themselves, not just in us and our preferences. Kant tried to describe our human abilities to perceive and categorize the world around us. There is a complex interplay among our mental faculties including perception, imagination, and intellect or judgement. Kant held that in order to function in the world to achieve our human purposes, we label much of what we sense, often in fairly unconscious ways. For example, we modern Westerners recognize round flat things out in the world, and we categorize some of these as dinner plates. Then we use them to eat our meals. Similarly, we recognize some things as food and others as potential threats or marriage partners.

    It is not easy to say how we categorize things like red roses as beautiful. The beauty of the roses is not out there in the world, as the roundness and flatness are in the plates. If it were, then we would not get into so many disagreements of taste. And yet there is some sort of basis for claiming that the roses are beautiful. After all, there is quite a lot of human agreement that roses are beautiful and that cockroaches are ugly. Hume tried to resolve this problem by saying that judgements of taste are 'intersubjective': people with taste tend to agree with each other. Kant believed that judgements of beauty were universal and grounded in the real world, even though they were not actually 'objective'. How could this be?

    Kant was a kind of predecessor to modern scientific psychologists who study judgements of beauty by observing infant preferences for faces, tracking viewers' eye movements, or hooking up artists to do magnetic resonance images (MRIs)—see also below in Chapter 6. Kant noted that we typically apply labels or concepts to the world to classify sensory inputs that suit a purpose. For example, when I find a round flat thing in the dishwasher that I recognize as a plate, I put it away in the cupboard with other plates, not in the drawer with spoons. Beautiful objects do not serve ordinary human purposes, as plates and spoons do. A beautiful rose pleases us, but not because we necessarily want to eat it or even pick it for a flower arrangement. Kant's way of recognizing this was to say that something beautiful has 'purposiveness without a purpose'. This curious phrase needs to be further unpacked.

Beauty and disinterestedness

When I perceive the red rose as beautiful, this is not quite like putting it into my mental cupboard of items labelled 'beauty'—nor do I just throw the disgusting cockroach into my mental trash can of 'ugly' items. But features of the object almost force me ('occasion me') to label it as I do. The rose might have its own purpose (to reproduce new roses), but that is not why it is beautiful. Something about its array of colours and textures prompts my mental faculties to feel that the object is 'right.' This rightness is what Kant means by saying that beautiful objects are purposive. We label an object beautiful because it promotes an internal harmony or 'free play' of our mental faculties; we call something 'beautiful' when it elicits this pleasure. When you call a thing beautiful, you thereby assert that everyone ought to agree. Though the label is prompted by a subjective awareness or feeling of pleasure, it supposedly has objective application to the world.

    Kant warned that enjoyment of beauty was distinct from other sorts of pleasure. If a ripe strawberry in my garden has a ruby colour, texture, and odour that are so delightful that I pop it into my mouth, then the judgement of beauty has been contaminated. In order to appreciate the beauty of this strawberry, Kant thinks our response has to be disinterested—independent of its purpose and the pleasurable sensations it brings about. If a viewer responds to Botticelli's Venus with an erotic desire, as if she is a pinup, he is actually not appreciating her for her beauty. And if someone enjoys looking at a Gauguin painting of Tahiti while fantasizing about going on vacation there, then they no longer have an aesthetic relation to its beauty.

    Kant was a devout Christian, but he did not think God played an explanatory role in theories of art and beauty. To make beautiful art requires human genius, the special ability to manipulate materials so that they create a harmony of the faculties causing viewers to respond with distanced enjoyment. (We will look further at an example, Le Nôtre's gardens at Versailles, in the next chapter.) In summary, for Kant the aesthetic is experienced when a sensuous object stimulates our emotions, intellect, and imagination. These faculties are activated in 'free play' rather than in any more focused and studious way. The beautiful object appeals to our senses, but in a cool and detached way. A beautiful object's form and design are the key to the all-important feature of 'purposiveness without a purpose'. We respond to the object's rightness of design, which satisfies our imagination and intellect, even though we are not evaluating the object's purpose.

Kant's legacy

Kant developed an account of beauty and of our responses to it. This was not all there was to his theory of art, nor did he insist that all art must be beautiful. But his account of beauty became central to later theories that emphasized the notion of an aesthetic response. Many thinkers held that art should inspire a special and disinterested response of distance and neutrality. Kant's view of beauty had ramifications well into the twentieth century, as critics emphasized the aesthetic in urging audiences to appreciate new and challenging artists like Cézanne, Picasso, and Pollock. Art writers such as Clive Bell (1881-1964), Edward Bullough (1880-1934), and Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) adopted varying views and wrote for different audiences, but they shared attitudes in common with Kant's aesthetics. Bell, for instance, writing in 1914 emphasized 'Significant Form' in art rather than content. 'Significant Form' is a particular combination of lines and colours that stir our aesthetic emotions. A critic can help others see form in art and feel the resulting emotions. These emotions are special and lofty: Bell spoke of art as an exalted encounter with form on Art's 'cold white peaks' and insisted that art should have nothing to do with life or politics.

    Bullough, a literature professor at Cambridge, wrote a famous essay in 1912 that described 'psychical distance' as a prerequisite for experiencing art. This was a somewhat updated account of Kant's notion of beauty as the 'free play of imagination'. Bullough argued that sexual or political subjects tend to block aesthetic consciousness:

... [E]xplicit references to organic affections, to the material existence of the body, especially to sexual matters, lie normally below the Distance-limit, and can be touched on by Art only with special precautions.

Obviously, the works of Mapplethorpe and Serrano would be the furthest thing from Bullough's mind as candidates for the label of 'Art'.

    And Greenberg, who was Pollock's major champion, celebrated form as the quality through which a painting or sculpture refers to its medium and to its own conditions of creation. Seeing what is in a work or what it 'says' is not the point; the astute viewer (with 'taste') is meant to see the work's very flatness or its way of dealing with paint as paint.

    There are important rivals to this account of art as Significant Form; I will consider some later in this book. But the views of Enlightenment thinkers like Kant and Hume still reverberate today in discussions of quality, morality, beauty, and form. Art experts testified at the obscenity trial of the Cincinnati gallery that exhibited Mapplethorpe's work that his photographs counted as art because of their exquisite formal properties, such as careful lighting, classical composition, and elegant sculptural shapes. In other words, Mapplethorpe's work fulfilled the 'beauty' expectation required of true art—even nudes with huge penises should be viewed with dispassion as cousins of Michelangelo's David.

    But how did proponents defend Serrano's Piss Christ? This photograph was highly offensive to many people. Serrano has made other difficult photographs as well: his Morgue series zeroes in on gruesome dead bodies. Another disturbing image, Heaven and Hell, shows a complacent man (actually the artist Leon Golub) dressed in red as a Cardinal of the Church standing beside the nude and bloody torso of a hanging woman. Cabeza de Vaca features the decapitated head of a cow that unnervingly seems to peek at the viewer. Taking on the challenge of explaining such work, critic Lucy Lippard wrote about Serrano in Art in America in April 1990. We can look at her review to see how an art theorist talks about difficult contemporary art. Because she emphasizes the art's content and Serrano's emotional and political commentary, Lippard represents a different tradition from the aesthetic formalism of Kant's twentieth-century successors.

Defending Serrano

Lippard's defence of Serrano uses a three-pronged analysis: she examines (1) his work's formal and material properties; (2) its content (the thought or meaning it expresses); and (3) its context, or place in the Western art tradition. Each step is important, so let us review them in more detail.

    First, Lippard describes how a picture like Piss Christ looks and was made. Many people were so disgusted by the title that they could not bear to look at the work; others saw it only in small black and white reproductions. My students thought that the image showed a crucifix in a toilet or in a jar of urine—neither of which is true. The actual photograph looks different from a small image in a magazine or book (like the one reproduced here)—just as aficionados will say that an Ansel Adams original has qualities no reproduction can convey. Piss Christ is huge for a photograph: 60 by 40 inches (roughly five by three feet). It is a Cibachrome, a colour photograph that is glossy and rich in its colours. This is a difficult medium to work with because the prints' glassy surfaces are easily ruined by the touch of a fingertip or the slightest speck of dust.

Excerpted from But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland. Copyright © 2001 by Cynthia Freeland. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Colour plates
Black and white illustrations
1. Blood and beauty
2. Paradigms and purposes
3. Cultural crossings
4. Money, markets, museums
5. Gender, genius, and Guerrilla Girls
6. Cognition, creation, comprehension
7. Digitizing and disseminating
Further reading
List of Illustrations
1. Blood and Beauty
2. Paradigms and Purposes
3. Cultural Crossings
4. Money, Markets, Museums
5. Gender, Genius, and Guerrilla Girls
6. Cognition, Creation, Comprehension
7. Digitizing and Disseminating
Further Reading

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But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Coming from a science background, I wondered how theory could be applied to art. It seems that, in the case of art theory, the major and most relevant questions are: “What is art?” and “Why is art valued?” The author provides an historical framework of how philosophers and critics have approached these questions. Looking at the business and politics of art, good examples and references are provided throughout. She also shows how 'cultural biases' can be intervening variables in both the framing of the initial questions and the answers. It is not surprising that the conclusion is the investigation of art theory, like scientific exploration, often leads to more questions than are answered. The author characterizes art theory as an explanation of the diversity of the subject, deals well with why art is special, provides a good overview of the topic and a stepping stone for further reading on the subject.
EricaKline on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good, funny, slightly shocking. Discusses theories of art, but doesn't endorse any particular theory.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For a busy but occassional aesthete, this is a wonderful book. Mindful of the busy people and thus goes straight to other things we still have to know about art and peppering the pages with juicy 'in' things in art work. Besides from the good writing, I like the compactness of the book and the typeset. It makes the topic less threatening and even friendly. Congratulations to the writer Freeland. More, please.