Cynthia Freeland
But Is It Art?

Book Reviews

Published by Oxford University Press

So now it seems, that among their other duties such as policing the streets of London, the Metropolitan police have become art critics, when this weekend they paid a visit to the Saatchi Gallery to denounce the work of the photographer Tierney Gearon, who has taken nude photographs of her own small children disguised behind masks, pissing in the snow and playing on the beach. It would be interesting to hear what arguments the Met use to decide whether or not Ms Gearon’s work is art. With what critical theory they substantiate their case. Remember, too, the outcry in 1976, the accusations about the waste of public money, the sensational publicity when Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) – a load of old bricks – was bought by the Tate and then subsequently vandalised. Contemporary art seems, more than any other creative form, to invoke the ire of the middle-brow. There appears to be a brooding anxiety that somehow they are being duped, that those clever-dick artists are pulling the wool over their eyes. Dripped paint, nudes smeared in blue and pulled across a canvas, elephant dung and unmade beds – why a child could do that! In her extremely lucid But is it art? Cynthia A. Freeland, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, Texas, has written a book of simplicity and clarity that may well come to rival John Berger’s celebrated Ways of Seeing as a readers’ digest that deconstructs the rubric of theories that make up contemporary art criticism. What becomes manifest is that so often it is the wrong question that is asked. For rather than a baffled ‘But is it art?’ the pertinent query should be ‘is it good art?’

In language as concise as any English teacher could wish for and mercifully free of ‘art speak’ – she challenges the sacred cow of obfuscation so prevalent in art writing by announcing in the introduction that “A theory should help things make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon and weighty words”. Oh that many an art magazine editor should be forced to read her! Freeland then cavorts with bravura and aplomb through theories about blood, ritual, beauty, and sexual politics. She moves with consummate skill ducking and weaving through different readings of Greek tragedy, Chartres Cathedral, African nail fetish sculpture and Native American dance to an analysis of Baudrillard’s simulacrum and Walter Benjamin’s theories on reproduction to digital media and MTV.

She reminds us that for most tribal people art and artefact are not distinguishable, that the notion of the individualistic artist is a modern, western construct and that Medieval European Christians did not make ‘art’ as we understand it, but saw themselves as skilled craftsmen who tried to emulate and celebrate God’s divine beauty on earth. She starts in myth and ritual and shows how art rooted in these gave cohesion to older societies, pointing out that modern artists cannot take this consensus of shared beliefs in their audience for granted and that meaning is therefore mutable. This, she suggests, can lead to a sense of shock and abandonment, so that art may be perceived as something alien or ‘other’. Symbols used in religious art such as blood, become shocking when employed by artists like Andres Serrano in his infamous Piss Christ, 1987, which makes use, as the name suggests, of bodily fluids.

Kant is nominated as the predecessor to modern scientific psychologists who judge concepts of beauty by studying viewers’ eye movements when subjected to visual imagery and his influential definition of beauty is explained as that which has “purposiveness without a purpose”. This sense of ‘rightness’, manifested largely through form rather than through meaning, developed into the modernist theories of ‘significant form’ expounded by Roger Fry and the notions of ‘flatness’ championed by the American critic Clement Greenberg. Wagner, Kant’s notion of the Sublime, and Andy Warhol are all discussed and Freeland illustrates how it is now impossible to separate art theories from the practice of making art, so interdependent have they become. The ‘primitive’, the ‘exotic’ and the feminine are all rapidly explored and whilst she is careful not to privilege one philosophical stance over another, one senses that her own view of art probably accords with the critic John Dewey’s who claims that art “expresses the life of a community.”

This is a valuable book for anyone perplexed by the arcane theorizing of contemporary art. It is, in the end, optimistic, displaying just about a respectable degree of scepticism illustrated in the quote from the environmental artist, Robert Irwin that ‘art’ “has come to mean so many things that it doesn’t mean anything any more.” Nonetheless Freeland endorses his view that art is perhaps best described as “a continuous expansion of our awareness of the world around us.” For art can both enhance an awareness of ourselves as well as challenge and expand our perceptual relationship to our surroundings. For this reason – dead sheep or not – we will continue to create it and look at it in an attempt to make sense of the complexities of our fractured modern lives.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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