This past year, I took a philosophy of art class and it was extremely interesting. Deciphering what a work of art is, or even what counts as art, regardless of whether or not it is good, is rather difficult. Trying to get past the subjectivity of differing tastes in art is challenging enough, but then deciding how we go about judging art is even harder, once again because of differences in opinion. Throughout the course we explored various theories on art, both old and new, including those of Plato, Clive Bell, George Dickey, Denis Dutton, Kant, Dewey, Susan Sontag, Hume, Elaine Scarry, and others.
So what comprises art? Plato’s idea is that we begin with art, or forms more generally, and as we intellectualize the forms that we witness or experience we form a more refined concept of forms, or art at this point, and come full circle. Bell believed that art was that which possessed significant form, but what exactly significant form is, is unclear. For Dickey, a work of art has to be an artifact and it has to be made for a public audience (the public audience does not necessarily need to be a big audience, just as long as there is at least one member). This idea for what art is begins to make more sense than Bell’s; although Plato’s is still amicable. Dutton believed that a work of art must be comprised of complexity, serious content, purpose, and distance. These facets are fairly self-explanatory. Distance may be a little bit trickier to understand, and it means that experiencing a work of art takes us outside of ourselves, our lives, and distances us from ourselves. His theory further defines what art is, and I see more merit in and take it more seriously than others.
Kant is often thought of as the father of aesthetics and his theory is a bit more complicated. He further defines what Bell described as significant form, in that there is something in and of itself present in a work of art independent of our experience of it, and it may out of our mind’s grasp. For Kant, it is what jars us once in a while that is ART…what takes us by surprise, or takes us aback and makes us stop and reflect on that thing. Beauty is an important component of art for Kant, so for him art must be beautiful, whatever beautiful might mean…Dewey has yet another perception of what art is. For him, art is an experience. It is not necessarily any experience that counts as a work of art, but rather those experiences that we set apart from the rest and think of as particularly special…they are AN experience rather than just random experiences. As we go through our lives, we are constantly going back and forth between the two roles of creating the experience, or art, and viewing the experience (art). He also emphasizes our stream of consciousness as being important in the formation of our experiences. AN experience is when we feel most alive and this is why the arts are valuable…to bring people to life.
Scarry has yet another take on art, as she believes that our pursuit of art is a pursuit for truth. She also thinks that when we encounter beauty we have a drive to replicate or reflect it by making art. When we experience beauty we realize the potential for error and, therefore, want to pursue truth. She even believes that beauty can lead to justice, but it is unclear exactly how…however, beauty can also get in the way of justice because it has a kind of transcendental feeling and can remove one from the injustices of the world. She criticizes that too much interest in beauty can lead to materialism, which is obviously a negative thing. I think all of these thinkers present interesting theories for art, but Dutton is probably the one that I think is the best.
One of my favorite artists is Alphonse Mucha, the Czech Art Nouveau artist. I think the way in which he depicts women is just beautiful…so perhaps this is telling that I believe beauty, of one sort or another, in one way or another, is an important facet of art. His pieces also depict real women, which adds a personal connection to the works of art. I suppose Mucha’s works give me various feelings that these philosophers have indicated as important to art…AN experience, the pursuit of truth, complexity, serious content, distance, purpose, etc. Thus, why he is one of my favorite artists and looking at, or experiencing, his works is such a pleasure for me.