A short history of Art

One suggestion that gets trotted out with regularity is that our motivation for making art is the “human impulse to create and express.”. We make art because we are helpless in the face of this impulse. We simply have to create. We have to get these visions outside ourselves. And yet, I’d like to think that art isn’t simply what gets created or what gets expressed. Its not equivalent. And we can see where it might get tricky. The difference between creating art and creating mayhem would be problematic, and the difference between expressing art and expressing balderdash would get too confusing! I’m not sure how we could make a study of those other things serve our understanding of art! And rather than simply an impulse I’d like to think of it as a choice. Choice implicates responsibility, impulse denies it…..

On the other hand, the presence of beauty in cultures and the seeming need for all cultures to manifest it in their own ways, musically, visually, conceptually, and in any other way we have the capacity to experience does seem close to universal. All cultures recognize the difference between beauty and mayhem, and accept the ethical differentiation of the two. Aesthetics, in fact, is a form of ethics. Perhaps its more congenial to study….

An anthropologist friend of mine once suggested that the idea of ‘beauty’ was in fact universal to human culture simply because we all divide the world into things we like and things we reject. Its part of how we navigate the world. The idea of beauty is both descriptive and normative. And the manifestation and evolution of art has pretty much everything to do with that. What makes the impulse to create art different from the impulse to create havoc is that art is contributed as a positive change to the world. The intentions behind art is that it makes the world better and more livable. Aesthetic experience is almost always seen as a cultural evaluation of ‘the good’. ‘The beautiful’ stands on one end of the cultural divide between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, the sublime and the tawdry, beauty and ugliness, crime and compassion…..  It tells us something about the difference between right and wrong. We make art because its the right thing to do, not simply a biological impulse. THIS is what art has historically delivered to the world.

Except recently….

Contemporary art has sometimes moved so far beyond issues of beauty that research into the role and relevance of producing mere ‘beauty’ would be extremely suspect and quite probably laughed at. Which seems a shame….

Still, researching how we got from there to here would be instructive. This research could possibly lend valuable perspective to understanding the evolution of differences in production and what this means for an art industry. If art is an expression, then its something that has evolved over the years. And if it expresses particular values, then we must ask how those values play out. Do situations where individuals are personally responsible for its care and maintenance, and where it has been turned into merely an audience satisfying consumer commodity have an affect on how art is experienced? That almost seems like an anthropological question. And the art world is even now struggling with the implications of making the divide between artists and audience so impenetrable. It has become a real issue whether the change from a democratized production of beauty to placing it exclusively in the hands of a priestly class is working out for us….. Perhaps this is a question that needs a lot more study….

Is there even a connection to be made between art education, the personal responsibility for beauty (nominally ‘creativity’), and a larger sense of responsibility in the world? Is an artist’s mandate to recreate the world a moral expression in the sense that all beauty production follows a normative trail? And that by rejecting beauty in art we have somehow absolved ourselves from the basis of art’s traditional moral implication? That much of contemporary art is, in fact, now morally ambiguous? That the project of art has become unmoored from its earlier foundation, and we are drifting? That we push the boundaries of the new simply because we are so well suited to being explorers?

I blame Dada! But then, also, I love Dada. It has pushed us to ask questions that we need to ask. And perhaps even helped us realize that the questions themselves are as important as any answers. That often its better to have a poor answer to the right question than a brilliant answer to the wrong question. The questions are the new directions we are following. And if anything can replace the normative value of our earlier conventions its the new questions we ask…. I think postmodern plurality isn’t necessarily a rejection of all values but an opportunity for us to provisionally and pragmatically choose between them and to invent others as needed. Its our best example of multiculturalism at work….

The age we live in is an age of questions. Much of what our culture pretends is that we have the answers already, but for many important issues I’d dispute that. What exactly IS art? If no two people exactly agree, then its clearly not only one thing. So, do we sell art short by simply assuming what we already know, or do we look a bit closer and take a wider view of its diverse manifestations? Won’t understanding the full depth and breadth of art only serve us in the long run?

And we need all hands on deck. We need to make these questions multidisciplinary. The time for keeping our eyes peeled only to a microscope here, an fMRI machine there, the numerical studies of economists and statisticians, all in isolation from one another, is quite probably over. Working only in sovereign independence may turn out to be our most egregious example of ‘divided we fall’….. Can our new research not cover these bases?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A short history of Art

  1. I just read a great article that examines three recent books that each attempt to explain human aesthetic appreciation as an evolutionary adaptation. Its a long article but fascinating and powerfully argued. Here is the conclusion that Adam Kirsch offers:

    “Today’s Darwinists treat the aesthetic as if it were a collection of preferences and practices, each of which can be explained as an adaptation. But the preferences and the practices are secondary, made possible only by the fact that the aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience—not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental. This dimension is defined in many ways—by its love of the hypothetical, of order and symbol, of representation for its own sake, of the clarity that comes from suspending the pragmatic; and it has, perhaps, as much in common with theoretical knowledge and contemplation as it does with sensory enjoyment. The “usefulness” of this whole way of being is what must be explained, if there is to be a plausible Darwinian aesthetics. Even if there were, it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.” Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.This article appeared in the August 2, 2012 issue of the magazine.

  2. Another great article (by David P. Barash) that discusses evolutionary biology and how rather than explaining things like art it leaves room for it:

    “Let’s look more closely at that critique by taking an extreme position and granting, if only for the sake of argument, that human beings, like other living things, are merely survival machines for their genes, organic robots whose biologically mandated purpose is neither more nor less than the promulgation of those genes. And let’s grant that existentialists are very much occupied with the meaninglessness of life and the consequent need for people to assert their own meaning, to define themselves against an absurd universe. Furthermore, let’s consider the less-well-known fact that, although evolutionary biology makes no claim that it or what it produces is inherently good, it also teaches that life is absurd.

    Evolutionists, after all, might well look at all living things—human beings not least—as playing a vast existential roulette game. No one can ever beat the house. There is no option to cash in one’s chips and walk away a winner. The only goal is to keep playing, and indeed, some genes and phyletic lineages manage to stay in the game longer than others. But where, I ask you, is the meaning in a game whose goal is simply to keep on playing, a game that can never be won, but only lost? And for which we did not even get to write the rules?

    There is, accordingly, no intrinsic, evolutionary meaning to being alive. We simply are, having been produced when one of our father’s sperm connected with one of our mother’s eggs, each contributing genes that combined to become a new person. Those genes, too, simply are, because their antecedents avoided being eliminated.

    We have simply been, as Martin Heidegger (another precursor of existentialism, who particularly influenced Sartre) put it, “thrown into the world.” None of us, after all, was consulted beforehand. Biologically, our genes did it; or rather, our parents’ genes. And their parents’ before them.

    At this point, some critics say that if evolutionary biology reveals that life is without intrinsic meaning, then biology is mistaken. Not at all. From the perspective of natural science generally, there is no inherent reason that anything—a rock, a waterfall, a halibut, a human being—is of itself meaningful. As existentialists have long pointed out, the key to life’s meaning is not aliveness itself, but what we attach to it.


    As Albert Camus wrote, reconfiguring Descartes’s cogito, “I rebel, therefore we exist.” Or, as André Malraux put it, “The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”

    In that denial lies not only a great mystery but also a thrilling hope.”

  3. Yet another great article (by Ethan Watters), this time critiquing the motivations and methods of western social sciences:

    “And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.”

  4. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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