This is the title of a recent post by Creative Infrastructure blogger Linda Essig who also directs the Arizona State University arts entrepreneurship program. In it she considers a question posed by Clayton Lord in a facebook thread. He asks us to contemplate two means of replication:
an app that lets you see and zoom in on fine artworks, and a 3D printing company advertising $20,000 reproductions of fine artworks that are accurate to the placement of strokes and thickness of paint. I somehow react differently to those ideas even though they’re both not-the-original…I wonder why. Is one a more appropriate use of new tech than the other for preserving the virtuosity of the art?
Linda responds by citing work from the economist Richard Caves:
- Creative workers care about their product. “In creative activities…the creator cares vitally about the originality displayed, the technical prowess demonstrated, the resolution and harmony achieved in the creative act.”
- Differentiated products. “No two are identical”…“While creative possibilities are always abundant, creative realizations are not”
She then throws her own two cents in, to say:
Nina Simon, of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz and the Museum 2.0 blog, suggested, “Our obsession with “the real artifact” is itself an artifact of its time,” and referenced plaster replicas of statues on display in museums in the nineteenth century. I maintain that those replicas and the $20,000 replica in Clay’s example are an important means for distribution of art but is not the art itself. I continued,
The issue is not one of scarcity, but of originality and intention. The display of plaster casts (some of which are still on display in museums) was driven by geogpraphy and lack of transportation. Viewers knew that they were seeing a plaster replica and appreciated it in the same way one appreciates a digital print of “Starry Night.” 3D printing will enable us to appreciate a better print, but the artist’s hand will still be missing.
What do you think?
My response was this:
My first thought is that Caves has to be talking about a rather narrow interpretation of art as those two characteristics fail to include children’s art and things like process art that are not aimed at results as much as simply seeing what happens. My second thought was that the “missing hand” of the artist she notes in her response to Clay would not have concerned Duchamp in the slightest, arguably one of the most important and influential figures in 20th Century art.
It seems that every time we try to pin down what things are and are not art we may hit on some relevant distinctions, but fail to grasp the larger whole. Maybe the problem isn’t the insufficiency of our definitions but the belief that definitions will capture everything….. If the distinction of what makes art art is a net cast into the ocean of human activity it seems to always have gaping holes in what it gathers and frequently catches us the strangest most bizarre things imaginable……
Wittgenstein had an analysis of ‘games’ that is relevant to how we think about art. There are no universal features of the things we call games or criteria that gets shared in all instances. The same can be said for art. Art is a loose grouping of things that hang together for different reasons, and often only by what he termed ‘family resemblances‘. There is no ‘core’ meaning to how we use the word. There is no one thing that is essential to art. There are always exceptions that can be found to any hard and fast definition, otherwise our refusal to include them becomes decidedly arbitrary. Or at least severely hampered by its obstinate conditionality…..
Art doesn’t express one thing about our humanity but many, and we simply can’t capture that multiplicity with reductionist pigeonholing. Its entirely possible that “A” can be related to “B”, and “B” related to “C”, but that “A” and “C” have nothing in common except that they are related to “B”. Being ‘related to “B”‘ is, perhaps, the most that can be said for our use of the word ‘art’. We call things art because… this is what we call them. The word itself acts to bind things together, not because it points to an underlying reality, but because this is how we use it. There is a history of use that has grown to include new and alternative meanings. This is simply how language changes over time. Sometimes words are jumbled aggregates rather than transparent crystals of purity.
There is no natural category of art, especially in today’s world where we continue to push the boundaries of what we mean by ‘art’ and continue to break the rules that got us to this place in time. If we are looking for unequivocal definitions we are barking up the wrong tree. The question itself is perhaps misleading. Especially if it is taken to imply definitive answers. The question often only gets asked with the presumption of a set of standards, but it is quite obvious that those standards differ between different people, across different cultures, and even in our own throughout history. While the question may seem objective, the answer is only ever contingent.
Here is a related question: “What is the difference between ‘bad’ art and things that are not art at all?” Its the question of whether something counts as a mistake rather than a move in a different game. The truth is that artists are not all playing the same game, so what counts for ‘bad’ in one sense can be ‘good’ in another. Moves that don’t seem to be art in one sense can be exactly what was aimed at in another. Wittgenstein also explored these differences in his work on rule following. Its something that John Cage was interested in exploring by pushing the boundaries of what we understand as sound, silence, and music.
Cage and Duchamp are not exceptions. The history of art is replete with people and art movements taking steps out of accord with tradition and convention. Artists’ jobs often even seem to be the defiance of definitions. Nor is it the only thing that artists do. That’s not the essential thing about art in all cases. Defiance is not what makes it art.
Grasping at simple answers the prize will always elude us. Just because we have the word ‘art’, which seems to stand for something we can name, it does not follow that the things so named will have the coherence or seemingly concrete aspect that the word itself does. There is nothing wrong with how we use the word in ordinary language, its just that words don’t always do what we think they do. Vagueness and imprecision are not defects of language, and we’d best be clear on that score.
This ‘looseness’ in our word use doesn’t mean that we can’t talk reasonably about art, or pick art out from non-art. It only means that we do so within the framework of how that question was posed. In the absence of absolute certainty we are not suddenly paralyzed with indecision or cultural incompetence. We make discriminations with reasons that are embedded in our system of values and language use, with the practices we learned in acquiring the skills to do things with those words.
“Art schools manage to balance themselves on the fence between telling you what to do step by step, and leaving you free to do what you want. Their orientation is basically towards the production of specialists, and towards the provision of ambitions, of goals, and identities. The assumption of the correct identity — painter, sculptor — fattens you up for the market. The identity becomes a straightjacket; it becomes progressively more dangerous to step outside of it.” Brian Eno
Our behavior is provisional in the sense that it depends on how we understand the use of words, their history in our lives and in our culture. Including, of course, the open ended potential that new definition will be given as we move forward and incorporate unfolding manifestations. Despite the invested conservatism of the established art industry, new things can continually be understood as part of the practice of naming and exercising art. The fact that people disagree, that there is conflict with accepted institutional wisdom, doesn’t mean we don’t know what we are talking about. Disagreement isn’t a test that invalidates our way of doing things: Its a measure of our convictions only.
Maybe the better question still would be to ask how we learned what things count as art and what things do not. Since different people obviously disagree, what did they learn that was different? Maybe the real trick is not dismissing what other people mean by art, but coming to see it from their point of view……
Duchamp turned our conceptions of an artist on their head. Cage flipped the world of music upside down. Perhaps we need to look at the idea of art itself in a new way, one that denies the expectation of pat answers and easy definitions. If we are only looking for definitive explanations, as we do in the ‘hard’ sciences, will we be open to an understanding that doesn’t need them? Is that the problem? Would a science of ‘art’ necessarily be more like physics than phrenology? Maybe it would properly be an Anthropology. That seems like an important question, doesn’t it?
I have just been able to access the original facebook thread, and its very interesting. Recall that Clayton Lord’s triggering question had more to do with how we understand the replication of art. I unloaded my own response as follows:
Have you read Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality? Its been a while since I picked it up (and to be honest, much of it flew over my head that first reading), but I recall that he examines our fascination with copies of things, including copies of art. The perspective he brings may be worth considering. (See the first comment below for some meaty excerpts from his essay)
My sense is that in only specific instances do we hang our hats on the idea of authenticity, and that there is often as much if not more interest in a simulated or borrowed reality. For instance, sometimes we go on vacation and take every advantage of photo opportunities at the expense of actually enjoying being there. As if the potential future ‘memories’ were sometimes more important than the experience itself. ‘Selfies‘ are all the rage these days. Why do we have ‘friends’ on facebook but not also ‘sycophants’ and ‘groupies’, much less ‘bare acquaintances’ and ‘complete strangers’? Has the virtual reality simply given us an idealized and preferable version of ourselves? Why does anyone ever pay attention to tabloid headlines and the scandals of celebrities? We are so used to forming opinions on the basis of scant evidence that we’d sometimes rather have something to say than worry about being right. The ‘real’ isn’t always our first priority. It gets neglected in the dreamscape we construct for ourselves.
(I also remember Mario Lemieux’s last hockey game, a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and at the end of the contest he was shaking hands with his friends and teammates and fellow competitors, soaking up his last moments in this particular spotlight, when abruptly and with little thought for his own experience of the moment, an intrepid reporter and camera crew vault onto the ice and jam a microphone under his chin. That was one of the most shockingly rude invasions of personal space I’ve ever seen. You could see him slip from one frame of reference to another, like he had been shoved off a cliff. Lemieux would never experience what that moment brought him ever again in his life. The moment had been lost. And the crime was that he had earned his right to spend that moment in his own way. But the reporter and perhaps even the ‘history of the sport’ demanded that they intervene and get that snapshot, that soul sample, of an athlete’s final moment. The truth is, we do this all the time…..)
The other point I’d make is that much of the discussion above (in the fb thread) turns on art as a manifest object, even taking live performances as interpretive objects rather than the performance itself as a kind if art. I’d like to suggest that sometimes art is an object, especially from the point of view of an audience. From the creative/generative point of view, however, this can be seen as far too limiting.
Sometimes the art is in the idea or concept, and we actually pay others to execute our designs (Andy Warhol springs to mind here). The object itself is almost incidental. The creativity and art can also be in how (or that) we conceived a thing, and it would be a mistake to confuse the artful idea with the its instantiation. Its the difference between design and production. We always blur that line when we treat the product of our art as a commodity.
But we can also embrace the ephemeral nature of art as well. At other times the art is in how things were done, not necessarily an interpretation but an active expression. The art itself can be performative. There need be no driving idea which is being represented. The artistry can be the movement itself.
In a sense, we sometimes capture an artist making art in viewing a performance, but the art itself merely underlies what we saw. The object of our vision was not the art, but how that art was expressed. Do you see the distinction? The object isn’t always the art, sometimes it merely records the art…..
Would a musician ever say their art was a CD? Perhaps the CD aims to capture a performance, and perhaps that performance aims to capture an idea….. Why would we necessarily say that art had to be an object?
Relegating art to the status of objects lets us get a certain hold on them, but its a grasp that too many other things slip through and evade. Its also a grasp that will pick up the most peculiar things. Confining definitions have a way of doing that….
That’s how I see it, at least…..
Make beauty real!