What is a Work
to classify what makes something count as art are numerous but most traditional
distinctions have been eroded. Is art defined by the materials used? or by the use of color? Where does collage fit? Is Chinese
calligraphy (which uses pictographs) to be classified as painting? How does
sculpture differ from architecture? Both employ mass, shape, line, light, and
shadow; you can walk into the sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth,
and apprehend them from the inside. Is a mobile a sculpture? How do we
categorize the performing arts? Where are the boundaries between classical
ballet and modern dance? between dance and drama?
Where does mime fit in? The Japanese Noh drama is music and choreography built
around the barest plot; it is so nonliterary that the lines need scarcely be
intelligible. How does the cinema fit in to the arts? Like early Elizabethan
drama, films were at first considered to be entertainment rather than art.
It is also worth
considering that the concept of art is itself not necessarily a universal
thing: until the Renaissance, such activities as painting, sculpture, and
architecture were usually associated with carpentry and building; Ancient
Greece had no art in our sense (the Greek techne,
usually translated as “art,” is closer to our “skill” or “craft”), nor did
ancient Egypt, nor did medieval Europe.
To begin with, of course,
Art is a physical object. It consists of shapes or colors or movements or
sounds or other things that stimulate the senses. But whatever the materials,
they must be composed or organized or shaped in a special way. Aestheticians
and critics speak of such requirements as harmony, balance, contrast, stress,
proportion, centrality, theme, development, accent, rhyme, focus, and so on;
but none of these is necessary. The essential requisite is that the materials
be so formed that they are finally experienced as a unity, whether
they extend timelessly through space (as do painting and architecture) or
whether they cumulate nonspatially through time (as
does music). The frame of a painting, the pedestal of a statue, the proscenium
in a theater, the silence that precedes and follows a piece of music, and the
space around a cathedral all act to enclose the work of art in what Rilke
called a “circle of solitude.” Thus it is experienced as an isolated, unified,
Form, also seems to be
important. It is perhaps impossible to define but its importance may help to
explain why tastes and smells rarely if ever the materials for a work of art?
Is it because tastes and smells do not lend themselves to structuring? or because they are received by us chemically? or because they are too closely associated with biological
needs? Form of a certain kind, as we will shortly see, is of the essence in the
concept of a work of art.
To define the work of art
as sensuous materials formed into a unity, however, and to stop at that point,
would be to commit the reductive fallacy. The status of “work of art” is not
imputed to anything unless that thing is embedded in a certain social context
which relates the observer and the artist. This may be illustrated by five
Forgeries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in
Copies. Modern techniques of reproduction are so fine that only the
expert can distinguish an original painting from a replica. If the differences
are virtually indiscernible, why then do we perceive and appreciate originals
and replicas so differently?
Non-persons. Paintings produced by monkeys, or by babies trailing
their fingers in water colors, no matter how attractive, are regarded only as
curiosities, never as works of art. This poem was written by a computer, does
While life reached evilly through empty faces
While space flowed slowly o’er idle bodies
And stars flowed evilly on vast men
No passion smiled.
Not a masterpiece, surely, but one has read worse poetry.
Intention. Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce’s
Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, asks,
“If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood make there an image of a
cow, is that image a work of art?” What if it is produced idly, or
inattentively - while doodling, even while sleepwalking?
Nature. Dewey supposes, in Art As
Experience, that a finely wrought object, one whose texture and proportions
are highly pleasing in perception, has been believed to be a product of some
primitive people. Then there is discovered evidence that proves it to be an
accidental natural product. As an external thing, it is now precisely what it
was before. Yet at once it ceases to be a work of art and . . . now belongs in
a museum of natural history.
Analysis of these five
quandaries indicates that nothing is a work of art unless it is deemed to be
intentionally formed; that is, that materials (colors or shapes or
sounds or whatever) are arranged (or composed or manipulated) into a unity, by
a person, for the sake of doing so (regardless of any other
motives) and in order to evoke a response to the artist from some other
person. Monkeys, babies, and computers are not persons. Neither is nature. Men
who hack furiously or inattentively or somnambulistically
do not intend to evoke any response. A painting or a poem falsely attributed by
its creator to someone else violates the requirement that the work of art be
intended by the artist as he himself forms it to evoke your response to him,
even if he knows nothing about you, nor you about
him. The forger wants you to respond to someone else. (No child ever shows you
another’s mudpies.) Every poet wants a publisher,
every composer a performance, every actor an audience, every painter a showing.
Every artist feels unfulfilled without a perceiver.
Adapted from Reuben Abel’s ‘Man is
the Measure’ (Chapter 21)