“At home, it is not a work of art; in Tate Modern it is.” – Gordan Graham.
This week, we are working through Gordan Graham’s text Philosophy of the Arts, and chapter 10 in particular titled “Modern Art.” By the title alone, you should note that something different is happening here. Earlier in the book Graham was investigating the value of art. While certainly any given work of art might be perceived as valuable because of its emotion content, beauty, spiritual significance, etc., Graham’s question in those early chapters was whether there is something distinctive about either “the arts” or “great art” that made one of these specific values more fitting. In the end, Graham landed on cognitive value as the chief value of the arts, for the arts as a whole and their greatest exemplars are valued primarily because they provide some profound understanding of the world and human experience to which we would be otherwise blind.
In the chapter on Modern Art, Graham’s line of inquiry changes. Of course, in order to pursue a question like “What is the value of art?” we have some operative assumption, however vague or exact, of what field of phenomena fall into the category of “the arts.” We probably assumed, along with Graham, that “the arts” include phenomena like paintings (but not the monochrome painted walls in my house), articulate lyrical expression (but not diary ramblings), performances (but of a certain musical or theatrical kind), sculpted objects (but not mass produced ones.) The question is, of course, why do we have the field of possible arts that we do? What, in the end, actually should be considered art?
Graham postponed that question because whereas the question “What is art?” is conceptually prior to “What is the value of art?,” the later question is experientially prior to the former. Calling into question whether something is art has not historically been at the forefront of experience, that is, until we get to Modern Art. The shift that happens in this chapter is therefore twofold: First, it brings up a different philosophical problem than before – the ontological status of art versus the axiological status of art. Second, it introduces this philosophical problem in reference to a historical time period – 20th century western art.
First, if this textbook is not fiction, it must be the case that there is some identifiable phenomenon called “Modern Art” and some community of people for which this phenomena is meaningfully designated. Who this community is we shall get to in a minute, but for now we should first note that by naming a phenomenon “Modern Art” indicates something that is somehow distinguishable from at least two other fields of phenomena we could call “Non-Modern Art” or “Modern Non-Art.” For example, Modern Art is presumably not Modern Technology nor is it Medieval Art. To make a point that Plato’s dialogue the Sophist makes, naming a thing always gives language to both some being (that which a thing is) as well as some non-being (that which a thing isn’t). You actually create (so-to-speak) non-being when you create being. By so naming some new phenomenon, you thereby indicate something which it is not or some place which it is not. You create difference.
Now this might seem like so much philosophical game-playing, but it actually gets at the crucial question of the chapter and what “Modern Art” actually is. For as Graham indicates, it seems widely recognized that something different happens in Modern Art than has happened before in the “Art World.” The relationship between something called “Modern Art” and things that are neither Art nor Modern is crucial to the very historical significance of “Modern Art.”
The way to sum all this up is that in the period of 20th century western art, the ontological status of art becomes of paramount importance. Or as Graham succinctly states it, a significant new question that 20th century art provokes in its audience is—say when a readymade work is placed in a gallery – “But is it art?” This basic ontological question is at the root of the trends in Modern art from the introduction of the ready-made to the value placed on the Avant Gaarde.
Let us consider a key paragraph in Graham’s chapter. I have broken this paragraph down into its components to show the argument.
CLAIM #1: “The art we have been brought up on, whether it be music, sculpture, film or dance, consists of deliberately created objects with aesthetic properties sanctioned by tradition.”
Note all the things that have to come together here in order to determine whether something will be deemed art at a given point in cultural history: deliberately created objects, with aesthetic properties, sanctioned by tradition. The part many of us might be most uncomfortable with is that last one: sanctioned by tradition. We want are to be free from tradition, and yet we also want art to be more than ephemeral. One of the reasons why many find the claim that art need be “sanctioned by tradition” is too constrictive is due, in part, to the legacy of Modern Art.
CLAIM #2: “This means that our aesthetic awareness is confined by preconceptions about what art ought and ought not be like.”
“Confined” is a strong word here, but Graham’s intent is clear. Embedded in our ontological judgments about what is and what is not art is also a normative judgment, namely what should be considered art and should not be considered art. Danto will make this point more explicitly in chapter 12, but it is also related to what I said earlier: The recognition of something as art, carries with it an assumption of what is not recognized as art. This kind of judgment is not simply made on the conceptual or intellectual level. At a given point in cultural history, our very ability to recognize something perceptually as art or non-art is shaped by our traditions.
CLAIM #3: “But real aesthetic awareness needs to break free of these preconceptions, and the art of the readymade enables us to do this.”
Here we find a key question, “Is it in the nature of art to challenge the meaning of art?” Certainly any cultural practice evolves over time. Novelty happens (over and over again), but is there something about how we think about the arts that expects the arts to do this intentionally. Different periods in the history of art have answered this question differently, though it is more commmplace now for us to think that art is not simply supposed to evolve but to challenge its own meaning. In Graham’s chapter, this can be seen in how he nuances the difference between Beethoven’s revolutionary music and the explicit focus on the “Avant Gaarde” in the arts.
CLAIM #4: “It thus makes possible ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’–the title of a book by the influential philosopher of art, Aurthur C. Danto.
This last part of the claim can be understood in two directions, given what we have already done in the class. One way to understand this claim is to connect it to the conclusion to the chapter on the cognitive value of art, which stated that the primary value of the arts is that they transform how we interpret and understand our own perceptual experiences in the world. Modern art then is in keeping with what art has always done in its ability to change how we think about our own experience.
Another way to understand this last claim is the particular emphasis on the “common place.” This is trickier in the case of the 20th century art. It seems to be of two minds here. First, with its emphasis on the Avant Gaarde and its seeming lack of concern with establishing any solidarity with the audience or larger public, Modern Art would seem an exclusivist and inward looking movement. Second, in other regards Modern artists are clearly reacting against what they sees as the pretentious European traditions of the arts and aesthetic sensibility.
Modern Art emphasizes a host of questions that have been either underdeveloped in earlier parts of art history or have been consciously avoided. Graham’s chapter works through key elements of the range of new issues brought to the fore by Modern Art. In your own reflections comments below, ask yourself whether you support Grahams’ critical questions raised at the end of the chapter? Which aspect of modern art, as Graham has laid it out, is most compelling, and why? What do you make of the opening quote in this post by Graham made in the middle of chapter 10?
Submitting comments directions:
• Each student should write the equivalent of a full paragraph comment on these last two questions.
• Each student should also required to respond to another students comments with their own paragraph length comments.
• The discussion can be continued by anyone after these two openers have been written.