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Art(s), Visual

  Visual art may be defined as the practice of shaping material, such as wood or stone, or applying pigment to a flat or other surface, with the intention of representing an idea, experience, or emotion.

However, in constructing a category called ‘art’ we are making assumptions which have a historical but not conceptual foundation. If today there is believed to be general consensus on what ‘art’ is and what its function might be, then this agreement dates only from the 18th century at the earliest, when the study of aesthetics was held to provide a methodology for the appreciation and understanding of art. Before this date there were arts, such as the art of painting, or of sculpture, but no discipline which might properly be considered as ‘art’. If this is true of the Western world, then consideration of the art of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Orient obviously renders our cosy assumptions about what art is, or should be, methodologically useless.

The theory and practice of the visual arts are ideologically constructed. To take the example of the Western world, the elevation from the Renaissance onwards of the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture into the domain of the Liberal Arts was the driving force behind an enormous number of developments in the 16th to 19th centuries, including the development of academies of art and the idea of the artist as genius which enjoyed its most unbridled successes during the age of Romanticism. Furthermore, from the 18th century, the separation of the fine arts (architecture, music, painting, poetry and sculpture—one might argue that the essential fine art object is an oil painting on canvas) from the decorative arts (such as fabric design, ceramics or jewellery) was also important to the way we nowadays construct the domain of ‘art’. Yet such constructions pose more problems than they solve. They suggest that Western art has hived off certain ‘fine’ art practices from other areas which, in non-Western cultures, might be essential aspects of the visual within a given society.

The problem with this typology is highlighted if we turn to non-Western forms of art. There is not the same distinction in many cultures—one could cite India, Asia and pre-Columbian Latin America—between ‘art’ objects (for aesthetic pleasure and nothing else) and artefacts which are designed for some practical purpose yet which carry embellishment in the form of patterns, images or designs. In these societies, as well in the visual culture of peoples such as the Australian Aborigines or the tribes of New Guinea, mark-making, whether on the body or on some rock or other surface, is often intimately linked to patterns of ritual. Observations such as these demonstrate the futility of discussing art as if it were a category which could be delimited and defined.

A few comments may nonetheless be offered. In the first place, it is not axiomatic that non-Western visual culture has an essentially symbolic or ritual function, whereas the art of the West is free of these attributes. It goes without saying that a Florentine altarpiece of the Quattrocento, for example, has a ritualistic function (that of devotion). It is, however, true to say that the subsequent appreciation of ‘art’, and the development of the theory of the individualistic creative genius (on whom depends the autonomy of the work of art) has tended to separate (what we call) art as much as possible from its ritualistic, social or functional base, and to place it in a discrete category where its supposed immanent qualities (that is, its aesthetic value) may be appreciated.

But if we are ultimately unable to identify any objective criteria of what constitutes a work of art, we are at least able to point to qualities which seem to be common to all forms of artistic activity. Central to any artistic creativity are the working of the imagination, the play of the emotions and the operation of reason. It is likely that these qualities, in different combinations, contribute to the making of all forms of art, whether Western or other, as they allow the practitioner the opportunity to translate his or her experience of the world into a statement about the world.

The form such a statement takes is of course central to the art-creation process, and the study of form is part of the appreciation of art. Form is the plastic realization of the idea, translated into imagery (whether abstract or figurative) and given shape via the agency of paint, stone, wood or some other material. In this sense, to study form is to study the mind of the artist who created it, informed by our own preconceptions and prejudices and subject to the vagaries of the means of presentation, contextualization and environment.

This last remark indicates a central way in which ‘art’ becomes ‘art’. The famous example of Duchamp\'s bicycle wheel mounted on a stool is a case in point. The object becomes ‘art’ by dint of its insertion into a fine-art environment, in this case a museum. While it would not arrest our attention for a moment if it were to be found on a rubbish tip, its situation within a controlled environment (an environment articulating difference as well as confirming the supposed intrinsic worth of the objects on display) is the means by which its transformation is achieved. This suggests that the notion of intrinsic quality (whether through the use of precious materials or the transforming skill of the artist) is not exclusively the hallmark of fine art, but that a sense of ‘difference from’ (not to be confused with uniqueness) is likewise part of the fine-art experience.

‘Philosophical’ considerations of this kind are, perhaps, chiefly the concern of the specialist. The general public is largely content to see the domain of art confirmed rather than questioned, and the art object presented in a way that makes it both intelligible and meaningful. In this, notions of appropriateness (for example, tradition, beauty or, to a lesser extent, acceptable eccentricity) are central. But here once again the essential difference is seen between Western and non-Western art forms. While in the West aesthetic appreciation is perhaps the most common response to the art object (that is, we value a work because it appeals to our taste, or confirms our opinions), in non-European cultures the idea of decorum is paramount. In such cultures, whether the imagery honours a local deity, cures a sick child or marks the turning of the seasons, it is the function of the ritual which is important, not whether the imagery conforms to some notion of ‘beauty’.

Of course, such functions described above are not absent from European art, particularly if we think of the tremendous impetus given to sacred imagery by the Christian Church for at least 2,000 years. But today we have for the most part lost this original meaning, and have instead begun to invest the work of art with another form of ‘religious’ experience: art appreciation. Even so, for most people ‘art’ is more than this. Indeed, those schools of art, such as Modernism, which tend to be self-referential, eschewing the mimetic or referential quality present in so much visual imagery, are still among the least understood by the ‘ordinary’ consumer of art. In general, most people would expect art to tell them something about the world which was not immediately apparent in ‘real’ life. In this sense art has always had the function of widening our experience.

While the question of what constitutes the theory and practice of art cannot be solved as long as human society continues to set store by activities separate from the business of procuring the means to existence, and while societies differ in their conception of the purpose of human life, then ‘art’ identified as a means both to embellish daily life and as the repository of a form of knowledge not found in the same way in any other activity will continue to provoke discussion. MG PD

See also abstraction; Christian art; figurative art; folk art; religious art.Further reading W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production’, in Illuminations; , H. Honour and , J. Fleming, A World History of Art; , R. Wollheim, Painting as an Art.



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