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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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What is Art?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

There being no Euro 2008 on telly Because I am dedicated student of culture, on Sunday night I went to a debate entitled "What is Art?" which was being run as part of my university's arts festival. The panel comprised a philosopher, two directors of modern art galleries, a theologian, and the director of Resonance FM.

I will not rehearse the debate here, which meandered largely around familiar grounds, but I just wanted to note the way in which the various definitions put forwards in relation to the question might be used to transgress the boundaries between science and art. I jotted down some of the epithets each contributor put forward in answer to the "What is Art?" issue; these included:
  • Accident becoming intention: the artist is never quite sure of the destiny of his or her work from the outset, and there is always the sense of the haphazard about art which is then justified as such only after it has been produced
  • Reproducing consciousness in others: the artwork acts as a vehicle for the imagination by which the viewer can occupy the perspective with which the artist views a particular aspect of the world
  • Pleasure: art is that which generates a response that transcends (note the romanticism) or stands beyond further expression or deconstructive analysis
  • Utility: art can have a public function, either memorialising events to be shared by the community, or by generating a sense of excitement about the potential of a region or city (something the Resonance FM representative completely overlooked when he derided the Angel of the North as worthless kitsch - hardly something that will go down well with the residents of the rejuvenated Newcastle Gateshead, a destination whose numerous cultural sites receive more visitors per capita than London)
  • Vision: this one, not surprisingly, was contributed by the theologian, but is probably not too far removed from the ideals of pleasure and reproducing consciousness in others
All of these examples seem fairly mainstream in aesthetic debates, although naturally no one example is capable of containing the full range of what might be, or what has been, considered as art (or, with equal applicability, literature or music). And the one thing missing from the list was ideology: art is whatever a particular culture defines as such because it suits the norms or incarnates the values that the culture wants to perpetuate. Clearly such a view is not one that curators of publically funded galleries can subscribe to. But enough Marxism; I want to focus really on the way in which each argument survives the translation across the disciplinary divide, into the sphere of scientific activity.

If accident becoming intention defines an artwork, does this not also describe Alexander Fleming's petri dishes, left unintentionally on a windowsill but leading to the understood phenomena of antibiotics? If art is the reproduction of consciousness in others, might this not also be the effect of scientific writing, the conventions of which should allow any other scientist to step into the shoes of his predecessor and see the world - albeit within an emotionally neutral framework - as if through his eyes when he conducted the original experiment? Certain scientific writing, such as The Origin of Species, has a clear aesthetic quality, able to generate pleasure in its reader through rhetorical means; but I suspect that the moment when the most dispassionate paper generates new knowledge is not unlike the moment in literature or art when you recognise what you had always known to be true in the world, but never quite so succinctly or elegantly expressed. The ideals of vision and utility pretty much speak for themselves.

I suspect that the most viewed images (artwork?) of the last couple of weeks were not paintings or photographs in a gallery in London, but those astonishing shots captured by the Phoenix lander on Mars, some 35 million miles away. What is so remarkable is the self-consciousness of the shots: here is little Earthbound me, looking at an image taken by a man-made machine, which is looking at itself (or at least its leg), on another world. The pictures are a medium for the mind, vicariously transporting me imaginatively so that I can feel what it must be like to fly (there's transcendence again) beyond Earthly limits, to plant my foot on another world. I am not sure that cognitively, my response to these images is far removed from that which I might have standing before a Picasso. Science might in and of itself possess aesthetic qualities, as a recently-published book entitled The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments implies.

On the other hand, bringing art and science into uncanny proximity encourages me also to note a contrast that might provide my own epithet to use in response to the question "What is Art?" With apologies to Heidegger, I would suggest there is between art and science a general difference between being and becoming.

As I have suggested above, science has many of the same agendas as art, though the methods and tones in which the enterprise is couched seem superficially different. However, the test of success for the process of science is a test of ends, of being; the test of a successful piece of art is one of bringing that art into being, of means floating independently of specific ends. There is no such thing as art, but art describes the process of creating the artefacts which might be given such a name.

The ideal scientific experiment will be replicable numerous times, with no unexpected deviation from the predictions of the model or formula. The model or formula may initially be revealed by accidents like Fleming's mould, but once that process has become known science aims to remove any possibility of the accident happening again; the test of scientific knowlege is its predictive quality: that the same conditions will produce the same state in comparable situations.

Art, however, is a process rather than an end, the becoming about of that entity that might (or might not) be named art once the process is complete. One of the panelists (the one for whom art was defined by its pleasure-giving capacity) noted that he played the accordion very badly, but that he enjoyed the experience of making music, even if his listeners found his results unbearable. Musical notation might be said to be like scientific writing, in the sense that it is a formal recording system that enables anyone able to read the system to reproduce the original product. Except, of course, the whole point of musicality is that there is no such direct correspondance. The accordion player may not be able to reproduce the notes with perfect fidelity, but this does not necessarily mean that the process of reproduction is - for him - unmusical; it is a process of becoming, of discovering a connection between the self and the music that is not definitively posited or founded in the score. One might make a similar point about literary language, in which the creative word floats freely of their author (even if, contra Barthes, the author is not quite dead), such that freshly creative interpretations of the same material are possible, even encouraged.

For the scientist, however, the failure to reach the anticipated end when he conducts an experiment signifies either a failure in the hypothesis, or in the methodology he is repeating, or that conditions not present in that original moment have had an unanticipated effect; such "errors" can, of course, turn out to be very purposive in leading science down new paths. However, the fact that if the second experiment fails to produce the same state of being as the first this must lead to further experiments means that the reproduction is not self-contained, containing within itself its end or purpose.

By contrast, for the accordian player, the fact that he fails to reproduce the notes with the fidelity intended by the composer is essentially irrelevant to his or her personal enjoyment and investment in the process (or becoming) of reaching that end (or being); he or she may want to reproduce the notes more accurately in the future, but the process itself will remain satisfying because it is one of new creation personal to him. Indeed, if the player reaches professional standard, the test of his ability will not be whether he can reproduce the musical consciousness of the composer by translating the score through the medium of the instrument, but the degree to which he or she is also mediating, that is to say, translating and interpreting the music in a newly productive deviation from the original intention.

So what implication does this contrast between being and becoming of science and art have on the question "What is Art?" Essentially, I think, it is to signify that the question what is art can not be grounded in any intrinsic quality of the artefact; nor can it be left ungrounded by talking romantically about metaphysical pleasure that cannot be referred to the mind of the creator or receiver; nor is the idea of utility particularly workable, given that econometrics cannot predict the social value of Guernica as opposed to the latest Damien Hurst installation.

Rather than a top-down approach to the question, by which the art is produced and we then must try to categorise it, the contrast between being and becoming operates in a bottom-up direction: art is whatever is produced with a sense of artistry, or art is the process of generating the thing that has the potential to be named "art." Though a tautology - or hermeneutic circle - it is a feasible definition because it refocuses attention not on the receivers of art but on the producers. The links that bind a viewer to art (or whatever is classified as "art") are potentially unrelated to any quality inherent in the artefact, perhaps intruding through ideology or preconceptions of what good art must do; on my model, there is a very definite connection between the artist and the production (art does not just spring from thin air), and any response to "What is Art?" must attend to the materialities (whether the cognitive processes in the mind of the artist, the nature of the medium being worked) that relate the artist to his creation, not those that flicker between a creation and a viewer.

Additionally, in spite of my contrast between science and art, this does not exclude the former from the potential of the latter: the child's process of discovering that a prism can split light into the rainbow may be treated as the artistic one of the child becoming conscious of a world otherwise hidden; likewise the process of the scientist discovery when something does not happen as expected might also be classed as art under my definition, no matter what the formal properties of the final result. If Fleming's experience of the growth of mould catalysed, for him, a comparable sense of personal growth, the process was artistic, regardless of the aesthetic qualities inherent (or not) in the green goo at the end of that becoming. On the other hand, not all science may be experienced with this cognitive way in the person conducting the experiment, whereas all art, or all science that is art, must be.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:59 am

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