Is art objective? Can it be measured by a single simple formula: xyz = art. I don’t think so. That’s a bit too simplistic and reductive. There’s much more to art than a mere set of objective principles: art must contain beauty, it must have certain structure, it must have a specific meaning, and so on. Should art be that dry and objective?
Is art a denial of the objective? The rejection of techniques, structure, or optics, as Marcel Duchamp seems to have believed? Is it the denial of all the qualities that have come to be recognized in a work of art?
In a 2009 BBC documentary titled Why Beauty Matters, Michael Craig-Martin claimed, “[T]o captivate the imagination is the key to what an artwork seeks to do.” In this same documentary, philosopher Roger Scruton asks artist Michael Craig-Martin, “What is the use of art? What does it help people to do?” Craig-Martin’s answer, “Hopefully it allows people to see the world in which they are living in a way that gives it more meaning to them.”
I can’t help but wonder if Craig-Martin’s response reduces art to merely propaganda, or advertising. Advertisers certainly want to give people more meaning in their lives by offering them things they claim will make their lives better. This is where consumerism has landed us in the 21st century. If a thing has no use then what’s its point? Why bother with it? If art has no use why does it matter? But is that true? Does art have use?
Beauty is important in art, in music, in poetry, in novels, and in other forms of expression. Who in their right mind would deny that? The artist’s intent during the Renaissance was to demonstrate beauty. At least their ideal of beauty. However, art reduced to only beauty is missing the point. Better yet, those who interpret art as that which is only beauty have missed the point of art. Art contains beauty, but art is not only that. It reflects life, even the woes, troubles, evil, and worries of life. Do these things also contain beauty? Perhaps in some sense they do. But on the flip side, to express nothing but the troubling side of life and call that art also misses the point.
Art certainly reflects life. It reflects the troubles of life, the beauty of life, the mysteries of life. Art attempts to communicate meaning in life by using certain things—techniques, styles, etc.—that are at its disposal. To do what Marcel Duchamp did decades ago and take a urinal, place a signature on it, and claim it makes a statement about art, is at best nothing but a mere expression about something, but that surely isn’t art. Or is it?
Any attempts at objectifying art fail in the wake of forcing art to fit in a particular box of thought. These attempts make art something that can be reduced to a mere set of objectives. Art is much grander in scope. That’s like trying to take life and reduce it to a set of propositions. Life is not reducible to a meager set of propositions. That’s childish thinking. Roger Scruton, in the documentary Why Beauty Matters, points out that for the last 2000 years, beauty (via art) has been an ideal stemming from Plato. Plato’s ideal beauty was something that transcended reality. This beauty was not to be used or possessed but only to be admired from a distance. Where philosophers and theologians miss the point is not so much in the rich history of art that stems from Plato’s ideal of beauty which certainly reflects the notion of the divine. No. They miss the point in thinking that art is only that. Their thinking that science has removed this ideal is a harsh reaction, and so they reject newer forms of art in an attempt to save the old form, the old ideal. Granted, I agree that the old ideals, a definition of beauty in art that stems from a Platonic ideal of divine transcendence, are still needed. The lack of this ideal certainly does not make other forms of art non-art, or less important.
What’s unavoidable in everyone’s attempt to understand art and it’s expression is what we all bring to the table when we attempt to explain or interpret art. The diversity of each of our lives is overwhelming. No two lives have the exact same experience, even when two people experience the same thing. What do we do with this? This is the true depth of aesthetics and beauty in relation to art. There is no single ideal needed to express it, to understand it, or explain it. Art covers the gambit of all ideals, all expressions, all interpretations, because all our experiences are so vastly different, and all experiences are needed to understand and interpret art. But keep in mind that these differences, this diversity in no way takes out the objective or subjective nature of art. We can still tell when a piece of music is technically better than another because of the way the musician uses the craft. Or, we can see the brush stroke of one painter against the brush stroke of another and realize that one utilizes a specific technique better than the other. Regardless, the work is still subjective to the tastes and preferences of those who see it, hear it, or read it.
The point here is that art is not an either/or notion or ideal. Either art is beautiful or it’s not. Either art communicates esthetically pleasing things or it does not. Either art is objective or it’s not. No. This, I think, is too cut and dry, too black and white, too strict, too simplistic. A better notion or ideal is that art is both/and. Art is both beautiful and sometimes not. Art communicates esthetically pleasing things and sometimes not. You get the point. Art does communicate and never let us forget this. Art moves our emotions, stirs our senses, and teaches us things from a point of view we might never had imagined. The glory of art is that it allows the beholder to decide based on experiences, tastes, styles, and preferences whether or not she enjoys the work; whether or not the work speaks to her and moves her. If anything, art is not to be placed in a philosophical box and relegated to a single ideal.
written by TBV (written on 2/13/2012)
[I wrote this as a response to viewing a 2009 BBC documentary titled Why Beauty Matters. The video is linked below in case you are interested in watching it. While I agreed with Scruton on many of his points, my essay above details my thoughts about his over-all view.]