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December 12, 2011

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Art's Three Strategies. 1

Rob van Gerwen


Abundant suffering in the world and almost as much moral indifference toward it produce in many artists the hope to restore our moral sensitivities with their work. But is it in art's powers to achieve such a pretentious aim? Many critics of present day culture may doubt this, as they have described art as doing quite the opposite. Some think that art merely turns the world into a spectacle of simulacrae. But, to be sure, they too mourn art's lack of morally educating powers. Thinking of artists, in this context, the Dadaists spring to mind. Not only did they resist traditional artistic procedures but they also intentionally refrained from representing-and so did abstract painters. The Dadaists, instead of advancing into abstraction, however, made anti-art by mere presenting. And what they presented were such ordinary things as household waste, or a urinal. Thus they shocked the audience and with the same move tried to restore its sensitivity to the everyday. In postmodern eclecticism Dada seriousness has been replaced by frivolous irony. But postmodernists too assert art's moral incapacities. Apart from these examples, new art forms call into question traditional demarcations and, again, try to implicate the audience. The art of performance seeks to even out the distinction between the artist and her work, and installations aim at demolishing the one between the work and its audience.

What motivates these attempts at frustrating the development of art? Assuming that the cultural domain of art serves a purpose, a self-imposed task, failing to understand that task may seriously delimit aesthetics, the philosophical discipline that has art as its main subject matter. I know that proceduralists may deny this task a definitive role, but I fail to see how they can account for art's normative aspects. So the questions are Why don't we leave art behind and intervene in reality in more direct ways? Why should we be so fascinated with art's pretences-and why redress them by making art? Today, I shall try to answer these questions with the thesis that both the pretences of art and our opposing to it are the two sides of a single challenge posed by a cultural problem that is as old, at least, as the ban on depiction from Exodus 20:5. I shall, heuristically, use both the ban on depiction and the predicament of our arts to reach a better understanding of both. The arts of modernity comprise three strategies for dealing with this cultural problem, and the opposition against art that I just mentioned is merely one of these strategies, in fact it is the one, which, in artistic manner, rehearses the ban on depiction. For obvious reasons, I call it artistic iconoclasm. The first strategy, consisting in the bare faith in depiction that we know from television and Hollywood cinema, reaches most people, but artistic iconoclasm gets all the attention from either philosophers or theoreticians. Interestingly, however, it is the third strategy, the one which takes the work of art as the performance of a representation, which most merits our fascination, because it is exemplary for the kind of art that since the 1750s we see the artistic domain as comprising. 2


1. Ever since classical age art's impetus us ascribed to a 'source of inspiration' attributed to the three graces or the muses. I refer to art's strategies, rather than sources to make clear how it is a problem which explains art's mainspring, rather than a mystical well, however metaphorically signified.

2. Modern times, supposedly, commenced in the 1750s, with texts of the Abt of Batteux, who united our fine arts, and Alexander Baumgarten who founded the new discipline of aesthetics. Batteux, Charles, Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe, Paris 1746 en Baumgarten, A.G., Aesthetica, Hildesheim 1961 (1750-1758). Baumgarten zag de esthetica als de wetenschap van zintuiglijke kennis en het mooie kunstwerk als de perfectie daarvan. Schoonheid, eerder dan kennis staat bij Baumgarten voorop. Die perfectie houdt volgens Baumgarten ook de beleving van het kunstwerk en van het onderwerp in. (Rob van Gerwen, Art and Experience, Utrecht 1996, hoofdstuk 6.) Zie voor een bespreking van de 18e eeuwse ontwikkeling: Kristeller, Paul O., 'The Modern System of the Arts', Renaissance Thought and the Arts, Princeton 1980; Daarnaast: Mattick, Paul (red.), Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art, Cambridge 1993. Batteux thought that our fine arts were united under a single principle and I tend to go with that thought, at least as a device for better understanding. However, I shall explicitly understand this principle in terms of the ban on depiction. Peter Kivy recently formulated some reservations against the very project of looking for a uniting principle, in Kivy, Philosophies of Arts. An Essay in Differences. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. He argues that literature and painting have long functioned as the model-of representation of nature-for the fine arts but were unsuccesful in allowing 'absolute music' (music without words) into its realm. Reversely, taking music as art's model has led theorists to an inadequate theory of the representational arts, as is testified by Fry and Bell's rigid formalism. My approach, however, is not that of taking any single art form as providing the model for understanding the others, but of destilling a crucial artistic functionality which hopefully can be proven to work for all of the art forms.

© Rob van Gerwen