Friday, July 07, 2006

Comics, Hamster Poop, and Art

J'aime Wells offers a sharp, common sense introduction to some issues in the philosophy of art in this post. She knows something about this stuff, having worked with Professor Peter Kivy, one of the leading scholars in this field. Since people don't click on links, I'm quoting it all here:

Chapter Seven aims to define art, and anyone with a course in the philosophy of art is probably cringing just hearing that. You can see what he is thinking. One thing he wants to do in this book is to salvage the reputation of comics as an art form. So naturally, he thinks that he will define "art" and then show that comics fits within that definition. The problem being, of course, that hordes of philosophers of art have written hordes of books about their attempts to define art, and after Arthur Danto shot them all down, everyone pretty much gave up and started thinking about other questions for a while.

McCloud writes, "Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn't grow out of either of our species' two basic instincts: survival and reproduction." (Boldface is to approximate the look of the lettering in that panel.)

This is so clearly a hopeless definition, that I won't fill space listing counterexamples. Instead I'll take a quick break to go artistically clean out the hamster cages. Excuse me.

OK, I'm back. McCloud doesn't really mean what he just said anyway. He is haunted by the ghosts of aesthetic theories past. For example, R.G. Collingwood argued that (real) art was expression of emotion. Dwight MacDonald argued that (real) art was distinctive expression of the individual. There is a whole family of these theories, which McCloud seems to want to align himself with. Some of his Chapter Seven examples include a caveman blowing a raspberry, a bicycle messenger riding with "personal style," and an average person signing his name. These things are said to "have an element of art." That element is self-expression. McCloud also says that he does not believe in a dichotomy between Art and Not Art. So I think what he envisions is a continuum, ranging from acts with a small element of self expression (perhaps the signature) on one end, to acts that are almost all self expression on the other end, with no clear dividing line defining Art. This doesn't, of course, require the ridiculous definition of art that includes hamster cage cleaning. A theory with a continuum still allows one to say that one end of the line is definitely NOT art, even if one declines to say exactly where the cut-off is. There can be clear cases and unclear ones. There isn't THAT much self expression in cage cleaning, so it would fall on the low end of the spectrum, and he'd be free to say that my activity there was neither survival/reproduction-related NOR artistic.

McCloud's goal here is clearly to get the broadest possible definition of art, to cut off the rather boring discussions of "That's not art! Oh yes it is!" I have a lot of sympathy for that motivation. I'd just as soon include anything that wants to be art, myself. Unfortunately, the "art as expression" theories are completely barking up the wrong tree. Whatever the continuum is, it can't be about more vs. less self-expression.

For one thing, consider modernist or conceptual art. Some of it may involve emotive expression, but many pieces are purely intellectual, and not emotional at all. You could say that intellectual "self-expression" counts as art too, but then you'd need some way to separate conceptual art from the papers in academic journals. It seems highly implausible to count academic papers as art. But whatever separates them from conceptual art is the very thing that makes art art. No kind of self-expression can make that separation.

McCloud mixes this discussion up with considerations about the motives of the artist, which is another red herring. It's not the same red herring as in the above paragraph: you could make intellectual, nonemotive art for any motive. Lots of people believe that "pure" art has to be made from "pure" motives, like individual expression, and not for "dirty" motives like making money or getting famous. But this obsession with artistic purity only dates from the nineteenth century. Shakespeare wasn't concerned about it - he was aiming to please his audience, with jokes for the groundlings and flattery for the royalty. (Look at Henry V!) Velazquez made a living painting portraits of the royal family of Spain. Mozart composed on commission all the time. The notion of "selling out" would have made little sense to them. On the other hand, some of the crappiest teenage poetry is the most pure and sincere self expression. So "expression" neither defines art as opposed to non-art, nor defines good as opposed to bad art. Lots of art, good and bad, is characterized by self-expression. Some is not. That's all.

1 comment:

Jaime_sama said...

Ha! I wish I'd thought of that title myself. ;)