What is Art?

What is art? What is beauty? Is it a nice painting of some grassy landscape with a few trees? Or are you the type of person who sees an unmade bed and thinks “Yes! This is so art!”? If you’re the latter, thank you for reading, Tracy Emin. We’re all human and that means, by definition, we are going to all have different tastes, and opinions on what exactly constitutes “art”. On a side note, it should also be acknowledged that there are several non-human animals in the artworld – just marvel at the artistic stylings of Bini the Bunny and try not to gaze in awe!

Plato believed that we could identify something as beautiful because it participated in the dim recollection our soul had of the perfect form of beautiful. This theory is not overly dissimilar to psychological theories today. From an early age we are acquainted with the object of a tree, for example. From there, we can subsequently identify other trees in the world because they participate in our own idea of what a tree is. Psychologists refer to this as the Prototype Theory.

However, we don’t all possess the same “prototypes”. For instance, the first bird a child might see growing up in Australia could be an emu or even a penguin – both flightless, one swims and one runs. Compare this to the first bird a child might see somewhere in the British Isles – a robin or a magpie, for example. Therefore, following their first experience of seeing a bird, their subsequent experiences of identifying birds and the criteria they employ may be totally different from each other. When asked to give an example of the concept of a bird, a robin may be more frequently cited than a penguin due to the individual’s higher exposure in the past to robins than penguins. Similarly, each of us will have been exposed to different first encounters of beauty and art. This brings to mind the saying that “you spend your whole life rewriting the first poem you ever loved”. So, when a person considers an impressionist landscape painting a real work of art over something surreal by Picasso, perhaps this is because the landscape painting participates in the individual’s initial idea they formed from their first encounter of “art”.

Let’s talk about another art form – photography. The renowned photographer Susan Sontag spoke about an interesting paradox in society. She remarked that in society it is normal to “aspire never to experience privation, failure, misery, pain, dread disease, and in which death itself is regarded not as natural and inevitable but as a cruel, unmerited disaster” yet at the same time it “creates a tremendous curiosity about these events”. An observation perhaps even more pertinent today than when she first wrote it in the 70s was that “horrific accidents always attract people with cameras”. Why is this?

Existential philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed that generally people did not live as “authentic” beings because they were not aware of the true motivations of their behaviour – anxiety stemming from the awareness that life is finite. Indeed, psychologists assert that when faced with death reminders, we engage in avoidance type behaviours. They assert that these security-providing defence mechanisms can form the basis of our personalities, are self-defeating, and stifle the potential for personal growth. Consumerism, immersion in drugs, addictive behaviours like compulsive web browsing, video gaming or watching television can provide a false sense of security and numb the mind to existential realities. So then, once we face up to these realities, we will be able to live a fuller, “authentic” life. Perhaps then Heidegger would argue that, through viewing these images in a detached capacity, we are experiencing glimpses of authenticity. As such, a person who is perhaps more in touch with the existential realities of non-being and so on, may be more likely to find and appreciate the beauty in a particularly dark, grim or grotesque painting by Francis Bacon in comparison to someone for whom the contemplation of life and death is something to be thoroughly avoided.

Let us consider Sontag’s claims from another angle. She claimed that we have a tremendous curiosity about calamity and destruction for example. By looking at pictures of calamity, it emphasises the fact that, at that moment, we are exempt from this pain because they are just that – pictures. As Sontag stated, “in the image-world, it has happened…”. Therefore, it is not currently happening and, most importantly, it is not happening to you the viewer. Perhaps, from an existential point of view, this offers comfort as it asserts a type of symbolic immunity from the thing we dread – death. We are detached, safe from the image of calamity, be it death, famine, war or destruction, in the comfort of our viewing gallery.

Moreover, perhaps by photographing the events we instinctually fear, it gives us power over them, thereby reducing our discomfort. We photograph them and so remove the threat. They are reduced to images in cameras or phones, or polaroid’s you can hold in your hand; and why should you fear that? By doing this we diffuse the threat.

Finally, perhaps because, it is fair to assume, most peoples’ concept of art and what constitutes art is routed in the traditional concept of art (consider the “normal” paintings of landscapes and so on), that when we see something so deviant from the social norm, we are primed to react with hostility in some form. The basic premise of the argument can be boiled down to this: “She is doing something that’s very different from what most of us do! She must be really weird if she’s doing that”. After all, the threat of social ostracism is usually enough to deter most people from straying too far from social norms. Our natural reflex to fear, at least on some level, the unknown (a necessary adaptive response) may be responsible here.


James Simcox – Features Writer

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