Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What Is Art For?

Having read an article about Ellen Dissanayake who explained why we need art, I decided to find her book, What Is Art For. Today, my art therapy client and I began reading and found some very thought provoking ideas.

Here, Ellen talks about what she calls the "advanced, western" notion of art.

It is not to be denied that the larger portion of people in modern Western society may have imprecise and undiscriminating attitudes toward the meaning or range of a concept of art. Yet for the past century or so, among those directly concerned with making, perceiving, and understanding the arts (the "art world"), it has been generally accepted that artists are more interested in their works as entities in themselves than they are in their success in representing some aspect of reality or ideality outside themselves.

Today as well, it is assumed by the art world that a work of art has its own autonomous value, apart from being useful(a goblet), or skillfully made (an engraved snuffbox), or impressively carved (a monument). An art object need serve no purpose other than its own existence as something for aesthetic contemplation. In this view, art is "for" nothing except itself. It need have no other justification - such as accurately depicting reality, or putting the spectator in touch with eternal verities, or revealing phenomenological or emotional truth. The primary value of a work of art need no longer be that it edifies or instructs, that it is rare or uses costly materials, that it is well made.

Yet neither in classical or medieval times, nor indeed in any other civilization or traditional society that we know of, have works been made to serve as "art objects," to be judged by aesthetic criteria alone, or appraised primarily for their power to evoke aesthetic enjoyment. Even though aesthetic excellence in a work may have been obligatory, this was so because the object or performance was already intrinsically important for other reasons and thus required to be done beautifully, appropriately, or correctly. Until the nineteenth century, beauty (at least in the man-made world) was not its own excuse for being.

Although Western philosophers of the past certainly discussed beauty and art (in different senses than today), it was first in eighteenth-century Britain that a subject called aesthetics began to be regarded as a distinct matter for study (Osborne, 1970).

In fact, with our detached, aesthetic attitude we can view objects from other cultures and civilizations and presume that they are "art" in our sense, even though in their own context they served instrumental purposes and were never regarded, as we regard the, "purely aesthetically." We are mistaken to assume that such regard is universal.

Art, Ellen believes, is a culturally loaded concept. This book is fascinating!

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