Really, what the hell IS art? [2]

Since posting that extract from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I have been trying to avoid re-reading it. Having a definition of art made ventriloquially by James Joyce makes for a powerful precedent, if not a downright stumbling block to any claim of  further originality of thought! A while ago I published a piece here in which I imagined what it would be like to walk through an Egyptian precinct – I keep coming back to this, I know –  lined with depictions of deities, kings and queens, and all kinds of characters, when one did not have a separate word for ‘art’.

Comparing that situation to how we currently view art is a challenge. When I walk from the railway station to the university campus, how do I know that I am not somehow taking a similar walk to an ancient Egyptian’s? If there is something past or through which I walk that I do not have a defining term for, I have no idea I’m walking through it. The Egyptian might have been able to say “I am not Horus, and I am not Osiris,” the same way as I distance myself from any identifiable aspect of the city of Edinburgh, but neither of us can see the dividing line between ourselves and something for which we have no word. Perhaps the next time I make the journey, I ought to stop somewhere, look around, and say “Wow!” just for the heck of it.

Perhaps that very act, the act of stopping and staring around myself in wonder holds a key to the understanding of art. So I will take my first real step in the definition of what the hell art is. I realise immediately what hobbles any such step, of course; once we have a word for something, it becomes a tool of taxonomy. A definition is that which separates something from everything else, and as such it is a negative rather than a positive. Much as I would love to abolish the tem ‘art’ and simply experience it without mediation, that is now impossible. So I will, at least, try to make any definition as wide as I possibly can. I’ll immediate offer a caveat to that wideness: I am not at this point concerned with figurative uses of the word ‘art’. We can talk about the ‘artistry’ of Roger Federer, for example, when we really mean that his unique combination of skill, athleticism, and grace makes us go “Wow!” but that does not necessarily mean that when he serves an ace he is therefore presenting a work of art. Non sequitur. We can speak of the ‘martial arts’, but no matter how balletic any particular form of that may be, no matter how we may see Bruce Lee in action and say “Wow!” it is basically about hitting people and is not an artistic statement. For now, the figurative does not figure.

But “Wow!” does hold the key, I think. That is the very word I used a few decades back, while I was climbing a wide staircase in a French chateau, and came across a massive painting by Fernand Léger on a wall. Looking back at that, allowing my imagination to conjure the scene in my memory, I realise of course that the first requirement in a definition of art is this: art is phenomenal. By that I mean that a work of art has to appear to us, to come upon our perception as something outside ourselves. Gaston Bachelard tells us that imagination comes before action (The Poetics of Space34), and indeed before a work of art can be created, it is imagined in the mind of the artist. But if it the imagined work is not realised, that image is not a phenomenon, it has no ‘appearance’. Not everything that is phenomenal is a work of art of course. We may speak of daffodils ‘dancing’, of bird ‘singing’, or morning ‘painting the sky’, but as I said above the figurative does not figure.

The second requirement I will bring in is this: art is intentional. Art is first imagined by the artist and then is realised, becomes that phenomenon I referred to. A natural landscape, a view, a mountain, a stone on the summit of that mountain, none of these is ‘art’, because, unless one posits a creator deity who is the ineffably perfect template of an artist, they are phenomenal but not intentional. I can think, however, of an occasion or a set of conditions under which one or any of these might be considered art. That is if an artist decides to ‘situate’ it. If an artist first imagines and then carries out the conducting of a group up a mountain, where he points to the stone on the summit and says “Behold!” then the stone becomes involved in a work of art; but the work of art itself is not simply the stone nor the stone the work of art, rather the act of the artist presenting it is – that is the total phenomenon to the onlookers, even though the phenomenon of the stone may then be or become all that captures their attention. The foregoing shows the artist’s intention in moving something from imagination to realisation. So far, therefore, we have intention (imagination), realisation, and phenomenon.

I would argue that even if randomness is factored in, these criteria can be fulfilled. If, for example, an artist happens across something ‘trouvé’ and situates it, then we still have intention, realisation, and phenomenon. There is a definite element of randomness in, for example, ‘gestural abstraction’, or action painting as it was also known, but the randomness does not negate the criteria.

Franz Kline, Painting Number 2 1954
Franz Kline, Painting No.2, 1954. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

At this point I feel as though I’m going over old ground. I don’t believe I’m saying anything that countless people have said before. But then, I don’t pretend that the material in this blog is academic writing. Perhaps I will – who knows? – stomp around inside the walled precincts of thought long enough to catch, in my peripheral vision, the door to the outside that has been there all along. But don’t hold your breath. Next time I address this subject, I hope to move on to see what we can exclude – taxonomy being all about exclusion, as we know! – from the criteria I have proposed today.


work cited:

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Marie Jolas,

Penguin Classics, 2014

“Power is Power”

1 du Maurier
du Maurier


When I was an undergraduate I wrote an essay, in response to a set question asking me to judge between two books, and chose which one was worthy of receiving a prize as the best English-language novel of the twentieth-century – we had been studying the culture of literary prizes. There was a shortlist of novels we had studied in our module, with space for a wildcard of our own choice, and an instruction to pick any two. I picked Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

1 Orwell

The first task of the essay was to set out the criteria by which the two novels would be judged, and the second was of course to explain my reasons for awarding the prize to one and not the other. They might seem to you to have been a very odd pair, the first having usually been dismissed as a novelette since it was first published, the second being one of the twentieth century’s greatest dystopian novels. However, I made a case for Rebecca being a very strong contender. I argued that its reputation, perhaps based on the rather mannered Alfred Hitchcock movie of 1938 starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, of being a melodramatic, Gothic novelette rather than on its own merits, was ill deserved. It is a tense and subtle psychological thriller, brilliantly written, and also a satire on a disappearing social class and that class’s attitude toward the status of women. The satirical aspect of both novels drew them closer in genre, of course, and the quality of du Maurier’s writing closed the gap on merit. In the section where I described the criteria, I made the following statement:

[…] the winning book, whilst not simply being a sermon, should serve a lasting purpose, telling us something about human nature, the human mind, or human society which does not simply fade with the era in which the book was written. In 1995, Booker panel chairman George Walden made the complaint that “very few people write with any conviction about the present” (Prescott 256) and “[s]o few of the Booker entries tackled modern England […] Is there something wrong with England?” (360). Both finalists tackle the “modern” England of their era, even though one is cast as an imagined, yet-to-come ‘Airstrip One’. Both tackle aspects of the observed class structure or politics of the time in which they were written. It might be expected that this would shackle them to that time. The criterion proposed means that along with and despite their relevance to 1938 and 1948, there should be a contemporary or timeless relevance also. Both authors would readily accept the verdict of posterity. A du Maurier character said “We shan’t know [the great writers of today] for fifty years” (62); Orwell would “take the chance that time will do to me what it does to most prophets” (174).

My conclusion at the end of the essay was that both books were works of originality and imagination, both dealt with the psychology of their protagonists (Winston Smith and the unnamed Mrs. De Winter), but dexterity of language and greater continuing relevance edged Nineteen Eighty-Four ahead.

Of course this was a very artificial exercise, aimed solely at testing our grasp of the issues surrounding literary awards, and our ability to assess two novels on a scale of literary merit that we ourselves had set. It was as artificial as the televised debate – or rather the created-for-television debate – between Will Self and Adam Gopnik, about whether Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was the greater dystopian novel of the twentieth century. As members of the audience pointed out during the brief Question-and-Answer session, the two authors did not write their novels in contention with each other but to stand alone, and both are fine novels[1].

1 Self

The chief argument that Will Self and Adam Gopnik appeared to be making, had to do with the continuing relevance I mentioned above. In essence, the debate came down to a box-ticking exercise about which of the two novels was more prescient about today’s world. Brave New World can claim to have foreseen the life of unproductive comfort as lived by the middle class of the North-West Quartile[2], the lack of the effect of war on our lifestyles, our dependence on artificial pleasure, our dependence on people of a lesser caste to clean up after us, and so on. Nineteen Eighty-Four foresaw the surveillance culture, the helicopter gunship, the Stockholm syndrome, and the shortening of understanding by the manipulation of language. The ‘evidence’ brought in defence of each book was rather predictable – Self starting by impishly insulting his audience as “Alphas,” Gopnik citing the governmental styles of Trump and Putin.

1 Gopnik

However, dystopian novels do not need to be novels of prescience. Their function is not to say “Wouldn’t it be awful if…” but “Isn’t is awful that…” If it were a question of judging the most prescient book ever written then the prize would probably go to Das Kapital by Karl Marx. But again, he did not write that as a work of future prediction but as one of current analysis. It just turns out that his description of nineteenth-century capitalism shows a model that is still recognisable today. In fact it was recently dramatised by Sarah Woods, for BBC radio, who applied a Marxian analysis to the manufacture of a mobile phone.

All dystopian fiction has to set itself in the future, however, in order to be able to exaggerate the contemporary trends it satirises, but that is the only reason. Take Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, the theme of which was slavish addiction to mass media by a dumbed-down public. The fact that it foresaw the phenomenon of ‘reality TV’ is secondary to the point made by the way the slogan “This is the Year of the Sex Olympics – Sex Olympics Year” was chanted over the end credits, to the viewing audience which, if it was truly awake, would suddenly realise that it had just slavishly sat through a television programme. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as another example of another novel written to exaggerate contemporary trends[3]. Equally, all dystopian fiction has to envisage a central, controlling force, in order to shore up the idea of a uniform culture that is dangerous to resist. Thus the most common, and most facile, complaint made against the genre, is that its lack of prescience is signalled by the fact that in most of the world – at least the world as known by folk in that North-Western Quartile – is culturally and politically ‘free’. But then none of us, particularly if we are comfortable but in effect regardless of whether we are comfortable or socially excluded, is capable of seeing the totality of what hedges us in and keeps us in our place.

1 Huxley

Thus Orwell’s picture of constant war, of the ruthless exercise of political power, of the betrayal of socialism by the Bolsheviks, of the switching of enmities, of the curtailment of language, are all based on mid-twentieth-century factors he witnessed first hand. Similarly, Huxley’s characters’ cheerful hedonism is based on cultural factors he witnessed in America. Whether they are prescient or not has little to do with their canonical status, as little as do the works of, say Dickens, Sterne, Shakespeare, or Chaucer, all of whom satirised the society around them.

This has been a diversion from what I had intended this blog for, but it has been, for me, an enjoyable one. And on that moment of cheerful hedonism, I shall close.

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[1] Orwell did complain that Brave New World to an extent plagiarised Zamyatin’s We, but ironically Isaac Deutscher (34) made the same accusation about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[2] by which I mean mainly the more affluent countries of Western Europe and North America.

[3] It is perhaps unremarkable that since the election of Donald Trump and the rise of triumphalism in the Religious Right, The Handmaid’s Tale has experienced a revival. It is less unremarkable, given that Trump leans heavily to the neoliberal right, that Nineteen Eighty-Four also experienced a revival.

I am grateful to poets Daniel Paul Marshall and Marie Marshall (not related) for initiating this topic, in a comment thread to one of the former’s essays. A special thanks to the latter for reminding me that I had reminded her about The Year of the Sex Olympics. I apologise for not using this post as an opportunity to comment further on DPM’s original post, but I do recommend it as an interesting essay.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that the title of this piece is taken from an episode of Game of Thrones. When Petyr Baelish remarks to Cersei Lannister that “Knowledge is power,” she, with a mere gesture, causes her men-at-arms to draw their swords and hold their points to his throat. “No,”, she says, “power is power!” I don’t know whether Game of Thrones, in printed or televised form, can claim a place as dystopian fiction; it is a fantasy with supernatural elements, set in a land where noble families vie for the crown, and as such it draws on the late medieval period in England. The ascendancy of House Lannister is based on the absolutism of the Tudors that followed that historical period. As such it could be said to allegorise the unrestricted, ultralegal power enjoyed now by transnational billionaires, but that would be stretching it.

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Works cited

“Das Kapital.” Drama, BBC Radio4, 2ndMay 2018.

Deutscher, Isaac. “1984– The Mysticism of Cruelty.” Twentieth Century

Interpretations of 1984, edited by Samuel Hynes, Prentice-Hall,

1971, pp.29-40.

du Maurier, Daphne. The Years Between. Samuel French Ltd., 1947.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia.Penguin, 1962.

Prescott, Lynda. “Pat Barker, The Ghost Road.” The Popular and the

Canonical: Debating Twentieth Century Literature 1940-

2000, edited by David Johnson, Routledge, 2005, pp.244-399.

“The Year of the Sex Olympics.” Theatre 625, BBC2, 29thJuly 1968.


Image credits: Most of these images are in wide circulation and difficult to pin down precisely. The picture of Daphne du Maurier is from Getty Images, and that of Orwell from the National Union of Journalists. The photograph of Will Self is credited “Texas A&M.” The image of Adam Gopnik is a still from a video which can be found at The only credit I can find for the Huxley photo is “AP.”