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.
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.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Marie Jolas,
Penguin Classics, 2014