Wednesday, 12 December 2012

"Hey Guys, Look At This!"

I was listening to a "Philosophy Bites" episode earlier (they're podcasts, lasting 15-odd minutes, with Nigel Warburten (until recently, a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the OU) interviewing a working philosopher on a particular topic, and discussing it at the layman's level. They can't possibly deal with all the complexities of a particular philosophical issue in 15 minutes, but they give a good overview and some insight into a single, specific issue each episode. I enjoy them, I find they remind me of the philosophy that I love, and I feel like they could be enjoyable to those who don't have a formal education in philosophy but do have an instinctual warmth toward it (such as, though he tries to pretend it ain't so, my fella).

In these posts, I'm not even going to manage a "bite" - I want these posts to be quick and dirty - but I do want to put down my own thoughts on a topic. So these make no pretence at being rigourous arguments, or even a real defence. It's very simply a smidge of background (if that), my own perspective and a brief explanation of why that's my perspective. That really is it. I'm gonna call it a "nibble" :-)


Nigel spoke to Derek Matravers about art: "What is art? Can anything be a work of art?"

Derek mentioned Duchamp's Urinal as being a critical piece in challenging philosophy's existing conception of what art is; he also mention Emin's Unmade Bed and Hirst's shark in formaldehyde (a piece which I cannot pretend to know the title of, and I ain't looking it up right now). These pieces were not created by the artist in order to cause pleasure in the viewer on account of the beauty of the piece, which was the pre-existing conception of art (as in Monet's or Rembrandt's work). Derek suggested the notion that something is art if the "art world" called it such (giving a broad definition of the "art world", such that if someone claims to be an artist then they are). But he referenced a counterargument that, even if that were so, it's an empty claim - if what makes something art is that an artist says it is, then there must be a reason why they call that thing art and not other things, and the reason why they called it art is the interesting thing here, not simply the bald fact that it has thus been named.

Derek counters that there are many reasons why people call something art, just as there are many reasons people get married (but "they have been through the process of getting married, and the marriage has not for any reason ended" is still a satisfactory definition of who we do call married). Yeah... but I think there is a common thread in why people - artists - call something art. The "hey guys, look at this" of the title.

I think when someone calls something art, they are saying that it is worth looking at (if physical art), or listening to, or whatever, and focusing one's full attention on, for more than just the time it takes to evaluate it. It's an item worthy of consideration because it is expected to produce in the observer an emotional or cerebral reaction (usually some of each). It should be, in some way, surprising. It should be inspiring - but it doesn't necessarily have to inspire simple pleasure (in fact, pleasure alone may not be enough to admit it in my eyes; anything that is insipid, that is too cheaply commercial, though it may be enjoyable in the moment, is not art if it does not inspire deeper consideration).

By this definition:
Mad Men is sometimes art. There is one episode (set in California) in which Don is approaching a swimming pool, and I've often paused watching it and considered that shot for a moment, struck by Don in his suit - a patch of grey surrounded by lush colour. I could pick other times also - Joan's rape, for example - but I don't want to spend too much time on this. I think the famous pace of Mad Men - it's as packed with plot as many soaps, but the pace of each scene tends to feel leisurely - gives the viewer to reflect more deeply on what they are seeing, and gives the show time to inspire. By contrast, I would say that, say, Hollyoaks, is seldom art.

Jackson Pollock's paintings, so I hear (I'm sorry to say I've yet to see one physically) stop many people in their tracks and take their breath away. So: art.

However, the "modern art" so often hung in restaurants and coffee shops to make them feel less soulless, but not challenging or inspiring the observer - background stuff, muzak or dance music, tables to put your mug down on and demanding no further thought, entreating no deeper appreciation - these things are not "art" according to the definition that I am proposing.

I guess this is the cause of my antipathy for poetry - to my mind, it's self-indulgent and pretentious. However, it clearly is inspiring to others, so it ought to be considered art and I must name myself a philistine with regard to it, rather than deny its worth.

And yes, by this definition, I do consider that an idea, an argument, a mathematical proof, may be art also.

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