Attempting to Define Art

Douglas P. McManaman
April 4, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

In order to come to some understanding of what it means to be art in a postmodern age, a good place to begin is with one of the fathers of postmodernism, namely Friedrich Nietzsche. If we begin with the Nietzschean principle that everything is in a pure state of becoming, that all is change and that permanency is an illusion, then indeed it follows that reality is absurd; there is no such thing as "thing", that is, no such thing as "being", only becoming (change, flux). The result is that there is 'no thing' to know, and if there is no thing to know, then knowledge is obviously impossible--for there is nothing stable for the mind to apprehend. That is why for Nietzsche, it is the sound, or language, that accounts for the illusion of permanency, or the illusion of "being"; hence, it is language (naming) that accounts for the illusion of knowledge. A being does not possess meaning "in itself", for there is no "being"; rather, meaning is imposed on the real. This means that man is the source of meaning. In other words, meaning is constructed, which is to say that being is produced by us out of the chaos of pure becoming. It follows that all science--or human knowing--is a fiction, a human construct. Things have no intelligible nature (i.e., essence, type, kind, definition, etc.), only the intelligibility imparted to them via language. That is why definitions do not express the essences or true nature of things; rather, definitions are linguistic constructs rooted ultimately in the will to power.

It is easy to see why, in a postmodern framework, art is no longer "the making of beauty for beauty's own sake"--which is what art was traditionally understood to be. If things have no intrinsic and definite meaning--only the meaning imposed or projected--, neither does art. Another way of looking at this is to say that if art is the expression of the real and the real is absurd and devoid of any intrinsic meaning, then art cannot be limited to a particular definition that results in the exclusion of works that fail to measure up to that ideal. If all meaning is derived from the subject, the same is true of art.

Postmodernism rejected the notion that there was one inherent meaning to a work of art; rather, the observer determines or completes or participates in the meaning of a work. Of course, postmodernism might very well be right to reject such a notion; perhaps there isn't one inherent meaning to a work of art that is determined solely by the artist. But must one embrace the entire postmodern package in order to agree to reject such a narrow idea? Not necessarily. To limit the meaning of a work of art to a single meaning determined completely by the artist might very well be needlessly narrow, but it does not follow that art has nothing essentially to do with beauty. To deal with some of the issues and questions bearing upon particular works of art, we need to ask the more general question of what is it that determines a work of art to be art. In other words, what is art's specific nature?

If we are talking about art, at the very least we know what we are talking about and what we are not talking about--we are not talking about politics or the weather, and none of us has any difficulty distinguishing between the inside of an art museum from that of a hockey rink. When we discuss art, we are talking about a human activity of a particular kind, a making, a work that is an expression of some sort. But does this making/expressing necessarily have anything to do with beauty? I believe that in order to answer this question, we need to return to the question of "the real", that is, the question of "being".

In classical metaphysics, beauty--along with the good, the true, and the one--is a property of being. The one, the true, the good, and the beautiful are what has been traditionally referred to as the transcendentals; they are properties of being. Just as nutrition and growth are properties of living things--which means that if something is alive, it grows and feeds--, so too whatever exists is one, true, good and beautiful to the degree that it exists. Defining beauty is no easy task, and determining whether a particular work of art is truly beautiful is even more difficult. However, we know that if something is "good", it is experienced as desirable, and good is a property of being because "to be" is desirable (all things yearn to be and to be most fully); something is true if it is known to conform to the real (regardless of how difficult the truth may be to determine in a particular case), and something is really one insofar as it is really undivided (such as a living animal). Finally, something that is beautiful is experienced as giving a certain kind of delight, or more specifically, a delight in knowing. But this delight in knowing is not one that is peculiar to the act of knowing, rather, it is a delight which superabounds and overflows from this knowing, precisely because of the object known. The object is seen as enjoying a certain excellence, a perfection of sorts, which is why we assert: "it is beautiful". An object given to the mind's intuition and which exalts and delights that mind is experienced as beautiful. We do not project beauty onto the real; rather, we recognize something as having a certain property, namely beauty. In other words, beauty is a property that a being possesses independently of our knowing it, but we apprehend and appreciate it only because we have developed the conditions necessary to recognize it. What those subjective conditions are that allow us to appreciate a thing's beauty not to mention the objective conditions that render something beautiful are entirely different questions not at all easy to answer and certainly beyond the scope of this essay.

Reality, however, is intelligible in itself, and its intelligibility exceeds what we know of it currently. One could say with physicist Richard Feynman that "science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance", which would not be the case if knowledge were a construct and all science a fiction. If there is one thing that is evident to the knower that is committed to growing in knowledge, it is that reality is always more than what I currently understand it to be; reality has an intelligibility that is larger than my mind. If man imposes meaning and intelligibility on an otherwise unintelligible and absurd reality, then there would be no progressing in knowledge, for there is nothing to uncover--except to deconstruct the constructs of my fellow human beings; my own reality would not be experienced as having a meaning larger than my own imposition and human constructs. To experience reality's exceeding intelligibility, however, is to experience its magnificence. The universe is awe inspiring. It is rich in variety, harmonious, and radiant with a meaning that overflows and lifts me out of myself into a larger world, and this elevation is caused by the object or objects that I see and judge as beautiful.

The way we come to know the natures of things is through their activity--things act according to their nature. If we are to come to some determination of what it means to be art, we will have to focus on both the activity of the artist and the activity of the observer. It seems to me that artists have a keen sense of this magnificence, proportion, order, and overflowing radiance that belongs to things. What is different about the artist from any other contemplative is that the artist has the skill to communicate (express) what he/she beholds by making something that brings the viewer into the reality of what is seen. He makes, but he expresses a reality larger than himself, a reality that delights his mind--he is moved to communicate the reality that delights his mind by virtue of its overflowing excellence. Those who behold his/her work will, if that work is truly masterful and if the observer has the necessary conditions, experience it as a magnificent work of art, that is, a work of beauty. A philosopher or scientist abstracts from the beautiful, but he does not deny it. He does not have the ability to express the beautiful--otherwise he'd be an artist--, but he does have the talent to express what is true, at least to some degree. But an artist is not merely a philosopher who makes a good point; his work is about producing works that inspire awe. If he fails to do that, he has failed as an artist--although he might have succeeded in making a point. A successful philosopher is not by that fact a successful artist, and a successful artist has to be more than someone who simply makes a unique and unusual statement of a conceptual nature. He must be in the business of making beauty for beauty's sake.

So is Duchamp's Fountain a work of art? There is no doubt it is not and was not intended to be a work of beauty--Duchamp said it himself. Arthur Danto argues that the urinal--or Warhol's boxes--became 'about something' (See Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art). In other words, Duchamp transformed this mundane object from something merely functional (a urinal) to a fundamentally meaningful object. Danto argues that the urinal became part of the world of art (The Artworld," The Journal of Philosophy 61, October 15, 1964). Damon Young and Graham Priest write: "The artworld is, simply put, a milieu in which objects can gain a new power: to express something beyond their ordinary utility. They are part of a new category, 'art', and gain a message that can be distinguished from their use or exchange value, and from the new category itself....The point is not that objects outside the artworld cannot have a message - the signs on a public toilet are straightforwardly 'about' something. The point is that, once they are within the artworld, objects can gain a new significance over and above their common use. They do not simply name an object or show its function: they make a statement of some sort" (It is and it isn't. Aeon, Sept, 2016).

There is no doubt that Duchamp's urinal entered a new milieu, an artistic milieu, but does the urinal in any way contribute to the making of that milieu? Does the urinal exude its own light, so to speak, or does it merely share in the light of the artistic milieu that is created by the works of beauty that make up that milieu? Would the urinal have any discernible meaning if the milieu was made up of nothing other than old toilets, pipes, lawn mowers and rakes, etc? Clearly not, otherwise every backyard shed would be an art museum. The urinal makes a statement, and it is a statement intended to mock--and perhaps it challenges what needed to be challenged. But does that make it a work of art? It is indeed the product of the activity of an artist, and it says something, but need it be an expression of some aspect of reality that is seen and experienced as beautiful in order for it to be a genuine work of art? Or is it enough for it to be meaningful and possibly even funny? If the expression of the beautiful is part of the very essence of what it means to be a work of art, then Fountain is certainly not a work of art. But if a work need only be meaningful, that is, need only say something that possibly even needs to be said, and said cleverly and with humour to boot, and said within an artistic milieu, then it would seem that Fountain is a work of art. I cannot help but think, however, that such works only ride the coattails of other genuine works of art that constitute the milieu of the artworld. Without that milieu, they cease to be anything of any real significance. That would not be true, however, of a Van Gogh or Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.