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Re: What is art?

David Goen’s comments on art are entertaining, but
cover old ground.

David, you might note that artistic intent has been a
formal hallmark of art-ness since Whistler’s lawsuit
against Ruskin. Ruskin believed that “art” was
distinguished by possession of specifiable features
that inhered in the object itself; Whistler countered
that his talent, his vision, and his intent, were all
that was necessary to make a painting ‘art,’ however
crude and “unfinished” it appeared to the critic. This
has been the answer to the question every time, since
then, that a viewer or critic has asked what makes the
brick displayed on the floor of the gallery a work of
“art” while the bricks in the wall are just building
materials -- it’s the artistic intent.

(Note to Richard Minsky: Your anecdote was nice. The
fact that Buzz did it 20 years earlier was apparently
a negative comment, yet for Ruskin it would have been
essential for any artist to reproduce the standards
and styles of past artists. Since the turn of the
century innovation has become an end in itself in
“art,” but it has not been the only goal, or even a
goal at all in many historical periods.)

Plastics arts are, in this regard, somewhat lagging
behind literary “art,” in which art-ness has been a
function of reader-response, and authorial (or
artist’s) intent is no longer central.

David’s third category, the market, is perhaps the
best understood. David Napier, for example, discusses
how special markets, including the critics and judges,
the gallery system and museums, make “art,” in a nice
essay in his book Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art,
and Symbolic Anthropology.

The problem with all such discussions, including the
current one, is that “art” -- like “literature” -- is
a social category, not an essential characteristic of
certain objects. As a social judgment it can play
different roles historically. It wasn’t that long ago
that, in the West, it was part of the system of
judgment that distinguished social classes: those
trained or educated in the system of artistic
discrimination characteristic of the privileged
classes could recognize and appreciate art,
literature, classical music, etc. The ‘ruder’
entertainments of the lower classes continue to be
stigmatized as popular culture, though as we now
acknowledge, the production of pop music, comic book
art, etc. can require great talent.

Bookbinding has certainly participated in the social
relations of “art” production at various times and
places. Every contemporary fine binder will recognize
Napier’s discussion of the process through which
objects become art: early acceptance in shows, which
often depends upon the binder participating in a
special set of relations (e.g. membership in the GBW
), which build a kind of pedigree; juried shows give
critics and collectors confidence in talking about and
buying a binder’s work; galleries, museums, libraries
start to acquire stuff. In different places and at
different times the critics, curators, and collectors
may look for different things in the objects --
art-ness can be highly fluid -- it’s the system that
sanctions art-ness that remains fairly stable -- but
when a binder meets those expectations, “art” emerges.

Sorry to ramble -- it’s been an interesting thread.

D Pollock

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