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All We, Like Sheep, Have Gone Astray
All We, Like Sheep, Have Gone Astray
I know little about art. I am unread about the different periods of art, and I only know the names of a few famous artists. I have been to a few art museums, and have seen quite a number of paintings and sculptures that I like, but I have never understood why certain displays are considered art. Many modern art pieces that I have seen just look like cons. At the Los Angeles County Art Museum, one of their art pieces is nothing more than a poem scrolling across the face of a ticker. Or, there is the very trashed desk with random pieces of wood nailed to it. Sometimes, such as in the case of the desk, you can choose to make allowances for artistic expression, and just think that the art world has gone insane. But, at other times, the “artwork” does not look like it belongs in a museum.
On the other hand, I have seen a variety of classic paintings in my history textbooks or in museums. These paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, are ones that everyone concedes as fitting into the definition of art. Why do we respond to art in this fashion? Do we regard an object as art primarily because it is displayed in an art museum or because someone was willing to pay thousands, if not millions of dollars for it? Or is it because we know that the artist intended it to be art? Is there some artistic instinct resident within us that determines how we view art? Or is it the combination of any of these elements? In this paper, I will attempt to define what criteria an untrained art observer uses when he makes judgments about whether something is or is not art.
About a year ago, I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and looked at the numerous displays of modern art. At the museum, I saw the following piece of installation art by Damien Hirst entitled Away From the Flock:
This piece of artwork is a lamb preserved in a large box of formaldehyde. The lamb was not embellished, and there was nothing special about the box that the lamb was in. The only things notable about it were that it was a very well preserved lamb and it was in the middle of the floor of an art museum. When I first saw Away from the Flock, I was confused. Why would a preserved lamb be viewed as a piece of art worthy of an art museum? It didn’t seem any more special then the preserved animals that you see at science museums or in science classrooms. In fact, if it was anywhere other than an art museum, then it would be seen merely as a preserved animal. This is an example of something that we do not instinctively regard as art. Usually, when we walk down a street and we see paintings or statues for sale, we think “art.” We don’t stand there trying to figure out why it is art, or whether it really truly is art. We just know it is art. However, if a preserved lamb was on the side of the street, we wouldn’t think it was art. We would just assume that someone had lost their science experiment or something equally probable.
One of my favorite paintings that I discovered in my AP European History book is Primavera by Sandro Botticelli. It is pictured below.
Before I saw this painting, I had never heard of Botticelli. I did not see it in a museum, it was simply in my textbook. This was just something that I looked at and immediately concluded was art. If I had seen this painting in any other context – such as the background of a powerpoint presentation, a picture on a plate, or a poster on the wall, I would have immediately thought it was art. For some reason, despite its context and my ignorance of its importance, I automatically and instinctively categorized this painting as art. But why is this piece perceived as art no matter what its context, while Away From the Flock can be art, a curiosity, or a science experiment, depending on where you view it? Is Away From the Flock really a piece of art, or have artists and art critics, in an attempt to produce new fresh pieces, become so abstract that they are no longer making true art?
There still are many people that consider Away from the Flock to be a piece of art. If everyone agreed that it was not art, then it would not be in an art museum. Why would people consider a lamb preserved in formaldehyde art? In order to determine why some would consider Away From the Flock to be art, I will analyze this using various theories of art and compare it with an analysis of Primavera.
One such theory is the formalism theory of art. This theory states that art must have a specific form. Away from the Flock definitely has a specific form, since it is an actual dead lamb in a glass box. Primavera also has a specific form since it is a painting. However, this is too broad a category. The car that is parked outside of a person’s house also has a form, and yet we do not consider it art. So, the fact that Away From the Flock merely exists, does not necessitate that it be considered art.
Another theory of art is emotionalism. This theory states that for a something to be art, it must elicit an emotional response in the viewer. Away From the Flock certainly induces an emotional response. The first response that a person may have to it would be disgust. After all, what person wants to see a cute, furry little creature dead and preserved in a glass box? Another response that a person may have is a morbid sense of curiosity – the same sense of curiosity that makes us fascinated with car accidents on the side of the road. A third response could be to wonder what in the world a dead lamb is doing in an art museum. And that response could lead to two interpretations of Away from the Flock. One response would be to say that the lamb is not art and therefore does not belong in an art museum. The second response would be to justify that it belongs in an art museum by arguing that it conveys some sort of message, such as only the innocent die young or individualism –the act of separating yourself from others in society.
Primavera causes an emotional response as well. When you look at it, you might marvel at the beauty of the three Graces dancing at the side, or the gentleness of the Venus pictured in the center. Its intricate detail is fascinating, and you end up with the impression that it represents all that is gentle and beautiful in the world. Some might focus on the figures to the right and say that the painting intends to communicate chaos in the midst of serenity, while others might focus on Mercury to the left and say that it represents the fact that nature can slow down even the busiest of people (Mercury was the messenger of the gods).
However, art alone does not cause people to have an emotional response. For example, many people after 9/11 have intense emotional responses to the following picture.
This photograph isn’t the best picture of 9/11. Its image is blurry, and it doesn’t show the critical point of the towers falling. In other words, this photo is not worthy of being considered artistic photography. However, it still causes people to have an emotional response. While causing emotional responses is an important part of art, it doesn’t automatically mean that something that inspires a variety of emotions is art.
There is also the contextual theory, which states that art is whatever fills the context that society has set aside for it. This is probably the most promising theory for justifying the notion that Away From the Flock is art. The context that society has set aside for art today appears unusual and weird. If displaying a dead animal as art causes artistic heads to turn, then the dead animal does fit into the context of what society has set aside for art. Seemingly, the more unsettling and unusual a piece is, the more likely it is to fit into the current art context. It also explains why we automatically think of “art” when we see Primavera. When the painting was created, it fit into the context of art that the Renaissance society had created. It was about a feature of Greek society, it was beautifully detailed, it represented both the ideal man and the ideal woman, and its figures were very lifelike, in contrast to the disproportioned and oversized people of the medieval art world. Despite the fact that it might be disturbing to consider a dead lamb art, Away From the Flock still fits into the art context that our society has created, and therefore, is art.
However, there are problems even with this theory. The contextual theory gives any culture, or subculture, that is dominant in the artistic world at the time, dictatorial control over what is and is not art. Therefore, it is conceivable that the minority of people, who are the art critics, have complete control over what is and is not art. The dead lamb intrigued the art critics while, at the same time, disgusting other people. Ultimately, the art critics praised it until it was displayed in a museum. The rest of the population, assuming that they do not know as much about art as the art critics, agreed that the dead lamb must be art. So, just because a dead lamb fits into a context that has been created for it, does not mean that the dead lamb is art. It just means that there is a select group of people who think that it should be art.
The same theories that justify Primavera as being art also justify Away From the Flock. However, these same theories also qualify many other things as being art, such as the old beat up car parked in front of somebody’s house.
If all of these theories fail to definitively determine what exactly is art, then how can we tell whether Away From the Flock is art or not? And how can we tell whether a classic painting such as Primavera is art? I propose that there should be an additional theory of art that states that for something to be art, it must be art in all contexts.
For example, I mentioned earlier that no matter where or in what context that I saw Primavera, I would consider it art. It is a painting, which makes it art by definition, and is a well executed painting, which separates it from the doodles of a monkey or the finger painting of a two year old. If the painting was hanging in a kindergarten class along with the scribbles of the students, and a person was asked to identify the piece of art on the wall, without hesitation, that person would point out Primavera. It fits all of the expectations of art that we have and have had for centuries.
However, if you took Away From the Flock outside of the context of a museum, then people would no longer view it as art. If you put it in somebody’s home, then a visitor would probably just think that the owner was a scientist or had a disgusting sense of décor. If you put it in a Natural History Museum, the lamb would just be seen as an exhibit, such as the stuffed lions and tigers that might also be in the museum. If it was in a science classroom, it would just be a way to get students really interested in science. Because Away From the Flock is only art when it is put in an art museum, I therefore propose that then it is not truly art.
Many people would object to this idea. They would argue that many of the objects we consider art have some purpose, such as a Grecian urn. We display the urn in a museum, and call it art. However, the Greeks certainly did not make the urn and decorate it just so that they could set it unused on a pedestal and admire it. They made it as a jar to put water or oil in. Are these urns not art because their original purpose was to be functional?
The urns are definitely not art. Remove the embellishments from the urn, and it is just a normal, everyday pot. Instead, the paintings on the urn are the art, and are separate from the urn itself. When we buy a blank canvas, we do not think that we are buying a piece of art. Instead we are buying white fabric stretched over wooden beams. But when we apply paint to it, and make designs on it with a paintbrush, it becomes art. A canvas certainly has a purpose other than to be admired. Its purpose is to be covered with paint. Or, in times of extreme need, it can be pulled apart and used to mend a leaking roof or feed a dying fire. Marble can be used to make a floor or a flight of stairs. And we certainly do not call a flight of marble stairs art. They instead are mediums from which art can grow. A canvas is a tool that is necessary to produce a certain type of painting. Marble is a tool used to produce a certain type of statue. The urns that the ancient Greeks used are mediums as well. The urns themselves are not the art. But the paintings that embellish them are. We cannot separate the images on the urn away from the clay that composes the urn any more than we can separate a painting from its canvas. Therefore, we display the urn. But we are not admiring the clay shape anymore than we would admire the square shape of the canvas. We are admiring its embellishments.
The reason why items such as Away From the Flock are not affected by these claims is because there is nothing embellished about the lamb or the box it is contained in. In Away From the Flock, the lamb is not just a medium, but it is the medium and the work of art. There is nothing original or special about it. The lamb isn’t posed in any unusual way. It looks just like it is standing. It is not colored oddly, it looks like a normal, everyday lamb. The box isn’t constructed in an unusual way. It is just a standard glass box. It doesn’t show any special creativity. Anyone can learn how to preserve a lamb, just as anyone can learn how to make a ceramic pot. The reason why we admire art is because it requires something special that, despite years of training, we cannot reproduce. But Away From the Flock does not do this.
Another objection is the question of whether art is the same in different cultures. For a painting such as Primavera to be art, no matter what culture it was placed in, it would be art. So, imagine that I traveled to some remote African tribe that had never seen a white person or had never been exposed to Western culture. After finding this remote African tribe, I showed Primavera to the tribal people. Would they view the painting as art? The objection contends that the tribe would not view it as art. They may view it as something marvelous that the gods gave them to worship. Therefore, Primavera would not be art because it is not art in all contexts. Just because the culture I live in views something as art, doesn’t mean that all cultures everywhere view it as art.
However, there are two problems with this objection. The first problem is that there is no way that we can determine how an isolated tribe would respond to a piece of art. If I was to find an isolated tribe, they may be too busy admiring my white skin and odd clothing to pay attention to my questions about art. And by the time I was able to learn enough of their language to even ask my question, they would be tainted by exposure to Western civilization.
The second problem is that this objection is based on the idea that different cultures view art differently. What might be art to one culture may be seen as grotesque in another culture. However, this objection assumes that only certain civilizations have developed a form of art, such as painting. That is not necessarily the case. Various societies that are not large or highly developed have developed paintings of some form or another. Below are a few examples of art from “primitive” or tribal societies.
These different art forms existed before these cultures interacted with western civilizations. Though these paintings may not appear on a canvas such as a European painting would, they are art. They were created by different pigments being mixed together and applied to a surface to create some sort of picture. As far back as you can look in the history of man, art has always existed. Whenever we look at an ancient group of people, such as the Mongolians or African tribes, we find that they all have their own form of art that, except for the style of the execution, are similar to each other. Therefore, humans all over the earth have their own form of art that is familiar to the forms that we have in Western civilization. So, if I showed Primavera to an isolated African tribe, the tribal people would not necessarily reject it as art. It is conceivable that, because they have independently developed their own form of art they will be able to identify Primavera as art.
Some people may also argue that for something to be art, the person must have put a great deal of effort in creating the piece. For example, the creator of Primavera probably spent months creating the fine details of his painting before he decided that he had created a fine work of art. This would mean that something such as Away From the Flock would be art as well. The creator of the piece had to find a lamb, kill it without marring its appearance, build the glass container, pose the animal, and fill up the box with formaldehyde. All of those steps are not things that the average person would be able to do. So, because of the effort that was put into a certain piece’s creation, that is what makes it art.
If this was true, everything manufactured would be art. A Hersey bar would be art because someone had to spend a lot of time creating chocolate, and someone else had to invent a way of mass producing the chocolate. Because of the effort that went into creating the chocolate bar, it should be considered art. The problem with this idea is that it confuses the primary definition of art with the secondary definition. The primary definition of art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination.” However, the definition that this objection uses is a “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com /dictionary/art%5B2%5D). There is a difference between the two definitions of art. The art that we appreciate and put in museums requires “creative imagination.” The art that making a candy bar requires is a skill. Art requires more than just skill. It must involve a creative process that makes the piece of art somehow unusual and special.
A final objection is that people may argue that this theory of art greatly limits the creative scope of what an artist can do. Away From the Flock was a revolution in art, and should be respected, because it allowed artists to break away from traditional ideas and limitations on art. But this theory isn’t that big of a limitation. You can still make a statue of a giant clothes pin and display it as art, or paint the bottom of your shoes and walk across a canvas and call it art. There are still an infinite number of things you can do with paint that can alter how we see art and what we think art to be. However, anyone can install a toilet in the middle of a museum floor, or preserve a lamb in a large box of formaldehyde. Doing things like that show no creative talent. It just shows a talent of convincing people that a very ordinary object is somehow extraordinary enough to be considered art. If anything, this theory will force artists to be more creative and create more artistic innovations.
Art has always been a very tricky thing to define. Ever since the first drawings in caves were made, there has been a debate about what is, and what is not art. However, displaying ordinary objects in art museums is not art. It takes no creativity to put a lamb in formaldehyde and put it in a museum. It just takes moxie to convince a critic that the lamb is art. Part of what makes art so wonderful is the effort that the artist puts into it. Finely detailed paintings are seen as classic pieces of art, not just because the paintings are beautiful, but because you can see how much thought and effort the artist put into making it. Art is more than just the finished project. It is all of the hard work and new ideas that were put into creating it.
9/11 Picture. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/images/wtccrash2a.jpg
African art. http://www.ksbit.net/students/yr8796a/scripts/Images/African-Art-Ivory-Coast-50898.jpg
Away from the Flock. http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/08208k40zb8eY/610x.jpg
Cave art. http://www.wasdarwinright.com/images/Cave-Art-Standing-Bison-25114.jpg
Eskimo art. http://www.inuitarteskimoart.com/images/P75CD13.jpg
Mongolian art. http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/images/mongarch.jpg
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/art%5B2%5D)