Victor Pross

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VICTOR and LEE: A debate about Art.

In March of 2006 I first joined a writer’s site and fell into a debate over the ‘what is art’ question with a poster who simply went by the name of ‘Lee.’ I have edited and reconstructed the essence of the debate here. I have also received permission from Lee to post our discussion. He’s rather happy to comply as he believes he won the debate. I thought it would be of interest here at OL.


LEE: The whole 'What is Art?' argument originated in part as Western propaganda during the Cold War to allow the United States to win a battle on a cultural front against the Soviet Union. Art critics like Clement Greenburg set out to define art and proliferate the myth of superior western modern art. In 1937, Hitler held a 'Degenerate Art' exhibition, dismissing many great artists such as Picasso as lunatics or mentally ill.

VICTOR: I don’t know where you were educated, but almost everything you said is either wrong or ridiculous. This is not an empty statement. I back my points up. I have been studying the history of art diligently and so I’m not speaking from a uniformed or knee-jerk reaction. Now then, to take your position point-by-point: you contend that the “Whole ‘what is art?’ argument originated in part as Western propaganda….” This is simply not true. Historically, the task of clarifying ‘what art is’ properly falls neither to artists, businessmen nor even to critics or art historians--but to philosophers. The roots of the twentieth century chaos and dis-integration in the arts lie in philosophic assumptions, corruption and/or errors. It’s a philosophical default---not ‘propaganda’---that has swept the way to twentieth century postmodernist muck. In its original and broadest sense the term art (derived from the Latin ars, artis) dates back to antiquity---synonymous with the Greek term techne. It refers to the concept of ‘skill.’ so the issue of a definition dates back to ancient philosophy. Now you mention Clement Greenburg. First, Mr. Greenburg’s agenda was not to set out to sell ‘superior Western art’---but rather the focus of his work was to champion abstract art. Mr. Greenburg was mainly concerned with differentiating between ‘high culture’ and ‘kitsch’. He argued that modernist avant-garde work---in particular, ‘abstract’ or ‘non-objective’ art---constitutes ‘high art’ because it aims at the esthetically “absolute” as in trying “to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms” thus perpetuating the dogma of ‘art for art’s sake’. That was his actual aim---whatever his talk about Western culture. By the way, many of the famous abstract artists DID suffer from mental illness---such as Jackson Pollock.

LEE: What many people don't understand is that art has its own politics. It's more than about making pretty pictures, art like many other things in this world is a commodity, galleries are paid based on commission, artists on how much work they sell. If you can grasp this concept, then isn't it logical to assume then that the Rich determine what art is?

VICTOR: No, Lee, the rich don’t determine what art is. First of all, abstract artists, modernists and postmodernists and the galleries that represent them are losing money by selling this crap. Despite efforts to ‘educate’ the public on the merits of ‘non-traditional’ work, the majority of ordinary people remain un-persuaded. The outcry is usually ‘this vulgar collection of junk is an insult to art lovers.’ If profit were the issue, then they would sell only traditional work. Anyway, it’s not just the wealthy that enjoy art. It is thanks to Capitalism that all walks of life are richer. What’s more, just because a few wealthy pretentious mediocrities buy this junk doesn’t mean they determine what art is. The wealthy---just like the poor posturing postmodernist puppet that creates the junk---has bought into postmodernist philosophy. As I said before, philosophy sets the tone of a society---not the rich or business men or the poor or the artists.

LEE: Yes, you do see a lot of crap in galleries, but if you understand that these 'art pieces' are rather a statement attacking what has become an 'Institution of Art' controlled by the elite upper class, then you'll have a better appreciation of it. Tracy Emin, put her unmade bed into the Tate Britain, yes it is a joke... it IS a joke, and if you can't decipher it.. 'I made this in my sleep'. The joke really is on the rich who decide to buy these works. Emin is a real artist, an intelligent one, she can draw and paint, but like many artists the bitterness comes from the struggle against an institution (the biggest joke) which subscribes to increasingly commercial aspirations.

VICTOR: Now then, you speak of Tracy Emin’s ‘unmade bed art’ as crap---and YET you say that we shouldn’t have definitions of art! If so, by what standard do you judge anything as art or crap? You also chastise the foolish rich who buy these works---but what do you have to say about the proletarian starving artists who create this junk---sincerely? I would really like to know. On both of these questions, I would love to hear your answer.

LEE: A real artist's worry is over censorship. When all art has been relegated to the commercial galleries, then a real artist's fears and concerns should be over the freedom of expression, public space is already in short supply; the poor artist cannot afford a private exhibition space. In Europe, we have a better appreciation of this, while it seems that North Americans have been overexposed to and become tolerant of the infringement of public space by private corporations; like advertising.

VICTOR: You write: ‘A real artist's worry is over censorship. When all art has been relegated to the commercial galleries, then a real artist's fears and concerns should be over the freedom of expression…’ I really don’t know what your wider point is---beyond sounding like some sort of Socialist. Other than that, it’s convoluted. Do you care to explain yourself?

LEE: If we are artists, we should be fighting for our right to express ourselves and never, never ever to define what art is...

VICTOR: To a quote philosopher: “definitions are the guardians of rationality.” But I repeat: In its original and broadest sense, the term art (derived from the Latin ars, artis) dates back to antiquity---synonymous with the Greek term techne, it refers to the concept of ‘skill.’ so the issue of a definition dates back to ancient philosophy.

LEE: Name me just one ancient philosopher that defined 'art'?

VICTOR: Now to begin: a logical place to begin an examination is the first philosopher to present a systematic theory of the enterprise of philosophy itself: Plato. It is no accident that Plato was also the first to develop a systematic, philosophical presentation of aesthetics. At the root of Plato’s outlook was the belief that there are two fundamentally antithetical realms of existence, the world of particulars and the world of Forms---the world of particulars is the realm we experience everyday through sense perception---and the world of Forms is some mystical non-material realm that we can only contact through pure, non-sensory means. And there was also Aristotle was the first rational this-worldly philosopher who argued that there is only one reality, the reality known to the senses. He was a philosopher of reason. Case in point: whatever word was used---art or craft or aesthetics---the phenomena of “art” was being dealt with by these ancient philosophers. Let’s not make this a game of semantics.

LEE: You are right, it refers to the concept of skill, and in fact the term 'art' is a fairly modern term. It wasn't until the Renaissance period did the term 'artist' and 'art' come into being, before then, anyone with these skills were labeled craftsmen.

VICTOR: In regards to definitions and to the question when the term “art” came into being, I have already broached.

LEE: Art has its roots in religion, even today art is largely proliferated through religion; a religion of commerce. The original artists or craftsmen were paid by the church to depict or more precisely 'represent' religious iconography. Remember, that these were skilled craftsmen; paid to do a job by the most powerful corporation of the time, the Catholic Church. You can compare what they did to what an advertising graphic design does nowadays. These religious paintings were a form of advertising for the church. If you go even further back before the onset of organized religion in certain parts of the world, 'art' as we know it, formed part of the practice of magic. Early man painted on the walls of caves, believing that the images would allow them to procure luck during a hunt. Then there is the tribal sculptures of Africa, which was often dismissed as 'primitive' by western standards.

VICTOR: Yes, yes, this is all very interesting as history, but it’s irrelevant in regard to our talk. Are we speaking of the definition of art----or the chronological history of art?

LEE: No philosophers have ever discussed the definition of art. That's the point. They may have discussed ideas of aesthetics or beauty, or art as a dichotomy of religion.

VICTOR: Actually, this is getting very embarrassing now. No philosophers have ever discussed the definition of art? Are you serious? Here we go: (1) Read “Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism” by Morris Weitz or George Dickie’s “Art and the Aesthetic.” But it was philosopher Ayn Rand, however, who formulated and objective definition in terms of essentials, of fundamental characteristics. Read her ground-breaking “The Romantic Manifesto.”

LEE: The term art is indefinable, it is constantly evolving and changing, once you start to define it, you limit its growth and what it could become.

VICTOR: Now here is where you are fundamentally wrong. Like all concepts, this concept of art did not arise out of a vacuum. It was not a mental construct divorced from real experience, but developed out of a long tradition of observing similarities between existing art forms, as well as differences between them and other human products and activities. Contrary to your claim that such a genetic concept of art originated only in West in the eighteenth century, (or a little earlier) it had a long genesis dating back to the ancient Greek concept of the “mimetic (or imitative) arts. It is clearly, my friend, implicit in the numerous comparisons between poetry and painting, song and dance, which have occurred in the writing of poets and philosophers since antiquity. The work of Aristotle, for example, is replete with comparisons of this kind. Nor are such observations limited to the West. They are also common in the thought of other cultures, just as the major art forms themselves are universal. Since the eighteenth-century, however, Western theories about the nature of art have tended to obscure this principle. In attempting to identify the essential qualities distinctive to art, theorists lost sight of the original referents of the term, and of their complex totality, and instead focused instead on certain attributes abstracted from the whole, such as “beauty” or “expression.” In doing so, they ignored the attribute of “mimesis” and THIS is fundamental to the original concept.

LEE: Why do you stress so much importance on definitions?

VICTOR: A human being’s need of precise definitions rests on the “Law of Identity: A is A, a thing is itself, a thing is itself. A work of art is a specific entity which possesses a specific nature. So the term “art” is not indefinable. And it’s simply not true that “once you define it, you limit its growth” as you claim. You protect it from the onslaught of garbage and/or utilitarian objects (un-made beds) being presented as art. On the political front, such things are being funded by the taxpayer who, by the grace of common sense, is, for the most part, outraged by such spectacles. Without a firm definition, you undermine the supreme importance of art that and its role in human life. We have seen this with the modernists and postmodernist. They are making a mockery of art---and profiting by it via the purse strings of an unwilling and baffled public. To conclude: ART does have a purpose, a rational, worldly, practical purpose. Art fulfils an essential need of human life, a “spiritual need” (in a secular use of the term). Art is too vital to any civilization be left in the hands of postmodernist subjectivist or socialist engineers.

LEE: The sole purpose of making art is not profit, my friend.

VICTOR: For once I agree. I have touched on the role art plays in life. However, an artist must be left free to create art for whatever purpose he decides---either to “express himself” or to “glorify God” or to “give it away” or to MAKE A PROFIT, if he so chooses. Why do I support capitalism? The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships. That's a short answer to a complex question. But that's the essense.

LEE: Art often manifests itself as a need to express oneself in a society that increasingly isolates the individual. Many artists find that the very nature of being artistic is a burden in itself. I believe that if we all lived in a Utopia, then we would have no need for art. Unhappiness is often the breeding ground for most creativity.

VICTOR: I disagree. I'm happy and I love to create.


Edited by Victor Pross
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