Essay: Theory of Art

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  • Theory of Art
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This essay will firstly elucidate the various theories that discuss art and culture. Broadly, they are: (1) Kant’s Aesthetic Judgments, (2) Danto’s Art World, (3) Bourdieu’s Art and Modernity, and (4) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry. These discussions are crucial to understanding: (1) the shifting definitions of art and culture, (2) the historical trajectories of art, and (3) society’s influence on art and vice versa.
Following that, the essay will contextualise the theories to present-day societies. This includes their implications on socio-cultural, -political, and –economic developments.

Theory of Art

Art is a fluid concept that differs across eras, marked by changes in cultural, political and economic systems.

Kant: Aesthetic Judgments

Kant establishes the following concepts: (1) disinterestedness, (2) universal and necessary, and (3) ‘purposiveness without purpose’.

Disinterestedness suggests the possibility of the true judgment of beauty as being completely intuitive. The concept of universal and necessary follows Kant’s assertions that though the judgment of taste is subjective, it still maintains a universal validity (i.e. common sense). Lastly, “what differentiates the purposiveness associated with an aesthetic judgment from other forms of purposiveness is…its reflective movement that never arrives at a concept. An effect is presented to consciousness that must have a conceptual cause, but no concept will ever be found because the beautiful has no concept”. (Dalton, 2015, p.7)

Critique. Kant’s theory pays close attention to art that evokes pleasure. However, his definition of art is considered limited when compared to present-day art, which includes works which are neither beautiful nor pleasing. This is due to his whole concept of “purposiveness without purpose”, which explains why some artworks evoke pleasure without having to convey a particular message or idea. While Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” can account for this, other works of art such as Picasso’s “Guernica” aim to express a particular social or political message.

Increasingly, art in contemporary society puts forth social or political stances as art is used as a platform to express discontent. Art is a relatively safe platform for those that are marginalised or those whose voices would otherwise be suppressed due to state’s heavy-handed policing in trying to maintain stability and the status quo. Thus, Kant’s work does not encompass everything that we presently understand as “art”, and progressively loses relevance as society steers away from pure pleasure in search for more productive avenues of learning and resistance through art forms and expressions.

Danto: The Art World

According to Danto (1992), the role of the art world is to establish, uphold, preserve, and propagate the cultural category of art. It also induces the society to approve and believe in the legitimacy of the art world’s power and right to do so (p.34-35).

Critique. The notion of a singular art world is problematic. Art worlds should be seen as multiplicities of intersecting, overlapping, self-similar art worlds, each expressing different views of the world. They are globally scattered, constantly in flux, and typically operating independently of each other.

Art worlds can exist at the local and regional levels, as subcultures, via art markets, through gallery circuits, around design movements, on social media platforms, and as shared or perceived experiences. The one globalised, all-encompassing art world exists only as a myth.

This development is brought forth by the rise of globalisation and capitalist economies.

Bourdieu: Art and Modernity

Bourdieu (1977) argues that the primary component of modernity is the escalating and intensifying significance of the economy. In particular, the barter system, or reciprocal exchange, has been replaced by the production and circulation of commodities. This results in an enclosure of a sacred island of Art, with “the artist as saint”, and an inversion of commodity values, where high sales are no longer satisfactory measures of aesthetic value. Bourdieu (1996) also revisits the transformation of artistic autonomy within capitalist modernity, where “pure” art is contrasted with “commercial” taste (p.169), where the latter is assumed to be negative.

Another reason for the changed role of the arts in society is its increasing significance within the educational institution. The arts is recognised as the means to determine the cream of the crop, and by which the powerful, upper classes ensure and manage their social inheritance. Art, after all, is a symbolic good where “legitimate” or “good” taste belongs to the aristocrats. As compared to children of lower and middle classes, those belonging to the upper class owned, through museum excursions and trips to the libraries, greater cultural capital that allowed them to take advantage of the academic system. (Bourdieu, 1984; Fowler, 1999, p.1)

Critique. Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction, which accounts for the role of cultural capital in maintaining class inequalities in educational attainment is greatly limited when applied in contemporary societies. This is due to educational expansion, where upward educational mobility is extensively promoted. Thus, children from all social backgrounds are now largely equally exposed to educational opportunities. Art should be seen less as an indicator of class differences.

Adorno & Horkheimer: The Culture Industry

“Culture industry” describes the commoditisation of art and culture due to the rise of capitalism, and shifting methods of production – from artisanal to industrial stage. The culture industry produces standardised products, in accordance with the demands of the capitalist economy, by converting art into inferior forms of entertainment. It cements its audience to existing state of affairs, restricts freedom and individuality, and transforms culture into means of power and control. (During, p.31)

Unlike the products of the culture industry, they argued for the emancipatory potential of ‘autonomous’ art. They believed in its ability to present a utopian society, which man can aim to achieve. This results in an emancipatory character. It is also achieved when the art produced aligns with the idea of ‘functionlessness’ (i.e. l’art pour l’art).

Additionally, they argued that monopoly capitalism resulted in the commoditisation of art and culture. Art was no longer made for its sake, but rather, for its moneymaking capacities. Those with authority began producing standard and rational forms of art and culture, which suited society’s preferences and expectations. These forms of art and culture are consumed mindlessly, making the audience passive and unreceptive when previously, society was more critical in their actions and reflections. (Klinger, 2012)

Critique. What Adorno and Horkheimer failed to consider is the possibility of enlightenment via new forms of entertainment and mass media. This counters their extremist view that everything is standardised. In contemporary society, we see this in the emergence of the hipster/indie scene. Art and culture that arise from this subculture are recognised as being outside the mainstream, and promote different political and cultural perspectives. They are made to question and resist the status quo, and often target the more intellectual side of society—those that have greater cultural capital.

Additionally, there is greater support for independent filmmakers, with the rise of non-profit organisations such as the Sundance Institute. This redistributes power away from the big movie studios, such as Disney, Sony and Universal, which make up the oligopoly in the film industry. This subtle form of resistance suggests that art and culture have the capacity to be more than just mindless entertainment and pleasure.

Thus, Adorno and Horkheimer’s insistence on a dichotomous relationship between high art and popular, commoditised art should be reconsidered.

Discussion: So, What is Art?

Art is a difficult concept to grasp and define. It is not static, and changes easily as it interacts with the environment. Even as we consider various theoretical bases, we can extract their flaws and incompatibility with contemporary understandings of art.

The greatest turning point for art was the emergence of capitalism. It diminished the concept of purity and autonomy, and brought about the obsession and preoccupation with separating high art from popular art. Societies today remain largely ambivalent, but to a certain degree, still respect the potential of the culture industry. Art is not just paintings and sculptures, but also tattoos, nail designs and graffiti. The category of art continues to expand as societies take a more open-minded approach, and recognise that art may be anything that involves a creative process.

Art has also evolved into a way of life, where anyone and everyone can be an artist. It goes beyond the idea of the artist as genius, particularly lonely, isolated, neurotic and uncontrollable. Today, the artist is well integrated into mainstream society with the advent of technology, breaking the conception of an elite art world. We do not find art and artists only in museums and galleries, but we also find them on YouTube and Instagram. There are also self-taught artists that no longer rely on art schools for credibility and legitimacy.

Thus, art is not a subject that can be concretised. It will continue to change and develop according to social mores, which also transforms according to economic and political climates. This then brings us to the next section: why does art matter sociologically?

Art and Society

It has been through persistent arts advocacy that institutions now recognise the key role the arts can play in forging cultural identity while deepening community development. Art is valued as a means of achieving humanistic and moralistic ends, and as a political instrument by governments.

Socio-Cultural Implications

Art is an increasingly rare space where the issues and ideologies that impact society can be explored and questioned safely.

“The process of engaging with or creating art is expressive, restorative, and reflective. It creates a space for analysis and observation of thoughts and emotions, and opens a channel for purposeful expression.” The arts benefit mental and emotional welfare, as well as social connections, particularly among underprivileged people. It also fosters the creation of a socially aware, healthy and resilient population. (Harper, 2017)

Socio-Political Implications

Art’s open channel for purposeful expression can elicit change, though sometimes unwarranted by the state. This results in the implementation of policies that ensures that art is done within state boundaries. However, these boundaries are never fixed, and change according to political interests. This difficulty in pinpointing the boundaries can be elucidated based on censorship practices.

Censorship. Censorship allows the state to be the judge of what is in the public’s interest. Anything that is perceived to be threatening, derogatory or vulgar is immediately suppressed and prohibited from being presented to society. The state leaves no room for the society to make their own interpretations, for fear of unwanted misconceptions and social uprisings. (Tan, 2014) The state is exceptionally cautious when it comes down to works and performances that involve racial and religious discourses and ideologies.

Art practitioners in Singapore have criticised the rejection or termination of funds for works that oppose or provoke the state as an agent of censorship. They demanded that funding for the arts should be protected from social or political forces. However, the government contends that tax revenues should not be utilised and distributed to works that threaten or oppose national values. (Ho, 2017) Using the money in a way that may potentially destabilise the social fabric is seen as a breach of integrity. Works must therefore fall within the scope of the law. Anyone who goes against it, or provokes feelings of animosity among or within communities will be made responsible. (Tan, 2014)

However, the role of the artist is to generate new ideas and create an open space for productive discussions between members of the public. While they may cause discomfort, the arts still remain a safe avenue where contentious issues can be discussed and tackled. (Tan, 2014) Singapore’s adoption of soft authoritarianism makes it difficult to find a middle ground between state’s attempts at fostering the arts and culture, and state’s interests in perpetuating the socio-political status quo (Ooi, 2010, p.408-9).

Socio-Economic Implications

The most obvious instance of the amalgamation of art and economy is the global rise of the creative cluster. Rather than having the two in isolation, states seek ways to integrate the two in an attempt to generate competitiveness and ideas via innovation.

The creative cluster. The creative cluster can be understood as industries that utilises individual creativity, skill and talent in order to generate wealth and employment. (Toh et al., 2003, p.51) This involves the coming together of the arts, business and technology.

There are three approaches to defining the scope of the creative cluster: the ‘cultural industries’ approach; the ‘creative industries’ approach; and the ‘copyright industries’ approach. (p.52) For the purpose of this essay, the cultural and creative industries will be the primary focus.

The creative economy has often been linked to cultural policy because the idea of ‘creative’ is sometimes synonymous with ‘artistic’ and ‘culture’. However, in Singapore, cultural development has been overshadowed by its economic development. The arts, prior to 1985, was primarily a social voice that facilitated diversity, nation building and multi-racialism. After 1985, the nation’s artistic and cultural activities were promoted because they presented economic potential. Singapore began to incorporate creative activities as part of its economic development, with the rationale of diversifying approaches toward development.

Discussion: So, Why Does Art Matter Sociologically?

For the reasons above, art matters sociologically because it does not operate in isolation from societal affairs. We see it in every nook and cranny of people’s lives, in state policies and restrictions, and in economic developments. Art influences institutions and societal structures, as much as it is influenced by the environment in which it thrives in (as examined in the previous discussion).


Till today, art continues to be a debatable subject, whose very concept remains fluid and ever changing. Art cannot be boxed in by a single definition, and needs to be recognised as an inclusive, rather than exclusive, process. Art should be accessible to all, and should unify rather than divide. Art is not reserved for the upper classes, but rather, a resource and a means of expression for all members of society.

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