Essay: Theory of Art

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published on: January 28, 2019
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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?

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