What should art be like?
Many goals, aims and pourposes have been argued for art, and aestheticians often argue that some
goal or another is superior in some way. Clement Greenberg, for instance, argued in 1960 that each
artistic mediumshould seek that which makes it unique among the possible mediums and then purify
itself of anything other than expression of its own uniqueness as a form.[ The Dadaist Tristan Tzara
on the other hand saw the function of art in 1918 as the destruction of a mad social order.
“We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness,
aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits.” Formal goals,
creative goals, self-expression, political goals, spiritual goals, philosophical goals, and even
more perceptual or aesthetic goals have all been popular pictures of what art should be like.
The value of art
Tolstoy defined art as the following: “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man
consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived
through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”
However, this definition is merely a starting point for his theory of art’s value. To some
extent, the value of art, for Tolstoy, is one with the value of empathy. However, sometimes
empathy is not of value. In chapter fifteen of What Is Art?, Tolstoy says that some feelings
are good, but others are bad, and so art is only valuable when it generates empathy or
shared feeling for good feelings. For example, Tolstoy asserts that empathy for decadent
members of the ruling class makes society worse, rather than better. In chapter sixteen,
he asserts that the best art is “universal art” that expresses simple and accessible positive
Other possible views are these: Art can act as a means to some special kind of knowledge.
Art may give insight into the human condition. Art relates to science and religion. Art
serves as a tool of education, or indoctrination, or enculturation. Art makes us more moral
. It uplifts us spiritually. Art is politics by other means. Art has the value of allowing catharsis.
In any case, the value of art may determine the suitability of an art form. Do they differ
significantly in their values, or (if not) in their ability to achieve the unitary value of art?
But to approach the question of the value of art systematically, one ought to ask: for whom?
For the artist? For the audience? For society at large, and/or for individuals beyond the
audience? Is the “value” of art different in each of these different contexts?
Working on the intended value of art tends to help define the relations between art and
other acts. Art clearly does have spiritual goals in many contexts, but what exactly is the
difference between religious art and religion per se? The truth is complex; art is both
useless in a functional sense, and also the most important human activity.
An argument for the value of art, used in the fictional work The Hitchhikers Guide to the
Galaxy, proceeds that, if some external force presenting imminent destruction of Earth
asked humanity what its value was—what should humanity’s response be? The argument
continues that the only justification humanity could give for its continued existence would
be the past creation and continued creation of things like a Shakespeare play, a Rembrandt
painting or a Bach concerto. The suggestion is that these are the things of value which
define humanity. Whatever one might think of this claim — and it does seem to
undervalue the many other achievements of which human beings have shown themselves
capable, both individually and collectively — it is true that art appears to possess a special
capacity to endure (“live on”) beyond the moment of its birth, in many cases for centuries
or millennia. This capacity of art to endure over time — what precisely it is and how it
operates — has been widely neglected in modern aesthetics.
The philosopher Denis Dutton identified six universal signatures in human aesthetics:
Expertise or virtuosity. Humans cultivate, recognize, and admire technical artistic skills.
Nonutilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art’s sake, and don’t demand that it keep
them warm or put food on the table.
Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them
in a recognizable style.
Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.
Imitation. With a few important exceptions like abstract painting, works of art simulate
experiences of the world.
Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.
It might be objected, however, that there are rather too many exceptions to Dutton’s
categories. For example, the installations of the contemporary artist Thomas Hirschhorn
deliberately eschew technical virtuosity. People can appreciate a Renaissance Madonna
for aesthetic reasons, but such objects often had (and sometimes still have) specific
devotional functions. “Rules of composition” that might be read into Duchamp’s Fountain
or John Cage’s 4?33? do not locate the works in a recognizable style (or certainly not a style
recognizable at the time of the works’ realisation). Moreover, some of Dutton’s categorie
s seem too broad: a physicist might entertain hypothetical worlds in his/her imagination
in the course of formulating a theory. Another problem is that Dutton’s categories seek
to universalise traditional European notions of aesthetics and art forgetting that, as
André Malraux and others have pointed out, there have been large numbers of cultures
in which such ideas (including the idea “art” itself) were non-existent.
The philosophy of aesthetics as a practice has been criticized by some sociologists and
writers of art and society. Raymond Williams argues that there is no unique and or
individual aesthetic object which can be extrapolated from the art world, but that
there is a continuum of cultural forms and experience of which ordinary speech and
experiences may signal as art. By “art” we may frame several artistic “works” or
“creations” as so though this reference remains within the institution or special even
t which creates it and this leaves some works or other possible “art” outside of the
frame work, or other interpretations such as other phenomenon which may not be
considered as “art”.
Pierre Bourdieu disagrees with Kant’s idea of the “aesthetic”. He argues that Kant’s
“aesthetic” merely represents an experience that is the product of an elevated class
habitus and scholarly leisure as opposed to other possible and equally valid “aesthetic”
experiences which lay outside Kant’s narrow definition.