Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"How Art Works", by Ellen Winner

Have just read How Art Works, published this year by Oxford University Press. The author is a professor of psychology at Boston College, and director of the Arts and Mind Lab. Ellen Winner explores the psychology and philosophy of art in its many forms (music, literature, film...) but I am most interested in what she writes on the topic of visual art.

In Chapter 2, the author describes how Denis Dutton, a philosopher of aesthetics in New Zealand, attempts to answer the question "What is art?"

Dutton proposes that typical works of art, whether musical, literary or visual, have characteristic features:

skill and virtuosity
novelty and creativity
expressive individuality
emotional saturation
direct pleasure
intellectual challenge
imaginative experience
culture of criticism
special focus
existing within art traditions and institutions

Let's look at these one by one, and try to think of examples of art that challenge this definition, by not exhibiting the characteristic. (In these instances, the characteristic is not necessary). Also, let's try to think of examples that demonstrate the characteristic but are decidedly not art. (The characteristic is not sufficient).

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

1. Skill and Virtuosity

Duchamp's readymades (the urinal, for example) were found objects, so they do not display skill or virtuosity. And something like surgery, which does display skill and virtuosity, is not usually thought of as art. So this feature is not necessary or sufficient, but nevertheless is characteristic of most works of art.

Aphrodite of Milos

2. Novelty and Creativity

Many examples of classical art do not display novelty or creativity, so this is not necessary. Neither is it sufficient. Technological innovation might show novelty and creativity, but it isn't art.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, Perspectives, 1956

3. Representation

Much modern art is non-representative, thus representation is not necessary. And maps and graphs are representative, but not art, and so this quality is not sufficient.

You will be relieved to know that I am not going to continue in this vein, but perhaps you would like to consider for yourself whether each of these twelve characteristics is either necessary or sufficient for your definition of art. Despite the exceptions, I think there is merit in Dutton's idea, in that these qualities do form a cluster of traits that help us distinguish "art" from "not art".

And let's remember too that we're not talking about good art vs. bad art, which is an entirely different issue!

Once Winner sets us up by giving us a loose definition of art, she proceeds to draw on various psychological studies designed to shed light on questions such as:

– Are artists born or made? (Both. Innate talent and thousands of hours of practice are both essential.)

– How can that be art if my two-year-old can make something just like that? (Adults, children and artificial intelligence can distinguish paintings made by artists from paintings made by children or animals about two-thirds of the time.)

– Do art lessons or music lessons impart skills that raise scores on standardized tests? (Regrettably, there is very little evidence to support the theory that these skills transfer to academics. High test scorers tend to participate more in art lessons, sports and community activities, so it's more likely a matter of "drive".)

– Will reading fiction make us more empathetic? (No evidence of this, but there have been some positive indications that role-playing in the classroom can help make us more sympathetic to others.)

The author also explores why we value authenticity in art, and devalue copies and forgeries. Also, how much do we value effort in art (i.e., how long did it take you to make that?)

Interesting questions, but evidence-based studies provide few answers.

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