WHAT DEFINES A GOOD WORK OF ART WITHIN THE CONTEMPORARY ART WORLD? THEORIES, PRACTICES AND INSTITUTIONS by DELIA VEKONY-HARPER (notes)

This blog is a notebook for me to record statements around the issues:
is it art?
what is art?
if it is art, is it good art?
What is good art?
Why do people do things that we/they call artBecause it is my own blog and notebook, I reserve the right to be incoherent and disorganized.  Having said that, I welcome comments that further the enquiry from people who can tolerate this.

 

there is an underlying assumption behind all the theories, namely that quality judgments about the work of art can be performed by set formal principles regardless of space, time and context 

 WHAT DEFINES A GOOD WORK OF ART WITHIN THE CONTEMPORARY ART WORLD? THEORIES, PRACTICES AND INSTITUTIONS 

by 

DELIA VEKONY-HARPER 

there is an underlying assumption behind all the theories, namely that quality judgments about the work of art can be performed by set formal principles regardless of space, time and context 

      • Following on formalism and the museum as institution, it was the modernist construct of high taste, which determined what was considered to be a good work of art 
I use Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as well as the Kantian idea of pure aesthetic experience in order to demonstrate that it is the educated elite who decide what good and or bad art is. These decisions are not only exclusivist within the art world, but they also exclude social classes other than the elite from the art world   

Fischer argues that good art can only be made under Communist circumstances. For him good art is the coming together of form and content, the representation of the Communist ideology; art is messianic. 

Adorno or Benjamin are more pessimistic, but come to the same messianic conclusions (Benjamin 1936). Both argue that art has to be taken back to its original place and function and should fulfill its original role, namely ritual.  In answering these questions the art world hides behind the concept of ‘good works of art’, and it seems as if this category is a given. A work sells well because it is good, an artist becomes famous because s/he is good, a work is exhibited because it is good. But what constitutes a good work of art within the contemporary art world? 
For this new art world, formalist principles could no longer apply, art had become an idea, it was dematerialised. Artists started to consciously focus on meaning and content; art had either become critical of art itself or socially critical.   
The exploration of modernist concepts such as taste is introduced in Chapter two. Following on formalism and the museum as institution, it was the modernist construct of high taste, which determined what was considered to be a good work of art.  Ranciere’s theory, namely that an art project is good if, in the realm of the aesthetic, it creates space for questions and generates change and hope for a better future (Bishop 2006:179-183). 

Along with critics of the art market such as Jane Kallir, I will demonstrate how prices do not reflect quality, as prices are created and established through promotion and marketing (Kallir 2007). 

due to the mechanisms of the art market, issues such as reproducibility, high show-value, and the satisfaction of certain trends are just as important, if not more important than quality (Kallir 2007). 

 

modernist theories and the modernist museum:  from 18 century onwards  these are the foundation of modernist art criticism   – today ideas are modernist or try to fight modernism with pluralism

 

formalist theorists is important, as despite the diversity of their ideas, there is an underlying assumption – a commonality – behind all their theories, namely that there are set formal standards that we can apply to works of art regardless of the context and the content of the work and that quality judgments can be made according to formalist standards. The good work of art that is the creation of the detached artistic genius evokes the Kantian pure aesthetic experience which is then given access to and honoured within the cultural morays which define high culture. 

 

  1. the genius
  2. The concept of the genius is a recurring idea within classical and modern art criticism, from Vasari through Kant and the formalists, the concept of the genius is present. The reason why the genius has been elevated to such heights is not only a social construct in order to support the hierarchy of western culture as the post-structuralists would say, but the concept was also introduced in order to find a place for art in society. 

the genius =

one of the foundations of modernist art theory 

above the ordinary creative or mental abilities. 

 

 

e Jena Group, Weimar 

theorists in 18th century northern-Europe. Emerging parallel with Romanticism, the Jena Group in Weimar, considered to be the first avant-garde group, introduced the new artistic persona, namely the (pure) ‘artist messiah’ who was seen as another face of the genius (Taylor 1992:32).

the role of the artist is transformed into that of a messiah, his task being to guide people towards the supernatural. 

 

As stated above, good works of art are therefore created to represent the truth and to lead humankind to happiness and ultimately to enlightenment 

 

the same attitude was adopted by modernist artists as well. The significant influence of the messiah-attitude also made its mark on modern art, and the avant-garde of the late 19th, early 20thcentury adopted this view as well. 

Cubism, for example, wanted to show the abstract geometric reality behind the reality of appearances, Futurism, with its spiritual cleansing and industrial enlightenment theories became almost the state art of fascist Italy. Malevich stated that God was the end, the source and end of all light and depicted it in his Black Square (1915) 

 

 

 

 

If we look at the theories demonstrated above, it becomes clear that the point where they connect with each other is at the saviour-role of the artist and the superiority of the work of art, created by the genius, or by the ‘artist-messiah’. The good work of art is the work that guides people towards God, as it becomes the tool of the new religion. 

 

The ideal of the genius was re-introduced during the Renaissance4, and became a focal point of 18th century art criticism. 

 

Rousseau and Diderot romanticised the ideal of the Renaissance artist. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The genius which could be either seen as the ‘artist messiah’, or simply as an exceptional talent soaring above the constraints of the human mind and language, creates the foundations of the theories of formalism. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kant (1724-1804

 

He argues that aesthetic judgments are subjective due to the difference in individual taste, but at the same time taste commands universal agreement, as a beautiful object gives pleasure to everyone. Beauty, therefore, has to be universal somehow 

impure aesthetic judgments, which depend on likes and dislikes, therefore they are seen as completely subjective 

 

pure aesthetic judgments which are also based on feelings but they claim universal validity. 

how can feelings claim universal validity if they are embedded in the subject and not in the object? 

answer according to Kant is that pure aesthetic judgments are disinterested, meaning they can be objective and subjective at the same time 

disinterested :

are not comparative, meaning that we cannot have expectations towards how the object should be or look like. –

one takes Mona Lisa or the sea for what it is 

the ontological nature of the aesthetic object is not relevant: 

the only truly disinterested judgment is the judgment “X is beautiful” where the nature of X is not considered at all. 

 

FORMALISM

Kant’s theory was the ideal starting point for formalism, which promoted the concept of art for art’s sake. The creation of the work of art is purposive art without a purpose, meaning that art is self-referential. The artist makes art with the intention of making art only, she/he does not make art in order to, for 22 

example, express a message or evoke social change, but art-making for the sake of art itself. 

formalist critics: Wolfflin, clive Bell, Roger Fry, Kenneth Clarke, Clement Greenberg,

 

 

 

 

Clive Bell 1181-1964

significant form

Bell argued that works of art provoke different emotions yet they belong to a certain group of emotions, which he identified as (the Kantian) aesthetic emotion. Should we find a common quality in the works of art, which provokes this emotion, the central problem of aesthetics would be solved. 

should be some quality within a work of art with its combinations of line and colour, which is aesthetically moving. This quality and the fusion of 25 

line and colour into a specific form, Bell identified as the ‘significant form’ which is common to all visual art. These significant forms are the carriers of the aesthetic experience. 

 

But finding significant form within contemporary works is just as difficult as it is to follow Wölfflin’s ideas. Moreover, Bell never explained clearly what significant form really was and neither did Roger Fry, who resorted to mysticism when there was a need for explanation. They both commenced with empiricism, but when concepts such as subjectivity and feeling needed explanation, we are left with controversial answers such as taking art to spiritual heights (Lang 1962:169

 

 

 

Greenberg 1909-1994

He believed in the hierarchy and domination of superior art, rejected popular art movements, and looked upon the artistic tradition as a change of styles which manifest the works of the artistic genius. 

The one artistic style which he put on a pedestal was Abstract Expressionism. Its timeless quality, the ignorance of subject matter, lack of figuration, the focus on only two dimensions and its self-referential aspect, were the ideal points for formalist critique. Abstract Expressionism was also seen as the allegory of high art, which was understood and accessed only by art professionals. G 

Greenberg, along with Michael Fried, are considered to be the last great modernist critics, the last heroic protectors of high art and formalism. 

the answers regarding what defined good art were straighforward: the artist was identified as the genius, who created an eternal masterpiece, independent from content and context, the quality of the work was foremost in the work. The work itself could be mapped and uncovered by the practiced eye which was open to the ideal (significant) form. 

 

 

The modernist museum – its role and criticism 

In terms of fine art, the museum legitimised the underlying rules of formalist criticism. The pieces, which were displayed in the museum were considered by theoreticians to be masterpieces, and in return, the museum ensured the masterpiece status of the work through museum practices 

the modernist museum colluded with the Kantian theory of aesthetics. Its goal was to legitimise the detached superior status of the artist and to save the arts from the lowly art market by ensuring their display within this structure of high culture. 

the ultimate goal of an artist was to be displayed in a museum 

 

it was proclaimed by the cultural elite (and touted by the museum itself) as an institution for the preservation and protection of high culture. 

 

it advertised and promoted national cultural wealth as well as a nation’s enriched cultural heritage 

but there are problems with the museum:

an old broken seashell, a painting by Mark Rothko, an Egyptian statue made for ritual or a conceptual installation by Kosuth, can all be found in the very same museum, displayed in a very similar manner where, there is no differentiation (1990:28). 

We do not have access to the works as their context and content remain hidden from us, and since we now only have the visual object to deal with, we can only appreciate the works for their visual attributes. This is where the viewer falls into the trap of formalism 

If all objects are forced into the same system of judgment, namely formalism, they lose their original meaning. 

As the above example demonstrates, judging all works of art for their formal attributes destroys the intrinsic meaning of the work of art. 

If meaning is destroyed, how are we able to make proper judgements about the quality of a piece of art? 

Since the museum is not able to step out of its historical legacy of modernist judgments, it enforces its formalist attitude onto all kinds of art, it expands the theory onto all kinds of objects, suffocates them in formalism, ignores their context and meaning, and therefore it does not give leeway for other possible judgments on quality. 

 

the art market cannot be taken as a reliable agency of adjudication. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The concept of the genius is an acknowledgement that we as viewers or lay public cannot understand what art is. 

 

 

 

 

 

the genius becomes the basis of Kant’s theory of the artist creator, the academically educated genius, 

the ‘artist messiah’ behind the great works of art for the Jena Group or for the formalists. 

 

 

artists, who were placed in a realm above society, were going to show the path to the spiritual or transcendental. 

 

aiming towards the perfect order which was already present in nature, but that we fail to see it as we are corrupted by industrialisation and urbanisation 

 

 

 

 

 

Kandinsky with his geometric abstract work wanted to show the path to a new spiritual kingdom, which 

 

Le Corbusier was designing his buildings in the name of the White World where pure forms guide us to a better, spiritually clean society (Taylor 1992:83,113).

 

De Stijl, illustrated similar ideas in their art and architecture. 

 

Mondrian painted his works in order to map the transcendental reality through basic geometric shapes and colours p16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both the artists of the Renaissance and artists of the following eras had to satisfy the taste of the ruling class, artistic liberty was limited by the taste of the commissioner 

 

They argued that true values, both social and artistic, had evaporated from 18th century culture due to the emergence of luxury states. The art of the 17th and 18th centuries repulsed these philosophers who were convinced that the role of art was to portray true human qualities, therefore they argued heavily against the art market and luxury states which favoured ‘kitsch’ as opposed to true or intrinsic quality pictured by the artist-messiah (Mattick 2003:32,3 

 

 

By ignoring everything besides form, the early followers of formalism believed in the eternal nature and relevance of a work of art, claiming that the only aspect which mattered, was that art was made for art’s 19 

sake, the work was always self-referential, as it was seen as a unique entity in the world, detached from all other objects and thought 

 

the work of art is independent even from its maker 

but not from the genius of the maker 

Art is also independent from society 

no need for special training to understand a work of art, or trained eyes with specialised schooling 

formalism destroys the bourgeois privilege of art enjoyment 

formalism had put high art up on the pedestal, made it universal, unique and detached it from the practical or other theoretical aspects of life. 

formalism rose out of the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant 

 

 

Kant excludes all other 21 

considerations such as practical, moral or personal gratification from the aesthetic” (Wilkinson 2004:80). 

Thus, art for Kant, has no functional or moral value 

 

it ignores the personality of the artist, but argues that works of art are born through the artistic genius, the same artistic genius as explained by Agamben. The artistic genius is able to grasp the pure universal aesthetic experience in order to channel universal beauty. 

 

independent from society, independent from the monetary system, distanced from objects in use. The work of art is therefore an end in itself. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolfflin 1864-1945

a strict methodological framework for the understanding of artworks and the identification of what a good work of art should be or look like. 

linear versus painterly, plane versus recession, closed versus open, multiplicity versus unity, absolute versus relative clarity, provide a very detailed and rational analysis of works of art 

Wölfflin, like Riegl, followed a Hegelian model in which he argued that the spirit of each period or time frame determines artistic creation. The artwork is determined by the temperament of the individual, the nation and the period 

also able to make quality judgments through this methodological framework. 

Wölfflin’s methodological framework can no longer stand as a foundation for judgments regarding contemporary pieces 

 

 

 

 

roger fry 1866-1934

both bell and fry believed in significant form being connected to aesthetic exerience

a good artwork consisted of the playful coming together of the rhythm of lines, mass of bodies, space, light, shade and colour 

Kenneth Clark (1939: xiii) writes in the introduction of Last Lectures as follows: “Post-Impressionism brought to a point Fry’s growing conviction that the literary element in painting, its dramatic or associative content, was aesthetically insignificant. It led him for the first time to entertain the idea of an art depending for its effect solely on the relations of forms and colours, irrespective of what those forms or colours might represent.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

chapter 2   from kantian high taste to marxist criticism

 

Who decides the difference between good and bad art? 

look at the theoretical base for ‘taste’ and who those individuals are who have a taste for art, what social position they hold and what motivates them to become judges and judgemental. 

two kinds:

1

the high and low taste concept, based on the Kantian pure aesthetic experience. This is an elitist view that can also be connected to the modernist museum. 

2

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) who was a Marxist theorist who argued that high taste was constructed by the ruling aristocratic elite, that it was nothing else but a social construct which had to be deconstructed 

Kant is the start of  high v low art and art v craft

disinterestedness

pure aesthetic experience 

For Kant, everything that falls outside of the pure aesthetic experience is considered to be secondary, subjective, and therefore derogatory. 

Art should be associated with free play without any other purpose. 

diderot and rousseau also had the distinction between good and bad art

18thcentury French criticism by Diderot and Rousseau also deals with the same problem. 

market influences 

during 18thc market began to expand   this meant that

public taste started to influence artistic production. In order to make a living, the artist was forced to satisfy the low taste, petit gout of the public. subject matters and styles became associated with good or bad art  some artists tried to combine both eg chard and greuze

The elite and the formation of taste 

the author implies that taste is fleeting and has little reality and speaks about abstract expressionist painters in Hungary today who sell to americans

vekony says that artists

artists are made to follow given trends. Necessarily, within a trend good and bad works could be executed. Who are the people who decide which trend to favour and what is good within that trend? 

the majority of the art world professionals come from educated, middle-class or aristocratic circles 

The ability to see and judge via the grand gout was practiced by the privileged as it was seen to belong to the ruling class. In this sense, judgements of taste did not only classify the work of art, but also classified the people who were capable of making these judgments (Mattick 2003:

Bourdieu calls habitus  

“Habitus creates a class identity in the form of a unified practice of classification, as choices are made. 

taste classifies the classifier; because in a class society all distinction has status implications 

As art, following the formalist direction and Kantian philosophy, is not about function but about form, not about work but about play, it is for the privileged. It is for those who do not want to dirty their hands. So the circle closes and the idea behind art creates certain social practices and in return these practices keep the idea alive. From this social class the artistic elite is born; ones who are seemingly under the spell of the work of art but in reality they control the art market and the artist. In the case of contemporary art the situation is even more complex because of the diverse arenas of art, where the artist is subjected to the personal taste of judgment-makers and to the trends and fashions of the artistic elite.2 p43

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

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