[NetBehaviour] On art and art-making: I do or do not make pictures.

Edward Picot julian.lesaux at gmail.com
Fri Jul 21 20:42:05 CEST 2017

Alan and everyone,

Just to flog this to death...

I had a conversation the other day with my brother Justin, who's into 
philosophy. I asked him what he was reading, and he said he was reading 
a book about 'universals'. As he explained it (and I'm not into 
philosophy, so this is from memory) a 'universal' is something like 
'yellow' or 'tree' or 'justice' - a class or category which can contain 
many individual examples, examples which may sometimes differ from one 
another in quite puzzling ways, so that when you stop and think about it 
you may wonder how they can be grouped together at all - but 
nevertheless we do recognise them as having enough similarities to 
belong in the same family. And the philosophical problem is, where do we 
get this idea of a 'universal' from, this concept of an overarching 
class or category to which all these family-members belong, when if you 
examine the individual examples they often seem to conform in some ways 
but not in others, and when it may be the case that no individual 
example completely matches the 'ideal model' that comes to mind when you 
mention the universal's name?

Apparently, says my brother, philosophers have come up with various 
different ideas about this. Firstly there's the Platonic ideal - Plato's 
idea that there actually exists a perfect yellow, or a perfect tree, or 
a perfect justice, somewhere beyond the world in which we live, and the 
things we see here are imperfect reflections of this ideal. Secondly 
there's the idea that these universals don't have any concrete existence 
at all, but are inculcated into us by language and cultural usage until 
we come to accept them, generally without analysing them closely - 
people keep showing us different yellows, or different trees, or 
different examples of justice, and repeating the names 'yellow', 'tree' 
and 'justice', until we just 'get the idea' that these things belong 
together in associative groups. A variation on this - a different way of 
arguing that universals are imposed on us by our language - is that we 
have to make do with broad classes because language generally doesn't 
provide us with fine gradations and distinctions. We say 'That yellow 
flower' rather than 'That lemony yellow flower which has got a slightly 
more buttery tint at the moment because of the way the light's catching 
it' - we exist in a world of shorthand, rapid notation and rather 
blunted perception, because we mostly don't have the time or the 
vocabulary to be really precise about things, and therefore we learn to 
lump things together in broad categories rather than separate them out 
through minute observation and painstaking distinction. And fourthly 
there's the idea that we group things together into classes because it's 
just one of the things we instinctively do, we're born like that, we 
like to group things into classes, and our language has got these broad 
and flexible terms in it as a reflection of the way our minds are built, 
rather than our ideas about things being governed by broad and flexible 
terms because of the way our language is built.

I'm inclined to the fourth view - our language has got 'universals' in 
it because our minds are built to organise our experiences in that way - 
but whether you think language reflects how our minds are built, or our 
minds are shaped by our language and culture, it does seem to be the 
case that we recognise things as belonging to certain classes without 
necessarily being able to precisely define how they qualify for that 
membership. In other words, it's generally easier for us to recognise 
and label things as 'yellow' or 'trees' or 'just/unjust' than to 
precisely define what we mean by those terms. Usage comes first, 
definition afterwards (if at all).

So I think that's really part of what I was trying to say about art, by 
talking about children. We don't necessarily need a precise definition 
of art: in fact it may be impossible to arrive at one, since one of the 
tropes of art, particularly in the modern era, is self-reinvention, a 
deliberate attempt to get beyond its own boundaries. What may be more 
important is to recognise it as a 'universal' - a category with many 
meanings, which can be discovered at different times in different forms 
and in different places in pretty much all human cultures. And I'd push 
it a bit further than that: since I incline to the belief that the 
universals embedded in our language and culture are derived from our 
habits of mind, and not the other way around, I would also be inclined 
to believe that even if people (or children) were completely isolated 
from ideas about art and had never heard any poetry or music or seen any 
examples of sculpture or painting, they would still spontaneously start 
to do things like playing 'let's pretend', making up stories, thinking 
of rhymes, building models out of plasticine or mud, humming tunes, and 
so on - activities which all contain at least the potential for art.

I mention children not because I think they're the arbiters of artistic 
worth or the touchstones of what counts as art and what doesn't. Art 
certainly goes a long way beyond the kind of thing with which children 
tend to engage. If you present children with 4 minutes 33 seconds of 
silence by John Cage they're likely to say 'That's not music'; and if 
you present them with a white painting by Robert Rauschenberg they're 
likely to say 'That's not painting'. In both cases they're wrong. But 
that doesn't mean that they don't have any kind of artistic sensibility. 
Almost all children have a natural propensity for language: but that 
doesn't mean that they can all understand Japanese. Art is like a whole 
lot of different languages, some of which (eg. rhyme, pop songs) we pick 
up without even noticing, because they're a part of what's going on all 
around us all the time. Others (eg. Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage) 
are more esoteric, and we only pick them up if we happen to take an 
interest and start to explore that particular branch, or if we find 
ourselves being presented with work of that type over a long enough 
period for it to start to 'sink in' and make sense to us. And I'm not 
saying that the esoteric stuff is either 'worse' or 'better' than the 
stuff virtually everybody feels at home with - it's just more esoteric.

And yes, art can be combined with/overlap with/serve as a vehicle for, 
lots of other things. Religion is an obvious example. Or politics - or 
philosophy - or science - or computer programming - or self-exploration 
- or therapy - or eroticism - almost whatever you like. I don't see any 
of that as problematic, and I agree, or sort of agree, with Alan when he 
says 'Art also then has lineages and institutions that move beyond 
play'. But I want to say a word or two more about 'play', before we move 
beyond it. What I mean by 'play' in this context is not necessarily 
'having fun' (although I'm all in favour of having fun), but 'exploring 
the possibilities of a given set of materials' - and 'materials' can 
mean anything with which artists might concern themselves, from 
water-colours to computer programming, to concepts, to the relationship 
between artist and audience. I'm trying to resist offering this as a 
definition of artistic activity, since any definition is likely to come 
up short: and I'm also trying to avoid ideas of 'originality' and 
'newness' creeping in ('you experiment with your materials until you 
come up with something fresh and original'), because although those 
ideas feature very largely in our assessments of artistic worth now, 
there were hundreds of years during which art wasn't about saying new 
and original things at all, or even saying old things in a new way, but 
about re-presenting familiar things with the highest possible degree of 
polish and/or elaboration. But even during those hundreds of years the 
artist's job was still to explore the possibilities of a given set of 
materials. 'Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the 
task of the sculptor to discover it', as Michelangelo said. You start 
with your materials and an idea of what you can make out of them: you 
end up with the materials telling you what they want to say, and often 
taking you on a quite different journey to the one you originally had in 
mind. In order to go on this journey you have to have a certain 
plasticity of thought, a certain receptiveness and openness, a certain 
willingness to think sideways and 'outside the box', but also the 
ability to temper looseness with control, to recognise what feels right 
and go with it when something starts to take shape - a gift for pattern 
recognition. Michelangelo's David would never have emerged from that 
block of marble if Michelangelo hadn't been able to recognise the 
rightness of his shape when it started to take form. So, creative play 
and pattern-recognition. I don't want to offer them as a definition of 
artistic activity, but for me at least they do seem to have something to 
do with it. And if we go back to the beginning of the discussion - Alan 
wondering whether or not what he's doing is really art - then I would 
say yes, because he's definitely exploring the possibilities of his 
materials, and he's definitely finding things within them, sometimes 
unexpected things, like the cube/cell thing in the 'Suicide' video.

Sorry to go on. It's been very interesting for me to try to put my 
thoughts about this into some kind of order.


On 17/07/17 01:13, Alan Sondheim wrote:
> Hi Edward, I do agree with you for the most part, but I think that 
> play is only a part of art, that art means different things in 
> different cultures, and that superstructural considerations are 
> important. A child plays and creates, tests boundaries, repeats, 
> experiments; with conceptual art, other things are at work as well. 
> Conceptual art gives me great joy in relation to what it might say 
> about knowledge in general for example.
> In other words, a child plays and creates, and that is art (look at 
> Dubuffet for example, how this might extent), but art has surplus 
> meaning beyond that. I like Bourdieu's book Distinction, which deals 
> with art in terms of community and cultural capitals; it's been of use 
> to me. Art also then has lineages and institutions that move beyond 
> play, or hopefully, take play along with it.
> Aharon, in this regard, I see as play, but also as something else...
> - Alan
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