But Is It Art?

Cover illustration: Cross Fire Cow, by William Conger

Published Oxford University Press, February 2001
Text: 220 pages
30 illustrations, 8 color plates

In today's art world many strange, even shocking things qualify as art. In this book, Cynthia Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are valued in the arts, weaving together philosophy, art theory, and many engrossing examples. She discusses blood, beauty, culture, money, museums, sex, and politics, clarifying contemporary and historical accounts of the nature, function, and interpretation of the arts. Freeland propels us into the future by surveying art web sites and CD-ROMs, along with cutting-edge research on the brain's role in perceiving art. This clear, provocative book will engage the public and prove invaluable to introductory students and teachers in aesthetics and the arts.


Selected Extracts from But Is It Art?

All texts copyright 2001 by Cynthia A. Freeland

Chapter One. Blood and Beauty

Blood and Ritual

But does blood in kooky modern (urban, industrial, First World) art mean what it does in "primitive" rituals? Some people advocate a theory of art as ritual: an ordinary object or act acquires symbolic and affective significance through incorporation into a belief system shared by all participants. When the Mayan king shed blood before the multitude in Palenque by piercing his own penis and drawing a thin reed through it three times, he exhibited his shamanistic ability to contact the land of the undead. Some artists now seek to recreate a similar sense of art as ritual. Diamanda Galas fuses operatic wizardry, light shows and glistening blood in her Plague Mass, supposedly to exorcise pain in the era of AIDS. Hermann Nitsch, the Viennese founder of the Orgies Mystery Theater, promises catharsis through a combination of music, painting, wine-pressing, and ceremonial pouring of animal blood and entrails. You can read all about it on his web site at http://www.nitsch.org. Such rituals are not altogether alien from the European tradition: there is a lot of blood in its two primary lineages, the Judaeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman. Jahweh required sacrifices as parts of His covenant with the Hebrews, and Agamemnon, like Abraham, faced a divine command to slit the throat of his own child. The blood of Jesus is so sacred that it is symbolically drunk to this day by believing Christians as promising redemption and eternal life. Western art has always reflected these myths and religious stories: Homeric heroes win godly favor by sacrificing animals, and the Roman tragedies of Lucan and Seneca pile up more body parts than Freddie Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Renaissance paintings showed the blood of martyrs with increasing realism; Shakespearean tragedy typically ended with major characters' deaths. But I doubt that when a performance artist uses blood now, it has genuinely effective ritual meaning. The ways audiences see it and react are different and they do not enter in with a shared belief and value system. Most modern art, in the context of theatre, gallery, or concert hall, lacks the background reinforcement of pervasive community belief that provides meaning in terms of catharsis, sacrifice, or initiation. Far from audiences coming to feel part of a group, sometimes they get shocked and abandon the community. This happened in Minneapolis when performance artist Ron Athey, who is HIV-positive, cut the flesh of a fellow performer on stage and then hung blood-soaked paper towels over the audience, creating a panic. If artists just want to shock the bourgeoisie, it becomes pretty hard to distinguish the latest kind of art that gets written up in Artforum from a Marilyn Manson performance that includes Satanic rituals of animal sacrifice on stage. The cynical assessment is that blood in contemporary art does not forge meaningful associations, but promotes entertainment and profit.

Chapter Four. Money, Markets, Museums

What's a Poor Artist to Do?

No chapter on art and money can be complete without mention of astronomical prices paid at art auctions, especially in the boom years of the 1980s. Prices of Van Gogh's works at sales in 1987, in particular, stunned the world: His Irises sold for $53.9 million and Sunflowers for $39.9 million. In the same year, two of Van Gogh's other works went for $20 million and $13.75 million. The irony was grotesque in light of the artist's own poverty and despair over being unable to sell works during his lifetime. The thought that a work like the Mona Lisa is "priceless" makes it difficult to see and appreciate as art (when one is lucky enough to get a second to stand before it). Can we ever again see Van Gogh's works as art rather than as huge dollar signs? Sometimes a museum capitalizes on our absorption with money. A membership solicitation brochure for Australia's National Gallery of Art from 1995 featured the controversy over its purchase of Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles for $1 million (Aus). The brochure's cover showed a huge tabloid headline screaming about this painting that "Drunks Did It!" But on the inside of the brochure, the museum (and presumably its members) got the last laugh by pronouncing, "Now the world thinks it's worth over $20 million. And it's all yours from $14.50 [i.e., the price of a membership]." After succumbing to this appeal, will the new museum member really be able to look at Blue Poles for its artistic value? Museums are only a part of the current story of the art market, because wealthy collectors worldwide have more buying power. The advertising executive Charles Saatchi has been accused of manipulating the market for the latest young and trendy artists through his sudden shifts in purchases or sales. His support of specific travelling exhibitions, like the controversial Sensation exhibit of young British "Britpack" artists (cause of New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's ire in 1999), has also been seen as suspect. Through promoting the exhibition, Saatchi raises the value of works that he owns. How can an artist escape or confront the art market, with its vagaries of trends and fickle favor?

Chapter Five. Gender, Genius, and Guerrilla Girls

A Feminine Essence?

Some women artists have been recognized, like Georgia O'Keeffe, who now has her own museum. But the Guerrilla Girls complain that this work is not treated on a par with men's: it is always downplayed by being labeled "female." In fact, Alfred Stieglitz, the gallery owner who later became O'Keeffe's husband. exclaimed when he first saw her paintings, "At last! Finally a woman on canvas!" O'Keeffe always pooh-poohed the idea that her works were somehow "feminine," but many viewers share Stieglitz's gut reaction that they express a quality of female experience. Flowers are sexual organs, and O'Keeffe's large flower paintings often depict immense and engorged stamens and pistils, delighting in petals' deep folds and plush textures. They do evoke human genitalia and seem erotic. Judy Chicago, on the other hand, deliberately gives a sexual connotation to flower imagery on plates of The Dinner Party. She does not just hint at but really does depict female genitalia. Chicago sought a female representation of intimacies of the female body to counteract the mostly male depictions of women in pornography and high art. The Dinner Party celebrated female bodily experiences by linking visual representations to texts that conveyed women's power and achievement rather than passivity and availability. But since 1979 when The Dinner Party was first exhibited, many critics, including feminists, have criticized it as either vulgar or too political, or else as too "essentialist." Some critics argue that art that focuses so much on anatomy and sexual embodiment ignores important aspects of women's social class, race, historical circumstances, and sexual orientation. The Dinner Party is called simplistic and reductivečas if the achievements of women it is meant to celebrate are cancelled out by the omnipresent and identical vaginal imagery of each place setting. A more recent strategy that other artists employ, in contrast to Chicago's reductive and biological approach, is deconstruction: showing that femininity is the artificial product of images, cultural expectations, and engrained behaviors (such as ways of dressing, walking, or using makeup).

Chapter Seven. Digitizing and Disseminating

A Democracy of Images

Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's David look likečor do we? They are reproduced so often that we may feel we know them even if we have never been to Paris or Florence. Each has countless spoofs--David in boxer shorts or the Mona Lisa with moustache. Art reproductions are ubiquitous. We can now sit in our pajamas while enjoying virtual tours of galleries and museums around the world via the Web and CD-ROM. We can explore genres and painters and zoom in to scrutinize details. The Louvre's web site offers spectacular 360-degree panoramas of artworks like the Venus de Milo. Such tours may become ever more multi-sensory by drawing on Virtual Reality (VR) technology, which includes things like goggles and gloves. Pilots, soldiers, medical students, architects, and stage set designers already use this technology in their training and work. It is not just visual art that has been made more widely accessible by new technologies of reproduction. Operas, plays, and ballet performances are regularly broadcast on TV, and more people know the music of Bach and Beethoven from CD's or radio than from live concerts in churches or symphony halls. If I admire the movies of the late Stanley Kubrick, I can own copies in high-resolution DVD (letterbox format of course). Human experiences of art have been significantly changed in this postmodern age of the Internet, videos, CD's, advertising, postcards, and posters. But for good or ill? And how have artists responded? In this final chapter, I will consider the impact of new communications technologies on art. We will look "back to the future" by exploring how art's past is digitally disseminated by futuristic technologies across the global village in the new millennium. Three theorists will be our guides: Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean Baudrillard. Their attitudes range from enthusiasm to cynicism.

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Last Updated December 10, 2000