13 April 2008

What art is(n't)

In photo.net's Philosophy of photography forum, I yesterday made the mistake of getting involved in a "what is art" thread (if you click that link, and don't want to read the whole strand, search the page for the word "ludicrous" and then read from there).

Today, I pick up the Independent on Sunday and find eight hundred words devoted to whether or not a nude photograph of Carla Bruni, new trophy wife to France's "King of Bling" president (and, so I'm told, songwriter, singer, model) is "art"[1].

This conjunction isn't really much of a coincidence. An inordinate amount of time is spent on the subject of what art is, or is not. I should have known better ... but disagreement between two people I respect inveigled me into it ... I'm a good boy really, Miss, I wuz just misled.

Anyroad ... at the end of one overlong contribution to that photo.net thread I referred to Gombrich's The story of art[2]. As I said in that reference, I often take issue with Gombrich – but his opening paragraphs in the introduction are, for my money, spot on. The first paragraph which, in the interests of brevity, I clipped in the photo.net response, bears repeating in full – so here it is:

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today some buy their paints, and design posters for hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not 'Art'. And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.

  1. Heawood, S, "Is it art, or is it cashing in?", in The Independent on Sunday. 2008, Independent news and media UK: London
  2. Gombrich, E H, The story of art. 1995, London: Phaidon Press. 688p.071483355X (hbk) or 0714832472 (pbk).