Truth is not a democracy. Some thing does not become true just because a majority of people believe it is true. That is why philosophical questions such as ‘what is art?’ cannot be answered by conducting an opinion poll and seeing what people think art is. However, surveying the opinions of the general public can be philosophically interesting, as has been demonstrated once again at this magazine’s sister web publication, TPM Online (www.philosophers.co.uk).
The tongue-in-cheek titled activity ‘Shakespeare vs. Britney Spears‘ was designed both to provoke thought about what makes something a great work of art and to discover the extent to which the opinions of the public accord with the most important aesthetic theories. The activity asked people to rate how important they thought six different criteria were when judging whether something is a good work of art or not. These criteria correspond to six popular types of aesthetic theory of art and concern technical ability, conveyance of the artist’s emotions, moral teaching, formal beauty, enjoyablity and insight into truth. (See below for more details.) By analysing the results of these responses we are able to see which type of aesthetic theory has the most support.
It is always interesting to discover just what people think, but these findings might be considered interesting for specifically philosophical reasons. The reason for this is that the philosophical question ‘what is art?’, like many conceptual questions, has both a descriptive and a prescriptive import. In one sense, the question demands a descriptive answer, because the phenomenon being explained – art – already exists and the puzzle is how to accurately characterise it. In this sense, the question ‘what is art?’ is asked in order to find an accurate description of the way the world already is.
However, there is also a prescriptive side to this search for the meaning of art. Because ‘art’ is a problematic concept, we should expect to find that it is sometimes or often misused or misunderstood. The philosopher who claims to have grasped the meaning of ‘art’ is therefore offering an understanding which should prescribe how people accurately use the term.
The aesthetician’s interest in what people think art is reflects these two different parts of her task. Because art already exists and people are already able – albeit imperfectly – to identify examples of it, the aesthetician needs to check that her account of art does justice to the reality of what art is taken to be. If her account contradicts the views of the many, it does not mean that account is wrong, but it does mean that the onus is on the philosopher to explain why it is so many people think something is true of art which is aledgedly false. This need to provide an ‘error theory’ – an explanation of why people commonly go wrong – is needed both to help justify the theory being offered and to persuade people that it is indeed true.
So how do people view art? The results of the activity are continuously updated each time someone plays the game, but a snapshot of the results after 11,464 people had taken part reflects what has become the settled consensus. It is clear that the most popular view of art reflects romanticism. Great art, most people believe, should convey the feelings of the artists and should give pleasure to the viewer. Technical ability and formal beauty are less important. It is also less important that the art convey some insight into reality. But what is perhaps most interesting is that by far the least important feature of art, according the survey’s respondents, is that it conveys a moral lesson. The view that art and morality are and should be separate, which was so controversial when proclaimed by Oscar Wilde a hundred years ago, now seems to be the mainstream view.
The activity provided some further findings. Respondents were also asked to rank the works of two artists according to how far their works fulfilled the six criteria. By weighting these criteria according to how important respondents judged them to be, the computer is able to determine which is the greater of the two artists, according to the respondent’s own standards. It also enabled us to keep an ongoing ‘league table’ of the greatest artists, using the criteria weighted to reflect all the respondents choices and the respondents’ judgement as to how far these criteria are met by each artist.
Here, the responses are little more than fun, since little separates the artists chosen. Shakespeare leads the way, perhaps surprisingly joined in first place by Jane Austin. Interestingly, Miles Davies leads Picasso, while Britney Spears trails a distant last place, well behind two other figures from popular culture, Kurt Cobain and Stephen King (see below).
The twist here is that, when asked which artist’s works they would take to a desert island if allowed only one, people often do not choose the artist they consider to be the greatest. Miles Davies comes first in this ranking, while he was firmly mid-table according to his greatness. Britney Spears’ higher placing is perhaps indicative of a misunderstanding – some at least of the respondents seemed to think that it was Britney herself who would be on the island, not her works.
It is interesting to speculate what these discrepancies how. Perhaps it is that people are a little in awe of art and believe that certain things are true of great art even if they are not able to appreciate it themselves. It could also be that they are inclined to rate the artistic greatness of canonical figures according to their reputations rather than how they honestly feel the artists’ works match their criteria for great art.
While it would be foolish to suggest that the survey makes a major contribution to the study of aesthetics, it offers a different perspective on a set on long-running issues which should be of interest to anyone interested in what makes art great. But above all, it is a spur to thought rather than a contribution to it.
Six criteria for great art
Six criteria considered by philosophers over the centuries to be vital to something’s being a great work of art, ranked by 11,464 visitors to TPM Online.
1st Expressing feelings
The idea that art is essentially about communicating the feelings of the artists is a romantic one which has wide popular appeal. R G Collingwood concurs with the basics of this characterisation of art. However, one should be careful not to misunderstand what this means for him. It does not mean that art is a kind of spontaneous outburst of emotion. On the contrary, the skill of the artists lies in their ability to articulate their emotions through their chosen art form. Art expresses the artist’s feelings and conveys them to its audience, but it is not a mere expression of feelings, like a whoop, scream or a cry.
Tolstoy held a similar view. He thought the object of a work of art is to induce feelings in the viewer, reader or listener. However, he believed that unless the emotion being induced is morally uplifting in some way, the work of art has no value. Not for him the romantic idea that the artist must express how they feel, whatever it is. The artist should only convey higher emotions.
This view of art is sometimes rejected as committing what Wimslatt and Beardsley call the ‘intentional fallacy’, which is the mistake of thinking that the intention or design of the artist is either available or desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of art.
On this view, once created, the artwork stands on its own and the artists themselves drop away as irrelevant in assessing or appreciating it.
Many philosophers have considered the pleasure that art gives us as vital to its value. But virtually all who do so insist on making some distinction between ‘proper’ aesthetic pleasure and other pleasures which we may feel.
This distinction is very clear in Kant. Kant argued that true aesthetic pleasure is ‘disinterested’. What Kant means by this is that the pleasure must be independent of any consideration of whether the object of aesthetic appreciation actually exists. Consider, for example, the pleasure we take in looking at an attractive man or woman. Much of this pleasure is not disinterested, in Kant’s sense, because it is linked with a desire for that person. The possibility – real or imagined – of enjoying this person in the flesh is part of the pleasure we take in looking at them. For there to be genuine aesthetic appreciation of a person, that pleasure must be purely in the contemplation of their appearance, regardless of any thought as to their real existence.
Many other philosophers have tried to distinguish between pure aesthetic pleasure and other, cruder pleasures. Commaraswamy, for instance talks about the Indian concept of rasa, which is a distinctive form of aesthetic pleasure akin to religious experience, to be distinguished from ordinary pleasures such as eating and drinking.
So if millions of people claim to enjoy the music of Britney Spears, it is possible to argue that this is not proper aesthetic pleasure. The truth or a justification for snobbery?
3rd Insight into reality
Plato actually opposed art on the grounds that it was an obstacle to the proper understanding of reality. In his view, true reality is the realm of the ‘forms’. The forms are the perfect ‘blueprints’ of which actual objects are mere replicas. So, any particular chair, for example, is an inferior copy of the eternal form of the chair. Because art represents actual chairs and other objects, it is thus two-steps removed from reality. Art is effectively a representation of copies of reality. Anyone who wants to understand reality is therefore advised to avoid art!
Fortunately, Plato is not the last word on this subject. Opponents of Plato do not always explicitly state that art reveals the true reality behind appearances. However, they do often imply that art has an ability to help us understand reality better by revealing important, general features about it. Aristotle, for example, talked about tragedy as catharsis, which sees art as enabling us to deal with universal emotions by confronting them and, in a sense, purging them, through watching a drama. Hsun Tzu thought that music somehow reflects the harmony of the divine order, and so by cultivating a proper appreciation of music, we gain some insight into ultimate reality. Schopenhauer believed that art is an insight into the fundamental feature of reality: the will, which is the power behind all activity in the universe. And Dewey argued that art allows us to experience the unity of reality that is lost in the discord of everyday experience.
4th Technical ability
Interestingly, the issue of an artist’s skill has not been a central one in the history of philosophical aesthetics. Sometimes it is taken for granted that skill is required, since what was considered art always required technical skill for its creation. But since the advent of conceptual art and the possibility that an object, such as a urinal, could become a work of art merely by being conceptualised in a certain way, the role of the artist’s skill in art has become a more salient issue.
On the one hand, there have been philosophers who have argued that there is no place for the artist in the appreciation of the work of art, which implies that one need not consider whether the artist was skilled. One manifestation of this is the idea of the intentional fallacy, put forward by Wimslatt and Beardsley. “The design or intention of the author,” they wrote, “is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”. What they say about the author could equally be said of other artists.
In contrast, the contemporary British philosopher Roger Scruton has written that, “A person for whom it makes no difference whether a sculpture was carved by wind and rain or by human hand would be a person incapable of interpreting, indeed incapable of perceiving, sculptures.” For Scruton, it is vital to aesthetic appreciation to at least see the artwork as something which has been created by design by an artist.
5th Formal beauty
Works of art are often seen as representational: a portrait represents a person, a novel represents a series of events, and a piece of music, perhaps, represents an emotion. An alternative view is that it is not the fact that art represents which makes great art. Rather, it is the way in which the formal features of the work of art come together.
This is most persuasive if you consider a cubist or abstract painting. What makes such a work of art great is the way in which the colours, shapes and textures come together to form a harmonious or pleasing whole. This is perhaps even more plausible in music, where there is usually no obvious representing going on at all, but where the sounds of the different instruments and their arrangement forms a pleasing whole.
This idea was developed by Clive Bell in the early part of the twentieth century in his concept of a work of art’s ‘significant form’. The idea also appears in Kant, who thought proper aesthetic appreciation came only in the ‘disinterested’ contemplation of artworks, where considerations of what the art represents or relates to fall away and one considers the work in itself.
The major problem with this view of art is that it seems it cannot apply to all art. The power of Picasso’s Guernica, for example, can only be explained if one says something about what it represents – the great suffering and torment of people and animals bombed by Franco in the Spanish civil war.
6th Moral instruction
The idea that art must be morally uplifting in some way may seem a quaint one today, when art is often considered to be, if anything, exempt from the ordinary standards of ethics.
However, there is a tradition of arguing for the importance of morality in art. Tolstoy appealed to morality because he thought it obvious that whether or not we enjoy a work of art or appreciate it in any other way is an entirely subjective matter. Any attempt to prescribe standards of taste objectively are doomed to failure. However, there was one way in which we could judge art objectively, and that is on its moral content. So, for example, when judging whether a novel is a good or bad read, we are just expressing our opinions. But when we ask whether the novel conveys a morally virtuous message, we can come to a conclusion that all sensible judges can agree upon.
This argument is important because it has consequences for public subsidy of art. Tolstoy thought that it was unjustifiable to subsidise arts if their value was in the enjoyment they give. Why subsidise some pleasures such as opera and dance, while at the same time taxing others, such as drink and entertainments?
Others have argued for the moral importance of art on other grounds. Schiller argued that, through art, we are able to open ourselves up to the world and make sense of it through the creative play art offers. This enables us to cultivate our selves in ways which make us better people.
T S Eliot
Desert Island Artists
T S Eliot