Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Chapters 3, 4 and 5: Art, the Artist & Society

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Cynthia Freeland

Freeland examines the relationship between art and culture. Philosopher John Dewey declared that "art is a universal language" and that only by immersing ourselves in it, devoid of "external facts," could we genuinely appreciate it. Rather than limiting art to Beauty, Dewey saw it as "the expression of the life of the community." Freeland argues, and I agree that one can not truly understand art without context or "external facts." We can't appreciate the work of an artist in our own culture without some knowledge of the artist, his time and world much less grasp the meaning of art produced by another society. More recently, the ethno-aesthetician Richard Anderson suggested that art has "culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium."  

The book delves into how through museums, we have separated art from the masses. In Europe and North America, no more than 22 percent of the population visits an art museum, and those consist primarily of the highly educated and well off. Many of the great museums of Europe display artifacts stolen from other peoples. Many of these museums and other collections are supported by the uber-wealthy. Dewey stated that "Generally speaking, the typical collector is the typical capitalist." Where art was once an everyday life thing, now it is put upon a pedestal.

Danish painter, sculptor, 
ceramicist, and author Asger Jorn 
was a founding member of 
the Situationist International.
The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin, 
a manifesto for the Arts and Crafts movement.
Recently, efforts have been made to bring art back into the average person's life. The National Endowment for the Arts has funded projects that display artwork in public spaces and city streets. In the 1950s and 60s, street theatre and spectacles by the Marxist-influenced Situationism Internationalists hoped to plant the seeds which would overthrow cultural elites and intellectuals. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the mid-nineteenth century sought to inject beauty back into people's common existence through architecture, furniture, and product design.

Outsider Art: T. Rex by Howard Finster
Protests against the art establishment and cultural biases also manifested themselves in the Outsider Art Movement where primitive, almost child-like work was celebrated and the Guerrilla Girls who highlighted gender inequality in the art world. What is the importance of the role of gender and sexual orientation in art? If context is key to understanding, it would seem to be a consideration in understanding.

Billboard by the Guerrilla Girls Movement
What is valued and why is a question that we continue to face. Initially, artists were seen merely as skilled craftspeople. Artists were trained through a system of apprenticeships. The concept of an artistic genius is a relatively modern idea that has set the stage for further creative exploration.


  1. Good point about "external facts" providing needed context for grasping "the life of the community," but the trouble Dewey is highlighting is that while our recognition & appreciation of the facts requires some prior understanding of that context, prior understanding may also be a euphemism for prejudice and preconception that distorts or blocks our receptivity to the artist's vision. But I agree with you and Freeland, it's unrealistic to think we can or should even try to be totally "devoid" of background cultural information. But maybe we can try to (as the phenomenologists say) "bracket" such information, set it aside to whatever extent we can, in order to come at art with minimal prejudice? After all, isn't it part of the function of art to critique culture? In that case, immersion would seem to sabotage the effort in advance.

    I love public art installations, even the ones that leave me scratching my head about the meaning and point. But museums are great too. Rich people collecting art as status symbols, though, says more about the insecurities of wealth than about the artistic acuity of the wealthy.

    Art really does play a big part in smoothing social change by raising pointed questions around issues like gender, race, inequality etc., doesn't it? I think that's ultimately why Dewey cared so much about it. Plus, he just thought our personal and individual experience - as much as that of the collective experience of the community - is saturated with aesthetic qualities we're usually blind to, and that we mustn't cede to "elites." You'll be saying more on that later, I'm sure.

  2. I'm not sure one can understand a painting such as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon without some knowledge about it. https://pablopicasso.org/avignon.jsp

  3. If anyone from another class wants to chime in, feel free!

  4. Anonymous3:22 PM CDT

    I think it's interesting the separation between something like wall murals in a city and a painting in a museum. Art reflects culture and I feel like more of a raw culture is seen in a mural than in a museum. (opinion)

  5. The modern era has certainly opened up the floodgates to unique styles of expression. The definition of art seems to get more and more varied by the day. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however I feel as if there is a somewhat objective truth to what makes something truly creative and or well-made. Of course there are many examples we can go back to during more traditional times, but even now I'd say modern interpretations and creations can still be judged in such a way that measures up to established rules and prerequisites just as well. I suppose nothing has really changed besides the influx of art-based genres.

    On a different note, I do agree that society needs to get more acquainted with their creativity. Art stretches into so many avenues nowadays and I personally have this feeling that there are many out there with great ideas who don't take, or even get, enough time to put themselves out there.

  6. Thanks for the input, folks!

  7. Anonymous9:29 AM CDT

    I think art is beautiful. When i walk down a road i don't think of graffiti i think of culture and art. Art is a way people can express themselves and everyone should have the right to do so.