Why call it art? The Aesthetics of Participation: Looking Elsewhere
Aesthetics as we know it is a relatively new field, an eighteenth century invention — though as discussed in the last post, people had a lot to say about art long before! For example, a seventeenth century scholar called Abbé Charles Batteux was thinking about these issues a century before the field emerged. Batteux argues for the separation of various sorts of arts into categories based mostly on their relationship with use. In his taxonomy, there are the mechanical arts which serve specific needs, the fine arts objects which are created for pleasure, and a middle category that includes architecture and eloquence (I love that!) that exists in between, being both agreeable and useful. By and large, he would go along with the notion (discussed above in the context of Classical art) that beauty, realism (imitation of nature), and craft/skill are constituent elements of art. But importantly, he adds genius — “the father of the arts” — into the equation. You can find an excerpt from Abbé Batteux’s essay, “The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle” in the Oxford Reader Aesthetics. Of course the introduction of the notion of the individual artistic genius working in isolation is problematic for the appreciation of social practice.
But perhaps equally important was the emergence also in the mid-eighteenth century of what Clifford Geertz calls our “peculiar notion of the fine arts.” Geertz argues that this is not a category that is universal across cultures. It is modern and Western. “It is out of participation in the general system of symbolic forms we call culture that participation in the particular we call art …is possible. A theory of art is thus at the same time a theory of culture, not an autonomous enterprise.” (“Art as a Cultural System” also in the Oxford Reader Aesthetics, my new favorite book.) I find this valuable. Looking at aesthetics from an anthropological rather than philosophical point of view, aesthetics does not isolate art from our culture; it is itself an expression of our culture.
So, why would we want to re-frame a set of objects as fine arts? One answer is economic. We call objects art so that they can be sold as art. We make them portable and not site-specific in order that they may be traded on international markets. Of course the emergence of art markets coincided with the definition of the Fine Arts. But this is not what Abbé Batteux was arguing for. He was thinking of the cultural value of objects that were possible to make once humans had transcended the position of considering only our daily needs, once we had enough resources to create objects beyond use. It is a beautiful idea perhaps, but one that might narrow the potential for creative expression. As Dewey said, in criticism of art museums, “Objects that were in the past valid and significant because of their place in the life of a community now function in isolation from the conditions of their origin. By that fact they are also set apart from common experience, and serve as insignia of taste and certificates of special culture.” Alas. But is it so everywhere?
Since this blog is so Western-oriented, I decided to check in with Tenzing Rigdol who is not only an excellent artist, but quite knowledgeable about Tibetan art history. I asked him about the idea, brought up in this blog of showing a Tibetan Thangka painting or a sand mandala in a museum. Over butter tea in Jackson Heights, he told me that in this context the work has “lost its essence.” It becomes a form to look at rather than “a pictorial scripture, a guideline for meditation. It is like looking only at a book’s cover.” So far, so good. Perhaps I am not the only person who had heard that there is no word for art in the Tibetan language? Turns out not to be true. Tenznig told me that the Tibetan word for art, “Guy-Tsal” means something like “magic skill” or “magic dexterity.” But art was not tied to individual authorship. Modern art emerged in Tibet in the 1920′s under the leadership of Gendun Chophel who had studied under the British in India. He brought the notions of personal expression and introduced the tradition of signing one’s work. Okay. But then Tenzing told me about Sakya Pandita a thirteenth century scholar and artist and was considered a “genius.” The way he talked about him sounded very modern. Hmmm… so there is a word for art in Tibetan that better represents what we think of in the modern world, and they were talking about an artist as genius 400 years before Abbé Batteux! I guess history and culture are always more complex when you dig a bit. “Tibetan art history is very thick,” Tenzing told me. Still, I find traditional and contemporary Tibetan art inspiring. Perhaps my fantasy of the status of art there was valuable, like as my rather simplistic vision of art in the classical world. Can misinterpretation be helpful?
So, are there non-western cultural traditions that shed light on participatory art? Where are there places to look to help free us from the restrictions some of us feel in the socioeconomic institutions built up around the Fine Arts? Where do you look?