WHAT IS NOT ART?

April 15, 2012

 

 REASSESSING THE MEANING OF ‘ART’ AFTER SEEING
BEAT NATION AT THE VANCOUVER ART GALLERY

With the exception of a couple of my very earliest posts in which I discussed the process of growing my first crop of actual tomatoes, this is the first post in this blog that doesn’t include any tomato art, or any other graphic material.  It’s deliberate, to make a point.

Since attending the opening of the Beat Nation show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and writing about that show for this blog (see the post dated March 15), I’ve been doing some thinking about what ‘art’ now means to me, and the implications for the new meaning at which I arrived.  Writing about the show, I mentioned the point made by Deborah Sparrow of the Musqueam Band in her introductory comments to the show that, in traditional Aboriginal cultures, there were no words equivalent to our word, ‘art’; because everything that was made in these cultures had a practical use, ‘art’ wasn’t a meaningful category.  After my couple of weeks of (very part-time) deliberation, I’ve concluded that the word ‘art’ no longer has much real meaning to most of us of Western cultural descent–except, of course, when speaking of our cultural history.  Moreover, the continued use of this word by those with an interest in the activities and products collectively said to be “the Arts” may actually be lessening the support we receive from the broader community rather than helping to garner support.  Perhaps it’s time that we considered doing away with the word ‘art’ (except when speaking of our cultural history), and found other more contemporary, more meaningful, more practical, ways of talking about, these activities and products.

This is by no means the first time I’ve deliberated about the meaning of ‘art’, or even reached this basic conclusion.  I did, after all, do graduate work in Education, not terribly long ago (I finished a PhD twelve years ago), and one of my interests as a graduate student was “arts education”, a term with which I became increasingly uncomfortable through the course of my studies.  But I think a much stronger case could be made now, than even just a dozen years ago, for the abandonment of the term ‘art’.

Especially due to recent developments in digital technology, activities and products traditionally said to be ‘art’ have become more central to Western culture than they have ever been–or at least more central than they have been for several centuries.  Even the most basic amateur blog, for example, inevitably includes not only text but also the graphic design elements associated with the design template, or ‘theme’, that the blogger has selected for the blog, and also is likely to include some photographs.  Professionally designed websites commonly rely heavily upon varied graphic elements, including not only static images but also video.  Music and drama also play a vital role on many blogs and websites, including not only those that are specifically entertainment-related.  In addition, employing digital material loaded onto their laptops or iPads, speakers making live presentations now commonly incorporate graphics, and sometimes also music and other recorded performances, including drama and even dance, into their presentations.

It’s become increasingly important, to the point of even being essential, that young people now learn how to create and to manipulate varied digital material if they are to lead successful personal and professional lives.  The written word just doesn’t have the preeminence that it once had in Western culture as a communications medium and, in many contexts, including post-secondary education, even the spoken word has lost much of its former status.  (It used to be common that university and college teachers were referred to as ‘lecturers’, but no longer.)

Just for practical reasons, just to get by in the modern world, it has become increasingly important that young people acquire some familiarity with graphics, and photography, and film-making, and music, and drama, and even dance (not necessarily ballet, although a ballet background is generally much more useful than many people think).  Again using the example of blogging, if they are able to even maintain a basic blog, that is visited regularly by even relatives and close friends, they need to acquire some familiarity with these varied products and activities traditionally conceived as all falling within the broad category of “the Arts”.  (Some knowledge of SEO strategies might also help, but that’s a subject for another post.)  There are other members of this broad category that generally are less directly relevant to blogging per se, including sculpture, but that also are worth checking out.

Writing traditionally has not been included in this category, apart from certain kinds of writing traditionally regarded as “creative writing”, including poetry and novels.  There are historical, philosophical, reasons for the conceptual separation in Western culture of writing, other than “creative writing”, from “the Arts”; but these reasons seem to no longer strongly resonate in the West–other than in certain faculties within our universities.  (If any readers of this blog aren’t already familiar with the philosophical issues and want to know more, they can start by typing in ‘postmodernism’ on Google.)  In current practical terms, for the purposes of maintaining a blog, for example, good writing remains important; but, generally speaking, unless one’s blog consists of only, or virtually only, the written word, which is neither common nor advisable if one wants anyone to visit the blog (unless, of course, one omits the other elements for a single post to make a point, as I’m doing here), good writing is no more important than its other elements.  All of the elements of a blog, including the writing, may be said to be, at once, ‘art’ and ‘not art’, which is to say that the category of ‘art’ is not really useful anymore.

Although I continue to sometimes use the term ‘art’ myself, I can see a real danger in using it today, especially in the “Arts education” context.  A lot of people today are probably very much turned off by the term ‘art’, since ‘art’ has traditionally commonly been associated with elitism and non-practicality–or with, as I suggested in my previous post, with “beholding” as opposed to “holding and using”.  To increase the chances that students today, and in the future, do get the exposure to, and training in, the non-verbal forms of communication they will need to prosper it seems that it generally would be advantageous to call these non-verbal forms of communication just that, “non-verbal forms of communication.”  Or, if that’s too unwieldy, maybe we should be talking about the specific crafts in question, such as graphics, or film-making, or whatever–just as traditional Aboriginal ‘art’ is divided into the various crafts of carving, weaving, and so on.

There are some objects–including many objects displayed in art galleries these days–that can’t readily be classified as crafts, of any kind.  Some prime examples are the installations of the British conceptual artist, Damien Hurst, including various dead animals floating in formaldehyde, about which Leah McLaren wrote in her Globe and Mail column last weekend.  This kind of art follows more closely in the Western arts tradition than first meets the eye (or the nose), and maybe we could retain the word ‘art’ for this kind of thing.  But, rest assured, it’s not what educators, and parents, and kids themselves, usually are referring to when they request more money for “the Arts”: nor are they referring simply to ‘crafts’, in the somewhat derogatory traditional Western sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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