Art Philosophy Ramblings

It is difficult to define the work of art. Indeed, the diversity of works, their possible functions in society (religious, propaganda, politics, etc.), the intentions of their authors, their materials, their style means that there are no obvious universal objective criteria for judging that a work is artistic. Even the effects produced by these works are very diverse. These effects from which a work of art tends to be judged are not exclusive to art: it may be the emotion aroused by a work described as romantic, it may be the reflection to which conceptual art invites.

Moreover, the autonomy of art in relation to other forms of production such as craftsmanship is recent but also questioned in design and its role in the economy and in encouraging consumption.

Yet art does not seem to be able to be reduced to a simple technique that it assumes, or even to a simple skill that the artist shares with the craftsman.

Finally, tastes in art are very diverse and aesthetic sensitivity sometimes requires an education either in artistic trends, or in getting rid of prejudices in aesthetic matters, or in a certain culture in order to be able to understand the meaning of certain works or at least appreciate their full richness.

So, what distinguishes simply technical production from artistic production? What distinguishes a work of art from a masterpiece? What is the point of such a distinction and how does it challenge the very notion of art? On what is the aesthetic judgment or taste judgment based?

Beyond utility

In artisanal production, the product still has a utilitarian function that not all works of art possess, at least not for a few centuries. Yet many works of art have been created for utilitarian purposes. For example, African totem poles, paintings from ancient Egypt, songs intended to convey religious messages or support prayer had a religious or social function and were created for this purpose. Certainly through these works their authors tried to go beyond this simply utilitarian function, took advantage of the commissions made to them to manifest their qualities through these works. So what criteria make it possible to distinguish between a craft work and a work of art?

The technical necessity of production rules and the artistic necessity to go beyond these rules: know-how, skill and originality.

It can be noted that the production of a utilitarian object in the craft industry meets a precise need so that the object must obey a kind of specification that requires in its realization the fulfillment of precise rules whose definition pre-exists to their realization. As Alain points out, the artisanal object, responding to precisely identifiable needs, the project of artisanal production exists precisely before its realization and dictates to the artisan the rules of production. On the contrary, if the artist has a project (he sometimes works and, in the past, often on commission), this project, which imposes a certain number of prescriptions on the artist, does not nevertheless allow the final result to be presumed, so that the project is defined as the artist carries out his work and even appears completely only once the work has been completed.

This is why art is not limited to the technical or academic application of production rules, technical rules that are nevertheless necessary for any production. While craftsmanship is distinguished from industrial production by the skill required of the craftsman, this skill is also not sufficient for artistic production. If the need dictates the rules of production for artisanal production, what is artistic in the work is, as Kant writes, what no rule can be given for or, if you will, it is the artist who gives its rules to art (after having respected but also sometimes diverted the technical rules of production: the poet for example invents images, allows himself licenses with the language).

The exemplary and not simply fanciful originality of artistic creation. Inspiration and imitation.

We can then understand why originality is one of the trademarks of artistic production or, at least, of brilliant creations in art. But we also understand why this originality is not a mere fantasy or delirium. “Genius is the ability to give rules to art,” writes Kant.

The work of art or at least what is artistic in it is not created for a utilitarian purpose: for example, if religious singing is supposed to carry and transmit a message, the originality of this song, what is aesthetic in it and which touches us remains foreign to this religious message to the point that the Church could once condemn vocal polyphony in religious singing under the pretext that the listener or the singer might be more sensitive to the beauty of the song than to the meaning of the message. Similarly, we can enjoy a song or music without understanding its meaning (this is often the case in opera) or without sharing its religious intent.

But, in artistic creation and aesthetic judgment, everything happens as if the work was for a purpose.

Let us note that the first artists were certainly not aware of the difference that separated their works from those of the craftsmen so that we qualify as works of art certain products of human production because they have a meaning that goes beyond mere utility without being able to determine this non-utilitarian purpose.

How then can we judge the presence of this non-utilitarian meaning in a human work? By the feeling it gives as a result of this shaping, what we commonly call beauty? But what is the beautiful one? And does every work of art aim at beauty?

“Beauty is what pleases everyone without concept” (Kant Critique of the faculty of judging). We consider that a thing or a work is beautiful without having the concept, the general rule that would allow us to make this judgment. The aesthetic judgment therefore does not have objective criteria. With the fact that common sense confuses aesthetic judgment and a sense of pleasure, this lack of objective criteria for aesthetic judgment is the other reason to explain why beauty is considered relative to the person who contemplates it. So why does Kant write “what pleases everyone…”?

It seems to me that the beauty I give to things is a quality of that thing itself, independent of my judgment. Indeed, since there is no interest in my aesthetic judgment, we can only make a judgment on the work or the beautiful thing by assuming that every man can only judge like us.

The aesthetic judgment is therefore subjective but claims to be universal.

However, given the strength of prejudices in aesthetic matters, given the cultural conditioning of tastes, given this social tendency to reduce beauty to a beauty enslaved to criteria diffused by society, given our laziness which often makes us prefer the pleasant to the open-minded, it has been said that to appreciate art, we needed an education. But no doubt this education consists rather in getting rid of our prejudices in order to be able to bring a new sensitivity to reality.

This is why it is necessary to distinguish a servile beauty which consists in matching criteria, a socially determined canon of a commonly recognized beauty and a beauty free of any model, which pleases through the free play of the faculties it arouses in the one who judges it.