Friday, July 28, 2017

Art: what is it?

According to a recent poll in the UK, a work by Banksy is at the top of a list of best works of art - along with, further down the line, a couple of record covers. Forget about Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Even Van Gogh did not make the cut. 

I don't doubt that an American poll would achieve similar results. As an art historian I deplore such aesthetic yahooism. But maybe the results signify a healthy revolt against some of the rubbish that is currently acclaimed by the art establishment, together with the arcane prose commonly deployed to foster it.

Over the centuries the definition of art has fluctuated. From the Romans and Greeks we inherited an emphasis on skill (cf. the words a r s  and  t e c h n e). Eventually, though, the need to learn drawing, perspective and chiaroscuro vanished. Deskilling ensued. 

The Renaissance propounded a class distinction separating the fine arts from the lowly applied or decorative arts. Defying this separation is the idea that art is simply the sum total of artifacts - things made by human hands. 

Today a kind of free-form empiricism reigns. Art is anything made by a self-described artist. Then there is the Institutional theory: art is anything that qualifies for display in a gallery or museum (whether it actually is or not).


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