What Makes Art Art?

1024px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn a recent Facebook post, Clayton Lord, vice president of American for the Arts and “Counting New Beans” blogger, posed an interesting thought exercise regarding two different means of replication:

an app that lets you see and zoom in on fine artworks, and a 3D printing company advertising $20,000 reproductions of fine artworks that are accurate to the placement of strokes and thickness of paint. I somehow react differently to those ideas even though they’re both not-the-original…I wonder why. Is one a more appropriate use of new tech than the other for preserving the virtuosity of the art?

The online discussion that ensued happened to be coincident with the first week of the semester when I often find the class discussion focuses on the age-old question “what makes art art?”   In my arts entrepreneurship class, that question tends to focus on why artistic products are different from commodities in any other sector around which one might build a business. In the arts management class the question is similar: in what ways is the management of an arts organization different than the management of a shoe factory? Or any other firm that exists to produce and distribute its product?

I am passionate about this question because, to put it in non-academic terms, I feel deeply in my heart that the artistic process and artistic product is indeed different from an iPhone app or a pair of shoes. Fortunately,  there is academic study of this question in fields from philosophy (aesthetics) to pyschology to economics.  Yes, economics.  I am drawn repeatedly to Richard Caves’ 2000 study, Creative Industries. Unlike the construction of the “creative industries” as it is understood in the UK and Europe via industry codes and classifications, Caves focuses on the US and describes six characteristics of work in and of the creative sector, at least two of which are particularly relevant to Clay’s  thought exercise:

  1. Creative workers care about their product. “In creative activities…the creator cares vitally about the originality displayed, the technical prowess demonstrated, the resolution and harmony achieved in the creative act.”
  2. Differentiated products. “No two are identical”…“While creative possibilities are always abundant, creative realizations are not”

My initial response to Clay was, “It seems that the first (the iPhone app) is a way of closely examining and understanding the original while the second is a copy of the original and therefore a potential diminishment of it.”

Nina Simon, of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz and the Museum 2.0 blog, suggested, “Our obsession with “the real artifact” is itself an artifact of its time,” and referenced plaster replicas of statues on display in museums in the nineteenth century.  I maintain that those replicas and the $20,000 replica in Clay’s example are an important means for distribution of art but is not the art itself.  I continued,

The issue is not one of scarcity, but of originality and intention. The display of plaster casts (some of which are still on display in museums) was driven by geogpraphy and lack of transportation. Viewers knew that they were seeing a plaster replica and appreciated it in the same way one appreciates a digital print of “Starry Night.” 3D printing will enable us to appreciate a better print, but the artist’s hand will still be missing.

What do you think?

(image: Van Gogh’s Starry Night via the Google Art Project)

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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5 Responses to What Makes Art Art?

  1. Pingback: What makes Art Art? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  2. newmethos says:

    I am endlessly fascinated by this question and by aesthetic inquiry into the nature of art, especially as an artisanal technician who works in theatrical production. Thank you for continuing the conversation on this topic.

    What is most fascinating is that I had a completely inverted reaction about what technological development is more respectful of the virtuosity of art. “Starry Night,” or rather Van Gogh’s work in general is a great jumping off point. I only recently began to see painting as an expressive art form (actually, it was Duchamp’s cheekiness and the abstract narratives about art of the postmodern artists that made me look at painting more seriously). To me, there is no substitute for being in the presence of the physical artifact. I don’t think you can fully appreciate “Starry Night” just by zooming around a high resolution image of it, you need it in front of you. Van Gogh’s brush strokes are that important, all of that texture is the essence of the piece. A 3D reproduction is much more respectful of the virtuosity of the original because the experience of the work is unmitigated and immediate. I don’t think the value of the painting of “Starry Night” lies solely in being about to view the original, in a digital age, it is impossible to correctly identify the original for yourself anyway, you have to rely on the experts as to whether it is “original” or not. The artist’s spirit lives in the picture, regardless of whether their hand actually participated in it (as in Rembrandt’s studio, for example, or Andy Warhol’s, where the artists themselves did not do much of the work, but rather managed it through their company of artisans). The value of the object lies in the idea that animated its production, and no machine can manufacture that, no matter how well it reproduces the original result.

    As for the Cave’s study, I must respectfully disagree with the notion that it is possible to say that creative workers care more about the product that they are making. The situation is just much more complicated than that. The factory worker who stamps the aluminum case for an iPhone probably doesn’t care much about that object, but Jony Ives certainly cares about the iPhone and he surrounds himself with artisans who care as well. Managing a design studio for an industrial object is much more like managing a theatre than managing a factory. That is one of Steve Jobs’ insights on the nature of the objects that people want in their lives, after all; quality design in a commodity is worth a price premium.

    On the other end of that, as someone who has worked in non-profit regional theaters for years, there are many artisans (carps, props purchasers, electricians, etc) who are necessary for the fulfillment of the creative work, who do not care about the individual product in the slightest. The show is not the thing for many who work in theatre and, considering the production budgets of many theaters, you could better manage the technical departments by treating them like a factory, than managing them as an artistic collective.

    Thanks again for writing on this topic!

    • lindaessig says:

      Thanks for your comment. The specific example you use to critique Caves is ironic in that several of the other distinguishing characteristics he uses to define the rather wavy boundary around the creative industries adresses exactly that situation. Specifically, he notes “Some creative products require diverse skills” and because of that “Time is of the essence,” meaning there is a complex flow of knowledge and skill that lead to the creative product that exist under time constraints requiring close coordination.

      • newmethos says:

        Interesting, and of course it shows the danger of responding to an idea in citation rather than familiarity with the source material. I will definitely have to explore Caves study in its entirety.

  3. My first thought is that Caves has to be talking about a rather narrow interpretation of art as those two characteristics fail to include children’s art and things like process art that are not aimed at results as much as simply seeing what happens. My second thought was that the “missing hand” of the artist you note in your response to Clay would not have concerned Duchamp in the slightest, arguably one of the most important and influential figures in 20th Century art. It seems that every time we try to pin down what things are and are not art we may hit on some relevant distinctions, but fail to grasp the larger whole. Maybe the problem isn’t the insufficiency of our definition but the belief that definitions will capture everything…..

    Wittgenstein had an analysis of ‘games’ that is relevant to how we think about art. There are no universal features of the things we call games or criteria that gets shared in all instances. The same can be said for art. Art is a loose grouping of things that hang together for different reasons, and often only by what he termed ‘family resemblances’. There is no ‘core’ meaning to how we use the word. There are always exceptions that can be found to any hard and fast definition, otherwise our refusal to include them becomes decidedly arbitrary. Or at least severely hampered by its conditionality…..

    Art doesn’t express one thing about our humanity but many, and we simply can’t capture that multiplicity with reductionist pigeonholing. Its entirely possible that “A” can be related to “B”, and “B” related to “C”, but that “A” and “C” have nothing in common except that they are related to “B”. Being ‘related to “B”‘ is, perhaps, the most that can be said for our use of the word ‘art’. We call things art because… this is what we call them. The word itself acts to bing things together, not because it points to an underlying reality, but because this is how we use it.

    There is no natural category of art, especially in today’s world where we continue to push the boundaries of what we mean by ‘art’ and continue to break the rules that got us to this place in time. If we are looking for unequivocal definitions we are barking up the wrong tree. The question itself is perhaps misleading if it is taken to imply definitive answers. The question is only asked with the presumption of a set of standards, but it is quite obvious that those standards differ between different people, across different cultures, and even in our own throughout history. While the question may seem objective, the answer is only ever contingent.

    Here is a related question: “What is the difference between ‘bad’ art and things that are not art at all?” Its the question of whether something counts as a mistake rather than a move in a different game. The truth is that artists are not all playing the same game, so what counts for ‘bad’ in one sense can be ‘good’ in another. Moves that don’t seem to be art in one sense can be exactly what was aimed at in another. Wittgenstein also explored these differences in his work on rule following. Its something that John Cage was interested in exploring by pushing the boundaries of what we understand as sound, silence, and music.

    Cage and Duchamp are not exceptions. The history of art is littered with people taking steps out of accord with tradition and convention. Nor is it the only thing that artists do. Just because we have the word ‘art’ which seems to stand for something we can name, it does not follow that the things so named will have the coherence or seemingly concrete aspect that the word itself does. There is nothing wrong with how we use the word in ordinary language, its just that words don’t always do what we think they do.

    This doesn’t mean that we can’t pick art out from non-art, only that we do so within the framework of how that question was posed. We do so with reasons that are embedded in our system of values and language use, with the practices we had of learning how to do things with those words.

    Maybe the better question still would be to ask how we learned what things count as art and what things do not. Since different people obviously disagree, what did they learn different? Maybe the real trick is not dismissing what other dissenting people mean by art, but coming to see it from their point of view…… Duchamp turned our conceptions of an artist on their head. Cage flipped the world of music upside down. Perhaps we need to look at the idea of art itself in a new way, one that denies the expectation of pat answers and easy definitions. If we are only looking for definitive explanations, will we be open to an understanding that doesn’t need them? Would a science of ‘art’ be more like physics than phrenology? Maybe it would properly be an Anthropology. That seems like an important question, doesn’t it?

    That’s now I see it, at least…..

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