• Peter Templeton

Resource: What is Art?

Teaching about art, what makes something art, and what implicitly goes into the value judgements we make about art, can be tricky. Aesthetic philosophy itself can be complex for people who’ve studied it for years, never mind for students coming to the subject for the first time. If you want to raise these issues in a classroom, consider this example raised by the American philosopher Arthur Danto.

Danto invites us to imagine a gallery, in which there are a number of identical red paintings hanging next to each other – the entire canvas is covered with red paint. The first painting is said to be an abstract representation of the story of the Israelites crossing the red sea, after the drowning of the Egyptians that followed them. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is supposed to have said that this is like his life – and so Danto posits the existence of another equally-red painting next to it, called ‘Kierkegaard’s mood’.

From there, we move on down a line of identical red paintings – the next is a Soviet political painting called red square, the next a minimalist work with the same title, the fifth a representation of the concept of Nirvana and the sixth a still-life of a red table cloth. Finally, we’re asked to consider both a red canvas primed to have an artwork painted upon it, had the artist lived, and something that is simply painted red, without the intention of having anything else added to it.

One does not need to teach the entirety of Danto’s example to introduce this to students as a thought experiment, as attitudes to art will reveal themselves simply by positing the questions that naturally arise.

If a student rejects the idea of any of these paintings as art, there is likely to be a wider rejection of non-representational art altogether. One might try and think of other examples to test these assumptions out, such as when cinema breaks with realist conventions.

Other questions might include:

Do we value some of these as art works more than any of the others?

Does the biblical story, or the conceptual representation, or the political message, give it a deeper resonance than the introspection of ‘Kierkegaard’s Mood’, or the technical dimension of the minimalist or the still life? Or vice versa? If we’re valuing some of these versions over the others, is there an imperative that we believe art must convey some kind of ‘message’?

Is there something different about the last two canvasses than the first six? Can these still be appreciated as art? If a student says no, there is a decent chance that they will be arguing that there is, at some level, the need for some kind of ‘intent’ on the part of an artist for something to be art.

This thought experiment brings home that we make a lot of assumptions about what makes something art, and the identical nature of these paintings forces us to acknowledge that there is something non-physical about what we consider to be ‘art’. It’s only by rejecting all of the above as art – and implicitly by rejecting many judgements of the art world – that you can avoid that conclusion.

Whether that extra element is something intended by the artist, something that the audience brings to it, or a historical fact or interest that makes something unique, is for us all to decide since aestheticians can come to no clear conclusion on their own.

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