Art and Purpose

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Art and Purpose

From Iian Neill

Published before 2005


I appreciate the respect that you give to the 'good' in art criticism, particularly as the separation of the aesthetic response from the intellectual, emotive, or moral brought about by the 'art for art's sake' movement in the 19th century has made it difficult since for aestheticians to reclaim 'the good' in a serious discussion about art. Of course, people never stopped looking for it, or evaluating works of art by this criterion, but philosophically no one seemed able to touch it without inviting the accusation that they had subsumed art to morals. Look at all the distorted views of Ruskin's aesthetics that have emerged since Whistler's lawsuit. You would think, according to the 'art for art's sake' doctrine, that it was a strict choice between either 'the good' or 'the beautiful'. I think the issue is often argued more sensibly when it comes to arts like literature and cinema which are primarily narrative-based; where decorative values purely for their own sake are felt to be a tiresome excrescence, rhetorical gesture going round in circles.

I have a couple of further questions about points that I wasn't clear about.

Firstly, what do you mean by saying that art is "the half of the experience that progresses from the conceptual construct into the environment"? In the broadest sense this seems to include any kind of deliberate alteration of the world - although it doesn't imply what this action is for, what the intended effect of it is, simply that it moves from one state (conceptual construct, idea) into another (action, the world). Being part of a feedback loop it also of course suggests that the products of art may become the material of science further down the road. I am concerned that this is a pretty broad definition of both art and science - it doesn't seem to distinguish between kinds of actions, many of which are surely not artistic, or types of knowing, many of which are not scientific. Wouldn't you agree that there are many ways to form a conceptual construct of the world - such as through language, philosophy, map-making, propaganda - none of which strictly require scientific method or are intended to be judged by the standards of scientific method? Is the conclusion here that not only is everything art (that acts on the world) but everything science (that interprets the world)?

Secondly, while 'the good' may be a desirable goal for certain kinds of art-work - public art, didactic art, genre art, etc. - surely there are forms of art that may be evaluated without bringing ethics into them at a high level? I agree with Ruskin that any well-crafted object displays some ethical component even if it simply the virtue of having been carved, painted, or manufactured well, with the concomitant consideration of the labour, patience, and discipline that was expended by the worker - which, insofar as they involve Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance might be said to be moral qualities. But the point is that you can't really divorce the ends from any total consideration of the virtue of the object. To call a biological weapon or a nuclear bomb obscene or inhumane isn't really to condemn the object itself so much as the intention which guided its design (its purpose). Likewise, there doesn't seem to be any contradiction is saying that a work of art is well made but according to evil ideas - so long as we are clear about what ideas really drove the work, whether they really are evil, and the admixture of the artist's conscious purpose with their unconscious values.

Surely there are art-works or art-forms that do not involve ethical considerations because they did not involve these considerations in their construction. It might be possible, after a long period of cautious analysis and reflection, to say that a symphony conveyed some undesirable attitude toward life; but for the most part it will simply be good or bad music. Beauty cannot be bottled up into just harmony, melody, rhythm, or counterpoint; and it is doubtful in any case that a piece of music could be constructed along the lines of conveying some precise philosophical idea, or that it is seriously expected to have a direct ethical effect on its auditors. I think Harold Speed was closer in thinking that the educative effect of most art was to raise man's consciousness by raising the quality and breadth of his experience; and that this might, in time, by unconscious byways untouched by ethical maxims, lead a man to become a better person, because a more complete person, a more imaginative person, a more sensitively discriminating person, and therefore a person more likely to exercise just judgement.

Thirdly, there is the proposition that "visual philosophy" is expression and that it is art. But surely visual philosophy - I guess you're thinking of conceptual art - is simply a philosophical proposition expressed via signs that are interpreted visually. The range of expression possible to a work of "visual philosophy" seems to me very narrow compared to the rich and complex channels of art. The difference between a verbal proposition and a visual one is that the words have simply been substituted with objects that convey the same meaning. In traditional art this might be comparable to the device of allegory - but even here, a much richer set of meanings are usually involved and not simply a more or less straight substitution, which most "conceptual art" seems to offer. In fact, this kind of expression, being effectively propositional, has a lot more in common with a scientific statement (though a mundane one) than an artistic expression.

Jeffery, if I have misinterpreted or misrepresented anything, feel free to set me right.