Unpleasant, amoral, purposeless—but it can still be art

We do art and ourselves a disservice if we think that art can only be art if it is nice.

Art might be our language’s most controversially difficult word to define, but one thing that has never been a necessary part of its definition, whatever else is understood by it, is that something can count as art only if it is nice, soothing, pleasant, unshocking, good mannered and safe. A crucified frog, a horribly jerking body in an electric chair, a waxwork of Hitler, goldfish swimming in a blender about to be turned on, are all in various ways and to various extents disagreeable, some of them more so to some people than to others, but this fact alone does not prevent them from being art if they are art. For that decision, other criteria have to apply.

In the same way, it is not a necessary qualification for something to count as a work of art, if indeed it is a work of art, that it should be “moral” in some way. Imagine a painter of the Renaissance presenting to a church a portrait of the Madonna that it has commissioned from him—a portrait of exquisite beauty and technical mastery portraying the Madonna nude at the moment of conception, perhaps after the fashion of Danaë receiving in her lap the shower of gold. Such a work would have been considered then, and still by many today, as immoral, blasphemous and offensive; and yet it might otherwise satisfy every traditional criteria of artistic excellence.

Yet again, something might achieve the status of art despite the fact that its maker was motivated by a desire to shock, or to draw attention to himself, or to upset people, or to make a brutal statement about something—such as capital punishment, say—which he felt the public does not sufficiently understand in all its implications. In fact, the role of art in educating both the emotions and the understanding of its public is a very ancient and respectable one: the lurid murals and altar-pieces of medieval Europe, graphically depicting the suffering and death of Christ, the emotional agonies of his mother and disciples, the monsters and devils of hell and the punishments they inflict, are a prime example of what might be called “shock art” designed to drive home a point or evoke powerful emotions, not all (or even many) of them pleasant. Munich’s Alte Pinakothek has huge images of this kind far more upsetting to anyone susceptible than a model of a frog on a crucifix, holding a mug of beer.

And yet again, it is not a necessary condition for art-hood that a work should be “in good taste”. No one could accuse Marco Evaristti of good taste; most people would think, with considerable justice, that not only does the contrary apply, but so too do accusations of puerility and gracelessness in his striving to effect, with each new project, something yet more disgusting or offensive than the last, at least partly for purposes of self-promotion. Well, grant all this; but then grant that even so he might be making art—or might one day do so, given that nothing in the abhorrence of the work, or the self-promotion or puerility involved in its making, can stop it from being art if it is art.

Familiarly enough, what one phase of history refuses to value as art might be highly valued at another time. Impressionist painting is the obvious case in point. None of the aesthetically offended viewers in Paris salons twelve decades ago could have imagined the daubs they disprized as commanding millions of admirers at exhibitions, and millions of dollars at auctions. In a century’s time art-lovers might expect innovative things to be done with cadavers, and might even pay high prices to have bits of them framed on their walls. Watching goldfish being liquidised is in most ways no different from watching cocks fighting or bears being baited; it is somewhat less cruel, though cruel it is, than lobster cooking.

What all this adds up to is this: you might not like it, but it might still be art. Of course, it might not be art at all. A great deal of what is offered as art today, in the way of performance, installation, video or conceptual art, fully merits the telling description not so long ago given it of “craftless tat”. Having offensive material rubbed into one’s face in the supposed name of art does not, by that fact alone, or even because its maker went to art college, make it art. Emphatically there have to be other and far better reasons for that accolade to be awarded. But we do art and ourselves a disservice if we think that art can only be art if it is nice.

The writer is reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London

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Comments

14 Jul 11
14:7 CET

JAN JORDAAN, DURBAN

Works of art may convey a different meaning in different contexts, however, what are important are the ethical values embedded in the arts that remain the same. We live in a society, not, where excellence, freedom of expression, respect for individual rights, pride and dignity, reflection and cultural heritage are all ethical values subjected to political expediency and often confused with being elitist. The same political expediency expressed towards Human Rights, not incidental when realising that these values are embedded in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

LOZANGE, TORONTO

This article reads like an apology for bad art.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

ROB, AUGUSTA

The word art has become completely meaningless. From antiquity to the end of the 19th century there was some consensus on what art was. Critics attempted to differentiate between "good art" and "bad art", but everyone, from class to class, seemed fairly confident that they knew what art was. Later, it seems to me, the critic became the artist. Armed with his typewriter (now laptop) and thesaurus, he explained to the masses what was good, why it was good, what the malleable artist intended (the no-longer-starving artist happy to have his own work explained to him), and why we should regard him (the artist, not the critic) as a genius for painting stick-figures or blobs in such an expressive and transcendent way. And, of course, the wealthy patrons listened to the critic, who provided them with a surrogate taste in art. After all, buying what you're told is good is a lot simpler than having to figure it out for yourself. And "good art", of course, meant art that you could invest in (or, on a more base level, made you popular at cocktail parties). So if it's not a good investment, then it's not good art, no matter how tasteless, unpleasant, amoral, purposeless, or just plain poorly done. But the second it loses value at auction, it is transformed into "bad art". Until, of course, it comes back into vogue and its prices go back up, making it "good art" again. The best way to understand art today is to say the word "art" over and over and over again and when it finally sounds really absurd, then you'll get it.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

PHIL TAYLOR, ACTON ONTARIO

Once again AC Grayling is off on some incomprehensible tangent about 'art'. This man is one of the most muddled regularly published writers on the subject today. In any event I would like to gently suggest to Mr Grayling that in 2008, any meaningful and agreed apon definition of art that may once have existed, has been totally obliterated by now in the wake of the modern and most modern onslaught. For him to tell us what art is or is not today, is the height of folly. We are in a time when anything anyone calls is art, is art. Hence the word has no real meaning anymore. We need to use or make up new words if we want to have a sensible discussion about what is art. I am an 'art' collector in the fairly traditional sense that most of us understand, but notice how I have to qualify the word 'art' with 'fairly traditional sense' for you to have any idea what I am talking about. The word 'art' simply does not stand on its own anymore without major life support and intervention. I still use the word 'art' because I have not come up with a better word to replace it with. Perhaps there is none to be found. We probably need to use descriptive sentences from now on. This idea has obviously not yet dawned on Grayling who continues to beat the dead horse long after it has left the barn. Note to Grayling: That was a mixed metaphor.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

KOUIN, READING BERKSHIRE

The artist shocking for self-publicity might practice responding to inferiors.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

DAN ROGAN, SARATOGA

Your urge to publish an obscene thought isn't journalism and a pile of paint and paper isn't art, regardless if one is published and the other is dragged into a public gallery. Only a subhuman mentality can fail to react appropriately to offense, and you are the proof of that.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

PAUL , HOUSATONIC MA

Give me a break. If you're gonna try to be "edgy" in the "art world" at least be a little original, for crying out loud. Fish in a blender has been done, and done better, and done more tastelessly. Can you say Bassomatic?

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