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.
By A. C. Grayling. Comment, Issue 194, September 2008
Published online: 11 September 2008
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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