23 December 2009

Losing Definition

[ Greg in the southeast US asks: ]

Overall, how do you think you can define “high art” (if it’s even possible in the first place)?

[ Alan in the UK replies: ]

Over years I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that it’s not possible. There’s just too much blurring of the edges to be able to formulate a precise definition - and since philosophy hasn’t succeeded in producing an entirely satisfactory description even of what ‘art’ is, the notion of ‘high art’ gets dragged along into the general muddiness of that. Which all sounds rather unhopeful - and yet, curiously enough we find the term useful, and often we seem to understand each other when we use it. I'm reminded of the concept of ‘Reynolds number’ in physics. It’s a value you can calculate related to the flow of a fluid - a low value implies that the flow will be smooth, while a high value implies turbulence. It’s ever so rough and ready, and the boundary is terribly blurry, but even so it’s proved to be a useful way of talking about fluid flow.

The most useful (I don’t say ‘precise’ or ‘complete’) description of artistic activity I’ve encountered so far comes from Susanne Langer’s book Feeling and Form. She suggests that artistic activity involves the creation of ‘symbols of feeling’ - so the idea is that the artist makes these symbols (in paint, or music, or whatever), which we can then contemplate and, at least potentially, experience a similar feeling ourselves. If for the moment we take this as a starting point for a definition of art, then I suppose ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’ would involve the creation of an object whose primary purpose was entirely devoted to this process - that is, the communication of feeling, through symbols, to the viewer or listener. This distinquishes it broadly from craft-objects such as chairs and teapots, whose primary purpose (however beautifully they’re designed) is to assist in the process of sitting and tea-drinking.

And that all sounds well and good, until we start thinking about the blurry overlap areas - like the painting whose sole purpose is to decorate a room tastefully, to match the furniture; or a Morris chair which is best enjoyed as a piece of abstract sculpture because it’s so uncomfortable to sit on.

So I think we search for a rigid definition in vain, because the concept will always keep ducking out from under our grasp and spreading into awkward places. But we’ll still keep talking about it because it seems to be broadly useful despite its soap-in-the-bath ungraspability.

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