But is it art? (Part 3)

Continued from But is it art? (Part 2)

Freeland, But is it artArt and Money

With the evaluation of art comes an implied hierarchy. We not only see it in the buying and selling of art but in museums as well. This draws up the question, What makes “good art?” What accounts for the differences in value?

Freeland does not try to answer the question, What is “good art?” She focuses instead on the history of the relationship between money and museums and how it has had an impact on the relationship between art and the public. From the beginning, museums have aspired to educate the public about what is good art; on the other hand, they require funding and find themselves in the arena of money and politics as well.

Today, large corporations may fund an exhibit in an attempt to redeem themselves in the public eye. Foreign corporations may fund an exhibit for the sake of international relations and/or commerce. The very experience of going to a museum is evolving as they find themselves competing with other cultural experiences. And then there are the sale of individual works for extraordinary amounts at auction houses, etc.

Artists have responded by treating the issue of money in their work or bypassing the market altogether by creating installations or otherwise time-sensitive work that can not be easily packaged and sold as objects.

Freeland offers a surprising statistic, that no more than 22% of the population in Europe and North America go to museums and those who do go tend to be educated and have higher than average incomes. (93) Museums and this demographic seem to go hand in hand, but is it a matter of taste or of culture?

Let’s go back to Kant and Hume. They both believed some art was better than others, but “good taste” seemed subjective. In order to address this problem. Kant focused on form and the idea of Beauty, while Hume focused on education and experience. Hume  believed that taste can be developed, and that those who are educated will eventually agree on a consensus, from which we can develop standards for evaluating all art.

Critics today now wonder if one’s education can create bias in determining which works of art are of high standard. In response to this, museums now include art from a wider variety of cultures. But what about low-brow art, which you do not see in a museum? What about other indicators of value, like popular demand? Is monetary value a good indicator of overall value, in high or low art?

I remember I went through a phase where I wanted to collect cobalt blue vases. I didn’t have the money, but I loved making lists. When I searched for them, I discovered Google was ready to offer a myriad of images posted on a variety of websites and social media outlets. Apparently, it’s a thing. Just as collecting jade sculptures is a thing or designer toys and/or stationary or lacquered boxes. The material mattered but it didn’t matter as much as I thought it would. It’s the scarcity vis-a-vis the demand. It’s Economics 101.

I am tempted to dismiss this — monetary value/demand as an indicator of overall value — by attributing it to psychological considerations, like how I would pay more money for designer stationary which I recognize from my childhood than for stationary which is new; or how some people are so drawn to the color, cobalt blue, that they would pay more money for something in that color than in any other color.

And then what about an antique whose value is based almost solely on provenance. For example, when people collect vintage movie posters, do they value the posters as works of art or as artifacts which evoke a feeling of nostalgia, which one can only appreciate in light of the full context from which they were created? I  want to say that the posters were never intended to be fine art and those collecting them are not even calling them fine art but see them as something that can bring one back to an earlier time, which requires one not to keep one’s distance but to get swept up in an idea that resides outside the work itself.

But there I go again. I want to keep my distance, as I find myself towing some line between the art of the object and the art of living. It makes me wonder if all art can be attributed to one’s psychology, or if it is something more, something that resides outside of oneself.

Back to Art and Politics

The question of what is “good art” is a complicated one. With modern technology we have access to images of “art” from all over the world, and new ideas and discussions make us use the word, “art,” differently. But this isn’t just semantics and the idea of art is not just being challenged on a linguistic level.

The issue of when “art” is applicable is being played out in the political arena, where art from minority groups, as well as the avant garde, are fighting to be included and taken as seriously as traditionally accepted art; and in the face of monetary pressures.

In the past, we have turned to philosophy, but how do you philosophize about something which has a meaning that can evolve? Is it all history and culture and politics — products of one’s circumstances? How can we judge something fairly when we are prone to bias? Is there a true hierarchy or are all traditional standards products of some form of politics?

Freeland focuses on the politics…and culture and history. She is looking at art as a critic, and although the phrase, “good art” is in the book, she seems to deliberately stay away from the question. The goal of her approach is to interpret and not to evaluate, per se; and she describes “interpretations” as “explanations of how a work functions to communicate thoughts, emotions, and ideas. A good interpretation must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and should provide a rich, complex, and illuminating way to comprehend a work of art.” (150)

Throughout the book, she is illustrating how diverse art has been, so the very definition of “art” becomes a challenge. In her conclusion, she passes along two definitions of what art can be from Richard Anderson, who said art is, “culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium” (206); and from Robert Irwin, who described art as “a continuous expansion of our awareness of the world around us.” (207) The first is an anthropologist and the second an environmental artist.

Freeland seems to be making observations, as opposed to arguing a particular point, and her approach to art seems to be in line with what looks like a shift in focus (in the art world in general) from value (seen in standards and heirarchies) to meaning (which can be found in the works itself in light of the context it was created in).

I find myself asking, Where does the philosophy begin? When do we get out of the realm of observing people and into evaluating an aesthetic? When can we see something not as an artifact but as a work of art? I think it begins somewhere after claiming it as art and before one’s interpretation of a given work of art. It is half anthropology and half philosophy. On the one hand, we must choose to broaden our scope of what art can be by observing why/how people have classified certain things/activities as art; on the other hand, the value (or meaning) of a piece is not entirely arbitrary, as we pay heed to standards based on how one might interpret an artists’ intentions and precedence (if any) in judging specific aspects; such as form and materials.

When looking at work from other cultures, Freeland uses the word, “significance,” which I see as meaning that has value and thus, is appreciated in a hierarchy of value, because value is relative. This leads me to consider the artist’s perspective and the notion of doing something “well,” which requires one to believe that one’s work can be better than another; when looking at one’s own work as well as others for inspiration and experience. It is also necessary when receiving feedback from others, in the form of peer review, workshops  mentorship and even those deciding to display (or not) your work in a gallery.

I have not taken a workshop before in the visual arts, but I have in creative writing. I don’t know how different or similar the experiences can be, but I imagine they have something in common; and that is to judge a given work “on its own terms,” although, given its own terms, the question remains, whether or not a given work is succeeding. Also, if it is trying to do what others have successfully done before, its success will be compared to the success of those earlier works.

If it’s intended to comment on something, then it’ll be judged on how compelling/persuasive it is and/or how much it makes us think, regardless of whether or not we agree. Its formal features can help a given work be more compelling.

Maybe, in a visual arts workshop, no given work of art is evaluated but interpreted; in which case, it is up to the artist alone to decide how well one is succeeding in one’s own work.


For such a small book, the author gave me a lot to think about. She looks at “art” from a very wide angle, as she moves through a long and complicated history of the idea and our relationship to it, across eras and cultures. She also discusses issues which continue to challenge us today and which blur the definition of “art” even further.

For a more in-depth look at these issues, she offers a list of works for further reading for each chapter.

N.B. I glossed over whole sections, as I sought answers to my own questions, and because, at times, my response was limited to paraphrasing what she already says in her book. I offer summaries of her explanations for Kant and Hume and the public’s relationship to museums in order to give some context to my responses to them. I was also not always responding to the book but to the art world in general.