All signs lead to Picasso.

Will I ever tire of Picasso? NEVER.

Krauss, The Picasso PapersI’ve started reading The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. It was published in 1999, so I’m a little behind… but no worries. Picasso is often seen as the father of modern art, so an in-depth consideration of his work is an easy bridge to thinking about modern art in general.

N.B. The book resides somewhere between the academic world and the world everyone else lives in. 

Let me first unpack a few things: some context, primarily the aims of modern art and how they have led to the issues Krauss explores.

1) She says in passing that Modernist art aims to have “self-sustaining purity.” (p. 7) By “purity,” she means that we can appreciate the work by looking at the work itself.

But what is the value of “purity?” Context is convoluted. Art which expresses only the essential is refined the way sugar is refined — it’s more potent in its efficiency. Or this is what I can surmise from my own experiences with modern art.

“… if nature always ends, as they say, by resembling art, we need to stress that it resembles it badly.” (p. 4) Krauss quoting the critic, Jean Paulhan. 

One selects only what is essential — from a world of choices — to express a given idea. That is part of how it qualifies as art.

2) An attribute of Modernism is its reductionist logic. “… an artist’s duty is to find the essence of the medium in which he is working.” (p. 8)

Just as the representation of a cow can be reduced to a few select marks on a page, so too can the very logic to one’s approach and/or philosophy for appreciating art in general.

To understand what Krauss means by “essence of the medium,” you might ask yourself, What can language do? What can the novel do (which nothing else can do or which no other medium can do as well)?

With the advent of photography, what can painting do which a camera cannot do for us?

Modern artists have answered this by developing abstract art.

Issues Krauss explores:

Aesthetic modernism severs “the connection between a representation and its referent in reality, so that signs circulate through a field of abstract relationships.” (p. 6)

Using her understanding of Andre Gide’s novel, The Counterfeiters, to show the problem in practice, she observes that “the fraudulent is thus a corollary of the ’empty sign’… a ‘token language,’ signs circulating without a ‘convertible’ base in nature.” (pp. 10-11) She goes on to say that “meaning itself becomes a function of the system rather than of the world.” (p. 18)

What does this mean?

  1. Signs used in a modern work of art might have no meaning in themselves, and thus, the work as a whole has no meaning.
  2. It becomes difficult to tell if a Modern work of art has genuine aesthetic value.

Let me pause here to back track a little.

Krauss uses a term, which gave me pause,and that is “nonreferential sign” (p. 6), as in a sign which has no “convertible base” (p. 11); IE, it doesn’t refer to anything in the natural world.

1) Can a sign be truly “nonreferential?”

No. Even if you don’t see it right away, or you only see it for a moment, the connection between what one sees and what one responds to is necessary for the “sign” to be effective. Let’s take the art of Jackson Pollock for example. I see vitality, and this “vitality” has an effect on me. Vitality may be an abstract idea and the effect may be ephemeral, but I must think “vitality” before I make sense of what I see.

Or Yes. You don’t have to make sense of what you see for the work to have an effect on you. In fact, that is what Jackson Pollock wanted to make possible with his work.

Or No…? Can you respond to something without first acknowledging it in some way, and if one acknowledges it, isn’t this a way of seeing it as a recognizable object or a “sign?”

2) I believe great or “fine” art has a social element. It is a product of one’s living, and it is meaningful to other people. How can a work of art be meaningful to other people? It can comment on our humanity in some way, and/or it can have good form.

Now, if the elements do not refer back to anything in the natural world, can it comment on our humanity? If not, can good form be enough to qualify it as great or “fine” art?

To be continued…

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.

But is it art? (Part 2)

Freeland, But is it art

The following is a long and meandering book response to But is it art? (2002) by Cynthia Freeland. 256 pages. I’ve read this book once. 

The title is a rhetorical question. It is a challenge, and Freeland answers the challenge by illustrating how the very definition of “art” varies between eras and cultures, and thus, shows us why and how our modern day art world embraces a pluralistic approach to appreciating art.

This is in the first two chapters, which gave me pause. My primary goal is to have a healthy relationship with art, and upon a healthy does of self-reflection, I have to admit that maybe I was looking for Beauty and not “good art,” per se. It is not a reflection of some change in taste, but a shift in perspective. I like what I like, while the meaning of “good art” takes a little more consideration.

In the first two chapters, there is an unstated problem, and that is how art philosophy is not traced back to pure logic but to actual art. She quotes the philosopher, Arthur Danto, as saying, “In a way, the philosophy of art has really only been art criticism,” (57) while she is observing how Danto has been weary of giving art too narrow of a definition, but she leaves the question, “Is art philosophy only art criticism?” unanswered.

This leads me back to one of the concerns I mentioned in my last post, and that is how the study of art seems to be in the purview of anthropologists as well as philosophers. Where does the philosophy begin? [When it comes to philosophy, I like to remind myself that all logic must begin somewhere. These beginnings may not be as clear as science, which begins with observations of a subject in a controlled environment, but the beginnings to any philosophy is accessible to us, or it should be. I see anthropology as somewhere in between.]

The book is asking us to not consider a given work in a vacuum but in a larger cultural/historical context. The appreciation of a piece begins with the title of this book, along with, How is it art? Why am I standing here looking at this thing? What is the value of this experience? Sometimes it is easy to answer these questions, but often it is not; and when it is not, you might call it “difficult art.”


As I journey with Freeland through the history of art, I find myself open to approaching my earlier questions differently. As I said, I am asked to make a shift in perspective.

As I travel — at lightning speed — it seems the definition of art has changed according to how it has been used; IE, what role it has played in a given community at large. It has been used to further ideas in religion (EG, paintings depicting scenes from the Bible in churches and cathedrals throughout Europe). It has been used in rituals, as a way to appreciate and engage in ideas a community of people already agree on (EG, getting closer to one’s god in seeing or partaking in dance and/or other  performative acts). It has been used to further ideas in politics (EG, the grandiosity of Versailles, to demonstrate what King Louis XIV owns and is capable of). It has been used to imitate, celebrate and lament specific aspects of life, from the tragic, to the beautiful and even the shocking and/or horrific.

Freeland begins with Kant and Hume, who she calls the fathers of aesthetics, who emphasized the formal aspects of a given work, along with the idea that one should keep a certain distance from any given art, or a level of “disinterestedness,” in order to appreciate its beauty. This holds until we get to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which the author calls “philosophical art.”

As I said earlier, the idea of art seems to be based on what we have called art. It is not arbitrary but it is also not some idea that resides somewhere in the clouds, like Plato’s perfect ideas or even Kant’s Critique of Judgment. It is based on actual work.

Warhol made exact replicas of the Brillo boxes he might’ve seen in a supermarket. Immediately, we must ask, What qualifies his Brillo Boxes as art? Does their being in a gallery make them art? The philosopher, George Dickie, said yes. Freeland’s quote uses more words, but basically that’s about it. It seems arbitrary.

Well, Arthur Danto, another philosopher, says it’s more than that. When an artist exhibits something as art, he/she does so in a given theoretical context. It is art because it prompts an audience to consider ideas it is ready to consider and not just because it’s in a gallery. It is philosophical.

My own response: Brillo Boxes is a great demonstration of Warhol’s sense of humor. It is fighting for its own interests in the form of Brillo boxes. It may seem light-hearted and self-serving; but it also works in the service of a much larger campaign and that is for freedom of expression. A work which is well-received and displayed in a public setting is made accessible and has a chance of being found and considered as art.

When Brillo Boxes was displayed at the Stabler gallery, art philosophers such as George Dickie and Arthur Danto were asked to think about the idea of art in a new way.

I catch myself wondering about Kant’s idea of disinterestedness or keeping one’s distance. Kant was weary of allowing one’s political or religious or otherwise personal biases to taint one’s aesthetic response to a given work of art, because it would interfere with one’s “free play of the imagination.” How do you know if it’s beautiful or if you just think what it expresses is beautiful?

These are fair questions. However, modern art often not only rests in the meaning of a work, the work is commenting or trying to persuade/influence its audience in some way. When we are asked to engage with the meaning of a work, how are we to keep our distance? Brillo Boxes is the artistic equivalent of a wry smile. However, what about art that is intended to shock and/or horrify? When you don’t respond in such a way, the work has not successfully expressed its full meaning.

Art and Politics

Here is another shift in perspective. If Art is from Life, and apart of life is political, then a part of Art is political.¹

Why the fuss then? It’s because politics + art (often) = propaganda. We can get into the history of propaganda, but it would be a hug digression. However, if you google art as propaganda, you will get a lot of leads into the question of whether or not propaganda can or has been seen as art.

On the flip side, what if we begin with Art and add politics? Is is just one person expressing one’s opinion? Well, IMHO, when you want to influence others with your art, you are wanting your art to have a political dimension, because influence is a form of power. When your art does influence others, it does have a political dimension.

The obvious danger of propaganda: With pressure from large institutions, which have the power to influence in multiple ways, people may stop asking if a work is truthful and only ask if it works in favor of whatever the institution wants. The problem, when it comes to art, is not that art can be a means to another end. The problem is that once you stop asking Art² to do what it can do — speak for itself — you get into territory that can be arbitrary or, worse, false and disharmonious to how one actually feels and/or thinks.

The perceived danger of art is that we may forget to keep our distance and get swept up in a work’s influence without thinking about how it’s having an influence on us, false or no.

The reality is a little more complicated. This perceived danger is addressed by the art community when it draws some sort of consensus on a given work of art. It is why we have discussions about art, because the value of a given work is given only when it has meaning and has been given an interpretation.

Art is a social phenomenon, which requires that we engage with it because the greatest thing that can undermine Art is silence. It is up to us to call it “good art” or “bad art.” It is up to us to argue for or against it or dismiss it altogether.

Art and Money

With the evaluation of art comes an implied hierarchy of art. We not only see it in their being bought and sold for relative amounts, which vary widely, but in museums as well. This draws up the question, What makes “good art?” What accounts for the difference in values?

To be continued… 


1 Politics is defined as the management of power. Power can take on many forms: physical, intellectual, authoritative (having authority); even social, as any social dynamic between two living beings can have a political dimension.

Think of a parent-child relationship or one friend going to another friend for advice more than vice versa. Politics is in our everyday lives. All art, therefore has a political dimension.

2 By Art, in this instance, I mean the art of conveying an idea. If it’s a powerful idea, it should be reflected in one’s art. If it is a weak idea, art which revolves on such an idea will be that much more weak.

But is it art? (Part 1)

The following is from my post, “What’s the big idea?

You may think these ideas are unimportant when it comes to actually producing works of art, but I think having an idea of what one believes is beautiful is at the heart of one’s approach to one’s own work. I know, this view is very out-dated. The art world has a scope that deals with… well, everything, and artwork is not required to be beautiful. Visual art, as is the case with all creative mediums, works on its own terms.

What is most important to me is that my experiences with art matter to me on a personal level. There is so much going on out there and I don’t want to miss anything that could totally blow my mind. On the other hand, there is so much going on out there that it’s often a hit or miss. Easing myself into the art world has thus been a slow process.

Freeland, But is it art

I begin the new year by continuing to slowly ease myself into the art world, as I simultaneously work through a much neglected personal library with a small (7″ x 5″) book, called But is it art? (2002), by Cynthia Freeland.

Note: I would like to think of these posts not as book reviews but responses to what I read. It’s quite lengthy, so I’ve broken down my response and I begin with a set of questions. 

1) The author is a professor of philosophy, which I found interesting. When I think of modern art, I think of it as a philosophical field, where one may apply certain ideas and let them play out and be seen or considered on an aesthetic and/or intellectual level. The product does not have to be beautiful; it simply has to make you think, and to me, that sounds like philosophy, only with a lot of bells and whistles and shiny bits.

2) In her introduction, Freeland notes how the definition of art has changed and is different even among the various cultures of the world today. If the definition of art has never been the same, it seems that to look at art as a single idea, one needs the lens of an anthropologist, more than an artist or even a philosopher… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

3) What about “meaning” in art? If a work of Literature (with a capital “L”) has only “pretty language,” it’s not enough. Can we say the same for a work in the visual arts? On the other hand, if beauty is enough, what makes one work of beauty a work of “fine” art and another work not “fine” art?

4) There’s a lot one doesn’t like, which we call art, officially. What do curators look for? I’m sure it’s different for every gallery, but I’m assuming there are some general ideas which most art enthusiasts believe applicable to modern art even if that may change or is not necessarily true everywhere… ??

5) If a draughtsman tried to sell a work of art similar to something drawn during the Italian Renaissance, would it be worth as much? Can a work of art really be more valuable for its provenance? If so, can we really credit the increase in value to its fineness as a work of art or is the increase in value only a product of market influences, where profiting from the game of making investments is just as important as actually engaging with the work off art?

6) Should we be looking at value or appeal? How can we determine if it is valuable, let alone quantify its value?

I think Freeland gets into all of this in her book, but I am only going by the contents. It’s also a small book, so it’s really a small introduction to some very big issues in the art world today.

Please stay tuned for more or follow along by reading and commenting on this book as well.