Before modern art, critics understood that the best art is the most beautiful. This traditional idea of art has given way to a relativistic definition that grounds artwork’s value in the claim of the artist and the reception of the audience.
“The first thing that makes it art is that I say that it is…” asserts modern artist Tracey Emin, referring to the rumpled, trash-strewn bed she exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999. She would argue that there is no objective distinction between her work and Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix’s 19th century oil painting of disheveled bed covers. Both required an idea, creative energy, and physical expression, after all.
This philosophy of art arguably began with Marcel Duchamp, who signed a pseudonym on a urinal and submitted it to an art exhibition in 1917. Although the exhibition’s committee rejected it at the time, art experts have since rated Fountain as “the most influential work of modern art,” more influential than works by Picasso and Matisse. The urinal gained this distinction because Duchamp used it to redefine art as a completely subjective category, the boundaries of which expand and warp whenever an artist produces a new idea.
This relativistic definition ultimately trivializes art, by eroding the concept of beauty. When Tracey Emin said of her bed, “I think it’s beautiful,” the interviewer laughed uncertainly. So did Emin. Perhaps both of them felt that Emin had made a meaningless statement, with which it was impossible to agree or disagree. More importantly, it was unclear whether beauty had any relevance to the discussion.
If Emin’s goal was to gain acceptance for a messy bed as a piece of art, what did it matter if her work was beautiful or not? Michael Craig-Martin, who placed a glass of water on a shelf and titled it “Oak Tree,” stated the case simply: “It’s not meant to be beautiful” but to “captivate the imagination.” Art need not aim at beauty so long as it fascinates viewers.
This restatement of art’s purpose ties art’s value to the public’s interest. Art no longer has any meaning intrinsic to itself. A new, shocking attempt at art will gain fame and perhaps infamy, but, once the public no longer responds to the work, it has lost its reason for existing. Instead of freeing artists, a subjective definition of art chains their work to popularity contests.
Art and Scholasticism by Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain provides an alternative to the vague and arbitrary philosophy of modern artists. Drawing from classical and Scholastic thought, Maritain defines art as “making…ruled by the intellect.”
This definition grounds art in both practical activity (“making”) and human rationale (“intellect”). It describes a pursuit common to all of mankind: productive activity, directed by reasoning, with an articulable goal. Although other definitions of art typically include such characteristics as creativity, skill, and originality, these qualities have proved difficult to define. They often fail to apply as a universal standard to every imaginable type of art.
“Making ruled by intellect” provides a clear but inclusive standard for distinguishing art from scientific inquiry, virtuous deeds, or random acts of nature. This definition distinguishes classical art, but it also serves to describe new media including digital photography and computer graphics.
By clarifying and ultimately expanding the field of art, Maritain’s definition helps to resolve two major controversies of modern art criticism.
First, by defining art as necessarily intellectual, Maritain rejects the idea that only physical objects can be art, or that art requires manual skills. Dexterity “simply removes a physical impediment to the exercise of the art.” Even logic is art because it involves “the making of a work–this time a work wholly with the mind…” Maritain implies that works without physical presence or manual skill, such as digital photography and computer graphics, are no less art.
Second, Maritain’s definition answers modern art criticism by expanding the category of art to encompass far more than what even Duchamp might have imagined. Not only urinals and rumpled beds may join the ranks of oil paintings and marble busts, but also painted fences and logical syllogisms. All of these works are “artifice,” something constructed or arranged with human reason. Thus the category of art gains clarity but loses prestige.
Some art deserves prestige, however: The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel demands some distinction from a wallpapered waiting room. Maritain acknowledges such esteemed works as “liberal arts” or “fine arts”: making with no other use or purpose beyond itself.
Duchamp, Emin, and Craig-Martin insisted that any art deserves the dignity of fine art if it claims that distinction for itself. Maritain argues, on the contrary, that fine art must be ordered towards beauty. Only a work purposed and formed for beauty can be “enjoy[ed]… as an end, being a true fruit.”
Museum collections typically comprise fine art, with the exception of exhibitions intended primarily for educational instruction or historical interest. A collection of telephone models through the ages, for example, features servile art: works made with intelligence for the purpose of serving some useful end. The essence of this exhibition differs from art displayed merely for the delight of viewing it.
If the moral message overtakes beauty as the artwork’s primary purpose, the work becomes servile rather than fine art. It exists to perform a useful function, rather than for its own sake.
For example, artist and reformer Jacob Riis pioneered using photography for moral instruction in How the Other Half Lives, a photobook published in 1890 to document the poor living conditions of New York City immigrants. Candid photographs exposed poverty-stricken families and crime-ridden neighborhoods to concerned citizens as words and illustrations could not.
The images changed people’s ideas about what was good and what needed improvement in America. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s “Resettlement Administration” adopted the muckraker’s tactics by employing photographers to garner support for New Deal policies.
Arthur Rothstein, another example, photographed a steer skull on parched and broken ground to publicize the hardship of drought conditions in South Dakota, with the intent that viewers would advocate government assistance for the people living there.
These photographers created moving, historic, moral works, and they nonetheless created servile art. The artists themselves could hardly object to this claim, as they did not expect the viewers to respond foremost by delighting in the artwork. Instead, they hoped viewers would respond by acting to correct the unhappiness pictured.
Ultimately, beauty depends on both the appearance and the content of artwork. For art to be beautiful, its subject matter must be good. This is akin to saying that, for a joke to be funny, its message must be good.
Someone may laugh at a poorly conceived joke, of course, but then he has revealed something “degenerate…stunted and grotesque” in his character, as Mao Zedong demonstrated when he laughed at a tightrope walker’s fatal error. Likewise, admiring evil as beautiful suggests a character flaw that needs correction.
Consider Black Jack Randall, the villain from Outlander: He whips a man and calls the wounds “an exquisite…masterpiece.” We feel instinctively that there is something wrong with this character, because he sees beauty in cruelty.
It is equally problematic to find beauty in artwork that conveys cynicism or self-absorption, such as Duchamp’s urinal, Emin’s bed, and Craig-Martin’s glass of water. These works may merit attention or regard as political statements, but not as fine art.