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From Ars To Art And Back

Published 02.04.2014

An essay on art and kitsch by Sampo Kaikkonen, 2007

(available in Finnish)


1. Introduction

Year 1923 artist Marcel Duchamp stopped making art because he believed that art as a significant action had come to an end.

Ducamp's uriner The well known artist, art dealer and art collector Duchamp shocked the art world in 1917 with his readymade The Fountain (La Fontaine). He sent the artwork for the independent artists' exhibition by the pseudonym R. Mutt. Although the exhibition was not juried the artwork was discarded as not being art.

The Fountain, which actually was an ordinary urinal, was meant to critique the art institution. As a dadaistic artwork it tested the limits of the concept of art. As readymade artworks were finally accepted as legitimate art, lead it virtually to a fact that anyone involved in the manufacturing process of an industrial artefact could be regarded as an artist. For Duchamp it meant the end of art. But art did not end — it changed. The concept of art extended to cover the forms of economy and manufacturing and in its most extreme the whole society was to be seen as a social sculpture.

Ironically enough that which was originally meant as a critique against the almighty institution defining art was itself changed to legitimated form of art (recuperation). In 2004, the urinal was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British artworld professionals. It did not only extend the concept of art to include readymade works but changed the very nature of defining art. This change has directed the making of art through 20th century and still does. Proper and valuable art is ever revolving. In its best it tests and breaks the boundaries of the acknowledged concept of art. Even though it often contains social commentary it is most of all art for art's sake. For example the Made In Heaven series by Jeff Koons deals with the status of pornography in our society but its real artistic value is hidden in its ability to make the spectator ask "Is this art?"

The proper art defined by the institution is opposite to what ordinary citizen regards as art. In the popular concept of art the important aspects are skill, aesthetic beauty and storytelling. A work of art is a concrete object for example a painting or a sculpture which value is in itself. To experience the work of art does not require literacy or art dictionary. The main issue is not understanding the intentions of the artist but the emotion and aesthetic pleasure obtained from the work.

Because art is a part of the modern society it is dependent of the public funding. That is why it has to have an official definition. One has to be able to define what is valuable and proper art. Investing in proper art serves modern world's need to renew and work more effectively. The official specification of art is defined by the curatoriat. The curatoriat consists of the managers and curators of the most important contemporary art museums, galleries and events as well as the esteemed critics and art historians. The curatoriat holds the symbolic power to decide what is and is not valuable and proper art.

Although the most important artists of the 20th century appeared to be radical and free they matter of fact slavishly fulfilled the demands of the modern world and art institution constantly to renew and push the boundaries. Skill became secondary to originality and idea. Understanding this kind of art requires civility and literacy. The soup cans of Andy Warhol, one of the most important artists of 20th century, have no value measured by the criteria of the popular conception of art. Their value can only be understood by first knowing their art historic and social context. Because understanding this kind of art requires literacy and knowledge of the contemporary art's grammar art has marginalized as property of the intellectual elite.

The value world of the modern has not had much of a space for traditional figurative and narrative art. The competitive society demands constant renewal and staying ahead of one's time. Art is product development in which repeating the old good habits is not profitable. Dissidents are being judged as behind their time. Regardless of the aesthetic and skilled merits a work of art respected by the public is considered artistically worthless and even bad taste. To respect that kind of art would destroy the credibility of a recognized critic and make a contemporary art museum look like a museum.

When real artist is defined by the tax office and proper art by intellectual curatoriat is it at all necessary to ask "What is art"? Is it possible to return art back to ordinary people anymore or are they doomed to hang worthless and tasteless kitsch on their walls believing it to be art because of the skilled and sentimental characteristics.

The world known Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum has come out with his own kitsch philosophy that has released him of the leash of art. In this essay I will present the events of art history that have lead to the current concept of art. I will also introduce the alternative kitsch philosophy presented by Nerdrum as a solution to restore the respect of traditional art and skill.

2. Defining Art

The history of art is as long as the history of mankind. Perforated snail shells — 75 000 years old — are considered the earliest occurrence of art history. In general language prehistoric art of hunters and farmers is called art. Yet it has been defined as such notably late in the history of mankind.

In ancient Greece art had a significant role in the society. Platon and Aristotele gave art their own definitions although they did not refer to art in its present meaning but merely as ability to imitate. Before the 18th century art was actually synonym for a Latin word ars meaning skill. Hence artists were "skilled people" and making a pair of shoes was considered as artistic as casting a bronze statue.

Platon saw art destructive since its only meaning was to imitate real world and hence mislead society from its purpose to aim for final truth. Art was imperfect imitation of something that itself was a copy of the universal "idea". Therefore art was misleading and destructive. Aristotele however thought that art had a purpose as a moral educationalist and regarded art natural, pleasing and intellectually activating.

Since the separation of sciences in the 17th century beauty was separated from religion, ethics and practical arts. In the 18th century beauty gradually became regarded as a personal experience. The British empirists David Hume and Edmund Burke started to research the philosophy of taste and the connection between experiencing beauty and subjective pleasure. Immanuel Kant combined those in his philosophy as a comprehensive theory of experiencing beauty. At the same time he brought up artist as a creative individual.

The German Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) was one of the most important philosophers affecting the definition of western art. He ended the attempts of the Age of Enlightenment to turn philosophy into empirical branch of natural sciences. A. G. Baumgarten was the first to introduce the term aesthetics in 1735. Kant brought it as the focal point of philosophy and created the language for the current aesthetic theory in his work Critique of Judgement published in 1790.

According to Kant beauty is not in the object or artwork itself but exists in the feeling of pleasure aroused by the senses of the spectator. Although this feeling is subjective we can demand others to agree with us because of the similarity of our mental abilities (reason, imagination and understanding). According to Kant the experience of beauty is purely unselfish form of gratification. He separated beauty of other things and defined it as "purposeless purpose" that has no value outside of itself. Thus art became valuable in itself. As artists started to make art for arts sake the art as we know it today also called fine art (beaux arts, schöne Kunst) was born.

Instead of linking external beauty to senses Kant linked it to the formal properties of art. Art was meant to be altruistic and assessed only by its external qualities. According to Kant ornament represents perfect beauty in art because it is not created to give moral education, express emotions or misdirect viewer's thoughts. An ornament is observed only because of its beauty. To experience art as well as beauty, according to Kant, is a play of intelligence and emotion that leads to understanding through judgement.

3. The Short History of Art

In its present meaning art was born in the 18th century after it was no longer a synonym to skill but its own absolute value. Only then the aesthetic pleasure overtook the content. Hence the public debate refers to fine arts rather than applied arts which is a by-product of other production. For the same reason craft was left outside of the official art. Ironically before the 18th century "artists" were skilled artisans whose works always had some other function in addition to aesthetic beauty. Yet for example Michelangelo is nowadays misleadingly called an artist in the absence of a better term.

The problem derives from the very roots of the term art. The Latin word ars and the Greek techné originally stood for skill. They mainly pointed to the craft but for the ancient Greeks for example techné also meant medical skills. The western translation arts greatly differs from its original meaning. Hence the term crafts is often used in its side to refer the original meaning. In theory the artists before Kant could be called artisans instead of artists.

3.1 Art Before Art

The change in social climate of the 15th century Italy resembled the Age of Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries. The black death that had raged during the dark Middle Ages diminished the status of religion. It was replaced by interest in natural sciences and arts with the help of newly invented printing technology. The time of humanism aimed to restore the ancient high culture. Therefore the era was called Renaissance i.e. rebirth. As the status of religion diminished the interest in afterlife was replaced by the interest in human himself. Earthly subjects were raised alongside the religious topics in painting and sculpture. The skill and intelligence of man were respected in a new way. The most skilled painters and sculptors were considered geniuses whose works were supported by the patrons.

Geniuses who worked during Renaissance such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are often considered the first actual artists because they were highly respected in their own time. However they too were rather masterful artisans than artists. The most essential feature of their works was not beauty but function for example as illustrator of religious and mythological subjects. These artist geniuses or master artisans manufactured the ordered products utilizing their highly developed craft skills and new scientific apparatus such as the science of perspective.

Renaissance spread fast to other parts of Europe and influenced the forthcoming stylistic periods. In the 16th century Renaissance culminated in Mannerism which stylized and over emphasized human anatomy. The following Baroque style rejected the classical standards of Renaissance and introduced detailed realistic expression, subjects emphasizing movement and the new landscape genre. The Catholic Church struggling in crisis ordered works from the most skilled Baroque painters, architects and sculptors to recover people's interest in religion. Even though the Baroque masters included such names as Bernini, Caravaggio, Rubens, Velazquez and Rembrandt the art that we know today was not even born yet.

3.2 The Birth of Art

Baroque hit the time when philosophical and scientific thinking began to raise its head once again and people started to trust in mankind's ability to solve all the problems. It was during the Time of Enlightenment when aesthetics was being valued similar to other branches of science. Kant who had at first applauded to sense and rationalism finally came to conclusion that beauty can not be defined rationally like other phenomena. By the end of the 18th century Kant's philosophy of aesthetics had made art a value in itself and this is how we know it today.

Even before Kant the academy teaching classical painting and sculpture with strict discipline was founded in the 17th century France. High skill was needed most of all to represent the grandeur of the time of Ludvig XIV. However already in the late 17th century France an academic tradition admiring Poussin got a competitor from the free expression of Rubens and his school.

In the 18th century France Rococo exceeded Baroque in breaking the standards of Classisism and striving for vivid and spontaneous expression. The source of beauty was no longer rules but colours and forms — only known by civilized people with good taste. Rococo can be considered the first true art form since it was aiming, above all, for aesthetic pleasure and gave only little value to the subject itself thus allowing flowers and seashells become subjects in art.

Neoclassicism (named in the 19th century) was born as a counter reaction to Rococo. At the end of the 18th century it aspired to return to the glorious times of the Sun King. In France, Germany and England, where Neoclassicism flourished, the art of the Antique became the ideal and emotion and imagination were cast aside in favour of sense. J.J. Winckelmann believed imitation of the Greeks would restore the glory of the Antique. One of the artists following the advice was Antonio Canova. Many of his enormous sculptures were made particularly for museums. This was a new phenomenon and showed the importance of art. The ideals of Neoclassicism were followed in the art academies of France which lead to the concept of Academic art. The Academy and its official Salon formed the most important art institution of the time possessing the power of defining what was legitimate art.

Neoclassicism was impersonal in expression whereas Romancticism (c. 1750—1850) was individualistic and emotional allowing artists to freely express their inner feelings. The handling of materials got free and the sketch was valued as the most spontaneous form of art revealing the individuality of the artist's "touch". For example the works of Delacroix were distinctly against Neoclassical ideals in their spontaneity, distorted perspective and proportions, bold colour combinations and complex compositions. Kant's philosophy can be seen especially in J.M.W. Turner's colourful landscapes where the emotion mediated by colours was more important than the subject.

The freer expression of the Romanticism continued in art movements such as Realism and Impressionism in which it is possible to see reactions for photography which was invented in the early 19th century. Like photography painting was used to capture the moment and portray one's own time. Even back then the status of photography in art was argued. Some artists such as Manet used photos as reference for their realistic expression. Thus the nude figures in academic paintings began to appear in more complex postures. Meanwhile some artists strongly argued against the legitimation of photography as art.

Through the 19th century academic art was seen as the only legitimate art. Alongside it there were other movements of which especially Realism and Impressionism affected the development of art. Realism took subjects from everyday life and portrayed them without embellishing as realistically as possible. In Impressionism the expression got freer and more fleeting. The Impressionists never acchieved complete recognition of the official art institution and were forced to exhibit in their own salons.

The development of art that was born in the 18th century differs entirely from the preceding history of so called "art". The short history of art has been most of all art for art's sake. Art and aesthetic expression has been intentionally kept in constant development. New styles and isms were born during the 19th and 20th centuries with accelerating speed. As Impressionism began to repeat itself it developed into more deliberate Neoimpressionism. It had a counterpart in Symbolism which was followed by Art Nouveau, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Abstract and Nonfigurative art as well as Dadaism which brings us back to Duchamp and his fountain. Even though Duchamp believed that art had come to its end in 1923 the isms did not end there.

Subsequent to the 20th century Modernism skill, representation, and storytelling were systematicly diminished. They were replaced by individualistic expression and formalistic elements. The eventual artwork was superceded by the working process. As art became more abstract and original the number of audience understanding it decreased and art became the property of the elite.

The Modernism strongly believed in constant development and that art would eventually develop into its utmost peak. However already in the 1960s discussions it was said that art had worn itself out and that the development had stopped in Conceptual art.

According to Modernism art exists in the artwork itself, not in the subject it represents. Postmodern thinking considers artwork dependent on the spectator. According to the most extreme visions artwork exists only in its interpreations. A work of art is different for each spectator. It is not necessary to be able to read an artwork correctly because every interpretation is correct. Thus there is no good or bad art. In Postmodern art everything is seemingly allowed which could be thought as positive. Perhaps this allows skill to become valued once again. In fact it is most likely only a state of confusion in which art has expanded uncontrollably to the point where it has no single hierarchy.

4. Return To Skill and Storytelling

The modernist art institution that defines art excludes sentimentality and storytelling from the official art and labels it as tasteless kitsch regardless of the artwork's skilled values. In the 60s the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum was one of the fledgling artists seeking for approval from the official art circles. He tried to act as an artist and believed to be one because of the exceptional technical mastery he had adopted already at young age. After being repeatedly labeled as an anti-artist behind his time he finally in the 70s understood what it was all about. He had been wrong all along thinking he was an artist.

Nerdrum noticed that he had always been acting against the aims of the art defined by the Modernism. His intentions had been just the opposite. Instead of constant renewal he valued tradition. Instead of originality and experimentality he had started to imitate the manners of the old masters. Instead of formalistic and expressive subjects and intellectual conceptualism he had told emotional — even sentimental stories. All this time he believed he was an artist and pretented to be one until he finally understood that he was just the kind of thing that Modernism tried to keep out of its territory.

By proclaiming himself a Kitsch painter in 1998 Nerdrum freed himself from the boundaries of art institution. He does not however deny the existence of art and its necessity but gives similar value to that which is not art. It is a fact that by the criteria of modern art that I have described here the masterfully executed works of Odd Nerdrum are not art although they seem to be at least to the public. For that reason Nerdrum's proclamation as Kitsch painter is comparable to Duchamp's fountain. Duchamp took an ordinary urinal, turned it upside down and defined it as art. Nerdrum does the same conversely by claiming that his paintings are not art.

At present Kitsch is considered against its original meaning as cheap bric-a-brac whereas Nerdrum refers to the literal definitions of the term. They emphasize representativeness, skill, sentimentality, imitation, imaginative beautiful surroundings, seriousness and Jungian archetypes. Regardless of the negative reputation of the term Kitsch as a concept it was closest to what Nerdrum felt he himself was. He started to use the term to describe something that had always existed but never before had had a name. However he emphasizes that both high and low Kitsch exists. Kitsch is always subject to comparison and is not protected by its time. Whereas art is ever changing Kitsch is eternal. It is a path rediscovered enabling the return to skill and storytelling.

Art institution is capable of defining Kitsch or urinal as art because the art institution is self-sufficient and self-defining. The definition of art is ever changing unlike Kitsch. Kitsch is eternal.

Published 02.04.2014

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From Ars To Art And Back