Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Critical Analysis of "Art"

I think I have an arts series going on now. Expect at least one more post, about music.

"Art" is another one of those things that I consider to be merely a category rather than an independently real object (see religion). The reality is quite simple, actually: people make things and people do things. These things may be useful or not, valued or not, pleasing or not, novel or not. Probably most of these characteristics exist on a spectrum and depend, of course, on context. Hence, they are relative.

The application of the term "art" to certain crafts and activities has been entwined with other socially meaningful divisions, and a more detailed genealogy of the term than I can provide might illuminate the history of its meaning and function more fully. Loosely, though, it helped to demaracate the domains of the sacred and profane, and then to differentiate between the productions of the educated uppercrust and those of the ignorant masses (labeled, in contrast, "folklore").

Through its contemporary usage, "art" has been universalized and tied to the concept of human subjectivity (as an "individual expression"). This is no surprise, given the universalizing tendencies of "modernity" (as discourse and project), as well as the central role played by the idea of the subject in modern social formations.

There have been plenty Marxist analyses of art. For example, noting the way in which different aesthetics contribute to the rigidity of the class hierarchy. Also the way in which art patronage provides a safe outlet for capital which may not be profitably invested (the Medicis, e.g.), and thereby maintaining some systemic stability. I do think these points are extremely useful and worth keeping in mind. However, I am more interested in the way in which art functions both in the discourses and social/institutional structures constituting "modernity," as a means of objectifying individual subjectivity and notions of "culture."

Once objectified, subjectivity/culture may enter the capitalist market as a commodity (and art forms of various sorts do seem to be the primary way in which individual and collective subjectivities are commodified). The transformation of individual subjectivity into a form of "property" provides the rhetorical material with which the legal basis for monopolies (copyright law) is constructed.

Even when subjectivity objectified does not enter into any market relations, it may still have market value.

But most importantly, it is venerated as a sacred, powerful artifact. Because subjectivity is conceived as the mysterious key to human knowledge of the world and our own condition, art allows us the possibility of understanding our own history, diversity, and motivations. Paradoxically, it fulfills our almost technocratic urge to rationalize every aspect of human life, in an effort to control and improve.

As a result of both this preoccupation and the dynamics of capitalist production, "style" becomes eminently important and an object of ceaseless contemplation (generally leading one to consider how certain individuals developed new styles, or how one style emerged out of another). Usually, narratives of style take an evolutionary form and buttress the ideology of progress (even when, contradictorily, some room for arbitrariness is allowed). And of course, the succession of styles feeds into the capitalist need for constant novelty and osbolescence.

All of this to say: art is another thing that emerged as an integrated whole, though in manifold and complex ways, with the other processes and institutions associated with modernity. It is a piece of modernity, or rather, multiple pieces (as it is not a single thing): a byproduct of the concept of subjectivity; an expression of particular subjectivities; a tool of governmental/reformist impulses; a form of economic value; and a means of reinforcing particular ideas/discourses, to name a few.

No sense in trying to define it. More fun in seeing how it works in practice.

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