On Art, Art Criticism & Art History

Street art on a London street (Photo: Praveena Sridhar)
Street art on a London street (Photo: Praveena Sridhar)

How often are we conscious of using words like art, craft, art criticism, art history, artisan and artist ? These words are used interchangeably in common language or at times in conjunction, like ‘art and craft’. How does one distinguish one from the other? Is there a difference? These are simpler questions emerging from a common user perspective. The other set of questions which make take the inquiry deeper are – has the meaning of the word ‘art’ changed over centuries? If yes, what does one read in this change? How does this effect our experience and understanding of art? Together these questions embody a range of philosophical aspects of art and its experience.

Art criticism as well as art history can be attempted only when an approximate meaning (if not sharp) of ‘art’ is set. This has been my concern lately. An appealing take on arts is seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country . He writes,

“If you want to really hurt you parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

This is the stuff many would identify with – ‘a very human way’ , easy, simple and experiential. And don’t people really indulge in arts as a reprieve? But this offers no direction to those seeking a scholarly engagement with arts. This is not a material that can be worked with in a scholarly sense, yet it is of great value as a literary work.

An analyical perspective on arts is offered by R. G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art published in 1938. He notes that ‘there is no point in using words according to a private rule of our own, we must use them in a way which fits on to common usage. This again would have been easy, but for the fact that common usage is ambiguous.’ And when common usage is ambiguous then ‘confusion between the various senses of the word may produce bad practice as well as bad theory’. Hence, the effort to understand what art is before one goes further into history and criticism. A useful sketch on the history of the word ‘art’ comes from Collingwood,

The aesthetic sense of the word, the sense which here concerns us, is very recent in origin. Ars in ancient Latin means something quite different. It means a craft or specialized form of skill, like carpentry or smithying or surgery. The Greeks and Romans had no conception of what we call art as something different from craft; what we call art they regarded merely as a group of crafts, such as the craft of poetry (ars poetica) which they conceived, sometimes no doubt with misgivings, as in principle just like carpentry and the rest, and differing from any one of these only in the sort of way in which any one of them differs from any other. It is difficult for us to realize this fact, and still more so to realize its implications. If people have no word for a certain kind of thing, it is because they are not aware of it as a distinct kind.

Artists of the Renaissance period conform to this notion of arts and the artists think of themselves as craftsmen. However, a shift in meaning begins in the seventeenth century.

It was not until the seventeenth century that the problems and conceptions of aesthetic began to be disentangled from those of technic or the philosophy of craft. In the late eighteenth century the disentanglement had gone so far as to establish a distinction between the fine arts and the useful arts; where ‘fine’ arts meant, not delicate or highly skilled arts, but ‘beautiful’ arts (les beaux arts, le belle arti, die schone Kunst). In the nineteenth century this phrase, abbreviated by leaving out the epithet and generalized by substituting the singular for the distributive plural, became ‘art’.

– (Collingwood, The Principles of Art)

This discussion emerges from a set of questions that my friend shared adding that how does one approach these issues during an exploration of art forms. The questions suggest an interest which goes beyond the typical museum visitor or from a person interested in an aesthetic consumption alone. His questions –

  1. Interpretation of art, especially sculptures, wall reliefs and statues. 
  2. The philosophy and meaning behind a piece of art. History of the piece of art, particularly religious pieces,  starting from how it was first designed through how it evolved, depending upon economics, politics, cultural assimilation, communal strife, to its present form and importance.
  3.  The place of wall reliefs in architecture (temples mostly).
  4.  Symbolism
  5. The question of ‘why’? Why would artisans/artistes want to create such stuff, what motivated them to?
  6. Geographical variation of art, perhaps due to climate or raw materials
  7. Historical evolution of art itself, especially in South India, especially sculptures.

These questions include a wide range of philosophical ideas – aesthetics, form, experience, imagination, consciousness, language etc. Each one of these are pursuits in themselves. Nevertheless, one can still attempt a methodical approach to appreciating art forms (this is a dangerous terrain to chart as one may argue that it is oversimplification of the subject and that it is naive at best). I would like to argue that a step wise, methodical approach which includes a checklist of questions to pose when one observes a piece of work is a fairly decent segueing into the discipline. More importantly, it makes the subject interesting! For beginners as well as the younger generation which doesn’t seem to have time for the museums but seem to enjoy themselves in public art installations, street graffiti and similar spaces of art practice and performance.

So, to my friend who posed those questions I suggest this method of analysis based on Terry Barrett’s Criticizing Art and from Kaoime Malloy’s lectures. I have uploaded a pdf document on the method here – Art Criticism and Analysis: An Approach. Malloy divides analysis into 4 steps – Description, Analysis, Interpretation and Judgement. Under each one of these there are a set of questions which help to identify and unearth information about the study form in a structured manner. For instance, it poses these basic questions to describe the art form

  • Form of art whether architecture, sculpture, painting or one of the minor art
  • Medium of work whether clay, stone, steel, paint, etc., and technique (tools used)
  • Size and scale of work (relationship to person and/or frame and/or context)
  • Elements or general shapes (architectural structural system) within the composition, including building of post-lintel construction or painting with several figures lined up in a row; identification of objects.

While I acknowledge that this method oriented experience of arts is too clinical and perhaps doesn’t remain an experience anymore I would argue that it delivers on greater insights into the context, form and style of the art work. This is a potential material which can then be worked with.

Of course, one might in the end still allege that this is no where near to Vonnegut’s elegant prose that we began with.

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