Many art theorists have tried to create systems
to analyze and critique the merits of art in general. Unfortunately, art
is not a science that can be deciphered using a set of concrete rules
or laws. This has made quantifying the quality of art quite difficult.
Likewise, the criterion needed to decipher the value of art is in need
of constant updating as a culture evolves through time. With the onset
of globalization and mass media influences our culture changes exponentially.
Currently, art develops at a fevered pace relative to past art movements
because of the need to keep up with and build upon new cultural developments.
Holistic perspectives are needed to make sense of the mutagenic phenomenon
that is art. Modern art thinkers who have analyzed the chaos that surrounds
“art” can assist in the assessment of particular works. By
using their philosophies as a formwork to critique art it is possible
to hypothetically quantify the value of various pieces. In this paper
I will discuss the merit of three examples of “modern” artwork
with reference to the theories of several contemporary philosophers and
critics: Arthur Danto, George Dickie, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Likewise,
I will utilize the general “mood” of the existentialist movement
to ascertain the value of these pieces as works of art.
Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” is not the easiest piece
to look at, in fact, it is quite disturbing. This mural piece, created
for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, portrays
the carnage of a massacre that occurred in the town of Guernica during
the Spanish Civil War. It is difficult to call this depiction of fascist
brutality beautiful but it is undeniably powerful. “Guernica”
is rich with context and speaks to the cultural issues of its time and
place and because of histories doomed repetitive state continues to carry
meaning into the present era on a global scale. The contextual qualities
of the piece compliment Danto’s theory about art. According to Danto,
art must have relevant meaning and Picasso’s piece is not lacking
in this criteria. Although abstract, “Guernica” clearly communicates
the abomination of the event that took place in such a way that demonstrates
Picasso’s own personal passion and connects with others as well.
Dickie, who believes that art is ordained as such by an “art world”,
would hold the piece as valuable because of its acceptance by the artistic
community. Wittgenstein would find nothing to put “Guernica”
into question as a work of art because he would respect that the piece
relates culturally to its time period. Wittgenstein insists that language
is a social activity and has a cultural context. Similarly, art, being
a form of communication, should be concerned with the social context.
The existentialists would feel that this piece is merited as a work of
art because it provokes action, one of the common denominators of existentialism.
“Guernica” is a blatant cry for social justice and change.
The existentialists, who believe that existence proceeds essence, may
argue that “Guernica” is an attempt by Picasso to find purpose
through communication. He is trying to make sense of the atrocities committed
during the war through his work. By making a public statement against
the act he is providing essence and purpose for himself.
When Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” was displayed in the
early twentieth century there was a large amount of outrage expelled from
the art world at that time. The urinal with “R. Mutt 1917”
written on the side in sloppy black letters created quite the stir and
challenged the very definition of art. It would have been highly unlikely
that it would have been displayed at all if it had not been under the
guise of an already well known artist. Dickie was personally inspired
in part by “Fountain” when he concluded that art’s existence
requires an “artworld”. He finds this piece to be worthy of
artistic merit because of its acceptance by art world although it did
take a matter of time before they understood what Duchamp was trying to
say. Danto, who is concerned with meaning and context in art, would also
find Duchamp’s “Fountain” a piece worthy of recognition
because of what it communicates. “Fountain” is not much different
from most urinals but the fact that it was placed on display has a substantial
cultural context. It challenged the theoretical criteria for art in its
time. A hundred years previous, a “ready-made” piece would
have been viewed as ridiculous but at that particular moment and place
the “Fountain” appropriately provoked the art world and pushed
new boundaries related to the surrounding cultural environment. It could
be argued that the piece itself was not art in itself but rather the meaning
and context surrounding it was art. Wittgenstein believes that you can
never make an absolute definition for anything, including art. He would
admire Duchamp’s pushing the description of art through his piece.
“Fountain” portrays art as an open concept that should never
be restricted. The existentialists would respect the “Fountain”
as a work of art because of its cynical message. The piece questions and
pokes at the established system of art and questions its boundaries. It
questions the nature of art similarly to the way that existentialists
question the belief that there is a higher purpose or inherent will for
humans. To an existentialist, there is no master plan or form that we
are required to follow in life or in art.
Thomas Kinkade is one of the most successful commercial artists of all
time but it could be said that he is a business man first and an artist
second. His pieces are undeniably beautiful and well done but he is not
known for his creativity. Although, his work is highly coveted by certain
demographics of American society he has yet to impress the intellectual
art world. The piece “Courage” is quite stereotypical of his
work: picturesque, unimaginitive, idealistic, and cliché. It is
pleasant to the eye as scenery but it lacks intellectual stimulation.
Dickie would condemn Kinkade’s “Courage” as being a
lower class of art because renowned art critics do not respect his work.
On the other hand, Kinkade has created his own art world independent of
the one that inhabits the most prestigious art galleries and museums.
The cult following that surrounds his work may not be the richest, brightest,
or most cultured Americans but they are strong in numbers and in themselves
create an art world entity. According to them, Kinkade’s work fits
their criteria for art. Likely, Dickie would probably agree that Kinkade’s
“Courage” could be called art for this reason. Since Dickie
is an active participant in high art culture he would most likely view
Kinkade’s work as mediocre at best. Danto would be reluctant to
condone artistic status because of the lack of meaning in the piece “Courage”.
When you look at it all you come away with is a pleasant image. You could
analyze it all day wondering what kind of person inhabits the lighthouse
or is riding the sailboat but in the end it does not provide an intellectually
stimulating journey of discovery. Danto would question the cultural context
of “Courage” and the meaning that it has for us today. Kinkade
would most likely admit that he really was not trying to create his piece
with some greater ideal or context in mind. The concept of courage is
vaguely related to the piece but it lacks depth. Danto would condemn “Courage”
as being inferior because there is a lack of a relationship between it
and anything outside of itself. Wittgenstein would not withhold the title
of art from “Courage” although he may question the lack of
a social context. Art, because it is indefinable, can not prejudice against
the works of Kinkade. The Existentialists would not sit well with Kinkade’s
“Courage” because it presupposes essence before existence.
Kinkade uses stereotypes of what people want and desire and combines them
into a composition. This insinuates that there are inherent human values
or natural forces that are guiding us towards an ultimate destination.
Existentialists believe that we are first in existence and then we create
an essence or a purpose for ourselves. “Courage” as well as
most of Kinkade’s work assumes that there is an ideal identity that
every human wants and desires. On his website Kinkade makes this statement
in relation to his piece “…the moral order of God's universe
is like an exquisite tapestry; the foundational values of the good life
interweave in a seamless whole.” Kinkade claims that his piece is
inspired by a universal morality, a claim that most existentialists would
find highly improbable because it goes against their belief in individual
freedom and the randomness of life. As a work of art, the existentialists
would find “Courage” lacking because it fails to lead people
towards individualistic conclusions and does not provoke action.
Theories can help guide us through the process of understanding and assessing
art. Philosophers like Danto, Dickie, Wittgenstein, and the existentialists
provide formworks that can be used as tools in accomplishing this purpose.
By synthesizing theories together, interpreting them for practical usage,
and building on to their basic premises it is possible to gain a well
rounded individual perspective of art.