Art Theory and Critical Analysis

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.

Written for UH 440, March, 2004
by John Dorsey

Major: Architecture
Expected Grduation: May 2006
Hometown: Puyallup, Washington