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Review of But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory
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Cynthia Freeland, But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Reviewed by Ivan Gaskell

For the subtitle of this neat octavo volume, the author-or perhaps it was the editor-eschews the term “philosophy” in favor of “theory.” “Philosophy” sells books to philosophers, “theory” to everyone else. To admit an interest in philosophy is to fall into fashion oblivion. Therefore Cynthia Freeland-indubitably a philosopher-has been obliged to borrow the gaudy rags of “theory.” They are, however, mere camouflage, for however jaunty the tone of this book, home hard philosophical thinking is evident within it.

In the course of seven chapters Freeland introduces and examines a number of familiar yet pressing questions concerning the nature of visually apprehensible art. Her range of reference in terms of both objects and texts is refreshingly broad, from Chartres to Sensation, from Plato to Danto. Recent art and thought about it are never far from her exposition: indeed, she consistently tests ideas and assumptions against her experience of contemporary art. She brings the art of the past, and ideas about it, under a postmodern lens, and the general effect is one of sharpness and clarity. This is no small feat in an art theory primer.

Writing so as to engage a relatively uninformed readership is the most difficult of scholarly tasks. Only the very best, like E.H. Gombrich in The Story of Art, can bring it off without appearing patronizing. Not to succeed fully in this regard is therefore neither unexpected nor dishonorable. Like other teachers who are led to believe that they must tout for market share, Freeland jollies her readers along. Her topic must be fun. This is a problem. It leads her to adopt the philosophical equivalent of body piercings for forty-somethings. For example, in the course of introducing that Scottish hipster, David Hume, the author addresses us directly: “Perhaps you prefer Dickens and Fassbinder, while I prefer Stephen King and Austin Powers; how can you prove that your taste is better than mine?” Readers should meet irony at their expense with irony of their own. “Groovy, baby.”

A second problem associated with this genre is how to employ large quantities of material in the absence of space to develop arguments at leisure. This leads to extraordinary comparisons that become mere conflations: between the Arts and Crafts movement and Situationism, for example (119). It might well be interesting to pursue what William Morris and Guy Debord could have had in common, but in the absence of any discussion-the author feeling the need to press on-one is left with the frustration induced by assertion, rather than the piquancy of successful allusive suggestion.

Also characteristic of overreaching is the summary dismissal of ideas. In Chapter 6, “Cognition, Creation, Comprehension,” Freeland devotes three pages to “Freud on sex and sublimation.” She concludes, “Freud’s theory does indeed ask a lot, with its commitment to the existence of unconscious desires, a ‘libido’ (which develops in regular stages), the logistics of sublimation, and so on” (159). Even those most skeptical about the poor Viennese doctor’s system must acknowledge that he deserves to be shown the door a trifle more considerately.

Abrupt changes of topic also suggest overload. Addressing canon revisions in the light of gender sensitivity in Chaper 5, “Gender, Genius and Guerilla Girls,” Freeland describes how recent editions of the most heavily used basic art history textbooks, Gombrich’s The Story of Art, and H.W. Janson’s History of Art, incorporate changes in response to the impact of feminism. “But the Guerilla Girls still lampoon Janson’s book in their own version of art history,” she notes before abruptly beginning a new paragraph, “Let’s switch to music history” (135). So we do: but to what end? She has used a lot of precious space in the previous page-long paragraph, but made no substantial point. Indeed, the only point that comes across is that the author feels the need to move on before the reader’s attention span gives out.

The attenuation of attention spans is the theme that implicitly underlies the author’s discussion of “Digitizing and Disseminating” (Chapter 7). Here she address the “democracy of images” seemingly promised by information and communication technology. In doing so she unwittingly falls into the trap that so many have fallen into before her, not least the legion of gullible art museum directors who, lemming-like, compete to hurl themselves and their institutions onto the rocks of the new technology on the assumption that they are making their collections more widely available than hitherto. The Web can indeed be a viable means of disseminating information about artifacts in museum collections, but, in global terms, it remains an elitist medium, dependent on electricity and expensive equipment. Many speak as though the objects to which reference is made in websites themselves thereby become available, rather than remaining mere words and reproductions confined to a computer screen. Visual art has not been “made more widely accessible by new technologies of reproduction” as Freeland states (178). If anything, access to works of art has been made more difficult by the spread of communication technology. This obfuscation is due to the proliferation of the assumption that electronic media are transparent. Freeland knows well enough that this belief is erroneous, for she writes: “the aura of major artworks from the past has not really disappeared, despite ever more vivid technologies” (185). However, she does not fully pursue the matter. She sets up, but does not investigate, the seeming paradox that a CD-ROM published by the Musée du Louvre reproduces the Mona Lisa in such a way that it appears “brighter than the small and almost murky original” (187). She notes that people still go to see the painting itself, but offers no explanation of why this should be, other than to observe “the feeling of awe is almost religious.” Nor does she raise the possibility that a painting and its reproductions, in whatever media, belong to different kinds. She does, however, raise the attention span issue, noting that her students “from the MTV instant-stimulus generation” find art videos (by Bill Viola) “boring” (191). An invitation to non-linear thinking is indeed proffered by the new communications media, and this can be a useful means of addressing problems; yet similar visual invitations have been issued since people painted the cave walls of Lascaux some 17,000 years ago. MTV, she rightly observes, has hardly “facilitated greater democratic participation and fostered the critical awareness of viewers gathered around the world into a genuine global village. Instead it threatens to homogenize the world into a suburban American strip mall” (193). The relentless Americanization of communications by electronic media-including art museum websites-is a development about which we might do well to be circumspect.

Freeland rightly distinguishes between electronic visual communications that reproduce what already exists in other media and new, medium-specific art related to the “astonishing 3-D visual realism of video-game technology” (201). Yet perhaps she is too sanguine about its potential. Such games may provoke a sense in their users of transparency and total immersion, yet they remain, first, no more than images on screens (even if, as in the case of virtual reality, the body is tricked into believing otherwise); and, secondly, closely circumscribed by their multiple choice frameworks that give the illusion of infinite possibility while actually accustoming users to strict boundaries of thought. Such technologies are not interactive, but rather “interpassive,” in Hal Foster’s formulation (“Mnémonique des musées, amnésie des archives,” L’avenir des musées, ed. Jean Galard, Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2001, 368). As such, anyone concerned with the visual might be well advised to treat them not with contempt, but with a wariness not encountered often enough among those who might be expected to think about the consequences of technological change. As Freeland observes, “Users remain isolated before their screens” (204). For all the liberation of communication the Internet truly offers, we nonetheless remain divided and ruled.

In spite of its minor shortcomings this book offers observations and ideas that the most jaded theorists-and philosophers-ought to find stimulating. The author’s own scheme of understanding emerges clearly. It is largely dependent on a preference for the work of John Dewey. The book serves, among other purposes, as an extended apology for, and critical qualification of, Dewey’s aesthetic theories exemplified by Art as Experience (1934).

In her third chapter, “Cultural Crossings,” in which she looks at the vexed question of how art from a variety of cultures might best be treated by percipients themselves, also from a variety of cultures, Freeland compares Arthur Danto’s ideas (set out in the preceding chapter) with those of Dewey. She explains that “Danto argues that what artists can make as art depends upon the context of intentions possible for a given era and culture-whatever the culture theorizes as art.” She continues, “But perhaps Danto employs an overly modern and Western notion of ‘art,’ by supposing that all cultures have something like an artworld in which they ‘theorize’ about art. The basic question is whether, if people give meaning to objects in a sensuous medium, this amounts to their having a ‘theory’ in an ‘artworld.’ Danto would say yes” (87). Dewey, she explains, “thought we must learn the language of art by entering into the spirit of the relevant community,” a notion she finds “more broad and open.” She continues, “It also resonates nicely with anthropologist Richard Anderson’s account of art [in Calliope’s Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art, 1990] as ‘culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium’” (88).

Freeland offers three important qualifications of Dewey’s ideas. She observes, first, that we can understand little of a culture by means of a so-called immediate experience of its art, as called for by Dewey: we need what Dewey termed “external facts.” Second, cultures are not necessarily homogenous, nor are they unchanging in the circumstances of contacts with other cultures: they can be internally contradictory or conflicted, as well as constantly in flux. Third, art from other cultures or other periods does not always express the ideas of individuals, nor is it necessarily amenable to the contemporary paradigm of collection and display. Objects can be produced by collectively, rather than by individuals, and be viable only in ritual or other performative circumstances. In the course of further examinations-of “Money, Markets, Museums” (Chapter 4), and “Cognition, Creation, Comprehension” (Chapter 6)-Freeland goes on to sketch an excellent case for a serious re-examination of Dewey’s pragmatism. She usefully locates Nelson Goodman (notably in Languages of Art) and even-perhaps more provocatively-Michel Foucault, as among Dewey’s heirs. Freeland’s erection of a signpost pointing firmly, though far from uncritically, in Dewey’s direction is the most serious accomplishment of this engaging and admirable book.

 

2002 © Ivan Gaskell

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