This is the second post in a series about the limits of art as a term.
Part One is here.

In his appearance on the Brainy Gamer Podcast, art historian John Sharp suggests that we are “leaving a five-hundred year period that [was] dominated by visual culture, and moving into one that’s much more about systems.”

Prior to the Renaissance and the dawn of the visual age, Sharp argues, “the whole idea we have of art today did not exist.” Before that, art referred to what we now call design. “These well-crafted functional objects–that’s all there was, really. There wasn’t such a thing as these objects that we created simply for enjoyment, for aesthetic appreciation, and so on.” The Renaissance signaled a cultural shift toward the visual, toward using our eyes “as the primary filter for thinking about the world.”

Painting, sculpture, print media, and eventually photography were not just the predominant forms of Western art. They were art as such. So much so that, as cinema and television came to be considered worthy of aesthetic contemplation, so too did they come to be categorized as primarily visual media, despite the inclusion of sound in the majority of cinema and virtually all of television.

Just as the idea of autonomous art-objects (and artists as a special creative class) has a specific historical context, so too does the oft-cited idea that the sole function of true art is to converse with the sublime, or to explore profound truths about the human condition. “That’s this very Romantic 19th Century notion… a bit of cultural baggage” that tends to limit our understanding rather than expand it. Just because that’s what Vincent Van Gogh (or rather, our posthumously mythologized version of him) was up to does not mean that all artists must necessarily live and work along similar lines. To think of commercial art, or bad art, or disposable art as oxymorons is to take an unnecessarily narrow and restrictive historical view of the terms involved.

Knowing that, we can easily understand the past century of “is x art?” hand-wringing. It’s not that a stolen urinal or a guy getting shot in the arm isn’t art (whatever that would mean), but simply that those things aren’t addressing themselves to the tradition of visual perfection that has been art’s perceived aim since the Renaissance. What matters isn’t how those things look, but rather how they fit into larger systems, and what they demand of the viewer.

In that specific sense, large swaths of art theory have failed to keep pace with art practice. Try to evaluate Dada on the same terms as you would evaluate Piet Mondrian (let alone the representational art of the Renaissance), and you’ll just end up confused. I think that when people walk into an art gallery and feel lost, confused, or intimidated, it is this disconnect that is tripping them up. Art galleries are designed for looking at things, but they’re now filled with art that is not meant exclusively, or even primarily, to be looked at.

So all of that muddles our understanding of art, both as a usable word and as an intuitive, unspoken concept. In my next post, I’ll break down that problem.


  1. What about literature? When, come to think of it, did the term “art” come to be applied to literature, and was it before, after, or at the same time that “art” stopped being synonymous with “craft”?

    /Devil’s advocate

    1. No, that’s a really good point!

      Poetry definitely fell under the pre-Renaissance definition of art, but novels (which comprise an awful lot of what we now call literature) were long considered not-art. After all, they were initially called “novels” because they were novel. They were new, and that was unseemly. Novels went through roughly the same process of being considered unworthy (because they were considered craft as distinct from art, ironically enough) as did photography and cinema.

      But in any case, the Renaissance did see a shift toward the printed word (as distinct from the spoken, sung, or performed word) possessing a special prestige. Shakespeare was known populary as some dude who wrote and performed plays real good, until the First Folio transformed him into The Bard. No longer a mere craftsman, but an Artist-with-a-Capital-A-for-Angst. (But now we’re well into Stuff You Know Better Than I Do territory).

      So I think it would be fair to say that literature is also caught up in visual culture: Words have to be visible before they’re art.

      1. That’s a great point actually. Consider Chaucer – at the time he existed there were a large number of storytellers who worked within an extremely popular and populist oral tradition. While The Canterbury Tales tells us important things about the moral and social culture of the middle ages, there is no reason to think that Chaucer was any better at creating and telling these stories than anyone else. He just happened to be fortunate to live in a part of England where printing was taking off and so his stories were recorded and became more widely available than the work of other writers. We view his work as art and treat it with reverence, but if a story like the Miller’s tale was made up now it would be dismissed as trash along with things like Eastenders and Big Brother because it’s full of boobs and body hair.

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