WHAT DO ARTISTS DO?
Argues for a central, normative account of Art using notions of (1) its material basis and (2) its medium constituted by traditions and conventions, along with contrasting notions of (3) use of material and medium and (4) engagement with them. This conceptual apparatus allows one to identify the shortcomings of at least some "Conceptual Art" and also locates the specific Problem of the Novel as an art form
Anti essentialism is our reigning philosophy, in the form of postmodernist theories, post structuralist theories. refashioned pragmatism, and others besides. All of them would warn against supposing or presupposing that there is just one thing, or one well defined set of things, which artists do. Artists do many things, and there is no reason to suppose that this plurality of things lends itself to a definition rather than a listing. The belief that they do or should so lend themselves gives rise to recurrent problems: for example, every time a gallery buys the work of someone - a Carl Andre, a Damien Hirst, a Tracey Emin - whose work does not fit our favoured account of art.
I can call myself an artist, and you can, and get away with doing anything and nothing. (Asked in 2002 to design a Christmas installation for Tate Britain, Tracey Emin took an ordinary Christmas tree, decorated it in traditional fashion - and gave it away to a charity). If someone wants to pay us for doing it - or not doing it - so much the better. Such is the way of the world, or part of it: that part which is perhaps better described as post traditional rather than post modern.
In such a context. what I have to say in this essay may have to be taken as frankly and even naively normative, as seeking to privilege a particular range of things artists have done and recommend them to anyone looking for recommendations. I accept that I may have to be read that way, and I'm not going to wring my hands about it. I'll just get on with the business of trying to be persuasive.
What artists do is defined by ways of relating to the materials and medium of their art, without which there would be no artistic activity and no artist.
When John Cage in his notorious (and, with the softening of time, famous) piece 4 minutes 33 seconds (4' 33" ) writes a score which instructs a pianist to sit silently before a piano, poised to play, for just that length of time, he has taken the material of music (sound and silence) and scripted a reproducible event (this is his minimal composition) in such a way as to foreground what is usually background, the ambient sound of the auditorium. He achieves this by witholding what is usually foregrounded, the pianist's sound making at the piano.
But what John Cage has not done is engage (other than by way of implied extra musical, philosophical comment) with the medium of music which may, be broadly characterised as the entire repertoire of traditions and conventions for the deliberate organisation of patterns of sound and silence into what we can recognise as music. That we can recognise something as music, does not imply that we understand or enjoy it. Most people have had the experience of listening to music of other cultures which is recognisably music, but which affords them no interest or pleasure simply because they can't follow it, having no competence in its system. (I have recently had this experience with Armenian folk music, which operates with quarter tones. There is clearly music on the tape I purchased, but I can't properly engage with it).
But what Cage is doing is different: he is using no system to organise the ambient sound into music, simply using a performance device to draw attention to its existence. It is no more sophisticated than the device, used by film makers, of cutting the musical soundtrack in order to heighten tension. The music is cut, and we are left watching a murderer stalking his prey and hearing the sound of leaves underfoot and birds overhead. In the same way, the audience for 4'33" sit listening to each other's coughs and sweet papers.
This initial sketch gives me an initial distinction betweenmaterial and medium which I shall need to explore further. It also generates a notion of composition which I immediately wish to complicate by contrasting two kinds of artistic activity in one of which the material element or the medium is used and in the other of which it isengaged with. This contrast is associated with two very different practices of composition, two very different kinds of artistic activity.
As notorious as 4'33" is the work titled Equivalent 8 but more commonly, known as Carl Andre's bricks: the ones in the Tate Gallery. This is a composition in pre fabricated bricks, the particular material substance of which is irrelevant in the sense that the bricks can be packed up and put away when the work is not on display, and which can be (and, indeed, have been) changed without adverse impact on the continuing existence and quality of the work. This is because Andre's compositional work consists in the production of a score for the creation of a particular kind of event object; there is no hands on engagement with the material (the bricks), merely a use of them as a vehicle for a preconceived work. The artist's work has not been 'done in brick' but in the writing of a score, the construction instruction manual which says how Equivalent 8 is to be assembled. The actual installation is, as it were, a repeatable performance (or token) of the work, rather than the work itself (which might be considered as a type in the language of C S Peirce's semiotics).
In Andre's case (rather more obviously than Cage's), there is clearly some engagement with the conventions and traditions of sculpture, the medium of sculpture, insofar as Andre is engaging with that history which yields (for example) sculptures as upright rather than horizontal and, if horizontal, certainly not as thin as Equivalent 8. Had Andre piled his bricks into a chimney stack, there would have been less engagement (I want to say) than there is in laying them flat as a very low altar. The guy has clearly been thinking
But thinking isn't art. In my account art exists where there is simultaneous engagement with material and medium, and where engagement is something specifiably different from use. Let me work at this second contrast between engagement and use, and then come to the simultaneity bit.
Imagine two sculptors, Mr A (the bad guy in the upcoming story) and Mr Z .Mr A works in marble but never touches it himself: he has a team of assistants executing the works which he has drawn on paper or mocked up in clay. One might say that he uses the material of marble, but does not engage with it, since nothing he does can be affected by contact with the marble; ex hypothesi, he does not touch it.
Mr Z, in contrast, works his blocks of marble himself, and at least sometimes, changes the direction of his work in response to the resistance or yielding of his material. He does not have his sculptures all worked out beforehand on paper or in clay; for him, the work emerges in the context of an engagement with the material of his art.
Both Mr A and Mr Z know all about the conventions and traditions of sculpture that I call the medium of sculpture. Mr A treats these as providing him with pattern books for the form of his works, as telling him how to construct a sculpture of such and such a kind with such-and such a purpose. For him, the medium of sculpture is already there, waiting to be used.
In contrast, Mr Z looks upon the pattern books as incomplete guides, which can never satisfactorily prescribe the treatment of an individual subject, even when it is given by commission rather than by inner impulse. Every time around, Mr Z feels that his artistic task is to discover or invent the form for the subject in hand, and this may involve breaking pattern book rules or inventing new ones or working in ways about which the pattern book is silent. For Mr Z, the medium of sculpture is something to be engaged with.
Mr A is sometimes rich and famous; Mr Z sometimes poor and exhausted. Real world sculptors fall on a continuum between the abstract types of Mr A and Mr Z with, for example, Brancusi and the early Henry Moore as good examples of Z type sculptors . My aim has simply been to distinguish two modes of relating to material and medium, which I call use and engagement
Engagement is something I want to privilege because roughly speaking it creates a feedback loop to which the artist is bound to respond or engage with its some way. The artist cannot ignore the resistance and the yielding of the material, and may choose to go with or against the grain of it. If the artist stolidly seeks to ignore the information that the feedback loop provides, then he or she fails to engage just as much as the artist who hands over the dirty work to a team of assistants.
Robin Morris is writing about, the same thing when in his study Meaning and Marks: the significance of gestural elements in painting (1991) he develops Wolfflin's account of painterly painting, starting from the paradigmatic case of Titian, who `would work directly onto the canvas, without preliminary drawing, laying in masses in colour and working with a heavily loaded brush. His composition would evolve, the painting being worked and reworked over a long period of time ....dependent on a visual and sensual response for its meaning to become apparent'. Such painting has nothing to do with illustration of the kind one finds, say, in many of the paintings of Stanley Spencer.
Engagement with the material is discriminable in principle from engagement with the medium. The latter involves the artist in reflexive, rather than taken for granted, involvement with the traditions and conventions of his or her art form and, by extension, with whatever personal style the artist has previously developed (where there is always space for a decision to try to change it). I think two points are worth making at this point about such engagement.
First, that like the Law, traditions and conventions do not exhaustively specify what is to be done in the individual case, though at the limit they may do so or appear to do so (as in specifications of verse form: sonnet, haiku, and so on). Mr A's pattern books will , inevitably, let him down.
Second, that an artist at a point in time can only foreground some conventions and traditions in reflexive mode; others must be taken for granted as background. Not everything can be reflexively foregrounded at one time. This is a conceptual point as well as a remark about our cognitive limitations, but for the moment I do not propose to pursue its philosophical ramifications.
I have separated engagement with material from engagement with medium, distinguishing engagement from use, but actually I want to privilege as the central normative case of artistic acitivity what artists are doing when they engage simultaneously with both material and medium, so that the work of art emerges from a joint engagement with both, and straightforward use of neither. Such activity has been central to artistic work in Europe (Cezanne can stand as exemplary of such practice) but not always. Work to religious commission tended to be weak on engagement (assistants did the dirty work; composition stuck to the rules); contemporary work in minimal and conceptual art tends to be all medium and no material: the word 'conceptual' suggests as much.
Why is joint engagement with both material and medium a virtue? My central argument is that we engage with a material (properly) because we have something to express but don't (quite) know what it is that we want to give form to or how to give it form. We engage with 'our' material because we believe it apt for the working out, working through of our desire to express something we know not quite what. In so engaging, we carry with us our knowledge of and competence in the conventions and traditions of our medium, as things which can be both used deployed as of right and reflexively engaged with, undone and remade. In either case, these conventions and traditions enable us to give form to our material to shape paint into a painting, bodily movement into dance, sound into music. They provide us with another feedback loop.
We classify as 'naive' those art works which are made in ignorance of the local traditions and conventions for working in a medium, and which involves therefore the working of materials aided only by native imagination and dim recollections of what you did in school. Alfred Wallis, the untutored St Ives painter, falls into this category; his work hangs in the Tate Gallery only because he was taken up by the non naive painters of St Ives. Whereas naive artists do not have enough knowledge of the medium of their art to engage with its traditions and conventions within the context of an expressive activity, but are nonetheless willing to get their hands dirty, conceptual artists generally know too much about the medium and are too fastidious to touch the material. 'Primitive' (native, ethnic) tribal artists are not naive artists: they are simply working with traditions and conventions different to ours, and which we used to call primitive.
An artist steeped in the traditions and conventions of a culture's way of handling an art material but who seeks to work quite outside them is neither a naif or a primitive. At best, such a person is an innovator: at worst, merely a rebel. An insider, working well, will of course often be pushing the boundaries of the medium
The artist, at best, is someone trying to solve a simultaneous equation: to do something both with the material and the medium which will allow the initial artistic impulse to be converted into a work towards which the artist can have the reaction, 'Yes, that's it'; 'Yes, that's what I wanted to express'. For it is central to artistic activity that an engagement is terminable: that it can result in a finished 'Work', thereafter separated from the life of the artist (who may indeed feel that it has nothing to do with them any longer). In an essay on 'Minimal Art'. Richard Wollheim observes that Marcel Duchamp's ready mades isolate that (neglected) aspect of art work which just is the decision that the art work has gone far enough. So Duchamp takes the urinal and puts his signature on it to signify 'That's it!'.
Embodied art is the production of works which are the result of someone's use or engagement with a material (paint, sound. marble and so on.) What gives point to the working of such materials is the belief that thereby we can express things which do not lend themselves readily to prior or subsequent verbal statement or paraphrase. Indeed, we are wasting our time (and probably someone else's money) if we do approach the materials of art with a stateable message in our heads and a conception of our task as that of translating this message into the materials and medium of our chosen art just in order, presumably, for some audience to translate it back, with more or less difficulty, into the verbal form with which we started. Art is not a foreign language to be used, perversely, by people who have already got one perfectly good language in which to say what they think and express what they feel. Art is not Illustration.
Asked to design a Christmas installation for the Tate, Tracey Emin thinks: Christmas is about giving, so I'll give away my installation (an ordinary decorated Christmas tree) and put a sign up in the Tate saying that's what I've done and inviting readers to make a charitable donation themselves, in return for which one of them will get a present from me. This is a clever gimmick to illustrate a thought but it's nothing more.
I want to expand on these sentiments with an example of craft activity, and then generalise that example to other art forms.
Consider, then, a potter at the wheel, making pots. The products of this activity, if the potter is any good, will be recognisably pots by so and so and they will also belong to recognisable traditions of pot making (not all traditions make their pots on the wheel, for example.) But each individual pot will have been thrown in such a way that the potter makes extensive, and no doubt largely unconscious use of feedback information from the engagement with the clay, fed through hand and eye. The pot gets to be the way it ends up being because the potter is responsive both to the constraints imposed by the material as it is being worked, and to the relation of its emerging form to the conventions and traditions and styles with which the potter is working.
This is how pots are made, and all the better if and because the potter has no 'message' to 'communicate' through her pots. A potter produces pots, not vessels through which something else may pass. Anything which is 'said' is said in the pots, not through them. That is why it is that in a significant tradition of aesthetics, the word 'said' would be replaced by the word 'expressed': things can be expressed in doing pottery and in the pots which result. The pots are, on this view, the end point of the potter's practice; they are not messages waiting to be received by an audience, and they do not intrude on the audience, though an audience may look at them and respond to their expressive properties.
If this is how it is for potters, pottery and pots, so it is (for example) for composers, composing, and compositions. Here, the analogue of clay as a material is sound and the traditions and conventions of pottery are replaced by those of music, within which sound can be organised into musical sound. Composers, for example, will normally be working on the assumption that they are composing for instruments pre adapted for rendering sound within the conventions and traditions with which they are working, and that musicians will read scores on the same assumptions as those with which the composer writes them. In other words, composers assume that out there, there are musicians who share with them conventions for reading scores. John Cage, among others, has realised that this is something which can he played around with. Musicians can be handed scores written outside a set of shared conventions and which consequently require much more interpretation than musicians are used to giving them. This is not an objection to the line of argument I am developing: it simply illustrates the fact that any conventions and traditions can be changed, challenged and, in the less interesting cases, monkeyed around with. ( Re reading Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art, I notice that he offers a critique of John Cage's alternative musical notations, saying that they furnish ' no means of identifying a work from performance to performance' (p. 1 89)).
It may be objected, however, to my line of argument that some composers compose in their heads, rather than with the aid of an instrument, so that there is no feedback loop from ear to mind, analogous to the potter's feedback from hand to mind. Pottery is 'hands on' but music may not always be 'ears open'. In response, it may be observed that such is the plight of the deaf composer, and that when Beethoven became deaf, he railed against his ill fortune. He did not see it as irrelevant to his ability to compose that he should be able to hear his compositions. To think audition might be irrelevant is like supposing that a painter can go blind without ill effect on ability to paint. The feedback loop from eye to mind is more important for most painters than that which goes from hand to mind.
Embodied art is, in the cases which I want to regard as normative, the product of embodied artistic activity, not of activity, which is purely 'mental' or 'conceptual'. It matters that each art has a material basis (clay, sound, paint, bodily movement, and so on) and that this material has to be worked up within an artistic medium which is defined (albeit, ill defined) by conventions and traditions. It matters that the working of the material creates feedback loops which can inflect the direction of an artist's endeavours. And it matters that audiences engage with works created in specific materials, rather than that they engage with ideas of works, summaries of works, photographic reproductions of works, or musical scores of works. Works of art are not physical objects, but neither are they ideas in the head.
Philosophies of art rarely over emphasise the material embodiment of art works. More often, they exaggerate the extent to which art is something in the head, something mental. This is as bad as supposing that sex is primarily mental, when, actually, we all know that having sex on the mind is a very bad place to have it. We succumb to this affliction when there isn't enough flesh about. But that is not to say that sex is all flesh: orgasms are not reducible to the workings of organisms. Having sex with someone is an intentional activity, essentially embodied, but not reducible to its physical embodiment. This is what Roger Scruton argues inSexual Desire. So it is with art: engaging with art, whether as artist or audience, is engaging with something embodied.
Or, rather, it is in all cases except one: prose fiction, what I shall call the novel. Here, there is no straightforward embodiment, no relevant material substrate worked within novelistic traditions and conventions.
This is why a novel can be translated (in a way that poetry cannot), and can be read silently, aloud or in braille. There is no material which matters. The novel is a second order medium, the 'material' of which is another medium, that of language. If the novel is poetic in its use of language, then this will be lost in translation, and to some degree submerged in silent reading (however good our inner voice). This is because poetry, in contrast to prose , does have a material base in the movement of sound, conceived both pre linguistically (as phonetic material) and linguistically (as phonemic material). But novels, defined as prose writings, are defined as not primarily poetry. (Some of Rousseau's philosophical writings are laid out as prose but written metrically: this is lost in translation, but it doesn't matter very much since the works are primarily argumentative. The alexandrines are ornament). Suppose it is said that the material substrate of the novel is language, which is wrought into a story. This is false. A novel is a story (a subject) wrought in language, which is an already constituted medium rather than a material substrate, though language itself has a material base in sound. Writing turns a subject into a narrative or fabulation. It is the conventions and traditions of something non material, the novelistic medium of story telling, which are brought to bear to tell a story, which could be told in other ways. A story does not define the way it should be told. The art of story telling is to find a way to tell a story such that it evokes in imagination the idea of a possible experience, an experience which may involve all the senses as well as our most complex intellectual constructions.
The oral story tellers of traditional cultures are doing the same thing as the tellers of stories in deaf cultures who use a sign language to narrate a story. Novelists who write their stories down are also doing essentially the same thing, though a different and probably larger repertoire of storytelling devices is open to them, devices which may be gestured towards by calling them dramatic or filmic. In the novel, interior monologue can be represented in stream of consciousness; exterior circumstances can be represented in panoramas which are readily taken over into the film of the book.
One could look upon written down stories as scripts or scores for various kinds of performance: reading aloud or silent reading to oneself. But this only highlights how they differ from musical scores or dramatic scripts. The way in which those are embodied is not optional: scores have to be embodied as audible musical performances; dramatic scripts have to be embodied as visible stage plays (or, if not, we have to do with such nameable sub genres as the radio play, which is bodied forth as human voices and what are quaintly called 'sound effects').
The novel's independence of a material substrate is both loss and gain. Gain because there is nothing to restrain our imagination: a story teller can create the Pygmalion that a sculptor never can; and whereas embodied human beings can never accomplish it, a novelist can imagine for them (and Erica Jong did imagine) the zipless fuck.
Loss, because the novel is too much in the head and insulated from the kind of feedback through touch, sight and hearing which I have presented as central to productive engagement in other art forms.
But the novel does possess the properties we value in artworks. The medium of the novel can be used expressively. A novel can be formed (structured) in ways which are pleasing and significant, and which provide space for our imagination. But it does not work on us in or through the senses in the way that a painting, a musical or dance performance does. And the gain from reading a novel in a well produced edition is incidental, not essential in the way that the performance of a symphony by a good orchestra is our best means of access to it.
There has been a discussion in philosophy of art around the distinction between autographic and allographic works drawn by Nelson Goodman in his book Languages of Art. The distinction is one between those art forms where the original of a work has a special aesthetic status and those where reproduction makes no difference to aesthetic status. Paintings and novels can stand as core representatives of each type, and in between the going gets difficult (for example, is a musical composition to be thought of as primarily a score and so like a novel or is it some ideal performance of which actual performances are pale copies?). In terms of the argument I have been developing, what matters aesthetically, is whether an artist is working with a material as well as a medium . My claim is that novelists have only their medium: everyone else also has a material.
Conceptual artists cause us a headache partly because we don't know whether they have got a material or not. As a result, we don't know whether it is relevant or essential to come into contact with the work itself, or whether a description of it or a photograph of it will provide us with all we need. Whereas it is entirely clear that going to see Mark Rothko's paintings in the Tate Gallery is essential to engaging with them, it is perhaps unclear whether you actually have to see and walk around Carl Andre's bricks or go to see Tracey Emin's Christmas Tree which isn't actually there�. You certainly don't have to see them (or not see them!) in order to talk about them, and part of the issue is whether they exist for any other reason than to be talked about by the chattering classes.
Too often, works of conceptual art appear to be illustrations or ancillary supports for 'statements' which can be and are made in language and are made with a view to being talked about. Such works are communicative of ideas and, as such, their material basis is irrelevant: if your aim is only to communicate a message, you will not be concerned with how you do it.
The material of conceptual art only gets to be interesting when it is seen to have some cultural significance in its own right. Whereas sound and clay are morally neutral materials (and this is a significant fact about them), dead flesh is not, at least in a culture which is conflicted about the moral status of animals. So Damien Hirst's use of dead flesh gets to be talked about (it is what makes his art 'controversial'). Only gallery curators talk about the formaldehyde, because they are worried about it leaking. The public talks about the preserved meat.
But art, paradigmatically and normatively, is not there to be talked about; it is there to be experienced, and the relevant issue from the point of view of the aesthetic I have been developing is whether we need to experience Hirst's work or merely know about it. If the latter, it is not art but a bit of dramatised moral philosophy, rather like one of Brecht's Lehrstuecke.
The novel belongs to art because it has to be experienced. You haven't read a novel when you've read a synopsis of it. But because it is a kind of conceptual art, the novel runs the particular risk of being merely illustrative of something else, say, a moral, political or religious thesis. It becomes a roman a these - a novel which develops an argument. And the experience of reading these is usually dire. In contrast to them, a well written philosophy essay will strike us as a rattling good yarn.
Written sometime in the 1990s. Not previously published. Small additions made for this website version, 2003