Monday, April 28, 2014

Are Altoon Sultan's potholders art?

A good friend of mine who is a well-known artist, Altoon Sultan, has an ongoing debate on her Facebook page on whether some potholders she made are works of art.  Unusually, she argues that they are not, and this even though many of her correspondents believe they are.  She posted some images of the potholders, which she made herself using a kit.  They are nice-looking potholders, but I agree that they are not art.  It is not sufficient for something to be made by an artist and to be nice-looking for it to be art.  Some of  Altoon's friends insist that the potholders are beautiful and hence should be seen as art.  Whether or not they are beautiful is open to question:  I certainly would not go so far.  Hardly anyone believes that beauty is an objective quality like temperature or length.   But some philosophers believe that something can be objectively more beautiful than something else, for instance Van Gogh's "Starry Night" is objectively more beautiful than Kinkade's "Christmas Chapel 1."  I agree.  Kinkade's painting may be beautiful to someone and quite possibly to those who buy copies of it or would even buy the original.  To me, it is mildly charming at best (Kindade has done stuff that is stupendously ugly, but "Christmas Chapel 1" does not quite stoop that low), but I would never say it is beautiful.  I would hope that even most of those who believe it is beautiful would admit that it is not as beautiful as "Starry Night."  Nor are the potholders beautiful, certainly not in the same sense as Altoon's textile artworks

I am not of course arguing that Altoon's potholders are like Kinkade's work, only that someone thinking that some artist-made artifact is beautiful is not sufficient to make it art.  Altoon insists that when others claim that her potholders are art while she insists that they are not they are insulting her because doing so devalues the textile works she has been  creating recently and which she considers to be art.  These works use similar materials and are similar in size to the potholders, but are more sophisticated, require more work, and are of higher aesthetic value than the potholders. 

It is an interesting question whether George Dickie would argue that Altoon's potholders are or are not art.  His famous definition in its earliest version is "A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation." (Aesthetics:  An Introduction, 1971)  I think that he would say that the potholders fail to meet the second condition.  They are artifacts (thus meeting the first condition), but they have not had conferred upon them the status of candidate for appreciation by a member of the artworld.  Moreover, Altoon would insist that even if she thought they should be appreciated as nice or pretty potholders, she was not conferring this status "on behalf of the artworld."  The status she conferred (if she conferred any) was not art status but simply the status of something worth looking at (proof being that she posted it.) 

I interpret Dickie's "for appreciation" to mean "for appreciation as art."  On this interpretation of Dickie's theory the potholders would not be art.  Nonetheless, if you take "for appreciation" to mean any appreciation or even "aesthetic appreciation," they would be art.  So in this case I would say that Altoon's potholders would be a great counterexample to Dickie's theory.  They are clearly not art even though they are candidates for appreciation:  they are just candidates for appreciation as potholders (i.e. as looking nice in the context of use for holding pots in the kitchen).   It is better to take Dickie to mean "for appreciation as art."  That this introduces circularity into his theory is of no real importance since the theory is already circular, and Dickie has already argued for the value of the theory despite its circularity.

Moreover, I would venture that Altoon's potholders would not meet most definitions of art currently on offer.  Most of these require that the artist intend the work to be art, and Altoon insists that her potholders are not art.  However, some would argue that just as artist sketches that were never intended to be displayed as art become art as soon as they are displayed in a museum, so too Altoon's potholders could be displayed by a curator as art, perhaps alongside her serious textile works, perhaps even as part of an exhibit dealing with the very issue of whether or not they are art.  So, let's say that they are displayed in a museum by a curator.  Does that make them art?  What about the ones that are indistinguishable from them made by someone else from the same potholder kit?  Let's imagine that the curator, being keen on philosophical debates over art, decides to exhibit another potholder in the same show, except this one is not by an artist.  Let's even say that Altoon's potholder gets mixed up with the other person's potholder, and so one cannot be sure which one one is looking at!  Hmmm.  Without going into this any further I would just want to stand firm with Altoon and say that the curator's little game does not make either her potholder or the other person's potholder art.  Exhibition of an artifact made by an artist in an art museum, even if some think the artifact is beautiful, does not make it art.  

But now, let's say that a follower of Duchamp gets hold of Altoon's potholder and, as with the urinal in Duchamp's "Fountain," he paints "R. Mutt" on it and displays it as art.  Is it then art?  Well yes, of course.  This person has created (rather bad and derivative) art from a potholder.  But then it is not Altoon's artwork.  Rauschenberg took a de Kooning and erased it and presented it as "Erased de Kooning."  It is an artwork, but not de Kooning's.  So this would not prove that Altoon's potholders are art.

If Altoon can say that some things that she makes that clearly have aesthetic properties and are made of similar materials to her artworks are not art, can she also say that things that you would really expect her to say are examples of art are not art?  Well, she can.  She can say anything.  But let's say that she insists (contrary to reality) that her textile works are not art, or that they used to be, but are no longer.  Would exhibiting them as art then be a category mistake?  (Perhaps it would be morally wrong for a gallery owner to exhibit her works after she has tried to withdraw their art status.   But that's another question.)  I think she cannot actually withdraw art status from her fiber art works.  They have features that make them art that the potholders just do not.  

Denis Dutton (in The Art Instinct) defines art  in a cluster account way in which something is art if it has most of the following features and must have feature (12).  The features are roughly:
1.[Provides] Direct pleasure.
2. Skill and virtuosity
3. Style
4. Novelty and creativity.
5. [Evokes] Criticism.
6. Representation. Represents.
7. Special focus.
8. Expressive individuality.
9. Emotional saturation.
10. [Provides] Intellectual challenge.
11. [Belongs to] Art traditions and institutions.
12. [Involves] Imaginative experience
The potholders do provide direct pleasure to some, but show no skill or virtuosity beyond the minimum needed, show no unique style (one could not tell they are by Altoon), exhibit no novelty or creativity, are not subject to serious critical review, represent nothing (except perhaps ordinary objects in a debate about whether ordinary objects can be art), are ordinary objects used every day in the kitchen rather than being something special, express nothing beyond a desire perhaps to have one's objects of everyday use look nice, have no more emotional saturation than any other ordinary object of the home, provide little intellectual challenge beyond the current debate over whether they are art (and this intellectual challenge was probably not intended by Altoon in their making), do not belong in any interesting way to art traditions or institutions, and encourage no special imaginative experience (although any object can evoke imaginings, given the right conditions).  In conclusion: the argument that they are art under Dutton's theory of art is not compelling.

1 comment:

Janin Hermans said...

Wat "kunst" betekent,met 'n grote of 'n kleine"k"laat ik in het midden.Mensen zoals Rubens ,Titiaan,van Dijck etc. waren AMBACHTSLIEDEN ,kregen opdrachten omdat ze "Meester" waren in het portreteren of op het vlak van religieuze taferelen en werden daarvoor heel goed betaald door kapitaalkrachtige opdrachtgevers.En dit noemen wij nu "Kunst" !! In de hedendaagse "kunst" komt de vrije keuze van thema,sfeer,compositie,materialen.......contestatie,provocatie,lyriek,minimalisme en het brengen van de essentie van onderwerpen die ons uitermate boeien aan bod.
AMBACHT in oppositie VRIJE CREATIES = ONDER 1 NOEMER ...KUNST?Wie heeft de pretentie te oordelen,wie?