‘Art’ is an elusive quality which some artworks mysteriously possess. It means they are strange and disturbing. Any artwork that isn’t strange and disturbing, isn’t art. It’s as simple as that. Art has nothing to do with aesthetics, or skilled craftsmanship. Art is something special.
How can we possibly arrive at this, given what even informed people normally think about art?
What follows here is not a definition of art by decree. Nor is this some kind of art manifesto. We are not saying this is how art should be, or could be, but how it is, if you let go of the prison of aesthetics, and follow an infinitely more interesting conceptual trail. This is about uncovering and identifying an approach to art which avoids the triviality of sensory-based aesthetic theory and moves instead towards exploring the experiential worlds that art presents us with. And this approach is not about diminishing the sensory enjoyment of artworks, but about placing them in a much richer context, where they can work a far greater magic.
For most people, whether artistically informed or not, art is all about aesthetics. It ’s all about the finer feelings, and lofty thoughts, and vague theological yearnings, brought on by certain sensory perceptions. It is about educating and refining these feelings in accordance with ideas of beauty, truth, love, and sublimity. It is about being educated enough to delight in cultural subtlety, and delicacy, and nuance. Fine art is Rubens, Michelangelo, Mozart, Swan Lake; that sort of thing. The appreciation of classical fine art is also closely associated with spirituality, and if not directly contiguous with spirituality, certainly a wholesome gateway to it.
But ever since the arrival of modern art surprisingly long ago, in the 1860s – this very self-enclosed and somewhat claustrophobic tradition has been under attack. The values and methods of high culture have been called to account, and asked to justify themselves. It doesn’t often happen like this. And the attack coming from a loose assemblage of renegades and bohemians; a most unlikely bunch imaginable – has been both formidable, and sustained. The assault has also been oddly protracted, going on and on without result, neither side ever close to total victory, and both sides often copying one another’s style and methods, and combat still regularly taking place more than a hundred and fifty years after the first skirmishes.
Which means this attack on high culture is still with us. But it would be a mistake to see it as no more than an age-old conflict between the legitimate powers that be, and unqualified insurgents. It is much more than that, because by subjecting cultural dogmas to scrutiny, it not only renewed and reinvigorated every single art form without exception, it also brought to light the fact that, in the right hands, artistic creativity can extend well beyond constant subservience to aesthetic sensitivity, and include the creation and exploration of entire worlds of imaginative experience.