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Social Uses of
the Notion of Art

Vytautas Kavolis
Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology at Dickinson College. He is the author of Artistic
Expression: A Sociological Analysis and
History on Art's Side: Social Dynamics in
Artistic Efflorescences.
1
Art, we might assume, is created because
people are interested in it. But why are
people interested in art? Or, conversely,

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why are they uninterested in art, even


when it is being created and exists in their
environment in a greater profusion of
forms and impressions than ever before?
A good argument could be made for the
view that interest in art arises from the
generalized notion of art and is much less
likely to develop where such a notion
either does not exist or is preserved in
some vestigial form, unable to regenerate
itself from the daily flow of experience
(e.g., in the urban working class as contrasted to the traditional peasantry)-o r
where the notion of art has ceased to be
plausible.
The basic (historically evolved and crossculturally validated) notion of art contains
five defin ing elements:

1. It is man- (or woman-) made, an artifact


not provided by nature.

2. It is well-made, an object or performance of outstandingly skillful execution, a


criterion that initially selects "art" from a
mass of "artifacts."
3. The goodness of its making transcends
the functional uti lity (if any) of the object
or performance, the social pu rposes for
which it was originally intended or subsequently used, and the aesthetic framework
(if any) within which it has been conceived
by its author. It is this kind of "transcendence" that makes the aesthetic quality of
works of art recognizable beyond any particular sociohistorica l setting.

4. This quality does not originate in the


attitudes of any group of art perceivers or
in the stylistic idiom or the contents of the
work of art, but is inherent in the order
that has emerged in the process of working it out and whose demands on its
creator the latter has so adequately recognized, in concrete detail, that the result
remains admirable even to those to whom
both the elements and the totality of this
particu lar order are culturally and psychologically alien. (In its purest case,
artistic value can be defined as formal
compellingne ss of substantively alien perceptions.) What is admired, in the purest
case of aesthetic appreciation, by the per-

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ceiver of a work of art, is the perfection of


the working out of the specific discipline
that a particu lar act of creation requires of
its author; the sense of adequacy to what
can only be called "the nature of a created
order."
5. This order is, however, of such character that the working out of it, and only an
adequate working out of it, gives a kind of
sensuous pleasure, an emotional resonance that enhances one's sense of existence, to its maker and others, in his (her)
own society and elsewhere, whether its
maker has intended to give such pleasure
or not. Whatever the experience of the
maker in producing it, a work of art exists
only if it is capable of giving this kind of
emotionally enhancing sensuous pleasure
to others than those immediately involved
in its production.
The dynamic paradox underlying the generalized notion of art as a human accomplish ment is twofold: man recognizes the
claims that his works make upon him, and
he acquires and gives a gratifying emotional resonance through the working out
of a disci pi in e. By refusing to honor the
claims of his own works, he destroys or
d iminishes them, and by refusing to work
out a discipline appropriate to their character he reduces the pleasure that originates from his actions.
This is what the notion of art, more or less
clearly, has always implied, even in preliterate societies, where this notion was not
consciously recognized. (Generalized
notions of this kind may be most effective
precisely where their operations are not
reified , and distorted, into ideologies.)

2
Conceived in this manner, the notion of art
may well be the single most potent invention in the whole history, and prehistory,
of human imagination, far more potent than
any specific works embodying it. (And
more enduring , since the notion of art can
be continuously retained even in a society
that does not preserve a single one of its
products embodying this notion, e.g.,
where body decoration is the prevailing
art.)

What is "powerful" about the generalized


notion of art is the postulation it implies
that:
1. Humans can, by their actions, produce
emotionally gratifying orders, physical or
symbolic (although not all orders they produce are emotionally enhancing; indeed
some objects labelled "art," today perhaps
more than ever, are emotionally constricting, or depleting, in their effects).
2. Humans can recognize and, in a disciplined way, accept the demands of the
orders they are producing-i.e., the
responsibilities imposed upon them by
their own works (although they do not
always fully understand or have the
capacity to fulfill these responsibilities).
3. An order in which gratification is
achieved by fulfilling the demands of one 's
own creative work is recognizable to at
least some people other than its producer-particularly to people also skilled
in producing artistic objects or performances. Moreover, if such orders are capable of being preserved in an objectified
form or in memory, they can withstand the
critical judgment of people in times and
places other than that in which they have
been produced (although only comparatively few works of art do in fact survive
such tests).
What this means is the morally-and
ontologically-important conclusion that
when humans grasp, and adequately articulate, the demands of what they are working on, their works are not arbitrary, not
limited to being their own ego (or ethnocentric) trips of no general significance or
validity. It is the thorough understanding
and perfect fulfillment of the demands of
the "nature" of one's own creations that
endure, embodied in them, as the closest
approximati.on to "eternal" and "common
human" values. Values arise from the perfection of the grasp of what one is doing.
These are notions without which significant
art is inconceivable. But they are also
notions which, nurtured by art, suggest a
general metaphor for comprehending the
manner in which significance-or validity,
or poignancy-is generated anywhere in

human existence. It is, moreover, not only


an analytical framework, but also a
criterion for evaluative judgment-of both
societies (to what degree do they permit
human beings to generate significance?)
and of individual humans (to what degree
do they act, within the limits of the possible, in such ways as to generate significance?) . Thus the quality of life-or even
"health"-of both societies and individual
personalities can be evaluated by the
degree to which they approach the generalized notion of "art" (a criterion
empirically superior, in dealing with human
realities, to any generalized notion of an
obligatory "nature," and containing more
precise diagnostic criteria than such
notions as "faith").
The generalized notion of art is indeed the
universal paradigm for a critical analysis of
all human ways of life, in all civilizations
and historical epochs, considered not in
terms of a particular type of their effects
(e.g., productivity level, suicide rate etc.),
but in terms of comprehensive relationships between human works and the understanding, or lack of it, by their makers, of
what their works require of them; and
between the disciplines accepted, or not
accepted, in the production of these works
and the gratifications arising, or not
arising, from their execution. As a paradigm for judgment, the generalized notion
of art is disturbing by the critical light it
throws on any existing reality, but it also
provides an orientation for overcoming its
deficiencies.

3
If the generalized notion of art is socially
useful, why is it being abandoned by so
many contemporary artists? Why does it
seem to be losing its plausibility precisely
for the people who have been generating
and regenerating it for ages? Is this a part
of the wholesale repudiation by avantgarde artists of everything utilitarian?
The notion of art, forged in the practice of
generations of imaginative workers, is
undermined by the experience of masses
of industrial and bureaucratic workers.
It seems that, in advanced industrial
societies, only in personal relations and in
certain kinds of ideological politics-but

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nowhere in the sphere of economic production, including the production of works


of art-is the generalized notion of art still
easily at home. (But if mechanistic modes
of production and administratio n eliminate
the experience of art, they increase the
sense of need for it. The notion of art
may yet be recreated from this need.)
Beyond this, the generalized notion of art
can lose its credibility for two fundamental
sociopsychol ogical reasons: (a) such contentment with existing social arrangements
that no symbolic designs to transcend
them are felt to be needed, or (b) such
despair with existing social arrangements
and their possible changes that any symbolic designs worked out by human beings
for transcending them must be regarded
as mere self-deception . The logical
response to the first attitude is to be artists
in a manner governed wholly by habit
rather than to work at producing socially
transcendant, emotionally resonant orders
of art. The logical response to the second
attitude is to debunk the "illusion" of art
by committing acts of artistic self-destruction (or to abandon the making of art altogether and go off into mysticism).
These are general sociopsychol og ical attitudes, to which both artists and nonartists
(to varying degrees at different times) are
subject. Both attitudes are operating, to a
high degree and in most complex interpenetrations, in the contemporary artistic
avant garde.
The modern artistic enterprise has, furthermore, generated two, at their inception,
specifically artistic ideologies that tend to
undermine the generalized notion of art:
(a) the romanticism of self-expressio n,
individual or by now more frequently collective (e.g., in the "participation " arts), an
ideology implying that everything in the
"self," or in what the "se lf" perceives or
experiments with, is equally worth expressing, and whatever is expressed is "art";
and (b) the roma~ticism (or surrealism) of
the artistic role, the belief that everything
done while occupying the social role of the
artist, or claiming such a role, or trying to
subvert it, is " art." These ideologies have
had a much needed liberating effect on the
flow of modern art, but they are not by

366

themselves sufficient as foundations for its


creation.
More recently, two other artistic ideologies have emerged, {c) surrender to the
technological thrust (e.g., electronic art),
and (d) the self-sufficienc y of conceptual
construction (art works arising solely as
analyses of formal co ncepts implied in
other art works, or intended to be sufficient solely as analyses of contemporary
civilization, or existing only as statements
of the principles for their making). These
two ideologies articulate some artists'
sense of being overwhelmed by the imaginative qualities exhibited by the contemporary scientific-tech nological civilization,
far more impressive than those of which
they themselves, as artists, seem to be
capable.
All four of these ideologies are destructive
of the generalized notion of art-the first
two because, at least in theory, they reject
the responsibility of working out well-made
objects or performances , and the latter
two, because they refuse, as a matter of
principle, to give an emotional resonance
or indeed, in many cases, any sort of
sensuous pleasure.
Propagandis tic-or " consciousnes sraising " -conception s of art undermine the
possibility of art by holding it down to the
social purposes for which it is intended
.and, if successful, by eliminating its
"transcende nce"-i.e., its ability to communicate beyond the socio-aesthet ic framework within which it has been produced.
But strangely enough, this conception ,
while quite incapable of generating significant works of art, does not seem to destroy
the generalized notion of art. It preserves
the promise which it cannot itself meet.

4
What happens when (or where) the generalized notion of art loses its plausibility?
One would assume that the impact on
society would be a reduced trust in the

Richard Karwosky
The Barn
oil 1971

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potenti al worthw hilenes s of human efforts ,


in the human ability to disting uish betwee n
what is worthw hile and what is not, in the
relative durabi lity of the best of human
achiev ements (= values). and in the capacity of people to conceiv e of more emotio nally grat ifying design s for th eir existen ce
and to progress effectiv ely, in concre te
detail , toward their realiza tion. In short,
the discred itation of the genera lized notion
of art, in part by the artists themse lves, is
one source of anomie. (To ward off the
opposi te danger, an exaggerate d and ultimately self-de structiv e confide nce in the

power of art, a continu ous social criticism


of art would have been sufficie nt.)

Jacob Landau

Robert Gwathm ey

from CHARA DES

Tin of Lard

Portfol io of Ten Origina l Lithogr aphs

Photo by Walter Rosenb lum

For art, I would expect the followi ng consequen ces of a decline in the genera lized
notion of art:
1. Whatev er art is intende d to exp ress, it
increas ingly expres ses its own imposs ibility.
2. Since such art ceases to be ontolog ically and morally signific ant, sponta neous
interes t in art decline s (or is investe d in

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the art of other times and places, perceived


as more significant)- and has to be stimulated by increasingly artificial means.
3. As the magnitude of th is task increases,
so much imagination is invested in the
artificial means of stimulating an interest in
art that the means become more challenging than the art that they are intended to
stimulate an interest in.
4. Art creation is absorbed into aesthetic
education.
5. Art history is transformed into the history of art interpretation , illustrated by
reproductions interesting mainly as points
of reference for more genuinely rewarding
texts.
6. The only remaining art becomes the art
of interpretation , and then of interpretation
of interpretation s.

5
It is in the short-run interest of art interpreters to promote artistic ideologies
which render their own work more exciting than that of the artists whose products
they interpret. The spread of "antiartistic" ideologies among contemporary
artists, perhaps especially among those
educated in the universities, represents, to
a high degree, the increasing domination
of art interpreters over the artists, an effort
(whether intended or not) to transform the
latter into a means for enhancing the
cultural significance of the former (an
exact analogy to the use of artists by the
merchants of culture as a means for
enriching themselves). Art interpreters, by
the logic of the operation of their profession, are bound to place themselves among
the destroyers of the generalized notion of
art (just as culture merchants, in a mass
market, do)-unless they have an ethical
commitment to its preservation.
6
Is it impossible today to achieve what the
generalized notion of art postu lates, or
merely incredible, in spite of occasional
evidence to the contrary, that such things
could be done by artists-or by anyonein an advanced industrial society?

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