The subject matter of this essay is based on the original article ‘The Trouble with (the term) Art’ written by Carolyn Dean (professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California) and published in the Art Journal, Vol. 65, no. 2 (summer 2006), pp 25-32. As the title indicates, the theme of that article and of this essay should be “art” or, perhaps, more precisely the concept of “art” itself “for what art is seems to be at the very heart of the issue” (Carolyne Dean). The author of the article emphasizes the fact that the term “art” has been used by many scholars in various disciplines with different connotations. Carolyn Dean focuses on the “so-called AOA fields (Africa, Oceania, America)”, that is on cultures often categorized as “primitive”. The scholars working in these fields often incorrectly describe the products of these cultures as being “primitive art”, by contrasting them with what is commonly seen as West-European art.
The major question in Dean’s article points at the error of using the term “art” simply for anything that is touched, moved, used or produced by mankind anywhere and at any time on the planet. The greatest problem is that we keep calling things “art” without regard to the objects’ original purpose as given to them by those indigenous people who used or fabricated them in the first place. It is a fact, that in the many cultures whose products we call “primitive art,” there has been no concept of “art” in the contemporary West-European understanding of this word. Certainly there have been cultures that have developed a different understanding and appreciation of objects. Though, in many cases their primal role and worthiness stays hidden in the history, because there is no one left to be asked if there was an aesthetic evaluation present or if there was any concept of “art” at all. So, when we find the remains of an older culture, we simply apply our “Western” values and use our “Western” points of views. Instead, we should try to look at it through the eyes of the culture we are trying to study, on the basis of our findings. Unfortunately, we tend to have a comercial approach to it: how valuable is this piece of “primitive art”?. Even worse, it is not only the bygone cultures that we approach in this manner but also those cultures we have discovered in the colonised territories since the late Middle-Ages.
Can we ever possibly undo the damage that has already been done to all these cultures? What kind of action should be taken when a culture with a concept of “art” and one without such a concept meet? Should this concept be introduced to the culture where such a concept is missing? Should it be implanted at all costs? What if there is a reason why the concept of “art” has not jet evolved in that culture or, perhaps, what if we do or did not recognise it having already been there? Then the remains of cultures which had known the concept of “art” may in a way be called “art”. On the other hand, there may have been cultures that never developed aesthetic feelings, then nothing these cultures would have left behind could be “art”. However, it is not for us to decide on such a thing and therefore we simply apply our concept of “art” to what may or may not be “art”.
Has mankind learned from any of its mistakes?
“This is art!” I have always had a problem with this term and much more trouble with its interpretation. It usually leads me to an inner dispute where, on the one hand there stands subjective me designating everything that has been adapted and created by man as “art”, and, on the other hand there is an objective me recognizing as “art” only the few things accepted as “art” collectively by the whole human society. Here is a short demonstration: The subjective me says: ‘When I draw a sketch, paint a picture, take a photograph, sing a random melody, prepare a meal, walk, dream, etc., I consider myself it producing or even being an object of “art”. Why shouldn’t everything I say and the way I say it be approached as “art?” Everybody is unique! We all are in a way a form of “art” and there are many aesthetic distinctions between all of us to evaluate our products and ourselves.’ The objective me replies: ‘We are unique individuals but we all can’t live on producing “art”, unless we would call “art” all human activity. Nonetheless, things like cars, customer goods and all the articles of mass production should not be called “art”. Surely, there is the design of these products, which can be marked as “art”.’ This dialogue could go on forever as well as might the one in the real world. Thanks to reading this article I found out that there is a real discussion taking place. I have even thought about joining the discussion myself and, at any rate, I am really looking forward to learning the outcome.
Carolyn Dean tries to resume the discussions on the subject by presenting previous attempts to find solutions and definitions for the term “art”. She also provokes those in the field to replace the so much hated term “primitive art”. This term has some supporters among those using it. There were more and less courageous attempts throughout modern history to arouse debates on this very burning issue – I personally like the phrase Adrian Gerbrands used in 1957 during one of the first discussions on this subject; back then he called it “the problem of the name”. Dean’s article may encourage some art historians, anthropologists and other related scholars to continue in the debate and eventually agree on the terminology to be used. Nevertheless, that stays an open question.