Rick Poynor founded Eye
magazine in London in 1990, edited it for seven years and is
now its resident columnist. He has written about design, media
and visual culture for Harvard Design Magazine, The
Guardian, The Financial Times and many other publications.
His books include More Dark Than Shark (1986), a study
of Brian Eno's early songs, Typography Now: The Next Wave
(1991) and Typographica (2001). He is the author of
two collections of essays, Design Without Boundaries
(1998) and Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World
(2001). No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism,
a critical study of graphic design and postmodernism, appeared
THE ART WORLD TO DECIDE WHAT IS ART DOESN’T RESOLVE THE
ISSUE OF QUALITY
it matter whether art exists? I don’t mean art in the
ordinary sense of visual forms of expression. This kind of visual
output clearly exists in abundance. There’s more of it
coming at us, from every direction, than ever before in history.
But what about ‘art’ in the more particular sense
of something that conveys deep meaning and is consequently judged
to possess a special value -- both cultural and monetary? Do
we need that kind of art? And how do we decide what it is?
situation has been confused for decades and it becomes more
tangled with each passing year. To demonstrate the difficulty,
try to come up with a brief and clear explanation of this higher
kind of art that would be convincing to anyone, from any walk
of life, who heard it. The task is all but impossible. Yet we
proceed as though general social agreement exists about what
constitutes ‘serious’ art. We still have artists
who believe themselves to be in a different category from other
visual creators. There are still curators, critics, dealers
and collectors. There is still art education and an art market,
even if it’s doing less well than a few years ago.
art world is largely responsible for this confusion about definitions,
too. They told us that anything could be art, so long as an
artist said it was. Almost anyone who goes through a gallery
door is likely to have heard about Duchamp and his urinal. The
art world is less good at explaining how certain people get
to be artists and decide what art is for the rest of us. This
process of selection might not make aesthetic or philosophical
sense, but it works anyway. It’s about power: whoever
holds it gets to officiate and decide. The art world is a way
of conserving, controlling and assigning this precious resource.
Once a year, Art Review publishes a list of the 100 people on
the international art scene who wield the most clout. So there
we have it. Even the insiders admit what’s going on.
not part of the art world, but I studied art and I share some
of its assumptions. I do believe the higher kind of art exists.
It grips and fascinates me. There are few things I enjoy more
than looking at art in museums and galleries. So all the time,
like any committed gallery-goer, I’m confronted by the
question: why is this object I’m gazing at art? And, conversely,
why is something quite similar not art? Having reached that
point, it’s impossible to avoid even trickier questions.
Am I being shown things by the art world that might not be art
after all? Can a piece of work be serious art even though it
isn’t any good, while some other excellent piece of work
fails to qualify as high art? One thing I feel confident about
saying after years of looking at art is that I’m not automatically
prepared to take the art world’s word for it, even if
I conclude they are right about an artist or an art work. But
how do I think I know? I’ll come back to that later.
CREATE ART EXPERIENCES
years ago, in an interview, Brian Eno came up with another way
of looking at the ‘what is art?’ question. First,
he suggested that all the distinctions between high and low
art boil down to commercial interests. If a work of art is going
to command a high price, it has to claim a position in the center
of culture that other work doesn’t have. Agreed. But Eno
went much further: “The problem with the whole art object
theory, the idea that art somehow resides inside objects because
artists have put it there or discovered it, [is that it] creates
a picture of an independent entity, a substance in the world
called Art. And then the job of art historians is to decide
which ones have it and which ones have more or less of it.”
went on to argue that art -- in the sense of some special attribute
or value, objectively present in the work -- doesn’t actually
exist. So the question ‘what is art?’ is a redundant
enquiry; it cannot be answered. Instead, Eno switched the emphasis
from the artist to the viewer. While art might not reside in
the object, spectators can still feel that they are experiencing
something that qualifies as art, at least for them. The artist
should be redefined, Eno suggested, as “someone who creates
the occasion for an art experience.” This experience could
be generated by anything at all and it will be different for
every viewer. Art, like beauty, also turns out to be in the
eye of the beholder.
first sight this is quite persuasive. It appears to solve the
problem at a stroke. We have simply been thinking about art
in the wrong way. Eno’s redefinition offers a relativistic
view of art completely in keeping with all the other relativistic
ideas and opinions we hold about morality, society and the meaning
of life. His proposal also reflects what many people already
tend to think about art, high or low. They know what they like;
it’s an entirely subjective matter; the official view
about what is real art and what isn’t is irrelevant to
their private enjoyment and no one is going to persuade them
trouble with Eno’s focus on the viewer’s art experience
is that it doesn’t reveal anything about the aspects of
an art work that might cause the viewer to have that experience.
It doesn’t recognize that we might be able to analyze
those qualities, aesthetic or conceptual, and learn how they
affect us from studying many art experiences. Nor does it acknowledge
that artists try to create art experiences by manipulating their
materials, using an understanding gained as both viewer and
practitioner, in order to affect other viewers in particular
ways. It further suggests that there’s no possibility
of communicating with other viewers about our art experiences
to see how our perceptions of a given art-experience generator
(or art work) might compare.
issue we should be able to agree on, though, is that art requires
intention and action. Reality has to be manipulated or rearranged
in some way. A landscape isn’t art. But a view of a landscape
in the form of a painting is certainly art, according to both
our linguistic and cultural uses of the term. Can it also be
art in some higher sense?
BLIND ALLEY OF RELATIVISM
answer to this question isn’t culturally convenient --
that’s why we struggle with it now -- but we know how
it goes already. High art has existed for centuries. It’s
still with us, though it coexists now with many other possibilities
on a continuum that extends all the way from high to low, and
it’s much easier to identify in the past than in the present.
High art is Dante, Shakespeare, Flaubert and Kafka. It’s
Titian, Goya, Monet, Picasso, and many others. Their creations
survive as part of a canon of great works that educated people
have felt they should know about. This isn’t just some
unscrupulous con trick practised by the ruling classes. Nothing
stays in the canon over time unless enough people find it of
lasting worth. This is not to say that the canon shouldn’t
be continually reassessed, edited and expanded, but it remains
a collective judgment on what high quality means in the history
of a cultural field.
is a difficult idea for us because we are less inclined to believe
in greatness now. Several decades ago, all the dead white European
males who populate our cultural history started to look oppressive
to radical thinkers. This distaste has led us down the blind
alley of relativism. If we set aside the impossible wish to
re-play history and correct all its regrettable imbalances,
what distinguishes great works of art from other works judged
to be of lesser cultural value is that they represent a higher
order of creative intention and achievement. In form, content
and technique, they show an exceptional degree of accomplishment.
They handle themes common to other art of their time (and later)
with a degree of intelligence, depth, fluency, expression, sensitivity
and drama sufficient to impress itself even on readers and viewers
with only limited experience of these art forms.
to these flaming suns, other works are pale discs without heat.
The unusually rich art experiences reported by generations of
ordinary spectators and critics are a response to identifiable
properties in the works themselves. The more experienced the
viewer, the more alert he or she will be to these effects, and
the better able to measure them against similar kinds of art.
year, the National Gallery in London mounted one of the most
remarkable exhibitions I have seen in years. The 17th-century
Spanish painted wooden sculptures in “The Sacred Made
Real,” staged and illuminated with a brilliant sense of
theatre, were a revelation. It wasn’t necessary to be
religious to find these dark melancholy saints and martyred
Christ figures profoundly emotive, or an art expert to appreciate
that these were peerless masterpieces of the craft. The fierce
blade of their humanity lanced out across time. And it wasn’t
only me. I can only rarely recall the Guardian’s art critic,
Adrian Searle, who mainly covers recent art, sounding as excited
and overwhelmed — “I left devastated and deeply
moved” -- as he did writing about “The Sacred Made
Real.” It seems like bad etiquette to say it, and even
a kind of modern heresy, but how often does a contemporary art
exhibition poleaxe anyone like that?
QUALITY A MEANINGFUL GOAL?
art criticism, like other kinds of criticism, might have given
up on the idea of evaluation. But that doesn’t lessen
the viewer’s desire to experience work that seems worthwhile
or good, and this perception of quality in relation to a work’s
properties and effects must originate somewhere. While it might
be felt as intensely personal, the experience is not exclusively
our own. One thing the Internet has revealed more clearly than
ever before is the presence of communities of taste -- the discovery
that other people often like the same cluster of things as us
for strikingly similar reasons. Quality enriches our lives.
Few things feel like a bigger waste of time than bad art.
the same time, as 21st-century network democrats, we fervently
wish to believe that everyone deserves access, that we are all
creative and perhaps even artists, that elitism (being better
at something and knowing it too) is totally unacceptable from
other people because it affronts our ego and sense of self-worth.
Miraculous tools allow us to dabble in visual pursuits we would
once have left alone for lack of talent, opportunity, or both.
Even the most modestly skilled image-maker can digitally bootstrap
himself to a high technical standard now. The disappearance
of the old career filters and disincentives, the daily deluge
of new imagery, and the intoxicatingly instant self-promotion
to be had from blogs and social media seems to mock the very
idea of striving against the odds, on your own, perhaps for
years, to produce exceptional work. Everyone floats around happily
in the same online sea of mediocrity.
if we are committed to the idea of quality, if this remains
a culturally meaningful goal -- does it? -- then we need to
strike a balance between the social aim of greater participation
and a continuing faith in the critical ideal that great things
are still possible for those with the drive, dedication, talent
and vision to achieve them. Quality will be defined by the same
criteria that informed viewers have always used as benchmarks:
strength of conception, depth of content, integrity of viewpoint,
originality (there’s no getting around it) and mastery
of technique. It’s an enduring conceit peculiar to the
conceptual art of the last 40 years that the most important
thing about an art work is its ‘idea’ and that the
visual dimension really isn’t the issue. This is like
poets holding the view that crafting well-turned lines is of
marginal interest for literature, or jazz musicians claiming
that being able to play their instruments is a red herring and
then informing audiences that they are simple-minded to see
it any other way.
we need to put more emphasis again on the visual in art, and
it’s clear that many young artists with visual talent
have decided to ignore the art world’s weary, self-serving
conceptualist strictures and just go ahead and make the art
they feel like making. They want to create optical art experiences
of their own. By paying too much attention to the extremes of
high or low we run the risk of undervaluing what’s happening
in the densely populated middle -- graphic novels, graphic design,
illustration, low-cost film-making--— where the expressive
possibilities of the visual are still embraced with conviction.
This, rather than art scene-mediated art, is the real center
of visual culture in our time. Are we overlooking great work
only because we have been instructed for so long to assume that
anything presented outside the art world’s walls must
art of this kind is a contemporary salon des refusés
for anyone who resists the by-invitation-only policy of the
now thoroughly professionalized and institutionalized artist/dealer/curator
nexus. It remains to be seen whether this zone of wild, unregulated
and largely unmonitored creativity is where the masterpieces
of the future will come from, but with the gates wide open,
there is every reason to hope.
essay first appeared in Elephant
#4, and is republished here with permission.
ART OR ARTIFICE
THE VISUAL ARTS
art ISN'T ART