The Core of Art: Making Special
by ELLEN DISSANAYAKE
University of Washington
Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies Volume 1(2):13-38 Fall 2003
‘The Core of Art: Making Special’ appears as Chapter 4 in the book Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Came From and Why, first published in 1992 by Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc. The first paperback version was published in 1995 by The University of Washington Press, and is re- printed n the J. Canadian Assoc Curric Studies with permission of the publishers.
When contemporary philosophers of art make the radical and rather astonishing statement that art has existed for only two centuries,1 they are referring to the insufficiently appreciated fact that the abstract concept “art” is a construction of Western culture and in fact has a discernible historical origin.2 It was only in the late eighteenth century—in Enlightenment England and Germany—and subsequently, that the subject of aesthetics was named and developed, that “the aesthetic” came to be regarded as a distinctive kind of experience, and that an art world of academies, museums, galleries, dealers, critics, journals, and scholars arose to address a type of human artifact that was made primarily and often specifically for acquisition and display. At the same time, ideas of genius, creative imagination, self-expression, originality, communication, and emotion, having originated in other contexts, became increasingly and even primarily or exclusively associated with the subject of “art.” (see Chapter 7) The concepts “primitive” and “natural” that I referred to briefly in the preceding chapters also developed at this time to become part of modern Western cultural consciousness.
Previously, the sorts of objects that in the post-eighteenth century West came to be called art—paintings, sculptures, ceramics, music, dance, poetry, and so forth—were made to embody or to reinforce religious or civic values, and rarely, if ever, for purely aesthetic purposes. Paintings and sculptures served as portraits, illustrations, interior or exterior decoration; ceramics were vessels for use; music and dance were part of a ceremonial or special social occasion; poetry was storytelling or praise or oratory to sway an audience. Even when beauty, skill, or ostentation were important qualities of an object, they did not exist “for their own sake,” but as an enhancement of the object’s ostensible if not actual use. This enhancement would be called beautification or adornment, not art. The word art as used before the late eighteenth century meant what we would today call “craft” or “skill” or “well-madeness,” and could characterize any object or activity made or performed by human (rather than natural or divine) agency—for example, the art of medicine, of retailing, of holiday dining.
It may be a surprise to realize how peculiar our modern Western notion of art really is—how it is dependent on and intertwined with ideas of commerce, commodity, ownership, history, progress, specialization, and individuality—and to recognize the truth that only a few societies have thought of it even remotely as we do (Alsop, 1982). Of course, in the preindustrial West and elsewhere, people had and continue to have “aesthetic” ideas—notions of what makes something beautiful or excellent-of-its-kind—but such ideas can be held without tacitly assuming that there is a superordinate abstract category, Art, to which belong some paintings, drawings, or carvings and not other paintings, drawings, or carvings.3
As Western aesthetics developed, something was assigned to the category of genuine art if it was deemed capable of providing and sustaining genuine aesthetic experience. Genuine aesthetic experience was defined as something one experienced when contemplating genuine art. Note the circularity of this argument. Moreover, difficulties arose in specifying the cause or location of this genuineness (in the fact of differences of opinion about the validity of individual works or responses). People should have recognized that these difficulties threw the concepts of a pure or singular art itself into doubt.
To be sure, philosophers and artists in the past (for example, Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci) had proposed criteria for beauty or excellence, for example, fitness, clarity, harmony, radiance, a mirror held up to nature. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers proposed other criteria, such as truth, order, unity in variety, and significant form, as being the defining feature of this mysterious entity “Art.”
continue at: Dissanayake on Art 16856-16986-1-PB