A&O READING – ART by Dissanayake


The Core of Art: Making Special


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