Tuesday 12 July 2011

Art and Artefact Facts

Today I’ll be attempting to support the allegation that "Not even the art world believes there’s any value in the experience of an artwork."

First up I've got some terms to define.
"Artwork" is a complicated term.  Artists tend to have their own definition, but here's one from the dictionary:
"The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principals, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance."
The main contention here is the use of terms such as “beautiful” and “appealing”, however as these terms are completely subjective anyway, it doesn’t really matter.  What I want to do is compare that to the definition of artefact:
“An object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon, or ornament of archaeological or historical interest.”

So as I understand it, if an object is significant due to its ‘aesthetic principles’ it is an artwork, if it is significant due to its ‘historical interest’ it is an artefact.

I also refer to the ‘content’ of an artwork.  By this I’m talking about the way that a book is made of pages and words, but the ‘content’ of the book is the story.  The content of a musical recording or performance is not the individual sounds; it’s the music. 
So the content of an artwork is the human reaction to the communication of the expression of the subject of the object. 

To me this is what separates art from artefact.  The subject of art is the content expressed by the object, whereas the subject of an artefact is the object itself.

I think this understanding is one shared by the general public, if you imagine an artwork you would be likely to think of a painting, or something from a gallery, designed to express emotion.  If you imagine an artefact it is more likely to be some kind of historical object housed in a museum.

With me so far? It really doesn’t get any more complicated.

My argument is this: What you find in galleries, by the above definitions, is not artworks, but artefacts.

Lets look at libraries.
Libraries are quite similar to galleries in a lot of ways.  A library is a place where you can go and experience books, while a gallery is a place where you can go and experience artworks.
But there is one very major difference between the two which is this:
You don’t go to a library to read an original manuscript, you go there to read a copy of a book.  It doesn’t matter how many copies there are or how rare they are, because the value of a novel is not in its status as an artefact; the value of a novel is in the content of its story.

Galleries do not house copies of artworks.  Why is this?

In the 1980s (or something) the Australian Government paid something like $2m for a Jackson Pollock painting which is on display in the National Gallery.  Why didn’t they purchase an exact replica of the painting? For $2m they could’ve paid for the materials to reproduce every single Jackson Pollock painting plus a couple of DeKoonings thrown in.
If the value of the painting was in the experience of standing there and looking at the picture, then why not copy it thousands of times!  We could have one in every city in the world!  Everyone on earth could have access to this amazingly valuable visual experience!
After all, if I want to check out a book by Dickens I don’t have to fly to England and peer at the book through a protective screen, I just grab a copy from my local library, or pay $10 for my own copy and read that.  So why don’t galleries do the same?

It’s not like we can’t accurately print a three-dimensional surface, and if it was actually marketable the technology for this would’ve been available for decades.

So the question is, if it works for books, why doesn’t it work for paintings?
The answer is pretty obvious.  The value of the Jackson Pollock painting wasn’t in the visual experience of its content, it was in its historical value as a significant artefact. 

Interestingly this valueless-replica phenomena happened before modern printing technology.
In the 1940s (or thereabouts) a guy called Jean Fautrier, and his wife Janine Aeply, worked for a year hand-making replicas of famous paintings.  They were so skilful at this that Braque commented that at first he was unable to tell their replica of one of his paintings, from his own original.  The idea was that each replica would be sold for the modern equivalent of about $40, however the venture was a huge financial failure.  People had no interest in owning a near perfect replica of a famous painting. 

All this evidence has not stopped galleries from pretending that the value of their artworks lie in their visual experience.

In the early 1920s when Kandinsky first coined the idea of an “abstract” artwork he claimed that it was his desire that by 1950, people would be able to experience the emotional communication of abstract art in the same way that we’re able to emotionally respond to the abstract medium of music.

Whether this was actually his goal is something I’m undecided on, however it is now evident that the goal of non-figurative art no longer has anything to do with communicating emotion.  If it did the reproductions would have just as much value as the originals.

Therefore, without having to trudge through a pointless discussion of aesthetics, we can say that whatever latest squiggle is hanging on the walls of the Guggenheim, whether it’s a flickering light-bulb, or a guy shooting paint out of his asshole, we can reasonably say that the point of the work does not lie in the experience of its content, but in the historical significance of the object, and that it should therefore not be referred to as an artwork, but as an artefact.

Of course I don’t want to insult actual historical artefacts. 
Most things found in museums are there because they’re significant to the history of the earth and the history of humanity.  The artefacts found in galleries only have significance to the history of art.  This is the equivalent of paying someone exorbitant amounts of money to stand in the corner and talk about how interesting they are.

So does this entire argument just boil down to a discussion of terms?
Well, not really.  All forms of art have artefacts.  I’m sure you could actually go to a museum somewhere and check out the manuscript of a Charles Dickens novel, but the point is that this experience isn’t what the art form is about. 

Novels are about being enthralled by a story. 

So personally I feel that the artefacts of visual art shouldn’t be considered the point of visual art.  Instead, just like with books, the artefacts should be nothing more than a quirky supplement to add some cultural interest to a field with huge potential for powerful, emotional communication.

Imagine a world where people would buy visual art because they like to look at it!