Art as Representation

Maskelvne writes at the start of his argument:

"From the time of Aristotle to the present date, the consensus of authorities has decided that all art is based on imitation. Most of the authorities have 'flown off the handle' in trying to decide what constitutes art in the abstract, but all agree that the basis of art is imitation -either tho imitation of something that actually exists, or of something that might exist in circumstances imagined by the artist... Herein, we may justly say that we stand upon sure ground - and here we may rest, .so far as primary considerations are concerned. We have no need to be led out of our depth by trying to define that wiil-o'the wisp, ~'abstract art,"

WeU, it is worth treading carefully into deeper waters in this case. This Platonic-Aristotelian notion of art as imitation no longer stands. As a theory, it was the first historical attempt to provide a necessary condition for art status. Known as the mimetic theory, it was well- suited to the days of Greek tragedy, but ultimately falls flat today. True, a magicai effect does imitate a supernatural occurrence, but if this criterion for art status is insufficient, then we cannot allow magic to stand as art according to it.

Reading Maskelyne's argument at this point, I am surprised that he chooses the word 'imitate' over 'represent.' The representational theory of art is the softened version of the mimetic theory, and a moment's consideration will see the wisdom of the shift. What, after all, does a piece of music imétate? Or a novel? Both may represent emotions or ideas, but neither imitates anything, unless we are playing Carnival of the Aui,nals to a least favourite child and pointing out Saint-Saens' amusing use of the orchestra to conjure up the sounds and frolics of bestial larking about. But other than the familiar instrumental sounds of birdsong, babbling brooks and the like, music is rarely going to be concerned with imitation. Literature is even further removed from the idea of imitation, and more likely to be taken up with the business of representation. This may seem a pedantic point, but it is vital to building an understanding of what art might be.

Is it enough, then to hold that x is art as long as it is a representation? As I sit here alone as God intended in my first-class carriage of the 15.15 from Bristol to Paddington tapping away on a brand-new laptop computer, I see to my right a complimentary copy of the Sunday Times open to the television section. 1 see a two-page spread representing the day's television screenings. I see representation, but I do not see art. Nicely laid out as it is. I would engage the stewardess in a discussion of the problem, but have so far successfully avoided buying a ticket for this journey — something of a habit of mine. 1 do not wish to attract undue attention. If she starts talking about this problem of art-as-representation herself I shall just laugh and laugh and laugh.

Clearly there can be representation without art, but more interestingly there is plenty of art around devoid of representation. German expressionist dance, much modem theatre, and plenty of avant-garde art represent nothing and refer only to themselves and the artistic context in which they are to be interpreted. Those people who judge the artistic merit of a painting by how closely it represents its subject matter in likeness are known well to the rest of us as Philistines. These men (to describe a peculiarly British cliché) sit behind the mini-bar in the corner of the mock-Tudor front room of their nineteen-seventies house with the nasty oak nameplate and the homemade patio transferring ice-cubes from a plastic pineapple into a glass of Rosé wine while they listen to a CD of the London Philharmonic playing orchestral versions of soft-rock classics and insist on pointing out all sorts of amusing details hidden in a series of fourth-rate prints of bad sentimental Victorian. paintings and a couple of well-known impressionist pieces that have been indifferently framed and are fixed firmly to the floral wall beneath the frieze and near the enormous stalks of coloured pampas grass and embroidered poetry. Well, I may not know much about pretension, but I know what I like. The tendency to cling unknowingly to the representational theory of art and equate photographic likeness with artistic success is generally seen as a sign of ignorance. Should you be balking at the suggestion of snobbery in this straightforward fact, I need only remind you that I refrain feverishly from referring to those who possess no knowledge of magic technique as 'laypeople.' That strikes me as a far more ridiculous pomposity.

Art as ExpTession

Art as representation remained the most popular theory throughout most of art history, and in many ways it was the dawn of photography which forced change to the scene. Once it became possible effortlessly to capture a likeness with the camera, realist painting was in danger of seeming redundant. However, the nineteenth century saw the first major shift away from the representational theory of art to an expressionist one. The artist as an almost scientific recorder of accuracy was slowly replaced by the artist as a frustrated emotional creature, using his medium to express profoundly felt sentiment. Dainty poets with velvet jackets (quite charming couture even to this day) sprang up in Paris salons all over the world, sporting lace handkerchiefs into which the fashionably consumptive could noisily cough blood. There was a pained, frilly

effeminacy to art of this time which was not seen again until the popular music of the nineteen-eighties

Rather than representing the external world, it became the lot of the artist to express his internal one. Despite many years' familiarity with the issues of avant-garde and post-modern art, it is still the Bohemian image of the struggling artist that dominates the popular conception today. The emotional saturation of art was a conscious rebellion against the old school of the eighteenth century, and freed the artist to explore his medium and himself. Perhaps most dramatically, Beethoven changed the face of music forever. The refinement of the Baroque age, most perfectly and powerfully executed by Bach, already having been coarsened under Mozart, now gave out to a very different agenda: music became a gushing expression of emotion, yielded its secrets upon first listening and provided sentimental substitutes for the most affecting experiences of life rather thanas Bach and the Renaissance sacred choral masters before him had offered, exquisite distillations of the richness of existence. Musical philistmnism still harks back to the ethos of this period. Music, to quote Robertson Davies, is like wine: the less you know about it, the sweeter you like it.

With this shift also came a new way of seeing for the visual artists. Questioning the way in which we perceive fleeting reality, the early impressionists began to render on canvas what seemed to them to be an accurate record of the impression of reality which we receive. Thi.s grew into more and more abstraction through the cubist movement, as the very nature of art began to be questioned in a way that would take us right to the avant-garde art that we know today. By the time that Maskelyne and Devant were writing, theories of art-as-expression were very popular. Freud's works, while already knowii to academics, were about to explode upon the artistic scene, and add a scientific validity to the deeply-wrought urges and emotions of artists by popularising the idea of the unconscious, It would seem that Maskelyne's refusal to step into the 'deep waters' of art theory may have been connected with a desire to avoid the issue of art as expression, but even so, he does seem to be working from a decidedly old-school starting point for his day.

Expression theories of art abound and vary, forming the popular conception of what constitutes art status. Tolstoy popularised this idea of art as the expression. or communication of emotion. In his delightful essays on the subject (What is Art? And Essays on Art), he defines art as 'an activity by means of which one man, having experienced a feeling, intentionally transmits it to others.' Bernard Shaw described this as 'the simple truth; the moment it is uttered, whoever is really conversant with art recognises in it the voice of the master.' However, according to Tolstoy's definition, if I am attacked in the street by a bull and then describe the incident to a third parties, telling the story in such a way that they are roused to feel my pain, then I have infected them with my emotion and therefore created a work of art. Surely we would find this an unhappy conclusion, and in this way the theory is too inclusive.

Similarly, Tolstoy would find novels and supposed artworks that deal with emotions not experienced by the author to be counterfeit art. Skilful manipulation of language to produce an emotional effect would not be enough to qualify as true art. As far as the artist is concerned, it is necessary that he should stand on the level of the highest life-conception of his timo, that he should experience feeling, and have desire and capacity to transmit it, and that he should moreover have a talent for some one of the forms of art."

Aside from the circularity of this statement (for it is demanding a talent for art as a qualification for status as an artist, which rather begs the question), its seeming straightforwardness. is also belied by the problem of exclusiveness. Throughout his essay, Tolstoy upholds the simple idea that to qualify as a work of art, a piece need only be an expression of feeling that infects the recipient, (intellectual theorising and art criticism is therefore, according to his idea, redundant,) Does this hold with what we accept as art nowadays?

If we hold an actor's performance to be a work of art, we cannot always do so under this theory of transmitting emotions to audiences. It is necessary (according to that theory) that the artist transmit the same feeling that he has experienced. If he is playing a villain, he may wish to transmit a feeling of animosity, but will presumably not be feeling that hatred himself about the character. Similarly, an artist will often employ a technique to create an effect upon an audience, one which will induce an emotional effect, but which is calculated rather than experienced by the artist. It seems a romantic notion (of the truest kind) to expect the artist to be suffering the turmoil which he manifests upon paper or canvas.

More clearly, there is plenty of art, which absolutely defies the expressionist theory. Some, like the Symbolist art of the late nineteenth century, merely suggests vague moods rather than transmitting particular emotional states. It was prized for its elusiveness. Others, like the Surrealists and various avant-garde artists, have produced 'aleatoric art,' that is, art that is randomly generated and purposefully expresses nothtg. Also, according to this transmission theory, the emotions in question must be personal and individualized rather than generic (otherwise every greetings card would be an artwork), but this does not icave room for much religious art, which for centuries was painted to express the same generic sentiments. These are works which may be amongst our finest art treasures, yet do not fulfil the criteria of art as an intended transmission of the self-same individualized emotion that the artist has himself experienced.

Again, some works such as those of Escher present us. with perceptual puzzles, and are cognitive rather than emotive in nature. Are we to deny them art status? What ol the vast amount of modem painting and performance that is created to make us question the nature of the genre? German Expressionist dance, already mentioned, is typically concerned with the nature of dance, in the same way that paintings that show only a few blocks of colour are there primarily to make us question our preconceptions about what painting is.

At another level, there are logical problems with this idea of arousing in the audience the same emotion that is expressed in the piece. A character in a film or novel may express remorse for, say, a murder, but the audience will be infected not with remorse but pity. They themselves have killed no one, therefore the emotion expressed and the emotion aroused will not be the same. Or perhaps the emotion aroused is not a human quality. A painting may, for example, express fortitude, which is not possible to arouse in an audience. And some artworks may express anthropomorphic properties like anger or desire, but lack the resources to arouse those emotions in the audience. Orchestral music is like this: one does not literally become angry when listening to a piece that expresses anger, for anger needs an object to be angry about, a criterion that music does not inherently supply.

And what of magic? I feel that where magic is spoken of as art, it is within the area of art-as-expression that a defence is offered. I think immediately of the magical theatre of Penn and Teller, of their magic, which expresses so deftly a particular world-view through dramatic and emotionally engaging presentation. The power of their live performances depends upon their clear vision and the understanding of theatre through which that vision is expressed. I think also of the preoccupation of many close-up magicians who force inappropriate agenda upon presentations of card-tricks and the like, rendering them pretentious and self-conscious 'artistic' efforts which have about them a contrivance and a sense of gross niisjudgement.

For the moment, though, let us continue in finding a way of understanding how one might arrive at a means of conferring art status. The expression theory is not wholly satisfying.

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