What is Art? What is an Artist? Does It Matter?

I posted about this over on New Sophists’ Almanac, but I cannot resist also posting about it here.

Judith Scott and her work.There’s a woman named Judith Scott who produces all kinds of “fiber art”, which isn’t really remarkable in itself (unless you happen to find that the artworks speak to you in a wway that they simply don’t speak to me…). Nothing remarkable at all, actually, can be said about her, except… she’s got Down’s Syndrome, severe mental handicaps, some physical handicaps too. And she very likely has no concept of art that would be recognizable to us. And yet she works at her “creations” with all the diligence of a less-handicapped artist, and sometimes more. She has spent ten years creating these things, and I have to wonder whether it matters how she understands what she is doing. And yet… this is a profoundly important question. If she has no idea of what is art, but her work is art, then how do we draw the line between any random human creation and a work of art? It’s difficult to say, of course. But I really don’t know what to think. Maybe Marvin will have something to say about it over on the other site? If you have any ideas, I’d love to read your comments.

One thought on “What is Art? What is an Artist? Does It Matter?

  1. I’ve never felt that the drive to express visual art is coupled to the cognitive faculties at all.
    Unlike writing where the drive and it’s expression are filtered through verbal cognition the visual arts, and music, are transposed in a way that avoids the middle man so to speak.
    This not so in every case but art that is intellectualised…wait that’s a different kettle of fish.
    You’ll find many savants in the visual arts and music though (none?) very few within literature. I think this essentially stems from those human expressions stemming from a time when said expressions were on an equal if not stronger footing than verbalisation within man.

    There are indications within the archeological record of figures carved into the sides of cliffs, women with highly ritualised genital regions that semed to be used regularly in a consequent and communal manner. The genital areas were painted with red ochre time and time again by the inhabitants. If I remember the dating of the finds falls around 70.000 years ago. Finds in Spain of worked pieces of wood could indicate the use of wind blown instruments, flutes or whistles in the piece I read, dated to apprx. the same period I think. There is no way to acertain the level of language in humans from that period. There is some thought that language found a rich field to grow in when the sybolic life of man had a surface interface with the need for forward planning. Grammar became necessary at a very basic level. However, that grammar may not have been verbalised in any complex way and existing forms of symbolic language may have adpated more quickly to the task of describing a world picture. We painted and sculpted our world. There is some debate given the finding of musical instruments beacuse song would seem to be a more natural first step than music. Many feel that song would have led to higher forms of verbalisation quite rapidly. Consequently language may lay before visual expression. I have a hard time believing this. I also have a hard time with linear time scales becasue were talkign about a population that has no corollary in the natural world. One thing is certain. Human adaptations tend to hang around even when they have finished serving a purpose. The ones that continue to provide and advantage survive.

    To cut a horribly long ramble short I feel that man’s visualy expressive drives have no use of cognition or rationalisation about their processes. The lady in question understands her art on a far more comprehensive level than anyone outside of her world can. This holds true with any expression. The visual arts also tend to represent a world less expressible than that of the written word. In many ways they are the sharper tool for the job. The picture you posted of the artist hugging her work is testament in itself to her relationship to her creations. They are living entities, figures that have a place in her scheme of things. She spends hour after hour pulling these things into existence and imbues them with everything she has to give, a spirit if you wish. The majority of us buy a car and give it a name and anthropomorphise it to death.

    There is another problem. The definition of art is genrally made by users of it than makers of it. Crtics, gallerists, collectors. Art as commodity has often very little to do with the piece itself. Even Warhol couldn’t escape the truth of the drive in relationship to the expression of that drive. You wonder about random human creation and a work of art. I’m not sure there are any random creations and I wonder if out definition of art needs to be addressed.

    There is another simple difference that can be highlighted. Music, sculpture and painting are pursuits undertaken much more physically, literally, ears, hands, eyes. Writing is an odd fish, an enormous visual component in certain cultures (caligraphy), yet a representation of language, of thought, consideration. Visual arts are the pursuit of man. Writing is the pursuit of civilisation.

    When it comes to Judith Scott, as with all artists, we shouldn’t consider whther the work can be defined as art, or whether her understanding of her drive to create and represent is akin to our own, but whether the artist has brought something out of their world and into ours and whether we recognise it or not.

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