Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 8 January 2010

"The Necessity of Artspeak" by Roy Harris (Continuum, 2003)

A book about the importance of explanations (i.e. words) to the value of a work of art, and the uses of the word "Art"

The status of Poetry

  • In Cicero's time, "painters and sculptors were accorded a lower status than poets". According to Arnold Hauser the most important reason for this "is the fact that the sculptor or painter is obliged to be doing manual work that involves bodily effort and the performance of many wearisome tasks, while the labours of the poet are certainly not obvious to the eye".
  • "The predominant conviction in the Graeco-Roman world is that an activity does not fully become an art until someone has worked out a theory, however crude, to go with the practice. And the best way of establishing such a theory is to set it down in writing ... Plato, however, was a sceptic where writing was concerned", p.25
  • "In antiquity language was regarded as the primary manifestation of human rationality ... Given the primacy of logos, the arts become subject to a natural hierarchy, depending on whether they manifest more or less of logos, i.e. are more or less language-like ... Plato was the first thinker original enough to question that value in any serious way", p.27-28
  • "the Christianisation of culture reinforced the textualization of knowledge in ways which would have been inconceivable had Christianity had no bible", p.30
  • "All other forms of communication are accessible to language; but not vice versa ... language as an art can be turned back upon itself, in a sense that neither music nor painting can ... Thus all arts in the end come to be viewed through the artistic grid imposed by language", p.189

Art and Purpose

  • "the church encouraged those forms of art through which the Biblical message might be brought home to the people visually ... the issue of 'iconoclasm' continued to arouse passions ... This controversy provides the first clear example in the European tradition of a conflict arising between the communicational utility of certain forms of art and the doctrinal implications of the forms themselves", p.31
  • "According to [Aristotle's] view, the artist, by eliminating the imperfections in natural objects and combining their most typical parts, reveals what nature is always aiming at but is always frustrated from producing", p.46

Art and Society

  • "The Industrial Revolution changed Western attitudes to the arts in three fundamntal ways. In the first place, it made many practitioners of the more humble utilitarian arts redundant ... it accentuated the pestige of the 'fine arts' ... The second respect ... was more radical ... it raised the question of the extent to which the whole field of artistic endeavor might be enlarged by the emergence of new creative forms ... Third ... it ensured the success of the notion that art incurred no social responsibilities or functions", p.67-68
  • "According to [the institutional theory of art] a work is a work of art when it is described and accepted as such by an informed consensus of opinion in the art world", p.167

Theories of Language

  • "The doctrine of mimesis, central to both Plato's and Aristotle's treatment of the arts, was a surrogational doctrine through and through", p.153
  • "A contractual semantics puts its emphasis not on the question of correspondence between the verbal and the non-verbal, but on agreement between speaker and hearer", p.149
  • "Structuralism, in its original linguistic manifestation (Saussure 1916), is that extreme form of contractualism which treats the meanings of words as deriving not from any external relations which may hold between words and anything non-verbal [i.e. surrogationism], nor from any permeditated concensus between their users, but from the internal structural relations between the words themselves", p.166
  • "In challenging [surrogationism and contractualism], integrationists have proposed a quite different account of human communication. For the integrationist, communication is not a matter of transmitting an encoded 'message' from 'sender' to 'receiver'. Instead, communication is seen as a complex of processes which allow human beings to integrate the many and varied activities which go to make up their individual and social lives", p.185


  • "Conceptualism ushered in a new era in the relations between the work of art and verbal comment about it", p.125
  • "Instead of seeking to mediate between the artist and the public, or even between the artist and the patron, artspeak was called upon to direct new departures in art", p.126
  • "traditional artspeak might be seen as a discourse in which the key definitions provide society's terms of employment for the artist", p.148
  • "The more necessary the art form, the less it needs artspeak ... At the end of the spectrum where the necessity of artspeak is greatest ... It ceases to matter exactly what the relation is between the discourse and the corresponding art", p.194,195
  • "What we are witnessing in artspeak is a terminal phase in which the supercategory, which formerly held it all together, is now unable to sustain the integrational burden ... The supercategory becomes a supernova. Brilliance is succeeded by collapse", p.201, 203
  • "artspeak is likely to be taken over and absorbed into an increasingly dominant mediaspeak ... Artists are required to become media 'personalities'", p.204, 205
  • "there are not two separate questions, one being 'What is art? and the other 'How shall we discuss it?' These are one and the same question", p.208

On p.200 he writes "At this point someone may well ask: 'Why wheel on the heavy artillery of linguistics merely in order to demolish the pretentiousness of certain contemporary artists and critics?". He replies "it is one thing to note the phenomenon: quite another to propose a diagnosis of the ailment. Here we need explanations which link current trends to the history of the discourse itself". But I think a consideration of vested interests is sufficent to derive many of the conclusions, and the advice on the final page - "take up the responsibility of questioning, at every possible opportunity, the terms in which artistic judgments are delivered" could have been derived from many diagnoses.

No comments:

Post a Comment