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But Is It Art?Review - But Is It Art?
An Introduction to Art Theory
by Cynthia A. Freeland
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by Bill Seeley
May 7th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 19)

Cynthia Freeland's But Is It Art? provides an introduction to issues and problems surrounding the interpretation and understanding of contemporary art.  On the one hand her style is easily accessible and should provide a solid introduction to the art novice.  On the other hand the subject matter is provocative.  Her examples of the varied, and often controversial sorts of objects and events any contemporary theory of art must be able to account for are lucid and engaging.  The content of this book challenges the reader to recognize the complexity of contemporary art and as a result the difficulty of providing it a comprehensive explanation.

Freeland identifies a problem for our understanding of art.  In the contemporary context art can take many forms.  She describes a seminar at a past annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics.  The topic of the session was "Blood and Beauty."  The content of the session was the role of bodily fluids in contemporary art.  In the ritual practice of ancient and "primitive" societies blood and other bodily fluids often play a symbolic spiritual role, representing life, fertility, or the relation of individuals to earth itself as their embodiment.  Artists who employ this medium reference these ritualistic practices as a natural and direct form of communication. 

Freeland identifies a difficulty for this type of art.  Its medium gains ritualistic content only by virtue of a shared community that is unified in "agreement of purpose."  Within such a context bodily fluids can be employed as a medium that reinforces the individuals' relation to their community and its spirituality.  But, whereas one might interpret art viewing as a modern social ritual, contemporary art viewers in museums, galleries, and performance spaces share no such community relative to the ritualistic use of bodily fluids.  As a result the ritualistic theory of art that grounds the use of this medium cannot account for its role in contemporary art.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that these works cannot easily be fit into traditional aesthetic theories.  These theories define art either as the apprehension of beauty or relative to their representational or expressive qualities.  In fact, these works are so jarring and disturbing that they seem the antithesis of what is traditionally conceived of as art.  Consider Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987).  The work is a richly saturated color photograph of a crucifix floating in a jar of urine.  We do not share the appropriate agreement of purpose to interpret this work.  Further, as one can imagine, the majority of the American public summarily denounced it as insulting, offensive, and defamatory.  In short it was not, in the popular opinion beyond the artworld, suitable subject matter for art.

Freeland suggests a cognitive theory of art that she believes explains how (or if you prefer, why) this sort of work is categorized as art.  The theory is derived in part from Lucy Lippard's (Art in America, April 1990) art-critical model for explaining Piss Christ.  Lippard analyzes the work from three angles:  its form and material; its content; and its context.  The work is a large color print, 60 x 40 inches.  It is a Cibachrome print.  This means it is glossy with deeply saturated colors, and its surface is very delicate, easily ruined by a fingerprint or a slight speck of dust.  The image is not recognizable as a crucifix floating in the artist's own urine.  The jar cannot be read from the print.  Rather, a crucifix is presented in a golden, rosy medium within which constellations of tiny bubbles have been frozen in space.  For all we know the crucifix could be suspended in amber or polyurethane.  The formal qualities of the work are, in fact, quite mysterious and beautiful.

The material qualities of the work are only apparent with addition of the title that alters the context of the work from its formal to its material existence.  But even here the interpretation is ambiguous.  Freeland indicates that Serrano was raised in a Latino-American Catholic community for whom bodily suffering and bodily fluids are seen as sources of religious power and strength (she is not explicit here but I assume she is referring to the crucifixion of Christ and the transmutation of wine in communion).  Furthermore, within this community it is common for bones and other remains to be stored in vials in churches and cherished as sacred relics.  The material quality of the work would not, as a result, in and of itself be offensive.

Serrano contends that the work was not intended to denounce religion, but rather to point to the manner in which contemporary culture is commercializing and cheapening Christian icons.  This content can only be read off of the work by understanding the context in which to interpret the viewer's contact with the material and formal qualities of the work.

Freeland takes the definition of art from the anthropologist Richard Anderson.  Art is "culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting sensuous medium."  In other words art is, as John Dewey claimed, "the expression of life in the community."  This definition centers on Freeland's definition of an "interpretation."  An interpretation is an explanation of how a work functions to communicate thoughts, emotions, and ideas.  On this model explanation is defined pragmatically.  There is no privileged interpretation.  Explanations provide knowledge.  Knowledge is defined as "what is instrumental to the enrichment of immediate experience through the control over action that it exercises."  Therefore art has a cognitive role in our lives.  It enriches experience, and in so doing conveys knowledge of how to perceive the world around us.  As a result, interpretation can transform an experience.  It can transform our self-reflective understanding of who we are and how the world we are embedded in should be interpreted by transforming our socio-cultural and perceptual context.

Interpretations consist of an explanation of the entwined relations among the form/material, content, and context of a work.  Freeland's intention is that this cognitive theory will enable us to understand difficult art in a pluralistic artworld.  Globalization and diaspora have blurred cultural boundaries.  Gender and class consciousness have shattered traditional aesthetic categories.  The problem of contemporary art is not only the introduction of novel and sometimes shocking material and content.  There is no longer a static context from which to approach art.  The background theory, which Danto has argued is provided by the artworld for the interpretation of the work, may be initially opaque to the viewer.  Freeland implies that direct contact with the work along with immersion in its context is the only way to bridge this boundary and understand contemporary art.  But, as she concedes this may never be enough.  This is why there are no privileged interpretations.  Rather, through interpretation we gain an understanding of our own perceptual and cultural embedding.

Herein lies my only concern with the interpretation of contemporary art implicit in But Is It Art?  Whereas globalization and diaspora have blurred cultural boundaries and blended socio-cultural contexts, her cognitive theory can only resolve the problem she identifies for contemporary art if works of art are, in general, transparent to the model of interpretation she suggests.  If not, it may explain how difficult art like Piss Christ could be conceived as art, but it cannot explain why they are art, i.e. it will not provide us the appropriate context with which to interpret the work.


© 2002 Bill Seeley


Bill Seeley is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Philosophy at CUNY - The Graduate Center working on the neurophysiology of aesthetic perception. He also has an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University. His work has been exhibited in New York City, at Yale University, and at The Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachussets. He teaches ethics and aesthetics at Hofstra University.


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