People have always used art to understand aspects of the past and present and conceive visions of possible futures that remain unattainable by other means. Despite this, nowadays, outside of specialized media, it is not common to find reflections on the role of art in our lives. Political questions of who we are and how we should live are constantly examined in relation to economics, pedagogy, law, biology, psychology, the human and natural sciences and history. Even mathematics has been the subject of recent political debate, despite its fundamentally abstract nature—but not art.
True: art is not entirely absent from the news, but it remains tangential. Much more attention is given to artists than to their work and thus discussions of art become dogmatic, since ideas are deemed inseparable from identities. If we see artists as merely models of virtue or evil, does it matter how they paint, write or dance?
As art historian George Kubler has pointed out, “a work of art, which is a complex of many stages and levels of crisscrossed intentions, is always intrinsically complicated, however simple its effects may seem.” Dogma turns one-dimensional what is by nature rich and profound. In its iconoclastic version—with which we have unfortunately become quite familiar these days—dogma is used to destroy art, no matter what the artwork’s nature or qualities are. Some celebrate and some grieve when an artistic representation falls out of favour, not because of the destruction of the object itself, but because of the idea with which it is linked for them.
Reporting on the late Trump administration’s executive order to Promote Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture, Zachary Small cites Professor Reinhold Martin who qualifies it as “an effort to use culture to send coded messages about white supremacy and political hegemony” and architecture columnist Michael Kimmelman who opines that “just to have this argument feels demeaning.”
Predictably ineffectual, the order consisted of a series of mandates that new federal buildings be designed and built in classic, rather than brutalist or deconstructivist styles. In other words, the administration made the classic style in architecture—an idea—inseparable from an identity—and experts agreed. This simplified an already nebulous grouping of architectural configurations (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian; Tuscan, composite, plus their many adaptations and modernizations) into a vague notion of style, which was then equated with an improbable European identity. The ex-president and his advisers thought this dogma desirable, the professor felt it was immoral and the critic made it taboo.
There is ample evidence to refute this particular dogma, which is also behind the fallacy of cultural appropriation, which draws on the belief that an art form is an idea inseparable from an identity. The Aeolic order (an early form of Ionic voluted capitals) appears to be Asian, and predates the configurations developed by Greek and Roman artists, which have also been used and developed by many very different societies. As Sibyl Moholy-Nagy reminds us, so-called classical architecture was simultaneously used by Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt.
According to art historian Ernst Gombrich, key elements of this dogma were already present in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s appraisal of art according to five basic principles, namely: (a) a belief in aesthetic transcendentalism, or the idea that art embodies transcendental values and the artist is an exceptional individual who is able to reveal those values to others; (b) a belief in historical collectivism, or the demarcation of art, not as the work of individuals, but as a manifestation of the spirit of a nation; (c) a belief in historical determinism, or the evolution of art from primitive to classic, sensual and decadent stages; (d) a metaphysical optimism, or the assumption that every historical process is about human self-consciousness and the triumph of reason; and (e) a belief in the relativism of art, according to which the value of art depends on the culture in which it is inserted and its ability to express certain spiritual values.
Transcendental values, ideas of a national spirit, historical determinism and faith in the artist as an enlightened genius negate the artist’s individuality and independence. Instead they impose a sense that the artist is simply submitting to fate. Therein lies the root of artistic dogma, which makes art and artist inseparable from supposed values and spirits of time, place or national identity. Since there is zero evidence to prove these values and spirits even exist outside the totalitarian mind, Hegel’s approach is fundamentally superstitious. The idea of genius and the presumption that we must revere abstruse works of art are common forms of this superstition.
On these superstitious grounds, it has become customary to judge modern and postmodern art hermeneutically. Hermeneutics originally referred to the interpretation of sacred text. From a hermeneutic perspective, works of art have meanings that are not self-evident and must therefore be explained. In other words, the zeitgeist or genius loci must be revealed by priest-like experts, who claim to have the authority to uncover artistic meaning, in the same way as priests interpret scripture.
Art is a wonderful means of capturing and conveying meaning, but it is also much more. It is not a mere means of communication. It is radically heuristic, in the sense that it allows artists and spectators to explore, evaluate and discover things in different ways. In addition to whatever it might be intended or thought to mean, all art is also an exploration of at least two additional domains.
On the one hand, every work of art investigates its own technique. The position of a camera, its movement, the way scenes are cut and edited; construction materials and the procedures employed to assemble them; a particular kind of brushstroke or the chemical composition of paint—these technical decisions are the sine qua non of every work of art. In addition, every work of art experiments with and explores its own form: its elemental composition or geometry, its distribution in time, the arrangements of its constituent parts and where or when it is situated.
Despite multiple attempts to dematerialize art in order to make it pure meaning, these three fields of artistic exploration remain inseparable. No message can be conveyed without form, no form can be achieved without technique, and form and technique have no purpose without a message. Claims that a work of art has no form and therefore no technique is required to make or perform it, are usually excuses for poor form or technique.
These two fundamental aspects of art might not be as straightforward as story, style or motif, the common vehicles of meaning—but they are absolutely essential to every work of art and to the way we perceive it. Beyond their meanings, songs, movies and buildings touch us in clear and profound ways, not because of what they say directly, but because of the way in which they have been made. As Umberto Eco writes, “what an artist tells us explicitly is often contradicted by what he tells us implicitly, in the way he has constructed his work.”
Every work of art can be understood, not only as a coded message, but as an investigation of communication, form and technique. The artist is not a helpless genius as Hegel claimed, but an independent thinker.
Every work of art is a small yet crucial improvement on other works, past and present—not an incantation. The best works of art enrich our knowledge of ourselves and the world in which we live. We need not interpret them or have them translated for us in order to feel or understand things in a different light, after being exposed to the particular way in which they have been made. This renders mediators unimportant or unnecessary.
Like every other form of knowledge, art can be used as an instrument of power. In our time, that use is evident in three concrete ways. On the one hand, art is marginalized, kept tangential to important matters. On the other, art is mostly discussed and judged in relation to its meaning. Finally, that meaning is often taken to be inseparable from the artist’s identity.
The radically human acts of appreciating and enjoying a work of art for the many things it simultaneously tells us, for the way it is and for the way in which it has been made are opportunities for discovery. The preservation of the individuality, self-determination and intellectual independence of artists and art lovers depends on our ability to recognize the work of art as much more than meaning, and resist simplifying its meaning into dogma.