Art Outside the Art World

Joachim Pissarro with David Carrier
Studio School, New York
March 2010

Kant’s general account of mental activity leads in two directions. He is interested in how our mental activity contributes to our ways of understanding the external world. And he is concerned with how the nature of reasoning about art, knowledge and morality reveals the character of our mind. In the case of aesthetic judgment, this dual nature of his analysis, directed inward and outward, is of especial importance. Aesthetic judgments are about the viewer, for they are based upon his or her pleasure. And, we then we describe what we judge as beautiful, speaking as if beauty were an objective quality of what we view. Hence our desire or hope that our judgment be universally accepted.

Aesthetic judgments thus can be seen as subject based or object-based. The art critic and art historian focused on object based arguments. They need to know how to understand new works of art and how to re-interpret older works of art. They are thus interested in what criteria are relevant to this process. We want to look at how aesthetic judgments are subject based, how they are about the subject making the judgment. We are not proposing another model of art criticism (or another set of concepts to apply to art judgments).

When we do that, the work of art no longer matters. We are looking at how judgments of taste are being produced – knowing that (we all agree on this point) judgments of taste can bear no rules, no systems, and certainly no dogmas. What we really are looking at is the astronomic gap between the tiny rarefied art world, with its art critics, its codes of acceptability, and its system of values, and the much large everyway world in which we make aesthetic judgments. Hence our title: Art Outside the Art World. We are not concerned to develop yet another definition of art. We are interested in aesthetic experience, which takes place all the time everywhere.

Everyone makes aesthetic judgments all of the time. We do that when we walk down the street, when we see decorations in restaurants and stores, when we go to the movies or watch television or youtube. But only a very small portion of these judgments concern what are officially recognized as works of art. The curator entering MoMA passes by street art from outside the art world, which he or she is trained to ignore. The critic going to Chelsea shields him or herself from billboards, electronic displays and all of the other visual paraphernalia of the city. The rules developed within the art world are used to exclude this art from consideration. When the social historian of art sets this art from outside the art world in the background of his or her account, that distinction is respected. We reject emphatically this way of thinking. It involves a kind of blindness, for there is no distinction in kind between art and art from outside the art world. Kant teaches that all attempts to subdivide the field of aesthetic judgments are mistaken. When art historians make a division between good modernism and bad kitsch; or when they make a distinction between art and art from outside the art world then they impose upon the field of aesthetic judgments a division, which does not exist.

There are only aesthetic judgments. Lots of them, made all the time by everyone. How should we understand the implications of this statement? As cultural anthropologists, we are interested in understanding how this division between art and art from outside the art world arose. What functions (political? social?) are served by the division?

One way to answer this question is to compare and contrast art and art said to be from outside the art world. When the formalist critic Roger Fry contrasted Manet and Sargent, who he called an illustrator from outside the art world, what was going on? When Vic Muniz’s food art is shown in galleries and museums, but similar food performances on youtube are set outside the art world, what is going on? When Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mohammed Ali are called art, but LeRoi Neiman’s are not, what is going on? When recently serious attempts were made to present Norman Rockwell’s illustrations as works of art, or when Saul Steinberg was called only an illustrator, not an artist, what was going on? And when MoMA shows William Kentridge, while other artists creating animated image sequences are set outside the art world, what is going on?

In presenting these examples, our goal is not to suggest that maybe Sargent is superior to Manet; Neiman as good as Warhol; and so on. Doing that would be to fall into the trap of revisionist art history, seeking new criteria, which allow inclusion of new sorts of art from outside the art world into the art world. We are not interested in doing that because revisionist interpretation has been done so often that it’s become mechanical; and because this very process of revisionist interpretation misunderstands the nature of aesthetic judgments.

We don’t propose to reverse the usual interpretations, but to critically examine the process involved in making all such contrasts between good art and bad art which is from outside the art world. Recently George Crumb’s illustrations have been shown in museums, and there starts to be some interest in the extremely popular paintings of Thomas Kinkade. As cultural anthropologists, we are interested in this process. Why does the art world need to bring in such objects, art said to be from outside the art world? And why does it need to make a barrier between art and this art said to be from outside the art world?

We believe that good answers to these questions can be motivated by looking at Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment. His account is clear (we grant: it is presented in a poorly organized text) and intuitively plausible. It matches with everyone’s immediate experience. And so our critical question is why the art world institutions are so perversely un or anti-Kantian. Usually critiques of these institutions are Marxist. Such critiques are, we think, just another form of revisionist interpretations. We propose, rather, to offer a very different political perspective, one provided by linking Kant’s view of aesthetic judgments to his claim that such judgments are essentially sociable. We want to look at the link between his account of aesthetics and his political essay “What is Enlightenment?”