PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, May 22, 2014

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Where does technique stop and art begins? + News

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Where does technique stop and art begins?

One thing is sure about this topic is that it is quite involving, but it
is certainly one that can generate different opinions and debate. Ruel
has sent us a link to his essay and I have written a few ideas on the
topic as. In the meantime Carlos has sent us details about a meeting of
the Asociación "El Club Del Hombre Libre".

Asociación "El Club Del Hombre Libre"
A la Conferencia de:
Manuel Noriega, titulada:
El Mercado de la Salud Mental
Lunes 26 de Mayo de 2014 a las 20:00 horas
Café Comercial
Glorieta de Bilbao nº7 (Madrid)

Hi Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote on Sunday´s topic.
See you on Sunday.


Where does technique stop and art begins?

If you look closely with a magnifying glass at a photo of the queen of
Sheba on your daily front page what you see is a collection of coloured
dots. Even if you look at the whole image with the magnifying glass from
edge to edge you will never get a hint of what you are looking at which,
in this case, happens to be the queen of Sheba.

Even if we look at some painting that is accepted as a work of art, the
closer you get to it the less it looks like a work of art. Indeed there
will come a point, like the photo on the newspaper, that all you see are
strokes of coloured pigment with ridges in them and maybe a covering of
a varnish.

Of course, seen from the right distance both the photo and the portrait
of the queen of Sheba will look like an image of the queen. So when do
dots of ink on paper become an image of the queen of Sheba? Or even
layers of pigment on canvas become a portrait of the queen.

And to compound the issue, is a photo of a work of art itself a work of
art? Indeed, why is a fake copy of a piece of art not art but yet it was
executed with a perfect technique?

It might be argued that a key component of art is the artist. This might
be relevant but not to the extent of establishing the artiness of a
piece of art. Many works have been attributed to an artist but then
discovered they were not; and vice versa.

Thus the artist is not a necessary condition for a painting - or any
other form of art such as literature, music etc- to be perceived as art.

Earlier I suggested that looking at a painting of the queen of Sheba
from the right distance will give us the right perception of the work of

This might suggest that the viewer is equally important in establishing
that something is a work of art. Thus a work of art = technique +
viewer, where technique becomes key when applied by a certain artist.

There is however a serious implication here. Basically, if we accept the
technique+viewer argument, then the whole collection of impressionist
paintings has hardly been viewed as art. Firstly, the technique used for
these paintings requires natural light in situ which will never be
achieved in the sterile setting of a museum or a sitting room of a
house. And secondly, the viewer has to be at the right distance from the
painting to achieve the right perspective to really appreciate the
painting. It is therefore very likely that only a hand full of people in
history have ever seen the artiness of an impressionist painting.

Hence, although the viewer is an important variable in what is art, in
many cases the viewer is excluded from the artiness of the work. In the
example of the impressionist painting there is no doubt that the
painting is finished and no doubt the artist was a master, he or she
knew when to stop; this is the difference between master and artist, the
master knows when to stop. (Not my original idea but it not clear who
said it).

Of course, we can say that it is both necessary and sufficient condition
for a viewer to see a work of art (we can compromise and include an
image) to decide whether they like it, but liking something does not
establish artiness. Or at least we think it doesn't.

This leads us to the idea that works of art cannot be art because we are
physically hindered from accessing the same sense perception of the
artist. And to compound the issue we are certainly excluded from being
in the same brain state of the artist no matter how much an fMRI image
of both the artist and the viewer look alike when looking at the queen
of Sheba: two cars doing 120km on the motorway cannot be reduced to one
car doing 120km.

An equally interesting issue is this: what exactly are we supposed to
see and look at in a piece of art? What was inside the brain of the
artist, a representation of such internal imaging, the face value of the
technique? At least in the private language argument we know that
meaning comes from public use of words, where is the artiness in a
private image of the artist?

We clearly speak of art, and we clearly distinguish some things as
possessing artiness and others not. Maybe there is a hint for us here
and maybe art is first and foremost a language game clearly based on
social norms. Hence a painting hanging in a museum must be art because
that's what we decided to do socially with art. But I am sure we all
feel that we need something more than this.

One thing we also seem to agree is that art stirs the emotions. We might
feel ecstatic at a piece of music or engulfed by a painting.

Indeed emotions seem to be a common denominator between the artist and
the viewer. But it is unlikely that both the artist and the viewer are
in the same mental state; never mind that there is no logical reason to
suppose that there is an emotional factor, it is certainly neither a
necessary nor sufficient condition. One of the reasons why the artist
and viewer cannot be in the same mental state is because of the added
emotions experienced by the artist in doing the work of art including
pleasure, frustration, relief etc.

It seems that the artiness of a piece of art is very elusive; we seem to
want some exclusive thing that distinguishes art from other things,
similar to distinguishing good from bad.

In a desperate bid to understand the issue we might say that a perfect
technique will transform itself into a work of art. But technique itself
is not enough in the same way that correct grammar does not
automatically make a romantic novel. Technique does help but there seems
to be a transitional point where technique enters into a diminishing
curve and replaced by artiness which might be argued is not subject to
the diminishing returns law. The artiness of a piece of art does not
diminish the more people look at it; but adding more paint will.

The best analogy is maybe a toast or a hardboiled egg. At one point a
fresh piece of bread ceases to be bread and turns into a toast; the same
with a fresh egg. Of course, with bread and eggs we can set a
mathematical model to predict the transition from freshness to
toastiness in bread. This is the domain of catastrophe theory
established by René Thom and made popular by Christopher Zeeman
(Wikipedia). Chemistry and physics can also explain the molecular and
atomic changes in the bread. Hence toastiness can easily be a new
property of a fresh piece of bread or rather we can identify physical
changes in the bread to describe the state of the bread as toast. At a
pinch we can even do the same with good and see how many people are
benefiting or the nature of the benefit. For example, a good health
policy will depend on various positive effects such as the number of
care recipients, death rate, life expectancy etc.

Can we do the same with art? For example, is it the case that the more
people like a painting the more it possess artiness? But there is
problem with this thinking.

A toast and a good health service stand on their own feet. A toast is a
toast irrespective of who is looking at it. In this respect maybe Kant
was right to suggest that art is independent of context. If a painting
has to be described as a portrait of the queen of Sheba then that would
probably be photojournalism. But most art doesn't need a caption to be

Maybe we need to revisit the technique+viewer model, but this time we
have a closer look at the viewer factor. Sure liking something does not
make it art, but we are not trying to discover what is art but when the
technique becomes art.

One final thing I haven't mentioned is that art is closely associated
with our two primordial senses: sight (for visual arts) and hearing (for
literature/theatre) although in reality there is always a mixture of
both to some degree. Despite the fact that a chaotic field of view
carries more information it would have been our ancestors' ability to
identify meaningful patterns that helped them survive by identifying
food or avoid dangers. Hence pattern recognition (visual or auditory)
becomes an ingrained ability in us; and what is art but pattern
recognition: images of flowers, beautiful people, harmonic music,
captivating tales, flowing prose?

The context is therefore always relevant for art and even for artiness
to sprout from technique. The context is not related to the content of
the painting but to our ability to recognise and indentify patterns. For
example, the modern art movements such as cubism were historical
reactions to the conservative and conformist society at the time. But
their radical departure of what was called art at the time resulted into
a lot of opposition before these works were accepted as art. Of course,
we might like some art and not others but art is judged by our ability
to see form and pattern in our field of vision.

Hence, art, it might be argued, happens when we can recognise and
experience something as a meaningful pattern. We also recognise that it
is harmless. For example, an image of a nude female or male body hanging
in a museum is regarded as art but a similar image with similar pose
found on an adult website would be regarded as pornography by many
because it might corrupt our morals. And then the final test is whether
what we see gives us pleasure or revulsion. So, maybe, the technique
stops at the point where what we see is clearly not a threat to us. Now
surely that's a material change in our brain!

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
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Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
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from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Where does technique stop and
art begins? + News

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