Why Art Does Not Exist

An illuminated manuscript from the 13th century, drawn by Toros Roslin

This title is adapted from Why Fish Don’t Exist [1] which in turn draws on Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s taxonomy study Naming Nature[2] to support its startling contention. Everyone knows what fish are. But today, taxonomists, the people responsible for scientific naming, assign names based on the evolution, the genealogy of a particular animal or plant, and the category “fish” includes organisms from almost every branch of the evolutionary inheritance — mammals, birds, reptiles. In effect, the more we learn about the organisms called “fish,” the less they constitute a category. We’re talking about thousands of species with diverse, independent genealogies, whose adaptations to life in water isn’t, in itself, enough to define their position in the grand order of living things. So what about art?

Most human communities, most of the time, haven’t wanted or needed a category called “art”. They have wanted and needed rituals — live events that integrate image with sound — words, costumes, music, dance, props — in ways that project meaning on the world — for a particular group of people at a particular time. Rituals integrate perception — in real time: vision and hearing, taste, touch and smell with verbal expressions of timeless truth. Medieval images — architecture, stained glass, sculpture, metalwork, book illumination — were integrated into a community practice of  Christianity, all grounded in a single text.

The word “art” — initially meaning exceptionally skilled craft — detached itself from ritual in various ways at various speeds for various reasons (the timing seems to correspond to the introduction of print in Europe, e.g. 1453, arguably fostering a sense individuality as opposed to community integration). Let’s say the term evolved.  It adapted to changing conditions among very diverse groups over a very long period of time. Remarkably, it survived. But it also became completely incoherent.

Here are a few — by no means all — of the ways art may be understood today.

  • art is visual: it consists of images as opposed to language, and so can convey meanings that language cannot, such as “seeing” past events or future possibilities.
  • art is regressive, a relic of outdated thinking disseminated in obsolete technologies supporting antiquated values.
  • art is at the forefront of innovative thinking about social structure, values and technologies.
  • art is an exceptional technical skill demonstrated in some form of communication — drawing, painting, printmaking, modelling, carving, etc. but also writing, musical composition, dance and theatrical design and performance, architecture, etc. In recent years, “art” has often applied to particularly ingenious uses of self-promotion techniques as well.
  • art is what happens in art institutions (collections, exhibitions, publication and education organizations), devoted the study of aesthetics, a central category in philosophy concerned with perception and values.
  • art is what artists make, artists being exceptionally gifted at making art, that is, at expressing themselves (Yes, it is perfectly circuitous).
  • art is the innovative, or creative aspect of any activity…including, say, business administration or astrophysics.
  • art is exclusive. It is meaningful only to people who are think they’re better than others — genetically or financially or educationally, and who are happy to impose their beliefs on as many others as possible.
  • art is inclusive. It is accessible to everyone at all times, promising a means of expanding, clarifying, changing one’s perception of the world.

It just can’t all be right.  Art, as a category, is incoherent, contradictory, dysfunctional. If “fish” names a category that doesn’t exist in a responsible taxonomy, that is, a scientific taxonomy, “art” names a category that doesn’t refer to any coherent field of human activity.

So why do we continue to use the term, not only overlooking the blatant contradictions, inequities and objections, but also building bigger and better art museums and performance venues, funding more and more prizes and residencies for artists, writers, musicians, etc., supporting art institutions with public funds, etc., accepting literally incredible rhetoric about how wonderful it all is?

Perhaps this is a case of neoteny, a curious feature of human evolution.  Neoteny, a tendency for certain ancestral traits to persist in organisms that have otherwise evolved quite considerably, is especially pronounced in humans.  The same term applies to juvenile characteristics that persist in adults in the same individual. On the whole, neoteny is considered to have been a very important evolutionary advantage for us. But what is advantageous about clinging to this particular concept now, long after anyone could attach it to any coherent practice?

Of course a given evolutionary development isn’t necessarily an improvement by the usual standards of species success, i.e., expansion.  Nor would it necessarily be evenly achieved across the whole specie. It is probably more dramatically uneven for those of us attracted to Leroi-Gourhan’s understanding that technology IS the way humans adapt to changing conditions. In any case, let’s suppose that the satisfaction afforded at one point in the past by rituals — events designed to confirm an aesthetic unity among some particular group of humans — was somehow so crucial to developmental structures that no one could quite “forget” it. The trait persists. It continues to generate a belief, or at least a hope, or even just some tolerance for others’ hope that some such ritual is still possible. I can confirm that it still sometimes happens: there are moments when a book or a film or a piece of music or an object makes me certain of both my own coherence and my affinity to other human beings — and I am the only one who can confirm this because it is an aesthetic experience. In the interests of recognising, valuing such rare moments of genuine communion, such evidence of an intrinsic humanity to which a machine can never aspire, I am doing my best to adapt to current linguistic conditions. I vow to use the term “art” as a past, superseded category — like hieroglyphs or wet photography — in an understanding that in the present, it does not exist.

[1] Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist, 2020

[2] Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, 2009.

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1 Response

  1. Lyn says:

    Good job!

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