What is Art?
Joanna Ng, Intern
Roger Scruton is currently Research Professor for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences where he teaches philosophy at their graduate school in both Washington and Oxford. He is a writer, philosopher, and public commentator and has specialized in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. In his book Beauty, Scruton explores various notions of beauty and comes to the conclusion that beauty is not determined by subjective feelings, but universal values that are rooted in rational thought. In the following excerpt Scruton discusses beauty in the form of art.
A century ago Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal with the name ‘R. Mutt’, entitled it ‘La Fontaine’, and exhibited it as a work of art. One immediate result of Duchamp’s joke was to precipitate an intellectual industry devoted to answering the question ‘What is art?’ The literature of this industry is as tedious as the never-ending imitations of Duchamp’s gesture. Nevertheless, it has left a residue of scepticism. If anything can count as art, what is the point or the merit in achieving that label? All that is left is the curious but unfounded fact that some people look at some things, others look at others. As for the suggestion that there is an enterprise of criticism, which searches for objective values and lasting monuments to the human spirit, this is dismissed out of hand, as depending on a conception of the art-work that was washed down the drain of Duchamp’s ‘fountain’.
The argument is eagerly embraced, because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all those venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that TV soaps are ‘as good as’ Shakespeare and Radiohead the equal of Brahms, since nothing is better than anything and all claims to aesthetic value are void. The argument therefore chimes with the fashionable forms of cultural relativism, and defines the point from which university courses in aesthetics tend to begin – and as often as not the point at which they end.
There is useful comparison to be made here with jokes. It is as hard to circumscribe the class of jokes as it is the class of artworks. Anything is a joke if somebody says so. A joke is an artefact made to be laughed at. It may fail to perform its function, in which case it is a joke that ‘falls flat’. Or it may perform its function, but offensively, in which case it is a joke ‘in bad taste’. But none of this implies that the category of jokes is arbitrary, or that there is no such thing as a distinction between good jokes and bad. Nor does it in any way suggest that there is no place for the criticism of jokes, or for the kind of moral education that has an appropriate sense of humour as its goal. Indeed, the first thing you might learn, in considering jokes, is that Marcel Duchamp’s urinal was one – quite a good one first time round, corny by the time of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and downright stupid today.