It’s been almost a century since Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal with the name R. Mutt, exhibited as a work of art named “Fountain.” This act would precipitate an aesthetic discussion that is still of much relevance to our artistic discourse today: What is art? And more importantly, as art philosopher Roger Scruton once asked in his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, “If anything can count as art, what is the point or merit in achieving that label?”
The Romantic Movement, which began in the 18th century, culminated in a shift in educated opinion on the core subject matter of aesthetic — chiefly, the transition to include natural beauty in the study of art. This change in the aesthetic ideal eventually led to a rise in abstract expressionism in the study of art and an emphatic cognizance of the self and of the individual experience that was at the center of aesthetic discussions at the time.
What does it take for a work to be labeled as art? Although there’s a tendency to emphasize the architect of an artwork when measuring the artistic worth of a piece, there is an objective value to the characterization of art.
Art can be symbolic and emotive, evoking certain feelings in the viewer. This artistic ideal gives meaning to the artist’s experience in ways that affect the emotions of the audience. Pseudo-art, on the other hand, is designed simply to entertain or arouse, and therefore lacks these fundamental values of true artworks, according to art philosophers. Kanye West, as great a lyricist as many consider him to be, does not personify these values. He is not a true artist. He is a pseudo-artist.
Modern pop music, trap music, pornography and the likes of these avocations are not true art forms; they are merely pseudo-artistic. In similar fashion, abstract modern art is not true art and should not even be mentioned in the same category as art, as it too lacks real substance and is vainly meaningless. Yet many celebrate and gravitate toward these forms of pseudorealism.
The distinction between these two types of art was best illustrated by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce and his pupil, English philosopher R.G. Collingwood. Both argued that when confronting a true artwork, the meaning and context of the work should interest audiences.
Presented to an observer of an artwork are experiences uniquely embodied within the art that invite the viewer to experience a story through a different lens, allowing the viewer to reflect upon new and interesting ways to read the intent of the artist. But when that aim is entertainment, audiences are less interested in the means, but more so in the product.
These subjective and cultivated responses — pleasure, laughter — as criteria for the artistic merit of a subject matter render the artistic judgment itself irreverent by virtue of its subjectivity because they do not stem from reason or experience.
A true artist places his work and its subject matter in a context that makes every gesture significant and helps achieve the type of meaning intended. Any artwork has a degree of uniqueness that separates it from any other artwork, even duplicates.
Art, therefore, should be understood as objects of judgment and expressions of moral life. It expresses emotions that familiarize us with human experiences and arouse our awareness for experiences unknown to us. The essential aesthetic value comes from a human-based emotive system. The true artistic meaning does not come only from representation, but from expression, and this expression is the vehicle of aesthetic value. Anything else is just not art.