Day 23: What is art?
Brave to end a Festival you’ve curated with the question, ‘What is art?’ but this is a 2,500 year old issue that requires some philosophical acumen, and not just personal reflections. Like the debates at the Festival (apart from Stern) this lacked academic rigour and depth.
His first argument is an argument from analogy, that art should be seen as biology post-Darwin, with no hierarchy. The ‘all inclusive’ argument is fairly well established in aesthetics as a reaction against the Kantian absolutism of the 18th century but it bears no real analogy with Darwin, which is an explanation for the life we observe through genetic variation and natural selection.
A more fruitful line of inquiry would have been the various evolutionary hypotheses put forward for aesthetic behaviour. So what is ‘adaptive’ about art? Our taste for landscapes and parks suggests our origin in Savannah grasslands. Puzzle-solving, status markers, sexual selection, fitness indicators that are difficult to fake; these are all candidates for discussion and a lively area of aesthetic theorising. Eno either hasn’t read any the many books and papers in this area, or forgot to mention it.
We’ve had John Carey at the Festival in the past, and his book ‘What good are the arts’ was mentioned then dismissed on the grounds that he saw ‘literature’ as true art. He caricatured Carey, who actually argues for Eno’s position and does not believe in absolute values in art. The problem here is that Eno simply presents a description of what he regards as ‘art’. What aesthetics tries to do is establish both a definition and explanation. It’s the ‘why’ that’s so puzzling.
He tries, but fails, to establish an explanatory theory through his theory of ‘surrender’, the process whereby humans willingly surrender consciousness through sex, drugs, art and religion. The word ‘surrender’ is suspect here as much art appreciation is active participation and inquiry, not a passive ‘suspension of disbelief’ or dream-like mental state. If pushed, he’d have real difficulty in defining art in these terms. In fact, it ultimately leads to an aesthetic view that is similar to Marx’s view that ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. The surrender theory posits art as the opium of the people, a form of escapism. Now this is an interesting and dangerous line of inquiry, that goes all the way back to Plato. In the end his definition was a weak version of the historicist view of art, as u by Levinson and others. Armchair theorising is fine, but you expect more at a ticketed event in a Concert Hall.
To be fair, it was interesting to hear someone who is in a position of some power in the arts question its meaning and purpose. In my experience, those involved in the arts are repulsed by aesthetic theory. Art, for them, is an absolute good and those who engage in this debate, simply philistines looking for an excuse to with draw their subsidies. In that sense, well done Eno.