Aesthetics and Criticism - Working Notes - Art 102

An ancient sickle lined with flint, used for cutting grain

An ancient sickle lined with flint, used for cutting grain

Receptivity and analysis: we human beings talk of our various senses of perception, ways in which we take note of the world around us, prerequisite to making critical judgements or aesthetic evaluations. But we may also consider awareness as a wholistic phenomenon of the human organism. Therefore, it is misleading to think of senses as clear-cut subdivisions of our psyche, however practical & useful for analytical purposes. This warns us about taking our modes of analysis to be characteristics of that which we are supposed to be examining. It provides a good caveat, or warning, to bear in mind throughout the course. For many people it is difficult to perform a task while at the same time maintaining self-awareness. Yet, few things could be more important for the serious study of aesthetics and art criticism.

In physics this process of self-awareness is analogous to what is called a recursive function. In mathematics, the analogy is with a self-referential equation. We should become aware of analogies between the sciences and the arts in order to take advantage of the objective power of models or paradigms that science can provide. This practice may help us avoid some of the obvious tendencies toward subjectivity that so frequently accompany discussions about aesthetics and criticism. In the belief system of Western culture--the most powerful contemporary influence on what appears to be a new global culture--the objectivity of science and the universality of mathematics are fundamental. It is worth noting that all of science is based upon drawing distinctions, that is to say, upon counting and measuring. Science is grounded upon mathematics, even though mathematics--in its deepest nature--is not about number at all; it is about formal relationships, only some of which, later, may come to be represented by number. It is further worth emphasizing that mathematics is not considered a science, according to academic tradition, but an art.

We can elucidate the distinction between science and art by looking more carefully at the words themselves. It is science that draws distinctions, severing or slicing what before is an indistinct whole. The word SCIENCE comes to us through the Latin scire which means to know, in the sense of discernment, separating one thing from another. It derives from the Indo-European word root skei that is common to words such as CONSCIOUS and CONSCIENCE, OMNISCIENT and PLEBISCITE; words having the sense to split or to splinter, such as SHEAVE, and in "SHIVER my timbers"; SHEATH and SHED, SCHEDULE, SCHISM, and SHIZO--all indicating something fragmented set apart. Therefore, it comes as not great surprise that in Germanic languages such as Old Norse and Old English the forms skita and skitan respectively should produce the venerable verb meaning to defecate, namely, to SHIT.

Thus, while many artist students may be delighted to learn that, according to the prevailing opinions of etymologists who study the Indo-European languages, there would be a certain rationale for proposing the equation SCIENCE = SHIT, we perhaps add more to our knowledge by noting that skei is an extended root of sek, which means to cut, with cognates at SAW, SCYTHE, SICKLE, SECTION, DISECT & SKIN.

Individual artists: Marcel Duchamp's writings provide an essential key for analysis of the profoundly important aesthetic issues presented by his art. Frank Stella recently delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. The Los Angeles painter Robert Irwin, like Stella, also writes brilliantly about art; Irwin's texts—like those of Duchamp--provide insights into wider issues:

  • Robert Irwin, Being and Circumstance: Notes Toward a Conditional Art, The Lapis Press, in conjunction with the Tate Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1985).
  • Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings,  1966-1990, edited by Gabriele Guercio, MIT (1991).
  • Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, editors. Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Oxford University Press (1973). Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Bantam (1990).
  • Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, U.C. Press (1982).

Survey of aesthetic and critical issues in special contexts:

  • Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, editor, Art, Creativity, and the Sacred, Crossroads (19S6).
  • Duke Frederick. Destroy to Create: Interaction with the Natural Environment in the Building of America, Dryden Press (1972). Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch; The World of Bad Taste. Universe (1969).
  • Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, Aperture (1990).
  • Lynn Hunt, The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1300, Zone Books (1993).
  • Joseph Kosuth. The Flay of the Unmentionable: An Installation by Joseph Kosuth at the Brooklyn Museum, with an essay by David Freedberg, Introduction by Charlotte Kotik, The New Press (1992).
  • Susan Lambert, Reading Drawings: An Introduction to Looking at Drawings, Pantheon Books (1904).
  • Joan Lyons, editor, Artist's Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Peregrine Smith Books (1937).
  • Alan Sonfist, Art in the Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art, E. P. Dutton (1933).
  • Jane and Michael Stern, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, Harper (1990).

Consideration of the unique information provided by documentation of artists in their studios and in other special situations:

  • Alexander Liberman, The Artist in His Studio, Viking (1969).
  • Alice Bellony-Rewald, Imagination's Chamber: Artists and Their  Studios, New York Graphic Society (1982).
  • Keith Haring, Art in Transit, Harmony Books (1934).

Interrelationship of art criticism with philosophical aesthetics and art history: Exemplary passages from the literature of art history, such as Frederick Hartt on Donatello in The History of Italian Renaissance Art, Abrams (1979), the appreciations of Charles Beaudelaire, or Oscar Wilda in "The Critic as Artist." See also:

  • Stefan Morawski, Inquiries Into the Fundamentals of Aesthetics, M.I.T. Press (1974, 1978).
  • Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Anchor Books (1955)

Interrelationship of art criticism, techniques and art production:

  • Waldemar Januszczak, consultant editor, Techniques of the World's  Great Painters, Chartwell Books, Q.E.D., (1980).
  • Judith Collins, et. al., Techniques of Modern Art, Chartwell Books, Q.E.D., (1983).
  • Clara Weyergraf-Serra and Martha Buskirk, eds. The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents, MIT Press (1991).

Art Criticism in relation to different cultural values of ethnic or social minorities, and to global perspectives:

  • Richard L. Anderson, Art in Small-Scale Societies, Prentice Hall, (2nd edition 1969); and, with Karen L. Field, editors Art is Small‑Scale Socieites: Contemporary Readings, Prentice Hall (1993).
  • Laleh Bakhtiar, Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest, Avon (1976).
  • Margaret Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory, Oklahoma (1989)
  • Wen Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th-14th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art & Yale (1992).
  • Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson (1991).
  • Marcel Griaule, Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas, Oxford (1965).
  • Jamake Highwater, Primal Mind; also Ritual of the Wind: North American Indian Ceremonies, Music and Dance. Methuen (1984).
  • Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic  Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution,  Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, Harper (1991).
  • George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting, Princeton (1959).
  • Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde Since 1970, Chicago (1989).
  • Maurice Tuchman and Carol S. Eliel, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, LA County Museum of Art & Princeton (1992).
  • Michael Tucker, Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture, Harper (1992).
  • Elemire Zolla, The Androgyne: Reconciliation of Male and Female, Crossroad (1981).

The above list of topics is intended to provide examples, and does not pretend to be exhaustive. Additional topics, with related documentation and bibliographical references may be suggested by current local, national, or international exhibitions, newsworthy events, or by new research and opinion, such as might be encountered in the publications: New Media, Wired, REsearch. Mondo 2000, Boingboing, Science News, and in various "underground comix." Students are encouraged to monitor current art magazines, local and regional exhibitions and performances, and art-related events as reported by the standard press and on TV, in particular presentations by PBS the Public Broadcasting System (Channel 6 in Sacramento), the Discovery and the Learning Channels on cable TV.

Kurt von Meier