Art and intention

by Mark Isaacs

We have bound the idea of art up into the idea of intention. Art is made by a person who sees themself as an artist, with no other agenda informing the process other than the making of art. This has become the prerequisite for the creation of art. It’s a very new idea – about 200 years old, a time-span which is a pimple on the body of human civilisation.

When 19th-century anthropologists examined artifacts that showed rare beauty from older and/or non-Western civilisations they often saw these as objects of art. Often they later learned that they were functional objects, created by artisans to serve a particular need, process or institution within the culture. Did this then disqualify them as art objects? These cultures that lacked people who saw their function as solely the creation of art without intersection with any other functional purpose, did they then have no art?

For example: an argument, sometimes put, that music in advertising can’t be art because of advertising’s seedy history and intention, is a moral one that cannot possibly be sustained. On the one hand any fair reading would say that advertising can sometimes be benign – a simple entreaty to conduct an exchange, often for things most people would agree are valuable. (Coltrane’s performances and recordings were – and are in the case of the recordings – advertised). On the other hand advertising can be sinister, pervasive and steeped in greed. Even if you argue that on balance advertising comes out as pernicious, does this then disqualify those that serve it as being artists? If we say it does, that leads into some problematic areas if we are prepared to be consistent.

Organised religion can sometimes be a benign force. But few would disagree that in the long historical view it has often – probably mostly – been the very opposite, and in a way that makes the institution of advertising look like a school picnic. I don’t recall any powerful advertisers using torture and murder as a means of dealing with apostates and heretics who do not believe in their products! So if one strictly accepts that kind of “moral” argument put about the pedigree of art, then anything created in the service of organised religion is open to the same kind of critique. There goes Bach and Messiaen for starters. Also the aristocrats of 18th century Europe were morally bankrupt by any reckoning. There goes Papa Haydn and Mozart.

One can imagine a story of extraterrestrials hundreds of thousands of years in the future unearthing artifacts from a human civilisation long since extinct:

From his remote viewing platform, Grock delighted in the recently-discovered images of the human form presented before him. In the reverence for proportion and nuance, the play of light and shade, he saw the handiwork of inspired minds, as he did in listening to the rustling pitches that emerged from the sounds that accompanied it, creating a powerful synergy. He felt the creative power of the universal spirit blazing forth. As his rapture reached its apotheosis it was suddenly interrupted by the voice of his assistant. “They used it to sell soap” said Kandor. Grock made a note and returned to his reverie, which was not thereby diminished.

In the twentieth-century we questioned every assumption about art, except the holy grail of “intention”. The point is not to make a case for advertising as the new location for art – not at all. But since advertising is the last place we would expect to find art according to our received 19th century wisdoms (advertising is about commerce, and twentieth century critical theory is steeped in Marxism) it is a useful way to underpin a polemic. If you wish to confront an orthodoxy (in this case forms of critical theory) with a heresy, sleep with the enemy!

One personal story to end. I once visited a gallery with my wife, a visual artist. I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to visual art, and was keen to be educated. The particular exhibition was typically radical in a way of a certain brand of contemporary fine art. The paintings were just simple designs. A red square inside a yellow square. A blank canvass with a few dots on it. I resisted the work. My wife urged me to suspend my ideas about what art should be be. To not dwell on the artist’s skills, or lack thereof. To not be bound in expectations about what a gallery should contain. To simply allow my senses to be impinged upon by the interplay of colour and shape per se. So I forgot all my ideas about art and I had a deep aesthetic experience. However, I remained in that frame of mind when I left the gallery and the first thing I saw was a colour advertising poster. Maintaining my non-judgemental frame of reference I simply saw proportions and colours colliding. And my aesthetic experience continued.

Art spills over into and through life itself. There are no “restricted areas” where it cannot flow.