When we think of Art with a capital ‘A’ we tend to think of paintings in galleries, in public galleries most of all, of superstar artists, and of the viewing of art as some sort of reverent, contemplative experience, much like, no doubt the experience of pilgrims viewing relics or taking the stations of the cross in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is not an uncommon analogy to liken art galleries to cathedrals, or to declare that art galleries have replaced churches as the place for transcendent experience. Or at least that is the kind of bourgeois or elitist view of things, and it is that elitism that philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff rightly takes a shot at in his latest book Art Rethought. After-all, as he says, where are the philosophical books about the deeper meaning of memorials? Or quilting or folk songs? Why when we think of the philosophy of art do we automatically assume we are talking about Western painting? (We might think that something like Australian indigenous art is an exception, but most Australians still encounter it as painting in a gallery in an aesthetic contemplation experience.)
To answer this we have to, as Wolterstorff does, take stock of the ‘grand narrative’ of the trajectory of modern art, realise it is a narrative and not just the way the world must be. And then we might have to, as Wolterstorff does, look at some outsider art, in the wide sense of the term as being outside the elite art establishment, think about what it does and why it is of value and then we might decide that ‘transcendence’ is not the only criteria to judge art on. Wolterstorff makes a great case here for the value of art as propaganda (in the generous sense of the word) or as craft or as made for purposes other than simply aesthetic contemplation (as worthy as that is of itself). He suggests that when we view art in galleries we are actually viewing if often outside of its original purpose (as political statement or as a means of conveying religious messages, say). Take, for example, he says, Bach, who never wrote music outside of the purpose of worship within a church. Aesthetics and other purposes are not mutually exclusive of course, but aesthetics are not the only gig in town. Besides, suggesting art is merely aesthetics can also be a cover for other, non-aesthetic agenda.
As an example of artists denigrated, or at least ignored, because they are not purely aesthetically-focussed, Wolterstorff discusses the German artist Kathe Kollwitz (below), who not only made visual art in a medium that was not painting, but made strongly political statements with her enthusiasm for the working poor in her (beautiful) prints and drawings. Not that she is unknown, but she has not received her due precisely because she had a non-aesthetically exclusive agenda. And yes, Van Gogh and Picasso and others had their pieces to say too, but they were secondary to the aesthetic innovation they are famous for. It is, as Wolterstorff says, that if an artist makes art for a purpose other than aesthetics, the art is somehow lessened and heavy-handed. In fact, says, Wolterstorff, a philosopher well-known for writing about justice, it is creating more injustice to dismiss art made for the purpose of confronting injustice as mere propaganda. It is to his credit that Wolterstorff patiently, and in a very philosophically methodical way, points all this out.