Is Piss Christ Good Art? Part II – Criticizing Art

Serrano Andres, Piss Christ 1987In the first article of this series, I launched the discussion of whether or not Piss Christ should be considered good art by providing a definition of art. Rather than define it as “paintings, sculptures, and music” or “theater, film, and literature,” I presented a functional definition, a definition that defines art, not as an object or type of objects, but as anything which performs a particular task. The defining aim of art, I argued, is to convey meaning through created microcosms. What I mean by this is that the one commonality between all works of art is that they are created in order to convey something, perhaps an idea or feeling, from a creator that reflects his or her unique view on the nature of some subject via the senses to an audience.

With a common definition of art from which to work, we can now begin to examine a number of questions. Perhaps first of all, we should ask, can art be judged? To answer this, we must first investigate what class of thing art is. Is art a means to an end, an end in itself, or both a means to an end and an end in itself? In other words, is art good for what it does, what it is, or both what it does and for what it is? In my view, art belongs to the third class, being both good in itself and for what it can do. Thus art is both utilitarian and autotelic simultaneously. Why this is the case is a discussion that is far too lengthy for this article, and perhaps for this series, but I will attempt to at least explain my meaning by way of an analogy from Roger Scruton’s excellent book Culture Counts.

Suppose someone asked the question “what good are friends?” It would surely be easy to come up with a few answers, and answers that we would all endorse. Friends are a cure for loneliness; they bring help in times of trouble, cooperation in ordinary ventures, and consolation in the wake of loss. A person with friends has amplified his power, his scope, and his creative potential. A person without friends is reduced to the minimal conditions of survival.

All that suggests that a friend is good as a means. But suppose I approach Juliet with that thought in mind. I recognize her as a high-flyer, someone who will bring me all kinds of advantages that I could not achieve alone. I calculate all the ways in which she will benefit me, and set out to “bring her over” to my side. Is that treating her as a friend? Surely not. To treat Juliet as a friend is to value her for her own sake, as the particular person she is. It is to value her, to use the language of Kant, “as an end in herself.” Only someone who sees other people as having intrinsic value can be friends. This does not mean that his friends will not be of instrumental value. But their instrumental value depends upon the refusal to pursue it. The use of friends is available only to those who do not seek it. Those who collect friends for utility’s sake are not collecting friends: they are manipulating people.

Likewise, art has instrumental value, but that value can only be possessed if it is not pursued. In order for the useful value of art to be had, art must be pursued for its own sake and not its usefulness. When art is pursued for its usefulness and not for itself, it becomes something other than art, just as friends, when pursued for their usefulness, become something other than friends. In this case, friends become accessories, and art becomes propaganda.

Many people today do hold the view that art is inherently valuable, that art should be pursued solely for art’s sake. However, this view, while partially correct, ignores the fact that art does have effects, that it is also a useful thing. If this view was true, then judging art would make no sense, as all art would be good purely by nature of being art. This would discount the possibility of criticism, and as this view has grown in popularity, critical examination of art has declined. If something is good, why judge it?

However, art is both useless and useful. Like friendship, it is good in its own right, but it also has instrumental value. It is this instrumental value of art that necessitates critical thought concerning art. If art has a function, if it does anything, then it does not only exist for its own sake but also for the sake of accomplishing an end. Many who hold the view that art exists for art’s sake would agree that art is powerful, that it has some effect. But if art does something, then it has a function. If it has a function, then it cannot exist for its own sake only.

Consequently, we are forced to conclude that art must be treated as both an end in itself and also as a means to some other end. Even so, the question remains, can art be judged? If art were something that existed solely for its own sake, then it would make no sense to judge it. But because art also exists for the accomplishment of some other end, that is, because art has power, because it does something, it can be judged.

This then raises the question of whether or not art should be judged. As we have seen, it can be, but should it be? If you believe that art has power, then it only makes sense to answer to the affirmative. It makes no sense to say that something is powerful, that it can change lives and affect us deeply, and then to turn around and say that we should give no thought to what that power does, to how it changes us. No one thinks that we shouldn’t think critically food or religious belief. If their effects warrant scrutiny, then how can art not demand it?

Going back to the previous comparison, that of friends to art, this becomes even more evident. While we already saw that friends must not be pursued merely for their instrumental value, it would be foolish to give no thought to the effects that friends might have. Friends have the capacity to change us, and it is only wise to think critically about the ways that they change us. If they are causing harm, then something ought to be said. However, lest we fall back into the trap of instrumentalizing our friends, we must speak up for sake of the friendship, with the hope of making it the best that it can be, not for our own benefit. If we speak up for our own benefit, then the friendship has already ended, and the “friend” is nothing more than tool for getting us what we want. Thus with art, we must speak up, not because we are being damaged, but because we love art and want it to be the best that it can be.

Given that art should be judged, we must ask how we are to judge it. I think that it is fairly clear that before we can judge a work, we must first understand it. Art is not created in a vacuum, and we shouldn’t view it as such. We cannot fully understand any particular work without first understanding its context in history. All artists draw inspiration from and react to the works of previous artists, and often their works are responses to the world around them. It is nearly impossible to make sense of any conversation based on single phrase, and attempting to understand a work of art without any context is equally difficult. Thus we cannot understand any piece of art unless we also have a knowledge of art history, as well as history in general.

Once a work is understood, it is possible to begin the process of evaluating it. First, we ought to examine works to see if they effectively convey their meaning. If they do, they can be considered good art. The function was fulfilled; the aim was met. The work, then, is good. It is this factor that explains the difference between most novice artists and those who become great. A novice struggles to portray his vision clearly. Whether because he struggles to play the chords, or because he chips the marble away in the wrong places, his art suffers because it fails to be what it is supposed to be. However, a good artist knows how to craft his work in such a manner that his vision is made real. It is because of this that I make the claim that Piss Christ is good art. With it, the artist’s vision comes to full fruition. The meaning is conveyed clearly, in my view. In this sense, it is good art.

However, another question remains: Is it good for art? We must ask, for the love of art, whether or not it does what is good for art, or if it is instead damaging to art through its effects. Art affects culture, and whatever is damaging to culture is also damaging to art, as art is an institution of culture. Just as the brain affects the mind and the mind affects the brain, art affects culture and culture affects art. Therefore, if we love art, we must examine the effects of artworks on culture, for they in turn affect art.

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