Steve Shipps, (Re)thinking ‘Art’: A guide for beginners (Blackwell 2008)
I read this book as an act of solidarity with The Emerging Artist. Thanks to a year-long series of lunchtime lecture–slideshows given by an art enthusiast in the French Department in my undergraduate years, I had a general idea of the history of Western art up to Picasso, so I could engage intelligently as she tackled assignments on Rembrandt or Watteau, but when she needed a sounding board on anything postmodern, I didn’t even know when to nod interestedly. She said she found Steve Shipps helpful.
The first sentence gave me hope: ‘This book grows out of bewilderment, skepticism and something like awe.’ Visits to contemporary art exhibitions have often enough evoked in me just that mix of emotions, plus occasionally the urge to deride. The book starts out with Doug Fishbone’s work 20,000 Bananas, which is what it says, a big pile of bananas dumped in the street, but could easily have started with Robert Gober’s Drains, or Aleks Danko’s Trick Bricks or Sandra Nori’s amateur video of a Japanese anti-nuclear demo in the last Sydney Biennale.
Now that I’ve read the book, my bewilderment, scepticism and awe are pretty much still in place, but now they’re better informed.
It’s a short book, a guide for beginners as promised, that sheds light on a lot of contemporary discussions of art, not to mention art works themselves. There’s a terrific chapter titled ‘Pragmatics’ that describes a way to think about any given work of art – designed mainly for the student who has a paper to write, but with much broader application. But the book’s real interest is in its trickier and more provocative elements.
Shipp worked the book up from college lectures he has been giving since the 1980s, but he doesn’t patronise the teenaged student who is its imagined reader. In talking about de Saussure (Course in General Linguistics) and Danto (After the End of Art) and the Prague Linguistic Circle, he’s exemplary in his concern not to leave the reader behind, always carefully defining his terms and introducing his characters. It’s not ‘talk to me like I’m stupid’ or even ‘”art for dummies’ but it provides what the readers of such texts are looking for.
Apparently the idea of ‘art’ as we understand it today didn’t appear in the West until the Renaissance, and that the idea of art history didn’t appear until the late 18th century. ‘Art history’ traced the development of art – mainly painting and sculpture – from the Renaissance to the historian’s own time, and projected the new concept back onto works dating from cave paintings and the Venus of Willendorf. When the sculptures and plays of the ancient Greeks were created, Shipps maintains, they weren’t seen as ‘art’ in the way we have understood it for the last 600 years or so, but as what we would call craft. I have trouble getting my head around that, because surely Euripides and Praxiteles were famous for their works in their own time. But Shipps is adamant, and he backs his argument up with solid argument and lucid examples.
‘Art’ is not something that exists independently of what we call it, like a cow in a field, which is still there whether we see it as prospective food, a deity or an outsized pet. The term ‘art’ refers to disparate objects and activities, linking them in a category that exists only because of the term itself, and so it becomes hard to define. After much complex but always readable discussion, he says this on page 120:
what we seem to have come to, finally, is this: when we say ‘art’ what we mean is something that invites – and justifies – a certain kind of attention. It seems to be that simple.
I love that, especially the word ‘justifies’. But, even given the interesting challenge of describing the kind of attention art invites, life isn’t that simple. The book goes on for another 40 pages, first arguing that we should describe as ‘art’ only those works that are created in a state of ‘flow’ and finally calling on us to stop thinking in terms of ‘art’ and ‘artists’ at all, and get on with doing for ourselves the things we have outsourced to them:
So much of the world has been described by now, and so many of those descrioptions made the more permanent for being ‘written down’ in whatever form, so much of our described experience has thus come to seem to be the way it ‘is’, that most of us are forced today to spend unprecedented amounts of time learning how things are ‘supposed to be’ and/or ‘supposed to be done’, and then doing them that way, so that our lives will proceed satisfactorily …
We are numbed by all the information through which we have to sort every day, so our experience of our experience, of ‘art’ or of anything else, becomes increasingly numbed as well … becomes, that is, increasingly anaesthetic …
We needn’t look far to see that there are things in our world today that could surely use some (re)thinking, and (re)describing. And I suspect that if we didn’t have ‘artists’ making ‘art’ to trust with doing that for us while the rest of us got on with our conventional, anaesthetic day-to-day lives, we all just might then tend to do more of it ourselves.