Thursday, November 5, 2009

Out of Context

The earth is crammed with heaven

And every bush aflame with God

But only those who see

Take off their shoes

That's a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning that I've always liked and I think it describes very well the way people regard the world. Beauty is always there, everywhere, in everything, but only those who stop to see it appreciate it. And there's a phenomenal difference between looking at things and really seeing them. Too many people simply look... and subsequently miss out.

The philosopher, Paul Ziff, wrote an essay examining on the possibility of anything to be art. (Really, anything. He begins the essay with the exclamation, "Look at the dried dung!") So what constitutes a work of art? According to Ziff, a work of art is simply something fit to be an object of aesthetic attention. In today's world, this is widely viewed as something built by man, tailored for the purpose of being viewed aesthetically. These works need not even be beautiful. Picasso's Guernica and Grunewald's Crucifiction are two examples of paintings that one wouldn't describe as especially lovely, and yet they are recognized as masterpieces without opposition. They are paintings done by man, and so they are art.

By chance, some objects of aesthetic attention are naturally produced and are not recognized as works of art. They are not artifacts, and are accordingly disqualified, as it were. That they are not artifacts does not suggest nor establish that they are unfit to be objects of aesthetic attention. In fact, the status of "artifact," in my opinion, says little about an object's suitability to be regarded aesthetically. There are many man-made objects that are not widely recognized as works of art: a watering can, a screwdriver, a green paper plate. And yet, placed in the correct context, society's perception of them changes such that they can be viewed and appreciated as art. Put that green paper plate on a pedestal in an art gallery, under just-so lighting and talk it up as a sculpture. Is it art now? Some would say so.

Perhaps the work of an artist is to present the world to others in the context that allows them to see it the way the artist does- or simply allows them to see it. Paul Ziff states it well when he says, "To suppose that anything that can be viewed is a fit object for aesthetic attention is not like supposing that anything can be put in one's mouth and is a fit object to eat. It is more like supposing that anything that can be seen can be read. Because it can. [...] Not everything has meaning, but anything can be given meaning."

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