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An essay on film as art (II)

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Part II: Aesthetic definition

Beardsley argues that what defines an artwork is “the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest” (Beardsley, ‘An Aesthetic Definition of Art’ in Lamarque and Olsen, p.58). Aestheticians refer to the most concentrated (complete, unified or intense) perceptions, and those which are controlled by the object experienced, as ‘aesthetic experiences’. ‘Aesthetic interest’ incorporates two ideas: the audience takes an interest in the aesthetic character of the experience they hope to gain from the work; and they have an interest in obtaining the experience, for its intrinsic value.

In discussing Persona and Cries and Whispers, several examples of film arousing aesthetic experience have been called to account. The beauty of Nykvist’s images in Persona is undeniable, as is the case in Cries and Whispers. In the former, novel techniques such as the merging of two faces further piques aesthetic interest. In the latter, we have seen that the audience has an interest in obtaining the aesthetic experience in the most literal sense – to fully make sense of the film and its search for the truth of the soul in suffering, one’s perceptions must be heightened to make the necessary representational connections. Sounds (whispers, screams, chimes, music) arouse the most acute of aesthetic experiences (though less so in Persona, where the soundtrack of dripping taps, ringing telephones and dissonant avant-garde orchestral music creates unease).

Though the aesthetic definition of art has been criticized as too narrow, it need not necessarily be the artefact that gives rise to an aesthetic experience. The concept behind the work, or the creative act itself, can hold aesthetic properties (Adajian, p.8). This reinstates the avant-garde artworks Beardsley dismisses for lacking identifiable aesthetic qualities, such as Duchamp’s Fountain. There are no such counterarguments against the criticism that the aesthetic definition is too broad. Most consumer goods are produced with aesthetic appreciation in mind (if not the full capacity to afford an aesthetic experience) yet the majority are not artworks. Likewise, the majority of films are produced with the intention of being aesthetically pleasing, at least to some extent. That does not necessarily make them works of art. These criteria are not sufficient conditions.

Institutional definition

Dickie, a prominent exponent of institutionalism, argues that a work of art is an artefact designed to be presented to an artworld public, and that an artist is someone who participates with an understanding in the making of a work of art. Here,

A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them…the artworld is the totality of all artworld systems… an artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to the artworld public. (Adajian, p.6)

Dickie expands upon Danto’s concept of an artworld by including the audience as part of the institution. For the public to see something as art, they must partake of “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history.” (Danto, ‘The Artworld’ in Lamarque and Olsen, p.32)

According to this theory, anyone who considers themselves a member of the artworld is part of the artworld. Conversely, anyone is free to consider themselves apart from it. If a work is not produced by an artist, the creator and the artefact are excluded from the artworld. Are the films of Von Trier and Vinterberg, who rejected the moniker ‘artist’ in their Dogme 95 manifesto, therefore not artworks? This theory also implies that any entity can be a candidate artwork, provided it is submitted by someone who considers themselves an artist and it is presented in the same manner as other artworks.

The artworld public

These are less devastating criticisms than they might seem. Perhaps more weight ought to be given to the status of the public, rather than that of the artist, in the definition of an artwork. An artworld system such as gallery exhibition may reject a candidate artwork if it fails to meet alternative conditions of definition. The artworld public may challenge the assumed artwork, as with Banksy. After all, it is implicit in the theory that a candidate artwork will be received by a discerning public with artistic theory and historical context in mind. According to institutionalism, art can be anything, but not anything can be art.

Pieta Cries WhispersTake, for example, the shot which concludes Anna’s dream sequence in Cries and Whispers: an unmistakable evocation of Michelangelo’s Pieta. To an audience lacking knowledge of the art history of the Italian Renaissance, this reference would be silent. It would not be clear that Anna, nursing Agnes in deathly sleep, is the merciful release from pain of both the womb and death. It would be apparent that both her biological and her surrogate child had died, and that her maternal embrace gave relief to the tortured soul as does the womb – but without knowledge of art history the myriad connotations of the Madonna and Christ would be lost. Nonetheless, the image in context has a tremendous aesthetic potency which is not lessened unless the audience lacks sufficient critical faculties: an audience member who knows nothing of artistic theory will still achieve an aesthetic experience. Meeting the aesthetic criteria does not necessarily qualify something as a work of art in anyone’s eyes, however. An artworld public will see the film as art because of the criteria by which they classify an artwork: criteria which are informed by knowledge of history and an atmosphere of artistic theory. Just as one cannot enter the artworld as an artist without a public admitting one’s work as art, one cannot enter as a member of an artworld public simply by declaring something a work of art (as we all can): one must partake in a knowledge of theory and history.

The modern process of producing, distributing and viewing film fulfils all of the criteria set out by this variety of institutionalism. However, this is the first set of criteria which denies a significant body of films artistic status. There are some directors who do not claim to be artists, many films whose raison d’etre is the creation of wealth through delivering entertainment value to a mass audience; the majority of distributors, cinemas and broadcasters serve that mass audience, not exclusively the artworld public; and most members of that audience have a limited knowledge of artistic theory, if not of cinematic history. Yet the institutional criteria are not sufficient to define a work of art in a general sense: the admission of a candidate to artistic status is determined by the specific theory and history held in mind by the individuals who constitute an artworld public.

Begun in part I and continued in part III


Persona, Dir. & Writ. Ingmar Bergman, Star. Bibi Andersson & Liv Ullman, Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1966 // Cries and Whispers, Dir. & Writ. Ingmar Bergman, Star. Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin & Liv Ullman, Cinematograph AB, Sweden, 1973 // thanks to my friend Adam Parkins for inspiration


Written by James P. Campbell

08/08/2009 at 22:44

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