“Now listen! Can’t you see that when the language was new — as it was with Chaucer and Homer — the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there? He could say “O moon,” “O sea,” “O love” and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just worn-out literary words? The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them; they were just rather stale literary words. Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language. We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality to the noun. Now it’s not enough to be bizarre; the strangeness in the sentence structure has to come from the poetic gift, too. That’s why it’s doubly hard to be a poet in a late age.”
Taken from a speech by Gertrude Stein at the University of Chicago. Recorded by Thornton Wilder in the introduction to Four in America (1947).
“Please pale hot, please cover rose, please acre in the red stranger, please butter all the beefsteak with regular feel faces.”
"SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE.", taken from Tender Buttons: objects, food, rooms (1914) by Gertrude Stein.

Art does not exist

Art does not exist. The concept as we understand it—vague; pretentious; restrictive yet overly permissive—is inherented from the Romantics, who reconceived “art” as a wide-ranging category of human expression, rather than a mere term for skill (Gombrich 1995). The “art” of painting, composing or sculpture, then, became “art, of which painting, composing and sculpture are a part”. Diverse disciplines have been squeezed together under this banner, and it is fashionable even today to bicker over what “counts” as art and what does not (Ebert 2010).

Which is strange, considering that this idea of “art with a capital A” (Gombrich 1995) was dynamited in the 20th century by Marcel Duchamp. In seminal works such as Fountain, L.H.O.O.Q. and Bicycle Wheel, Duchamp clearly demonstrated that the idea of art-as-category could be stretched so far that it became meaningless: it encompassed everything. Despite this reductio on Duchamp’s part, “Art” marched on. Vapid pieces such as Chris Burden’s Shoot, Damien Hirst’s infamous The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and the ludicrous ”Fortune Cookie Corner” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres have resulted.

Theories and definitions of art have attempted to keep up by casting wider and wider nets. As a popular one by comic book legend Scott McCloud goes: “Art … is any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction” (McCloud 1994). And thus, art takes over science, philosophy, sports, engineering and almost every other human activity. If McCloud’s definition is true, then it is trivially true; and it can safely be discarded.

In a 2004 paper titled “Perennial Philosophy’s Theory of Art”, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher David S. Oderberg lays out the case for a return to the aesthetic theories that dominated ancient Greece on through Medieval scholastic Europe (Oderberg 2004). While he retrofits certain contemporary notions about “fine art” into his thesis, he largely rejects art as we understand it today. The goal of ancient works of painting, sculpture and the like was one of beauty and perfection, and, by extension, goodness. This is diametrically opposed to the post-Enlightenment subjective aesthetic theories that, as Oderberg shows, led to the contemporary definition of art.

While this writer does not agree with everything Oderberg says in his paper, his case against contemporary art is powerful. It shows that our arbitrary ideas about art pale in comparison to those of the ancient world. In a world based on those earlier principles, “art pieces” would be better described as simply “works”, a term that would appropriately apply to anything created. Barriers between “high art” and “low art” would be gone, replaced by judgments of the merit of each work on its own terms. It would be ultimately democratic; content or status would be irrelevant compared to pure quality. Walt Disney’s early shorts could stand proudly next to other works from their era, such as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. The paintings of Basquiat and the music of MF DOOM could share a stage. A television program such as Courage the Cowardly Dog would not be out of place beside Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. And contemporary “art” would be thrown away as the detritus that it is.

Still Eating Oranges

Gombrich, E. (1995) ‘Press statement on The Story of Art’, The Gombrich Archive

Ebert, R. (2010) ‘Video games can never be art’, Chicago Sun-Times

McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, New York: Harper Perennial

Oderberg, D.S. (2004) 'Perennial Philosophy's Theory of Art’, Quadrant (January-February): 68-74