Written by: Eleanor Varley
The question of whether or not it is appropriate to define an artefact as work of art, independent of its creator’s original intention, is a debate which has persisted throughout Art History’s time as an academic discipline. Its answer is dependent on how one perceives arts’ purpose, social role and, ultimately, the work of art itself.
The philosophical discipline, Aesthetics, poses questions of beauty, life and sentiency. The term Aesthetics is an eponym of the Greek ‘aisthanesthai’ (which can be loosely defined as an embodiment of the concept of sensual perception as an active mode of understanding the present condition). Art historians took teachings from the philosophy of Aesthetics to develop a universal definition of art, centred around its physical ‘beauty’.
Hegel, in his Lectures of Aesthetics (1820-29), discussed the Universal Spirit (‘Geist’) which he believed to be present in all art. Hegel argued the ‘Geist’ developed through history towards an ideal blueprint of reality; and the civilisations who achieved this produced works of art which portrayed the human consciousness and evoked self-awareness. In this context, art is both an insight into history and an active player in its writing. Hegel believed that very few time periods produced art which successfully revealed to its beholders the Absolute Ideal, with one such period being the Renaissance. Bell (1949) developed upon this in his Aesthetic Hypothesis: the view that an artwork transports its beholder into a state of ‘Aesthetic Ecstasy’ through the use of ‘Significant Form’ (a ‘beautiful’, engaging attribute of its composition). Gell labels this the ‘Aesthetic Definition of Art’, stating that anything is art as long as it can be distinguished as such by an outstanding degree of ‘beauty’ which its creator has bestowed within it. Under this definition any artefact, independent of its source intention, which triggers a universal, Aesthetic response is art.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, engraving by Lazarus Gottlieb Sichling.
Courtesy Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, Portrait Collection 21/32
To take this definition of art is to entirely reduce it to its physical properties, excluding works from their extra-aesthetic, political conditions (a separation for which Bell advocates). The process of displaying an artefact in a museum, under this definition of art, decontextualises it as a “petrified object emptied of the spirit of its age”. Taking this reductionist approach to artefacts serves to propagate the typical White, Western, Male narrative which has defined Art History as a discipline since its institutional formulation. In light of the Global Turn (the shift, over the last 15 years, in how Art History is conducted), it is more appropriate to define works of art based upon a criterion located within marginalised societal groups, and not within the central narrative. One academic discourse, which provides a toolbox to conflate the definition of art with current political and social issues, is Postcolonialism (a theoretical mode which critiques the centrality of the ‘West’ and its systems of thought).
Postcolonialism has an intrinsically political agenda aimed at correcting declarations of a universal identity. Not only does this completely counter Bell’s claims for art’s disassociation from politics but it also rejects the assumption that anything can be art as long as a Western intellectual deems it ‘beautiful’ enough to be so. War Club (ca.1750), from the Native American Ojibwa people, is currently on display in The MET and can be found on their website under the section ‘Native American Art’; however, given that it was not produced with artistic intentions, how can it be defined as art? Those who take a Postcolonial approach would argue that such a definition would serve to mute the object and its indigenous culture. When an artefact is resocialised by another civilisation, who deem their view universal, it strips said artefact of its values and places the culture from which it originated as subordinate to that of its interpreters. In the case of the forementioned War Club (ca. 1750), by classifying it as an artwork instead of an artefact, a Western institution, with a predominantly white leadership team, has prescribed their own cultural classification upon an object which would be defined differently by the tribe who created it. This artefact’s original purpose would have been to crack open the skulls of attackers in times of intertribal and colonial conflict. However, it has been defaced (by the removal of a spike which would have projected from the top of the club), decontextualised and isolated so it can be read by museum visitors as ‘beautiful’ and in fulfilment of the Aesthetic definition of art.
In light of the discussion within this essay the classification of artefacts as art, if the original intention of their creator was not to be defined as such, is inappropriate in modern Art History. Although some may argue an Aesthetic approach to Art History be adopted, in the face of the years of colonial suppression and exploitation within this discipline, it is key to try and focus current study through the lens of an artefact’s originating authority; especially when these groups have been marginalised to the extent where they are still underrepresented within the art world. To define an object as art, when it would have not been by its indigenous culture, is to say that as a discipline, based on the values of the white, Western Patriarchy, we know best. This is a symptom of our colonial past that, in my opinion, none of us want to transfer into our future and so it is imperative we work with the cultures who created these artefacts to correctly display and define them outside of their ethnic origins.
Bell, Clive. 1994. The Aesthetic Hypothesis. Uppsala: Inst. För Estetik, Uppsala Univ.
Descartes, Rene. 2018. Meditations on First Philosophy.
Fisher, Philip. 1997. Making and Effacing Art : Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Gell, Alfred. 1996. “Vogel’s Net.” Journal of Material Culture 1 (1): 15–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/135918359600100102.
Hatt, Michael, and Charlotte Klonk. 2006. Art History : A Critical Introduction to Its Methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Hegel, Georg. 1976. Phenomena of Spirit. Oxford University Pres.
“War Club Ca. 1750.” 2021. Metmuseum.org. 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/717553.