Exercise 3.2 – Art as a category

Text snippet taken from Understanding Visual Culture

Exercise 3.2
Do you think art is and will remain a distinct category or is it best seen as a species of visual culture? List reasons for and against a distinct category. How many ways could ‘best seen as’ be understood? Aesthetically, morally, socially?

Art as a distinct category

The human activities that involve producing different constructions, whole pieces, combinations of pieces of visual stimuli within the specific context of self-expression to be presented to the public can be named *art*. For the purpose of this exercise let’s say that art is a category on its own. A category of production by human only participants, where different natural elements or humanly created elements are used to generate a new ‘something’. Why would this kind a ‘something’ belong to one category, named ‘art’?

There are many other humanly generated visually represented content but not all is art. E.g. diagrams and graphs in business meetings, no matter how wonderfully organised or how big of an impact their meaning might have – are usually not considered as art.

Results of art could belong to a distinct category because:

  • We as a group of people interested in art decided that it will be a category on its own.
  • We agreed to always treat it as a distinct category.
  • We agreed to promote this notion of distinction when ever we talk or write about it.
  • Art always brings some exclusivity with it. It is not produced by the common folk. You have to be either trained or selected to be invited to produce art. Sometimes even selected only after you are dead.
  • All people can attempt to create something but which of these works belong to the category of art depends not only on the time context but also on the production process. E.g. something that would be qualified as art in the 21st century might not belong to the same category if we ask an artist from the 16th century. What is not considered as art, can and must then be categorised as non-art and assigned to something else.
  • When art is a distinct category then one can theoretically compete for the public’s recognition in one set of rules and guidelines. If something is disrupting this contest, one can easily declare it as non-art and decide not to compete with it.
  • One or many individuals deciding what features are important and distinguishing, allow themselves to choose who are they competing against.

Art as a species of visual culture

Visual culture is a study of different visually interpreted entities. However it is not just about the physical manifestations of the objects, it is concerned with different aspects of impacts, understandings and use of these objects. The context of visual culture is much broader than art itself. What belongs to visual culture?

Art as part of visual culture can be reasoned with the following:

  • Art is not one context and cannot be seen as an isolated activity.
  • Results of art i.e. objects of art are created within a broader context and not just influenced by the social context but also the result of that very social context.
  • Artists as visionaries can also be responsible for creating a ripple effect into the world that surrounds them by injecting ideas, images and experiences into the beholders reality.
  • This collaboration of art with the context they belong to creates a specific link that can be followed as footsteps from one area of visual stimuli to another.
  • Culture as a set of rituals, rules, beliefs, tradition and knowledge can be instantiated in a visual manner. Art is one aspect of how people exhibit their culture or criticise their culture.
  • Art should not be seen as a distinct category because it’s manifestations rely much on the entities, notions, images, ideas …etc… that surrounds it.
  • Materials used in art are not reserved to art only. They can be used for other visual expressions and without knowing the context of production, the producer and the philosophy behind it, to a unknowing eye they can and will belong to the same category of visual stimuli.
  • Subject matter of art pieces are not the exclusive property of artists nor art. They come from the artists surroundings, their inner world or are created as new concepts. All these can be used before, during or after the artist’s production in other visual contexts as well.

How many ways could ‘best seen as’ be understood? Aesthetically, morally, socially?

The words ‘best seen as’ I would first like to analyse from the language point of view.

Best = Something that has won the contest. In comparison to something else this one has the most qualities. It is something that is valued higher than another.

Seen = Something that was visually experienced. Sometimes it can be used for experiences that did not have originally a visual stimuli but the stimuli has resonated to images known to our body, mind and soul.

As = Comparison to a similar. It is not the same thing, the same instance, but there is enough similarity that we can compare the two as alike.

‘Best seen as’ is then something that has won the contest of understanding one thing to be alike another. When comparing one thing to many others, there is another one thing that won the comparison.

When we are faced with a notion, word, image, we as humans naturally look into our previous experiences and internal knowledge to find something we can compare it with. We will quickly, in matter of nanoseconds bring our a whole set of ideas to compare, but one or very few will be a match and win the contest.

The result will be either the same as what is in front of us (e.g. a familiar friend’s face) or something we can link to a known (e.g. watching a movie like Earth Girls Are Easy and recognising it as Postmodernism after reading about it).

How can ‘best seen as’ be understood in the context of different categories? The possibilities of how we match images one to another in the internal workings of our brain are defined by:

  • our upbringing
  • our education
  • our life experience
  • the current context
  • the recent memories
  • exposure to the global collective
  • social surroundings
  • emotional state.

‘Best seen as’ can be used as a comparison in different aspects:

  • Aesthetically = Comparing the beauty, external manifestations, symmetry, harmony, composition of one object to another.
  • Morally = Comparing the internal and external traits related to the right or wrong, the impact of the limits or breaking the same of one object or subject to another.
  • Socially = Comparing the impact, context, cause and consequences within the interactions between people.
  • Emotionally = Comparing the hormonal (im)balance and sensations produced within an individual by an object or subject.
  • Critically = Comparing one to another where another could be an opposite or a similar to expand the understanding in minimally two different directions.
  • Gender specific = Comparing one to another where the comparison is denied, allowed and defined by the gender of the comparator.
  • Sexual = Comparing the one to another with a reproductive alarm on, how it is related in the context of reproduction.
  • Hierarchical = Comparison with the end result of grading, sorting, domination and sublimation of one to another.
  • Combined = All these above combined can bring us to many different combinations of understandings.



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