Death of the Artist?

Image Caption: Because you all love Starry Night so much. 

October 6, 2016

Philodemic Room

Healy Hall tolls out eight chimes on another Thursday evening and the Philodemic Society, like clockwork, opens the evening to a hearty debate. This week’s topic: “Resolved: the value of art exists independently of the artist.” On the affirmation, Ms. Jessica Scoratow (COL ’18) of Pennsylvania; on the negation, and, making her induction, Ms. Elizabeth Bujwid (SFS ’18) of Massachusetts.

As she opened her keynote, Ms. Scoratow defined value as a contribution to the human experience, which can include simple aesthetic pleasure. Ms. Scoratow argued that there are two modes for thinking about the value of art. First, some may believe that art has inherent value: “art for art’s sake” signifies that the value of art is contained within the artwork itself. People who privilege this mode of thinking should stand on the affirmation. Others, however, may believe that art has experiential value, that is, that art has value insofar as it can elicit experiential reactions from the observer. As Nietzsche said, art provides an impetus for reflection, but the image of the artist imprinted upon the artwork is irrelevant to this experience of reflection. In essence, art is a conversation between artwork and viewer in which the artist is irrelevant; “art poses a question to which the answer of the artist is irrelevant.” Thus, even a listener who believes that art holds experiential but not inherent value should stand on the affirmation if they concede that the artist is not fundamental to the experience elicited by a work of art.

Ms. Bujwid began her speech by conceding that art does have inherent value; however, the total value of a work of art is not fully contained within the work itself. To gain a fuller appreciation for art, we must seek to understand the position and context of the artist. Sometimes, our perception of art is fundamentally changed by the nature of the artist. For instance, a child’s finger painting only contains significant value to the child’s parents. We can also see this phenomenon in economic transactions: although money is an imperfect measure of intrinsic value, the name of the artist nonetheless carries enormous implications for the selling price of any work of art. Finally, Ms. Bujwid responded to Ms. Scoratow’s claim that art is a conversation between the art and the viewer. Rather, art can be a platform for communication, thus facilitating a conversation between artist and viewer.

Mr. Marrow immediately rose to fume about the framing, pointing out that it is unclear whether the affirmation holds that art has some inherent value or that all value that art holds is inherent within the work itself. Sergeant Ludtke chastised Mr. Marrow for this speech (as his role as Cyrano should have given him better perspective on the arts), and Mr. Perez-Reyes directed his eyes to the resolution, arguing that “THE value of art” signifies the entirety of art’s value. Vice President Fletcher upheld this stance, saying that the affirmation must hold that context can at best be useful to understanding a work of art but cannot truly add value to the art.

Let us move beyond questions of framing. Quoting a poem from Robert Frost, Ms. Fisher argued that the Society should circumscribe its definition of “art” only to that which is executed well enough to carry significance and provoke a reaction a priori of knowledge of the artist (a child’s finger-painting, therefore, does not count as art). Ms. Spira stated that although an artist’s experience may cause them to value their art differently than the rest of their audience, art still carries value to those without knowledge of the artist’s intentions. But this statement demonstrates how important knowledge of the artist really is! exclaimed Mr. Ernst, arguing that to truly understand Van Gogh’s art, we must seek to understand the source of the suffering that motivated his art. Ms. Weissman retorted that many people have enjoyed famous artwork without knowing anything of the artist’s history.

Ms. Haag, citing the tidbit that the painting of Heraclitus in The School of Athens is modelled on the figures of the Sistine Chapel, argued that art cannot truly be understood without context. Mr. Gonzalez fired back that appreciating context does not mean that the artist is saying more, rather, it means that the art is saying more. President Thanki countered that context nonetheless shifts the balance of the conversers, furthering adding that passively viewing art does not equate with a value-generating experiential interaction. Mr. Hinck responded that nature can produce just such an experience, despite being devoid of any human artist.

Mr. Austin Parenteu (SFS ’19) addressed Mr. Hinck by arguing that art is inherently linked to its human artist and carries value because of the artist’s social context—take, for instance, the value of the music produced by the Civil Rights Movement. Mr. Bret Reinking (SFS ’19) posited that art itself can prompt feelings of inadequacy, through which the experience of art can be deepened. Yet these feelings of inadequacy are created by the knowledge that all art was created by another human observed Ms. Sara Castiglia (COL ’18): in fact, art is valuable because it demonstrates the strength of the human mind. Citing the perfection of Star Wars in comparison to the imperfection of George Lucas, Mr. Itua Uduebo (SFS ’17) posited that art must be separated from the artist because art can be perfect while no person can be. Returning to the theme of conversation, Ms. Grace Wu (COL ’20) suggested that art is not a co-equal participant in a conversation but rather a medium which different artists can use in various ways. Closing the non-member speaker portion of the night, Ms. Elizabeth Blazer (COL ’20) maintained that art in and of itself can speak to the soul, absent the voice of the artist.

As Mr. Ma rose to continue the debate, the Society was presented with the idea that there is a feedback loop between art and artist which, done correctly, encourages the artist to improve him- or herself over time. And yet, responded Ms. Cuppari, many people admire the work of artists who failed to improve themselves over time, or even who failed to demonstrate human decency in their own lives. Ms. Wilson posited that such people are failing to truly observe all of the social implications of a work of art: knowing of Wagner’s anti-Semitism does alter our perception of his “goblins,” after all. Mr. Zachary Thompson (SFS ’20) suggested that good art nonetheless can transcend the failings of the artist or of its own social context and can continue to remain relevant even after the artist has been entirely forgotten by history.

Mr. Pullin invited the Society to consider the hypothetical case of a work of art without an artist, arguing that such a work would be fundamentally less valuable than a work of art created by human hands. Mr. Easterling suggested that if the United States government in the 1970s was capable of separating the artist from their artwork enough to fund Robert Mapplethorpe’s (a gay man’s) photograph Fisting, then we too should be able to separate the artwork from the artist. Mr. Bies returned to the arena of Star Wars and argued that George Lucas’s “fetish” for CGI ruined the prequels—the director’s inclinations fundamentally alter the presentation and value of a movie, even one with the potential to be perfect. Ms. Friedmann argued that her grandmother’s watercolors would be beautiful even to somebody who had never met the woman. Ms. Li, in a thorough and wide-reaching floor speech, redefined both “artist” and “value”: and “artist” should not mean an individual identity, but rather another mind with which we can find kinship in art; “value” should not be seen as simple aesthetic pleasure but rather the urge to learn about a work and its origins. With these definitions, it is very difficult indeed to separate the value of art from the artist animating it. Ms. Cooke closed out the evening by instead suggesting that value, being dependent on the observer and not the creator, exists in the audience, not the artist.

Ms. Bujwid presented the Society with an interesting fact: most people cannot tell the difference between human-generated and AI-generated poetry. The disorientation aroused by this fact results from our intrinsic feeling that the poet should be central to the story of a poem; this innate sense of wrongness demonstrates how deeply we are tied to artists. Even an artist being forced to produce a statue which they despise will find ways to inject their own individuality. Ms. Friedmann’s story of her grandmother injects a final confirmation for the negation: knowing the identity of an artist can inject non-inherent value into a work of art.

Addressing the topic of conversation, Ms. Scoratow argued that art is not communication with an artist: to look at Starry Night is to reflect on one’s own soul, not to dialogue with an artist. Art is an end, not a means, and we should respect it in its own right. To close her argument, Ms. Scoratow quoted extensively from Oscar Wilde, but the affirmation can perhaps best be encapsulated in this one phrase: “to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” 

With a vote of 15 affirming, 3 abstaining, and 23 negating, this resolution (like every other one so far this semester) was negated! I leave it to the reader to determine whether or not the author of this blog post is relevant to the depiction of the debate.


Micah Musser

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