Wild Art and the enlightenment

Do you need to have a traditional knowledge of art history to enjoy customised cars, food art and ice sculpture? Of course not, argue David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro - but it might just increase your enjoyment if you do. . .

"Wild Art is a resolutely unacademic book. By gathering an amazing array of examples, it shows the diversity of art from outside the art world. The force of our analysis really depends upon considering a very large number of strong examples of graffiti, tattoos and other forms of wild art. Originally, however, the book had a quite different form. We presented our examples after a lengthy discussion tracing the birth of art history and the development of the art museum. At that point, we got very good advice from our Phaidon editors. Focus, they urged us, on presenting your examples, otherwise the historical and philosophical account will distract the reader. We took their sage suggestion. Now, however, we hope readers of Wild Art will find their experience of our book enriched by learning about its background. 


Under the old regime, aesthetic values were determined from the top-down, by the rulers.  The elite knew what art was valuable, and they believed their tastes were grounded in the structure of the world. Enlightenment, Kant wrote in 1784 “is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Because we have the power, he argues, to reason for ourselves, it is a crime against human nature to limit this free discussion.


In 1790 Kant published his treatise on aesthetics The Critique of Judgement. And in 1793, thanks to the French Revolution, the royal art collection, the Louvre became a public art museum. This opening of the Louvre carries a huge symbolic power. Now the people own the objects of taste upon which they cast judgments. Kant showed that the judgment of taste is not reserved to any particular group of cognoscenti, or enlightened viewers: we all produce judgments of taste, regardless of who we are. In this space, where open discussion is possible, since each observer is free to judge, human understanding can advance, for aesthetic judgments, the free product of individuals, aim for universality.

No longer, then, are top-down aesthetic judgments acceptable. For Kant, as Hannah Arendt wrote: "The public realm is constituted by the critics and the spectators, not by the actors or the makers. . . . The spectator is not involved in the act, but he is always involved with fellow spectators."

People - all people - have taste, and are granted right to exert, cultivate their tastes by free access to public art institutions. Kant shows that aesthetic judgments must be shared. It isn’t just that they happen to be social. The genesis of the aesthetic judgment is social. I judge freely on my own, but because I try to persuade others my aesthetic judgments link me to other people. The key here is Kant’s notion of ‘common sense’, not understood in its familiar sense, but as “the common human understanding.” When I judge for myself, I am judging for everyone, which is to say that my judgment must abstract from my personal limitations. 

Making aesthetic judgments is like voting. No one can legitimately represent you. Others may be more knowledgeable or wiser, but that does not give them the right to represent you. It is arguable that reliance upon experts might produce more effective policies. But justice is not concerned with mere efficiency. 


At first sight it looked as if with the Enlightenment the Art World was promised to become a truly democratic arena of taste, where the creative forces and the aesthetic attentions of a new and widening public were going to happily merge with each other. As we know, things did not happen this way because of the roles – major roles – undertaken by the custodians of the art institutions: museum curators, professors, critics, etc, i.e. those who have the professional charge of speaking about art, pronouncing statements, establishing values and meaning about art, for the public. A new professional class, the custodians of art museums, was created. No longer having the powers of the popes, cardinals, kings and queens, they had to be invested with some other form of power: knowledge. Their power came from their capacity to articulate for others the unstoppable force of History. The art custodian became, in effect, the voice of History – something like an oracle that divined where the flow of art history would take us. In our modern, democratic culture the art world is ruled still in a top down way by the authorities—by curators, critics and historians, who impose a system of rules and regulations. 


The aesthetic dimension of mankind (our capacity to receive sensations, or intuitions) is the prime feature that defines us as mankind. This aesthetic quality is essentially passive: objects are given to us through these intuitions. We need do nothing – just be receptive (open our eyes and ears), and the flow of sensations rushes to our senses. What most interests us is the implication of this discovery: aesthetics and sense activities are our opening to the world. In their passivity, in their receptivity, they define mankind as one of one of our inescapable assets, and attributes. 


We, as professors who occupy endowed chairs, make claims that are taken seriously by editors and publishers. We are the establishment, and so are skilled at presenting our judgments. But we don’t think that our social status gives our taste any special validity. For a Kantian, there is no reason whatsoever to think that our judgments are any more valid than those of our contentious colleagues, our students or even that proverbial figure, the man (or woman) on the street. Indeed, even speaking of our taste is mistaken, for often we disagree and frequently we disagree with our former selves.  


Does it seem as if this historical and philosophical discussion takes us a long way from Wild Art? It is true that you can enjoy customized cars, food art and sandcastles without reading The Critique of Judgement or knowing about the founding of the Louvre. But to fully understand wild art and its relationship to art in galleries and museums, it really helps to know this broader history. “We still have a long way to go,” Kant admitted, “before men as a whole” can use their understanding freely. More than two centuries later, that remains still true. Kant was an optimist—he believed that “the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer.” We are not yet enlightened, he argued, “but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” Like him, we too are optimists. We believe art history and the art museum are destined to change radically, for we live, still, in an age of enlightenment.  With any reasonable luck, Wild Art will play a serious role in that process."

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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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