Reading Response: The Trouble (With The Term) Art By Carolyn Dean

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In Carolyn Dean’s article, “The Trouble (with the term) Art”, she conducts an inquiry into what exactly the qualifications of art truly define. She argues that the term art is too widely and generally used. Specifically focusing on “non-western art” also referred to as “primitive art”, these arts were not made with the intention of being what is referred to as the discipline of art. However because of the shift in the elasticity of the term art, there are no rigid qualifications for what is deemed art. “Art is an ambiguous term with multifarious and inconsistent meanings”.

Art is a discipline and is composed using techniques and practices made for primarily entertainment and for monetary compensation. Pieces of the past such as the masks of African tribes or cave wall writings are considered visual art in the eyes of many today. Dean refutes that by lecturing that with these pieces there is a loss in cultural and historical significance if they are labeled art. Dean stays true to her thesis throughout the article for the majority whilst also revealing several holes in her argument as a result of logical fallacy in her reasoning. She uses several examples of primitive art forms, such as the Incan Rocks, to further her argument that these pieces were not made with the intent of being art. Rather with the rocks, they present a more cultural significance than a higher purpose such as art. Other forms like this art, such as symbolistic sculptures, were used to convey the importance and themes of religion and beliefs. Dean is very insistent that pieces before western civilization was established could not be deemed as art in her definition due to the timeline. This view is unbiased as Dean argues from a standpoint of an art historian. She believes in her case that by grouping artifacts that were made to represent ideals and stories of a culture under the category of the fine arts, there is a loss in the understanding of the historical item itself. However, Dean’s own words can be used against her argument, “art is an ambiguous term”. So if art can be ambiguous, why does all art have to fit into the category of her definition of art?

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Art definitively is a refined form of skill but art is also a form of expression. The primitive art forms she harps on, are merely an expression of belief, faith and culture. Obviously the modernist view of what art is has shifted. These rocks during the time they were made were not regarded as art and in fact, the term of art being discussed was not coined until the 18th century. These artifacts are now being defined as art because of the similarities in craftsmanship and technique. However, Dean does waiver in her argument by presenting some alternatives suggesting these primitive forms should be referred to in indigenous terms instead of being referred to as art. “Thus, while I would argue that indigenous terms and concepts are important to consider and discuss, it is clear that, for the most part, The solution is not a simple substitution of native words that approximate conventional art-historical terms and then allow us to proceed with business as usual”.

Although Dean presents a very feasible solution to the problem a hand, her solution makes the situation more complicated. By putting these artifacts in indigenous terms, it would take away the universality that the term “art” has given them. Secondly, most of the indigenous terms she refers to are in a dead language. For example, Incan has not been spoken in centuries and very few people understand the language itself. In either circumstance, Dean recognizes that nothing will fully be able to represent the full light of these pieces as they are stuck somewhere in limbo between art and artifact. The ideas presented in Dean’s article are relevant in this course. Throughout this course we analyze pieces from all different cultures and times. The pieces featured in each module are some that Dean would not categorize as art due to their age and historical/cultural significance. Contrary to her thesis, in this course we refer to all the information discussed as “art”. Art is so diverse that we cannot define what is and what is not; we are surrounded by it everywhere. Art can be anything and doesn’t necessarily have to be painted on a canvas or sculpted out of marble. The idea of art is one of expression: anything we express ourselves through is art. Dean’s argument is one that reflects a western-dominated view. Her whole argument is based on the fact that if we slap the label art on anything primitive it loses its original values. Dean’s argument itself is relevant in the fact that it discusses the question of where we draw the line between art and artifact. Furthermore, her argument is conceptually irrelevant in the notion that these artifacts are not under the umbrella of art. She argues that art should not be a broad spectrum when in reality art does not have to be “art” conceptually to formally be a categorized as such.

The term art is too universal to narrow it down to fit under one definition or category. Just because the art community labels them as art does not mean they completely lose their significance in the history community.


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