The Different Meanings Behind the Term Art and Trouble of It

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The term “art” has many different meanings. These different meanings can cause confusion among historians and other many people. To me, art is more about how it shapes our lives; therefore, everyone should have their own personal, individual definition of art based on how it effects their own personal life. In her article, “The Trouble with (The Term) Art”, Carolyn Dean promises to consider “the consequences of identifying art in societies where such a concept did or does not exists” (Dean 26). Dean addresses how it can be troublesome when Western societies/practices regard non-Western cultural artifacts in a specific way –art – when they weren’t made to considered art. 

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Dean includes many diverse cultures and their artifacts to examine the issues when regarding cultural artifacts in a specific way. She uses these issues to address the problem with giving “art” a specific global definition. To start her investigation, Dean first addresses the birth of art in the Western world. In Western societies, art was introduced by the needs of art on the Western market. In the 18th century Western civilization, art became a source of monetary value. If the work/object couldn’t be sold, then it wasn’t titled “art”. This was the beginning of the term “art” we are familiar with today. Dean addresses this idea with an example of African art. She addresses the cultural change of African masks once put on the Western market. The African masks” were stripped of natural materials” and put on display to be “reconstituted as sculptures” (26). The shows, that African masks had no cultural significance on the Western market – there only significance is their monetary value. At this time, African cultures hadn’t recognized their cultural artifacts as “art”. 

These examples demonstrate the problems of categorizing art into one definition when cultures have different viewpoints and classifications of the same works. Western civilizations classify non-Western works, yet, the non-Westerners do not classify their own work; therefore, it is impossible to fit the term “art” under one definition. Dean addresses the idea of bias when classifying objects. There is an idea of bias when Westerners classify non-Western work as art, when non-Western societies don’t have even a term for art. This can also show that Dean could have bias because she is a Westerner. Dean addresses these biases with an example. Her example is of the Lega people’s “respect for heavy things rather than art” (Dean 26). This shows that the Lega people have their own classification method of scaling the cultural importance of the objects. This is similar, yet vastly different from the idea of what establishes art in the Western world. This shows that instead of trying to define art, we should show the importance of objects based in their cultural context. Art and its ideas continue to change throughout time and will continue to change; therefore, making it difficult to find a global definition for “art”. To back this up, Dean discusses that in the 20th century, art had the importance of longevity and flexibility. In the mid-2oth century, the Western world made a move to abstract art as there was a “reevaluation of Andean visual culture” (Dean 26-27). During this time period, the political and social atmosphere influenced the artistic styles and changes. For example, the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance had a considerable change in artistic style. In the Middle Ages, art was religious and stiff, but in the Renaissance period art was more radical and realistic. 

Today’s artistic styles are different from that of the Renaissance period, showing that as time, politics, and societies changed, so did artistic styles. This supports Dean’s claim that it is impossible to create a global definition for “art” because art changes from culture to culture and from time period to time period. Artistic styles are going to continue to change, adding more to what can be; therefore, “art” will continue to be difficult to define and will continue to keep becoming more difficult as time passes. Dean considers this concept by saying the “future of art history will continue to incorporate all time and places of human occupation” (Dean 32); therefore, impossible to condense into one global definition. Dean uses much time in the article reflecting upon the comparison of the definition of art between Western societies and the Incan people. We should conclude that the information Dean uses about the Incan people is reliable because Dean is an expert in their culture. 

Dean’s main argument is that when one labels an object/artifact “art”, its importance can increase. Its importance would increase because now it is an important figure in relation to money, in the Western society. Many non-Western cultures don’t have a term for “art”; therefore, labeling a non-Western object “art” in the Western world calls attention to the cultural differences in the method of placing importance and significance on an object between non-Western and Western cultures. Western cultures label an object – from a non- Western culture – art based on Western principles even though the non-Western culture has a different reason for its value. This highlights how Western cultures make presumptions about other cultures, even though they don’t really know anything about that culture. Throughout her article, Carolyn Dean discusses the problems with creating a single, global definition for “art”. She describes how non-Western objects are classified in Western society, emphasizes that artistic style (art) changes as time changes, and investigates Western thoughts on other cultures and art. Historians should stay away from giving the term “art” a single global definition. Instead, they should focus on its cultural importance and value. 

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