Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art?

Ars longa, vita brevis est.

Photo by John Schaidler on Unsplash

“From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim — is this really art?”

So begins the description of Cynthia Freeland’s 2002 book on art theory at The title says it all: But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory. Her book is a stimulating read as the author attempts, in layman’s terms, to help readers come to grips with how challenging it is to define why this is art and that isn’t.

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It’s a problem that art students wrestle with and the public ignores, until their home town spends a quarter-million dollars on a sculpture that to taxpayers looks like an unhewn 300-ton boulder.

The author begins with the shock artists. Why there is so much blood in art today. By today, I mean the contemporary art scene of past few decades. Why would an HIV-positive artist hang rags dripping with blood over an audience that came to his show? Why would an artist make a movie of himself cutting off his penis one inch at a time? How is it that artists feel shock value is a necessary requirement for becoming noticed as an artist?

Freeland cites John Dewey’s 1934 explanation here: “Industry has been mechanized and an artist cannot work mechanically for mass production…” For artists, their work is self-expression. “In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity.” ( Art as Experience)

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Does this reference to Dewey hold up, though? The community we live in here in Northern Minnesota is primarily service industry jobs. Or medical. Even in the manufacturing realm the majority of employees probably work in accounting and customer service, not production. I really don’t think artists are artists as a reaction to mechanization and mass production. In fact, what I see today when I walk through the galleries and art fairs is the incorporation of mass production into the arts like never before with giclee reproductions and other print technologies taking artist’s singular expressions and making them available by the hundreds.

As regards the use of blood by artists, Freeland notes that historically there has been a lot of blood shed within the context of religious rituals throughout human history. Mayans cut out still-beating hearts, the Greeks and Romans had their bloody rituals, and the roots of Judeo-Christian faith involve the shedding of blood. In fact, if you really stopped to contemplate some of the scenes that took place in the Tabernacle, you might even get ill at the quantities of blood and burnt offerings and the smells. No wonder they burned so much incense.

Freeland points out that when artists use blood it is shocking to us because it has been divorced from its ritual uses and therefore simply become something disturbing. This still doesn’t explain, however, why artists would use urine, semen and elephant dung. (In the back of my mind I sometimes can’t help wondering, “What does your mother think of that?”)

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But then again, how much of that sort of thing is really going on in the arts? I have been to countless art fairs, galleries and museums. I have never seen dung or feces displayed or urine or real blood, though at the 2012 Steampunk show someone was carrying a vial of what he claimed to be wolf’s blood. It fit the context of a role he was playing and most of us knew it wasn’t real. And in our red-themed Red Interactive show of 2011, I heard at least two people comment that they were pleasantly surprised by the absence of blood or violence.

The book does a good job of raising all the right questions though and shows how the “big question” has no easy answer. As she points out Matisse was once described by the critics as a “wild beast” yet anyone who knows his work would find this laughable today. Warhol’s Brillo boxes and the Pop Art movement received the same brickbats.

Ivan Gaskill’s review of Freeland’s book at begins by stating just how difficult this kind of undertaking really is, attempting to reach readers who are uninformed about art history and philosophy without addressing them in a condescending way. Despite the book’s shortcomings I recommend it to all who are even semi-interested in engaging the arts today, whether artist, collector or just one of the many friends of the arts who simply go to shows to see what’s new. It will give you things to think about, and maybe even answer a few questions you’ve wondered about. And if it raises still more questions, all the better. It will give us something to talk about when I run into you at the next art opening.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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