In the past few months, I read two books on art that I’m still thinking about; I’m still trying to absorb their ideas. After telling enough people about them, I thought I’d post my reactions here.

If you’re interested in this, you might also be interested in this list of reviews of books on art I read a few years ago, and maybe also this post on the nature of contemporary art.

Art in the After-Culture by Ben Davis

I ordered this book based on having read two of his online essays, each very well-written and insightful: one on “Big Fun Art,” like Meow Wolf and Immersive Van Gogh and another on Beeple’s $69 million sale. The former is incorporated into the book.

We live in an age of dread for the future of our civilization. He sets up the book asking how can art be meaningful or even constructive in these times? It’s a daunting question.

He writes from an exclusive interest in the intersection of art and socialist activism, focused on how art supports power or can help fight for equality and against climate change. At its best, this book describes and analyzes historical evolution of trends in art. Some essays seemed tangentially related to art, but fascinating nonetheless. While I have some resistance to explictly Marxist assertions, I found a lot of value in the book.

The first several chapters provoked a lot of thoughts and reactions in particular. Chapters 1 and 3 clearly and persuasively detail ways that power shapes our understanding of art. He points out how our modern conception the “artist” as a lone genius outsider arose in the 19th-century Romantic era, as a response to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and as a way for capitalism to commodify artistic practice. This led me to read the book he cites for these ideas, The Invention of Art, which I’ll discuss below. He later traces 20th-century transformations in the notion of art and of “contemporary art,” then again how social media is radically transforming the art experience today. I’m also usually skeptical about generic ideas about “culture” now being worse than “culture” in some previous era: is the way the masses create and appreciate images on Instagram really so much worse from the masses’ interaction with art, say, a century ago? Nonetheless, his analysis of this culture is fascinating.

(This book also made me reread John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I struggled to appreciate the first time around, in part due to the horrific typesetting and bookbinding of the edition that I have. It helped me appreciate Berger’s contributions.)

In Chapter 4 he extrapolates to AI art, viewing it as a corporate tool, a natural extension of our current social media moment that flattens all of art history and removes context, intention, and meaning. He cites technologists making scary quasi-utopian claims about how their AI will replace artists. This is in keeping with his focus on the contemporary art world and how it interacts with power, but I’m still sad to see mainstream contemporary art continue to completely dismissing the possibility of AI software as tools for artists, especially given the way he touches on the transformations due to past technological tools like photography and the Internet.

Indeed, one theme of the book is the way revolutionary-minded artists created innovations in art that became tools of a new consumerist drive, e.g., the way revolutionaries of 1960s art inadvertently created our current populist Instagram art world, which he parallels with the utopian hippies that created the free and open and now-scary Internet. I’d had no idea that the founder of BuzzFeed and HuffPost began as a Marxist artist.

While he doesn’t mention NFTs at all, his history provides useful context for the farcical revolutionary claims that NFTs will lead to some kind of power shift to the underdog artist, rather than just serving the greedy ambitions of those competing to becoming the new oligarchs. (I do see him passionately arguing against NFTs online.)

The other chapters, while fascinating, well-written, and extremely informative, didn’t lead to a lot of specific reactions that I wanted to write down.

I did find one idea in the final chapter that I’ve been thinking about since then—and I mentioned it recently when I was on an ICRA panel on robotics and art and these topics came up. What role can artists perform in envisioning change, especially in the face of our current environmental catastrophe? He points out that all our fictional depictions of the future are either utopian or dystopian, either “Star Trek” or “Handmaid’s Tale.” The former are unbelievable and the latter just make people feel helpless and depressed. He argues, inspiringly, that we need art that provides conceptual models for will help us imagine real solutions to our problems. He doesn’t mention the superhero movies that now dominate our media, which, in my opinion, are unintentionally fascist in their shared sensibility. My one question would be: is it only popular media, like movies and television, that can make a real difference in the world? Or does the sort of rarified contemporary art domain he inhabits have something to add to help society really envision building a better future?

The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner

This book is 20 years old… why has no one mentioned these ideas to me before? As I continue to develop ideas on the nature of art in the age of modern technology, I’ll need to take the ideas in this book into account.

His central thesis, as I summarized above, is that the separation of “art” and “craft” is a relatively recent invention, and specific to the Western tradition. Moreover, the ideas of art as a special thing, separate from normal society and practices, is likewise new, as is the idea of the artist as a particular kind of “genius.”

In antiquity, such as ancient Greece, the word “artisan” encapsulated everything from playwrights to sculptors to woodworkers to leathermakers. There was no distinction between these categories into “art” or “craft.” Moreover, arts primarily served functions rather than being objects of appreciation and reverence unto themselves. For example, plays were not appreciated as works to be appreciated on their own; they served various functions, e.g., in temple rituals and festivals.

In the Renaissance, what we now call art was always made for a specific place, serving a function in an altar or wealthy patron’s house. As in antiquity, artisans were workers for hire. He recounts how the contract for one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous paintings specified details of what elements and how many would appear in the painting, and how the guy who made the frame got paid more than Leonardo himself. Artisans like Raphael would not recognize our description of him as an artistic genius.

The notion of “art” as separate from “craft” arose in stages over roughly a century, starting around the 17th century. With the growth of a middle class, as well as the growth of a more secular society away from religious institutions, art became separated into museums, and artists lost opportunities from the old patronage system. Art became more of something bought and sold outside of patronage, and artists needed to promote themselves; the Romantics advocated for revering art itself (and thus artists) as inspired genius. Art took over some of the functions of religion in providing for spiritual reverence.

He also argues that the separation of art and craft was gendered, with traditionally “feminine” activities being relegated to low-status crafts, while high art becoming purely the domain of men.

He points out that other societies like Japan that have not adopted the separation between high art and everything else, and describes native tribes that likewise do not make this distinction. While there have been waves of efforts to incorporate various kinds of tribal art into fine art museums (previously under the unfortunate name “primitive art”), he criticizes such approaches for imposing a Western dichotomy onto practices that do not recognize such a dichotomy.

This background seems like crucial information for anyone trying to reason about the nature of art and what it means across socities and cultures. I like to believe that the notion of “art” is still meaningful even when talking about antiquity, but we have to recognize that we’re imposing a distinction that did not exist at the time. When we talk about the nature of “art,” we’re talking about certain aspects of aesthetic, social, and emotional experience apart from, say, pure functionality. But such distinctions may be at least a little arbitrary, and we always need to define what exactly we mean when we’re talking about art.