I’m very sorry that I haven’t posted much this month. Oddly May-July is a really busy time for me and a lot of academics. We have exams, exam marking, exam boards, external examining of other people’s exams, seeing lots of fed-up students, doing course reviews, getting stuff ready for conferences and so on. So not much time for anything.
But I thought I would share this quotation I found in the London Review of Books. It’s from Charles Collingwood, who was a British philosopher, now slightly out of fashion. It’s taken from a new biography of him in which he talks about what he learned about what constitutes a work of art as he was growing up:
I learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the attention of virtuosi, but the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting, so far as the attempt had gone. I learned what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all. Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it.’
My first thought on reading this is that it is a contribution to the perennial art vs craft debate. I can tell when my craft pieces are quilted by and large. There is a grid to fill in with quilting and once you have done that it is fairly easy to decide that something is finished. The puzzle with its one right answer has been solved. But the art pieces I make are different. They are really never finished. My Starbucks quilt still isn’t finished now, and I was making it a good ten years ago. I could always do a bit more with the art pieces. I am not quite sure how this fits with my contention that our work talks to us and tells us when it’s finished. Maybe it tells us when that’s enough. I also wonder how this fits with the reception theorists, and my hero, Walter Benjamin’s contention that meaning is immanent and that it changes depending on context and the spirit of the age, so we can’t ever understand Shakespeare in the same way his contemporary audiences understood him because we don’t have the same mentalite, to use the technical term. The thing isn’t finished and neither is its meaning ever fixed.
I really thought that there was some wisdom in the idea that having to have something ready for an exhibition is common stopping point, or we get tired of things (which is a problem in academic writing when we are constantly reworking things we are no longer all that interested in as we have to take account of reviewers’ comments), or sometimes we just get sick of working on something and shove it in a drawer. Sometimes when we come back to those suspended things they surprise us with how good they are.
The idea that he starts with that works of art are an attempt (usually abandoned) to solve a problem was compelling. I often work with the ‘what if?’ question which is the cornerstone of a lot of creativity techniques: what happens if I paint this, what happens if I put the hot air gun on this, what happens if I stitch this from the back? But I also address bigger problems: how can I say what I want to say about corporate excess in cloth? How can I express a brand in patchwork? How can I upset our ideas about what an academic text is, but still produce something intelligible? People like the American Pragmatist John Dewey have remarked that artists and scientists aren’t that far apart in what they do. And Collingwood went on to to remark that the work of natural scientists was never finished either – all knowledge is temporary as Popper would have it. One theory replaces another eventually. On a much more domestic scale, I can never resist saying to the dentist, oh, that’s the fashion now is it, when they give you the latest piece of advice. Or like we are beginning to hear that low fat diets are bad for you.
So, quite a lot of positive if exhausting ideas about how art and knowledge works as I toddle off to address a group of PhD students tomorrow!
Anyway, I do have some new work which I will be posting about. And sorry for the gap.
Collingwoood quotation taken from: Jonathan Ree (2014) ‘A Few Home Truths’ London Review of Books, vol 36, 112, 19 June, pp. 13-16; 13.