But Is It Art? / the New Art History: A Critical Introduction

Article excerpt

But is it art? C. Freeland (2001). New York: Oxford University Press Inc. 230 pages. ISBN 0-19-210055-6

The New Art History: A Critical Introduction J. Harris (2001). London and New York: Routledge. 302 pages. ISBN 0-415-23008-X

One of the peskier issues confronting art historians during the last quarter of the 20th century has been the relation of theory to methodology. As those writing the new art histories point out, the discipline appeared especially resistant to acknowledging and reflecting upon the theories that informed art historical practice (Rees & Borzello, 1988; Moxey, 1994). Moreover, admitting that criticism and aesthetics played an active role in art history was anathema to the traditional art history scholar (Rees & Borzello, 1988). The appearance in 2001 of Cynthia Freeland's But is it art? and Jonathan Harris's The New Art History: A Critical Introduction demonstrates that the field has changed. Using theory to make sense of the changes that have occurred in the complex world of art is a central theme of both authors. Of particular import to art educators is that Freeland and Harris claim to write to the broadest possible audience. As these authors attempt to offer introduction to what has been happening in art and art history since the late 1970s, they purport to write to all students of art-even those who might not so identify themselves. That theory is the discourse both Freeland and Harris employ as the clarifying lens for what many viewers of art would consider a bewildering array of images and ideas renders their writing all the more meaningful for art educators, who often find themselves having to explain the world of art.

In the question she poses as the title of her book, But is it art?, Cynthia Freeland reveals her desire to speak directly to everyday viewers perplexed by what they see in museums and galleries. Freeland, however, also writes to the serious student of art. The value of embracing philosophical aesthetics for art history inquiry quickly becomes apparent in reading Freeland's book. She is not an art historian, but a professor of philosophy who studies art, film, ancient Greek philosophy, and feminist theory. Eut is it art? was born out of the program of the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Aesthetics. Like many of those assembled at the conference, Freeland found herself in sessions confronted by the chilling content of some contemporary art. "Why has blood been used in so much art?" (p. 1), Freeland asks in the first chapter. The journey involved in answering this and the question of the book's title is more Freeland's point than arriving at definitive conclusions. That first chapter and each subsequent one become models for the reader regarding how theory might provide an organizing framework for making sense of art. In trying to figure out why blood has been a recurring motif not only in contemporary art, but also in the art of the past, Freeland deftly guides the reader in applying ritual theory, formalism, and expressionism. Since the questions she poses are not resolved in chapter one, Freeland's whole book becomes a "virtual tour" through the history, institutions, politics, paradigms, and cultural contexts that make up and bring meaning to the world of art. Art theory serves as Freeland's tour guide.

Toward the end of But is it an?, Freeland reveals that she concurs with John Dewey's cognitive theory of art in answering the title question; that is, artists use art to express thoughts and ideas to an audience. She further agrees with Arthur Danto that these thoughts are conveyed within a context, which is the artworld. Earlier in the book, when discussing cultural contexts of art, Freeland asserts that interpretations of art require information from the broader cultural context, thereby modifying her agreement with Dewey and Danto. Freeland also points out that the role of interpretation and criticism is not to tell us what to think about art, but to help us see and respond to artworks on a meaningful and personal level. …