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Problems with Understanding Art

Updated on June 18, 2012

On the Problem of Focusing on Art as an Object

NOTE: This is part eight of a series of articles that examine the relationship between music and the brain by integrating scholarly work on the philosophy of music with research in the psychology of emotion and intelligence. Part nine examines why viewing art as an object has created problems with understanding the true value of art in general human experience. All parts of the series can be read independently, though they may make references to other parts. Please click here for an overall abstract and links to the rest of the parts in the series.

Music and The Brain: What is Art?
Music and The Brain: What is Art? | Source


As discussed in Part VIII of this series on Music and The Brain, art is properly viewed as centering on the experience of viewing or creating art objects instead of centering on the objects themselves. The importance of this problem in terms of how it alters the general population’s views music, and art in general, cannot be overemphasized. This article clarifies the misconceptions this problem creates and why they are so misleading.

The problem of the copy theory of art...
The problem of the copy theory of art... | Source

The Problem of the Artistic Object

Focusing so heavily on artistic objects over the artistic process leads to a number of specific conceptual problems in understanding the nature of art. What Nelson Goodman calls the “Copy Theory” of art in his book, Languages of Art, is one of these problems.[1] The idea, most clearly played out in visual art, is that many people base their judgments of the quality of a work of art on how closely it resembles reality.

This problem is particularly prevalent in school age children who become frustrated when they are unable to produce drawings that precisely duplicate reality. The children, because their drawings only approximate the actual objects they are trying to draw, conclude that they must not be artistically inclined and often give up drawing entirely. If children were to take the same kind of approach to writing, they would conclude that they would never be able to write because they could not immediately reproduce letters of the same type-script quality as they find in their books.

This is not necessarily a problem in writing because the children are encouraged to overcome this. In art, however, the same kind of “copy theory” opinion of art is held by adults and so everyone begins to accept that just because they do not have an advanced technical skill in a given art form immediately that they must not be artistically inclined.

Closely related to the Copy Theory of art is a point made by Sarason that people often judge the quality of an artistic product by comparing it to the socially established and recognized “great” works of art. Sarason suggests that, when it comes to judging works of art:

Of course there are or should be ways by which we place different values on different works of art. In making these distinctions [comparing simple works with established great works], what is unfortunate is that they rivet our attention on the end products of the artistic activity and cause us to ignore the activity itself; we illogically and unwarrantedly conclude that two end products that are obviously different in appearance and in what they elicit from us are the results of two very different or totally different processes.[2]

Art by Students from the Southbury School: Beautiful Art, Everyone can Achieve
Art by Students from the Southbury School: Beautiful Art, Everyone can Achieve | Source

This goes back to Sarason’s experience in judging the works of art at the Southbury Training School. He believed that since the drawings he looked at seemed elementary by comparison to the works of the “recognized masters” with whom he was familiar; to him the students were not only operating at a less sophisticated level, but engaged in a fundamentally different kind of activity. As a result of the difference in the quality of the products, he viewed the “masters” as artists, where he viewed the students as merely “playing around.”

In truth, however, since both are engaged in forming a given physical medium to their own imagery, they are both engaged in the same artistic process. While the work of the children did take place at a less sophisticated level than that of the masters, it was not a fundamentally different kind of process and was, therefore, no less genuinely artistic in nature.

The Importance of Art as Experience

Sarason’s failure to recognize the activity of the students at the Southbury Training School as truly artistic is a common misunderstanding. In his own discussion of how these misunderstandings come about, Sarason turns to another problematic social convention. He points out that the objects that are usually identified as art in our society are almost always associated with the “fine arts” (music, theater, dance, and visual art). The artistic process, however, appears in numerous places outside of these areas. Since art in general is so often associated with the activities of the fine arts, however, people commonly fail to recognize the artistic process in places where it exists outside of these activities or to appreciate the artistic aspects of objects and experiences not generally designated as art.[3]

Artistic expression in everyday places...
Artistic expression in everyday places... | Source

In The Challenge of Art to Psychology, Sarason brings up another personal experience of his that makes this point clear. After having spent time with Schaefer-Simmern and his students learning about the nature of the artistic process, Sarason was at a dinner party where he noticed that the way the hostess had decorated her house was very pleasing. He writes:

The point of this anecdote is not that after a couple of hours I elicited from her introspections and retrospections that were in every way similar to if not identical with what acclaimed artists, past and present, had said about their creative processes. The point is that it could never occur to her that what she had done was artistic, that she merited the label of artist. She was an “ordinary” person.[4]

Sarason’s hostess was unable to recognize her own artistic activity as artistic because the object she had produced--the interior decoration of her house--is not traditionally viewed as being an artwork. The fact that she went through an artistic process to produce the decoration of her house had no meaning to her, all she knew was that she did not produce a “work of art” and, therefore, did not deserve the label of artist.

Why do I even try?  I just can't draw.
Why do I even try? I just can't draw. | Source

The Tragedy of Viewing Art as a Special Gift

As we can see through Sarason’s anecdote, which is supported by all of the misunderstandings mentioned thus far, artistic ability is often seen as a special gift rather than as an acquired skill. At a conference on music as intelligence in Ithaca, New York, in 1996, Charles A. Elliott alluded to a discussion that is highly insightful on this point. Those who are capable of producing an unusually high-quality artistic product at an early age are deemed gifted with a natural talent. The key word in this is “talent,” because it refers to a natural, or biological, affinity for a certain activity that is present at birth.[5]

This use of the word would not necessarily be a problem if it did not carry with it a number of unfortunate connotations. First, in any given area of activity, one is thought either to have talent, or not to have talent. This distinction between those who have talent and those who do not is especially problematic in that talent, because it refers to the static biology of an individual, is seen as unchangeable and ineducable. Talent is understood to be something one either has or does not have and, therefore, there is no way to get it if one does not have it.

To a certain extent, this is true. There are those who are biologically more fitted to certain kinds of activity. As we found in our earlier discussion of Gardner’s MI theory, however, all normal people possess some level of biological ability, or talent, in all the forms of intelligence. Talent in any given area is not something that one either has or does not have, but something that one may have to a greater or lesser extent than someone else; when it comes to talent in a particular area, it is a matter of degree, rather than strict presence or absence. Using the word “talented” to describe highly-skilled artists is, therefore, misleading because it suggests that their abilities are entirely, or at least primarily, based on a genetic aptitude that one either has or does not have.

One sees this misleading distinction most clearly when comparing talent with intelligence. As mentioned, talent refers to one’s genetically inherited aptitudes for various activities and forms of understanding. We found in Part One, however, that there are a wide variety of factors that broaden the concept of intelligence far beyond the genetic predispositions of talent.[6] Talent is, therefore, an aspect of intelligence as opposed to a synonym for it.

Now, an individual who excels at an artistic activity, a sport, or a particular craft is generally considered talented where an individual who excels at mathematics, science, or linguistic discourse is considered intelligent.[7] Deeming certain activities talent-based and others intelligence-based subtly suggests that, while everyone is capable of performing in mathematics and science through applied effort, only the talented (or gifted) can perform in athletics or artistic activity.[8]

This distinction is false. As Gardner makes clear in Frames of Mind, all people have some kind of biological equipment, or some level of talent, in all activities. Talent is a thing possessed by successful mathematicians and scientists just as it is by skilled athletes and artists; they simply possess different kinds of talent. Additionally, achieving the disciplinary understanding that Gardner describes as the hallmark of truly intelligent behavior requires the same amount of study and self-application in athletics and the arts as it does in mathematics, science, or anything else. This is one of the great windows of understanding opened up by Gardner’s MI theory: athletics and artistic activity are forms of intelligence in the same way that mathematics and science are.

Music is a learned study, just like reading, writing and math.
Music is a learned study, just like reading, writing and math. | Source

Implications for the Study of Music

At the Ithaca Conference of Music as Intelligence, Charles Elliott described the effect of this problem related specifically to music:

Traditionally, the degree to which an individual can function in the music symbolic domain has been referred to in terms such as “talent,” “aptitude,” “musical ability,” and “musicality.” The use of such terms has, in my view, done a great disservice to musicians, music educators, and to music as a profession and has given rise to a body of myth in our culture about music.[9]

The myth to which Elliott refers is the belief that musical ability is a special gift and that the rules that govern its creation and understanding are somehow magical and ethereal. In reality, music, as well as the other arts, is a universally accessible intellectual pursuit just like mathematics, science, history, and language and it is no more mysterious in its processes than any of these more traditional pursuits. Thus, while artistic ability is commonly understood to be the result of a special gift, it is really the result of a long, evolutionary intellectual process to which everyone has access.

Continue on to the next article in the series here...

End Notes:

[Return to Contents]

[1] Goodman, 5–9.

[2] Sarason, 116–114.

[3] Ibid., 107–121.

[4] Ibid., 108–109.

[5] “Talent,” defined as a biological predisposition, is closely related to Gardner’s discussion of biological constraints on learning (Gardner, The Unschooled Mind, p. 40) and his discussion of the nature-nurture (biological talent versus experiential education) controversy (Gardner, Frames of Mind, pp. 315–316). David Elliott explores the implications of musical ability viewed as natural “talent” in Music Matters (Elliott, Music Matters, pp. 234–235).

[6] In The Unschooled Mind, pp. 7–8, 44–50, and 53–54,Gardner discusses the genetic predispositions of talent as “neurobiological constraints” on learning. These constraints serve only a small roll, however, in the progression towards the truly intelligent, disciplinary understanding that he describes in the book as being of the highest importance.

[7] Note how this calls back to our discussion of the traditional view of intelligence in Chapter I. What we find is that the activities that are generally referred to as intelligent fall in line with the forms of thinking on which the traditional view of intelligence focuses (logical-mathematical and linguistic forms of thinking). Unfortunately, since the various forms of artistic activity, athletics, and craftsmanship involve modes of cognitive processing that are not recognized as intelligent under the traditional view (bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and spatial intelligences in Gardner’s MI theory), another word for describing them is used instead: “talent.”

[8] Charles A. Elliott, “Music as Intelligence: Some Implications for the Public Schools,” in Ithaca Conference ‘96: Music as Intelligence: A Sourcebook, ed. Verna Brummett (Ithaca, New York: Ithaca College, 1997), 68.

[9] Charles A. Elliott, 68.

Music and The Brain
Music and The Brain | Source

Series Abstract:

Important efforts in recent musical research have been devoted to exploring how music affects intellectual processing, the emotions and personality. Most of these efforts have been focused on exploring music’s effect on the neurology of the brain and its possible contributions to development in other non-musical domains such as language or mathematics. Much of this research is, by necessity, very specific and of a limited focus. A broader understanding of the positive results of music study can now be established, however, by synthesizing the theories of musical meaning provided by music philosophy and new psychological research on the nature of intelligence and emotion. This synthesis reveals that studying music has demonstrable holistic benefits on cognitive processing, emotional fluency and character development.

[Return to Contents]


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