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Carole Talon-Hugon

Art in questions


What can be said about art as it now is? Can it still be defined; and can a single word encompass the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the avant-garde and our contemporary era? Have we reached an artistic impasse or are there still territories to explore? Together with Carole Talon-Hugon, let’s travel between centuries, dictates, emotions, evolutions, revolutions and questions.

There is no shortage of definitions of the word “art” and these vary over time. Art is certainly one of the most difficult words to define. Why so?

This is a core issue, as this word has constantly changed its definition throughout its history. In ancient Greece, tekhnè referred to the skills and abilities serving to achieve. This was as true for a carpenter making a chair as for a surgeon performing an operation or a sculptor carving a statue. In the Middle Ages, a distinction was made between the mechanical arts and the liberal arts. The former, involving handwork, included tapestry, sculpture, painting and shoemaking under that single heading. The latter corresponded to intellectual activities such as rhetoric, geometry, dialectics and mathematics. The modern conception of art took shape between the early Italian Renaissance and the 18th century, enshrined by the notion of “fine arts”. It reigned supreme until the mid-19th century, designating a vast subset of the arts in the medieval sense of the term, grouping together practices aimed at producing beauty. Subsequently, avant-garde movements led to a comprehensive questioning of the word art that shattered ideas regarding both its aesthetic purpose and its defining rules.

When and how did art turn away from beauty as a goal?

The Romantic era marked the first step in this lengthy process. One of the pivotal texts in the history of art, written by Victor Hugo in the preface to his play Cromwell, says in substance that beauty has only one form and that ugliness has a thousand, that the exploration of ugliness is more interesting than that of beauty. However, when the avant-garde began to question the aesthetic rules established in the 17th century by the academies – notably codifying color, drawing, composition, expression – they did not immediately do away with the idea of beauty but freed themselves from its formal rigidity that was deemed too conventional. The impressionists thus replaced the “correct” way of painting by spontaneity and the rendering of a visual experience. Beauty was not evacuated but redefined. Manet’s The Balcony painting perfectly illustrates the spirit of the time. By using the green color directly out of the tube, without any preparation, the painter dared to perform a revolutionary act that was unthinkable in terms of the prevailing academic rules. It earned him a barrage of criticism, but today who would question the aesthetic dimension of the work?

Referencing Kant, you have written that “artistry and beauty are not the same thing”. Does artistry imply a notion of creativity that emerged with the avant-garde movements?

The word “creation” is very interesting. In the Middle Ages, only God was a creator, literally “capable of bringing something into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo”. During the Renaissance, the idea emerged that certain artists enjoyed delegation by divinity. According to the painter and theorist Dürer, these “chosen ones” received from Nature exceptional talent that gave them the power to continue divine creation, while not exempting them from working at length on their technical skills. Later, when the idea of creation was freed from its ties with divinity and expertise, the creative impulse took pride of place. The surrealist movement demonstrates this perfectly, giving free rein to the expression of the unconscious. As does art brut, which is free of any learning and connects to pure emotions.

Formal exploration was thus gradually freed from the search for meaning?

Generally speaking, yes. From the mid-19th century onwards, form gained ascendancy over substance across all forms of art. Stéphane Mallarmé was a goldsmith of the poetic form, focusing essentially on producing brilliant sonorities. Music was viewed as sound architecture without words that would have damaged its purity. In painting, abstraction played with colors and shapes to the detriment of meaning. That which was perceived by the senses was sufficient in itself, rendering any meaning pointless.

Nonetheless, rarely have artworks attracted so much commentary as during that period!

It is true that the purely pictorial was accompanied by a lot of verbiage. Painter Franck Stella said: “What you see is what you see”, no more no less, yet this was significantly contradicted by the overbundance of comments, interviews and other peripheral polemics going on at the time!

Has art gained freedom by getting rid of its rules and codes?

After having refused tradition in the name of originality, the latter has become a value, an injunction and hence a constraint. The break with all that has gone before has led to a surfeit of transgressions with regards to rules and codes, as well as propriety and morality. The art critic Jean Clerc refers to this tendency as “a tradition of renewal”.

Some specialists, like Yves Michaud, say that art has no future, that there will always be artists to express their sensitivities, but that nothing more will happen... Do you share this feeling?

In his last book L’art, c’est bien fini, Yves Michaud establishes a parallel with the hyper-aestheticization of the world that is omnipresent, including on social media, obliging art to seek its identity elsewhere and to find other reasons for being that could be economic, entertaining and moral. He also adds that, once dispossessed of its definition, art finds refuge in what he calls the Zones Esthétiques Protégées (Protected Aesthetic Zones). Salvatore Garou’s invisible sculpture is a perfect example of this, as it exists only by the materialization of its location on the ground. It is clear that we are living in a decidedly hazy period and that art is trying to find its bearings.

In your book L’art sous contrôle*, you evoke the idea that art is increasingly taking on a social and moralizing function. Isn’t this search for functionality a step backwards?

I think so. One of the great struggles of modern art was to get rid of heteronomous functions, to no longer be enslaved to politics, power and morals, instead becoming “art for art’s sake” by devoting itself to pure formalism as mentioned earlier. Once various avenues of exploration were exhausted, it nonetheless had to find other reasons for being, other forms of meaning tailored to modern society, such as serving a cause with societal, ecological, political goals... An artist thus becomes a transmitter of messages, an influencer.

How do we define the word art today?

That is precisely the problem, as it is no longer possible to define it. Since Marcel Duchamp and his readymade works abolished the very notion of “making” relating to the making of a work, art has lost its defining features. Sensory perception has given way to the conceptual, to ideas. New doors have opened onto hybrid forms, towards “bio-art” that uses biotechnological discoveries and DNA to produce works such as the luminous rabbit by Eduardo Kac, genetically transformed by insertion of the fluorescent jellyfish gene. In this case, That which is an artwork could just as easily be the product of scientific research. The lines are completely blurred.

In the absence of benchmarks, who now sets the rules? The art market?

To a considerable extent. In the 18th century, the price of a work depended on its artistic value, endorsed by the Grand Prix de Rome, the Academy, the Beaux Arts and a discerning audience. A little earlier, Roger de Piles in his Balance des peintres had suggested a system of grading according to a set of criteria including drawing, coloring, composition... A high grade implied the success of the painting and hence its market value. Today, the exact opposite is true, as market value indicates artistic value. The Balance des peintres has given way to the Kunst Kompass imagined by German economist Willy Bongard as a means of establishing the value of works of art based on their selling price as well as their presence in museums, fairs, collections and exhibitions.

How do you see the future of art?

That is the most difficult question of all. The “de-defining” of art has gone so far that the word has been diluted by extending to other forms of activity, including fashion, design, immersive aesthetic experiences, scenography, biotechnologies... I think we’re a bit lost! One can definitely state that we are finished with what I call the modern paradigm of art, which began in the Renaissance, was subsequently developed, amplified and clarified until the mid-19th century, before being questioned and challenged by avant-garde movements. We are at the end of something, in a period of transition. What will emerge from this? That’s hard to say; perhaps we are finished with the age of art and entering into that of aesthetics?

*Published by Presses Universitaires de France (PUF)

Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters
Photo © M. Wouters

Professor at Sorbonne University and Director of the Victor Basch Center for research in aesthetics and philosophy of art. President of the French Society of Aesthetics. Publishing director of the Nouvelle Revue d’Esthétique.

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