Revealing Art, Matthew Kieran, (2004)

London: Routledge, 296 pp., ISBN 9780415278546 (pbk), £14.99

The philosopher Matthew Kieran poses two questions in this book, both of which are highly relevant to art educators. What is art’s value? What makes some artworks better than others? In answering them, Kieran uses Kantian aesthetics to analyse a range of artworks from the Renaissance to the present to illustrate his explanations of why art is valuable.

The book includes clear instructions for evaluating a work of art: one has to ask a series of simple questions. ‘How good is the artistry? How well do the interrelations penetrate and shape our experience with the work? Do they convey feelings, emotions and attitudes in striking and interesting ways? Is what is conveyed worth taking seriously? Is it an intelligible way of perceiving or conceiving of its subject matter?

Any work that stands up to this kind of critical examination is a good work indeed’ (p. 127).

On the face of it, Kieran’s position is liberal for this framework for evaluating art allows him to include for analysis works from many periods of art history, including leading edge, contemporary, conceptual art. Nor is he shy of making comparisons between art of different periods, such as one between a work by the American Barbara Kruger from 1992 and one by Goya from 1814.

In fact, behind his liberal disguise, Kieran is deeply conservative. Try as he may, he fails to convince that Kant provides the most relevant set of precepts for evaluating art in the twenty-first century. Kieran inhabits a world of universal truths – and even of ‘the primitive style’ of art (p. 88)! For someone who has been following

developments in art theory and history since the 1960s, these views seem incredible. It is rather like trying to use Newton to understand quantum physics.

Kieran also sounds quaintly old fashioned, for the book is less about aesthetics and more about art appreciation. In this he follows a long line of scholars and experts who rather condescendingly explain to the general public why they ought to appreciate all the works within the canon of western art.

And therein lies the central contradiction in the book. Kieran is not really explaining why some works of art are better than others, because before he sat down to write a single word this has already been determined for him. He has taken for granted that what is in the western canon consists of ‘good or great art’ (p. 4). This causes him to undertake a series of intellectual somersaults necessary to explain why such a disparate set of works which have been placed in the same box marked ‘the western canon’ are all good or great. For example, he first defends the notion of beauty and then of ugliness in art. Moreover, his liberalism does not extend to considering works outside this western canon.

With his incursions into art of the past 40 years, these intellectual contortions appear ludicrous, both for what he says and for what he does not say. During this time, art

and its theory have gone through radical changes and at the same time academics have gradually picked away at the structures that preserve a view of art as being the product of genius. It is true that outside academia there is a parallel world with a vested interest in maintaining these myths and the status and power they bestow, be they museums marketing an exhibition of ‘the genius of X’, the media, the art market, or collectors. However, it is strange to find a scholar who tackles the topic of the value of art without examining the effects of these structures.

Even more troubling is that missing from his account is an engagement with critical theory. Kant is barely up to the task of providing a philosophical framework for nineteenth-century art, let alone the avant-garde or post-avant-garde art. Yet in the whole book critical theory is touched on just three times. In the first mention, Kieran makes a cursory dismissal of the idea of the ‘death of the author’, which he clearly misunderstands and attributes to Foucault, whereas Barthes came up with this two years before Foucault broached the subject. For Kieran, artists are expressing themselves and universal truths. It does not appear to have occurred to him that artists might not have a unique identity or enduring truth that can be expressed, or that there might be, to say the least, difficulties in interpreting the language through which this alleged expression might take place, or that all of this is bound by a sociocultural context.

In the second, he takes a swipe at Adorno, whom he lumps with Brecht, as if their views are identical. The accusation is that they claimed a work of art is only valuable if it challenges the status quo. Although in the next sentence he acknowledges this is a little ‘overly simplistic’ (p. 108), in the very next sentence he reiterates the accusation. If this is the extent of his understanding of Adorno then it is indeed simplistic.

The third is a passing mention of Bourdieu, who had the audacity to suggest that aesthetic preferences are based on people’s social class, geographical location and historical time. Quite the contrary, Kieran claims, great works of art are great works of art for all time and, come what may, people from all sorts of backgrounds can be taught to realize this fact. ‘Was Picasso a great artist? Matisse? Turner? Caravaggio? Michelangelo? No one seriously disputes these judgements’ (p. 213). There is universal truth in science, he claims, so why should there not be in art? Well actually, in the philosophy of science one learns that scientists do not seek truth, because there is no truth per se. Instead they seek the most economical hypothesis that can fit the data and this temporary hypothesis is used until a better one is arrived at.

If Kieran prefers to stay ignorant of critical theory it would be useful to be told why. Instead one has to guess. Perhaps he is one of those English-speaking philosophers who believe continental European philosophy ends with Kant. Perhaps he finds it too complicated. Perhaps he would claim that it merely adds layers and layers of theory that get in the way of appreciating an artwork and obscure judgements about its quality. Or perhaps he does not like the way critical theory might challenge his judgements. For example, his defence of pornography that culminates in the assertion that ‘Pornographic works can be great art indeed’ (p. 165) might be revised were he to engage with feminist theory. Critical theory might be difficult, it might be challenging, it might need to be challenged, but it should not be ignored.

In the early 1970s, I knew a couple that became so disillusioned with the environmental damage human beings were inflicting on the planet, they bought an island off the coast of Nova Scotia where they could raise a family in cosy isolation. However, global warming is about to bring a rise is sea levels. Their island could disappear. In the same way, it is impossible for the likes of Kieran to forever insulate themselves from critical theory.

Nicholas Houghton