Art is not a verb

This essay, originally delivered as a lecture under the title ‘More on art is not a verb’ in the Hetzel Lecture Theatre in the Institute Building in Adelaide on 19 March 2015, was prompted by the exhibition ‘Art as a verb’ (14 Feb-26 April 2015). I have significantly updated that text, and reverted to the simpler title ‘Art is not a verb.’

The exhibition title ‘Art as a verb’[1] compresses a fantasy about what art is into four words that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Processes and performances are contrasted with objects not as if they were animated objects but as if they were not objects at all. I made a few sceptical remarks about this when launching the exhibition in Adelaide on 19 February 2015;[2] but more needs to be said.

There have been at least four stories about why some artefacts are more popular than others, and about why their artificers deserve unusual respect. These accounts of the relative virtues of things and of the people who make them have shown up historically in four distinguishable ways, that might conveniently be called the ancient artschtick, the modern artschtick, the heretical artschtick and the awful truth.

This is roughly how it went.

The ancient artschtick

Most if not all cultures seem to have used a pair of words to mark an intuited difference between the use of the word ‘art’ on the one hand and of ‘craft,’ or ‘skill,’ on the other. The categorical nature of this distinction has always been elusive, but the availability of different locutions clearly signals different ways understanding not only why some artefacts are preferred to others but also of why their artificers should be differentially admired.

Words equivalent to ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’ hovered uncertainly between their roles as markers of differences in the degree and of differences in the kind of approbation that would be appropriate. Artful and therefore well-rewarded lawyers would be able to get their manifestly guilty clients off Scott free, unlike merely competent practitioners of legal skills that any diligent student could acquire in law school. Artful and therefore celebrated picture-painters would be able to make speaking likenesses of real things and astonishing images of imaginary things by exercising skills that they seemed not to have acquired by assisting their ordinarily competent teachers. Skills were supposed somehow to underlie displays of artfulness, but commendation as an artist invoked skills that were not merely elevated but also, to some degree, mysteriously inexplicable.

It may have been an impulse to demystify this difference that propelled the story on toward the modern artschtick, in which the significant difference between the skills of artists and those of artisans would be elucidated more explicitly in terms of their sort than of their level or degree. The conviction grew that the skills of artists are so recondite that ordinary artisans would not find it merely difficult to acquire them. They would find it impossible. A myth of genius took hold.

The modern artschtick

For white Australian boat people, if not for the Kalahari bush people or for the Inuit, the modern artschtick had its cultural origins in the European renaissance. We owe the twaddle that now passes for art theory mainly to the ruminations of its late-flowering crop of eighteenth century philosophers. Very roughly: it had always been obvious to everyone that when the grounds of our common admiration for preferred objects and processes are exhaustively spelled out there seems to be an important remaining consideration that doesn’t relate to any useful, or practical, or instrumental consideration that we are able to specify. We are apparently engaged with a free-floating virtue unrelated to identifiable amenities such as comfortably fitting the foot or persuasively telling the bible story or profitably selling soap, or relieving indigestion.

It became increasingly tempting to identify this inexplicable ground of attractiveness with our pleasurable response to certain naturally occurring things that are arguably of no material concern or use to us. Butterflies’ wings, waving daffodils and green tree frogs are typically cited. It is not obvious why cane toads and green slime miss out, but their repellent nature is similarly uncontested. Beauty was and remains the word available in conversational English for this quality.

It became increasingly fashionable in Europe some five or six hundred years ago to attribute beauty not only to favourably endowed natural objects, including people, but also to a culturally favoured set of useful artefacts. These originally comprised expensive buildings and statues of important real and imaginary persons, as well as instructive or morally uplifting wall and panel paintings. Things of these sorts soon came to attract more admiration for being beautiful than they did for being useful, notwithstanding their obvious and continuing practical, social and ideological purposes. A superior kind of artifacture evolved, restricted in its forms and media to the service of a new cultural domain that would come to be called The Fine Arts.

The philosophical basis of the distinction that was opening up between the new fine arts and the older, coarser, arts was obscure and there were rough edges to the emergent cultural practices. Generous appreciators of the ancient handicrafts continued to characterise the exceptionally skilful makers of wheelbarrows and prosthetic limbs as artists. The knot of questions about whether gifted artisans working in these less exalted domains would ever deserve acclamation not merely as artists but as fine artists was not teased out in ordinary conversation. What did it matter, except to the rich and powerful?

Whether it mattered or not, it was the question that prised open the old conceptual lesion allowing the modern rot to take hold. The philosophers moved in and disputation flourished among the wealthy and the literate. Should works of fine art be judged beautiful by virtue solely of their formal or ‘intrinsic’ properties, like peacock’s tails? Does a painting of Heaven qualify as beautiful in the same way as a daffodil qualifies as beautiful? If so, do we not situate artists at some risk of doctrinal self-condemnation, or of a futile raid on the the impossible, when we challenge them to paint for us a beautiful picture of Hell?

One stratagem for coping with this dilemma might be to rule that the beauty of works of fine art should be sought not in their strictly formal attributes but in a more relational or operational way. Should they not rather be conceived as the instrumental sources of a distinctive, intrinsically valuable, inner experience generated in appropriately sensitive human perceivers? An explanation will be required in that case of how and why the inner of experiences of beauty induced by encounters with works of art differ from those that are induced by encounters with naturally beautiful objects. It might call for attention not only to the formal properties of artefactual works but also to their intentional and purposefully inserted content. Only with some such conceptual apparatus might we be able to distinguish clearly between the beauty of works of fine art and that of natural objects; and perhaps even works of coarse art too. A putatively distinctive and virtuous unity of form and content that is perceptible only in works of fine art might do the trick.

And so on.

We need wade no deeper into the intellectual midden of Philosophical Aesthetics, or press on into the postmodern art school travesty that came to be called Art Theory, to see that a consensus of sorts had emerged by the end of the nineteenth century. The vulgar concept of beauty, rooted as it had been in an inscrutably beneficent Nature, would not be capable of dealing with the more sophisticated demands of the fine arts. Aestheticians would need a more technically circumscribed concept to fit up the sceptics and doubters in the way in which bent cops fit up suspected crims, by drafting their confessions for them and planting the evidence. Beauty must be relegated to casual conversation: aesthetic value will be where it’s at, in the artworld. Only artworld-accredited experts will be deemed capable of speaking with authority about which things standing for recognition as works of fine art do, and which of them do not, incarnate the required quantum of aesthetic value.

By the early to mid-twentieth century it had become the conventional wisdom that there are, strictly speaking, no such things as works of coarse art. These are only arts and crafts. Works of art are, by definition, works of fine art, They are artefacts in which aesthetic value has been purposefully incarnated. There was a radical version of this story in which those things that are judged not to be works of art fail conclusively on the ground they are without aesthetic value. There was also a more plausibly moderate version in which it was conceded that things that do not qualify as works of art might nevertheless have some aesthetic value in them; although not enough to interest the artworld.

Detection of the qualifying amount of aesthetic value in candidate objects had come to be firmly in the hands of accredited agents of the artworld whose processes of introspection disclosed to them the emergence of an aesthetic experience that is indubitably distinguishable from a moral experience, from a near-death experience, from an acid trip, from orgasm and from gastric reflux. Whatever passes this test has aesthetic value, and (subject to vague tests of plausibility on grounds of form and medium) is almost certainly a work of art and not, let us say, merely a ceramic vessel or a video clip.

It was a great felicity of aesthetic value (unlike moral or political or any other value) that it should have turned out as it did to be potentially worth an enormous amount of money. Also, any anxiety that amateur art-appreciators might feel in case they should mistakenly suppose themselves to be encountering aesthetic value when facing up to a pizza with everything can easily be dispelled. It is not a subjective question. When push comes to shove it is an objectively determinable question that will be definitively settled, through the courts if necessary, by accredited agents of the artworld fronting up as expert witnesses.

This patently mythical belief system worked in astonishing harmony with a financial investment industry that had evolved almost simultaneously out of an originally amateurish trade in antiques and cultural collectables. There have always been items of cultural interest that were not considered to be works of art but were nevertheless irresistibly attractive to collectors and investors. I do not know how much Nelson’s waistcoat is worth, or John Fowler’s beam engine or a signed first edition of The origin of Species, but it would almost certainly be blown away by a well-credentialed work of art such as Jeff Koons’ Orange Balloon Dog, of which the aesthetic value was recently determined at public auction to be around $58 million US dollars.

We have not yet come to the awful truth that points us ahead of the history stories toward a curiosity about today’s artworld. Because it is so rapidly shedding the social class and elitist affiliations that once sustained and shaped it, proliferating into cyberspace and flourishing in popular forms and media, one might have expected to see the fine arts breaking up into undifferentiated arts of craftier and more demotic sorts. With the twitterati kneecapping the intelligentsia and cognoscenti whose once authoritative facade is collapsing into the shallow joviality of The Mix,[3] one might have expected to see the concentration of the artworld’s active ingredient diluting to levels familiar in homeopathic medicine.

It isn’t happening. An apparently inexhaustible well of capital gushes up at the artworld’s centre, funding fresh acres of art museum space in roughly inverse proportion to the diminishing stock of agricultural land. The auction houses boom. Artists retain their status as the exploited producers of product; increasingly certificated arts administrators remain the product marketeers and—just as it is with Coles and Woolies—the market rules.

This observation is more than a grace note to my account of why art is not a verb, that I shall come to in a moment. The modern artschtick has not been seriously threatened by those heretics whose spiel will be considered next.

The heretical artschtick

There have always been dissenting voices within the artworld, about what and where the art is. With the objects that artists make and the inner states of their aesthetic contemplators both under suspicion, a new story has emerged. The reason why we remain so unconfident about our ability to assess the aesthetic value of works of art (so we are now told) is not because the experts are untrustworthy. It is because we have been looking in the wrong place. We should be directing our attention neither outwardly toward the objects on display nor inwardly toward our own aesthetic emotions. We should be attending to the distinctive aesthetic process that is allegedly being deployed by artists only when they are making works of art and—by implication—is not called upon when they break off to make a ham sandwich. (Unless, of course, they are offering the process of making a ham sandwich as a work of art).

The catchy way of telling this story in a slogan has been to say that works of art are things that have been arted. This passive construction seems to be derived from a notionally active verb that would need to go: ‘I art; thou artest; he she or it arts; we, you and they art.’ There is seductive backward glance here, toward the ancient artschtick. Arting things is clearly conceived as a skill analogous in some ways to sandpapering or knitting things, except for the obdurate mystery that will not go away. Whereas anyone can acquire such pedestrian skills as knitting and sandpapering things, and even such elevated skills as sequencing DNA, artists alone command the skill of arting things.

Despite its reassuringly backward look and the indubitable fact that many artists have been seduced by it, there is almost nothing to be said for this. Without any appeal to the nit-picking of the dictionaries, there are at least three things seriously wrong with it. First: art—whatever it may be that is named or referred to by the word ‘art’—is not a word, and it can be assigned no grammatical status whatsoever. This consideration alone should be conclusive, but it will not deter the rampant heretics who find appeals to the difference between meaning what one says and saying what one means irritatingly academic.

Second: the process of making something, as when a performance is unfolding, does not contrast appropriately with the object that is being made. A process presented to an audience for appreciation as a work of performance art is an object that is accessible to public appraisal. Actors, dancers and musicians have always understood this. There seems to be a misunderstanding here for which I have myself occasionally been partly blamed; although I plead not guilty. Just 46 years ago I delivered a lecture called ‘Flight from the object,’[4] in which I was mistakenly thought to have contrasted processes with objects as if processes were not objects. But I was contrasting objects of one sort with objects of another sort, offering by way of clarification two concluding principles one of which I called The Principle of Publicity. It went like this:

Whatever the artist, as such, makes or does should be in principle a public entity; because only that which is (in principle) available to anyone is capable of supporting a common language, a common understanding, a community of values.

The attempt to locate art in a process that is distinct from its own public manifestation only pushes question one step back along an infinite regression. Can there not be an art of making the process of making a work of art? If so, shall we find it in the art of making the process of making the process of making a work of art? And so on.

The third and perhaps most compelling objection to a putative skill of arting is conceptual, and very simple. The word ‘art’ is the name of something we find, that we did not expect to find. Contrastingly, the goals of purposeful skills must be and cannot but be anticipated goals. The purposeful performance of an action of making an unanticipated thing that we are unable in any way to represent or to describe prior to or during the course of the action is not merely impractical: it is inconceivable.

The awful truth

The fact that the awful truth about what art is can, at a pinch, be tweeted in 140 characters does nothing for its credibility in the artworld. Art is an illumination that enables actions to be performed that subsequent performers of these actions had not previously known to be possible. It is found everywhere and can’t be purposefully made.

By way of illustration: many years ago I sat at a waterside restaurant table in Greece. Like everyone else I was capable then just as I am capable now of displaying behaviours with no currently assignable goal or expectation. Infants do this and so do adult victims of Tourette syndrome. I was, of course, also capable of performing actions purposefully directed toward anticipated goals that I could optimistically specify. I could, for example, perform the purposeful action of scaring away a seagull that threatened to steal my calamari by clapping my hands. The expected flight of the bird would be the anticipated consequence by virtue of which observant bystanders might confirm their estimate that my hand-clapping behaviour was performed as a purposeful action of seagull-scaring.

This bird-scaring action was certainly related in some intimate way to the bodily movement of clapping my hands; but I characterise this bodily movement neutrally as a behaviour, and not as an action, for the following reason. In a different situation—for example when attending a musical concert—an appropriately timed and pitched behaviour of hand-clapping would qualify me as a performer of the action of applauding the pianist. Under these circumstances nobody should be willing to concede that I might be performing the action of scaring a seagull.

The countless performable actions that are always available to all of us, linked in context-dependent ways to our bodily behaviours, can conveniently be called memes. There are also and always innumerable viable memes potentially available to us that we have not yet assimilated into our repertoires; memes that we do not yet know about, and therefore cannot presently exercise.[5] One such meme became available to me at that restaurant table, as a small epiphany. I clapped my hands in the purposeful performance of an action of scaring a seagull, and to my surprise a waiter came running from the kitchen to me.

This was not such a grand epiphany as the revelation of Christ’s divinity to the Gentiles but it was a revelation nevertheless. I had discovered what was, for me, a new publicly viable and regularly efficacious meme. Under appropriate circumstances I could thereafter purposefully perform an action of summoning a waiter in a Greek restaurant by clapping my hands. The scope of my purposeful engagement with the world, enabled by its objective and publicly exploitable regularities, had been incrementally enlarged.

The example is trivial but its relevance to the concept of art is profound. It offers us the key to an old and invariant use of the word ‘art’ as a name for the unexpected discoveries of ways of thinking, feeling and acting that can thereafter be expressed as skilled performances. New memes stand at first outside our repertoires of competence, in the domain of ignorance or innocence in which purposeful action is inconceivable. There cannot be a purposeful action of ‘arting’ for this reason. The concept of art is not related to the concept of skill along any notional scale of relative competence, or of magically acquired purposefulness. Art is categorically distinct from skill.

In summary

Opposition to this awful truth is indomitable in the artworld. Proponents of the modern artschtick and of its heretical variation are equally committed to a conflation of the two words spelled ‘art.’ Nobody conflates the three or more radically different words all of which are spelled ‘bow,’ confusing the front end of a ship with a primitive weapon or with the deferential respect shown by an Australian Prime Minister to an English Prince. Nobody mistakes a garden rake for a deplorable male person habituated to immoral conduct. The artworld, however, trades on its willful conflation of the name of memetic innovation (which is the engine of cultural evolution, and is of profound importance) with the similarly spelled word that is used to name the class of works of art, of which most presented items are trivial, or artless, or both.

Artists are called artists because they make works of art just as pastry cooks are so called because they cook pastry. They are not and cannot be called artists because they make art for the insurmountable reason that this is not merely a difficult task. It is impossible. Artists are often conflicted in their motivation between an intuitive but strongly repressed understanding that art can only be unexpectedly found and the hair-raising demand for purposefully wrought product by an artworld that offers them comfort, support and a flickering prospect of fame, in return for compliance with its mythology.

Central to this mythological system is an idolatry of ‘aesthetic value.’ When I am invited to agree that a work of art is beautiful I think I know roughly what what’s intended and my assent may be spontaneous, and even sometimes unqualified. The beauty of a work of art may be—although it is not necessarily—one of the considerations that motivate me to admire the object or the performance and to commend its author. Contrastingly, when I am asked to agree that a work of art has aesthetic value I don’t know what to say. This was troublesome in my days as a critic, and it probably accounts for the outraged correspondence my editors used to get from dealers whose marketing exploits turned on the flow of testimonials that were the quid pro quo for their advertising revenue.

Let us then, for the sake of argument, give the existence of ‘aesthetic value’ the benefit of the doubt alongside such better-credentialed amenities as moral value, scientific value, polemical or political value and therapeutic value. The point to which I draw attention is that if there is indeed such a thing, and if it is a thing of a sort that can be purposefully generated, then it cannot be identified with art. Truly admirable works of art can do very well without it.

So: despite the melancholy fact that the exhibition ‘Art as a verb’ is seriously misconceived we may take consolation in the thought that, under the eye of eternity, it doesn’t matter much. In practice the processes and performances that are offered up for our contemplation are ingenious, provocative, occasionally hideous, sometimes comical and always entertaining. They serve to keep the artists responsible for them updated about where the visual artworld branch of the entertainment industry is presently going, and about what they will need to do next if they wish to have attention paid to them.

More significantly: in our encounters with works of art it is possible that we shall find the world transfigured by some unanticipated revelation of a new way of grasping its possibilities, of extending our powers and of enriching our lives. Luckily, this is so and it has always been so, whether or not the artworld finally gets it right about what art is.


1.   The exhibition, curated in Melbourne, was presented at the Flinders University Art Museum and City Art Gallery, 14 February -16 April 2015 and will travel elsewhere throughout the year.

2. Available at

3.     A 2015 ‘Arts’ program of the ABC.

4.     See the 1969 John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art. ‘Flight from the object,‘ Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts. 1970, 1-22. Also reprinted in my book Get a Life, Artlink, Adelaide. 2014.

5.     All of this material is set out with more precision and in greater detail in my book The Awful Truth About What Art Is (Artlink, Adelaide, 2008) as well as in numerous papers: notably ‘Art history?’ in History and Theory 43 (February 2004), 1-17

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