Should the kind of art created by many traditional tribes be considered genuine art, at all? This is a question that a number of philosophers have pondered. It seems just bizarre to say “no.” We should say that tribal art IS art.
Some philosophers have argued that anything that is art must be the work of an artist who made it to be appreciated aesthetically. Even more, they say, the artist must have intended that an audience would look at the work (or listen to it, if it is music) outside of any utilitarian, practical context. So imagine an axe with beautiful carvings on its handle. But suppose that the axe was made to be used, and the artist never intended for it to be looked at while it wasn’t being swung at a tree. Then a number of philosophers would say the beautiful carvings are not truly a work of art, in the full sense of the word “art.” Works of art, they say, are the kinds of things we take out just to look at. So suppose we learn that a specific tribe’s members only ever used their music as part of religious rituals, or only ever used their beautiful objects as tools or ritual objects. Suppose that the tribe’s members never take out beautiful objects just to see them, or listen to the music solely for its own sake. Suppose their music and objects were never intended to be used that way. Then, according to these theorists, we would have to say that they do not have art, in our full sense of the word “art.”
But this simply cannot be the correct way to understand art! Sure, the kinds of things many people consider “art” are those things that we hang on walls just to look at, or play on musical instruments just to listen to. But even if every piece of art we have ever seen or heard were like this, why should we say that every piece of art in the world must be this way? Why say that this is an essential quality of art? If all we do is observe with our senses the way things actually are, we could not say anything about the way those things must necessarily be. If we could judge what is necessary based on what we currently observe, then absurd results would follow. Fifty years ago, people could have said that no one would ever be able to play videos on their phones (which they do), and that no machine could ever win a chess match against a professional chess player (which it has). Even worse, imagine a society that is isolated from the rest of the world. A philosopher there might say that since every human the society has ever seen has white skin, humans must necessarily have white skin. And, when the society first comes in contact with people of other skin colors, the philosopher might say that, because those people aren’t white, they aren’t human either! Clearly, just because everyone in the societies the philosopher knows is white, it does not follow that all humans everywhere are white. Likewise, even if all of the art in our society was created to be appreciated outside of practical contexts, it would not follow that art, everywhere, is like that! I see no good reason to think that the quality of “being-appreciated-outside-of-practical-contexts” must be an essential quality of art.
Suppose we, totally hypothetically, came to learn that the famous paintings of the Italian artist Giotto were, while he lived, only ever viewed during religious ceremonies. Suppose they were considered backdrops for those ceremonies. Suppose they were never just looked at, outside of that context. No doubt, Giotto’s paintings are excellent. But suppose their audience appreciated his paintings more than they appreciated the work of even better artists because of his paintings’ religious content. That is, suppose they were appreciated and viewed more as religious objects than they were as aesthetic ones. If we learned all this, would we want to say that his paintings were not art, in the full sense of the word? No! That’s preposterous. So too, suppose we learn that certain tribespeople only ever used beautiful objects in religious contexts, and appreciated them more for religion than for aesthetics. That should not rule those objects out as genuine art, either!
Some art might be woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. We might never take it out and just look at it, but we might continue to find it beautiful whenever we use it. As we live with our art objects, and use them as tools and as objects in rituals, their aesthetic, artistic features might please us, make us feel better, and inspire us to live better. We might aesthetically appreciate such objects, and know they are art in the full sense of the word. We might know such objects are art even if our aesthetic appreciation of them is never divorced from their everyday practical use. We might know they are art, in the full sense, even if we never hang them on a wall, look at them, and say “hmmmmmmm”!
I believe that something very distantly similar is going on with #TAKEMEANYWHERE. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner lived their art. Consider the month, from May 23rd to June 23rd, 2016, during which #TAKEMEANYWHERE took place. During that month, there was absolutely no way to disentangle the artists’ lives from their art or their art from their lives. #TAKEMEANYWHERE was woven into the fabric of their lives. There was no way to disentangle it from the practical contingencies and purposes of day to day existence, and look at it like you would look at a painting in a museum. But it is nonetheless art in the fullest sense of the word. It is art that is lived or lived-with. Its participants, who also lived in and engaged in #TAKEMEANYWHERE, responded positively to its aesthetic features, whether they were conscious of them or not. Its beauty and art made their lives better and more interesting. And it inspired many, like Rachel, Jacky, and Robert, to live better.
Philosophers have found it incredibly difficult to define the term “art.” In particular, it is difficult, if not impossible, to specify the essential qualities of art. What must every work of art be like? Try to fill in the blank: Anything that is art must be ________. It seems like, with few exceptions, any answer will be hugely problematic. We might be able to say that anything that is art must be the product of an action taken by a being with a mind that thinks about the world. That might be okay. Even if we grant that driftwood, displayed in a museum, is art, we might say that it became art as a result of the act of being selected for display by a human. But saying that art must be the product of intentional action isn’t saying much. Think about how many other things are also the products of action like this: baseball, tables, tools, Snuggies, the presidential campaign of that idiot on TV . . .
Anything that is art must be ______. Try to fill in the blank with something substantial. Any way you try you will inevitably rule out huge numbers of projects that we know, in our heart, are artworks. Above, we discussed theorists who claim that anything that is art must be made to be appreciated aesthetically outside of practical or ritual contexts. But we saw that defining art this way would rule out any wonderful painting as soon as we learn that the painting was only intended to be seen as part of a religious ceremony. We also saw that defining art this way could rule a great deal of tribal art, like the beautiful designs on the handles of certain axes. More decisively, we saw that theorists simply have no good reason to fill in the blank this way. Simply because the art we know is often like this does not mean that it needs to be. There is a great plurality of art! There is conceptual art, found art, outsider/folk art, mass art, and religious art. It would be wrong to fill in the blank in any way that would exclude any of them. If we want a definition of art, we want it to respect the great plurality.
Perhaps every work of art has certain basic properties. For example, every artwork is the product of intentional action. But perhaps we should say that, besides these basic properties, there simply ARE NO ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF ART. Some theorists think there is no good way to fill in the blank, above. Some think it is impossible to fill in the blank well while respecting the plurality of art. Perhaps there are many different concepts of art. Or instead, perhaps there is one single concept of art, but that concept is complicated, assigns no essential qualities to art, and is vastly plural itself. Perhaps there are many unique, though overlapping, sets of properties an object could have that makes it a work of art. So if something is beautiful, expressive, original, complex, and coherent then it is a work of art. But perhaps something could also be art even if it is not complex, provided it is intellectually challenging. Or perhaps something could be art even if it is not intellectually challenging, complex, or original, provided the person who made it intended for it to belong to a traditional artistic form (like painting) and a particular tradition within that form. Perhaps there are hundreds of different ways something can be art. Perhaps we should define art like this: Anything that is a work of art must either have the first set of qualities or the second set of qualities, or the third set of qualities or the fourth set of qualities . . .
Without doubt, one of the many ways to be a work of art is certainly to be a work of tribal art. Theorists note that many tribal people decorate certain tools and practical items in order to give them aesthetic qualities. Those tools and items were made to look striking, beautiful, or grotesque. Often, these tools and their decorations are meant to be experienced perceptually, and appreciated aesthetically even in their everyday use. Often they are also meant to enhance experience, and to improve life. Theorists note that, when these objects have special meaning to the tribespeople as a culture, their artists are often meticulous about their construction, and they develop standards of excellence by which their work is judged.
I consider the participants and artists involved in #TAKEMEANYWHERE to be a tribe. This is my metaphor. And, distantly, I consider #TAKEMEANYWHERE to be, metaphorically and roughly, a work of tribal art. No doubt, saying this might sound like a bit of a stretch. What I mean is that #TAKEMEANYWHERE might not be art like unthoughtful people think of art. It is not something that can be hung on a wall or listened to in a concert hall. Instead, it is art that was lived. It is art that was experienced and breathed, and was absolutely unremovable from the fabric of the artist’ and participants’ lives. It was – and is – the artwork of a tribe, of #TribeLRT. And that is all I mean, when I say, metaphorically and in the most distant sense, that #TAKEMEANYWHERE is tribal art.