Art in the Age of Emergence.

by

Michael J. Pearce, Art in the Age of Emergence. Art in the Age of Emergence by Michael J. Pearce. Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 176 pages.

“But what is art?” is that somewhat frustrating philosophical question that often arises at the end of the reductive process of examining art. Much art “criticism” is an exercise in converting others to one’s own particular tastes and sensibilities, and there is perhaps nothing wrong with this. I appreciate Andrea del Sarto, I want you to appreciate his particular use of line. The conversion becomes problematic when it fails, when I cannot convince you of the value of my beliefs, and it is at this stage that the art viewer often steps away from what they think or thought and asks fundamental questions about the nature of art itself. When the swamp of art criticism gets too murky, we seek out philosophy to bring clarity. If I cannot make you like del Sarto or Carl Andre’s pile of bricks, I will at least attempt to prove that it is art. In recent decades, the question “what is art?” has been largely dismissed by the cultural establishment as a mere footnote to Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, “Art is whatever I say it is” might well be a Delphic aphorism to place over any modern art  establishment.

Michael Pearce thinks not. His timely and immensely readable book, Art in the Age of Emergence, attempts to qualify the precise boundaries of  what art  is, and what it is not. Drawing on a wealth of influences from Semir Zeki and John Searle to Roger Scruton and Plotinus, Pearce argues against the laziness of the truism: art is whatever I say it is.

Using as a starting point Tolstoy’s view that art is “a means of union among men,” Pearce develops a counter position which refutes the legitimacy of the objet trouvé and readymade as art. While he accepts that all man-made objects share in that potentiality (union among men), he denies that art is quite the same thing as, say, a beautifully made chair. Pearce relies on a subtle but necessary qualification: “art objects… fulfill no other practical purpose than to provide the potential for emergent experiences.” If Pearce is correct, then the found objects and readymades that have filled galleries in recent years   ought to be packed up and taken back to their respective building yards and kitchen shops. These artists are not making art, for they have not made something exclusively for emergent experiences. Each bicycle wheel, urinal or brick that has made it into the modern gallery is, by these terms, an illegal. Pearce tells us they exist as man-made objects with capacities other than the purely emergent experience, and it is on this basis alone that they do not qualify as works of art. But is that an entirely satisfactory condition for art? Surely there are man-made objects that fulfill both practical purposes and offer emergent experiences? The mock Louis XV chair on which I am sitting right now offers both the practical comfort and sturdiness of a decent chair while enchanting me with all the curves and gilt one might dream for. Are these emergent experiences of Rococo gaiety to be excluded from the category of art simply because I can also sit on this chair? Cathedrals might prove a further thorn in the side of this argument. Is it not true that the cathedral houses us from the rain and acts as a place of gathering for prayer or social engineering (depending on how one sees it)?  Is it not also true that Rouen Cathedral is a work of  art?

Pearce does not dodge the bullet on this, arguing that we must distinguish between art and curiosity, and art and decoration. Perhaps he is correct here. Perhaps one ought not to talk of the Louis XV chair as a work of art but as a chair from, or in the style of, an art period. Perhaps we ought also to distinguish between those practical elements of the cathedral and those elements that are created purely to offer emergent experiences. It would, I imagine, be quite  correct to distinguish between the roofer and the roof of the cathedral from the person designing the rose window. The roofer is trying to keep the rain out; the person that designs the rose window is attempting to create emergent experiences, to borrow the language of Pearce.

But what of taking an artwork and using it for a practical purpose? Does  it lose its emergent properties when we burn the del Sarto to keep us from freezing in winter? Have we witnessed the transformation of art to kindling? Or are we witnessing the latent practical properties (combustion) already present in art works? Pearce contemplates this, too, and takes Duchamp’s proposal for “reciprocal readymades” into consideration: a Rembrandt used as an ironing board, for example. However, Pearce’s response (“almost nobody ever follows this suggestion”) will not satisfy the pedants. Whilst he is correct in noting the “blatant nihilism” present in Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, one might still inquire as to whether the “reciprocal readymade” does challenge his line of demarcation for “art.” If art—“things that are crafted only for providing emergent experiences”—can be used for practical purposes, such  as ironing boards or kindling, then it seems to suggest emergent experiences cannot be reducible to the piece itself, because if they were, then they would cease to be works of art once employed as ironing boards. Pearce’s definition of art requires the intentionality of the artist. Only then can the Rembrandt continue to be a work of art while being appropriated as an ironing  board.

The ambivalent art viewer might, at this point, wonder what all the fuss is about. Why does Pearce make such a determined effort to exclude the objet trouvé from the category of art? The answer to this is perhaps in Pearce’s profoundly ethical stance towards art-making. This is nowhere better seen than when he notes that, following a hundred years of Duchamp, contemporary artists “use the concept of ‘everything is art’ to test our tolerance for depravity.” Pearce is clearly bored by the hackneyed adage “everything is art” and saddened by the displays of “autocannabilism, paedophilic sculpture and self-torture” that have been celebrated as art.

Pearce is urging us to consider his philosophical boundaries for art and non-art. It is not an exercise in sophistry, precisely because these boundaries can return art criticism to discussions of real art, as opposed to discussions  about “pieces of plastic and other debris being sold for millions of dollars.” Pearce’s message is profoundly positive and moral, and is an attempt to align the foundations for a new age of art-making that will, in his words, be based upon “excellence, goodness, and authenticity.” The emphasis on the good and positive emergent experience will make many artists and art critics somewhat queasy. After all, we have come to accept everything from scatology to necrophilia as within the purview of art, so the suggestion that art ought to be not only made for entirely emergent experiences, but that we “may find indications of hope in emergent art that embraces a positive vision for the future” might well distress the postmodern reader.

Similarly, readers who value works of high modernism by such authors as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf may balk at the assertion that “we are moving beyond the negative impact upon human consciousness caused by the first half of the twentieth century.” Indeed, perhaps there is a touch of a straw man about this summary of the first half of the twentieth century, which neglects the obvious achievements of high modernism, and the associated  expansion of consciousness.

Nevertheless, this is a small objection to what is a hugely enjoyable, intelligent and well-written book. Pearce has that rare ability of writing with both erudition and wit. He uses the science and literature of emergence and complexity to reinvigorate the discussion of what art is, but he manages to take us with him, captivating the reader with his encyclopedic knowledge of art, his poetic reflections on nature and life, and on what it is to be human.

Pearce does more than talk about emergence; he gently enchants us with his wisdom and kindness, which ultimately offers something of an emergent experience in itself. This is a text that every artist ought to read.


American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 36, Number 1