Who owns the art?

I have been very distracted lately with finals and my thesis and have not been able to continue the discussion I and Everett have engaged in recently. Well I have time now and here is my response to his most recent post on the ownership of art.


Everett concludes his thoughts with:

“So what is left? The reader is not useful for the Art, for whatever personal growth he gains from a work, it is useful only to him; the Artist is only useful while writing– and only limitedly then, because he knows only partially what he is doing, sometimes less than that– leaving behind… what? In the end, all we are left with is the work itself, with its vast ambiguities and questions. And really, here is a central aspect of Art: ambiguity. It’s one of the significant distinctions between Art and Entertainment: Entertainment is inherently reductive. If we are to escape, we do not want to think about complex items: we want life simplified into a compact story, whether it is a comedy, a romance, an adventure. Entertainment succeeds when it does not challenge us: it may surprise us, but the surprises occur in a frame, so to speak. Spiderman is shocked– as are we– by the sudden arrival of an enemy, but it’s not that we didn’t expect an enemy….”


This has been a topic of our discussion for some time now, the role the artist and the reader play in defining art. Everett is of the opinion that the reader does not play a role in making it art, that is not to say that the reader is not important, far from it, but rather that the reader or viewer in the world of visual arts, is a critic following the establishment of the piece, therefore he does not partake in leveling it up to the world of art (if I am misunderstanding you let me know Everett). Here is where I have a problem with his argument. I agree that the artist is fundamental to the creation of the piece, but then we are left with that good old tree in the forest question. If the artist creates art and no one is around to see it, does it exist as art? My answer is no. It cannot be art without a viewer. At the same time I can easily be persuaded to say yes, especially if someone was to say that if they placed Guernica in the middle of the forest is it still art, yes obviously, but its artistic merit was already established before its placement in the forest. To me this goes back to when I was a physics major: you can’t measure what you can’t observe and by observing, you are altering what you observe. Thus I see the same in art, when we observe a piece we add to it, when we comment on it; we alter its existence and therefore redefine it.

Everett earlier brings up the interesting element of works of art that are “open” that is works that were or are never finished. But he suggests that they become finished upon the death of the writer, an obvious fact. However if I may suggest here that this the new power of blogs, here we have works of art that are both timeless in that they exist as long as there are contributors and interactive in that they are expanded upon by the involvement of the readers.


So for me as Everett did mention, art exists on its own, even the artist passed creation doesn’t own his art, he simply become another critic. But at the same time I return to my original idea which comes from the Reader-Response idea that Everett brought up; that art really exists in its interaction between the object and the observer, because each time that interaction happens it is different and when you replace either party, the interaction is different. Thus with this understanding we lose the categories of art and entertainment, it is up to each person to decide whether something falls in one or the other category, or neither.

Just some earlier (should be studying for my test) thoughts, sorry it took so long Everett to respond,




4 Responses to Who owns the art?

  1. Everett Scott says:

    The danger of such an argument is that it moves the art away from its own intrinsic value and allows for others to place value on the art for you. For example, you note:

    At the same time I can easily be persuaded to say yes, especially if someone was to say that if they placed Guernica in the middle of the forest is it still art, yes obviously, but its artistic merit was already established before its placement in the forest.

    However, what does the opinions of others have to do with your interaction? How is their interaction of any value to your experience with the artwork? If you have not seen the art, if it is “off in the woods,” then how is it at all meaningful to you?

    Dave Hickey made the argument that the institutionalization of art (circa 1850-1945, approx.) was in effect an attempt to promote an ideology as well as the artwork itself. He talks indepth about how different people emphasized different art styles not because of anything to do with the art itself, but rather out of ideological values. (The obvious examples are Hitler and Stalin’s attacks on modern art as being either “decadent” or “useless,” but he argued the same point for wealthy American “philanthropists.”)

    It is the same problem I have with introductions, prefaces and commentaries on books: they are framing the work, turning it into something it is not. Someone else has imposed their attitude on the art.

    The experience of art has to be personal: if it is to be an experience between the viewer and the art, then other opinions simply muddy the water, they distract the viewer from the art. If the arts value is simply itself, then everyone gets a different experience from it, and that’s perfect. When we start to say that their experience is a part of it, then its no longer just about one experience, but about everyone’s experience, and the question of whose opinion of a work is more important than someone else’s opinion of a work. The art becomes politicized.

    Again, I’m not opposed to discussing the ideas in a work of art, I rather like the idea of picking apart the pieces, discussing cultural relevance and historical context, stylistic techniques, et&c (one could hardly set up a blog to discuss literature without that in mind), but the ideas within a work are not the work in its entirety, and if we start to rely on such discussion and the opinions of others, they replace the other elements of the work.

    To me, saying a work is only itself is not a matter of removing the interaction with the viewer, but rather to maintain the purity of that interaction.

  2. huysmans says:

    My apologies, let me start by making a correction with my example of Guernica, I meant that its artistic merit was already established by me. Were I never to see it and it ended up in the woods it wouldn’t be art, but the descriptions others had of it may become the art for me, once that interaction took place of them sharing that description.

    But on to the meat of your response I do agree, and that is why I love this discussion so much, because I feel there are really no right answers, we can bounce back and forth as long as we like and still get somewhere new, because at the root of the discussion is not a definition of art but rather a better understanding of it. Anyway back to the points you make I am less inclined to say that introductions and commentary take from a work of art, well perhaps they take from the original work, but in taking they create something new, a new work of art. This new work of art has its own interaction with the reader and produces a different sense, it provides a unique direction. And furthermore when we do say that experience is a part of it I don’t think that leads to a comparison of experiences but rather a way for us to relate to each other through it. I guess in this respect I see multiple ways to look at art, the class room way and the observer way. When I am in the class room, the context of that art becomes important, who it affected, how it changed the world, how it changed art, how it came about to being a part of this class? Those are the questions we then discuss and the interaction each of us has with it becomes somewhat irrelevant. But when I am the observer that only matters if I want it to, I can choose to look at a piece through the lens of its context or I can choose to look at it with out that at all.

    I had a mentor once who described his perfect trip to a gallery being one where in the morning he would look at the works blind, by that I mean without any context as to their creation and production and purpose here in the gallery. He would then get lunch and do some research on the artist, those particular works, and the gallery exhibit’s own history. Then he would go back in the afternoon and look at them again. What he told me was that for him the most interesting part of a day like that was how his interpretation and even opinions changed with that context. Never should the context be a hindrance to appreciating a work of art but it can certainly be an interesting element, but at the same time his initial reactions were just as valid, never one being more important than the other, well perhaps one was more informed, but is that really relevant for enjoying a work of art?

    Love the comments.


  3. Everett Scott says:

    I rather like your mentor’s perfect trip to a gallery.

    Context acts like a frame, if you will. It can add something rather beautiful to a work; however, it has the equal danger (especially if you are not familiar with the work) of blocking out parts of the picture. An ornate enough frame can obscure the picture itself. (I’m reminded of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, Episode in a Library.) But if we see the work, and then can judge the frame for what it is, that’s the best of both worlds, I think.

    … I was answering this post and your other at the same time, and I think most of my argument went there instead of here. Oops.

    As always: a pleasure.

  4. huysmans says:

    I am going to have to look into this poet.

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