A. O. Scott and the Role of Free Will in Criticism

The following piece was completed on May 23, 2016. I do not recall why I chose not to post it at that time, but I am posting it now in its original state (aside from minor edits, like changing “last week” to “last year,” due to the delay in publication):

On March 11, 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing New York Times film critic A. O. Scott talk about his new book, Better Living Through Criticism, at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge (an event organized through the Harvard Book Store). During the Q&A portion of this event, Scott fielded not one, but two questions about the role of free will in film criticism. On hearing the second question, Scott even quipped about whether or not there was a Calvinist convention in town. What sticks with me, however, is not the answer Scott gave on this particular night at the Brattle (in which he responded that free will may, perhaps, have a role to play), but the answers that Scott gives in his book, a book in which Scott claims quite early that criticism—the act of passing judgment—is something that humans do out of necessity. As Scott writes: “We can’t help it.”

The free will debate, long relegated to the halls of academia, has been gaining much mainstream attention as of late. Sam Harris published a slim volume on the subject in 2011. More recently, James B. Miles published his thorough and carefully researched The Free Will Delusion. And just last year, in The Atlantic, we saw a piece entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Free Will.” So it’s not surprising, then, that people would be curious about whether free will can exist within the creative arts, despite the mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. And it’s not surprising that A. O. Scott would actively wrestle with the question in his work.

Early into his book, Scott discusses the job of art, which he sees as being “to free our minds.” The job of criticism, then, is “to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Scott even states that “we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices.”

Can art truly free our minds and unshackle us from our prejudices, remove us from the chain of cause and effect to which we all belong? The answer is yes, maybe, if we are already predisposed and open to the possibility of art changing us. But art itself then simply enters the chain of cause and effect, becoming, in the process, something else to which our present state is beholden. A better wording might be that art does not free us so much as change us. And criticism is our attempt to account for the change (which occurs unconsciously) in rational, communicable terms.

The capacity for change, as well as the change itself (whatever it might be), is also predetermined by one’s taste—the acquisition of which we are also helpless to control. Of taste, Scott writes:

Taste, we assume, is innate, reflexive, immediate, involuntary, but we also speak of it as something to be acquired. It is a private, subjective matter, a badge of individual sovereignty, but at the same time a collectively held property, bundling us into clubs, cults, communities, and sociological stereotypes.

All of this, to my mind, is true. Taste is acquired but involuntary; it is subjective but collective. More specifically, it is predetermined. The circumstances of a person’s life (the previous art to which he or she has been exposed, the society in which he or she was raised, the education which he or she has been fortunate enough to receive, etc.) will determine the person’s taste.

But Scott seems to deny this. If taste were predetermined, he writes, it would be “a matter of prejudice and conditioning and therefore not really taste at all.” Scott fails to make clear, unfortunately, why taste would be devalued as taste if it were predetermined (which it is). But he does try to account for his own taste. He writes:

It would be foolish for me to deny the determining facts of my generation, class, education, and background. I don’t make the mistake of supposing that my feelings and perceptions are either uniquely mine or somehow untethered from influence and circumstance. Nobody floats above the common run of tastes, plucking only the most exquisite posies on the basis of pure intuition. It’s always contingent, always relative, always a matter of who and where you happen to be.

Thus, Scott does recognize the extent to which his tastes have been predetermined. However, he continues:

Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstance beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.

How can determined beings also be free agents? Here, Scott attempts to adapt a compatibilist view of free will, though it remains unconvincing. We can see this again as he continues:

Sometimes we react the way we do because of birth or conditioning, sometimes because of a more mysterious force, sometimes by the operation of our will.

I appreciate that Scott is trying to address the question of free will in his book, but I find it hard to look past the obfuscations (mysterious force?) and contradictions. For example, even though he brings up the “operation of our will” in the above passage, Scott once again, not many pages later, seems to find himself adopting the determinist position:

We can’t, after all, escape from the facts of language, geography, class, gender, and belief that condition what we see, any more than we can will ourselves into another time.

Because of statements like this, I cannot help but view Scott’s position as anything other than softly determinist, despite his compatibilist leanings. With that in mind, I think we can see that there is no actual role for free will in criticism.

To highlight an example, I will turn to Ratatouille, as Scott himself does at the end of his book. At the end of the film, when the food critic Anton Ego eats Remy’s titular dish, something happens to him. He is transported back to his childhood, where he would eat the same dish in his mother’s rustic kitchen. This singular moment from his childhood determines Ego’s reaction to Remy’s dish. Ego’s immediate judgment, therefore, is involuntary, subjective, and predetermined by his past. Free will plays no role in Ego’s judgment.

But what of his criticism—the measured, rational response that he writes much later, after his meal has already been digested? Can Ego distance himself enough from his immediate experience to offer up an impersonal and objective assessment of Remy’s ratatouille?

It is worth noting that Ego does not mention his involuntary transport back to his mother’s kitchen in his review of the dish and the restaurant. Why? Because criticism remains a post hoc attempt to account for something to which we have no control, to rationalize a response hitherto devoid of reason. Can free will play a role in these rationalizations?

Again, the answer is no. Because even our ability to craft criticism, our authorial voice, our skill with words, and our personal and creative motivations—these, too, have all been predetermined, bound to us by a past to which we remain forever, inescapably, and sometimes unfortunately, tethered.

Further reading:

RIP Arthur Danto (1924-2013)

Arthur Danto

Sadly, we lost one of our greatest philosophers of art this past Friday.  I cannot overstate how important Arthur Danto has been to the development of my own understanding of art and our relationship to it.  In particular, his idea of the “Artworld” has greatly influenced many of my own writings and works of criticism (most of them published here on this blog).  And I still have much to learn.  For instance, I have a tendency to conflate the terms “aesthetics” and “philosophy of art,” something that Danto warned us not to do.  This past August, in a review of Danto’s final book, What Art Is, Joseph Tanke wrote:

While many take aesthetics and the philosophy of art to be synonymous, Danto argues for a hard distinction between the two. For him, aesthetics is largely a matter of delectation, a consideration of the way in which things appear to the senses, along with an argument for the superiority of one arrangement over another. The philosophy of art, on the other hand, is an inquiry into what distinguishes art objects from other things in the world; it is an attempt to answer the question, what makes art art?

Moving forward, I will try to make an effort to speak of “philosophy of art” in my approach to the subject, and not “aesthetics,” for I certainly have no desire to argue for the superiority of one arrangement of sensory data over another.

You can read the New York Times obituary of Danto here:

Arthur C. Danto, a Philosopher of Art, Is Dead at 89

And here is a reprint of a brief article that Danto published in 2002:

A commentary on the end of art: what you think is what it is

In Defense of Heresy in Criticism

Full English Breakfast

Once a week, Criticwire asks a group of film critics a question and compiles their responses.  This week’s Criticwire Survey seems to have caused a bit of a stir.  Here is the question posed by Matt Singer:

What movie widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece do you dislike (or maybe even hate)?

This question and its responses were promoted under the incendiary headline: “Overrated Masterpieces.”  Needless to say, this provoked some outrage, both in the comments and across the web.  Only one critic, Glenn Kenny, appears to have left the proceedings unscathed.  The reason for this is that he refused to name a film:

I find this question especially dispiriting, as it’s really just a form of bait, and a cue for individuals to come up with objects to snicker at, feel superior to, and all that. I’m sure many critics will have a blast with it.

Kenny follows this with a passage from Richard Hell’s autobiography where Hell writes of an encounter with Susan Sontag in which she laments the fact that she has opinions because, as Hell puts it, “opinions will solidify into prejudices that substitute for perception.”

On Twitter, New York Times critic A. O. Scott singled out Kenny for praise:

watch @Glenn__Kenny enlist Susan Sontag and Richard Hell to smack down glib link-trolling pseudo-contrarianism

First of all, I would argue that Kenny himself is using this opportunity to “snicker at” and “feel superior to” his fellow critics.  Second, I would argue that the point of this particular survey is to counter popular opinions that may have solidified into prejudices, not the other way around.  Finally, I think that it is Scott who is being “glib” in his dismissal of the exercise as “pseudo-contrarianism.”

Each individual critic (Kenny included) will have points of divergence from the critical community with which he or she belongs.  This is only natural; individuals have individual tastes (e.g., likes and dislikes) based on individual life experiences.  But here is an unsettling fact: many people will accept that certain films are sacred—sometimes irrationally and without having actually seen them—for the single reason that the films have been blessed with critical approval and labeled masterpieces.  The critics who answered the Criticwire Survey are simply challenging this automatic acceptance, some even going so far as to offer rational and articulate defenses of their opinions (the opposite of pseudo-contrarianism, I would say).

Interestingly, James Ramsden, a food blogger at The Guardian, wrote a piece last week called “The Great British fry-up: it’s a national disgrace.”  The article comes with the following blurb:

The full English breakfast is the most overrated of British dishes – even the name is shuddersome. How did we become shackled to this fried fiasco?

Just as with the Criticwire Survey (and perhaps again due to the word “overrated”), Ramsden experienced a lot of backlash.  He felt compelled to write a response (published only a day after the Criticwire Survey): “Which well-loved foods do you hate?”  In this piece, we learn that Ramsden received accusations similar to those received by the film critics.  For example, he, too, was accused of trolling (maybe by the A. O. Scott of the British food blogging world).  However, Ramsden understands where the attacks are coming from:

I understand it because I’ve felt it too. It is perhaps not a rational reaction to a subjective aversion […], but we feel strongly about food and are thus oddly offended by someone vehemently opposing that which we cherish.

Yes, and people apparently feel strongly about film as well and will oppose subjective aversions to well-loved films with equal vehemence and irrationality.  Ramsden, after providing a long list of similar aversions from some notable chefs and food critics, ends his piece by stating:

The common denominator with all of these dislikes is the mutual conviction that the other person is a loon, even a heretic. There are certain aversions – anchovies, haggis, balut, kidneys – that are entirely understandable (you don’t often hear cries of “you don’t like kimchi?!” except perhaps in certain foodish circles), but when it comes to dissing curry, fish and chips, pasta, or indeed a fry-up, it turns out people are, at best, going to think you very odd indeed. Still, can’t blame a man for trying.

Glenn Kenny chose not to name a film on which his opinion differs from that of the masses.  Does that mean he holds no such opinion?  That no such film exists?  Hardly.  As I said, he used this opportunity to elevate himself above his fellow critics under the pretense that criticism has loftier goals than this sort of muckraking.  I think that he just didn’t want to get his hands dirty.  I prefer the “loons” and the “heretics” who are unafraid of their own subjectivity.  On a related note, I believe that Pauline Kael would have loved this week’s Criticwire Survey.  Especially the word “overrated.”

Further reading:

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

On Morality in Criticism

Zero Dark Thirty

An interesting question has been making the rounds in certain critical circles since the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty this past December.  And I’m not talking about the question of whether or not the film endorses torture (it doesn’t).  I’m talking about the broader question that has been phrased this way by Danny Bowes at Movie Mezzanine:

[…] is a critic under any obligation to render a moral judgment on a film?

After pointing out that the debate extends beyond Zero Dark Thirty to films like Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bowes states:

With each of these films, critics praising the aesthetics of each have been accused of ignoring, rationalizing, or even siding with offensive content therein. In response, critics have been forced into a “no I do not” defensive posture, and a great deal of huffiness about art for art’s sake and the primacy of the work over the given critic’s personal beliefs and austere objectivity and so forth has ensued.

In the past, I would have agreed with the l’art pour l’art critics who claim that they can separate their personal beliefs from their aesthetic evaluations of a given film and adopt an “objective” or an “impersonal” position from which to judge the work in question.  But not anymore.  Indeed, it is my understanding that an aesthetic judgment is inseparable from a moral judgment, and vice versa.  I think that Bowes agrees:

Every act of criticism is a moral judgment, and not in a glib, media-trolling, mid-’60s Jean-Luc Godard way, either. However objective any critic tries to be in evaluating any work, the evaluation is being conducted by a matrix of observation, cognition, and the innately unique assembly of life experience and education that makes up all the things the critic knows and how s/he knows them.

Yes.  Each person who makes an aesthetic judgment on a work of art cannot escape his or her “unique assembly of life experience and education,” and this assembly includes a person’s adopted morality.  Thus, I cannot consciously separate my moral leanings from my critical evaluations of artworks any more than I can separate my aesthetic taste from my moral judgments, no matter how hard I might try to hide the influence of one over the other.  As the character Bill Haydon says in regard to his treason in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.”

Bowes writes at the end of his piece:

The decision a critic makes to approach a movie on its own terms with as much objectivity as s/he can muster is a moral decision. Not everyone succeeds in completely divesting their preexisting baggage.

Not exactly.  I would say that no one succeeds in this and that the morality present in a work of criticism is never a “decision” but inevitable.  In addition, we can never really know the multitude of factors that have brought us to our critical assessments (factors as disparate as temperature, mood, and peer pressure), so how can we choose to ignore some while allowing for others?  We can’t.

In Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

You dislike him and present many grounds for this dislike—but I believe only in your dislike, not in your grounds!  You flatter yourself in your own eyes when you suggest to yourself and to me that what has happened through instinct is the result of a process of reasoning. (D358)

Though criticism remains our best attempt to account for our likes and dislikes, we must recognize the limitations of the undertaking (e.g., the fact that it might just be a post-hoc rationalization of a knee-jerk judgment).  And we must stop pretending that we can consciously control what influences our opinions and what doesn’t, whether it be our moral conditioning, environmental factors, or something else entirely.  The best we can do is be honest regarding the extent of our knowledge in this area.  In most cases it will be minimal.

Further reading:

5 Bizarre Factors That Secretly Influence Your Opinions

Art and Criticism (Again)

When I started this blog last year, I had a more esoteric view of art than I do now.  Also, if one thing should be clear from my most recent posts, I no longer think that the usual definitions of art (e.g., Joyce’s) are sufficient to cover the full spectrum of human aesthetic experience.  Indeed, I already amended Joyce’s definition (via institutional theories of art) to suit my purposes:

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end, whereby the aesthetic end is determined by context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal)–not by the artist.

This is adequate, but it still sounds unnecessarily academic.  Are there better definitions out there?

In a recent essay about an appearance of the Blue Man Group on The Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette offered his partner Teller’s definition of art: “Whatever we do after the chores are done.”  I kind of like that.  I’m also fond of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “Art is whatever you can get away with.”  These definitions, though unsatisfying in any metaphysical sense, have the benefit of being more in line with how humans in practice actually create and interact with art.

To be clear, this approach (which some will deride as “anything goes”) does not make criticism irrelevant.  I have written extensively about this already, most recently in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.”  However, I would like to point you to a recent video conversation between A. O. Scott and David Carr concerning the purpose of criticism.  (I also recommend Jim Emerson’s sharp analysis of this conversation.)  In particular, I want to highlight the following exchange:

CARR:  But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth. There is only your subjective version of it.

SCOTT:  Do you really think that there’s no common project of deciding what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true?

Like Carr, I accept that there are no objective values.  However, like Scott, I believe in the “common project” of criticism: a community of people coming together to decide “what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true.”

Scott continues:

I don’t think it’s ever arrived at for all time, but I don’t think that you or anyone else actually believes that we just carry around our own little private, you know, canons of taste that we just sort of protect. Otherwise we’d never talk about any of this stuff. Otherwise, why would we have an arts section in the newspaper? Why would we talk about movies with our friends? Why would we have book clubs?

Well, I think that we do carry around and protect our own “canons of taste.”  However, the point that Scott is making is that taste is malleable (another idea that I have stressed on this blog).  Taste can be transformed through reading and participating in criticism.  Thus, what you think is beautiful, good, and true today will not be beautiful, good, and true “for all time.”

In sum, the role of criticism is not to dictate taste; however, we should remember that it plays an important role (intended or not) in establishing it.

Further reading:

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

In a previous post, I discuss why I prefer the word “impersonal” to the word “objective” in questions of aesthetic judgment.  I state: “ […] we can make aesthetic judgments independent of personal taste, based solely on our knowledge, experience, and critical understanding of the art in question.  Rather than taking art personally, we can take it impersonally.”

Simply put, I no longer believe this.  I no longer think that an “impersonal” approach to art is possible.  My reason is that I no longer understand “taste” as something separate from “knowledge, experience, and critical understanding.”  Instead, I understand taste as that which encompasses all of those elements (as well as others).  For example, a person’s adopted evaluative criteria will become a part of that person’s taste, along with his or her experience, learning, and values.  For truly, these all play a part in a person’s subjective appraisal of a work.  No matter how much we may want to experience something objectively, impersonally, or purely rationally, we remain stubbornly tied to our individual tastes.

As a case in point, I want to examine the notorious film critic Pauline Kael.  Last year saw the release of both a biography of Kael and a collection of her work.  This prompted many active critics and journalists to write their own appraisals of Kael.  Roger Ebert had this to say:

Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her “approach” to a film. With her it was all personal. Faithful readers will know I am tiresome in how often I quote Robert Warshow, who in his book The Immediate Experience wrote: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” Pauline Kael was that honest. She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.

She’s accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now. What was the purpose tilting that emotion to reflect something she wrote earlier? I sat next to her once in a New York screening room. She responded audibly. “Oh, oh, oh!” she’d say, in praise or disapproval. Talking like that would get her in trouble in Chicago. Pauline had–or took–license. You sensed something physical was happening as she watched.

Of his own criticism, Ebert concedes: “In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you’re getting yourself in for, but after that it’s all subjective.”

Manohla Dargis, in a discussion regarding the merits of Kael in The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion:

As critics, all we have are our beliefs, ideals, prejudices, blind spots, our reservoirs of historical and personal knowledge, and the strength of our arguments. There are empirical truths that we can say about a movie: it was shot in black and white or color, on film or digital, in widescreen or not, directed by this or that filmmaker. But beyond these absolutes there is only our thinking, opinions, ideologies, methodological approaches and moments in time. That isn’t to say that criticism is a postmodern anything goes; it is to admit that critics are historical actors and that our relationships with movies, as with everything in life, are contingent on those moments.

What Ebert and Dargis seem to be saying, what I have already claimed, and what the example of Kael proves is that there are indeed individual subjective elements that come into play in a critical judgment.

To see how this works, I think that we can apply (interestingly enough) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s model of tasting from The Physiology of Taste, in which there are three stages.  However, I think we can simplify it to two concurrent stages.  When appraising an object, we first sense it; as our brain registers the sensation, we immediately start “considering” it (not necessarily consciously or rationally, although that can indeed occur and provide the illusion that we’re operating independently of our body’s conditioning).  What happens when we consider an object?  Our past experiences, our memories, our feelings, our learning, our adopted criteria, and (most importantly) our values all come together (or work against one another) to pass judgment.  Reason might help us sort some of this into a clear, articulate response, but such conscious rationalization is usually unnecessary and will probably only occur, anyway, after a judgment has already been made.  That being said, these rationalizations serve a different purpose–they are what constitute criticism.

Of course, this idea of “no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards” teeters on the brink of nihilism.  If, ultimately, we each experience an artwork subjectively, what is the point in debating the merit of one opinion over another? How is criticism not simply “postmodern anything goes”?

Fortunately, David Hume addresses this very issue in “Of the Standard of Taste.”  Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her analysis of that work (“Hume and the Foundations of Taste”), expresses the problem in this manner:

If beauty is identified with a particular kind of pleasure, if aesthetic and artistic value is measured by the feelings of the individual perceiver, then one would expect that there would be no grounds for asserting that one aesthetic judgment or expression of pleasure is preferable to any other. People differ, and so do their tastes. However, it becomes clear when reading Hume’s writings on criticism, that tastes, on his account, are not so subjective that no standards can be discerned. In fact, it is quite evident that Hume considered some artistic and literary tastes preferable by far to others.

To be sure, Hume states: “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

Like Dargis, Hume does not believe that criticism is “postmodern anything goes,” even as he allows for the subjectivity inherent in the wide variety of individual tastes.  No–as he points out, the “joint verdict” of the best critics (consisting of “similarities of sentiment”–the common, shared elements of their opinions–and not necessarily the individual subjective elements) becomes “the true standard of taste and beauty.” This standard of taste, then, if adopted, becomes the very context in which criticism (and, thus, art) becomes communicable and meaningful (i.e., not nihilistic).

Korsmeyer offers the following as an example of how a standard of taste can develop out of individual subjective tastes:

Time is a reliable filter for passing fads and poor judgments, and the verdict of history cancels out individual foibles and produces a universally valid consensus concerning great art. Therefore, according to Hume, although rules of art cannot be codified, standards of taste do emerge as one takes a long look at human society and history and sees how that art which is best suited to please the human frame attains an unquestioned superiority over other, ephemeral creations.

Despite the apparent universal applicability of such standards of taste, however, the individual subjective elements remain the lifeblood of criticism; ultimately, that is why criticism remains an imperfect, mutable process. That is also why it remains fun, engaging, stimulating, and relevant, as the example of Pauline Kael clearly demonstrates.  To be sure, Keith Phillips says of Kael: “Even when she’s wrong, she’s worth reading. I can’t think of any higher praise for a film critic.”

Kael resisted being standardized.  Not many, for example, will share her distaste for Stanley Kubrick.  But she still championed films such as Bonnie and Clyde and directors such as Godard whose qualities have indeed informed the standard of taste adopted by today’s film critics.  So admitting the subjective nature of criticism does no harm to the practice.  In spite of that fact, a standard of taste still develops, and it is that standard which both shapes and challenges our own critical judgments, and vice versa.

So why practice criticism?  Why read it?  Art critic Jonathan Jones offers the following summation:

No [critical] judgment is final. No critic is right, necessarily. It’s just that criticism offers a more honest and realistic understanding of the deep strangeness of our encounters with these mysterious human creations called works of art.

Yes–and in the spirit of subjectivity, that answer is certainly good enough for me.

Further reading:

Art Therapy: Some Aesthetical and Ethical Considerations

In my previous post, I parrot a claim made by art critic Jonathan Jones that art does not heal the sick.  As my friend Tom Borthwick reminded me, this statement skirts the truth by ignoring the burgeoning medical field of art therapy.  To be sure, the healing property of art is even the focus of one of my favorite films from last year:  Marwencol, an excellent documentary from director Jeff Malmberg about a man, Mark Hogancamp, who uses narrative, photography, dolls, and miniature models to overcome severe physical and psychological trauma.

Art therapy is a fascinating subject, as it seems to exist in two worlds at once.  As a form of therapy, its successful application in both physical and mental health settings is undeniable.  Citing numerous credible sources, Wikipedia summarizes:

Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of art therapy, as applied to clients with memory loss due to Alzheimer’s and other diseases; stroke residuals; cognitive functioning;traumatic brain injury; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); depression; dealing with chronic illness; and aging.

But what role does art play in all of this, and is this art eligible for aesthetic scrutiny (another issue raised in Marwencol)?  The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy in the following manner:

Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.

Thus, art therapy exists primarily as a form of psychotherapy, and the “art” in its name relates more to the creative process than to the finished product.  To get a better understanding of the process and purpose of art therapy, I spoke with my friend Alicia Rodriguez, who is currently finishing her thesis work in art therapy at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.  She adds:

As therapists, we are trained to notice the various elements of any art piece rather than evaluate them.  Art therapy focuses on the therapeutic nature of the process and looking at a final product with an observant eye rather than a judgmental one.

According to Ms. Rodriguez, when the final product does come in to play, it will be examined primarily for “psychological information rather than visual characteristics.”  As to whether or not the work should be critically appraised for aesthetic value, she offers this opinion:

A critical approach to art is not a necessity, as too much of a critical eye can prove detrimental to the therapeutic process.  Having a basic understanding of the aesthetic qualities visual art provides, how it evokes emotion, and being able to analyze “good or bad art” are skills worth having. However, when making art for the therapeutic benefit, placing a critical eye on the work often undermines the artist’s intent. What proves more valuable is observing the artist’s process and inquiring about the various aspects of the work while suspending judgment.

Despite the emphasis on the medical and therapeutic benefits of art therapy among its practitioners, exhibits in museums and galleries of work produced in art therapy sessions seem to be cropping up more and more frequently.  This begs the question in regard to the aesthetic value of such work, and it also ignores certain ethical issues that need to be considered when art of such a personal, private, and sometimes confidential nature is put on display.  For this reason, I will now attempt to determine the aesthetic potential of “art” produced in a therapeutic capacity while also addressing some of the ethical issues raised by its public exhibition.

Let us first return to James Joyce’s definition of art: “Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end.”  If Joyce were to test whether or not art therapy met the standard of his definition, he would probably conclude that it would not.  If the purpose of art therapy is “to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals,” then objects created in this capacity are not created for an aesthetic end; thus, they are not art.

However, as I have already made clear, I think that the aesthetic end of an artwork is not determined by the artist’s stated purpose.  It is determined, rather, by three things: “context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal).”  So, once again, based on this definition of art, what are the aesthetic possibilities of “art” produced in a therapeutic capacity?

First, we need a proper artworld context in which to display the work.  Gallery and museum shows clearly meet this need and, it turns out, are quite plentiful. One such show was Healing Mind: Art Therapy and the Body in London.  Another was Reflections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

With an artworld context established, we now need to determine (as a critical audience) in which artistic tradition the work in question belongs.  Only then will we be able to know the best established evaluative criteria to apply to the work.  But as Ms. Rodriguez points out, this can get a bit tricky:

It is hard to clump all art created through art therapy into any one category, as the profession is so vast and can be used in such a variety of ways.

Some attempts have been made to classify work produced in art therapy as outsider art (i.e., “art created outside the boundaries of official culture”).  Ms. Rodriguez suggests that this might apply to some of the work produced in art therapy, but it certainly does not apply to all of it:

The very idea of art therapy is to provide a creative space for free expression–to remove the confines of cultural norms and mores. I have seen several works of art that could be defined as “outsider art” come out of art therapy sessions, yet I have also seen several traditional images emerge as well.  It really depends on the circumstances surrounding the session, such as:  What kind of art background does the client have?  What approach is the therapist taking?  And what are the personal goals of therapy for the client?  If a client wants to let go of outside restraints, his or her art may take on a freer and looser quality and lean more towards an outsider art feel. Reversely, if a client wants to organize his or her chaotic life, the imagery may take on a more constricted and traditional feeling.

Clearly, then, multiple artistic traditions can be in play in any one exhibit.  The Reflections show at the Museum of Modern Art, for example, featured an eclectic assortment of work from a wide variety of art therapy patients, including some directly inspired by a neighboring Salvador Dalí exhibit.  That work, then, would perhaps find a place in a surrealist tradition, and we would subsequently be able to apply the evaluative criteria appropriate for that school of painting in our critical appraisal; we would be able to see the work as art and judge to what extent it succeeds in that regard.  But we would need vastly different evaluative criteria to judge the other works in the exhibit.

Interestingly, art therapy is thought to have its origins in the surrealist and expressionist traditions, where artists such as Edvard Munch and Frida Kahlo used these styles of painting as a means of expressing deep inner feelings.  However, since today’s art therapy patients do not necessarily have a background in either art technique or history, we might not be able to identify a specific tradition.  In that case, “outsider art” might indeed be the best label.  But this only proves that a single art therapy show featuring multiple artists might just turn out to be aesthetically jumbled, superseded by other (perhaps more admirable) goals, such as raising awareness and funding.  But whatever the goal, aesthetic or otherwise, what role do the actual artists have in the exhibition of their work?

According to Ms. Rodriguez:

Displaying personal art, which was created under the context of a therapeutic process, is often left up to the patient.  Nevertheless, many facilities that do not fully understand the art therapy process will push therapists to hold shows and/or provide patient artwork to sell for fundraising efforts.  These types of situations compromise the therapeutic benefit of art therapy sessions, as once clients know their work will be displayed, their mind frame shifts from creating art for themselves to creating art for others.

It’s a delicate issue, and we must tread carefully.  Surely, raising awareness and funding is important.  And some of the work produced in art therapy will undoubtedly be great artistic successes and worthy of display.  But do we display this work at a potential cost to the patient/artist’s well-being and therapeutic progress?

Ms. Rodriguez continues:

Art that is created for therapeutic benefit holds significant meaning to the artist beyond its aesthetic values. The art created in art therapy sessions can serve multiple purposes, yet the main motivation behind the piece was to aid the patient in some sort of healing process.  Putting the art on display, even with permission from a client, will inevitably expose that process on some level.  That being said, some clients may need to display their artwork to complete their process, in which case it is the therapist’s job to help them achieve that goal.

Thus, it seems clear that we can critically appraise the work of art therapy for its aesthetic value.  Although broad shows of multiple artists will require each work to be critically appraised using a different set of evaluative criteria, these works do have the potential to meet the aesthetic expectations of an established artistic tradition, even if that tradition is outsider art.  However, this does not mean that we should critique the work of art therapy for its aesthetic value.  Where the primary goal of art therapy is to assist and nurture the patient in a personal and therapeutic manner, any outside judgments can be most unwelcome and can undermine the work of both the patient and the therapist.  Ultimately, it must be their decision (and their decision alone) whether or not to display the fruits of their therapy to the sometimes unfriendly eye of aesthetic scrutiny.

Further reading:

Reel therapy: can films make us feel better?