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So there's no such thing as art?

By Donald Richardson - posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013


I wrote this slim volume after reading for the umpteenth time that you cannot define art. I have been a visual artist all my life and I certainly know what I have been doing all this time. The problem with most books on art theory is that they have not been written by artists. There is one notable exception, and it was written by an Australian - or, actually a Hungarian immigrant artist - Desiderius Orban (1884-1986), who was an influential teacher in Sydney in the post-World War II period. His book, What is Art All About? (Hicks Smith, Sydney, 1975), was informed by his interactions with the habitués of the Gertrude Stein circle in Paris in the 1930s. What he wrote makes real sense to visual artists, but it appears not to have had great success. (However, it is now available on Google Books. )

One of the key features of my book is that it challenges two iconic statements by authoritative writers (who were not artists) that have bothered me since my art-school days. The first was made in 1950 by the much-published E H Gombrich in his book, The Story of Art: 'there is no such thing as Art.' Although Gombrich explains what he means, this statement has been (mis)quoted ever since to prove that there is no point in defining or discussing what does not exist.

The other statement is even older. It was made by architecture historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, in the introduction to his 1943 book An Outline of European Architecture: 'A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.' Of this I ask: 'Is a cathedral not a building?' and I go on to discuss the difference between art and design (of which architecture is an aspect). This is a necessary antidote to those who maintain that 'It is all art' because there is clearly a class difference between a functional thing - like a building - and a true work of art - such as a still-life painting.

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And this leads me to question the 'art'-status of portraiture, pornography, Aboriginal 'art', graffiti, craft and the computer. And to discuss concepts like the aesthetic, 'intelligent design' and the 'art industry.'

Another key feature of the book is that it establishes the (usually un-acknowledged) absolute role and value of the aesthetic in our daily lives.

I had to self-published this book because no commercial publisher would take it on. That is their right, of course; but several of the rejection slips praised the writing while saying that they would not get their money back because the market for the field in this country is too small. They may have been letting me down gently, but they need not have said what they did, so maybe friends who have read the book may not be completely delusional.

The book is indeed a slim volume - not much more than 20,000 words - plus a number of very attractive full-colour illustrations. I fondly believed that there are thousands of people out there who are dying to have such matters elucidated for them. But, not, according to the dozens of bookshops - including university and art museum bookshops - to which I have sent free copies. Nor the many reviewer to whom I similarly sent free copies. Totally ignored by the whole lot!

So the book must be a lemon. But, as I have a number of copies on hand, I would be happy to send one - totally gratis, as long as stocks last - to any of your readers who send me their postal address.

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This is a review by the author and publisher of What Art is - and isn't - An Aesthetic Tract , Donald Richardson. Copies can be obtained by mailing 21 Druids Avenue, Mount Barker, SA 5251, 2010 or emailing donaldar@ozemail.com.au. Soft cover, $15 p/p free for single copy.



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About the Author

Donald Richardson is a practicing artist, art educator and art historian-theorist. He was formerly the Superintendent of Studies (Visual Art) in the Education Department of South Australia.

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All articles by Donald Richardson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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