A sociological view of art and aesthetics

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In an effort to better understand the relationship between fashion, art and aesthetics, I spoke to Antoine Hayek, sociologist and anthropologist. In this fascinating Q&A, I hope you will be a step closer in understanding the complexity and beauty of the ultimate question: Is fashion art?

Note: this interview was translated from French to English

Earth + Jade: What is your view on art and aesthetics? 

Antoine Hayek: Art has existed since the dawn of mankind even if it has not always been consciously and equally taken into consideration.

It has sometimes been mistaken for handicraft when the artist was only seen as the executor, as the hand of a creator god who was the sole receptacle of genius.

Greek thought was what gave art its first true dignity, a dignity which would be lost with the arrival of the Middle Ages.

Art acts as an intermediary between permanent reality—an external reality which remains substantially the same through time and space—and interior reality which is rather diverse, instable and changing. It varies from person to person, from community to community.

Each society, each era, each human group and each generation has its own, differing vision of the same objects. This vision came through by various modes of transcription, at first through the interpretation of shapes since it is through them that the human mind approaches and understands what the eyes see. It is art’s first and foremost function.

Aesthetics was first a reflection on sensation, and one of Kant’s discoveries was to link it to the judgment of taste, that is to the most intimate function of subject. The judgment of taste: “That is beautiful!”, “It’s late!”, “I like it!” and other such judgments express nothing on the work of art itself. They rather express the mindset of the person who looks at the artwork. Thus taste is entirely subjective. But is taste really personal? When someone says “That is beautiful!” they want to share their taste which is then communicated to others. People speak about their tastes but truly personal taste does not exist.

E+J: Do you agree with any of the notions mentioned in the text above, and why? 

AH: I share Kant’s vision of Art and Aesthetics, of Beauty and Taste. Nature’s beauties seem to have been created intentionally. How can we imagine that such beauties may have been created by chance? Everything there agrees with our own nature. All those things please our mind. But aesthetic response teaches us less about nature.

This vision, to me, calls for an approach of individual freedom within creation since both mechanism and freedom must be opposed to each other.

Art must also be seen as distinct from science. Art’s skills differ from those of science. We can know something without being able to create it. “Only that which we are unable to create, even if we know it thoroughly, can be ascribed to art. Art is not a lesser way of knowing, it is something else entirely.

It is just as important to be able to distinguish art from trade.

In these definitions, art is separate from nature. “By right, one should only call art what is produced through freedom, that is, through free will.” That is why the principle of art is genius. “Genius is the innate disposition of the mind through which nature sets down rules for art.”

Through genius, nature does not set down rules for science but it does so for art. Since genius is the ability to create beautiful things, a somewhat different faculty is required to judge it. “A beauty of nature is a beautiful thing; beauty of art is a beautiful representation of a thing.”

An art object always supposes finality. We must therefore always “take into account the item’s perfection at the same time.” But in that case, it is not purely a judgment of taste; it gives rise to a separation between genius and judgment of taste. “In a work which claims to be a work of art, one can perceive genius without taste, just as another will find taste without genius.”

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E+J: Why is art important and how did it contribute to man’s progress in your opinion? How do you judge art?

AH: The function of art is not its usefulness but rather the role it plays within society, its general effect on those spectators who receive it. Art’s function is certainly not forever fixed, but rather it evolves along with it.

The fight against homogenization and standardization can be seen in Pop Art, which appeared in the Sixties.

Art, and especially contemporary art, tends to turn the attention to facts within society, to the margins. It seeks to provoke. Happenings, body art, art brut (also called outsider art) carry with them a strong challenging charge. It hails to the idea of counterculture which arose around the Beat Generation, rock, and hippy culture, all of which went against consumer society.

Art’s expressive function, as an act of communication with the world, and its value as a reflection of social and moral transformations, is important.

Art, therefore, has one role to play: that of opening spaces where emotions and sentiments self-regulate. It allows for, and at the same time, avoids the outpouring of subjectivity that would be too irrational; and allows for its translation in a language that can be understood by more individuals than simply the artist himself or herself.

Plinio Walder Prado, a philosophy professor at Paris VIII University, discovered the existence of a “no man’s land”, a space not known to others, which belongs solely to the individual, without reservation, and which each person has within themselves without even knowing about it. In this place, a secret and free existence can be cultivated, which will evade all attempts at control. Thus, the public does not exist before the creation of the work of art—it is rather the work of art which creates its own public.

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E+J: Do you think fashion is one of the disciplines that could be considered as art, and why? 

AH: Indeed, fashion is an art form, but it is a nomadic and ephemeral art form.

Fashion as art is a dynamic and interactive phenomenon defined by an aesthetic and creative autonomy.

This art form is fleeting and ephemeral, it is in a constant state of evolution, in a perpetual flux. It transforms according to taste and social changes within the evolution of habits and values.

As La Bruyère wrote in his “Characters”: “Such is our giddiness that one fashion has hardly destroyed another, when it is driven away by a newer one, again to make way for its successor, which will not be the last.”

This same idea of fashion’s ephemeral nature was reprised and studied more in depth by Roland Barthes in 1967 in “The Fashion System,” in which he writes: “Changes in fashion appear regular if we consider a relatively long historical duration, and irregular if we reduce this duration to the few years preceding the time at which we place ourselves; regular from afar and anarchic up close, Fashion thus seems to possess two durations: one strictly historical, the other what could be called memorable, because it puts into play the memory a woman can have of the Fashions which have preceded the Fashion of a given year.”

Fashion is the collective conscience of a society; it evolves with the evolution of ideas and lifestyles. For fashion designers, it is a way to transmit a message, to expose something, to provoke and, finally, to influence habits (e.g.: women’s liberation with Coco Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, and others).

Fashion can rightly be considered an art since it is always a symbolic relationship, an exchange that is both coded and metaphorical. It is a way of being stylish while presenting to the world a way of being, an attitude, a behaviour.

Within fashion, representation carries numerous and plural meanings.

For Michèle Pirazzoli, Director of studies at École des Hautes Études, specialist in the art and archaeology of China and former curator at Musée Guinot, says: “Through the centuries, textiles have always been a preferred way of expressing a collective or an individual form of aesthetics; the infinite variety of patterns and colours, the various textiles themselves, are a true reflection of those expressions.”

Thus fashion is shot through with an aesthetic ideal of Beauty that is both timeless and immutable but a Beauty which remains temporary and furtive.

The imagery of fashion goes far beyond simple runway shows and appears in a variety of artistic manifestations.

This appearance of fashion in the world of art allows it to gain an artistic legitimacy as much as it permits it to be fabricated and created (through photography, cinema, dance, theatre, etc.).

Therefore, fashion is, as Yves Saint Laurent said it so well, a trade which “is not strictly an art form, but which needs an artist to exist.”  Is that not a magnificent definition?

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