A letter from Paris – and a way of thinking about art

Paris: reflections outside the Louvre

I like Paris and I like London. London often strikes me as a bit of a shambles – a place in which I feel comfortable and in which I do not have to worry too much about what I look like. Paris is different. I enjoy the style and elegance of Paris. It isn’t quite like any other capital city that I know. I was there recently and it got me thinking about the nature of art and what it is to be an artist.

Whilst I was at Art College in England I had the impression that when it came to discussing art and addressing the question, ‘What is art?’ no one ever wanted to provide a clear-cut answer: we were, it seemed, supposed to think this out for ourselves. So I tried to do this. I began by using Wittgenstein’s idea that we should look at the things we call art (and the practices of the people we call artists) and notice how each bears a family resemblance one to another. There is no ‘essence’ of art. If someone does something or produces something that more-or-less resembles ‘art’ then he or she stands on the threshold of being called an ‘artist’. This is very liberating: most people clearly do things that resemble the things that artists do. However, I also think that artists do a little bit more than just making or producing things that resemble the work of other (recognised) artists: it seems that established or emerging artists are concerned to make a creative response to the way they experience the prevailing (and/or surrounding) society and culture. They engage with reality and, through the works that they make, they ‘tell’ us something about it. They may adopt traditional or original means to achieve their ends. Their ends may be outer in focus: they may want to say something about the world ‘out there’ – they may want to illustrate its beauty or highlight its cruelty. Or, their ends may be inner in nature: they may want to disclose something more distinctly personal. But whatever it is that they are doing, the artist expresses an intellectual and emotional response to the world within which he or she is embedded.

So, what happens when I’m in the reality of Paris? What happens when I walk down the streets or look at the people? Well, it’s almost impossible to ignore the aesthetic dimensions of life. Paris continually impresses with its artistic traditions and heritage. The buildings, the museums of art, the legacy of La Belle Epoque, the fashion houses and the presentational values of its citizens all offer a permission to enjoy ‘style’. It doesn’t matter whether it is the style of elegance, refinement and high culture or something more visceral and basic – provided it has style. This makes it a good place to be an artist. In Paris, you feel the presence of aesthetic sophistication wherever you go.  And, if I am correct that the artist is someone who makes a creative response to the world that swirls about him or her, then Paris is always a catalyst for making excellent works of art.

Footnote 1: Paris manifests several discernible forms or spheres of culture – such as a shared ‘international culture’ or an everyday ‘mainstream culture’. It also has a great deal of cultural diversity. All this serves as a support for the artist; he or she can engage with any – or all – of these spheres and manifest a creative response – as ‘art’.

Footnote 2: To complete this account  it would be essential to recognise that there is a sociological dimension to art: First, an artist has to communicate – to make their work public. The work needs to be staged  in some sort of appropriate context. On this point, Matthew Collings has noted that it may well be that there are ‘artists out there’ but if we don’t see their work we cannot say anything about them  nor can we apply any criteria that define their work as ‘art’. Second, as Collings implies, there is an ‘art world’: And, the guardians of that art-world community wield enormous power because it is largely through them that someone is legitimated as an artist.

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