The essential difference between the beauty – or if ‘beauty’ is too specialized and descriptive a word here, the ‘look’ – of the visual arts, painting and sculpture, of the second half of the 20th century and those of earlier periods raises problems of classification and also paradoxes whose solution requires fundamental logical and metaphysical distinctions, and enlarges the concept of a work of art. What is the difference between the beauty or the look of the most characteristic art of the post second war period – call it ‘l’Art Autre’ or l’lnformel’ or ‘Abstract Expressionism’ – and that, for example, of the 18th-century landscape painting? The present art resembles, not the peaceful, inactive, lovely landscape of another age, but rather nature as caught in or revealing a process: the turmoil of water as seen from deep inside, clouds in formation or transformation, a mountain sliced open showing rocks in their solidified geological process, objects disintegrated by sea or weather, artifacts transformed by natural forces. The traditionally contemplated landscape, however, is the quiet surface, the non-dynamic result of all of these processes. Modern art has called attention to, or reflected the switch of attention to, a new aspect of nature – that which is in the process of transformation, not by imitating but by performing this transformation on its own materials.
This new direction of our looking results in the paradoxical situation that we may find similar objects on the beach, in a rock quarry, under a microscope; or in an art gallery or museum. But in the latter case our attitude to them is very different. What accounts for our difference in attitude and in value judgement when we classify very similar objects as natural objects or as works of art? What accounts for the difference in aesthetic and creative value in producing a nature-like object and in selecting an object from a beach? Why does the latter activity seem to be less of an achievement?
The answer to these questions involves consideration of the artist’s intentions and the more general significance of what he does. The artist wants, not merely to select an organic thing, but himself to make something that has its own life and has arisen from some kind of natural laws. Paul Klee has expressed this impulse very poetically in Concerning Modern Art: “What artist would not like to live where the central organ of all space-time motion, call it brain or heart of creation as you will, activates all functions? In the womb of nature, in the primal ground of creation where the secret keys of all things lie hidden.” The artist wants to act in accordance with cosmic laws he cannot formulate but only approach and move into and follow in an intuitive way. So the object found and not created is disappointing because the artist has not let himself flow into the stream of possible creation, but only recognized one result of it.1
The remarkable thing about the event of making a nature-like work of art is that consciousness has, by subtle holding on to itself and letting go of itself, for a time penetrated into the stream of creation and has actively participated in, instead of only being subject to, the working of natural laws. So mind has been extended beyond its usual range and the ‘Other’, the mute object, has been for a moment impregnated with consciousness; a rare and intimate fusion of mind and matter has taken place. Having come into existence through this significant encounter is what distinguishes the work of art from its apparent natural twin. The classification of an object as a work of art, as distinct from an objet trouvé or a natural object, thus involves consideration of the events involved in its coming to be.
The adequate classification and description of a work of art thus requires a wider concept than that of a material object isolatable here and now. Such a wider concept might be called the ‘life history’ of the object. In this way the object would be regarded, not as something to which events happen more or less extrinsically, but as being really constituted by all the events in which it has taken part. Even to state this without a new logical frame is awkward. Such a concept is similar to Whitehead’s notion of a ‘social order’ of occasions or events which make up an ‘enduring object’ in so far as the happening is here considered as metaphysically basic and the enduring object as a resultant order and continuity among such basic events.
The qualification of an object as a work of art now involves not only the object itself as a product in a gallery but also its life history and the intersection of its life history with that of its creator. Not only are all of the events that have happened to it – its creation and afterwards – involved in this classification, but so is a consideration of the life history of its creator in so far as he is an artist and of his other works of art as aesthetic objects. Take an absurd case which is illuminating in its extremity. Suppose the creator wasn’t an artist at all — that this was the only art object he had ever produced. Here arises a logical interplay between the work’s formal excellence as a given object and its dubious beginning as life history, it might qualify its maker as an artist who had unfortunately not produced more, or he might disqualify it as a fluke. In this way there is a logical interaction between the work as a given aesthetic object, and as a life history intersecting with the life history of its creator and his other acts of creation and with the results of these as aesthetic objects. All these are involved in the classification of a nature-like object as a work of art.
Thus from this richer concept of a work of art as a life history of events arises a wide and complex net of interconnections. In these extended terms it makes profound sense to ask whether similar objects should be classified differently as natural objects or works of art.
1 This recognition itself is a sequel, however, to the creation of similar objects by artists – only thus was the finder (not necessarily an artist himself) educated to appreciate their ‘look’ as ‘beauty’. This, therefore, is a valid and valuable but necessarily subsequent procedure.