The Great Debate About Art (2010)

   •Roy Harris

Paperback: 130 pages
ISBN: 978098420100-6

In one respect, the extreme vagueness of the 19th-century slogan, “art for art’s sake” was its strength; it functioned as a rallying call to all artists who wanted to resist the notion that the rest of the world could tell them what they should be doing. But in another respect, that was its weakness; for it made it inevitable that there would be no consensus among artists either. The doctrine proclaims, against the received wisdom of all previous ages, that every art, every work of art, is its own justification. It seeks no further purpose. It submits to no higher judgment. These are the contentions which set the stage for the Great Debate.

Over the past two centuries three main positions have become prominent in discussions of the arts. The “institutional” view declares art to be a status conferred upon certain works by the approval of influential institutions. The “ideocentric” view gives absolute priority to the judgment of the individual. What is a work of art for A need not be a work of art for B. The third is the “conceptual” view of art, which insists that what counts is the idea that inspired the work, not the physical execution. But the tacit assumptions which once supported this Debate and these positions have now collapsed. “Art” as a coherent category has imploded, leaving behind a historical residue of empty questions that contemporary society can no longer answer. Integrationism provides indispensable signposts for understanding this confusing state of affairs.

This book was the inspiration for a series of exhibitions at the Upfor gallery in Portland, Oregon


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© Roy Harris, Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics, Oxford, 2010-2015