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The Cat is Not a Verb

A response to Donald Brook's Art is Not a Verb

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Eva Rothschild, Boys and Sculpture, 2012, video still, courtesy the artist and Stuart Shave Modern Art, London

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At certain times of the year, a neighbourhood cat arranges dismembered mice on my porch. Neat piles of entrails, a straight length of intestine, two perfectly symmetrical kidneys. A neatly coiled tail next to a severed head, eyes staring straight up. The deliberateness of these installations is uncanny, but not necessarily artistic. They are, after all, merely didactic – the cat is teaching this hairless beast the skills and rewards associated with the pursuit of prey. No so much an exploration of the feline condition as a simple demonstration aimed at the specific task of teaching me the carnal joy of the hunt.

Or is that unfair to the cat? The macabre remains are arranged with an eerie kind of – for want of a better word – aesthetic. Who are we to speculate about the inner life of a different order of being? More importantly, how did we arrive at the notion that art ought to be something more (or less) complicated than teaching?

All but the most stubborn social Darwinist can agree that there is something that sets art apart from other categories of human endeavour. Art certainly isn't teaching, nor is it science, engineering, politics, nor – heaven forfend – entertainment. Art isn't "supposed" to perform any of these functions, because art isn't supposed to "do" anything but art. It's this grammatical quirk – the lack of a verb associated with the noun – that provides the central trope of an exhibition late of Flinders University City Gallery and recently seen at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Art as a Verb was a rare survey of performance and process-based art, made all the more provocative by Donald Brook's mischievous opening remarks, in which he all but refuted the notion that process-based art is any different from marble statues and oil paintings. Brook rightly points out that locating aesthetic value in the process rather than the object simply turns the process into the object – presto, back to square one. It might have seemed heretical when, around the middle of last century, visual artists began offering up their processes for public scrutiny, but the idea certainly wasn't news to actors, dancers and musicians.

Brook followed-up these remarks with a second lecture that more or less summarised a lifelong suspicion of "aesthetic value". Published in this issue, Art is Not a Verb is a plain-speaking story about the way humans have always fumbled around an explanation for what it is that separates artistic merit from other virtues. Brook has made a career out of questioning established measures of artistic merit for many years, but his favourite method – that of virtually dismissing aesthetic value altogether – bears repeating.

The most ancient rationale, according to Brook, is based on the belief that there are certain artefacts that deserve special admiration because they are authored by those among us "whose skills are so elevated that most people find them hard to emulate." In effect, this is a rationale (Brook disarmingly employs the term schtick) that attributes artistic merit to simple rarity. There's an undeniable logic to attributing value to that which is rare, which is perhaps why this particular art-schtick is the oldest and most intuitive.

From here it becomes necessary to move from the ancient schtick to what Brook calls the "modern schtick". After all, what difference is there between rarity of skill and rarity in nature? Some distinction had to be made so as to justify the sanctity (and the financial worth) of the fine arts as compared to, say, sunsets, precious minerals, home decor, entertainment, or the more prosaic work of physicians and scientists. The modern solution has it that works of art are the product of a skill that is not so much rare as it is unique. What's more, works of art contain in themselves a virtue that doesn't have anything to do with any identifiable use. This ineffable quality is somehow separate from other categories of human endeavour, itself capable of evoking a "distinctive sort of inner experience in appropriately sensitive human perceivers". This mysterious substance is what we call aesthetic value, conveniently defined and certified by a cultural elite, endorsed by a political establishment.

The European Renaissance saw aesthetic value attributed to certain state-sanctioned cultural artefacts – grand stone-masonry, statues in the Greco-Roman style, large scale wall paintings of morally uplifting subjects. Post-colonials are familiar with the faintly guilty feeling of being at home in a Romantic western metropolis, one awash with the kind of aesthetic values that have been for centuries sponsored by city fathers and feudal oligarchs. These values have persisted to the modern era, constructing the ideal of a romantic city full of grand buildings, tree-lined avenues and warm, gaslit facades.

Brook identifies this cultural elitism as the dubious basis of the Fine Arts. It explains why, when he assumed the inaugural Chair of Fine Arts at Flinders University, Brook promptly and controversially changed the departmental name from "Fine Arts" to "Visual Arts". There is something of the socialist firebrand in his disdain for the airs and graces of an art world that was, after the demise of the ancient schtick, compromised by the establishment. Aesthetic value, Brook implies, is a hocus pocus notion in service of the investment economy.

[The art world] underwrites the cash value of works of art by certificating them, not merely as cultural collectables or antiques (which some of them certainly are), but as the incarnations of an ineffable virtue that it calls ‘aesthetic value.’

Such a blithe dismissal of the "ineffable virtue" of art is hard to take for a young man of romantic inclinations. Even the magical notion that art is indefinable is itself sacrosanct, and to brush it aside as a variety of charlatanism is akin to saying that there is nothing special about art. Questioning the special nature of aesthetic value, or even that it might not be confined to artists, is a problem if you've spent half your life enduring judgement, poverty and creative anxiety in service of it. One artist to whom I put the idea was so horrified I had to immediately reassure her that aesthetic value is definitely real and that this Brook fellow is probably kidding. Artists are, after all, possessed of a special shamanic magic that sets them apart, bestowing upon them the responsibility of elevating humans above machines, animals, funding bodies.

Of course, Brook isn't attacking aesthetic value itself. The issue here is how unsatisfactory it is as a definition of art. Left in the hands of curators and tenured professors, the modern schtick (and its process-based heresy) quickly spirals out of control. How is aesthetic value different from natural beauty? How is it transmitted from artist to object to viewer? Is it located in the formal properties of the object, or in some "inner experience" induced in an appropriately sensitive perceiver? And why, for that matter, should only a chosen elite be privy to these inner experiences?

Weary of these questions, Brook seeks to replace the amorphous notion of aesthetic value with a more sensible, process-based definition. It's a rationale that's pleasingly difficult to pin-down – Brook calls it 'The Awful Truth', offering it in place of the oversimplified ancient, modern and heretical schticks. It's best summed-up with an aphorism: Art is not something that can be made. It can only be found.

In more prosaic terms, art is an accidental illumination, usually born of a purposeful action or process. It's the purposefulness – or lack thereof – that is of real significance. While the modern schtick promotes some non-utilitarian "undefinable virtue", Brook's Awful Truth is that art itself lies in some greater or lesser epiphany about the human condition that a deliberate process has unintentionally revealed.

Art is stumbled upon as an unanticipated illumination: sometimes by an artist who is purposefully making a work of art; more often by a contemplative bystander with no necessary interest at all in what the artist was purposefully doing.

That art is necessarily unintentional seems counterintuitive, but it starts to make sense when you think about what art is not. To act purposefully is to act with a goal in mind, and if you're acting with a goal in mind you're no longer making art – you're making whatever it is that is designed to achieve that goal. A work of art can still have a function, but it must also reveal something new to either the artist or the viewer that causes them to think, feel or perform something new with regard to any of the myriad facets of the human condition. Genuine art has to be a discovery, and you can't discover something on purpose.

While there usually is a function, a purposeful act, or a deliberate process involved, the ultimate work of art – that which makes it art – is contained in the fact that it is something that was previously unknown.

There can’t be any such thing as a purposeful action of arting because the concept of art is rooted in discovery, not in the skillful performance of an action that has already been discovered.

An artist I know calls the purposeful aspect of her practice "busy work". Another calls it "something to do with my hands" while he waits for the actual discovery – the art – to occur. This, according to Brook, is what elevates art above other human endeavours. Without the discovery aspect, there would be no art – only craft, engineering, teaching, advertising, or some such prosaic skill.

We are not talking about a perfectible skill. We are talking about those unanticipated epiphanies that unexpectedly illuminate any domain of human interest whatsoever. We are talking about revelations that enable us to think, to feel and to act purposefully in the world in ways that we had not previously known to be possible.

There are two possible objections to this, but both are the result of a misinterpretation. First, a particularly proud artist might insist that their work is entirely purposeful – the idea is already fully-formed before it is executed, and there is therefore nothing accidental about it. But if that were truly so, it becomes very easy to argue that there is no genuine art in the artwork. This artist is no longer an artist, but a copyist, a master craftsman making an exquisite copy of something that already exists. Art that is identical to something that already exists isn't art.

Then again, if the execution of the work reveals it to be exactly as it was conceived in the mind of the author, you could just as easily maintain that the discovery (which is to say, the “art”) happened during that conception, rather than during the process or execution.

A second artist might insist that their art remains entirely purposeful, even though it's the result of a process of discovery. They enter the studio with a sense of purpose, with the intention of "discovering" a new way of expressing some idea or other. I put this objection to Brook at the conclusion of his lecture – can't an artist deliberately seek to discover? The kind old professor sighed, closed his eyes and flailed his arms around in a sort of pantomime. "Oooh," he said. "My mind is deliberately open! I'm deliberately going to have an epiphany!"

The Awful Truth needn't be so unromantic. To my mind, defining art in these terms doesn't eliminate the special element of aesthetic value, it simply relocates it. The "value" is now in the revelatory aspect of the artefact – be it manifested in the artist, the viewer or the strange phenomenology between the two. The "sort of inner experience" about which Brook is so skeptical is in fact the same as the revelatory aspect that he offers up as its alternative.

It's what these unintended epiphanies are about that remains a mystery. Brook, for his sins as an aesthetician, offers no details other than the fact that they can illuminate any of the countless fields of human interest. This much is true, and is a large part of why defining art in any terms other than the semantic is such a tricky business. A field of human endeavour that is composed of a myriad of unintended epiphanies concerning an infinite number of human interests is probably impossible to nail down with any precision at all. But we're naive and undaunted, so let's try anyway.

It makes sense that an explanation of a field of human interest that illuminates all other fields of human interest (including itself) would have at its core something both universal and fundamental. Fundamental in the sense that it has to be basic enough to be almost unnoticeable. Universal in the sense that it can be almost unnoticeably present in any conceivable artefact, action or idea that a human cares to give a title and a date. If we can think of something common to everything human – including everything in which humans are interested – then we might also have a likely candidate for whatever it is that Brook's unintended epiphanies might have in common.

The ontology of being itself springs to mind. The feeling of “being” is deeply fundamental, and arguably pervades every aspect of the human condition – our sensory perception, our emotional lives, our assumptions about each other, our sense of self, time, change; everything we feel, know and perceive is shot through with this strange solipsistic perspective.

The ontology of being is so fundamental that it's easy to dismiss the whole affair as a banal point of grammar. Without the so-called "problem" of the first person, there would be no "I" and "you", no "we" and "they". It's easy to argue that we each are possessed of our own separate-yet-apparently-identical being simply by virtue of the fact that we are separate beings that are known to each other.

Nevertheless, there remains the sense or feeling of being that for many defies explanation. Why should it be so that each of us is trapped in the first person, the exterior of which is utterly inaccessible? Why does an external reality appear to revolve around me, when in fact I am certain that every other being is equally convinced that reality revolves around them?

Bloodless materialists are fond of dismissing our sense of being altogether, insisting that the first person problem need not be a problem, but an adaptive trait, or an emergent quality of mental life that itself has no agency or significance. Behaviourists are especially fond of dismissing consciousness as "epiphenomenal" – an inconsequential quirk of our existence that has no effect on the world.

Bleak as all this sounds, there's still no reason even an illusory ontology of being can't have some bearing on a theory of aesthetic value. That someone else is there in the darkened room with us can be just as profound a realisation for the materialist as the hocus-pocus dualist. To flounder blindly, only to brush against another blind flounderer is arguably as potent, universal, multifaceted a realisation as there can be. Trapped as I am in my own phenomenology, each time I am confronted with evidence of another phenomenology, a string is plucked. Consciously or otherwise, a note chimes. What's more, there are an infinite number of phenomenal strings, each one capable of producing its own epiphany, from the trivial to the overwhelming, from the primordial to the seemingly divine.

There's every reason Professor Brook would be appalled at my shoehorning poetry into his theory of unintended revelations. After all, the suggestion that all art is a simple matter of beings accidentally tickling each other's ontologically separated phenomenologies is almost certainly too cute to be satisfactory. At certain times of the day I dismiss it as a truism, prosaic as the fact that we perceive with our senses and make meaning with our heads.

The notion also requires a viewer – there is no spooky collision of phenomenologies without one. But as we know, an artist is just as capable of making art that exists only between herself and her god (or herself and her self, or herself and her cat) as she is performing or exhibiting for an audience.

For this reason Brook is probably wise not to offer any common thread to art's myriad of accidental epiphanies. They don't need anything in common – the naked fact that they are discoveries makes them valuable. Forcing any poetry into the business is, sad as I am to admit it, a Hail Mary.

There is an anxiety about whether art is a category in need of explanation at all – defining art seems faintly cruel and dogmatic, like devising a formula for love, or expecting a wild animal to behave in a certain way. The more we attempt to limit aesthetic value with definitions, the queasier we ought to feel.

Mercifully, Brook is possessed of a confident irreverence for what he calls 'the twaddle that passes for art theory nowadays'. To a relative art world outsider, it's more than a little reassuring to detect in him an awareness of how faintly ridiculous it is to criticise the way we criticise art, or define art with the circular notion of "aesthetic value".

It's technical status turns on two bogus conditions. One is that what it refers to is incarnated in works of art by definition. To be a work of art just is to be a thing that incarnates aesthetic value. The other is that the incarnated presence of aesthetic value is only probatively detectable (in a way that the courts will recognise) by approved agents of the artworld such as celebrity critics, curators and art historians.

I never went to art school. My credentials are limited to those of a mercenary scribbler and an event manager of the militantly amateur caste. Still, I am, as far as anyone can reasonably assume, subject to the same phenomenologies, the same feelings of Being, the same achingly beautiful solipsistic paradoxes as Parmanides, Kant, Hegel, Bob Muldoon and the learned Professor Brook. We are wise to remind ourselves that, in the words of Eliot, 'criticism is as inevitable as breathing'.

There is something self-effacing about an art theorist debunking the spooky magic usually attributed to that which he has spent the better part of his life teaching, studying, practicing. It's an old-school modesty born of a charming amalgam of intellectual rigour and the old Socratic chestnut about the wise man who admits that he knows nothing about wisdom. Hearing him speak, I was reminded of a correspondence with a similarly intimidating art critic, who blithely admits to no longer having an interest in those ineffable mysteries at the centre of Being that the rest of us found so beguiling at university. Perhaps after a certain age we become weary of what a mercifully endangered breed of cool-dad Dualists have dubbed the Hard Problem.

So is the neighbourhood cat still a problem? Can we think about didactic mouse gore as art? Seems like Brook is okay with the idea, so long as someone is capable of reading some novel truth in the entrails. In this case I suppose I’m the artist, and the cat is a fuzzy sort of studio assistant. Discovery versus process. Art versus design. Soothsaying versus butchery.

The cat – bless it – doesn’t have any skin in the game at all. Ask it about the meaning or intention of a dismembered mouse and it will stare back at you in that bored, faintly accusatory way that cats do. Maybe the Awful Truth is that art is as Sisyphean as it is enriching, and that the wise feline chooses to be above the whole tedious fray, content as it is simply to Be.