Political Compass #44: Abstract art that doesn't represent anything isn't art at all.

Many political debates here have included references to The Political Compass, which uses a set of 61 questions to assess one’s political orientation in terms of economic left/right and social libertarianism/authoritarianism (rather like the “Libertarian diamond” popular in the US).

And so, every so often I will begin a thread in which the premise for debate is one of the 61 questions. I will give which answer I chose and provide my justification and reasoning. Others are, of course, invited to do the same including those who wish to “question the question”, as it were.

It would also be useful when posting in these threads to give your own “compass reading” in your first post, by convention giving the Economic value first. My own is
SentientMeat: Economic: -5.12, Social: -7.28, and so by the above convention my co-ordinates are (-5.12, -7.28). Please also indicate which option you ticked. I might suggest what I think is the “weighting” given to the various answers in terms of calculating the final orientation, but seeing for yourself what kind of answers are given by those with a certain score might be more useful than second-guessing the test’s scoring system.

Now, I appreciate that there is often dissent regarding whether the assessment the test provides is valid, notably by US conservative posters, either because it is “left-biased” (??) or because some propositions are clearly slanted, ambiguous or self-contradictory. The site itself provides answers to these and other Frequently Asked Questions, and there is also a separate thread: Does The Political Compass give an accurate reading? [size=2]Read these first and then, if you have an objection to the test in general, please post it there. If your objection is solely to the proposition in hand, post here. If your objection is to other propositions, please wait until I open a thread on them. (And for heaven’s sake, please don’t quote this entire Opening Post when replying like this sufferer of bandwidth diarrhea.)

The above will be pasted in every new thread in order to introduce it properly, and I’ll try to let each one exhaust itself of useful input before starting the next. Without wanting to “hog the idea”, I would be grateful if others could refrain from starting similar threads. Finally, I advise you to read the full proposition below, not just the thread title (which is necessarily abbreviated), and request that you debate my entire OP rather than simply respond, “IMHO”-like, to the proposition itself.

To date, the threads are:

Does The Political Compass give an accurate reading?
Political Compass #1: Globalisation, Humanity and OmniCorp.
#2: My country, right or wrong
#3: Pride in one’s country is foolish.
#4: Superior racial qualities.
#5: My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
#6: Justifying illegal military action.
#7: “Info-tainment” is a worrying trend.
#8: Class division vs. international division. (+ SentientMeat’s economic worldview)
#9: Inflation vs. unemployment.
#10: Corporate respect of the environment.
#11: From each according to his ability, to each according to need.
#12: Sad reflections in branded drinking water.
#13: Land should not be bought and sold.
#14: Many personal fortunes contribute nothing to society.
#15: Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.
#16: Shareholder profit is a company’s only responsibility.
#17: The rich are too highly taxed.
#18: Better healthcare for those who can pay for it.
#19: Penalising businesses which mislead the public.
#20: The freer the market, the freer the people.
#21: Abortion should be illegal.
#22: All authority must be questioned.
#23: An eye for an eye.
#24: Taxpayers should not prop up theatres or museums.
#25: Schools shouldn’t make attendance compulsory.
#26: Different kinds of people should keep to their own.
#27: Good parents sometimes have to spank their children.
#28: It’s natural for children to keep secrets.
#29: Marijuana should be legalised.
#30: School’s prime function is equipping kids to find jobs.
#31: Seriously disabled people should not reproduce.
#32: Learning discipline is the most important thing.
#33: ‘Savage peoples’ vs. ‘different culture’
#34: Society should not support those who refuse to work.
#35: Keep cheerfully busy when troubled.
#36: First generation immigrants can never be fully integrated.
#37: What’s good for corporations is always good for everyone.
#38: No broadcasting institution should receive public funding.
#39: Our civil rights are being excessively curbed re. terrorism.
#40: One party states avoid delays to progress.
#41: Only wrongdoers need worry about official surveillance.
#42: The death penalty should be an option for serious crimes.
#43: Society must have people above to be obeyed.
**Proposition #44: Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all.

SentientMeat** (-5.12, -7.28) ticks Disagree.
I personally have little interest in galleries showing “abstract” art (I sometimes find that the fire extinguisher is the boldest and most interesting piece on offer), but I certainly appreciate the more esoteric and conceptual works in my own particular artistic fields of music and photography. Furthermore, I consider that since humans are themselves “machines” or “natural processes” to some extent, products of natural or non-human creations should be considered “art” also: A snowflake or sunset is just as much the product of an artist called “the universe” as representations of those things are the product of human artists (who are, after all, a product of the universe themselves).

Now, I realise that my own definition of what constitutes art (ie. anything that can affect a human aesthetically) is vastly broader than even most abstract of artists would put their name to. But #44 seems almost comically restrictive in its definition. Who the heck is to say what does or doesn’t “represent anything”? In order to be considered art, must you be able to see “what it is” the very instant you encounter the canvas, or sculpture, or whatever? How far “away” from an accurate representation can, say, the style of a painting get before it is “non-representative”? Van Gogh? Picasso? Klee? Warhol? Are these examples of “degenerate art”, or something?

Or, perhaps, art can be as abstract and indecipherable as it likes, so long as it is supposed to represent something (even if it is utterly unrecognisable as that something). The (human) artist must be at least trying to get some point across, even if the end result is still just a squiggly mess, a urinal or an unmade bed. It is only if it doesn’t represent anything at all that it should not be considered “art” (although of course, at the very moment you encounter the work, you could never possibly tell whether this was the case or not!). I’m afraid I do not find either of these reasons to tick Agree at all compelling. Whatever “art” is, it is certainly not simply synonymous with either “technical skill” or the illusion called “human purpose”.

Politically, I believe that this is a social proposition: authoritarian regimes have historically had a “problem” with contemporary art while enlightened democracies can clearly “handle” it. I suppose there is possibly an element of economics here also: if art is to be subsidised at all, the art should at least try to be accessible to the average taxpayer. Of course, publicly funded art often gets into the news because it is seen as biting the hand that feeds it, with crass and unimaginative stunts intended to “challenge” when the real aim is obviously just to offend the easily offended. However, this should be balanced with the genuinely uplifting works that come through such funding. A current work by Anthony Gormley called “Field for the British Isles”, comprising thousands of little terracotta figures made by schoolchildren, recently went on (free) show in a part of Gloucester Cathedral: the effect was unbelievable, as though an entire country’s population had packed into a vast hollow mountain. It was simply a “WOW!” to see, and without government help would have only have been viewable in faraway London by the few people willing to pay a necessarily expensive entrance fee; just another example of taxation bringing about a good which pure capitalism cannot.

However, I’d be surprised if there was a horizontal component in the scoring on this proposition. What is considered “abstract” or “non-representative” itself changes with the times, and one’s attitude towards “changing times” is represented solely by the vertical axis, IMO. Renoir and Monet are now considered “traditional” artists (“look, it’s obviously a girl with a watering can!”) but at the time, impressionism was a radically abstract artistic leap. So it is now with post-modernism: it might (literally!) be crap, but it’s still “art”.

Proposition #44: Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all.
Maybe if it were possible to create art that represented nothing at all I would agree, but surely all art represents something - even if it is an artist’s complete contempt for a potential audience.
Anything and everything that anyone wants to classify as art must be considered art, IMO, otherwise where do you draw the line?
Whether or not a piece should be publically funded, however, is a totally different matter.

Disagree. 7.15/-1.15

What silliness is this? A proposition on the definition of a word?

Art is something which represents something else or which is imbued with a deeper meaning. A snowflake is not art because it doesn’t represent anything but itself, aesthetically design (even when brilliant) is not art because it doesn’t attempt to be anything but pleasing/pretty/practical/etc. An abstract painting e.g. is art, because it (supposedly – personally I hate it) represent something besides and beyond itself. As for whether it’s good art. ahh… for here’s the rub.

A work does not “deserve” to be called art. Art is a value neutral word, not a positive term by itself. Clearly there’re lots of bullshit art out there good for nothing but the rubbish bin. Personally I think good art is 95% skill, 5% genius. That’s what makes the classical Greek & renaissance artists so brilliant – they took decades to learn their trade. And abstract art such bullshit.

Rather than abstract art, a more interesting case is the “art” which in reality is little more than juvenile attempts at provocation – and fairly obvious at that. Is that bullshit art, or merely bullshit?

Agree, if it doesn’t represent anything it isn’t art.

Art can only be produced via deliberate action by a sentient being. If you believe that anything and everything can be considered art then the word is meaningless.

What artist do you know of creates anything and then claims that it doesn’t represent anything at all?


Umm… look here.

Unfortunately the cans are corroding.

Fair enough: I am trying to explore what “representing something” entails. Is a photograph ‘art’? A technical drawing of a snowflake, perhaps with a tiny difference to the original? A designed snowflake, such that one could not tell the human creation from the natural? Do the natural versions not “represent the laws of the universe” in a vague and, well, arty sense?

Yes, I gather that’s the standard definition of what is and is not “art” these days, but I happen to find “deliberate, sentient action” to be something of a false dichotomy since I consider the “will” to be an illusion: I am sentient, I am part of the universe, therefore the universe comprises sentience, therefore the universe can be an ‘artist’. That is why I begin from the perspective of the viewer rather than the creator, since the viewer cannot tell whether the thing in front of them is the consequence of deliberate, sentient action, or non-deliberate action (like the fire extinguisher), or non-sentient action (like beautifully complex natural patterns). This limits “art” to that which can affect us aesthetically, which is still a far smaller subset than “anything at all” but, in any case, we are merely drawing arbitrary lines in the sand here I guess - it doesn’t really matter if I call something ‘art’ which you do not.

Well, I know at least one artist whose ‘sentience’ is borderline and who makes no claims about her ‘art’ whatsoever, as far as I know. The distinction between her work and the snowflake or the spider’s web is extremely tenuous in my eyes.

I (-4.75, -3.38) see this as more a question of definitions that politics or anything else; if there exists a widely-accepted definition of ‘art’ that includes works which don’t depict anything, then it is, otherwise not.

Of course there probably isn’t any such definition and (cynic mode on) a considerable proportion of contemporary ‘art’ could be described as just so much pretentious style wanking. It is possible for the artist to argue unfalsifiably that his work is a huge success, no matter what the outcome; for (hypothetical) example:

**Critic: **Could you describe exactly what your latest piece, ‘blank canvas’ is about?
**Artist: **I could explain, but I choose not to; you see in order to capture the existential emotion of the viewer, I must present a total information void; the viewer therefore projects their own internalised tensions and impressions upon the picture…
**Critic: **Of course it could be argued that you haven’t actually done anything at all, just pinned up a piece of unpainted canvas…
**Artist: **Yes, and of course that is also exactly the kind of reaction I both predicted and hoped for when I created the piece; thank you.

Art is ‘defined’ in such a way that nothing can be disqualified.

We are coming from entirely opposite sides of the discussion. Not only do I consider free will to be a reality but a necessary component of being human. I’m afraid you and I will not arrive at any meaningful concensus on this subject.


Yes. While she’s undoubtedly precocious and cute, I also very much question whether that should be classified as art – or at least interesting art. What has a four year old to teach me about the life? A pretty picture, and I doubt she had any other intentions, is not necessary art. I heard on the radio the other day of a kindergarten that encouraged the children to make “abstract” paintings to get away from the “dictatorship of the form”. Such stupidity. I’ve also seen photos with pigs and parrots and monkeys and even machines painting – none of which I would consider art (perhaps a machine painting can be called art, but then it should be the whole installation). Neither do I consider the output of computer programs as work of arts or images based on mathematical formulae as fractals. Fractals can be very pretty, but like everything with no intent quickly become dull and uninteresting.

Photos & movies can be art. It’s not the medium, it’s the purpose. Art demands some higher intent or idea or meaning behind the work, and this requires intelligence and consciousness. There’s no objective way to classify art. You cannot judge from the viewer only from the creator.

SentientMeat, Yours is essentially an argument from nihilism. While of course, like solipsism, logically consistent and irrefutable, I never the less find it ultimately unsatisfying & uninteresting. I do believe in a free will. A sentient exceptionalism. A creative consciousness.

I think you mean determinism, Rune, since biological computers which output decisions rather than “exercise free will” would still not be nothing (nihil). And my point was that you, the viewer, cannot tell the 4 year-old’s painting from Jackson Pollock’s, and so why feel deceived if you look at her painting and draw from it some ‘higher meaning’ or uplifting aesthetic?

But so be it: art, to some, requires “free will” (and we will not explore eg. Libet’s experiments here), “purpose”, “higher meaning”, or any number of other entities which I personally consider illusory. I’d agree with Marc that we must simply beg to differ in this respect.

However, the people I really wish to participate here are those who consider abstract art such as one might find in contemporary galleries not to be art at all: those who might consider Pollock or Duchamps to be not art, say. Anyone?

-2.8, -3 disagree, of course

But then, that “problem” wth nonrepresentational art is derived from a more basic proposition shared by hardline ideologues of all stripes, namely, that art (or literature) must not just describe something, but must support a way of thinking of that something – and if it doesn’t advocate the right thing, then it must necessarily be advocating the wrong ones.

Once he takes that as starting premise, it’s easy for the authoritarian, who wants to make sure he knows what people are thinking, to then move on to an expectation that it be obvious WHAT is it the art or literature is advocating or denouncing – even if it is something like “the colors of the sunset are pretty”. You can’t have art/literature too dependent on subjective interpretation, or even worse which interpretation must be based on irony or the absurd, because then the poor folks of the Ministry Of Beauty can’t easily tell if it contains hidden crimethink.

HOWEVER… that only works for the simpler-minded authoritarian. The more sophisticated one knows you CAN have “message” Art/Lit AND you can have “art-for-art’s-sake” with or without representationalism, and you just have to crack down on obvious boat-rocking.

But all that is still quite a reach in dealing with this question: it’s inferences we draw from our knowledge of the world. AS PHRASED the question tells us NOTHING about what is the POLICY impact of believing X or Y is or is not “art” – the question itself does not imply what should be done about it.

But that’s also inference that does not follow from the question itself. For a true economic libertarian, who would oppose subsidy for ANY art, the question just does not plot on to the economic axis at all as phrased.

Disagree. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Abstract designs can be beautiful and not necessarily look like anything. Persian rugs are one example that comes to mind. Some, in my opinion, is not art. Painting a circle on a canvas doesn’t fit my definition of art. For the most part, I consider abstract works to be valid art forms.

Disagree. IMO, abstract art is art. I don’t see the logic of how my opinion on this would have any relation to my political leanings.

So your answer to number 4 in this quiz would be not art? Stalin would agree with you.

That’s an interesting quiz, thanks for sharing. The quiz merely asked if you thought the piece to be genuine or a fake created by the author. The excluded possibility is that the “faker” could produce works of true art. Specifically for number 4, I personally would not call that art. Of those on the quiz, the only ones that I wouldn’t call art would be 4,9, and 12. Of course, individual tastes vary and some may think those 3 are masterpieces. If the artist for number 4 would explain the deep meaning of it, I may change my mind.

Malevich proposed the “supremacy of forms”, taking inspiration from ‘new’ mathematics in his attempts to paint without the concepts of up, down, left or right. He died poor, unknown and persecuted by Stalin who outlawed all of his works except the ‘traditional’ self-portrait (which he signed using only geometric shapes - take that, Josef!).


Agree. But I’m taking a different approach to analyzing this question. An abstract work of art appeals to the viewer because it represents SOMETHING to that viewer. It may evoke a pure emotion, but it still evokes something. And that is the difference between “art” and “smears on a canvas”. The latter doesn’t evoke (represent) anything in the viewer, so it is not art, to the viewer.

So, yes, art is in the eye of the beholder, but if the beholder doesn’t “behold” anything, it isn’t art. And that “anything” must be what the art represents, to the beholder.

What of computers that are programmed to generate images? If you can’t tell whether something was generated by a sentient being, how will you determine whether it’s art?

Note that someone has to program the conputer, which is different from a natural outcropping of rock that happens to look like someone, and so isn’t art at all.

  1. Just cause the computer is programmed doesn’t mean that the programmer will know how it behaves. If I hook my computer up to a true random number generator and have it design the images based on the generator’s output, does that change anything?

  2. More importantly, if you can’t tell that the images were generated by a computer, does that change anything?