Arte Magra: Art, artwork and works of art

The expression “Arte Magra” is opaque in English because it doesn’t come up in ordinary conversation. It is not even prominent in the jargon of the artworld. We don’t find it in English translation as “Lean Art” or as “Meagre Art,” and its native literature is Italian. What, then, are English speakers to make of it?

One way of responding to this is by posing a bigger question. What are the speakers of any language to make of it? Is it just a neologism with a meaning arbitrarily set by its proprietors, as the meaning of iPad was set (and copyright protected) by Apple? I take it that whatever their natural language may be, the users of this phrase do not think that they are merely promoting a new fashion or a style. They think that they have put their finger on the very nexus of signification that pins together the sprawling concepts of “art”, of “artwork” and of “the work of art.”

There was, and still is, a tendency for English speakers to use the word “artwork” as if it were synonymous with the phrase “work of art.” Whatever ambiguity there may be about the singular usage, synonymity is taken for granted in the plural. “Artworks” is the general name for all the “works of art” that are displayed in art galleries, reviewed by critics and traded by investors. An artwork must be one of these artworks.

This usage has been challenged by theorists who tell us that we should use the word “artwork” quite differently. We should not use it as the name for a distinctive sort of thing but as the name for a distinctive sort of purposeful action. “Artwork”, they tell us, is something that artists do. But this attempt to construe the distinctiveness of doing artwork differently from the way we construe the distinctiveness of doing basketwork as the action of generating an item of basketry brings problems with it.

There is much equivocation around this point. If we press it hard we shall probably be told that doing artwork doesn’t necessarily (or analytically) generate a work of art in the way in which doing basketwork generates an item of basketry. Doing artwork, we must assume, doesn’t necessarily generate a work of art. It might fail to do this even when the performer has the sort of natural flair that people must have had before there were any works of art. It may even fail after the knack of making works of art has been diligently acquired, by attending an art school.

The fact is that “artists” are not identified as the people who do a distinctive sort of work. They are identified as artists because the things they make are recognised as works of art. Innocent bystanders to the spectacle of a person applying exotic colours to patches of bubble-gum flattened on a city pavement are open to persuasion that this performer is an artist if and only if they are open to persuasion that what she is making is a work of art.

It used to be thought that a work of art is distinguishable from a packet of frozen peas by virtue of the “art” that any aesthetically sensitive perceiver should be able to detect in the work of art. But quite early in the twentieth century, when aesthetically sensitive perceivers began to detect the art in packets of frozen peas, this criterion failed. Every one of the old essentialist theories collapsed; whether it identified art with beauty, or with aesthetic quality, expression or catharsis, or whatever. The futility of all that led to the Institutional Theory, to which lip-service is now paid by everyone. I characterise it as lip-service because—despite its obvious truth and universal acceptance—most people remain blind to its implications.

The most repulsive implication of Institutional Theory, from which eyes are still averted, is that the people who do the real work of making works of art turn out not to be artists after all. They turn out to be curators. Artists understandably resented this and tried to recover the lost ground by shifting attention back from the product to the process. They continued, of course, to keep one eye on the artworld and on what curators do in the hope that the things they make will be transformed by the work that curators do into works of art. But the sense of injustice smoulders on, fed by an inner certainty that the “artwork” they are doing themselves is much more important than the work of making “works of art” that the curators do.

What “doing artwork” really means (so the artists continued to tell themselves) is putting art into things that otherwise wouldn’t have any. The institutional work that curators, critics, arts-administrators and sycophantic historians do is relatively shallow, devious and self-serving. “Our sort of artwork,” the artists mumble inwardly, “is not just game-playing, taste-making, self-promoting fancy footwork. It is—as it always was—the real work of putting art into things that otherwise wouldn’t have any.”

I am sorry to say that the artists have got this wrong; and so have all the sympathetically deluded theorists who have rallied to their cause and dedicated themselves to conducting everyone back again through the nineteenth century to the security of essentialism. I share with the artists a certain blue-collar disdain for white-collar parasitism; but the truth will out. Artists do not have a distinctively ineffable knack of putting art into things that otherwise wouldn’t have any. It is our great good fortune as a species that we sometimes find art in things. We even occasionally find it in works of art; but the treasure that we find is not necessarily a treasure that has been purposefully buried where we find it.

The idea that making art is a purposeful action in the same way as making works of art is a purposeful action is wrong. It is wrong despite the guidance back to essentialism that has been offered (with an anthropological rationale) by theorists such as Ellen Dissanayake, whose opinions have recently been influential here at the Adelaide Experimental Art Foundation. Wikipedia says about her that, “She is credited for re-defining art as ‘making special’; that is, art-making involves taking something out of its everyday use and context and making it somehow special.”

If this were just a belated endorsement of the Institutional Theory, as it seems to be, all would be well. But it is not. There are innumerable ways of making things special. We can make a snapshot of the back of a bicycle shed special by framing it and hanging it on the wall of an art gallery. This makes it special as a work of art. We can make it special by endorsing it with the inscription “For my best-beloved, with fond memories” before wrapping it in decorative paper and delivering it to the right person on the anniversary day. This makes it special as a birthday present. Only the first of these ways of making something special can be what Ellen Dissanayake has in mind, and it self-contradictorily re-identifies “doing artwork” with “making works of art.”

The point should be simple and obvious; but it isn’t. The importance that we necessarily attach to art, and don’t necessarily attach to works of art, is attributable to the fact that art is something that we find: it is not something that we make. Making art (if making art were possible) would be an exercise of skill. It would deploy familiar memes already within the maker’s repertoire. Finding art gives us access to new memes that we had not known to be available. It is for a compelling logical reason and not because of any lack of skill that we cannot do something that we don’t yet know how to do. The skills that we have not yet acquired are not yet at our disposal.[1]

Here is another attempt to theorise doing artwork as a purposeful activity. Dr Stephen Sartarelli (who is unfortunately prevented by illness from making a contribution to this symposium today) has written the following passage, in a short essay called “After Words”.[2] It is about the allegedly purposeful activity of putting the art into a poem. He writes: “For Nanni Cagnone, the verbal gesture does not evoke or represent the object of expression. It makes it. The making – poeisis – originates beyond the tools we are handed down, the words we speak. Vessel to vessel, the poem strives to birth a living thing, “the abandoned infinite form.” Each attempt at expression, each stab at the light, yields a new piece of matter, shadowed through the poet’s gaze for the time it takes to splinter and darken again, in the new light of the reader’s eyes. ... Beyond language, then, lies the materia prima of creation: essence, form in its original sense. Unknowable because there is nothing to know in it. It is, in fact, preknowledge: pure, unfallen. Before words. The poet – Nanni Cagnone – stands on the other side, after words. Between the two lies the possible poem. Across the burning distance the poet enacts the ritual of making, beckons the poem from wordlessness.”

In its poetical way this passage makes two claims about writing poetry. In relation to both of them it is assumed, on genre grounds, that poems are works of art. I believe that one of these claims is true and the other is senseless. The first (with which I wholly concur) might be re-stated in my own prosaic way, like this. If any art is found in a finished poem it is found after the work of writing is done. This identification of art with something that is found post facto – as Sartarelli’s title “After Words” unambiguously attests – is indubitably right. The dubious proposition is that the artist has purposefully put it there.

The artist’s own finger is pictured in this passage as beckoning out of wordlessness the words that will appear in the finished poem. The purposefulness of the work that is being done is located in the artist’s responsiveness to this beckoning finger. But how can a finger beckon from a position that has not yet been reached by the person whose finger it is? The classical solution to this problem (not ventured in this passage) has been to attribute the beckoning finger not to the artist but to the artist’s Muse. She (if we may momentarily condone the sexism of the classics) is a being so favourably situated as to give her access to the finished poem before it has been written.

I say no more about the Muse. Whoever’s finger it may be that is so advantageously situated, the artist’s purposeful response to its beckoning must be supposed to have an extraordinary grasp of the meaning of its gestures. A purposeful response to a gesture that is translatable as “Write this word … don’t write that word!” is perhaps conceivable; but the story needs something else. It needs a prescient response to a gesture that seems to mean “Just write some word or other, so that you can find out whether it is the one you want!

This beckoning digit is phantasmagorical, and so too is the putative action of purposefully transcribing its semaphore. Purposefully writing a poem is in this respect no different—and I do not say this boastfully—from purposefully writing a public lecture, or even a shopping list. To say that writers in any literary genre know what they are doing, and to say that they know how to go purposefully about doing it, is not to say that they are delivering texts that are already available out there in the future, waiting for transcribers with the genius of foresight.

The contemptuous response that public lectures and shopping lists are not expected to have any art in them would no doubt win applause in a political debate, but it is irrelevant. We are not even contemplating here a viable theory about how the right words get purposefully put into any literary form at all. A fortiori we are not contemplating a viable theory about how art is purposefully put in there, along with the words.

So what is Arte Magra? I have already said that art can only be found; and I believe that the phrase “lean art” seriously tries to expresses this intuition. It moves us toward a realisation of the truth that art is not identifiable with the purposeful business of making works of art. To isolate the leanness of art we must trim away the fat that has accumulated around the concept of the work of art. I speak here of the “aesthetic value” fat. and also of the “market value” fat. Both of these steatopygous deformities are the price of associating with the art galleries and the auction houses.

So far so good. But the two strategies for performing this surgery that I have considered have both been retrogressive. We do not rectify the misunderstanding about what art is by mis-conceiving it over again as a purposeful exercise of skill. The leanness of lean art is a corollary of the plain truth that art stands in only fortuitous and contingent relationship to works of art. It is occasionally found in things that are recognised as works of art, just as it is occasionally found in things that are recognised as scientific theories or as Acts of Parliament or as dogs’ breakfasts. It may even be found by anthropologically diligent theorists such as Ellen Dissanayake in abominably misguided technologies such as the Mayan practice of ripping the living hearts out of human sacrificial victims in order to ensure that the sun will rise tomorrow.[3] Even more radically: it can be found in things that have not been purposefully made at all. The Hubble Telescope has recently become a popular prosthetic extension of the adventurous eye.[4]

I have spelled out a positive evolutionary thesis about what art is in many places, and shall not try to summarise this material here and now. I shall devote my last few minutes to sketching some implications of a better understanding of what art is for artists in general, and especially for those artists who feel some intuitive affinity with an Experimental Art Foundation.

The most important of these implications is hideous. No artworld politician would dream of taking it to an election or of putting it into a grant application. It is that artists need the artworld more than the artworld needs artists. The artworld is an occasionally attractive domain of entertainment in which a myth about the incomparable genius of artists conspires delusionally with a myth about the ineffable value of the artworld’s product. These are both fantasies; but it is no fantasy that artists nowadays need the artworld, both as a source of income and as a raft of reassurance floating on the ocean of self-doubt. Artists can survive without fame or money; but without the artworld’s endorsement of them as the makers of its product they are worse than unemployed. Engaging, as they tend to do, in eccentric behaviours on the public street they may become not merely destitute but also full-time respondents in the magistrate’s court to charges of public nuisance. Or worse.

The worship of works of art is vastly over-blown, but the temples of worship have an accidental virtue that should not be trivialised. The artworld is a domain in which the things that artists make are put up for public appraisal of a distinctive sort, with an occasionally huge reward. Just as the artists themselves who have made these things in the usually disappointed hope of finding art in them, so too do other people stand a chance of becoming equally fortunate.

I need to stress this point because it is easily misunderstood. I like artists, and admire their motivation. Indeed, in fleeting moments of grandiosity I fantasise about being one, or about occasionally having been one, myself. Artists are people who are trying all of the time, and not only when they are visiting art museums, to discover new ways of saying, understanding, feeling and acting in the world in ways that they had previously not known to be possible.

The case against the artworld is formidable. It packages the inchoate ambition of artists into a marketable product, using cheap labour. Stripped of the fantasy, the model of artworks as things that have been purposefully made is applied just as it is applied to the making of dental bridgework, tax returns and smartphones; with a similar emphasis on minimising labour costs. The story that artists are product-fabricators of a distinctive genius is false, and hypocritical. The thing that really is distinctive about artists – a different sort of genius – is logically unrelated to the production of works of art. It cannot be nurtured by attending master classes.

Artists are people who do not know what they are doing, and at their best they are people who know that they do not know what they are doing. They are propelled by the inextinguishable hope of getting lucky. Lean art, or Arte Magra, preceded the arrival of the artworld by several hundred thousand years and all it owes to the artworld is floor-space. The relationship is, at best, a marriage of convenience uncertainly brokered by marginal institutions such as the Experimental Art Foundation, standing as they do on the edge of capitulation to one or another of those desperate biennales.

The truth about Arte Magra is a truth about the human aspiration to find out what can be thought and said and done that we had not known to be possible. It is a truth with a profundity that is, alas, instantly trashable into a marketing pitch for the artworld’s top-selling product.


  1. ^ I have elucidated this point in numerous writings; notably in The awful truth about what art is (Artlink, Adelaide, 2008).
  2. ^ Stephen Sartarelli, ‘After Words.’
  3. ^ This is the sort of magical-instrumental ritual on which I suppose that the Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar Sunni was drawing when, in May 2013, he purported to remove and eat the heart of an enemy.
  4. ^ More is made of this point in my paper ‘On seeing the pattern.’ Artlink 32:3, 2012, pp. 16

Donald Brook is an Australian artist, art critic and theorist whose research and publications centre on the philosophy of art, non-verbal representation and cultural evolution. He initiated the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide and is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at Flinders University. This was his keynote address for the Arte Magra symposium. Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, South Australia, 6 September 2013.