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How We Use Categories to Understand Art

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

When I teach film theory, I divide the course into sections. One of them is called Categorizing Films. In it, we discuss some of the different ways we group films: by period, by genre, by country or region, or as belonging to a particular movement or school of

cinema, or as part of the work of a particular director. Then we look at how they can belong to different categories at the same time, or how they contest categories or move beyond them. For example, there are genre films, but there are also anti-genre films like the five films in the Scream series which are horror film parodies, as well as plenty of hybrid films that mix genres, such as horror-comedies. We need categories to conceptualize what we are looking at and make sense of it by coming to conclusions about how it is or isn't like other work that fits into or has a relationship to the category we have in mind. It is by doing this that it is possible to come to conclusions about how an artistic product is or is not typical, or different ,or unusual, or subversive in a way that sets it apart or makes it somehow significant. Categories constantly evolve and shift. Some become more prominent or more the object of discussion or concern at particular times and in particular places, e.g. the increased interest in and support for lgbtq films, and films by or about minorities or women today on the part of people working for a more inclusive film culture

In a 2001 essay called Post-Media Aesthetics, Lev Manovich makes a similar point when talking about media. He notes that many new artforms emerged in the late twentieth century that combined different types of media: "assemblage, happening[s], installation (including its various sub-forms such as site-specific installation and video installation), performance, action, conceptual art, process art, intermedia, time-based art, etc." However, schools and institutions like "museums, funding agencies and other cultural institutions" still relied on a limited number of media categories to think about the kinds of art that existed - "painting, works on paper, sculpture, film, video, and so on." These were insufficient to describe or categorize conceptual art that did not make use of any of these media but rather sought to "dematerialize the art object" completely. The digitalization of

art in the twenty first century also made it necessary to rethink the categories we use to describe types of art since most digital objects are composed of a variety of media: "photographic images, sound, video, text" etc. On top of that, digital art also morphs into different forms since these objects can easily be reproduced, manipulated, altered. In transmedia storytelling, you can access different versions of the same visual imagery in different places, all in the service of the same story or product. For example, you can watch the latest chapter of Star Wars in a movie theater or on your phone, play a Star Wars video game, buy the t-shirt, and then create your own Star Wars themed Tik Tok video if you want to.

Being able to process and understand the art we are exposed to requires us to constantly recalibrate, reconceptualize, and rename the categories we use to talk about it. The genres, movements or the formal innovations that were popular, or seemed significant, in the past may not necessarily be as accessible or seem as important to people today who have different concerns or different tastes.

It is possible to respond to a work of art without context. We may find it beautifully made for example. But sometimes we need context to fully understand it and that context has to do with the conversation around it which is always taking place: why this particular approach at this particular time? In what way does an artwork insert itself in a particular tradition or contest it? What is the relationship between the art object, the context in which it was created and/or exhibited, and the written texts which may be part of it or accompany it, and which shape our understanding of how we perceive it? This last part is particularly important because of how significant words are for human beings. In the soundscape that surrounds us everyday, our ears will always seek first and foremost to make out the words being spoken because they provide us with information that may prove useful. And words affect how we think about what we see.

In his book The Painted Word (1975), Tom Wolfe explains how he realized the importance of the word for understanding modern art when he read the following in a review written by art critic Hilton Kramer: "Realism does not lack its partisans but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial - the means

by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify." Since Wolfe did not have enough context to understand how the modern art he was looking at was intended to break with what had been done before, he realized that he would need to read what had been written around and about this work to understand it. This led him to conclude that the written word had become more important than the object itself: "Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text." He is sometimes right. The word certainly plays an important role in museum exhibitions today where visual objects are usually accompanied by written or spoken texts created by the curator, or the artists themselves, that provide information or explanations that communicate the artist's intention more clearly than the object itself. Often, the significance of the object displayed would not be clear without the accompanying text. Of course, there is plenty of art and aesthetic experience that we are exposed to every day that requires no explanation or contextualization. We get it and respond to it immediately. This is what I wrote about in Materiality and Everyday Art.

When modern or contemporary art does not elicit an immediate unmediated aesthetic/sensory/emotional experience that does not have be explained, some viewers will not find these works interesting or worth their time. Those who have read more about the work and about art in general will find it easier to understand what categories they can bring into play to help them contextualize and better appreciate what they are seeing.

In the age of the internet, Manovich proposes that we forsake the media categories that were previously used to group different kinds of art in broad categories and instead create new categories based on how information is organized, transmitted and received by users. However, he also recognized in his article the importance of the aesthetic and emotional impact of art. I think of a filmmaker who I was talking to this past weekend about a film he is working on. When I asked him what ideas his film was about, he said that it was not a film about ideas, it was an experiential film about what it feels like to be in love.

As human beings we need order. We need to be able to separate figure from ground to

be able to know how to process what we are seeing. In this image, are we looking at a vase, or at two human heads, or both? Some art is impactful immediately because we already have what we need to be able to know what we are looking at, to understand it, to experience it. We have what we need to be able to know how it does or doesn't fit into the categories we already have in our heads. But sometimes we need more information or more contextualization to be able to do this. Sometimes we need words.

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