Carolyn Dean’s article raises issues which are by no means new, yet are consistently examined as central to any working definition of art. Her argument is, ironically, as subject to interpretation as the ideas of art it discusses, in that she seeks more to raise questions than answer them. This notwithstanding, it is clear that Dean’s intent is cautionary. No matter the approach taken or by whom it is taken, she takes care to always emphasize the need to view objects potentially defined as art with an active awareness of the factors going into the assessment and those of the creation itself. By no means satisfied with a definition of art as something that exists solely to provide aesthetic value, Dean moves between utility and aesthetics as she challenges the actual motives behind identifying any item, particularly of a non-Western culture, as “art.”
Dean’s ambiguity is not only valid; it seems essential, as applied to both Puma rock and Aztec mask. To begin with, as Dean notes, we cannot know the intent of the makers of these objects, although it is likely that some “artistic” impulse at least partially influenced whatever utilitarian motive was behind them. Art in these pieces may be inferred from both the craftsmanship and the clear import of that craftsmanship; care on this order indicates an investment of self behind the ordinary. At the same time, and as Dean observes, it is important to not confuse Western concepts of the why of art with ambitions which must remain unknown. Put another way, if the skill implies an aesthetic sensibility at work, this may be nothing more than one effect of the skill as taken in by the viewer, and not an element in its execution.
My reaction to Dean’s article is admiring, but also a little impatient. It seems to me that the issues she addresses are inherently insoluble, as the quality of art will always be subject to the individual and social influences taking it in at any given time. There can be no true standard, certainly in regard to that which is produced by extinct culture. This being the case, I would ask why art historians so limit “art” as a term. More exactly, if there is great debate over ancient artifacts as being art, it may be wiser to establish a new term for that which is generally acknowledged as aesthetic art.