Friday, March 10, 2006

Art Xenophobia

Xenophobia is an irrational fear or hatred of anything foreign or unfamiliar - different - especially other social or foreign (ethnic) groups. A xenophobe is a person who is unduly fearful or contemptuous of anything foreign, especially of strangers or foreign peoples. Subcategories include racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance.

So if we extend this definition to encompass art we can say that art xenophobia is fear of art which is not immediately understood - history provides many examples of intolerance directed toward art and artists - so we can say that art xenophobia is the off-hand dismissal of art by a viewer who makes no attempt to understand it.


The rise of modernism in the last century witnessed a powerful backlash from those who saw the works of each avant-garde art movement as tasteless or ugly or bad art, as insulting the public, as mean jokes, as radical political propaganda, etc.


  • The reaction to the paintings of the Impressionists in Paris at the end of the 19th century; Manet’s Olympia for example.

  • The Nazi's condemning of modernist art and artists as degenerate; what became labelled as the “fascist aesthetic”, and which promoted Socialist Realism.

A culture of intolerance still exists today born of the public’s irritation with, or misinterpretation of, the pre-eminence of modernism, postmodernism, conceptual art, and from the inevitable hybridisation of such movements - ranging from the worst through to the best achievements - within secular, democratic societies; this irritation, or misinterpretation, frequently results in disputes over artists’ freedom of expression.

Is there a cure for this art xenophobia? I suspect that the simple answer would be no, as the appreciation of art is such a subjective discipline. However, maybe a way round this problem would be to encourage children to appreciate art from an early age; I am not talking about giving them paints and letting them mess about with painting pictures, I am advocating giving them the tools and skills to look at and appreciate art for themselves. Then, as they progress through the education system, introduce aesthetics, that branch of philosophy which deals with the nature and value of art objects and the experience of them. Aesthetics is concerned with identifying the clues within works of art that can be used to understand, judge, and defend judgments about what makes them works of art; originally, any activity connected with art, beauty and taste, becoming more broadly the study of the function, nature, existence, purpose, and so on of art.

There are many aesthetic theories, including imitationalism, emotionalism and formalism etc., the list goes on and on, and we could not expect all of them to be taught; however, giving young people a basic understanding of aesthetics cannot be a bad thing. I would not expect people to be coming out of school with an understanding of, for example, the interests enjoyed by many postmodernists who largely replace the more accepted theories by examining questions of meaning and the use of linguistically based investigations, such as those involving semiotics; a term used to indicate a certain imprecise distinction between art and life, a rough synonym for "artistic."


If we give the young people the tools to do the job of appreciating/interpreting art then at least they will not dismiss art because they don't understand it, but they will be able to more easily put forward their own views about why they are dismissing it.

Some Quotes:


"Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is
recognition of the pattern."

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), English philosopher and mathematician. Dialogues, June 10, 1943.

"Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires."

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish artist. Quoted in: Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, part 6 (1964).

"I hate that aesthetic game of the eye and the mind, played by these connoisseurs, these mandarins who 'appreciate' beauty. What is beauty, anyway? There's no such thing. I never 'appreciate,' any more than I 'like.' I love or I hate."

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish artist. Quoted in: Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, part 6 (1964).

"Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds."

Barnett Newman (1905-1970), American painter.

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