tsion avital: the complementarity of art and design

review of
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In the good tradition of Nelson Goodman, Tsion Avital holds that art has a cognitive function, not otherwise than science. In one and the same breath, he enumerates 'pictures, words, natural languages, or scientific theory (p.10). He understands images in terms of a language, that is only discerned from verbal language in that is a 'pictorial' language (p. 10). No doubt, there are images that are used as signs: think of documentary photo's, illustrations, models, and allegories (see 'Instrumental mimesis'). But images as such - autonomous images - have a totally different function: there is a fundamental difference between the icons of a boy and a girl on a toilet and the Mona Lisa, or between 'La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même' and the Venus of Urbino...

Apparently, Tsion Avital is not aware of the existence of something like an autonomous image. Just like Nelson Goodman, he holds that images 'refer' (p 5). To him, images are 'descriptions': 'No word and no combination of words, pictures, or formulas wholly describes anything (p.10). The image has a cognitive function in matters of 'connection (pictorial universal) and classification' (p. 2). Painting, just like writing is only a 'means preserving information, an extra-skull unit of memory' (p. 15). And we could go on like this...

From all these quotations, it is apparent that Tsion Avital does not the fundamental difference between words and (autonomous) images, between art and science. Words and science are signs (or symbols, depending on the theoretical frame) that refer to the world, an (autonomous) image takes the place of an existent of imaginary world. The function of the death-mask - the 'imago', one of the primeval forms of art - is not to refer to the deceased, but to make him present - to literally 're-present' him. Or, to phrase it in a slogan: art is not a question of semiosis, but of mimesis (see: 'Mimesis and semiosis').

Only the understanding of art in terms of mimesis makes it possible to clearly delineate design from art. Art conjures up a world that seems to be perceptible, but is nevertheless not there. Design creates a new real world through transforming reality - and hence comprises practically the totality of human production, and not only 'industrial design, architecture, fashion design,etc'.) (p.1).

Because Tsion Avital does not understand the image in terms of mimesis, he cannot describe the difference between art and design as a difference between reality and mimesis, but has to resort to the opposition between an instrumental and cognitive domain (p. 2). That opposition applies to the opposition between design and science, but certainly not to the opposition between art and design - art does not describe or explain, but simply conjures up a world.

Since the basic assumption is false, we have not to discuss the further oppositions between art and design which Tsion Avital develops. That would only make sense when we would confine ourselves to an investigation of the differences between design and science.

Let us therefore proceed to a second train of thoughts, this time in the wake of Thomas Kuhn. According to Tsion Avital, up to Impressionism, art would have been made within the paradigm of 'Realism'. Henceforward, it would have plunged into a deep crisis. And this crisis announces the advent of a second paradigm.

There are lots of problems with such an approach. To begin with, there is only question of a crisis when we merely focus on what happens in the official institutions, at least the ones that are supposed to be devoted to the plastic arts. From a broader perspective - one that comprises also music and literature - not to mention film - there is already less question of a crisis. And that holds especially when also forms or art that are traditionally excluded from the realm of art are included (See 'Mimesis and Art'). Conversely, what seems to be a crisis consists precisely in the fact that creations, that are not art at all, are posing as art: not only many forms of design, but above all creations that Tsion Avital cannot exclude because of his misconception of art: think of all the forms of 'art' where mimesis is only used instrumentally: from all kinds of allegories, over merely real 'symbolic' objects, to 'conceptual art'. But we are dealing here not so much with a crisis in art, as a crisis in the philosophy of art, even when this crisis is responsible for the fact that diverse forms of non-art are stealing the show in the very 'institutions' that should be dedicated to art at the expense of real art - if there still exists any worth mentioning. The solution of the crisis, then, lies not so much in a change of paradigm in art: a change of paradigm in the philosophy of art would suffice. Although there is not so much need of a new paradigm here. A return to and a refinement of the good old paradigm of mimesis would work miracles....

© Stefan Beyst, january 2006.

Also from Tsion Avital:

AVITAL, Tsion: 'Is Figurative Representation Arbitrary? A Re-examination of the Conventionalist View of Art and its Implications for Non-figurative Art", South African Journal of Art history, Summer 2000. http://www.hit.ac.il/staff/Avital/GOODMAN.pdf
AVITAL, Tsion: The Origins of Aart, an Archaelogical of a Philosophical Problem, South African Journal of Art History, Vol XVI, 2001 http://www.hit.ac.il/staff/Avital/ORIGINS.pdf
AVITAL, Tsion: 'Art versus Nonart : Art out of Mind, Cambridge University Press, 2003.