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The Distance between Us and Art

Wei-Tien Chang, Institute of Sinology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich

  1. Through viewing connects people with art


If someone asks how art inspires creative thinking, he might first consider that how art connects with folks. Through viewing is the most common way to connect with art. But how people connect through viewing with art and how creative thinking are inspired by viewing art. To answer this questions the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann dedicated to base on the mental system and the social system, or according Luhmann’s explanation is based on the cognitive system and the communication system which build up the art system. He deemed that not only the viewer but also the creator is viewing.

2. Art is kind of communication tool


Art as a Social System (Die Kunst der Gesellschaft) is one of Luhmann’s theories of social functional systems which investigates how art system operates in the society. Art (*1) is kind of communication tool. The same concept in the Luhmann’s economic system is currency. As a communication tool, both of currency and art are playing a role of transmission of information. In the art system (or in all system theories mentioned by Luhmann), people’s perception (Wahrnehmen), observation (Beobachten), reconstruction (Reproduzieren) of art are passively stimulated by art that carries messages, resulting in conscious or unconscious behavior. For example, being attracted by beauty or ugliness, viewing and perceiving this message, copying or not copying, agreeing or disagreeing with this message, is a kind of reconstruction. That is, whether we admit it or not, or whether people realize it or not, art cannot be excluded from people’s daily lives. Luhmann deemed that when people reject art, they also choose the kind of art without art. For example, today I rejected a cotton shirt full of patterns and chose pure white clothes with no decoration, or it means that I prefer minimalism to bohemian. The emergence of minimalism is a reaction to the decorative art form. Another example that has nothing to do with art, but also can explain Luhmann’s theory: When an atheist chooses not to believe in any deity, he chooses the belief of “no god”. Art conveys its own message through the behavior of people’s observation.


The art system in Art as a Social System, both the author and the audience must first be the observer (*2), receive messages from art and then do the communication. Because of the cycle “observation-art-thinking-art-observation”, the art system can continue to develop in its closed nature. What is produced will never be eliminated or erased and will remain in the system. Creative thinking is the element of result that is learned from the art system after continuous observation, distinction and labeling process. In the end, it will return to the working cycle of the art system again. For example, the painter distinguishes the tree he depicts as art, relying on his own observations to produce a tree of his own, which involves a series of obervations of other types of trees, identification/denial of one type (distinguish, label), interprets it after that in his own way (reproduce).


Matthew Rampley, professor at the University of Birmingham, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, commented on Art as a Social System,(*3) that the theory of Luhmann’s art system might be used to explain the change in the cycle between exhibition and art promotion in the past two decades.(*4) Further reflections on Rampley’s comment, bringing Luhmann’s ideas to the association between commemorative merchandise and exhihibits. That is to say, after people saw the exhibition (observe), resonated with an item in the exhibit hall and bought the resonant replica at the souvenir shop (label), or a product with an element of this object, then took him home and displayed it according to his own creative thinking (distinguish). How the consumer uses the replica and the meaning he assigns to the item will be quite personal and different from others. On the other hand, the museum inspects the collections (observe), figures out the consumer preference in the marketing, or it might be enough to match the museum’s intention to convey the theme of the exhibition and choose the products that are suitable for the sales department (label), or extract elements from collections and apply them to commodities (distinguish). These are actions that take place in the Luhmann’s art system. In this cycle, both the museum and the audience have carried out the behavior of viewing, distinguishing and labeling, and they have all participated in the operation of the art system. (*5) 

3. Not just aesthetic 


Art is a language of senses, a communication tool. If people learn a language for acquire information, then learning art might serve the same purpose. Language conveys messages through words and symbols; however, art is through form. Form is to art, or it can be said that its kind like existence of grammar. According to Luhmann’s point of view, art conveys intention through form.(*6) Professor Rampley is a specialist in the study of modern art, and he give Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” as an example, explaining that when Warhol challenged the connotation of art, his intention was conveyed in the form of art works,(*7) instead of making a statement through a newspaper.


According to Luhmann, viewing in the art system happens twice. The first observation is more like watching, people will distinguish the observed object from other non-art objects, and then label it as “art”. The second viewing is an in-depth observation and comments on the results of the first observation. Even if people can distinguish art by “seeing” or “hearing” at the first viewing, it does not mean that they have the ability to identify the quality of art. This ability comes from observing the observations of others, not because of school, socialization and experience.(*8)  Which means, people engage in art and learn art by watching it in its form.  

The blue and white porcelain vase displayed in a museum is not far from the porcelain vase with painted patterns on the cabinet at home. Luhmann reputed that while people are making distinctions, it’s a process of trying to get closer to an event. A porcelain vase with painted patterns at home is likely to be in favor of / deny the museum’s attempt to display the vase. And whatever intentions people choose to accept, those intentions eventually become forms of self-expression. In terms of modern interpretation, “retro”, “nostalgic” and even “yuppie” can be used to label a blue and white vase; And a blue and white vase is very likely to negate the above labels. Regardless people’s viewing, distinguishing and marking the form of art display are actually participating in the operation of the art system. The museum makes the collections into commodities for sale which is also a kind of reconstruction; People buy and use these replica goods, and then bring these forms of art to the nest stage of the cycle. Art as a Social System’s perspective is that art conveys intention in form, viewing form can communicate with art, and communication makes it possible to inspire creative thinking. 

*1.   Luhmann’s art is not limited to painting, music, literature, architecture, etc., that is, the most extensive cognition of art in general, can be understood under the framework of his art system. The term “art” mentioned in this article not only has this broad meaning, but also refers to the actual work which is artwork.    
*2.   Luhmann, Niklas. Die Kunst der Gesellschaft, S. 126.
*3.  Rampley, Matthew. "Art as a social system: the sociological aesthetics of Niklas Luhmann." Telos 148 (2009): 111-140.
*4   Rampley, Matthew. "Art as a social system: the sociological aesthetics of Niklas Luhmann." Telos 148 (2009): 26.
*5.  Rampley, Matthew. "Art as a social system: the sociological aesthetics of Niklas Luhmann." Telos 148 (2009): 25-26.
*6.  Luhmann, Niklas. Die Kunst der Gesellschaft, S. 39-48.
*7.  Rampley, Matthew. “Art as a social system: the sociological aesthetics of Niklas Luhmann.” Telos 148 (2009):9.
*8.  Luhmann, Niklas. Die Kunst der Gesellschaft, S. 133-134.

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