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Can Philosophy Rescue the Art World?

When you cut up a work of art, do you destroy it or create lots of smaller works of art? Michael Philips investigates.

Here’s how two enterprising Aussies made fast money on the art market. They bought a Picasso print for several thousand dollars. They cut the print into pieces one inch square. They framed these pieces and sold them for $100 each. They also claimed to be acting from democratic motives: now almost anyone can afford to own a piece of great art.

To the scandalized art world, this was an act of desecration. But in fact, the Aussies could make quite as strong a case for their actions as curators and gallery owners make for hanging many of the pictures that now grace their walls.

“They claim we destroy art,” the Aussies might say, “but what is art? Think of installations like a mop in a pail near a doorway of the Berkeley Museum. You can’t tell whether it is an installation or was left there by a cleaning person until you find the discrete sign on the wall. It’s in the museum because it makes a statement about art, and that’s enough these days. Well, we too are making a point about art. Art, these days, is both a sacred object and a commodity. Why else would people pay millions for originals that can’t be distinguished from good forgeries without magnifying tools? They pay because the originals can be traced to an artistic genius – and artistic geniuses are a vindication of Western Civilization. The point is that an original is a relic, like a splinter of the true cross. Our point is that splinters of splinters are also splinters. They sell, sell, sell. And we worship, worship, worship them. Such is art in advanced capitalist societies.”

“What is art?” they ask and proceed to tell us something about what counts as art today. This is hardly a response that would satisfy Socrates. Of course, they are not alone. Every trendy gallery these days, almost every museum show, requires an artist’s statement. In fact, as Tom Wolfe argues in The Painted Word, it doesn’t matter what an artist produces as long as s/he can write a profound-sounding manifesto about it. Without the impressive words, preferably about the nature of art itself, the patron can’t understand what she sees. And most manifestos are far more obscure than the Aussies’. After all, since the art works themselves can be mops in pails (or canvasses that look black but are actually three shades of dark gray), it is principally in their manifestos that these artists can distinguish themselves. And not everyone has something new and interesting to say.

At first glance, it might seem that philosophy has much to offer this vaporous world. Isn’t philosophical analysis the sworn enemy of obscurity and cant? Isn’t our mission to separate sense from nonsense, to expose posturing and posing, to immunize against empty rhapsodies? Wouldn’t a solid philosophical analysis of the nature of art help us walk through museums and galleries without confusion, knowing what really belongs there and what doesn’t? Unfortunately, no. Most of the standard texts in the philosophy of art begin with the question “What is art?” Usually, they understand this question the way Plato understands questions like what is friendship, what is piety, and what is love (in the Socratic dialogues). Specifically, they are looking for what all the examples – all art objects – have in common in virtue of which they are art (as the Platonists say, a one-over-many). More exactly, they are looking for necessary and sufficient conditions for being art. The basic assumption is that art is a type of thing, something with an essence or a nature. The philosopher’s job is to discover that nature.

Of course, art may not have an exact nature. We can say with precision what all triangles have in common in virtue of which they are triangles, but the concept of art might be fuzzy at the edges – there might be borderline cases. Still, a good analysis of the term ‘art’ will tell us why the central cases are clear and why the borderline cases are borderline.

The standard texts evaluate the best known attempts to do this. There are many such attempts and they are remarkably different. Kant claimed that art objects exhibit purposefulness without a purpose. Tolstoy held that there must be a deep connection between art and truth. Susan Langer described art as the language of the emotions. None of them thought that found objects can be art. The contemporary art critic and philosopher, Arthur Danto, disagrees.

The textbooks proceed by discussing counter-examples to these and other analyses. Kant notwithstanding, some art objects do seem to have practical purposes (for instance, the African masks that so inspired Picasso). Tolstoy notwithstanding, some art objects have no clear connection to the truth about anything (for instance, many abstract sculptures) and some of them embody outrageous lies (for instance, some Nazi art). Langer notwithstanding, some art works don’t seem to map, mirror or otherwise be about the emotions (op art and pop art). Danto notwithstanding, there are no found objects in art museums or major galleries.

Of course, defenders of theories can dismiss or accommodate the counter-examples in various ways and the discussion typically turns to strategies for so doing. The Kantian can deny that African masks are art, Langer can insist that abstract sculptures do map or mirror certain emotions, Danto can insist that museums make mistakes, and so on. This discussion never seems to get anywhere. Few counterexamples seem to have leverage.

The problem is that the entire enterprise is wrong-headed. There is no fixed essence of art. The history of art is a history of expansion. Everything (or almost everything) that once counted as art continues to count. And each new movement in art adds new and different items to the last. Notoriously, much that qualifies as art at a subsequent time would not have counted at a previous time. This means that the best anyone can do (in principle) at a given time is to provide a definition that covers all and only what has qualified up to that time. But it’s doubtful anyone can do even that. Since the standards change from period to period, it would be remarkable if a general account were available, and even more remarkable if it stated anything that helped anyone better understand or appreciate art. And certainly, no account can anticipate everything that would come to be called art in the future.

Again, art is not a kind or a type. There are no common features that uniquely pick out everything that is, has been or will come to be called art. Instead, art objects are connected by a common history. Each subsequent stage of this history emerges out of each preceding stage, often in surprising ways. In this respect, the term ‘art’ functions more like certain proper names (‘Winston Churchill’, ‘The United States of America’) than like a general term (‘apple’, ‘gold’). Instances of art are episodes in a history, not repositories of a common essence. This means that there is no interesting atemporal account of the nature of art. In fact, there is no interesting atemporal account of the nature of most of the arts (poetry, painting, dance, music, sculpture, photography, theater, film, novels, short stories, etc.). There are just histories of changing standards.

How, then, are we to think of our enterprising Aussies and their manifesto? Have they desecrated an art object or transformed it into many smaller art objects? Since there is no essence of art, there is no fact of this matter. If it’s settled at all, it will be settled by a decision. It’s a question of how we choose to go on. This doesn’t mean that it is a matter of completely arbitrary choice. Reasons can be offered based on contemporary art theory and criticism. Prevailing aesthetic values may be defended and wielded against the interlopers. A century ago they were deployed to denounce the work of Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne as lacking technical competence, being mere scribbling, the work of madmen and so forth. On the other hand, conventional art – art that conforms to these standards – may be condemned as stale, esoteric, lifeless, mere exercises of technique, out of touch with the times, spiritually impoverished, predictable, emotionally bankrupt, mind deadening, flaccid palliatives, an obfuscator of reality, a regressive social force, a tool of class warfare, etc. We tend to imagine these epithets in the mouths of heroic artistic innovators. But today, firing fusillades of such epithets, some postmodern critics assault the legitimacy of any distinction at all between art and pop culture. Superman deserves the title as much as Hamlet, hip hop as much as Hayden.

Ironically, the two Aussies don’t have to defend what they’ve done by calling for new and revolutionary standards. Outraged curators and gallery owners notwithstanding, they can make their case by appealing to prevailing standards. They have produced art about art by producing framed objects of holy origin that make us think about what art now is. If anything, they’ve done something a bit old-fashioned. Still, their prospects of being embraced by the church of art are remote. The auction houses, museum curators, gallery owners and other Cardinals of that church will resist. After all, if anyone can own a splinter of the true cross, how valuable will the relics of the Cardinals come to be?

© Michael Philips 2002

Michael Philips is a professor of philosophy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. In his spare time he is a photographer and performance artist.

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