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Let’s Abolish ‘Art’!

Mark Roberts gives an answer to the question of ‘Art’.

The meaning of the word ‘art’ has been a regular theme in Philosophy Now, most notably in the ‘arty issue’ of 2006 (Issue 57). Introducing that issue, the Editor referred to ancient examples of art – “graceful, stylised cave paintings” and “patterns on… prehistoric pottery” – and posed the question: “What links them to Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Jeff Koons’ kitsch dogs, or Damien Hirst’s pickled shark, so that we can call them all by the same name of Art?”

It’s a question which often generates much heat, but less light. Wittgenstein wrote that the aim of his philosophy was “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (Philosophical Investigations p.309), and the heated debate about the meaning of ‘art’ can certainly be likened to the buzzing of angry flies caught in a seemingly inescapable trap. So how would Wittgenstein show us the way out of this particular fly-bottle? Surely, as always, he would tell us to examine how the word ‘art’ is actually used.

Consider a painter who has produced a picture of a landscape and asks a friend what he thinks of it. If the friend replies “This is a landscape” or “This is a picture of the Lake District,” the painter will not be delighted by either of these purely descriptive statements. But if the friend says, “This is a work of art!” the painter will almost certainly be pleased, because he is being paid a compliment. A favourable value-judgment has been made on his work. Or, again, consider a critic viewing a new work in a gallery, and finding it completely worthless. He is quite likely to say, “This is not art!” or “This does not deserve to be called art.” He is not likely to say, “This is a work of art, and it is worthless.” Such a statement would seem paradoxical or even self-contradictory, because calling something a ‘work of art’ is generally recognised as a way of praising or commending it.

In both these contexts we can see that the use of the word ‘art’ is not descriptive but evaluative, expressing the speaker’s opinion or value-judgment on the work in question. However, there are other contexts in which the word ‘art’ seems to be used in a purely descriptive sense, as if it’s simply communicating factual information, for example, when notices are displayed saying ‘Art Gallery’, ‘Art Exhibition’, ‘Art Classes’, etc. These are statements of categorical fact, not values, and it seems to be assumed that we all know, broadly speaking, what is meant by ‘art’ here.

So both evaluative and descriptive uses of the word ‘art’ are regularly found in everyday speech and writing. No wonder confusion and heated arguments abound, and we art flies buzz angrily around the culture fly-bottle. But would Wittgenstein be able to show us the way out of it? No doubt he would: but I suggest that his close associate, Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), would be even more well-prepared to do so, because of her groundbreaking work on a similar problem in the field of ethics. A short digression is needed to explain this.

‘Art’ and ‘Ought’

In her famous paper of 1958 in Philosophy 33, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (reprinted in The Is-Ought Question, W.D. Hudson (Ed.), 1969), Elizabeth Anscombe considered the concepts of moral obligation, moral duty, moral rightness and wrongness, and the moral sense of ‘ought’. The meanings of these terms have been disputed for centuries, of course, especially since Hume made the logical divide between moral (‘ought’) statements and factual (‘is’) statements clear in his Treatise of Human Nature (1740). If, as Hume powerfully argued, moral statements have no logical connection with facts, then what kind of statements are they? Or, to put the question another way, what does ‘ought’ really mean?

Anscombe’s answer was, in effect, that it means nothing at all. The moral ‘ought’ derived its meaning from the ‘divine law’ conception of ethics, which prevailed when Christianity was dominant. In those days, God was seen as the law-giver who ultimately determined what ought to be done. Belief in this conception of ethics has gradually declined, but the notion of ‘ought’ remained, as Anscombe said, “invested with that peculiar force having which it is said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense... The situation, if I am right, is the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one…” So according to Anscombe, the word ‘ought’ had become “a word of mere mesmeric force.”

Is this not precisely what has happened to the word ‘art’ too? The modern sense of ‘art’ derives from the eighteenth century, when, in England in particular but also in Europe generally, certain activities – poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture and music – became separated into a distinct category of ‘fine arts’. They were seen as displaying qualities of intellect, imagination and grace, and were patronised by the new middle-class art public, where they had previously been part of the general range of ‘arts and crafts’. (Prior to the change, the term ‘artist’, which was interchangeable with ‘artisan’, had referred to shoemakers, wheelwrights, and so on, as well as painters, poets and composers.)

At the same time as the separating off of the fine arts, a new sensibility, the ‘aesthetic’, came to prominence, whereby the appreciation of beauty developed into a new and higher kind of “refined and intellectualised pleasure” enjoyed in a spirit of “disinterested contemplation” (The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner, 2001.) These ideas were strongly advanced by Kant in the Critique of Judgment, and by Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. A consensus developed along these lines, and the prestige of ‘art’ (with or without the ‘fine’) continued to grow in the early nineteenth century, so much so that it became generally referred to as ‘Art’ with a capital A.

That consensus gradually disintegrated with the arrival of Modernism. But the consensus was the context which gave the word ‘art’ its clear and unmistakably prestigious meaning – just as the divine law conception of ethics gave a clear and compelling meaning to the word ‘ought’. Their respective original contexts may now be gone, yet both these words somehow linger on, like verbal ghosts, insubstantial but still retaining enough vestiges of vitality to spread confusion around in the living language.

Words and Contexts

It is interesting to see what happens when words lose their contexts. Some fade into history: for example, the word ‘postilion’ is rarely heard or seen nowadays. But the words ‘ought’ and ‘art’ are still in constant use. Why? Obviously, because there are people who wish to continue using them. One can think of many people who would reject the divine law conception of ethics, yet could never renounce the pleasure of telling other people what they ‘ought’ to do. Similarly, there are those who reject the formerly-accepted notion of ‘art’, yet find it convenient (not to say lucrative) to continue using the word, applying it to their own activities in order to benefit from its still-prestigious associations and its ‘mesmeric force’. And thus it is that a pile of rubbish produced by some harmless lunatic can be converted into a valuable commodity by the mere bestowal of the description ‘art’.

Perhaps now we can answer the Editor’s question: what links all the things described as ‘art’, including unmade beds, pickled dogs, or whatever, “so that we can call them all by the same name of Art”? The answer is: Nothing.

But if this diagnosis of the problem of ‘Art’ is accepted, what treatment can we philosophers offer? Anscombe wrote, “It may be possible, if we are resolute, to discard the notion ‘morally ought’.” But fifty years later there is no sign of that happening. It may be equally difficult to discard or abolish the current confusing notion of ‘art’ – there is too much investment, both emotional and financial, in clinging on to it. Yet if philosophers, at least, are clear in their minds about this issue, then there is hope that other people too will gradually come to see how the word ‘art’ is currently being employed to bemuse and befuddle them. We could then revert to the linguistic usage of more enlightened times, before the eighteenth century, when people referred to ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’ more or less interchangeably, applying both these terms to “any human activity performed with skill and grace” (Shiner, p.5). More recently, Dylan Thomas, in one of his best-known poems, described his work as “my craft or art.” Other craftsmen or artists could do worse than follow his example.

© Mark Roberts 2011

Mark Roberts is a teacher in south-east London.

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