01 December 2010

Defining Art: Is It Possible, And What’s The Point?

Lying in the background of all of my studies in philosophy is an interest in aesthetics, but I’ve been postponing it because it seems like the kind of thing one does after getting the philosophical basics under one’s belt, and it’s something of a niche interest anyway, and therefore quite esoteric. But I stumbled upon a nice article from 2007, “Family Resemblances, Relationalism, And The Meaning of ‘Art’ ”, by Daniel A. Kaufman, and it’s got me interested in making a tentative foray.

So, what is art? Or as philosophers would rather say these days, how do we define ‘art’? The standard way to answer this question is to look for the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art. Kaufman is a proponent of the Wittgensteinian view that such a project goes wrong from the start: defining art is impossible. Instead, we can describe how the label is applied – without, however, claiming that we have delimited the extent of its application, which is to say, without having defined it. Kaufman’s article makes for an excellent introduction to the current debate, and I suspect I was very lucky to find it rather than getting bogged down in the logical intricacies of the recent debate.

The crucial concept is Wittgenstein’s family resemblances. His explanation, in Philosophical Investigations, is worth quoting at length:

1.66. Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic contests, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say: “They must have something in common, or they would not be called ‘games;’” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them, you won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! – Look, for example, at board-games, with their various affinities. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all “entertaining”? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games, there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck, and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of singing and dancing games; here we have the element of entertainment, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way, can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the upshot of these considerations is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: similarities in the large and in the small.

1.67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than 'family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: games form a family.

As so often in philosophy, and with brilliant ideas in general, one is prompted to exclaim how come nobody thought of that before?! (in fact, I’ve heard that he borrowed or developed the idea from Nietzsche, but I won’t worry about that now).

As with games, so with art. There is no essence to describe, so as to pin it down. It is an open concept. So how does this work? Well, here’s an abstract illustration of family resemblance, taken from the Wikipedia page :

Item_1: A B C D
Item_2: B C D E
Item_3: C D E F
Item_4: D E F G
Item_5: E F G H

This demonstrates that a family can be thought of as a chain of intermediate resemblances, and also that the chain could go on for ever.

Now, time to get concrete. Here’s my rendering of how this might work for the family of art:

Artwork_1: For private display – Painting – Realistic – Religious
Artwork_2: Painting – Realistic – Religious – For public display
Artwork_3: Realistic – Religious – For public display – Scuplture
Artwork_4: Religious – For public display – Scuplture – Abstract
Artwork_5: For public display – Scuplture – Abstract – Political

The real world is more complex, but you get the idea. Note also that the characteristics might not be those intrinsic to the artworks, but might be the social, institutional aspects of art.

The Quest for a Relational Definition

But apparently the Wittgensteinian view is out of favour, after a period of popularity in the sixties. These days, the old project of defining art is back in fashion. Kaufman explains that the search for a definition – which can also be described as the theoretical approach – got a new lease of life when philosophers began to define art in terms of its relational properties: how works of art relate to institutions and people in society, and how they relate to works of the past.

Relational theories began to gain ground in the 1960s, and it would seem to be no coincidence that this was the time of the ascendency of postmodern, conceptual art. The question “what is art?” had become more pressing. These theorists were dissatisfied with the Wittgensteinian view, which seemed to focus only on an artwork’s outward characteristics; it did not seem to take into account the social context. As the sixties demonstrated, a pile of Brillo boxes could be art, so how could family-resemblance, based on chains of exhibited characteristics, be inclusive enough?

Kaufman’s response to this seems so obvious that I wonder if I’m missing something, and that maybe I should give the theorists a fair hearing before making up my mind. He points out that the relational properties of art objects change just as much as do their obvious characteristics, and the Wittgensteinian approach can deal with these changes in art history much better than a theory that tries to pin down those relations. My example above shows (for private display/for public display) that family resemblances can include these relations, not only the intrinsic characteristics of the artworks, and because it is an open concept, new kinds of relations are not excluded.

As Kaufman puts it:

The point is that we cannot predict what kinds of relationships artworks will have to human institutions or practices in the near and distant future, which means that relationalism cannot be the solution to the open-endedness problem, for we have no reason to think that a concept of art built on relational properties will be any less open (and thus, any more definable, in the traditional sense) than one that focuses on art’s exhibited characteristics.

The theorists are troubled that family-resemblance does not give us the tools to decide what is art and what is not. If the set of possible relations that an artwork has is not delimited, then how can we be sure of making the right decisions every time we look at an object, or that we are using the word “art” correctly? The Wittgensteinian answer is that we can’t. But so what?

Wittgensteinian analysis makes no pretence at providing a theory of reference, but simply offers a description of how, in specific situations, “local” judgements are made as to whether specific terms refer or not. The prospect of unpredictability, open-endedness, and even referential indeterminacy is consequently not a problem for the Wittgensteinian.

These things are, however, a problem for the theorists, because if they cannot be overcome then their whole project is doomed.

What’s The Point?

In investigating the aims of the theorists Kaufman discovers a fatal flaw at the heart of their project. They want to delimit the extension of “art”, that is, the class of things that we can successfully refer to with the word “art”, with a view to defining the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art – so that, finally, we know how to recognize and refer to works of art.

This is where he brings in Hilary Putnam, who, in “Is Semantics Possible?”, famously divided meaning into (i) what one grasps when one knows a word, and (ii) what defines the word’s extension. Ordinarily, one might successfully refer to leopards using the word “leopard”, but if one was presented with an African black panther we might declare it not to be a leopard at all (in fact it is the same species). This shows that defining the extension of a word does not capture what speakers grasp when they use it.

Kaufman applies this to the word “art”. Even if one could overcome the open-endedness problem and pin down the extension of “art”, how would this shed light on what people understand when they use the word, or direct their understanding in future – a kind of understanding which does not coincide with the extension of the word? And, conversely, the grasped meaning is not going to enable us to extrapolate the full extension, i.e., come up with a definition.

What, then, is the Wittgesnteinian task, if not to define? On the one hand, the position is anti-theoretical, and calls much of philosophy itself into question; but on the other hand the Wittgensteinian approach – and not just to art – seems to much better appreciate the full range of human experience, without the need for theory. The need for a definition of art seems like a historical accident, as if philosophers panicked in the face of the bewildering postmodernism that brought us Warhol’s Brillo boxes and, more recently, Tracy Emin’s unmade bed and Andreas Slominski’s unrine-injected bananas .

But I’m not decided. The Wittgensteinian approach seems rather blasé, as if all we can do is document and describe. As a next step, I want to see what philosophers and art theorists were writing prior to postmodernism, in particular Clive Bell . No doubt my motivation here is the mischievous anti-postmodern demon sitting on my shoulder demanding that I should be able to say, with good reasons, “that’s not art!”.

Kaufman, D. “Family Resemblances, Relationalism, And The Meaning of 'Art’”, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 47, No. 3, July 2007 (PDF available here)
Wittgenstein, L., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, 1953: Philosophical Investigations, Wiley-Blackwell
Putnam, H., 1970: “Is Semantics Possible?”, Metaphilosophy 1

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