The Graduate Forum



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January 23rd, 2008
Presenter: Abby McEwen
Respondent: Mike Raven

On January 23, 2008, Abby presented a historical snapshot of the aesthetic engagements of art history and the disciplinary directions and challenges of the field today. The presentation attempted to chart the changing understandings of the art object over time, focusing on the development and breakdown of art history's traditional narratives and asking, finally, what makes art "art." As a case study, she presented the contemporary work of Peter Halley, an artist whose "figurative" geometric abstractions may have suggested a new relationship between art and theory in the mid-1980s. The discussion focused on the nature of art history and of art criticism today and on its relevance in a postmodern age.
Mike's response

Abby's fascinating presentation consisted in a tour through art history (a history too rich to reasonably summarize here), concluding with lessons we might learn from Peter Halley's works during his brief 15-minutes of fame.

But more than just a tour, Abby asked us to reflect on the question of how art historians have conceived of their subject, and of the nature of art itself. For art has progressed from being largely preoccupied with imitating life, to being preoccupied with its past preoccupations and how it affects the viewer: a transition from art imitating the beauty in the external world, to art being a language for political messages, to art being a language for some sort of internal commentary about art and the theory of art, to (most recently) art being an instrument for inducing experiences in the viewer.

A central theme from Abby's presentation was that the significant, fast-paced changes that have occurred in art in contemporary times have called into question what the nature of art is, and how best to theorize about it. As a philosopher, questions of this sort most pique my interest. And so I'd like to focus on them. My comments are largely about extracting a view about the nature of the theory of art from Abby's remarks and from Danto's view about the nature of art itself. I'll conclude by raising some questions.

Let's use the term 'work' to denote what might be taken to be art, while remaining neutral on whether it is art. Then the following questions arise: What makes any given work art? and How is it possible for Alice to take some work to be art but Bob not to take it as art?

Danto's answer to both questions makes use of a notion of a theory or interpretation perspective or (I prefer) seeing as. To illustrate, a 10-month-old child may see the microscope but not see it as a microscope (i.e. as a mechanical instrument used in laboratories to visualize small things, e.g. to count the concentration of bacteria in a Petrie dish). Analogously, Alice and Bob might see the same work but differ over whether each sees it as art. Thus a work is art if it is seen as art (i.e. as a work interpretable in such-and-such a way with respect to so-and- so perspective). An interesting consequence of this view, which I'll come back to later, is that it doesn't make sense to ask about a work's artistic qualities apart from the way in which it is seen as art.

Danto claims that some works might not be seen as art until some sort of conceptual change occurs. For example, the "Old Paradigm" assumed that, in order for a work to be art, it had to be seen as representing or imitating reality. Works which were seen as doing so, but doing it poorly, were bad art. But once (e.g.) impressionism arrived on the scene, we were able to see impressionist works as art. Poor imitations could be good art, since works no longer had to be seen as representing reality in order to be seen as art.

There's an interesting disanalogy here with science. For in science, it is widely supposed that there is some fundamental physical reality to uncover. It's all there waiting to be discovered (whether or not we can). And, it is supposed, science gradually moves in the direction of progress. As such, we don't just want new explanations of the data. Rather, we want the correct explanations. So to the extent that we entertain a "let a thousand flowers bloom" attitude at all in science, it is only insofar as it helps us to get things right.

But what could it be for there to be some fundamental artistic reality to uncover, and for art to gradually move in the direction of progress? It's unclear what it would be for there to be a fundamental artistic reality waiting to be discovered. Nor, in light of this, is it clear what it means for art to gradually move in the direction of progress.

Here Danto's view about what art is suggests an answer. The first part of the answer involves denying that there is a fundamental artistic reality waiting to be discovered. For the "artistic facts" about a work depend upon it being seen as art according to a perspective (representational, impressionistic, etc.). To suppose that all such "artistic facts" are waiting to be discovered entails that all possible perspectives are available. They are not. Rather, "artistic facts" expand as the perspectives expand.

The second part of the answer follows from the first part. Unlike scientific progress, artistic progress can't be about getting more things right. Asking which perspective is correct is fruitless, since a work is art only relative to a perspective which sees it as art - and there's no way to assess, apart from such a perspective, which is correct. So what is progress in art? Danto's view suggests that progress in art is about expanding perspectives: about finding new ways of seeing works as art, whether as representations of reality, or as the vehicles for conveying impressions, or as something else yet to be discovered. A "let a thousand flowers bloom" attitude, therefore, seems an integral part of art theory.

At least, that's one view we might have about the nature of art, and of the theory of art. No doubt there are others. But let me conclude with a few questions about this view.

Surely, not just any old perspective - any old way of seeing as - will be a legitimate perspective for seeing a work as art. For if not, then anything goes, and art theory is a game without rules. I couldn't know how to play, neither could you, and no one else either. So my first question is: What are the legitimate ways in which we might see a work as art?

Suppose there is an answer to this question, and that there is therefore a genuine distinction between legitimate and illegitimate ways to see a work as art (whatever that distinction might be). On the view I've sketched, progress in art is not about getting things right per se, but about expanding perspectives. Moreover, it doesn't make sense, on the present view, to inquire about a work's artistic qualities apart from a way of seeing it as art. On this understanding of progress, my second question is: Is it possible for there to be rational disagreements and critiques between different "schools" or perspectives of seeing works as art (and, if so, how so?), or are they disputants simply talking past one another?

If these questions turn out to be intractable, or the answers for some reason unsatisfying, then we might wonder whether the underlying conception of art, and the conception of the theory of art it encourages, is mistaken. Suppose so, for the sake of argument. Then my third question is: What are the alternatives - how else might we conceive of the nature of art, and of the nature of the theory of art?

My thanks to Abby for an illuminating and stimulating presentation!

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