Art, Definition and Identification 

This is an outline of Carroll, Philosophy of Art, Chapter 5

My personal comments are in red, like this, and you can see that they have a different style of lettering.. They elaborate on Carroll or react to Carroll

Against Definition 

Identifying something as art is important, and is possible without being able to define art.

The Neo-Wittgensteinian approach argues that art cannot be defined, yet it is easy to identify.

On this theory, very few things can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Luckily, most things can still be identified with great accuracy by those who understand the language being spoken in relation to the social practices in which that language is embedded.

The concept of art CANNOT be defined as philosophers try to define concepts, because it is an open concept (it involves a concept that evolves as practices change). Because the practice of art is always open to radical change, we cannot expect to find sufficient conditions for being an artwork.

Method of identification is family resemblance. The word "game" is a good example of something else that we identify in this manner. Different cases resemble each other in multiple ways, yet no ONE way must be common among all cases.

Click here to read a short excerpt of what Wittgenstein said.

Attempts to define art are misguided. At best, they point out what is important about a particular kind of art, not all art.

Objections to The Neo-Wittgensteinian Approach  

The attack on definitions equivocates, so it proves nothing. The fact that the practice of art can change ("art" as practice) does not prove that the concept of art changes ("art" as artwork). For example, religions change, but that doesn't prove that "religion" can't be defined.

Also, there are problems with using family resemblance to identify things. It is "too slack." Normally, a family is defined by appeal to genetics, marriage, and other objective relations among individuals. The mere resemblance of two individuals does not put them in the same family. If Duchamp's In Advance of a Broken Arm is art, then every snow shovel seems to be art! 

But if only SOME relationships are relevant, which ones? And won't that give us the necessary and sufficient conditions we need to define art?

Part II    Contemporary Definitions

The Institutional Theory of Art 

Social context is often used as the distinguishing feature that makes a Duchamp readymade count as an artwork.

The Institutional Theory defines art in this way:

x is an artwork (in the classificatory sense) if and only if (1) x is an artifact (2) upon which someone acting on behalf of a certain institution (the artworld) confers the status of candidate for appreciation.

Some kind of PROCEDURE is needed to confer status. And social standing is required to be in a position to act on behalf of an institution.

ARTISTS, CURATORS, and ART CRITICS are all in a position to confer the proper status on an artifact.

Isn't this very elitist and anti-democratic? No, because "anyone can act on its behalf, if only they acquire some knowledge and understanding."

But this knowledge-based status is probably not true of many cultures. The theory seems to generalize too broadly from modern Western art practices.

Basic objections to The Institutional Theory:

  1. The institution is too loose to be considered an institution. 
  2. The status (e.g. for being an artist) is "usually self-selective." But that's not how it works for other institutions. More authority is needed than mere self-selection.
  3. "Candidate for appreciation" is too broad. If ANYTHING can be a candidate, there aren't really any institutional constraints.

Neolithic tribesman problem: Lone prehistoric individual who makes a design for personal amusement won't count as creating art (because there's no institution of the right sort to fit the definition).

Circularity Problem: The definition has to refer to the artworld. So art has been defined by citing art. Even if it's informative, it's not really a definition. 

Defining Art Historically 

The institutional theory emphasizes that art is a byproduct of human social nature, and necessarily involves social relationships. J. Levinson takes the case of the neolithic tribesman as sufficient to reject the institutional theory in favor of defining art in terms of the maker's intention to promote visual pleasure. The tribesman did something that we, today, would regard as an art practice. 

Therefore something is art if it satisfies one of our "art regards." In other words, it has some feature that we regard as a feature of art.

This approach is a historical definition because what matters is art history: if something is well-established as an art regard by reference to anything that is both intended and made relevant by art's history, then it's art. Basically, we get this definition:

x is an artwork if and only if x is an object over which someone) (1) has a proprietary right and (2) non-passingly intends/intended x for regard in any way(s) objects already counting/counted as "art" are/were standardly regarded (even if the person did not know that it has been counted as art for this reason).

Notice that, if we want to say that something is art, then part (2) of the definition requires our ability (but not the "artist's" ability) to specify that something else already counts as "art" (a "previously known artwork") and we can see why, and we can see that both are intended to be regarded in the same way. So the drawing that the kindergartner brings home is a work of art because the child intended it to display the sort of character that more competent art displays -- yet neither the child nor the child's teacher nor the child's parent has to think that it is an artwork. It's an artwork if WE recognize the connection. 

There is a social element to the first part of the definition, because proprietary rights depend on the society in which one operates. But it seems wrong to say that one thing is a work of art and another is not because American property law treats them differently.

That leaves us with the second condition as the main focus. Is part (2) of the definition sufficient to define art? NO. It is "too inclusive." Carroll contends that "art regards can pass out of existence." Failure to admit this would make almost every photo snapshot a work of art, on the grounds that imitation used to be an important art regard, anything generated for representational purposes seems to become an artwork. Almost every videotape, too. And well-tended lawns! Most houses!

Eliminating the reference to intentions and replacing it with functionality does not help much, either, since it is also too inclusive.

Part III  Identifying Art Historically 

Perhaps we have been wrong to think that all our classificatory concepts permit of "essential definition" in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

If not, what permits successful identification of art?

With something "like" the historical definition: "by telling a certain kind of story," in which one shows that the thing "emerged intelligibly from acknowledged practices via the same kind of thinking..." We place it in a tradition that makes it intelligible as art.

This approach assumes that art practices are part of a broader, evolving historical project that makes sense of what people are doing. Is it really "evolving," in the real meaning of this term? Or is it just changing? A historical narrative always assumes that things are going toward something. Are reactionary artworks not artworks?

Genetic linkage is what matters: it is fully SUFFICIENT to do the job we need to do:

By telling a certain kind of story about x, we show that x emerged intelligibly from acknowledged practices via the same kind of thinking that produced other art; if we can place x in an evolving tradition that makes x intelligible as art, then x is art.

Using historical narratives, we can explain why something is an artwork without having to define art. Think of the parallel case: the definition of "marriage" is socially contested and debated, yet people still have reasons to get married. I can explain why marriages happen even if I cannot provide a satisfactory essential definition of marriage. 

We rule out all those snapshots and green lawns by pointing out that the people who produce them do not intend to enter into the ongoing "conversation" with "living" practices that constitutes art history. Doesn't this also rule out the lone Neolithic tribesman? Not unless we've said that historical narrative is the only way -- we might allow that other criteria might also be sufficient to identify art.

But notice the price to be paid in ruling out the snapshots and green lawns: we must rule that some older purposes are no longer "living" purposes of the contemporary artworld. But this requires that someone has something like an institutional status to declare a purpose "dead."

What about tribal art? Why is the functional demon figure an artwork? Because we see that early artworks in our tradition often had similar functions to the function of these things in the tribal culture. So historical analysis has to be supplemented by functional analysis. It appears that our method for identifying artworks in the later stages of cultural evolution are different from the methods for identifying them in earlier stages.

Notice, then, that failure to satisfy a proper historical narrative proves nothing. The child who has no awareness of art and who makes a drawing (e.g., because the kindergarten teacher asks them to draw something) does not enter into a "living" conversation, yet may produce a drawing that has a function that art served in an earlier time. Do we grant that the child's drawing is art, or do we say that it's not art if the child lives in a society where art no longer aims to fulfill that function?

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