This document is a summary of Davies. My personal comments are in
red. These comments have been added to help students understand Davies's arguments.
The main point of the essay is to review
different strategies of definition.
Real or essential definitions provide
necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept. For example, we can
define "widow" and "chair" with relative ease. A
definition tells us why a particular is what it is, but does not itself
provide us with practical criteria for determining which particulars will
meet the definition.
Early definitions tended to emphasize a
single property as the essence of art (e.g., representation, aesthetic
interest, and emotional expression) (p. 170). These favored a simple
functionalism, proposing ONE function for all art.
It now appears more likely that we seek a
"non-perceptible, relational" set of defining properties (p.
Three broad types of theories now
- Functionalism: art is defined by
purpose(s) that make successful art valuable. (A
definition of "chair would normally mention that the purpose of a
chair is for sitting. And a chair that cannot be sat upon has no value
as a chair. So it seems that chairs require a functional definition.
Functionalists treat art in the same way.) A unction commonly
assigned to art is to provide a satisfying aesthetic experience.
But it seems false that there is only one such function. (Some of Duchamp's
readymades do not seem to function to provide a satisfying
aesthetic experience. They seem more suitable to challenging our
assumptions about art's function.)
If more than one function, what unites them? Many of the functions
emphasized in the West are lesser functions of non-Western
art. For instance, the spirit figures of
Papua New Guinea are meant to communicate with spirits thought to
inhabit the world around us. Art dealers and art collectors who do not
believe in spirits and who treat these artifacts as functioning to
satisfy human aesthetic interest are ignoring their primary function.
Treating them as art falsifies what they properly are, which NOT art
according to our primary understandings of art as captured by
functionalism. Or we will have to assign a function that is so broad
and pervasive that works of art will not be the only things captured
by our definition.
- Proceduralism (e.g., George
Dickie on the artworld): art is defined by the process by which it
attains art status. (A definition of
"widow" must mention a husband to death: we must mention the
woman's past marital status and how she lost that status, which is a
procedural definition. We don't evaluate her status; good and bad
marriages are equally able to result in widowhood, which may itself be
either a good or bad situation compared to the marriage! Proceduralism
about art proceed in the same way.)
This approach works well to grant art status to Duchamp's various
works, but is there really such an institution? If there is, it
prohibits the art status of outsider art and non-Western
art. Functionalism has no such difficulty.
- Historicism: the concept of art
is itself evolving, and art status requires appropriate connections to
previous art. So what is art at one time will not be art at another
time. (We count Minnesota State University
Moorhead as the same institution as Moorhead Normal School. Yet they
are very different in function, scope, size, and so on. But the State
University evolved from the Normal School, and seeing this historical
evolution is essential to understanding why they are the same
institution. But we could not be what we presently are without going
through this evolution -- we couldn't' jump right to university status
from normal school status. Historicism about art proceeds with a
similar assumption about art.)
The most important figure here is Arthur Danto.
But the theory must be supplemented by an explanation of how the FIRST
art had that status (since it must lack the requisite historical
A dilemma arises: Either all art is in the same historical tradition
(which seems quite doubtful) or the different historical traditions
will only share some very general pattern. If the latter, then how is
the ART tradition to be distinguished from other social patterns? (How
is art special?)
Hybrid Solutions of Danto and Stecker
Danto seems to have moved beyond
historicism to a hybrid view. Danto now combines historicism with several
other necessary conditions for the status of art. One requirement is “aboutness”
(it needs a referential dimension, i.e., it must
have some subject, the way that the Mona Lisa takes a certain woman
as its subject while Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.
seems to take the Mona Lisa as its subject). Another
is “meaning-embodiment.” (It has to project or express some
point of view about its subject, as when L.H.O.O.Q.
pokes fun at the Mona Lisa.) But there must also be some element of
"ellipsis" (the audience needs to "fill in the blank"
and engage in interpretation). Finally, this interpretation must be guided
by the work's art-historical context. So we have both functional and
historical clauses in the definition.
(But is this correct? Does all instrumental music
really have a subject?)
Robert Stecker seeks to avoid the problem with Danto by granting a
plurality of functions to recent art. Granting that art has different
functions at different times in art history, something is a work of art if
it satisfies any ONE of these conditions:
- It is within one of the central art
forms of its time and is actually intended to satisfy a function that
art has at that time,
- or it is an artifact that achieves
excellence in satisfying the function of one of the central art forms
of its time.
Notice that the second alternative allows
unintended works of art. What makes this a hybrid (and not just a complex,
pluralistic functionalism) is Stecker's explicit recognition that art's
function keeps evolving.
But do the hybrid theories really escape
the basic Artworld relativity problem of historicism? (p. 177) To the
extent that the functionality of most "high" art depends on
social relationships peculiar to its time and place of origin, we find
only the vaguest commonalities among the diverse social settings involved.
The more we want to recognize as art beyond the
canon, the less there is that seems relevant to its being art.
Perhaps we have become too
tolerant of what counts as a function of art.