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Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid?

English: Jerry Holkins (Tycho of Penny Arcade)

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Like most gamers, I am a regular reader of Penny Arcade. In his 12/12/2011 column, Jerry Holkins made some interesting comments about defining art. As a philosophy professor who teaches an aesthetic class every spring semester, I was pleased to see two of my interests merge (like a fireball merging into a pack of gnolls).

Holkins is not a man who minces words or treads lightly across the interwebs. He states quite directly that

I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.  Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art.  I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.  This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake.  The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex..

Being, I suppose, in the intellectual class I naturally take some issue with his remarks.  However, being honest, I must also admit that there is truth in what he says. First, the issue taking.

Having taught aesthetics for quite some time I have read a multitude of attempts to define art. Some of them are, in fact, what could be called stupid. However, there are many that are serious attempts to engage a difficult problem in an intelligent manner. As such, I would not be inclined to call them “stupid” in the usual meaning of the term. For example, Mill might be wrong about art, but his attempt to address the matter hardly seem to be imbecilic. But, to be fair, perhaps Holkins has only read stupid definitions of “art” (perhaps including my own works on the subject). Now to the admittance of truth.

As noted above, I would not be inclined to call all philosophical attempts to define art as “stupid.” However, it seems evident that they have all been less than successful, at least to date. Otherwise, of course, we would already have our correct definition and a just and right sorting out the art from non-art could finally commence.

Holkins goes on to add that

If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack.  But it doesn’t.  It’s entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby.  The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur.  Its effete and its fucking disgusting.

Holkins is right that many attempts to define art aim at excluding things from the realm of art. Or, at the very least, as rejecting certain art as bad art. Tolstoy, to use an obvious example, was rather concerned with distinguishing between what he regarded as real art and what he took to be counterfeit art (in his sense of the term). Mill, however, seemed to be genuinely concerned with avoiding creating a merely academic definition of “art” in his discussion of the matter in the context of poetry. However, even he seemed rather judgmental in his categorizing of novels versus poetry. However, there does seem to be some value in determining what is and what is not art.

As with any difficult activity, it is quite reasonable to enquire why it is worthwhile to take the trouble to try to define “art” or even specific types of art. There are three general reasons to do so.

First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.

To provide a concrete focus for this, I will play the devil’s advocate…or perhaps the philistine’s advocate and present some cases of dubious art.

When I was a graduate student atOhioStateUniversity, I encountered works that seemed to be more the work of clever scam artists than true artists. Once, when I was running, I encountered what appeared to be construction scaffolding. Since it was blocking my running route, I assumed that it had most likely been dragged there by drunken frat boys. I tried to kick the structure over, but it was fortunate it was well enough constructed to stand up to my half-hearted attempt. It turned out that Ohio State had paid to have these wooden structures erected around campus at the direction of an (alleged) artist. In a second encounter, I came across sheets of plywood that had been painted blue. Seeing that they were leaning against trees, I assumed someone had painted them and had set them up to dry-I had done the exact same thing myself when working a summer painting job. But, much to my surprise, it turned out that I had been in the presence of the work of an artist.

In my third encounter, Ohio State had paid another artist to design a pyramid made out of cinder blocks. Once completed by workers, the pyramid was painted white. The local skate punks found the structure ideal for doing skating tricks and one even claimed that he had made something like it back home, only much smaller. This caused him to wonder of he was an artist. After learning that he had not been paid to construct his pyramid, I assured him that he was, in fact, not an artist.

In my fourth encounter, I came across an illuminated fish tank filled with inflated condoms. I assumed this was a prank, but once again I was informed that I had been blessed with an artistic experience.

In my fifth encounter I went to a show on art relating to AIDS. Though AIDS is serious, the art presented seemed much less so. One example I vividly recall is a scene consisting of large sheets of packing Styrofoam “inhabited” by store bought stuffed seal toys. I considered rescuing, in a Green Peace fashion, the seals from their Styrofoam prison but thought that might be inappropriate.

In addition to showing that I am most likely a philistine with no true appreciation of modern art, these cases illustrate the importance of defining art. If my assessment, namely that none of these things counted as art, was correct, then Ohio State had most likely wasted money that could have been used to acquire real art or perhaps to pay graduate students a bit more for their indentured servitude. If my assessment was mistaken, then perhaps it had been money well spent.

Without an adequate definition of art, there would be no rational way to settle this dispute and the alleged artists would not be able to justify their claim to the money. After all, if one expects money for a product or service, it is up to that person to prove that the goods are as claimed. Since this is accepted practice in other sales, there seems no principled reason to grant a special exemption to artists.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that the use of a definition of art would be rather useful to both sides. For the purchaser of art, it can assist in avoiding being ripped off by pseudo-art. For the artist it can provide grounds for proving the worth of her goods.  Without such a basis for rational discussion, there would not be a principle way to settle such matters.

Second, classifying something as art and the creator as an artist gives them both a certain status. Art is typically regarded as having a status that is different from that of non-art and this status often affords art special protection and treatment. Further, artists are often regarded as having a special status that entitles them to special rights or privileges, such as the right to control their work after they have sold it and the view that they should be treated as a cut above the herd. Without an adequate definition of art or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, it would be rather difficult to rationally discuss the matter of the status of an alleged work of art or that of its creator. For example, without a principled way to distinguish art from non art, the claim that an artist has a special right to control her work after it has been sold would be baseless. After all, how would one know whether she was an artist or a mere pretender? How would one know whether her alleged art was art, or merely another commercial product subject to the same consumer whims as a hamburger or a pair of jeans?

Such classifications also have extensive social and political implications, especially in cases involving specific cultures, ethnic groups or genders. For example, to regard the alleged art of a culture as not really being art is to dismiss that aspect of the culture. While it should not be assumed that all such cultural manifestations are art, it would be a mere prejudice to deny such potential art a fair hearing. Without an adequate definition of art, disputes over the true status of the works of a culture, gender or ethnic group become mere expressions of empty opinions. After all, without a basis for settling the disagreement, any position is as well founded as the other-that is to say, not at all. If one person claims that, for example, rap is mere noise and not art, then she is no more wrong or right than a person who asserts that classical music is not art and is also mere noise.

Third, and finally, artists and critics need to know the difference in order to create and judge art-otherwise they would not know what they are doing.

If a person claims to be a critic or an artist then it seems reasonable to expect her to be able to justify her judgments about art. If she can justify them, then she must have standards that she is appealing to-in other words, she must have a definition of art. If she lacks such standards, then her judgments must be unfounded. In this case, there seems to be little reason to listen to her. She might be right, in virtue of some gut feeling or emotional reaction, but she would not be able to provide any reason as to why someone else should believe her. Thus, it would seem that an account of art would be  useful to both the artist and the art critic.

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Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

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Having recently written a post on artists selling their ideas of art, I have been thinking about the matter of what I call DIY art. Or perhaps it should be called “kit art” or “some assembly (and parts) required art.”

Traditionally, when someone buys art they are usually buying a finished product such as a painting, sculpture or play. There are, of course, exceptions such as when people buy works that were left unfinished by the death of the artist. However, the usual intent is to buy a completed work.

However, as I noted in an earlier post, there are artists who sell works that are incomplete. In some cases, the “work” is merely a short description such as DeWitt’s “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.” The person who purchases such a work has to provide both the materials and the labor in order to have the work instantiated. Interestingly, these works do not come cheap-there seems to be no “discount” of the sort one expects to get when buying a set of plans for something as opposed to the completed object.

There are arguments in favor of taking such directions as being art. First, they could be seen as being on par with other DIY art such as paint by number or art kits for various items. True, the paint by numbers sets and art kits provide materials as well as the directions, but this could be regarded as a modest difference. After all, if something can be sold as art that requires the purchaser to add labor, it would also seem that requiring the purchaser to also  provide the material would not change matters much.

One obvious reply is that it could be argued that when one buys a paint by number set or an art kit, one is not buying art. To use an analogy, if you buy eggs, flour, milk and a recipe for a cake, you are not buying a cake. Rather, you are buying what you will need to make a cake. Likewise for the art-buying the idea is no more buying the art than buying a cookbook is buying meals.

Second, it could be argued that what makes a work a work of art is not the matter that composes it nor the labor that constructed it. Rather, it is the idea or concept behind the art. To use the obvious analogy to Plato’s forms, the true art lives in the realm of ideas and not in the instantiation of the idea. As such, it does not matter which hands complete the work, it is the mind that conceived it that is the artist.

One obvious reply is that while this does have some appeal, the creation of art seems to require more than merely thinking of a brief idea. In some cases, the substantial idea can be considered art-such as the writing of a song or conceiving a poem. However, merely coming up with a description or short directions such as the example above, hardly seems to count. To use a rather obvious example,  if I say “a story in which suspense builds until the twist ending blows the audiences’ mind” I have not thereby created a novel: I actually have to do the work for it to be a work of art. If I merely provide a title, such as “Brittle Soul”, I also do not create art.  Likewise, merely providing a short description of how to make a work of art would not itself be art, but merely a possible recipe (or even just a potential title) for art.

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Buying the Concept of Art

Pablo Picasso 1962

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Since I have taught Aesthetics since 1994, little that occurs in the strange world of art surprises me. One of the more recent trends is the selling of the ideas of artists, as opposed to the selling of an actual work of art. For example, Lawrence Weiner put a $160,000 price tag on his idea  of “2 Metal Balls + 2 Metal Rings (Set Down in the Groove).” For the $160,000 you do not get any balls, rings or a groove. Rather, you would receive a certificate that permits you to write the phrase in a room or create/commission the sculpture that you think it happens to describe.

Works, if that term can be used, were also sold by Sol LeWitt before his death. While he did create art objects, he also created “works” that were just vague instructions for creating a piece. For example, “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.”

Tino Sehgal tops both DeWitt and Weiner. Sehgal does not even offer a certificate or set of instructions, he apparently just makes odd things occur and permits no recording of the event. These “works” are sold for cash in front of witnesses, but no documentation is provided. One of his “works”, which was purchased for around $100,000 is the concept of a museum security guard slowly undressing. Naturally, the money does not buy an actual security guard or an undressing, merely the concept as put forth by Sehgal.

On the face of it, this sort of art seems to be either an amazing scam or a profound, but sincere, delusion (or perhaps something else). First, the “art” described does not seem to amount to anything that would seem to actually be worthy of being regarded as art. At the very least, it surely cannot be regarded as meaningful or significant. As proof,  I can easily create something on par with Weiner’s “art”, such as “three wooden cubes and six ceramic hoops, placed within a depression.” For those who think what Weiner does is art, they can prove it by offering to buy my work, bargain priced at $1,600. In the case of Sehgal, there seems to be nothing artistic about a museum guard undressing. After all, they presumably do that at the end of the day anyway and, of course, strippers have been doing that sort of “art” for quite some time (and for far less money). Second, even if these things are art, the prices seem clearly absurd for what the purchaser acquires. The concept of a museum guard stripping down hardly seems worth $100,000. For those who think so, I would gladly sell the concept of a philosopher stripping down for $1,000. I’ll even top Sehgal by providing a certificate of authenticity.

That said, an argument can be made that this sort of art is, in fact art.

Imagine, if you will, that you have found a Picasso in your attic. You make arrangements to auction it and then get a thrill as the bids escalate ever upwards. But, then the dream is shattered. The multi-million dollar painting turns out to have been done by your uncle rather than Picasso. True, it is brilliantly done and, the experts agreed (before finding it to be a fake) that it was better than all of Picasso’s other works. But, since it was done by Uncle Ted and not Picasso, it is only worth $10.

But, in a strange turn of events, you find what seems to be a duplicate of the painting in your attic and the experts confirm that this was painted by Picasso, who happened to have copied Uncle Ted’s painting for fun. This painting sells for millions, since it is deemed a genuine Picasso. As a small joke, you donate Uncle Ted’s painting to the museum that buys Picasso’s painting and ask them to display them side by side. When no one is watching, you switch the labels and are amused to see how people react.

If this intuition play has merit, what makes the difference between the two works is nothing about the works, but rather about who created the work. That is, the Picasso painting is great and valuable because it was by Picasso while the other painting is lacking in value because it was done by Uncle Ted. As such, what is being sold is not so much a work of art but the artist who created the work. If this is true, then the artists who sell their concepts are being treated essentially the same way that other artists are being treated: what matters is not what is being sold, but who created it. The work itself, one might claim, is not particularly relevant.

Another argument that can be used is based on analogy to the sale of other ideas, such as patents. When a company or person buys a patent, they are not buying a specific widget, gizmo or even a specific piece of paper. Rather, what is is being bought is the concept that has been patented. Such concepts can be very valuable indeed. Likewise, when someone buys the concept of an artist, they are doing the same sort of thing. Of course, patents generally tend to provide something useful that required some actual thought and effort to create and the value of a patent generally depends on what can be done with it, as opposed to what name merely happens to be associated with it.

Overall, I regard the sale of these “art” concepts as either a brilliant scam or a sincere delusion (possibly both). But, perhaps I would change my mind if someone bought my great work, “Philosopher Undressing.”

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Huck Finn

The classic book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is no stranger to controversy. The latest incident involves an edition that replaces the “n-word” with “slave”, presumably to sanitize the book.

While it might seem intuitively wrong to make such a change, there are some reasons that can be used to justify this change.

First, the n-word is regarded by many as offensive to a degree that warrants its removal from art. Of course, it might be argued that the n-word is still dropped with great regularity. However, it could be replied that since Twain was a white man, he should not have used this word (or should not use it were he writing today) and hence the search and replace is correct. It could also be argued that no one should use the word and hence it is acceptable to remove it from works, regardless of the skin color of  the person using it.

Second, this book is one of the most banned books in America, presumably because of the n-word. The book is, however, an important work of literature. By replacing the offending word, this sanitized version of the book should be somewhat more appealing to squeamish school boards. As such, this could provide a compromise situation. Students would be able to read a book very much like the one Twain wrote. Those concerned with protecting the youth from the word could be satisfied with this alteration.

However, there are some very good reasons as to why the book should not be changed.

First, there is the obvious matter of freedom of expression. Changing the word is, in effect, a form of censorship. If artists have a right to this freedom of expression, then this sort of censorship would seem to be unacceptable.

Naturally, it can be argued that the right of the artist is outweighed by the offensive nature of the word. There are, of course, always good reasons to restrict freedom of expression so as to protect people from harm (the yelling of “fire” being the stock example). The question is, of course, whether the alleged harms of leaving the word  in the book exceed the right of the artist (even though he is dead).

It could be pointed out that the modified edition is but one edition, thus allowing readers to chose which version they read. As such, the artist’s freedom of expression remains intact and the freedom of choice for the readers is expanded. This seems to be a point worth considering.

Second, there is the concern that such a change violates the artistic integrity of the work. It could be seen as being on par with someone putting shorts on David because the nakedness of the statue offends him.  The word that is being replaced could be regarded as a integral part of the work and the change could thus be seen as damaging the artistic integrity of the book.

Tied into this is also the matter of historical integrity. Modifying past works, be they artistic or otherwise, because people find some of the content offensive, seems to be rather problematic. One of the main problems is that this sort of approach seems to embrace what might be regarded as a type of dishonesty-a willingness to change things so as to avoid what offends.

Third, the publishers of the modified version are, of course, selling the book as being by Mark Twain. However, this modification means that the product is not truly just Twain’s work anymore. As such, it would be incorrect to present it as being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Rather, it should be the Modified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on the Original Version by Mark Twain.

This does seem to be a reasonable matter of concern.

Overall, it seems that the work should not be altered in this manner.

Art & Flesh

Chef Boyardee logo.

Having taught aesthetics since 1993 I am accustomed to hearing about weird and even stupid things in the arts, so I was not even surprised when I saw a bit on cannibalism and art on the History Channel. I had heard about the artists before, but the show inspired me to write a bit about this.

The segment that made the greatest impression was that about Marco Evaristti. This fellow had his fat liposuctioned, turned into meatballs, canned and then served as part of a pasta dinner to fellow artists. The piece was called Polpette al grasso di Marco.

The intent of his work was to explore cannibalism from an artistic standpoint. My own view of the matter is that his approach was more sensationalist than substantive and did not really add much (or anything really) to the aesthetic and philosophical discussion of cannibalism. I am also inclined to regard what he did as not being art. After all, he simply had liposuction, had his fat made into meatballs and served a meal. As such, he was a patient, a purchaser of meat balls, a cook and a host-hardly the stuff of art.

While I have not had liposuction, I have been a patient, I have bought meat balls, I have cooked them and served them at a dinner.In a odd coincidence, I have even had a discussion over cannibalism over meatballs (which began as a discussion over the ethics of eating meat). On the face of it, none of this activities are artistic in nature and hence the burden of proof seems to rest on those who claim it is.

The main distinction between what I have done and what he did was to actually serve his own fat in the meal. While this does technically transform the meal from non-cannibalistic to cannibalistic, it is not clear that this results in an aesthetic transformation of the event. What needs to be shown is that adding such a content to a meal somehow transforms the event into art. After all, serving some beef meatballs to facilitate a discussion about eating meat hardly seems to transform the event into art. Likewise, adding some human fat to the meal does not seem to make that art either.

Interestingly, as I watched the clip showing the artists talking about cannibalism all I could think was this: “you might be talking like artistic intellectuals, but you just ate some guy’s ass fat.”

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Dead Man Selling

Billy Mays Dies 1958-2009

For the past month,  I have seen a dead man pitching products on TV.  No, I am not having a Sixth Sense moment. Everyone can see the dead man, not just me.

The dead man is, of course, the famous American pitchman Billy Mays. He is the guy that has sold Americans all sorts of products, such as Oxiclean and Orange Glo. He died recently of heart problems, but his advertisements are still being aired.

Shortly after hearing about his death, I saw one of these ads. Oddly enough, rather than inspiring me to go into a consumer frenzy, the ad gave me a creepy feeling. After all, I knew the man trying to sell me some cell phone attachment was quite dead.

Interestingly, seeing movies that have dead actors in them has never given me that feeling. For example, if I watch an old Bogart film I do not get that creepy feeling. I don’t even get it when the actor died in the course of filming, such as what happened to Brandon Lee during the filming of the Crow.

Obviously, my particular psychological responses are hardly the stuff of philosophical interest. However, I think that the difference in how I feel does point to something that is worthy of philosophical consideration.

In the case of the commercials, while Mays might be playing his pitch man role, it is him selling the product. That is, he is there as himself, an enthusiastic and cheerful fellow who would really like you to buy all the stuff he is pitching.

In the case of the movies, the dead actor was playing a role of a meaningfully different order and this seems to create sort of a psychological buffer. To be a bit more specific, the character the dead actor played has a virtual life of its own (and perhaps even virtual death) and continues to exist as a fictional being.

In contrast, it is just Billy Mays, the dead man, whose recorded image is still pitching products. There is no buffer, no fictional being. Just someone I know is dead. Hence, the creepy feeling.

From a moral standpoint, there seems to be nothing really wrong with the ads remaining on television. After all, he no doubt contracted for a certain run and the fact that he is now dead would not seem to change that contract. Of course, there might seem something vaguely wrong about keeping a man working after his death. Certainly, it is just his recorded image, a digital ghost, that is doing the pitching. But perhaps even digital ghosts deserve to be laid to rest.

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