Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Outline of Art and Knowledge

James O. Young

I would like to thank the commentators on Art and Knowledge for taking the time and effort to read my book so carefully and to offer me their candid reactions to it. While I am gratified by their attention to my book, it is also humbling to have one’s work subjected to the criticism of able philosophers. What had seemed transparently obvious can begin to seem all too dubitable. I will begin this symposium by giving a brief précis of my book since the shape of the book may not emerge from my critics’ comments. I will end the symposium with an attempt to defend Art and Knowledge against some of the charges leveled against it.

In the first chapter I attempt to answer the old question, "What is art?" I adopt a version of the institutional theory of art closely allied to that presented by T. J. Diffey. Roughly, the view is that something is art (or possesses arthood) if an artworld accepts it as art. The novel twist is that I hold that there is no such thing as arthood tout court. We discover the content of the concept of art by paying attention to actual usage. Unfortunately there is no consistent usage. Different artworlds have different conceptions of art. The single property of arthood is replaced by a multiplicity of properties: arthood in artworld1 arthood in artworld2 and so on. I maintain that an artworld can have practical reasons for saying that only works with cognitive value are works of art. If an artworld restricts the application of the concept of art in the manner I recommend, then (I argue) it will maximize the chances that valuable artworks will be produced. To a large extent, the argument of Chapter One is detachable from the rest of the book. You could accept its conclusions, but not those of the rest of the book, or vice versa. The first chapter is simply there to establish that one can reasonably hold that art and knowledge are closely linked (if only relative to some artworld).

Chapter Two begins the main argument of the book. The bulk of this chapter is devoted to drawing the distinction between semantic and illustrative representation and arguing that illustrative representation (or illustration) is the sort found in the arts. Semantic representation is conventional representation of the sort familiar from ordinary language. Illustrative representation depends on a similarity between the experience of the representation and the experience of the object represented. The distinction is exemplified by the difference between the sentence ‘The car is racing yellow’ and a picture of a car that is racing yellow. Considerable argument is needed to show that all arts (literature, visual arts, music and so on) employ forms of illustration. I pay particular attention to the representation of emotion, which I call affective illustration. This sort of illustration is of two sorts: introspective and extrospective. Introspective affective illustration is the representation of affective states in, for example, music and lyric poetry. Extrospective affective illustration is the representation of external things as the objects affective attitudes.

The main argument of the book continues in Chapter Three. There I argue that two sorts of demonstration correspond to the basic types of representation. Illustrations can show us something. I call this illustrative demonstration or, simply, showing. Semantic representations can tell us something, or be used to construct arguments for some conclusion. Such arguments I call rational demonstrations. I give some examples of the ways in which artworks, qua illustrative representations, can be used to provide illustrative demonstrations. Works of art show us that a perspective on something is right. Science, in contrast, is designed to show that certain theories are true. I am a little disappointed that the commentators did not spend more time addressing this chapter, which I consider the core and most important part of the book.              

Chapter Four addresses the question of how to evaluate art. The simple answer is that good works of art will be the ones that contribute a great deal to our knowledge. I take it that whether or not a particular work of art can contribute to knowledge is a matter of fact and that this fact can be known. Consequently, I think that there are limits to relativism with respect to the aesthetic value of artworks. I argue that, were art simply a source of pleasure, we would be saddled with a thoroughgoing relativism about the value of artworks, a relativism that would not be able to do justice to our intuitions about the relative merits of artworks.

Finally, in Chapter Five I ask whether avant-garde art fares well when judged using the apparatus developed in the earlier chapters. I believe that art is best able to contribute to knowledge when illustrations are used to provide illustrative demonstrations (that is, they are used to show us something). Since avant-garde art abandons most of the resources of illustrative representation, I conclude that it will not be able to contribute much our knowledge. Avant-garde artworks, I argue, try to tell rather than show and this is the cause of their failure.

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