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

Replies to the Critics of Art and Knowledge

James O. Young

1. Response to MacKinnon and Watkins/Wein on Definition of Art

I would have liked to argue for a functional definition of art rather than a procedural definition. (I use ‘functional" and ‘procedural" in the senses introduced by Stephen Davies in his Definitions of Art.) As MacKinnon, in particular, notes, I really want to think that artworks share some intrinsic functional property. Unfortunately, I think we are looking for a non-prescriptive definition of art and, given that this is so, we have to pay attention to how people use the concept of art. Anyone who pays the least attention to actual usage will find that there is no uniformity in the use of the concept. It is this that leads to me relativism about the property of arthood.

Both MacKinnon and Watkins/Wein take issue with my statement that anyone is a member of an artworld "who uses the word ‘art"." I wanted to avoid the circularity of defining art in terms of artworlds and artworlds in terms of art. So I came up with a simple, non-circular criterion of membership in an artworld. Unfortunately, I express this criterion in a flippant manner and I deserve to be taken to task. I should have said that anyone is a member of an artworld who uses the concept of art in a rule-governed manner. By talking about the concept of art rather than the word ‘art," I avoid one of the criticisms leveled by Watkins and Wein. I am not trapped in the vicious circle they imagine. As Watkins and Wein hint, I am heavily influenced by the later Wittgenstein. This is what leads me to focus on how people use the concept of art. Being a sort of Wittgensteinian, I should have placed more stress on the rule-governed use of concepts. These rules are just the art-defining guidelines of which I speak in the Chapter One.

An elementary error people can make is confusing a definition of art with a definition of good art. Watkins and Wein suggest I am guilty of this sophomoric confusion. I do not see that they present a shred of evidence in support of this claim. I recommend that every artworld adopt a set of criteria or guidelines that will classify as artworks only items with cognitive value. Nowhere do I suggest that these guidelines ought to classify as artworks only items with a lot of cognitive value. If there should be any doubt on this point, consider the following passage from Art and Knowledge:

When an artworld adopts a set of guidelines, it does not limit membership in the class of artworks to items which perform one or more functions well. Once guidelines have been adopted, a distinction still exists between the class of artworks and the class of good artworks. The good works of art are those which perform the specified functions well while the poor artworks perform them badly. Only items which do not perform the function at all are excluded from the class of artworks. (17)

Sit-coms touting some stale morality will still, on the guidelines I recommend, count as artworks. They are just bad ones, in the same way that my old TR-6 was, in certain respects, a bad car but a car all the same.

2. Two Criticisms by Watkins and Wein

I want to respond specifically to two points made by Watkins and Wein, one made at the outset of their commentary and one at the end.

For a start, I think that it unfair of Watkins and Wein to begin their commentary by saying that I am not clear about "what it is for an artwork to have cognitive value" and that I seem to assert the triviality that "we can learn something from a work." I make quite clear that I propose that artworks can be a source of knowledge qua representations. I state that I am interested in the claim that, "artworks can, like scientific hypotheses, be sources of knowledge qua interpretations of reality." (24) Of course, we can learn from artworks qua historical artifacts or qua model of artistic practice. Whatever the merits of the thesis of Art and Knowledge, it is not trivial. (Incidentally, I think Watkins and Wein are wrong in asserting that we can learn from Fountain that "a urinal can become an artwork." Only a great deal of art criticism and philosophical reflection led to this knowledge.)

At the end of their commentary Watkins and Wein claim that I am committed to the conclusion that sensible questions make no sense and silly questions do. I think that they are wrong on both counts. Watkins and Wein claim that it is silly to compare the values of artworks, particularly when they come from different genres, but that I am committed to saying that this makes sense. Well, it does make sense. I think that it makes perfect sense to say that Bach's works were greater than anything by Fux. I even think that it makes sense to compare works from different genres. Consider the claim that "Jane Austen was a greater artist than Barry Manilow." This strikes me as clearly true and ipso facto meaningful. It is true that it is difficult to say whether Mozart was a greater artist than Monet, but I am not committed to saying that we can decide such a matter. From the fact that we can determine that certain works have a high cognitive value and that others have a low value, it does not follow that we can arrive at an ordinal ranking of all artworks. I explicitly allow that the value of artworks is, to some extent, relative. The problem of ranking the works by cognitive value is not restricted to the arts. It is difficult to say whether Darwin's theories are more valuable than Einstein's. This does not count against the claim that some theories are better than others. One theory might have more valuable practical applications, while the other contributes more to the understanding of our place in nature. Similarly, I would say that the question of whether Mozart or Monet is a greater artist depends on the interests of the person posing the question. (Bob Bright was of great assistance in formulating this response.)

It is most unfair to say that the question of whether 4" 33" counts as a work of art is, in my view, non-sensical. I even think that it is true that it is a work of art - relative to some artworld. It is true that, in general, I think that the question of whether anything is an artwork has to be recast as a question of whether it is a work of art relative to some artworld. But that is quite different than denying that a question makes any sense. The practice of reformulating what a question means is a perfectly respectable philosophical practice with a long pedigree.

3. MacKinnon and Newman on Representation of Types in Literature

I find very helpful Newman's distinction between first- and second-order traits, and the ways in which literature can help us classify first-order traits by means of second order ones. This is a sophisticated and powerful way of stating a point towards which I was groping in parts of Art and Knowledge. I want to focus, however, on the points on which Newman and I disagree, particularly since one of Newman's points is closely allied to one made by MacKinnon.

I agree completely with Newman and MacKinnon that a character such as Hamlet or Lord Jim is more than the representation of a type. Both in turn seem to agree with me that they, among other things, represent types. Indeed, such well-rounded characters, under different descriptions, actually represent a range of types. But what else do they do? And what is the point of making fictional characters so complex and interesting? Part of the value of characters such as Lord Jim is not cognitive value. Readers simply take pleasure in the cunning development of character. I do think, however, that well-rounded characters are better able to contribute to knowledge than flat ones. The importance of this point is overlooked in my book and I have not fully thought through this question, but here are my present thoughts on the matter.

Only characters that present the illusion of reality will have much cognitive content. The audience has to be kept engaged; the delightful delineation of character is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. But there is more to it than this.  I think that the author has to convince us that the sort of person he represents can exist and the only way to do this is give the characters as much illusion of reality as possible. Real people are complex. They have to be represented by complex characters. Readers have to be led to believe that certain character traits can be found in a real person and this is accomplished by delineating a character with all the richness of real people. (I disagree with Danto's comment, endorsed by Newman, that next to characters such as Hamlet, "[real] people are pale and adimensional.") From my perspective, flat, stereotyped characters do not represent. They do not represent precisely because no one in the world is flat and stereotypical.

As Newman suggests, much more remains to be said about the cognitive value of fictional characters. Clarifying the ways in which Hamlet can contribute to our understanding of Cuomo - or anyone else - is, as Newman says, "an ongoing project."

4. Irvin on Avant-Garde Art

The chapter on avant-garde art is detachable from the rest of book. You could believe much of what I say in the earlier chapters but hold that I am wrong about the avant-garde. Irvin appears to do just this. If I am wrong about avant-garde art, I want to be wrong in the way Irvin thinks I am - by my own criteria.

First, let me clarify something about the use of illustrative representation in avant-garde art. As Irvin notes, I allow that some avant-garde works employ such representation. The examples I give are Warhol's paintings of Campbell's soup cans and Jasper Johns" paintings of the American flag. (139) I go on to say, however, that such works do not owe their status as artworks to their use of illustrative representation. A painting by Warhol of a soup can may be indistinguishable from an advertisement which is clearly not art. The Warhol is only art and only has cognitive value because it represents something other than soup cans and this, I argue, it does not do qua illustrative representation. I would make a similar point about many of the works Irvin mentions in her initial remark. These works are what I call "discourse dependent." What they represent (apart from the obvious, in the cases of those which employ illustrative representation) is dependent on an associated discourse. As a result, the heavy lifting is done by semantic representations. I do not think that Irvin does full justice to this aspect of my analysis of avant-garde art. At the same time, she is right to suggest that most, if not all, artworks are discourse-dependent to some extent. What I represent as a difference in kind (discourse dependent or not discourse dependent) may be a difference of degree.

I find much of what Irvin has to say about Thibault's Laboratory and Magor's Time and Mrs. Tiber quite compelling. Prior to reading Irvin's commentary, I had already begun to think about what to say about this sort of work. In particular I have been thinking about Mark Dion's Tate Thames Dig (1999) and similar projects. Dion excavated the foreshore of the Thames just below the Tate Gallery, and displayed the items he found: pottery shards, credit cards, human and animal bones, scraps of metal and so forth. Like the works of Thibault and Magor, there is no doubt that Tate Thames Dig provides what I call an illustrative demonstration: we are certainly shown, for example, something about the disposability of modern material culture, about the puzzling mysteries that lie just beyond the notice of millions of people and so on. This illustrative demonstration is made possible without the sort of illustrative representation found in more traditional art. Like Thibault and Magor, Dion is engaged in sampling or exemplification. Interestingly, these works are much less discourse dependent than many other avant-garde works. The cognitive work is done by illustrative representation and not by an associated semantic representation.

What then do I want to say in reply to Irvin? Well, I think it is probably sterile to debate about whether the works in question are works of art. They will be relative to some artworlds and not relative to others. Whether they are art or not, I am pleased by the suggestion that certain projects (whether or not they are art) contribute to knowledge in much the way I outline. How much they contribute is another question. I have grave doubts about whether they can contribute as much to knowledge as works of art that draw upon more of the resources of illustrative representation. The demonstration of this point is best left to art critics. This comment brings us up against the limits of what Art and Knowledge can contribute to the study of art. I freely admit in the book, and acknowledge here again, that philosophy of art is no substitute for informed art criticism. I am, qua philosopher, not particularly well equipped to assess the aesthetic value of any work of art. Still, for what it is worth, I find that that a still life by Chardin, with a domestic theme similar to that of Time and Mrs. Tiber, is a much more powerful work of art than Magor's.

Perhaps most importantly, from my perspective, Irvin has raised a more serious question than I can answer here: a question about whether the ways in which art and science contribute to knowledge are fundamentally distinct. Dion's work has prompted a discussion about whether he is producing art or archaeology. The other examples Irvin presents pose related questions about the difference between art and science. It is an article of faith in Art and Knowledge that science and art represent and demonstrate in radically distinct ways. Perhaps I need to re-examine this belief.

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