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

Art and Understanding

John MacKinnon

In his recent book, The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit draws a distinction between what he calls “i.e. philosophers” and “e.g. philosophers,” between those, on the one hand, who progressively refine by successively elaborating and those, on the other, who expand by means of illustration and example. [1]   James O. Young’s Art and Knowledge represents a rare and admirable marriage between these two tendencies.  Brisk and combative, it is argued with rigour and patience, and richly illustrated, too, with an array of apt and often colourful examples, particularly from music and literature.  It is a book from which all readers will profit and that I do not hesitate to recommend.  In what follows, I will raise two questions, each of which I intend less as an objection and more as a request for clarification.  

Young begins with a discussion of the Euthyphro, where Plato asks whether something is pious because the gods love it or whether the gods love something because it is pious.  Adapting this to the case of art, Young asks, is something art because the artworld accepts it, or does the artworld accept it because it is art?  In the latter instance, arthood would count as an intrinsic property, but Young insists that arthood is no such thing. [2]   Objects are counted artworks because we regard them as such, not vice versa.  In other words, arthood, like piety, is a perspectival property.  Having granted this, though, Young insists that “only items with cognitive value count as artworks.” [3]   Now, how are we to reconcile this cognitive claim with what appears to be a no less important perspectival claim?  If there is a definitional requirement that artworks have cognitive value, how can we leave the status of arthood to be determined by the way in which people happen to respond, particularly when they may respond favourably, and grant the status of arthood, to objects that have no cognitive value?  My first concern is to consider Young’s effort to address this apparent inconsistency.

In Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro suggests that piety is what is agreeable to the gods.  But, since the gods quarrel, differing as to what they judge to be good or bad, pious or impious, Euthyphro is, in effect, committing himself to the embarrassing view that one and the same person or action can at once be pious and impious.  It likewise seems that, on the perspectival theory, a particular work, admired by some but found worthless by others, could at one and the same time both be and not be an artwork.  According to Young, this reductio can be avoided if we simply grant the multiplicity of artworlds, and recognize that arthood “is relative to an audience.” [4]   This hardly seems a satisfactory resolution to the problem.  Nor, it seems, is it one that Young himself consistently observes throughout his book.

Young imagines a case where a number of people differ on the art-worthiness of a particular object.  While Andy and Arthur accept the object as an artwork, Clement and Peggy reject it.  Since rejection confers non-arthood upon the object, no less than acceptance confers arthood, the perspectival account is reduced to absurdity.  The plurality of artworlds avoids this difficulty, Young claims, since disagreements across artworlds do not result in one and the same artwork being attributed incompatible characteristics.  Instead, Duchamps’ Fountain, for instance, “is an artwork relative to a contemporary artworld and a non-artwork relative to a sixteenth-century artworld.” [5]   Or, as Young might have said, it is an artwork to avant-gardists, but not to those arrière-gardists with whom they are contemporaries, and among whom Young counts himself.  But how does this rescue the perspectival account from the reductio?  Why doesn’t it simply reintroduce it at a different level, or further remove?  Why is (what amounts to) a multiplication of incompatible judgements regarded as a solution to this problem?  Arthur insists that a paper clip or a ham sandwich, a pile of dirt or a stack of bricks is a work of art, while Clement steadfastly denies it.  Since an object’s status as art is unavoidably perspectival, a matter of human response, and since Arthur regards the pile of dirt in a way that is directly opposed to Clement’s view, the pile of dirt both is and is not a work of art.  We are confronted, that is, by the reductio.  How is this avoided by simply multiplying the number of Arthurs and Clements, or the number of people who respond, respectively, like Arthur and Clement, and by calling these artworlds?

The notion of a plurality of artworlds has the advantage, according to Young, of enabling us to avoid radical relativism, while committing us to a more palatable, and more realistic, community- or clique-based relativism.  In answering the question, “what is the definition of art?,” he writes, “only one sort of evidence ought to be consulted,” namely, “how people use the concept of art.” [6]   But again this seems to concede too much, to the point of diminishing the purpose, and power, of his own argument.  To a considerable extent, after all, Young’s own task is to frame a definition of art, or at least to identify a necessary condition of any credible definition, namely, that of cognitive value.  Surely, then, he cannot mean that the “only” sort of evidence we can consult in our efforts to determine what is art and what not, is “how people use the concept,” for what if they use it in such a way as to ignore, or even scorn, cognitive value?  

When he considers the issue of who counts as a member of an artworld, Young’s answer, as he says, is “elegantly democratic,” identifying an artworld member as “anyone who uses the word ‘art’.” [7]   Of course, to concern oneself with what it is to “count” as a member of an artworld is to raise the issue of qualifications, of what it means to measure up to some standard.  And yet, so uninspired a criterion as the ability to use (mouth?) a term leaves us with no standard at all.  Later, Young refines this claim somewhat when he declares that an artworld “is composed of … people who share the same guidelines.” [8]    Here, the temperate relativist will take heart, happy to endorse the constraints implied by the notion of guidelines, but eager to point out that qualifications for membership in an artworld are, of course, relative to a specific set of guidelines--which can, after all, take this, that, or any number of other forms.

Young is surely right when he states that “a world without people who conceive of art is a world without art.” [9]   Aesthetic value is a distinctly human value, which is to say that accrediting objects as art and evaluating them accordingly is fundamentally a matter of response to works and at least some minimal acceptance of judgments about them.  And this is simply to say that art is unavoidably perspectival.  However, everything hinges on how we flesh out this notion of a perspectival property.  Young seems to think that unless we’re prepared to sacrifice this property, we must grant that the belief in a single artworld is mistaken. [10]   Far more welcome, though, would be an account of what competent, informed, qualified perception requires.  Now, none of this is news to Young.  Throughout Art and Knowledge, he is far more likely to invoke what he variously calls the “suitably qualified” or “suitably equipped” viewer, reader or audience member than merely someone who happens to use the word “art.” [11]   Thus, his repeatedly expressed concern that audiences be prepared, informed, and attentive, possessed of those capacities necessary to appreciate the perspectives presented to us by works of art. [12]   Young claims that the artworld of which he is a member is an “ideal,” and that while only this world ought to exist, many artworlds, as a matter of fact, do. [13]   On Young’s own terms, however, it’s difficult to see how these “worlds” can count as anything other than, say, discourse-worlds, theory-worlds, hedonic-worlds, or junk-worlds.

In light of the groaning disparities among individuals and cultures on the subject of art and aesthetic value, what alternative do we have to Young’s temperate relativism, according to which, depending upon one’s “artworld” membership, a urinal or a paper clip can both be and not be works of art?  I would prefer an account that insists on the possibility of error and the prospect of convergence in judgments.  Here again, though, Young needs no urging on this score, for much of the later stages of Art and Knowledge is devoted to establishing, for instance, that true and false judgments about art “abound” and that lack of acquaintance with, and lack of understanding of, a culture or an artform can, with time, effort and attention, be overcome. [14]   Indeed, the book opens with an epigram from R.G. Collingwood recognizing that art is “essentially the pursuit of truth” and closes with a remark from Joshua Reynolds proclaiming that “the natural appetite or taste of the human mind is for Truth.”  What I would ask, then, is how this faith in the cognitive dimensions of art and, therewith, the conviction both that our aesthetic judgments can be true and false, and that we can entertain the prospect of their ultimately converging, can be reconciled with relativism, even of the sensible sort that Young endorses?

Young’s defence of the cognitive value of artworks depends on their counting as representations, a requirement that raises special difficulties in the case of fiction.  For what in the real world can fictional characters, places, and situations be said to represent?  Young responds by claiming that fiction involves the representation of types.  Thus, Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice represents the sanctimonious, toadying type, while Harold Skimpole in Bleak House represents that lazy type of person who, while affecting unworldliness, lives “comfortably at the expense of other people.” [15]

In her important essay, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” Cynthia Ozick lends some support to Young’s point, though with different concerns in mind.  Challenging the view that fictional characters ought always to be regarded as “freely imagined fabrications,” she suggests that, at least in that genre of literature that is, or certainly ought to be, constrained by historical fact, fictional characters must in some sense serve as representations. [16]   Although I am sympathetic to Ozick’s claim, it applies, all things considered, to a quite narrow category of literature.  I have similar reservations about Young’s claim, which may well apply to buffoons like Mr. Collins, scoundrels like Skimpole, windbags like Bounderby, and Christ-figures like Stephen Blackpool—to entertaining caricatures and clumsily drawn archetypes, that is—but far less well, I would think, to, say, Lord Jim, indeed Marlow himself, or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, or any of the meticulously drawn characters in an Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant short story.  Judith Shulevitz expresses my concern when she asks what one has learned when he has learned that Hamlet symbolizes “a person whose thoughtful nature is an obstacle to quick and decisive action?  Something that may help you read one of George Will’s columns,” she ventures, “but nothing worth knowing about Hamlet.  Indeed, if that’s all you know about him it’s likely to prevent you from learning what is worth knowing, which is that he is an elusive figure likely to rebuff a cursory attempt to plumb his depths.” [17]   Any such cursory attempt, it sees to me, will involve an appeal to some type or other: Jim is a young man who, when his courage fails him, devotes himself to a lonely effort to reclaim his honour; Frank is the quintessential mid-life, North American man, unmoored, adrift.  In each case, it is this, admittedly, and yet so much more than this.

Elsewhere, Ozick claims that the novel is an art form that stands “in opposition to generalization or co-optation,” that in the novel “we encounter this woman, this child, this man…this place.” [18]   In a number of different contexts elsewhere in Art and Knowledge, Young too pays due regard to the notion of particularity, that sovereign arrangement of features that renders an artwork neither reducible to any formula nor replaceable by any other work.  Ozick, too, herself an occasional novelist, would reject any suggestion that she values faithfulness to some model or type above literary creativity, or the attention to the particular that that creativity requires.  So I conclude with a second question: how are we to reconcile indispensable particularity with the representation of types that, according to Young, the cognitivity of fiction requires?

[1] Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), quoted by Michael Walzer in his review, “The Present of the Past,” The New Republic (January 20, 2003), p. 36.

[2] James O. Young, Art and Knowledge (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 16.

[3] Ibid., p. 1.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid., p. 21.

[7] Ibid., p. 2.

[8] Ibid., p. 12.

[9] Ibid., p. 3.

[10] Ibid., p. 4.

[11] Ibid., pp. 25, 30, 50, 86, 117, 128, and 156.

[12] Ibid., pp. 120-21 and 128-29.

[13] Ibid., p. 21.

[14] Ibid., p. 166.

[15] Ibid., p. 37.

[16] Cynthia Ozick, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” in Quarrel and Quandary: Essays (New York: Vintage International, 2000), pp. 106-07.

[17] Judith Shulevitz, “Hirsch vs. Hirsch,” The New York Times Book Review (November 17, 2002), p. 63.  G.K. Chesterton registers the same complaint when, in an essay on George Wyndham, he notes our tendency “to mark the type so as to miss the man.”  See Chesterton’s The Uses of Diversity (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1921), p. 265.

[18] Ozick, op. cit., p. 173.

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