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

Heads Talking About Art and Knowledge: An Overview

Robert Scott Stewart

The selections found in this section are all derived from a special session on James O. Young's new book, Art & Knowledge, which was held at the 2003 meetings of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics in Halifax on May 30, 2003. Young’s most recent book – he earlier published Global Anti-Realism (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1994) -- is unquestionably a fecund contribution to the field: four outstanding critiques of Art and Knowledge were presented in this session, which I chaired and introduced, without even, for the most part, dealing with what Young calls the central claims of his book. The central claims of Art and Knowledge are contained within the middle three chapters of the book which discuss the distinctions between “semantic” and  “illustrative” representation, “rational” and “illustrative” demonstration, and evaluation in art, respectively.  These three chapters are framed by two controversial chapters that Young maintains could stand on their own. The first chapter presents Young’s definition of what art is while the last discusses the ways in which “avant-garde” art fails with respect to Young’s evaluative criteria for good art.

In  "Truth, Art and Knowledge," Michael Watkins and Sheldon Wein take up issues dealt with in Chapter 1 of Art and Knowledge, where Young presents us with his “institutional theory” of what art is. According to this account, a work of art is anything considered a work of art by some “artworld” whose members stipulate the qualities that an art work must have. Watkins and Wein argue that Young’s definition is excessively relativistic as well as viciously circular. They also maintain that the definition is inconsistent with Young’s attempt to argue for a normative criterion of good art as that which presents its audience with a particular sort of cognitive content.

In one of the two issues raised in his contribution, “Art and Knowledge,” John MacKinnon elaborates on these same points. That is, if art works are defined procedurally or formally by reference simply to what some group of people say, then how can an art work also be defined by some functional or substantive property, such as “possesses cognitive content of a particular sort?” Although Young maintains that his relativism is “temperate” rather than “radical,” MacKinnon fails to see how Young can make this case given his purely perspectival, formal definition of art. Moreover, to the extent that Young is, or could be successful in this approach, surely means, according to MacKinnon, that he has to give up his substantive account of good art as that with cognitive content. Young is, then, guilty of a rather schizophrenic account, according to MacKinnon, with his head leading him towards perspectivalism (in defining art) while his heart (and tastes) point him towards a substantive theory (of what constitutes good art).

MacKinnon deals with a second issue regarding the way in which fiction represents;  this gets taken up by as well by Ira Newman in “’The Hamlet of Albany’: Reflections on James Young’s Art and Knowledge.”  MacKinnon raises the issue specifically in the context of fictional characters: the extent to which an author constructs a successful character, he argues, is the extent to which she constructs a character that is not simply a representation of a “type.” Newman approaches this point by maintaining that Young is mistaken in seeing fictive characters exclusively (or even primarily) as clusters of general traits or as tokens of general personality types. The cognitive lessons to be learned from fictional characters often work, Newman argues, in exactly the opposite direction, from a general trait to more and more individualized and non-reproducible individuals operating as a sort of paradigm.

In her fascinating “Does Contemporary Art Have Conceptual Value?” Sherri Irvin turns our attention to Young’s claims about avant-garde art, particularly conceptual art such as John Cage’s 4’ 33” or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. In particular, Irvin takes issue with Young’s claim that much avant-garde art fails to have any cognitive value because it lacks what Young calls “illustrative representation.” Irvin makes her case in large part by a close examination of two contemporary Canadian artists -Annie Thibault and Liz Magor- both of whom are conceptual artists, but still manage, according to Irvin, to present us with valuable cognitive insights.

Finally, in "Replies to My Critics" Young responds to each of his critics. At times, Young’s response consists of sticking firmly to his original points, as he does, for example, with respect to his definition of art and to his suggestions for what constitutes good art. At other times, however, Young is willing to take a critic’s point into his account, as he does with some of Newman’s suggestions. And finally, Young at times does both of the above simultaneously. We see this in his response to Irvin when he maintains that if she is right (and Young wrong) about the cognitive content of some avant-garde art, he is at least wrong on his terms: that is, he is wrong in terms of the criteria of art he establishes in the main chapters of Art and Knowledge.

I want to thank Sheldon Wein for organizing this symposium on Jim’s book. I also want to congratulate all the participants at the symposium, most particularly Jim himself, for producing what I hope readers will agree is a fascinating exchange of ideas.

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