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

Truth, Art, and Knowledge
(A commentary on James O Young’s Art and Knowledge)

Michael Watkins and Sheldon Wein


In this paper we raise some problems with the account of art found in James O Young’s Art and Knowledge.


While much of James O. Young’s  Art and Knowledge is devoted to showing how works of art might be of cognitive value, we will focus on a prior claim, defended in the first chapter of Art and Knowledge, that “art” ought to be defined such that only works with cognitive value count as artworks. We begin by noting that it is not very clear—despite the considerable attention Young devotes to the matter—just what it is for an artwork to have cognitive value. If by this claim he means only that we can learn something from a work, then the claim is trivial. We might learn from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, for example, that a urinal can become an artwork. But Young assumes that if Fountain is a work of art, then some works of art do not have cognitive value. So he must have a richer, narrower conception of cognitive value in mind. For the moment let us not worry what this richer, narrower conception of cognitive value is. Rather, let us just assume, along with Young, that Fountain does not have cognitive value. Why, then, is this not a counterexample to Young’s claim that “art” ought to be defined such that only works with cognitive value counts as artworks? Shouldn’t we define “art,” if we are going to define it, such that all and only works of art count as art? Why ought we adopt a definition of something which excludes from the category being defined things that, on the definer’s own grounds, are properly within that category. Surely, for any definiendum the definiens ought to pick out all and only those things that have the necessary and sufficient properties for being labeled by the definiendum.

Of course, perhaps Wittgenstein is right and some terms cannot be defined in such a manner. Wittgenstein famously claimed that “games” was like this. According to Wittgenstein, no necessary and sufficient conditions can be given that would include all and only the proper uses of the English word “games.” Thus he held that “games” does not denote a concept or natural kind. Rather, the different uses of the term overlap much like the strands of a rope. So, while every proper use of the term “game” is connected to another proper use, there is no strand that connects them all together just as in a rope no strand of fiber goes all the way from one end to the other. On this view, English speakers’ use of “game” consists—to borrow a handy term from Rawls—of an overlapping consensus on what counts as a “game.” Now, as Young well knows, Wittgenstein was wrong about “games.” As Bernard Suits has shown, there is a central core meaning that covers all and only proper uses of the term. [The short version of Suit’s definition is: to play a game is,  by definition, to attempt to achieve a certain state of affairs using only those means permitted by the rules where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means and where adoption of the rules is just what makes the game possible. [1] But the fact that Wittgenstein’s example was poorly chosen should not lead us to conclude that the general point is mistaken. Perhaps many of our terms have the same status that he thought “game” had—lacking any core sense. Perhaps “art”, unlike “game”, cannot be defined. Perhaps the term “art” does not designate a class of entities all of which have a certain set of properties not shared by any other entities. If that were so, then attempts to define art would be doomed to failure.

But this is not the position taken by Young. He thinks “art” can be defined. He holds that “art” can be defined only by appeal to artworlds. There are many artworlds. So whether something counts as art for someone depends upon the artworld to which she belongs. Who counts as a member of an artworld? Young tells us that this is anyone who uses the word “art.” Some who use “art” count Fountain as art while others do not, it follows that Fountain is a work of art in some artworlds, but not others. Fountain is not art in Young’s artworld. And so, in it, Fountain does not count as a counterexample. Moreover, Young argues, every artworld should count only works with cognitive value as art. In his view, it would be better for art and for society if all works of art were to have cognitive value. In other words, it would be better if none of us used the word “art” to denote things that lack cognitive value. [2]

This is a very unhappy position. First, Young earns the right to ignore Fountain only by granting us the right to ignore Art and Knowledge. Since Fountain is a work of art according to most of us, it would seem to follow that Young isn’t speaking to us. He will point out, of course, that there is a practical lesson for all of us here since he has argued that not all artworlds use cognitive value as a criterion for defining art. But how are we to make sense of the claim. Given his definition of an artworld, to change one’s criteria about what counts as art is to change artworlds. One cannot remain a member of the same artworld and change one’s mind about what it is that makes things count as art. This may be incorrect. It is not clear whether Young takes the criteria for use of the term “art” as the relevant thing, or the extension of the use of the word. If the latter then it would be logically possible to change one’s mind about what criteria one was using and still remain a member of the same artworld. This would occur whenever the newly chosen criteria yielded the same extension for the word “art” as did the old criteria. So, in the unlikely world where the only orange things were oranges, one who initially thought that only oranges were works of art because only they were the color orange, but later came to think that oranges are art because they are the fruit they are, would have changed criteria but not changed artworlds. But Young never tells us how artworlds are to deal with such counterfactuals as, If oranges were green would they still be art?

But there’s a deeper worry. Let’s get at that worry by taking seriously Young’s claim that you belong to an artworld if you use the word “art.” Now Young cannot mean this, for then one would have to speak English to be a member. So he must mean that one is a member of an artworld if you use a word that means art (whatever that means). But then the position comes to this: art is defined by appeal to artworlds; and artworlds are defined by appeal to the meaning of art. Now Young is a coherence theorist and coherence theorists love circularity. [3] But, surely, this circle—it’s art if an artworld says it’s art and artworlds are those worlds that talk about art—is a bit on the small side to be at the core of a work titled Art and Knowledge!

In any case, even if Young is right that artists ought only to produce works of art that have cognitive value, that is no reason to define art by appeal to cognitive value. Automakers ought only to make automobiles that are safe, fuel-efficient, inexpensive to operate, and reliable. That some automakers do not do this—as Young well knows from personal experience—is no reason to conclude that they do not make automobiles. They simply make bad automobiles. Minerva, Jim’s wonderful Triumph TR6, was an automobile even if it lacked a couple of the virtues (reliability and non-astronomical operating costs) that all good automobiles embody.

Let’s return to Young’s claim that there is plurality of artworlds. What is the argument for this claim? Here I how Young puts it:

A variety of artworlds exist and items are artworks in relation to some and not artworks in relation to others. Reflection on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain makes this clear. Fountain did not exist in the sixteenth century, but it is fair to say that, if it had, it would not have been a work of art. The artworld of the Renaissance would have been completely unwilling to accept it as an artwork (Art and Knowledge pp. 8-9).

Young concludes that Fountain “is an artwork relative to a contemporary artworld and a non-artwork relative to a sixteenth-century artworld” (p. 9), and that “just as a sixteenth-century artworld and a contemporary artworld disagree about the status of certain works, so different present-day artworlds disagree” (p. 9).

This thought experiment does not make Young’s point. We might concede that a work like Fountain would not have been a work of art had it been presented in the sixteenth century without accepting Young’s conclusion that there is a plurality of artworlds. It is plausible to insist that a work’s historical role partly constitutes what that work is. Danto and others have forcefully argued for this point. But then the sixteenth century Fountain is not Fountain. This tells us something about Fountain and perhaps even about every particular work of art, but it provides no support for the existence of a plurality of artworlds. And, indeed, there is good reason to resist the claim. After all, as Young admits, there is disagreement about whether Fountain is a work of art. But how is that possible if we are not members of the same community? How is that possible if, as Young would have it, everyone is right about the application of “art?” If we say, “Fountain a work of art” and Young says, “It is not the case that Fountain is a work of art”; we do not even succeed in disagreeing. All that this amounts to is our saying that we count it as a work of art and he doesn’t. Since Young’s account of art makes disagreements about whether various entities properly count as art, his account has the effect of making one of the central questions in aesthetics nonsense.

We are willing to allow that some disputes about art are silly. Was Monet a better painter than Mendelssohn was a composer? Are Monet’s water lilies better than Mendelssohn’s violin concerto #64? How should we compare Jane Austin with Goethe? Erotetic logic condemns such questions. But Young has to hold that they make perfect sense and that there are right answers to such questions. On the other hand, the question of whether John Cage’s 4’33” is even a work of art cannot, in his view, even arise in a sensible way. But before it would be rational to accept any account which categorizes silly questions as sensible ones and sensible ones as silly ones, we would all have to be shown that enormous intellectual rewards follow from swallowing such a bitter pill. But Young gives us no reason to even want to swallow the pill. As far as we can see, everything of value in Art and Knowledge would remain of value if Young just abandoned his it is-art-if-you-think-it is-art folly.

There are lots of good things in Art and Knowledge—it is an eloquent work from which one can learn a great deal—but the account of what art is, or how we should define art, is, alas, not among them. [4]

[1] For a full statement see Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

[2] There are a whole bunch of complications that arise when one asks for whom the (supposed) work of art is to have cognitive value. Furthermore, it is not clear how to deal with works of art such as Ernesto de la Carcova’s moving Sin pan y sin trabjco, whose cognitive value can only be appreciated, it is alleged (falsely in our view) by Argentineans. Would non-Argentineans, who, because they are not Argentinians and consequently cannot relly understand the significance of the painting, presumably would get the wrong cognitive value from this powerful painting be violating Young’s directives? Or would they be following them? If both a Canadian and an Argentinian count the painting as a work of art do they occupy the same artworld or different ones?

[3] See his fine book Global Anti-Realism. (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing (Avebery Series in Philosophy) 1995).

[4] Michael Watkins developed and wrote the main line of argument. Sheldon Wein contributed the discussion of Wittgenstein and Suits and expanded upon and polished the original ideas produced by Watkins.

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