About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Is this art? ...and why that's the wrong question.

Once it became de rigeur for artists to try to subvert museumgoers' expectations, by exhibiting everything from blank canvases to dead sharks, the world started seeing a lot of heated arguments of the "This-is-art"/ "No-it's-not" variety. You've probably had, or heard, these arguments before. They tend to go something like this:

Person A: That's not art! The artist didn't do anything, he just found that urinal and wrote his name on it.
Person B: No, it is art, because it's making a statement.

or, alternatively:

Person C: That's not art. It's just an advertisement -- its sole purpose is to sell things to people.
Person D: No, it's art; it's visually striking and it evokes an emotion.

I think the first thing to recognize here is that when people disagree about whether a particular object "is art," they're almost never disagreeing over what properties that object possesses. In the first example I gave, Person A and B agree that the artist found a urinal and wrote his name on it, and they agree that it is the artist's way of making a statement. They just disagree over whether those facts are sufficient to call the object "art." In the second example, Person C and D agree that the object is visually striking, has the potential to evoke an emotion, and was created with the sole purpose of selling something. They just disagree over whether those qualities are sufficient to call the object "art."

So what they're really disagreeing about, whether they explicitly realize it or not, is the definition of the word "art." But does it make sense to disagree about the definition of a word? In one sense, it's an empirical question; you can ask what most people mean when they use the word, or how the word was originally used. But those questions are pretty easily addressed by consulting a dictionary or doing a survey.

And in another sense, you can define a word to mean whatever you want it to mean, as long as the person you're talking to understands what you mean by it. If Person A uses the word "art" to mean "something beautiful that required skill to create" and Person B uses the word "art" to mean "something intentionally created to make a statement," then it seems like their debate over whether the urinal is "art" should be resolved as soon as they clarify what they meant by the word.

So why does the debate, "What is art?" still rage if it's just a semantic question? Why does it feel like we're disagreeing about more than definitions?

Because we are. I think "Is this art?" is a great example of what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls a "disguised query." As Eliezer explains, when we are arguing about how to categorize something, it's immensely clarifying to ask: Why does it matter? For instance (and this is my example, not Eliezer's), is a 16-year-old an adult? Well, it depends why you're asking. You might be asking whether a 16-year-old is capable of bearing children. Or you might be asking whether we should let a 16-year-old make life-changing decisions. In either case, the argument over whether to classify a 16-year old as an adult is beside the point once you recognize why you're asking. As Eliezer says, "But people often don't realize that their argument about where to draw a definitional boundary, is really a dispute over whether to infer a characteristic shared by most things inside an empirical cluster."

So when we ask "is this art?" we can get at the disguised query by following it up with, "Why does it matter?" As far as I can tell, the disguised query in this case is usually "does this deserve to be taken seriously?" which can be translated in practice into, "Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?" And that's certainly a real, non-semantic debate. But we can have that debate without ever needing to decide whether to apply the label "art" to something -- in fact, I think the debate would be much clearer if we left the word "art" out of it altogether.

If the reason we're arguing about how to define art is that we want to decide what sorts of things to devote our attention, money, and gallery space to, then we should just address that question directly. Do we want our museums to contain things many people find interesting to look at? Things that required skill to create and are visually interesting or express a sentiment? Of course people have very different preferences, and we would also need to settle on a way of collectively making those decisions. But what we're currently doing is: we all agree on the statement "museums should contain art" and then each of us defines "art" to mean "objects possessing those traits which I consider sufficient to warrant display in a museum." How is that remotely helpful?


  1. Massimo, are you familiar with the notion of an essentially contested concept?


  2. I have found that, in my trials through an education in the arts, that this argument rarely makes it past the very fortified semantic wall. I just thought I'd weigh in another angle to the question, wary of its relevance to your article.

    In discussions of artistic merit, the "subjective argument" is the great equalizer. No matter how educated your opinion on a certain facet or genre of art, someone can ALWAYS chime in with "well art is subjective; if I like it, it's good art."

    My lifetime of training in music composition tells me to wring the neck of that claimant when the song in question is, say, Nickelback. I can demonstrate in VERY empirical and explicit terms WHY they can't write, but hey "I like it. Art is subjective." carries just as much weight.

    It's eerily similar to a religious argument against adversity. "I hear what you're saying, but I have faith."

    Anyway, this comment applies more to "is this GOOD art" rather than "is this art"

  3. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, addresses the question of whether comics are art. "Of course they are," he says, "especially when your definition of art is as broad as mine!" His definition is: anything humans do that's not essential for survival or reproduction.

    Sure, it's broad -- but it's about as good a definition as any other I've seen. :)

  4. It's good to have a name for this argument, because I see it often in political arguments.

    When I see it there, it's almost always used as a trap: if I can force you to concede it belongs to this class ("art") then I have forced you to concede that it has every attribute that is generally perceived for objects of that class ("worth being hung in a museum").

    It takes a while to deconstruct that, and they are usually celebrating victory. Maybe I should argue with different people...

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  6. Julia, good post! I'll have to remember that "disguised query" aid.

    BubbaRich, I second your observation re: political discourse. In fact, we saw it here a few months back, when Massimo's critique of libertarianism drew ire by those asserting (among other things) that all taxes are (by some Ayn-Randian/Objectivist definition) "theft"; ergo, taxes should be outlawed. As I pointed out then, there's a leftist version, as well, which is that all wage labor is (by some orthodox Marxist definition) "slavery". And I've heard radical critics from both the left and the right refer to current Washington policies are "fascist."

    Applying Julia's "Why does it matter?" response to these strong words might strike many as callous endorsements (after all, virtually everyone that I know likes art, but virtually no one that I know likes theft, slavery, or fascism). But the logic seems to work, regardless, and the question might actually might lead to a more helpful dialog in some cases.

  7. "As I pointed out then, there's a leftist version, as well, which is that all wage labor is (by some orthodox Marxist definition) "slavery"."

    Wrong. A Marxist definition going back to the old man himself is very careful to differentiate between wage labor and slave labor. It is key to the whole of Marxist theory of capitalism.

    The term "wage slavery" may indeed be used as political rhetoric, but it is not meant to imply that wage labor is actual slavery, but only like "slavery" in that the worker is not actually free, but must sell his/her labor power to survive.

    Anyway, very interesting post Julia.

  8. Sheldon wrote: "Wrong. A Marxist definition going back to the old man himself is very careful to differentiate between wage labor and slave labor."


    Still, I would not be at all surprised if a right-libertarian were to pipe in next with a parallel qualification; viz. that taxes are enough like theft that they deserve to be outlawed. They might (especially if they are given to appeals to authority) even attribute this more modest and nuanced claim to one of their idols, such as Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman.

    My point here is basically the same as Julia's, only in a slightly weaker form: Assuming that X is like Y, why does it matter?

    After all, it's possible that there's something good to be said about Y, and the only ways in which X is like Y is in its good respects. Compare: Bob cares for his family; Hitler cared for his family; ergo, Bob is like Hitler.

    Yeah, so?

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  10. jcm,

    I don't think I am taking issue with your or Julia's point as a whole, but only taking issue with your mis-attribution that wage labor is regarded as slave labor according to Marxist theory, orthodox or other.

    In fact, its just the opposite. Marxist theory very explicitly differentiates between modes of production, a slave mode of production where the entire human being is bought and sold as a commodity, and treated as property; versus the capitalist mode of production where a worker sells their labor power as a commodity, but is free to sell it to the highest bidder, or attempt to make their livelihoods in another manner, or die.

    Anybody who claims to utilize Marxist theory but fails to understand this distinction simply doesn't know what they are talking about.

    Gettting to your and Julia's question, why does it matter. Well in the topic I am addressing, it obviously matters a great deal. It certainly is better to be a wage laborer than a slave, and no reason to go into the reasons why. And it certainly is better to sell ones labor power for a decent living than to not be able to sell one's labor power and be homeless and hungry. Yet with that said, there certainly are millions of wage earners who wish they could direct their labor, and for their own ends, instead of enriching their distant bosses.

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  12. Sheldon:

    I don't think I am taking issue with your or Julia's point as a whole, but only taking issue with your mis-attribution that wage labor is regarded as slave labor according to Marxist theory, orthodox or other.

    I admit that my parenthetical remark was careless (especially having read Capital Vol. 1 not too long ago) in describing the "wage slavery" term as "orthodox Marxist."* It is, nonetheless, an analogy that I have only encountered in leftist circles or from leftist individuals, whatever its historical origins. Also, it continues to strike me as an amusing parallel to the "taxation is theft" analogy that often seems to come from the right.

    BTW, I don't disagree with your answer to the "why does it matter" question, as it applies to this topic. However, whether or not Marxist theory has helped or hindered that cause (as opposed to, say, miring it in sideshow debates) is, of course, a different question.

    * Perhaps "Leninist" would have been more apropos, as in: "We must suppress them [capitalists -jcm] in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force.." from State and Revolution.

  13. "disguised query": what a brilliant characterization. So much academic and real-world debate seems to fall into this category. Thanks for it: I will use the "Why does it matter" response often.

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  15. jcm,
    Well if you have read Capital, then certainly you know what I am talking about.

    In the quote from Lenin, this is a good example of him using the "wage slavery" phrase as political rhetoric or as a very loose analogy, but not in a theoretical or analytical usage where he would be very clear about the distinction between literal slavery and wage labor.

  16. Blake, well put. But I'd say we can absolutely have the discussion about the merits of a piece of music without having to say whether to label it "art" or not. Once we have discussed whether the piece of music is original, musically complex, appealing to us, etc., what then is the point of asking, "Yes, but is it ART?"

    James, "Understanding Comics" is a favorite of mine! I think that quote from McCloud, however, is just another example of the kind of unhelpful semantic debate I was referencing in my post. If McCloud says, "Comics are art because I define art to mean 'anything humans do that's not essential for survival or reproduction'", and someone else says, "No, comics are not art, because I define art to mean 'paintings and sculpture'"... then I don't see what they're gaining by introducing the word "art" at all. It seems much more relevant to discuss the qualities of the comics themselves -- can comics be beautiful? Can they be entertaining? Can they comment perceptively on the human condition? And as I said to Blake, once you have answered those questions to your satisfaction, what then is gained by asking, "Yes, but are they ART?"

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  18. Is it useful to apply some of the ideas for which L. Wittgenstein is famous: "family resemblance" when we try to decide if something is art or not. And perhaps the question: "What kind of answer do you want?"

  19. Sheldon:

    Well if you have read Capital, then certainly you know what I am talking about.

    Well, it's a big book*, but I certainly recall some discussion of different historical stages or "modes of production" (i.e. primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism). I suppose that's why I was prepared to concede your point (as opposed to digging my heels in) about my "wage slavery" attribution.

    But then, again, the right-libertarians (or at least the more reflective ones) who compare taxation to theft needn't literally believe in their analogy in order to gain debating points from it.**

    And I think that's more to the point of this thread: it might be quicker & easier to disparage or advocate for something (e.g. be it a museum piece or a policy) by drawing an association or disassociation with something else. But insofar as it "disguises the query", and thereby leads to sideshow debates, it may actually be counter-productive (i.e. even for one's own cause).

    * And, again, I'm only talking about Vol. 1, which I read last year while also following David Harvey's online video lectures.

    ** I've often thought that "extortion" was a better analogy than "theft", if one truly feels coerced into paying one's taxes (which I never really have - or at least far less so than by my having to work for a living).

  20. I really enjoyed this post and it got me thinking over the last few days. I am not sure I agree with the statement that the question of “is it art” is a disguised query. I am new to the term disguised query but as I understand it, this question is not always disguising the intended concern and I think there are times when the question “is it art” is valid.

    One of the questions you asked to decide if this question is a disguised query is “why does it matter.” I think in your post you were applying this question to particular works or objects but the question can be asked broadly as well. One of the answers to that question is that we have decided to value art as art. We don’t value all art for the same reasons but for the most part we are happy to call it art and celebrate it as such. For example, some art is valued for its historical significance, some for the entertainment value; some because it is beautiful, and some is valued for the political or social importance, yet generally we accept the different types of work with different merits as art.

    The question whether it is art or not is important when new work and ideas test our understanding of art. The example of the urinal you mentioned in your post illustrates this importance. The questions of authorship, originality, and the context applied to this object specifically ask us to consider can this work be a work of art. Applying these questions to a urinal on display in a space dedicated to art asks us to consider the wider question of what we think art is. I believe that the reason the Fountain is still important to us these days is that it is an object that specifically asks “is this art.” Without that question built into the work we would not be paying much attention to it now.

    This can lead to questions as to why we value art. As an example to illustrate this, many times the question “is it art” is asked of artwork that is considered offensive by a segment of the community. It might be tempting to say that asking if it is art is disguising the real concerns and questions such as is it offensive, because it is offensive should it be removed, does it have merits that excuse the offensive nature of the work, does the offensive quality have its own value, etc. All these questions are important to ask about the work as to the individual merit of the work in question but when asking these questions part of the discussion will lead back to the larger question of what is art and why do we value it. If one asks whether an individual work is too offensive to display or not, then one also asks can art be offensive. The same can be said of any of characteristics of a work we may be discussing, beauty, complexity and such. Does art need to be beautiful or can it be ugly? Does it need to be complex or can art be simple? Discussing and defining the merits of a particular work brings with it the discussion of what art is. That is because we are pushing forward our own ideas of what art encompasses without disputing the idea that we value art as something separate from our other aspects of our communities that we value.

  21. My (?) definition of art is: art is whatever is made with the intent of being appreciated as art.

    Circular? Maybe. So what?

    If someone put a urinal or blank canvas in the middle of somewhere and called it art, then art it is. It does not matter whether it's is good or not, if it takes skill or not, or whether they are even trying to make a statement at all (not wanting to make one in itself is a statement anyway). If someone made music that the "technical elite" with years of painstaking (or not) education does not like... much the worse for the elite. Sure, technically Bach is on quite a different level than 50 Cent, say. But that is irrelevant, because technical aspects don't matter. Both are equally music, and one could even say that the rapper is more relevant to many more people than Bach has ever been. So what? It's art, anything should be allowed to go, because to me in art anything goes. :-)

    Back to the "good or not", I'm inclined to say that "popular vote" decides that. After all, what social good is art that only 10 people enjoyed and everyone else found pointless?

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  23. A great artist makes you see events and situations in a way you never visualized them before. Rockwell's drawings of doctors examining girls' dolls, Otto Dix depicting Weimar Germany, and Goya's series of etchings on war all tell a different story.

    But we had no right to remove the cigarette from Jackson Pollock's mouth in the stamp commemoration his abstract paintinf. He always had a cigarette in his mouth. Soon we will be like the Soviet Encyclopedia, and cut out those parts of history which are currently unfashionable, or give the "wrong" message. This is why "A Peoples" History of the United States" is important, vis=a=vis how Columbus brutalized the Carib Indians who had never heard of working in a mine before his arrival.


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