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.
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.
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?