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, June 03, 2010

Performance art without the performance, or the art

The New York Times has recently started a new blog, The Stone, which will present the ideas of prominent philosophers to the general public. This is a welcome experiment, given how difficult it is to talk about philosophy to a lay audience. However, if the first couple of entries indicate the general tone of the blog, this isn’t gonna be pretty.

In particular, I was disappointed by an essay by Arthur Danto, who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. Danto rose to fame when he endorsed the pop art culture of the ‘60s, arguing that a Brillo box, once put in a museum, becomes art (methinks not). I saw Danto give a talk at the City University’s Graduate Center a few weeks ago and was rather underwhelmed, but not as much as by his Stone article entitled “Sitting with Marina.”

The Marina in question is Marina Abramovic, and Danto waxes poetic about a “performance art” piece that she “exhibited” at the Museum of Modern Art. The piece consisted of Abramovic simply sitting in a room in the museum, with the public invited to sit across from her, one person at a time, for as long as they liked. Danto himself took part in the “performance,” and apparently most participants sat there for about 20 minutes, with one young woman pissing off everyone by sitting for the whole day!

This exercise in inanity is part of an Abramovic retrospective entitled — I imagine the pun was intended — “The Artist is Present” and is one of those contemporary “art” stunts that gives the whole art world a bad reputation.

To begin with, of course, there is no “performance,” as the artist literally stayed in place motionless. Second, if this counts as art, and if people are willing to pay to “participate” in or just to see it, then I might consider selling tickets for you to come see me snoring in front of late night TV. I assure you that it will be just as good an insight into the human soul as staring into Abramovic’s face for an entire day. And I’ll give you a discount that will beat MoMA’s prices.

Of course my point here is to ask the perennial question: what is art?, which has been addressed on Rationally Speaking recently by Julia. Danto himself is keenly aware that the question will arise in the minds of his readers, sidesteps it and attempts to address instead the “meaning” of the piece. Interestingly, he then apparently forgets even his own question and tells us instead that “the performance has brought MoMA itself to the cutting edge of contemporary artistic experiment, and has in every way proven to be a succès fou.” You know he must be right if you have to look up what succès fou actually means (French for “wild success,” though since fou also means crazy, one could instead interpret the phrase as a much more appropriate “the success of the fools”).

Here is Danto again, describing the “experience” of sitting across from Abramovic, together with my running commentary:

“Marina looked beautiful in an intense red garment whose hem formed a circle on the floor, and her black hair was braided to one side.”

Okay, though of course this has nothing to do with art. Almost every other woman you pass by in New York could answer to a similar description, the details of the garment infinitely varying.

“This performance is very much a dialogue de sourds — a dialog of the deaf. Communication is on another plane.”

There you go with the French again. Ma perchè non parli inglese? (Italian for “But why don’t you speak English?” I thought I would gain some gravitas — Latin — asking the question that way.) And on what other plane was this communication taking place, anyway? Danto doesn’t say, nor, of course, does he tell us about the content of such communication.

“At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without — so it seemed — any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a ‘performance mode.’”

What is striking about this is that it was happening in a major international museum of art, and that it is being recounted by a leading art critic without a trace of irony.

“For me at least, it was a shamanic trance — her ability to enter such a state is one of her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger.”

A shamanic trance? Neither one of them were even on drugs, thereby missing the major pleasure of shamanic trances. And the essence of performance is to look beyond the eyes of the person in front of you? Well, I did not know that I experience the essence of performance every time my eyes glaze over an interlocutor whose yapping becomes boring.

Of course, not all “performance art” needs to be so unimaginative and still. Last year Kathleen Neill was arrested (though a judge later dismissed the charges) because she was performing naked at the MoMA, perhaps setting the precedent for more naked live art that is now part of the very same Abramovic exhibit. Why do I have the nagging feeling that this has much more to do with exhibitionism and publicity stunts than with art?

I realize the typical objection to my reaction to Danto’s essay: well, it’s a matter of subjective taste, and if you don’t like it just don’t go see it. If one wishes to take the relativist turn in art, fine, but then explain to me two things: in what sense can anyone claim that Abramovic is — as Danto puts it — “one of the early performance artists whose works have the deep originality that justifies their inclusion in great museums”? Moreover, if taste in art is entirely arbitrary, what then is the role of a critic?

I happen to think that there is good art and bad art, and that there also is stuff that pretends to be art but isn’t. I will defend my opinion that Beethoven was a musical genius and Britney Spears a mediocre performer, and I will moreover argue that if you know anything about music you must agree with such judgment, regardless of whether you like or dislike classical or pop music. If you don’t, you are not just exercising your right to a different opinion (which, of course, you do have), you simply understand music even less than I do, and that’s saying a lot. What was Danto thinking when waxing poetic about a piece of performance art that very arguably was neither?


  1. "given how difficult it is to talk about philosophy to a lay audience"

    Is that a feature or a bug?

    "However, if the first couple of entries indicate the general tone of the blog, this isn’t gonna be pretty."

    Were you honestly expecting something better?

  2. I have to agree, that whole piece by Danto is a waste of space. It's the kind of crap that turns 'the public' off of Philosophy.

    I'll go further: it's the type of 'philosophy' that validates Ayn Rand's position on Philosophy.

  3. Last year Kathleen Neill was arrested (though a judge later dismissed the charges) because she was performing naked at the MoMA, perhaps setting the precedent for more naked live art that is now part of the very same Abramovic exhibit.

    So they have no clothes: all they have to do now is proclaim themselves emperor and we'll be set.

  4. Hey, you could sell me on this philosophy gig if you linked to more pictures of naked women. God knows they are so hard to find on the internet.

    And since I'm objectifying women here does that make my taste in art an objective taste?

    Anyway the problem with philosophy is that it derails from anything real very easily. Philosophy is done best when it is a mere byproduct of doing something else that is useful.

  5. I loved "The Artist is Present". Not being an art connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, I can truly say this woman sparked such an intensity of thought and emotion in me as I journeyed through her exhibition. I do believe that watching her sit without seeing what had come before and without an understanding of her history and her arts history; the current "performance" would fall on deaf ears. Her ability to sit for hours on end with no food nor water nor bathroom breaks for a series of weeks is not only a physical feat unto itself (also yet another physical expression of her art from prior exhibits) but her concentration of no emoting and that of others trying to do the same is another piece of being part of the art. Massimo, I'm a big fan of your work and so enjoy learning from you, but "watching you snore" is no comparison to what Marina has done with her body through the years.
    As far as stuff "pretending to be art" isn't that something that Marcel Duchamp focused on? Showing that art is something that makes you think and ponder? Spears and most pop music of the age doesn't make you ponder anything. Marina (her work as a whole) makes you ponder a number of things most assuredly from a socio-psychological standpoint; the woman is close to genius.

  6. I think the very nature of taste invalidates the potential categorisation of something as "art" or "not art".

    I think the art is not in her performance, just sitting there motionless, but rather, the art is in her getting people to sit and look at a human woman and come to realise that she herself is a piece of beauty.

    It's not something I'd go and participate in, but I recognise that there's an artistic quality to what she did.

    It may not be the kind of art that you like, but to argue that it is completely without merit is to argue that anybody who DOES enjoy it is "wrong" - If the audience is emotionally stirred by something, then it is art.

    The problem inherent in you suggesting that there is good art and bad art, and stuff pretending to be art but isn't, is that even if that were true, there's no two people on the planet who can agree with the categorisation of works as such, and so it becomes essentially unknowable.

    Inevitably, with everybody who thinks that they have a flawless argument for or against everything claiming to be "art", there will be somebody else who believes they have an equally flawless argument that disagrees with the other persons position.

  7. one more thing :)
    you mention Kathleen Neill (a 26 year old model) Marina performed many of her naked body art pieces in the early seventies. So Kathleen wasn't even a thought in Marina's head. An interesting point of one of Marina's exhibits is that the man and woman standing naked that one must past through to get to the remainder of the exhibit (now being performed by other artists on her behalf) actually stood closer to one another in the seventies and the new laws require them to stand farther apart allowing more room for people to pass. The original piece was to see how many woman/men chose to face which sex when passing. What a great psychological experiment!

  8. I've rather enjoyed your blog - until now.

    Seriously, who gives a shit what -you- think art is? We just happen to call what artists do art.

    Art is like dog poop. If a dog did it, it's dog poop. Same with art.

    What you think about something doesn't change what it is.

  9. While most attempts I have made to answer the question "What is Art?" have had a slight flavor of "I can't define it but I know it when I see it", I can at least point to one commonality among every piece I would classify as art: effort. In any medium the works that impress me even a little bit show evidence that the creator put some thought, time, and usually skill into the creation.

  10. Massimo, this article is a miniature tour de force. Keep writing stuff this good.

  11. If it moves people then it's art. Looks like it moved someone - so why knock it?
    In some circles a woman with this talent might be declared a prophet and endowed with magic powers or something. So I find the fact that she makes no more claim than to be a lowly artist quite refreshing. Her spooky stares, magnetic presence and seemingly divine feats of bladder control are not the work of a god but a mere 'shtick'.
    I wonder how long Mohammad, Jesus and Moses could go without peeing?

  12. Who can say what is good art or bad art.... and who cares in the end? There is no denying that some people found this performance to be deeply moving. Just look at the faces of all the participants, especially the ones who were brought to tears, and the intensity of their experience can not be ignored. Have you ever seen anyone cry while looking at a painting?

    Regardless, this is such a subjective subject that I am VERY surprised you took such a strong position. I had never heard of Marina Abramovic before seeing your blog today and after perusing her web site and viewing 'The Artist Is Present' I find her to be quite interesting. The simplicity of that project is a grand statement and the intensity of the participants is where that shows undeniably.

    Massimo, I encourage you to take another look at it and hope you will see that the effort comes not only from the artist in this case but from the project as a whole. This is nothing like hanging a blank canvas on the wall or placing a Borax box in the middle of the room. It's impossible to deny the intensity that was created. Furthermore, I would argue that sitting in a chair looking people in the eye, not moving, not speaking, for two weeks straight takes a GREAT DEAL of effort.

  13. Massimo: You speak right out of my heart! Isn't complete agreement nice for a change? On the other side, that does not leave me much to write. Hm.

  14. I'm fascinated by how many apparent relativists (in this case on aesthetics, more often on ethics) frequent this blog. It's good, makes for interesting exchanges.

    Still, dustcc.manning, Abramovic's ability to endure physically harsh conditions (self-imposed for no particular reason) doesn't make art. By that standard, mountaineering is art. And Duchamp (who was no performing artist) put the urinal in the art world to make a point about the silliness and pomposity of art criticism - precisely the kind of art criticism that Danto engages in.

    Michiel Duvekot, no, art can't simply be what artists do, because anyone can call himself an artist, which means that anything would be art. That simply won't do. (As for your comment about "who gives a shit," well, I do, though you are obviously entitled to your opinion.)

    Elvis, nope, just being able to move people won't do either, because plenty of things move people and yet are clearly not art (conversations with friends, looking at a naturally beautiful landscape, religious experiences, etc.). And again, I really don't think that bladder-related fits are a reason to be featured in an art museum.

    Ken, plenty of people seem to be able to say (and many more care) what art is or isn't. There are art critics, to begin with. And museum curators. And artists. And the public who pays to go see or buy art. Again, I'm not denying either the emotional reactions generated by Abramovic in some people, even though I am baffled by why, exactly, staring into somebody's eyes is such a big deal, and suggest that it was because of the museum setting and the a priori declaration that one was looking at art. I wander if the same result could have been obtained if people were looking at her in a Starbucks and didn't know this was "art." Regardless - once more - emotional reaction and physical effort arts do not make.

    Overall, it seems to me that the commenters that are taking me to task here have to agree that they are relativists in aesthetic. For them anything goes and all artistic things are a matter of arbitrary taste. Fine, but I wonder how many people - even among alleged relativists - really believe that. Indeed, the very same act of giving *reasons* for why Abramovic is a great performance artist would seem to belie their non-relativistic take, no?

    Just because art is difficult to define, and of course involves a great degree of subjectivity, that doesn't mean that we cannot have a meaningful conversation about what art is, or what makes something a good work of art.

    I would hope that everyone would agree that Michelangelo's paintings are great art, while the stuff one buys in the art section at Target is not. If that's the case, and if watching me snoring in front of the tv isn't art, then there *is* a sense in which something is art and something else isn't, and a sense in which something is great art and something else isn't. (And you don't know what you are missing by not seeing me snoring in front of the tv.)

  15. Massimo,

    To have a meaningful conversation about what art is or isn't seems to require some form of common intuitive understanding. It does not appear to be the case. Isn't "art" one of these words (like religion maybe) that has such a wide range of meanings for different people that a discussion on its definition can be very sterile (and certainly very frustrating)? Achieving agreement seems almost hopeless.

    In any case, although what Abramovic does has certainly its points of interest, it is trivial compared to a Michelangelo painting or a Beethoven symphony. Whatever we choose to call it.

  16. Massimo, what Marina does is "performance art" therefore isn't the "physical" aspects to what she does along with the meaning behind what she is doing all included in the term "art"? Speaking of which do you not consider the "Blue Man Group" artistic with some of their physical routines, or Cirque De Soleil? You say mountaineering would be considered art based on my assertions of Marina's physical feats,it is not what I consider art due to the fact that the meaning behind one climbing a mountain is not "saying" anything, not consciousness raising? I feel that here physicality in addition to the meaning behind her works is what makes the art.
    What makes "art" to you? Why is a Beethoven symphony "art" (not saying it isn't by the way) and say Pink Floyds the Wall isn't?

  17. dustcc,

    I do consider Blue Men, Cirque and Pink Floyds art, of course. But having a bladder that allows you not to go pee for hours doesn't enter into my book, no.

    > Why is a Beethoven symphony "art" (not saying it isn't by the way) <

    That parenthetical disclosure is an admission that you think there are criteria. Which means we can have a discussion on those criteria, it's not anything goes. One of my criteria is that there has to be something non-trivially creative about an art piece, and sitting still while challenging your body not to go to the bathroom ain't a good instance of it.

  18. so barring her current "the artist is present" do you feel her previous work is art?

  19. I don't know, I haven't seen her previous work. I must admit that I am generally skeptical of performance art, I've very rarely seen "pieces" that actually belong in a museum or gallery, in my opinion. But of course there can be such thing, and it can be well done.

  20. I think one problem here is that people are being platonistic about what art is. There is not something "out there" called art that we must discover what is. "Art" is a word that we define operationally. We can even have many different overlapping and contradictory definitions of art. These definitions should be judged by their utility in a given application rather than some standard of universal truth.

    One way to judge art is by the reaction it provokes. If the major reaction that is provoked is to question if a work is art at all then...

  21. I agree with you about performance art. I generally don't care for it either and have always had trouble calling it art as opposed to entertainment.

    However, one of the definitions of art that I do like is that it's 'something that makes one think'. After viewing 'The Artist Is Present' and seeing the faces of over a thousand participants on Flicker I have to say that it made me think a great deal. Her "piece" had much more going on than the incorrect description that it's just a woman sitting on a chair doing nothing. The correct description is that it's a woman sitting in a chair while thousands of complete strangers come and sit across from her while they look each other in the eye for 20, 60, 90 minutes... and this goes on for two weeks and creates a body of impressive and moving photographs.

    Again, that brings us back to the opinion of the viewer. Why take such a strong stand as to say, not only speaking for yourself but for all the art world, that something is universally good or bad? Should we do that for people too and draw a line determining who is beautiful, okay looking, or just plain ugly?

    What if I really enjoyed 'The Artist Is Present' and think it was a cool project? If it's to be labeled "not art at all" then why did I get so much out of it?

  22. I went to the Guggenheim with my wife a few months ago to find out they had taken down almost all of their art and replaced it with performance "art". This was comprised of a couple rolling around the flow mashing (I can see that for free in Central Park) and Junior High students talking to you. It is quite refreshing to pay $18 a head and walk around a near empty building while a 14 yo asks you, "what is truth?"

    Sadly, we haven't made it to any nude performance art. It would be great to bring my 2 yo son into a museum and have him screamed excitedly "WIENER!"

  23. I would define art as the creation of beauty through intelligence. Beauty being visual, aural, olfactory, tactile, or even emotional. An underlying assumption of this definition is that the appreciation of art depends on a common experience of beauty, and sufficient intelligence to interpret our experience of the art object or performance (i.e. to extract its meaning).
    I am a proponent of the theory Steven Pinker explains in “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”. Briefly, Pinker theorizes that our sense of beauty is universal, evolved as a reproductive advantage, and equates to an attraction to goodness in nature: e.g. genetically healthy mates, verdant, fertile landscapes. Of course that doesn’t mean that only landscapes and nudes are beautiful! And that points to the intelligence needed for the creation and appreciation of art.
    The ability to extract content and meaning from a phenomenon, and then communicate it, are the aspects of intelligence that seem most relevant to the creative process. While landscapes and nudes aren’t the only subjects of artistic expression, they are among the works that are universally appreciated. But I included emotional beauty in my list because there seems to be a category of art that fails to meet any standard of visual, aural or olfactory beauty, and yet is appreciated for the emotional response it engenders. I’m not aware of a source that has classified emotions as beautiful versus not, but I think most people will know what I mean when I refer to my heart swelling, or a feeling of poignancy, or bliss, or glee, or contentment, or reverence. I think all of these are beautiful emotions, although in some cases they might be responses to things that are not visually beautiful. Poignancy in particular might more often be the response to dissonance. I’m sure there are additional emotional reactions to presumptively ugly things that could be considered beautiful.
    On the other hand, there are emotional reactions that I don’t think would be classified as beautiful, and whose creation should not be the object of artistic expression. These would include fear, revulsion, and grief, among others. The reaction I’m not quite sure how to classify is shock. That seems to be the object of many art works, but is not uniformly perceived as worthy of being designated art. I’m reserving my judgment and would be interested in opinions on either side.

  24. In many ways, in going to MOMA and sitting in that chair, you would find yourself in an unusual situation. Perhaps some sort of insight would follow.

    I mean, do you sit there and focus on the woman? Or try to grok the full gestalt of this thing, museum, participants, and all? Did she just move? Is she responding to me? Am I projecting? Is this art? This is ridiculous...I'll use these five minutes to work out my blog response.

    If it's not art, then what should it be called?

  25. I am a painter and I came to skepticism via a search for some critical inquiry into just these kinds of questions about art. As it happens, I also work at MoMA in a very low level capacity- I say this not to make an argument from authority, but to clarify my point of view. I was particularly struck by the phenomena (mentioned by Ken) of visitors crying while sitting with Abramovic. Most reactions to art remain comfortably invisible, but here we have an unusual visible display of emotion in a museum.

    Which leaves me wondering what is the cause and effect relationship at work here if any? There are some cultural contexts where crying is common- movies and church come to mind. I can probably tell you why Bambi makes someone cry- but what about this performance?

    My view is that it is more reasonable to attribute these emotional displays to the person doing the crying than to anything Abramovic did. I think what we have is a self selecting group of people predisposed to have an emotional reaction to what seems like a fairly mundane and neutral experience. Those showing up and paying twenty dollars and waiting in line for hours (even all night as, I am told, some did before the final day of the performance) are surely expecting or at least desiring something special. If someone visits a psychic and believes they are in communication with a dead relative and are moved to tears- who deserves the credit for the moving emotional experience? I don't want to discount someone’s personal feelings whatever the context, but I don't see why our standards of incredulity should be any different here, whether it is museum visitors in tears or Danto's musings.

  26. “one of the early performance artists whose works have the deep originality that justifies their inclusion in great museums”? Moreover, if taste in art is entirely arbitrary, what then is the role of a critic?

    The former is more business related than art; the latter is a good question.

    This post reminded me of a Charlie Rose episode which sums up a lot of things nicely, I think. It's about a play dealing with Mark Rothko. The dialogue of the play itself is fantastic.


  27. I'm not particularly interested in defining art or arguing about what counts as art because I really find it to be a completely inane and useless debate -- a debate that, in fact, encourages the creation of pieces like Abramovic's.

    Setting aside the question of whether the piece deserves to be exhibited in a gallery -- which as Julia emphasized in her earlier post is the important and interesting question -- what is your investment, Massimo? Why do you care so much about this question?

  28. Scott,

    that's an odd question. Why do I care so much? Intellectual curiosity, interest in art, low level ability to suffer pompous essayists like Danto or vacuous artists who think that what they do is art just because they do it? I could come up with more reasons, if you'd like.

  29. I guess I don't see how intellectual curiosity or interest in art motivates your post; I'm quite sure I have plenty of both, and I find the question of whether what Abramovic did was art to be empty. "Art" just isn't that precise a term; even if you did establish that what she did was not art, what does that tell us? Very little, as far as I can tell.

    Certainly finding pomposity insufferable is a reasonable motivation; but there must be better ways to expose pomposity than by arguing about one of the fuzziest words in the English language.

    My suspicion is that there's more to your position than is coming across to me, and I guess that's what I'm trying to understand.

  30. Scott,

    just because I'm intellectually curious about something doesn't mean that everyone has to share the same kind of curiosity. There is nothing else that I can tell that motivates me other than what I have already expressed.

    As for art being a fuzzy concept, so is science (see my latest book), or - as Wittgenstein famously emphasized - games. But this never stopped anyone from having meaningful discussions about them.

    I will probably do a follow up post, as I've seen that Danto himself has done.

  31. Arthur Danto's follow-up is probably not going to give you any further answers to your questions, indeed it's more likely to simply raise more questions and more irritation.

    It's very interesting to me that this discussion has almost exclusively centred around definitions of art and the potential value of this particular performance piece. Very little discussion whatsoever has been given to the article which first inspired your disdain. I would agree with you that Arthur Danto does a very poor job of elucidating this artwork and like everyone else I'm also going to move swiftly to the art part of the discussion.

    I have not seen this piece but I am fairly familiar with Marina's work. As someone has already mentioned, it's crucially important to read this work within the context of other things that she has made. Without this context you're only likely pick up a very partial idea of what she's doing and what it might be intended to elicit in terms of thoughts and responses. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that for some people, given the ritualistic nature of the performance and its solemn context (all galleries are solemn), it might be perceived as a very profound experience even with no prior knowledge. However, I acknowledge that profound response is no guarantee of artistry. We need to look deeper for this.

    Familiarity with any artists output is always important in enriching one's understanding of the language which they have developed or upon which they base the articulacy of their ideas. This is not to say that you need a degree in philosophy to be able to understand what an artist does, you just need to know a little, and this gives you a key to be able to understand the work a little better (is that so different in any other facet of experience? Why do people so often form such rigid opinions about things which they've barely even experienced?). The greater your familiarity and the harder you try, the more connections you are likely to be able to form. In this sense the work becomes part constructed by the reader (as we know from Roland Bathes). Once again, this alone probably says as much about the viewer as it does the maker so we have to look further.

    I often think of art as philosophy with stuff. The reason I say this is because art is a product of human endeavour and is therefore something which can be interpreted as such. Performance art is no different in this respect. This performance is the representation of an idea. The idea is extremely simple but no less potent for its simplicity. This is one of the extraordinary things about all art: a little effort can have gigantic consequences and the more precise, intelligent, well crafted, innovative, risky, beautiful, surprising, unpredictable, awe-inspiring, profane, sacred or disarmingly simple it is, the more likely it is to move people to emotional or intellectual appreciation. That's art.

  32. Well, I'll look forward to your next post on the question then.

    I will say, briefly, that from the above, I get the sense that you see an analogy between pseduo-science and "pseduo-art." Is that right?

    However, the mention of Wittgenstein, to my mind, works against your argument. To be a bit simplistic, isn't Wittgenstein basically saying that whatever a given group of people sees fit to call a game is a game? So the analogous argument would be to say that art is whatever a given group of people sees fit to call art.

    But perhaps you've got a different or more subtle take on Wittgenstein than I'm offering here. Still, it would strike me as awfully strange to use late Wittgenstein to justify one's argument that, say, Conway's Game of Life isn't really a game.

  33. Scott,

    my take on Witty is different indeed. I think he is saying that concepts like games do not admit of necessary/sufficient conditions, and yet are in fact meaningful and non (entirely) arbitrary.

    There is a close analogy between family resemblance concepts and cluster analysis in statistics: in the latter, objects are classified in non-arbitrary clusters due to overall similarity, but there isn't a given set of conditions that includes/excludes a particular object from belong to a particular cluster.

  34. Well I agree that the notion of family resemblance can be thought of in statistical terms, but that leaves out a lot of Wittgenstein. What about the emphasis that Wittgenstein places on use?

    The SEP cites this relevant quotation: "For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language" (PI 43).

    This is reminding me of Julia's dinosaur comic. My complaint about that comic applies here as well: where do the clusters come from? Statistics allow us to measure those clusters but statistics alone don't tell us how they form.

  35. Scott,

    all of this is correct, but I don't see the problem. Of course the meaning of words derives from their usage in language. Where else could it come from? But that doesn't mean that the *concepts* to which those words refer are arbitrary. What we mean by "planet" is a matter of language use, and the category is not precisely defined (see the fate of poor Pluto), but could one argue that planets simply are whatever astronomers say they are?

  36. Well, here's the problem as I see it. There's a line of reasoning that goes like this:

    1a. Wittgenstein's premise: for a large class of cases in which we employ the word 'meaning,' the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

    1b. Our current discussion belongs to that class of cases.

    2. There exists a large group of individuals who use the word "Art" to refer to the work in question.

    Therefore Abramovic's work is art.

    So if you argue that Abramovic's work is not art, you have to reject one of the above premises. 2 is an empirical fact, and you've just claimed that you agree with 1a, so perhaps you reject 1b?

    If so, I'm curious why.

    Regarding your point about planets, I think it's trivially true that planets are whatever astronomers say they are. But that doesn't mean that the properties of the objects that revolve around our sun are arbitrary; it simply means that our choice of categorization schema is arbitrary.

    It's true that some categorization schemata may be more useful than others, depending on context. So perhaps in that sense, our choice is not arbitrary. But at the same time, there may not be a single choice that is always the best; or there may be a set of possible choices that cannot be meaningfully compared.

  37. Scott, I'm just now working on the follow-up post, so it may be better to wait. Still, the problem with your argument is that then art (or anything else) becomes entirely an arbitrary concept. If so, then there is no sense in which someone can meaningfully be an art critic, there is no better or worse art, and yours truly snoring on a couch is art if enough people talk about it...

  38. I don't understand the point of arguing about whether to classify Marina's work as "art" or "not-art", especially because (as various commenters have pointed out), the word art is very vague and is used differently by different people.

    As I was trying to argue in my earlier post, if you want to move beyond a trivial debate about whether a particular thing fits a particular definition, then you need to talk about either (1) objective facts about the thing itself: its complexity, how difficult it was to achieve, etc., or (2) facts about your reaction to the thing: whether it held your interest, whether you found it beautiful, etc.

    So for example, Massimo, you can certainly say that Marina didn't hold your interest and that her work didn't move you. And other people can say that she did hold their interest, and that she did move them. There's nothing here to argue about.

    (Unless, Massimo, you want to try and make the case that people's positive reactions to Marina were somehow faulty -- e.g., that they report positive reactions only because they were caught up in the hype and cachet around Marina).

  39. > Unless, Massimo, you want to try and make the case that people's positive reactions to Marina were somehow faulty -- e.g., that they report positive reactions only because they were caught up in the hype and cachet around Marina <

    That is exactly what I am arguing...

  40. And I share that suspicion, Massimo! But I was trying to make two points:

    (1) the argument about why people reacted the way they did to Marina is unrelated to whether you call her work "art". (Indeed, I suspect plenty of people's positive reactions to Picasso and Bach are also due to hype and cachet).

    (2) I don't think you can make a case about any work being "better" or "worse" in some objective way than other works. You can talk about objective facts like its complexity or how much effort was involved, but those criteria may not matter to someone else. And you can talk about your reactions to something -- whether it interested you, or moved you, etc. -- but I don't see how you can argue that other people "should" have the same reactions, or that they're wrong if they don't.

  41. Yes, I know you are a relativist, in art as in ethics. I am writing about that in the new post as we speak...

    (Hint: better or worse art is in fact a matter of things like complexity, effort, originality, etc. The fact that some of those things may not matter to some people may simply imply that those people are not good at thinking about art...)

  42. Well, I await your new post with anticipation, as usual :-) And I won't comment at length until then.

    But for now I will just ask:

    When you say, "better or worse art is in fact a matter of things like complexity, effort, originality, etc," how do you know? Are you just saying that people who study art prefer those qualities? Or are you just deciding to define the word "better" to mean those things?

  43. And Massimo, just to be clear, I personally am attracted to more complex, difficult-to-achieve work. Marina's piece absolutely did not interest me or appeal to me. But I don't see how I could go beyond that statement to say, "Marina's piece is bad".

    Unless, as I said, you want to define the word "bad" to refer to various objective properties like simplicity, or lack of effort, etc. But if that's all you're doing, then why not just say "It was simple and required little effort," rather than the more convoluted "It was bad, and by bad I mean simple and requiring little effort"?

  44. Julia,

    just substitute the word "ethics" for "art" and we are having the same conversation. When you say that I should "just" say that X required little effort is badly executed, etc., that's precisely what I mean when I say it is bad. And saying it is bad is actually much shorter than saying all of the above...

    Similarly, your position in our other debate was that "all" I am saying when I say that something is immoral is that it hurts people, it treats them unfairly, etc. Yes, that's *all* I'm saying. Where you expecting some sort of mystical mumbo jumbo to go with it? ;-)

  45. Massimo, yes, using the words "good" and "bad" takes less time, but it also adds a ton of confusion, and generates unnecessary debates, because other people mean totally different things by them.

  46. No, that would be the case if the only thing I did was to say "this is bad, this is unethical." I don't, I write thousands of words explaining why I think something is bad or unethical.

  47. Right, but then we get into these pseudo-debates in which you say, "This piece is bad because X, Y, Z" and someone else says, "No, it's good because of A, B, C" and the only reason you appear to disagree is that you're using different definitions of good and bad. That's why I call it a pseudo-debate.

  48. Julia,

    it's a pseudo-debate only if you assume that no matter what reasons one brings forth they are as worthy, sound, coherent, etc. as anyone else's reasons. I simply don't think that is the case. If you do, then you are a relativist in these matters. Which is fine, except that the consequences are huge, especially when it comes to ethics.

  49. It may be telling that the penultimate sitter was a Tibetan lama, who is supposedly a friend of the artist. Sitting with a qualified teacher can indeed be a powerful experience, and has plenty of precedent in various branches of Buddhism. I don't know if Marina was up to the task.

    Buddhists also make a big deal about being "present." Some would say that's the whole point of meditation.

  50. Hi Massimo,

    I'll wait for your post to say everything I want to say; however, I want to point out briefly that the purpose of art critics isn't only to evaluate art. Critics also explicate art, drawing our attention to subtleties or complexities that we might not have noticed on our own. So even if my argument leads to relativism -- and I'm not convinced that it necessarily does -- it doesn't do away with the need for art critics.


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