My previous post on Arthur Danto’s New York Times article about the performing art of Marina Abramovic has generated quite a discussion on Rationally Speaking. Apparently, Danto got quite a reaction also on the NYT’s web site, so much so that he has felt compelled to do a follow-up post to answer some of his readers’ questions. Unfortunately, the new post doesn’t really shed much light on Danto’s thinking about art, except for a single hopeful paragraph, which the author himself immediately, and unwisely, dismisses (more on this in a moment).
Let me start with a few comments on Danto’s second piece, and then broaden the scope of this post by addressing some of the remarks posted on RS. In response to the obvious question posed by one reader, “is performance art really art?” Danto launches into a brief — and somewhat idiosyncratic — history of the philosophy of aesthetics. He starts out, predictably enough, with Plato’s theory that art is a form of imitation. While initially influential, just like pretty much everything Plato wrote, that view has gone out of favor in philosophy a long time ago.
Danto then moves to where I think the answer actually lies, citing Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance concepts,” the idea that many concepts do not admit of a small set of necessary and sufficient conditions that provide a sharp definition of the concept itself. Wittgenstein’s famous example was the concept of games: it is surprisingly difficult to define, as you will discover for yourself if you spend a few minutes trying. (Games are not defined by having rules, because plenty of non-game activities have rules; or by being competitive, because not all games are competitive; or by a scoring system, because not all games have scores; and so on.)
Danto correctly says that “yet not having a definition does not stand in the way of our picking out the art works from a pile of assorted things.” Indeed! But then he goes on to dismiss Wittgenstein and to tell us that art can be just a pile of things (Duchamp’s famous urinal, Warhol’s Brillo boxes), because, you see, “the work of art has meaning; it is about something.” Ah, but by that definition, pretty much everything human beings do is art, because everything we do has meaning (for us). Not good enough, methinks.
Danto then goes back to defending Abramovic’s specific work (remember, she was just sitting on a chair staring at whoever happened to be sitting across from her). He says that “it was in a sense a sacrifice on the artist’s part, an ordeal, an immense favor conferred on those who sat with her ... The sitters are honored to be in the presence of the artist. It is a ritual moment, and understood as such by their own ordeal of waiting ... These are some of the hermeneutical aspects that the artist understood.”
Oh boy, you know you are in trouble when someone brings in hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation, which has gone down the drain ever since Heidegger). I seriously doubt that Abramovic went through an “ordeal” for her performance (except for the self-imposed, and rather silly, rule of not getting up to go pee when nature called). As for a paying customer at the museum being “honored” by her still presence, well I guess that truly is a matter of taste. None of this, however, answers the question of whether this particular instance of performing art was either art or a performance in any non-trivial sense of those terms.
Danto does attempt to define performance art more broadly: “what distinguishes performance art from the rest of art is the presence of the artist’s body.” Okay, but is the mere presence of that body art? Is it a performance? Which brings me back to the broader issue. I do not pretend to have a precise answer to what art is. Indeed, I fully subscribe to myself a Wittgenstein-type family resemblance concept of art, which means that it intrinsically does not admit of precise definitions. But as Danto himself acknowledges, this doesn’t mean that the concept is either meaningless or arbitrary.
Several comments on our previous thread challenged the whole premise of my post, insisting that art is what artists do, or some variant thereof. But the only people who can coherently maintain that approach are cultural relativists — and even they would have to admit that if I declare that snoring on my couch is performing art, then so it is.
What I find interesting is that very few people would actually agree that there is no rhyme or reason at all in discussing what is and what is not art. Those same people go to museums, which means that they trust the (presumably not entirely arbitrary) considered opinions of art critics as experts (Danto wrote a long essay for the Museum of Modern Art about Abramovic’s piece). But the whole idea of expertise, or aesthetic judgment, doesn’t make any sense if art is an entirely arbitrary concept.
In some sense there are some interesting parallels (not to be pushed too far, to be sure) between this debate and the one I’ve been having here at RS with Julia, on whether ethics is a matter of entirely arbitrary taste or whether one can make rational arguments in favor of one ethical decision and against another one. Again it seems to me that many people lean toward some type of moral relativism, only to presumably recoil from it when one points out consequences like the conclusion that genital mutilation of young girls is okay. (On the latter point, at least, I agree with Sam Harris’ critique of relativism, even though I do think his answer to the question of the foundations of ethics is wrong.)
As Julia put it in the discussion thread about my previous post (where she was disagreeing with my take), “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 strikes me as a correct inference. I’m not sure about people’s reactions being “faulty,” a reaction is a reaction. But yes, I do think that a lot of contemporary art (not just Marina’s piece, and not just performance art) is in a sense a sham, a matter of hype fueled by self-important critics and artists, not to mention museum curators. It is fitting that Danto invokes Duchamp, whose “set pieces” were actually meant precisely as a not too subtle criticism of the pomposity and sometimes downright absurdity of the art world. Apparently, he succeeded far too well in making his point.