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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Performance art without the performance, or the art — part deux

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.


  1. I found out about this party late so I'm mostly responding to something you said in the comments to your previous post (but I think it's still relevant to the ongoing discussion.)

    You said "... 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."

    I see the misunderstanding here that it isn't sufficient for one to self-label as an artist. That description has to be, at least, validated by other denizens of the art world. In fact, it may not even be necessary to self-label (think Grandma Moses before she became an artist or any number of artists making up the Outsider Art world.)

    There is a form of cultural relativism at work, of course, if only because any culture worth having and caring about will be changing. Duchamp's Fountain may have been a comment on the pomposity of the critics of the day. But it also became an entrance into the world of art-as-found. Just as a photographer has to have noticed before framing the shot.

    In short, I see the arts as experimental fieldwork tracing out the past, current, and future continuums of our categories. I wouldn't presume to hazard a guess as to what Wittgenstein would think of the art under discussion. But I think he would understand the "aesthetic games" we enjoy playing.

  2. In order to understand what performance art is, it may help to compare cases of what people claim to be performance art.

    Start with clear-cut cases of performance art, and then move to less likely cases, and then to rather dubious cases.

    This could, perhaps, flesh out some of the features of performance art, and help lay out some of the family resemblances involved between cases.

    But, just as with games, we may encounter two games that share no features whatsoever (except for being games), but they will share features with other games.

    We may ultimately encounter a question similar to "can one play chess without the queens?"

  3. Hi Massimo,

    Having read your second piece on this, I'd like to renew our discussion. I still disagree with you on a couple of points.

    First, although you rephrased it, you didn't really change this argument:

    "But the whole idea of expertise, or aesthetic judgment, doesn’t make any sense if art is an entirely arbitrary concept."

    People with expertise in art do much more than make aesthetic judgments. In fact, I happen to think that making aesthetic judgments is one of the least important activities of art critics. Almost anyone can make an aesthetic judgment, but relatively few people can offer a detailed history of the development of linear perspective in western art.

    Second, you still haven't addressed the problem of use in Wittgenstein. As I argued before, there is a very simple line of reasoning that supports the conclusion that Abramovic's work is art. If you want to argue that it is not art, then it seems to me that you must reject one of the following premises.

    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.

    Which do you reject and why?

    I will add I don't think that the assertion that "art is what people call art" and the assertion that "art is what I call art" are equivalent at all. Moreover, if "art is what people call art," then although "art" may not have a stable meaning at all times and in all places, it does have a stable meaning in particular contexts. In fact, given the above definition of art, I think there can be few more dependable truths than the statement that at New York's Museum of Modern Art, between March 14 and May 31, 2010, Marina Abramovic was performing a work of art.

  4. Scott,

    okay, to your objections, in turn:

    1. Art critics. Of course there is more to being an art critic than (informed) aesthetic judgment, including an historical perspective. But first off, art criticism is not the same as art history. Second, your objection does nothing to invalidate my point that for any art criticism that includes judgment at all to exist one must be able to distinguish, broadly, what counts for art and what doesn't (allowing of course for many grey areas).

    2. Wittgenstein. I reject premise 1a. Wittgenstein's family resemblance concept has been used by philosophers (including, but not limited to, myself) to define biological species, for instance. No biologist would say that species are just what people say species are. They are not arbitrary constructs, and yet they fit perfectly Wittgenstein's ideas.

    3. I don't see the distinction between saying that art is what (some) people call art and that art is what I call art. How many people do I have to convince before a performing piece made up of yours truly snoring on a couch becomes art? Two, three? 200? Surely I don't have to make it to MoMA in order to be called art. Conversely, my point of course is that just because MoMA's curators say something is art, it doesn't follow that it is. And a fortiori it doesn't follow that it is *good* art.

  5. I think I can object to the charge of arbitrariness, leveled as it is against art as a category.

    Art, much like a biological species, receives objects by virtue of reasons and consensus. People give their reasons, for and against, and eventually there is enough of a consensus to form a convention of art around the object. Similar objects will often be given the benefit of the doubt (assumed to be art), but these too are subject to consensus regarding their exclusion from the category of art.

    It isn't that objects are art because people say they are, but because they are encompassed by the ever-emerging convention of art, a convention justified on non-arbitrary grounds.

  6. I don't know Wittgenstein, but I know that people certainly don't learn most words by looking them up in a dictionary. We see a bunch of examples and form an intuition. So we learn that Mona Lisa is 100% art and sparrows are 100% birds, but ostriches seem less bird-like. They're not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of birds. But then science, law, and other practical reasons force us to come up with objective definitions that draw a line somewhere in the gray area, which may not agree with our subjective intuition.

  7. Massimo,

    As I worked my way down your post, you struck two chords, viz. Wittgenstein and there possibly being a parallel between aesthetics and morality, which have me wondering whether there might be some harmony to be found here.

    Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus, “The sense of the world must lie outside the world…If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case.” Aesthetic and moral judgments are judgments of value. They are qualitatively dissimilar from the totality of facts. If Wittgenstein is correct, they may even be said to provide the form (in an Aristotelian sense) for the world in which we live: the moral and the aesthetic shapes (from outside) that which is the case—whatever that might mean.

    Kant said something perhaps along the same line in the 3rd Critique: namely, aesthetic judgments of the Beautiful prepare one to make moral judgments of the Good. There is a relationship between aesthetics and morality and our existence in the realms of the intelligible and sense--again, whatever this might mean.

    If one reads Plato’s dialogues as artistic, mimetic works he might be seen to think something similar as might Aristotle if “catharsis” is understood as “purification.”

    At any rate, you seem to be on to something here, Massimo, but currently your aesthetics, morality, and science (in a general sense) are not as cozy as one would hope. Will you expound your views concerning the interrelationship between aesthetics, morality, and science to see if they might come to rest more comfortably with one another?

  8. Massimo has said that I press too hard on the matter of definitions, but I must return to it, because the way words are used really affects this discussion. And I have to say that between Massimo and Julia, Massimo is the one more apt to manipulate connotations to his advantage.

    Suppose you have a description of the category of "art" that is entirely non-normative. This is to say that art is not necessarily good, and being art does not make something better. If we adopted such a definition of art, then we would likely conclude that T-Pain and Eminem produce art. This would not be to say anything good about their crafts; I cannot stand either , but I would be content to call their art "bad art". I would not say that their crafts are "not art".

    But the term "art" is also sometimes used normatively. People will say "that's not art" not just to make an assertion about something's state of being or purpose but to degrade it. Some people really would say "Eminem's rap isn't art", and they would say this precisely because they find Eminem's performances detestable.

    Massimo is right that I trust museum curators to keep displays of art for me to see and enjoy. But he overstates the degree to which I might care about whether or not a piece actually fulfills a non-normative definition of art. For example, if we descriptively asserted that Jackson Pollock was an artist, that would not make me want to see his art in an art museum any more than it would make me want to sit across from a still human being in an art museum. Either way, I do not enjoy myself. When I go to an art museum, I want to have a very enjoyable visual aesthetic experience.

    So I find Massimo's musings on art suspect because I feel that he's trying to double-dip the concept of art in both descriptive and normative territory. It seems to me that he wants to descriptively determine that postmodern art is not art, and then use this as a justification to normatively imply that postmodern art is bad. It doesn't work like that. If postmodern art doesn't fit a descriptive definition of art, that doesn't necessarily mean that postmodern art is bad - it just means that it's not really art (as the name seems to imply).

    Massimo compares the debates between art realism/relativism and moral realism/relativism. But moral realists skirt the descriptive/normative divide even more. That's essentially all Sam Harris does: he manipulates the connotations of words to trade descriptive claims for normative ones.

    If we descriptively state that "causes a net increase in suffering" is the definition of the word "wrong", then we have no basis to assert that people generally have any cause to avoid doing things that are wrong. If I recall correctly, Gilbert Harman once imagined a group of aliens who enjoy feasting on human brains. They don't care about our suffering, so they just start harvesting our brains. In this case, the aliens could fully acknowledge that eating our brains is "wrong" without feeling even the slightest bit inclined to stop feeding on us. The "wrongness" of the action just wouldn't matter.

  9. Purely descriptive definitions of moral terms don't carry the behavioral wait that moral realists want them to. So what do they do? They try to underhandedly swap description for normativeness. It's a two step process:

    1. First, adopt some sort of purely descriptive definition of moral terms. ie, "good" means "causes a net gain in happiness", etc.
    2. Assert that actions like rape and female genital cutting are wrong as though this means that people generally have cause to oppose these actions.

    It's like establishing that God exists by defining "God" as order in the universe. The word "God" is traditionally associated with an actual creator being, so it's an easy term for abuse.

    On the other hand, I tend to agree with Massimo's views on the actual intentions behind postmodern art. Postmodern art is usually created and presented for philosophically dubious reasons. I think that critics who favor postmodern art generally do so because they have unsupportable beliefs about the nature of aesthetics and human cognition. And they think that people who expect beauty in art - gee, what a concept - are rubes who can't understand the true value of bullshit postmodern quackery.

    So Massimo is right to assail postmodern artists and critics. He might even convincingly argue that postmodern art is so different from other kinds of art that the term "art" is misleading in this case. But it's simply not true that if postmodern art isn't art then postmodern art is something bad. And it's similarly not true that because some actions make people more or less happy that people generally have causes to maximize or minimize suffering in the world around them.

  10. Couldn't agree more, and the tangential point about ethics is something else to ponder on.

    (Now if only you would consider that science might just perhaps also be something Wittgensteiney with fuzzy borders instead of sharply defined as hypothesis-testing and nothing else...)

  11. Edgar, I am working on clarifying my ideas about the relationships among science, ethics and aesthetics. This blog is a laboratory for me. The fullest version will probably appear in my next book, tentatively entitled "The Intelligent Person's Guide to the Meaning of Life." But it's a work in progress, not due to my publisher until May '11...

    Ritchie. I'm not sure why you think I confuse normative and descriptive criticisms of art. I never said that Abramovic art is bad, I said it's just not art - and therefore not even bad. Then there is some "postmodern" art that I do recognize as "art" in some sense, but I think it's bad (a square canvas entirely filled with white paint may be a good example). I do agree with you, of course, on the bullshit of postmodern artists and art critics.

    As for your objection to morality, again I don't see it. Yes, I would define "bad" as inflicting unnecessary suffering on others, and "good" whatever increases human flourishing. Given that a priori normative decision (and other values choices), all sorts of consequences follow about what actions are right and wrong. The fact that the aliens wouldn't stop eating our brains even after acknowledging that it is bad is entirely irrelevant: they are still wrong. I certainly never suggested that people don't commit immoral actions just on the ground that they are immoral. That would attribute magical powers to the concept of morality...

    Mintman, if you read Nonsense on Stilts you will see that I do treat science as a Wittgenstein-like concept. But just because there are no sharp boundaries it doesn't mean that anything goes. If there are no empirically testable hypotheses (however broadly one defines "empirical," and providing many different types of hypotheses) one is not doing science. Musical performance is not science, and neither are epistemically silly attempts to disprove god via biology or physics.

  12. Sorry, I don't want to open that can again, but given your reply have to ask: do you not consider it science when somebody does model selection or simply documents an archeological dig or zoological expedition? I would say using evidence from the world around us is what makes something science, and not necessarily only testing hypotheses, as that would exclude too much of what would hardly have any reasonable name if not "science".

    (As for your last sentence, I will leave that bait dangling except for saying "beyond reasonable doubt".)

  13. Ritchie the Bear, very well said.

    Massimo, I'd agree with Ritchie that it's important not to conflate "good/bad" judgments with "art/not-art" judgments. And I'd also agree with Ritchie that you (like most people in these discussions) over-state the importance of the latter, of determining the degree to which a piece fulfills a purely descriptive definition of art. First, as other commenters have said, definitions are fuzzy and used differently by different people, and there will often be cases that are borderline -- i.e., they share some properties with the "definitely art" cases but differ in other important ways -- so it's not clear which side of the art/not-art dividing line to place them on.

    But again I ask, why does it matter? As Ritchie says, the good/bad question is independent from the art/not-art question. There are plenty of things that fit the definition of "art" but that you might consider ugly or uninteresting (like the plain white canvas), and there are plenty of other things that would not fit the definition of "art" that you might consider beautiful or interesting. So why do you claim that " "for any art criticism that includes judgment at all to exist one must be able to distinguish, broadly, what counts for art and what doesn't (allowing of course for many grey areas)"? I mean, I guess by definition you're right if you're talking about ART criticism specifically, but why not just talk about "criticism"? Why can't we talk about whether we find something beautiful, interesting, etc., without first deciding if it fits various definitions of art?

  14. I don't think the normative question is quite so separate from the descriptive question. The whole point of having a category "art", isn't so that we can satisfy some deep instinct to identify art, but so that we can orient ourselves to it normatively. I'm not denying that these questions can be asked separately, or that there are two distinct questions there, but that they can't be completely separated with regard to art.

  15. ulia, did you not read my response to Ritchie? It addresses all the points of your last comment. As for "why does it matter?", frankly I think that's a cheap question. Why does anything matter? Why are you writing what you write abut what you write? And so on. But if you insist: it matters because of the intellectual satisfaction of better understanding art, and because of the huge amount of money that gravitates around contemporary art.

    Mintman, yes discovery is part of science, but that still doesn't give you what you want, my friend. Besides, if archeology or zoology where simply about fact collecting they wouldn't be different in nature from stamp collecting...

  16. Massimo, I did read your reply to Ritchie; my comment was directly addressing it. To Ritchie you said, "I never said that Abramovic art is bad, I said it's just not art - and therefore not even bad. Then there is some "postmodern" art that I do recognize as "art" in some sense, but I think it's bad (a square canvas entirely filled with white paint may be a good example)."

    And my response was: Why does the question of whether Marina's piece counts as art have anything to do with whether it's beautiful, interesting, moving, etc. -- any aspect of quality that we care about? The definitional question of "does this piece fall within the boundaries of the definition of art" is un-important, because it has nothing to do with how we evaluate the piece's qualities... and un-interesting, because the answer is just "Well, it's similar in some ways to things we call art, and it's different in other ways." What does it matter whether you decide its similarities are enough to include it within the "art" category, or that its differences are too great to include it in the "art" category?

    To respond to my objection by saying "Well, why does anything matter?" is missing the point. Plenty of questions matter -- for example, your questions "Is it interesting? Is it beautiful? Is it moving?" -- just not the question, "Is it art?"

  17. Julia,

    the two questions are related because, as James pointed out, there is no sharp separation between descriptive and prescriptive issues, for precisely the reasons he lists.

    Moreover, if I don't think Abramovic's piece is art, then there is nothing to evaluate (artistically) at all. And I explained why it matters: a) because I think it is an interesting question in its own right; b) because Abramovic makes money out of being presented as art in a museum (and other artists don't get that exposure as a result).

  18. Massimo said: "Moreover, if I don't think Abramovic's piece is art, then there is nothing to evaluate (artistically) at all."

    Ah, I see -- so you're using the question "Is it art?" as sort of a stand-in for "Is it worth evaluating?" That helps clarify things for me. In that case I guess I would just say that I don't see why we all need to agree on what we consider worth evaluating.

  19. Julia, no I don't. I think Abramovic piece does not need to be evaluated as art because it's not art. On its own merits, as an example of whatever it, it's a sham, in my opinion.

    And of course we don't *all* need to agree on what's worth evaluating. But again, that's a cheap question: do we *all* agree on what science is? On what ethics is? Does that mean that it isn't worth discussing? Why, exactly, do you have such a problem with even the idea of discussing what may or may not count as art? Do you have a similar problem with the demarcation issue between science and pseudoscience?

  20. I agree that it seems awkward to say that anything is art in roughly the same sense that it seems awkward to assert that anything is beer. There are some things that are definitely not beer; I would be annoyed if Beer Advocate started featuring consumer electronics reviews, because consumer electronics most certainly are not beer.

    But while it seems weird to me to say that anything is art, the concept of art is broad enough to include anything that is conceived of by human beings for the purpose of aesthetic enjoyment. I would definitely not say that Julia is a piece of art, though she seems to look pretty good, because she was not crafted for an explicitly aesthetic purpose. And I wouldn't say that my computer is art because, while it was carefully crafted for a specific purpose, that purpose was most certainly not aesthetic (it can bring me other art, but I definitely wouldn't say that's the same thing).

    So there are a lot more things that one might conceivably consider to be art than there are things that one might conceivably consider to be beer. But you'll notice that people argue over whether this-or-that is art a lot more than they argue over whether this-or-that is an appliance or beer or a university or a game or Steven Pinker. This is partially because a pint of ice cream is obviously not Steven Pinker or a university - the latter (and most certainly the former) are not fuzzy categories. But it's also because the fuzzy categories we might address aren't culturally controversial in the same way that art is. But some reason, people don't care as much about whether or not ping pong is a sport as they do about whether Mann and Maus is a piece of art.

    I don't think that Massimo is in this discussion because he wants to make an abstract point about categories. I think this is very much about art, art museums, and art critics. And it seems to me that he thinks that there is a serious problem resulting from the way some people define art.

    I agree that many of our art museums feature crap. I have gone to the Henry art Gallery here at the UW for two years. They continually feature conceptual garbage. I sent them an email expressing my interest in more balance in the displays; if only they would just have some, you know, paintings once in a while! They didn't reply.

    But the problem with art museums like this is not that they don't understand what is art and isn't art. If everything at the Henry Art Gallery fit into the concept of art, I wouldn't give a shit. The problem is that the curators do not have a reasonable conception of the purpose of art and of art museums. If they did, they would scrap most of their postmodern garbage in an instant and bring in pieces that are actually, like, beautiful.

  21. Massimo asked: "Why, exactly, do you have such a problem with even the idea of discussing what may or may not count as art? Do you have a similar problem with the demarcation issue between science and pseudoscience?"

    No, not at all -- the question "Is this science or pseudoscience?" is important because it's NOT just a question about definitions -- it's really asking, "Is this endeavor capable of yielding truths about the world?" Whereas the demarcation of art from not-art doesn't seem to have any bearing on anything else, such as whether the piece in question is beautiful, or interesting, or moving, or whether I want to pay to see it in a gallery, or any other quality that we're interested in.

    For example, if a gallery had an exhibit of beautiful and weird coral formations, I would totally go pay to see that. I would also say that it is not really that similar to most things we call "art", and so probably should not be called "art", but who cares what we call it? It's beautiful, interesting, and I would go pay to see it.

    Or what if someone made an exhibit consisting of carefully-chosen memorabilia from their dead parents that, together, managed to wordlessly paint a nuanced and intimate portrait of who those people were? I would also probably not call that "art," but who cares? It would be interesting, moving, and thought-provoking, and I would still want go to see it.

    And conversely, if a gallery had an exhibit of Yves Klein's plain blue canvases, I would say those are much more similar to what we tend to call "art," but who cares -- I wouldn't go see them because I find them unattractive and uninteresting.

    Do you see what I mean? I don't see how the art/not-art classification matters for any other question.

  22. No, I don't see what you mean at all. Who cares if an alleged pseudoscience is classified as such or not? By your reckoning, what counts is whether it works or not, whether people (or insurer) pay for the treatment or not, etc.

    It's *exactly* the same question, and it matters for *exactly* the same reasons: a) intellectual curiosity; b) practical consequences.

  23. No, by saying something's science we're implying "it works," which is definitely an important implication.

    What is the important implication of saying something's art?

  24. Obviously both of us have way too much time on our hands today ;-)

    The implication of something being or not being art is that it represents a certain kind of aesthetic experience, and - once again - causes millions of dollars to move hands.

    The implication of something being or not being ethical is that people die as a consequence, or injustices are perpetrated.

    I don't see why you think that somehow there is a qualitative distinction between those two cases on one hand and science on the other.

  25. Massimo said: "The implication of something being or not being art is that it represents a certain kind of aesthetic experience, and - once again - causes millions of dollars to move hands."

    I don't buy your argument about practical consequences, Massimo, because it seems to apply just as much to "bad art" as to "non-art." Those blank canvases that you said you would consider (bad) art -- those are causing millions of dollars to move hands. They fit the definition of "art" better than Marina's piece, but how is that important to the question of whether they are worth millions of dollars?

  26. In the same *exact* way in which it is important that the NIH has been spending millions of dollars to fund research into alternative medicine. Definitions, or concepts, have consequences.

  27. You seem to be re-iterating your point that the definition of art has consequences for how we spend our money -- but how does that address my last comment?

    My comment was asking why the art/not-art distinction is the right criterion for funding. Because there's plenty of things that you DO call "art" that you don't think deserve funding, right? (Like the blank canvases.)

    I think your complaint is really over whether something is good/bad, not whether it's art/not-art.

    Maybe we can clarify things if I ask you these two questions:
    (1) If Marina had done something beautiful and captivating in her performance piece, would you then call it "art"?
    (2) ... and, separate question: if Marina's piece were beautiful and captivating, would you say it then deserved funding?

  28. Julia,
    What art is not, is what you think it is, though you are both expected and encouraged to form your own opinion on the matter (and the same can be said of myself). Art is a social category, not a fuzzy one or an arbitrary one, but even more importantly, art is not a category that a single individual can discover on their own; there is no criteria by which a single individual can definitively isolate what is and what is not art. Said another way: art isn't a category justified from the cogito, but an emergent category that can only be justified across a social horizon. The reason for such a category is not so that we know what we ought and ought not to look at, but to know what others are looking at, and what others see when they look - to know what we are seeing.

    When Massimo says that he doesn't think a specific piece is art, he is in a small sense altering what art is, but also benefiting from the fact that others think the object is art. But if Massimo locks himself in a room for the rest of eternity, no amount of art-naming will matter.

    Did that make sense? I just woke up from a nap (I'm between a morning and evening exam).

  29. Julia,

    as I explained several times, *both* questions are important, and they are not necessarily independent.

    To answer your questions:

    1) Marina didn't do anything at all, she just sat there. That's why I don't think it's either art or performance. The fact that some people enjoyed it is a different point (people enjoy all sorts of strange things), and probably in large part due to the fact that they were told (by Danto and others) that they were lucky to participate in a beautiful art piece. In other words, they were coned into it.

    2) A beautiful / captivating piece of art does deserve recognition, which may or may not come with funding, or with market value. But, again, I don't see anything either beautiful or captivating in staring motionless into the void.

  30. I find this debate fascinating and wonder if I can get you all to expand the scope a bit. Massimo, do you consider it possible for video games to be art. Roger Ebert and PZ Myers have both said they aren't, but I disagree. I feel some video games are definitely art, specifically a kind of art that is akin to performance art. I've certainly been moved more by some game experiences than I have by any number of paintings of landscapes I've seen in museums. Can games fit into art and be judged as such?

  31. I was thinking of using video games as an example, Rick, because I just read Tom Bissell's Extra Lives (I'd recommend it if you're interested in the capacity of video games to create moving experiences; that's exactly the question that drives Bissell, too.)

    Again, I'm going to sound like a broken record but I don't think the question "Are video games art?" is a very useful one. Certainly they have some commonalities with the things we usually call art (they can be aesthetically beautiful and engrossing, and they can sometimes create moving experiences for people)... and they also have some differences with the things we usually call art (we usually don't call games "art"). So should we focus on the similarities and call video games "art"? Should we focus on the differences and call them "not-art"? Who cares?

    We can have all the conversations we're interested in (which video games are beautiful, clever, creative? In what ways can video games be moving? etc.) without ever deciding whether to include video games under the umbrella term "art".

  32. Julia, I have Extra Lives sitting on my Kindle and it's next on my list! I'm looking forward to it.

    I agree in general terms about what you've been saying about the utility of "art" as a term, and I think in casual discourse (or even not-so-casual) it probably doesn't much matter. I think you're right about "science" vs. "psuedoscience" being a distinction that has very real ramifications and expectations.

    But the word "art" does carry significant cultural cache, and it frustrates me to have people I otherwise admire like Ebert and Myers denigrating video games while praising film or books as art forms. I can't conceive of any non-tautological definition of art that could encompass both movies and books but not video games.

    For me it's a worthwhile discussion because, well, it matters to some people. And one of my biggest pet peeves (and I have many!) is what I call Leisure Bigotry. Me reading books is better, inherently, than me watching television. Me watching movies is better than me playing video games. That conversation isn't exactly about art, but the distinction that one thing is art and the other isn't certainly does come into play.

    Now I write books for a living, so I'm not bashing books. But I also write about video games, and I think some of the most artful, moving moments of drama I've had in recent years have come from games.

    My point is, that while you might not care and I certainly wish I didn't care, many people do. And I want to argue with those people.


    Also, from a pragmatic sense, and this gets to what Massimo was saying, sort of, if culture accepts video games as art then there will be academic jobs for people giving it serious consideration and there will (maybe) be a larger, more thoughtful discourse about their merits than might otherwise be the case.

  33. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I am completely off track here but there is something about these debates around definitions that appears pointless. It is obvious that there are important issues in all that's been said but so much of it seems to be around the word itself. Maybe my mathematical background is getting in the way: in Mathematics, definitions are not something you discover - they are simply what you decide them to be; formally speaking they are completely arbitrary (although, of course, mathematicians take great care to make them useful, for instance, this is why 1 is not defined as a prime number).

    What this discussion shows is that different people understand the word differently. But it's just a word, a common word; its meaning is determined by usage and, so it appears, usage has made it an imprecise term. I don't see how anybody could change that. I think it would be more productive (and less frustrating) to use more precise language to compare all these different "forms of expression" (or whatever). Otherwise the debate will be more about form than substance.

    I understand that definitions are important - when you have some control over them. But, in this case, I see no point in trying to redefine more precisely a word that is already condemned to vagueness by usage.

    Am I making any sense?

  34. Rick, video games are an interesting example. Their primary function is not artistic, so I wouldn't consider them art strictly speaking. However, they certainly have artistic features. The situation is similar for, say commercials. Again, the primary function is different but they can certainly be done artistically. A third example may be furniture, and so on.

  35. Massimo, I would argue that there are indeed video games with a primary function that is artistic, at least in the same way that the primary function of a movie can be artistic.

    As with the term art, the term video games encompasses so many different things, it can be hard to discuss. There are video games that tell a story that can only be told through the medium of video games, and for which the primary purpose is to elicit a series of emotional responses from the player. The great addition that games add to the art world is that the person experiencing the art can be given a sense of culpability and responsibility for the dramatic events (by design of course - an illusion of culpability). Books and movies can't do this in the same, literally visceral way where your physical actions impact the story.

    Now I admit, all video games don't do this. Most of them don't do this. But some of them, and some of the most popular and important of them, do. Recently we had Heavy Rain, which certainly does it. And there's a famous moment in the game Bioshock that comments on free will in a way utterly unique to games.

    So, putting aside the artistic elements of 3D art, voice acting, script, music, and sound design that go into making a game, I would argue that a game can be art in a specific way.

    I think your example of furniture made artfully does apply to some games - a really nice version of Tetris say, or a trippy audio/visual experience like Rez. But when a game tells a story every bit as compelling as a movie, and does so in a way that only a game can, I don't see how a movie can be art and a video game merely artistic.

  36. Hi Massimo,

    Quite busy so I apologize for the delay.

    "But first off, art criticism is not the same as art history."

    No, but art history is a vital prerequisite for art criticism; art criticism uninformed by history is poor criticism.

    "Second, your objection does nothing to invalidate my point that for any art criticism that includes judgment at all to exist one must be able to distinguish, broadly, what counts for art and what doesn't"

    Why? Aesthetic judgments can be made about almost anything, whether or not anyone classifies it as art.

    "I reject premise 1a. Wittgenstein's family resemblance concept has been used by philosophers (including, but not limited to, myself) to define biological species, for instance. No biologist would say that species are just what people say species are. They are not arbitrary constructs, and yet they fit perfectly Wittgenstein's ideas."

    Perfectly? Really? Surely this is an imperfect fit if you're rejecting another of Wittgenstein's key premises.

    I'm not sure PI is systematic enough to expect perfect concord between all Wittgenstein's assertions, but I happen to think that the notion of family resemblance is inextricable from W's emphasis on usage, and I think that's a problem for your argument. What you say about species strikes me as dodging the issue.

    I think Wittgenstein's point is that language leverages family resemblances in varying ways to generate locally (but not universally) meaningful statements. So yes, words have meaning, and no, concepts are not locally arbitrary, but that doesn't mean that meanings are consistent or even fuzzily coherent across all contexts. Sometimes seeking such consistency is a fool's errand. I don't know whether it is in the case of "species" but I'm pretty sure it is in the case of "art."

    "I don't see the distinction between saying that art is what (some) people call art and that art is what I call art."

    This strikes me as a disingenuous claim. Surely there's a distinction to be made between one person's opinion and fifty peoples'.

    "How many people do I have to convince before a performing piece made up of yours truly snoring on a couch becomes art? Two, three? 200?"

    For the group of people you convince, in the context you convince them, it becomes art.

    The point is not that anything can be art, the point is that local circumstances determine what becomes art. There may well be things that could never become art, and we might even be able to identify some of those things. But because the number of different possible local configurations is so vast, it's impossible to tell in many cases. Perhaps we could assign a probability of something becoming art for one person, for ten people, for 100 people, and so on. Perhaps before Abramovic it was highly unlikely that a person sitting at a table would become art for more than a few people. But it happened, and you are refusing to accept that. As I see it, your argument is akin to saying that because the odds of winning the state lottery are so low, no one could ever win the state lottery.

  37. Hi Massimo,

    This is a rather stale thread, but I thought I'd add something that occurred to me recently. You state above that you "don't see the distinction between saying that art is what (some) people call art and that art is what I call art." I think that PI contains a ready rebuttal to your objection, in the form of the private language argument. If the category "art" includes just those things that I call art, then art amounts to a word in a private language, and Wittgenstein argues that private languages do not exist.

    This is not to say that I agree with Wittgenstein necessarily, but only to point out another way in which your perspective differs from his.


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