Hello, again, and one or two questions

Hello, again, world! Starting today, I will be writing some longer form posts weekly, to be published Wednesdays at 5PM or damn near it. In these posts, I aim to process and refine my thoughts about the world and get some feedback from my friends, family, colleagues, and the broader interweb community. Topics will vary with my mood, but expect themes of art, philosophy, and current news events to permeate.

To start us off, I’ll offer some small initial musings on the nature of art and the role of the artist. I am very interested to hear what my fellow creative friends have to say about all this, drawing both from your own experiences as well as anything you may have studied formally, so please, don’t be shy!

I have two questions: what is art? and who are artists? (Actually, I may jump to such numerical conclusions too eagerly, as I’m not convinced they aren’t simply two surface variants on the same more general question, the answers to which depend upon each other. We’ll return to this possibility soon.)

But let’s say, for now, our two questions are independent. We’ll start with the first. What is art? I think we have three possible starting points: Either everything is art, nothing is art, or some things are art. We get to define the term any way we like, so any of the above three are possible, but the last seems obviously preferable. Consider the first two. If we define the term so broadly that it encompasses all things, or even all human-made things, then to my mind it loses all meaning. “Art” may as well mean “stuff,” an unnecessary addition that, while not only carrying no new information, also rudely violates our intuitions. “You’re telling me this pile of lumber is art? The tree from which it came was art? The idea ‘Wednesday afternoon’ is art?” Obviously wrong. On the other extreme, if we constrict the definition such that the term refers to no actual things in the world, then I think we again violate our intuitions. “Surely Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Eroica are art! Surely!” So, from the above it seems we should be able to offer a definition of art that divides the world along a clean line, with art on one side and everything else on the other. To put it one final way, for any given thing T, T is either art or not art, but not neither or both. I’m not sure one can coherently disagree with that much, though I’d love to see it tried!

The problem, of course, is the drafting of any particular such definition. I divide definitions into two categories: intrinsic or extrinsic, with an intrinsic definition telling us something absolute about the thing and an extrinsic definition relating the thing to the world. For example, an intrinsic definition of a sphere would be “all points equidistant from a single point in three dimensions,” while an extrinsic definition would be “the geometric shape approximated by baseballs, basketballs, and very recently constructed sno-cones.” Employing this distinction, an intrinsic definition of “art” would give us some sense of a universal essence, shared by all art objects and lacking in all non-art objects. An extrinsic definition of “art” would tell us something about how art interacts with the world. In my experience, extrinsic definitions are easier to come by.

Extrinsic definitions of “art” include: things made by artists. things art collectors purchase. things displayed in art galleries and museums. things written about on art blogs. and so forth. These are helpful only in so far as they help us assemble art objects into a pile for closer inspection. Once gathered, however, we still need to find the common thread that links everything. That common thread will be the intrinsic definition of “art.” I don’t know that that common thread is.

I’ll leave that for now and turn to our second question: who are artists? Again, an extrinsic definition is obvious: people who make art. But I’m not convinced this tells us anything of substance, especially considering that the best I can do for an extrinsic definition of “art” seems to depend upon a workable intrinsic definition of “artist.” And here is my impasse. Identifying art and artists in the world seems to be a fairly easy and intuitive process, but defining either without reference to the other (i.e. offering an intrinsic definition) seems much more complicated. And why should we seek an intrinsic definition of art? Why not be satisfied with a kind of 2nd-order looping definition, connecting art and artists in a closed system? The problem I see is that the system becomes too generalizable and thus translatable onto other analogous but not equivalent pairings of creators and creations. By this I mean, what makes the artist:art pairing different from the engineer:bridge pairing? The difference, if there is one, will tell us something about the intrinsic definition of art.

I’ll leave it at that for tonight (I promised questions, not answers! and anyway I’m about an hour behind my self-imposed deadline). Any thoughts?

-Peter

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68 thoughts on “Hello, again, and one or two questions”

1. In my experience, defining art is an exercise in futility. The main problem is that “art” is not a term that compresses well into a single definition. “Art” in all its forms includes a staggering number of domains, often with central views, approaches, and goals that are in direct conflict; and the many historical, economic, and social dimensions of art only complicate the matter. Furthermore, one of the most interesting quirks of art is its ability to defy attempts at definition. Were you to successfully define “art,” you would more than likely create a new art movement overnight — a movement whose methods and approach would invalidate your theory as thoroughly as possible.

This isn’t to say that it is impossible to explain art, but the best way to approach it may be indirectly, in the way that Zen masters describe the condition of awareness. Both art and awareness are extremely complex, abstract concepts that are not well served by structured language, and metaphors are a great way to deal with the limitations of language.

Something that may help: one thing that all art seems to have in common is intention, by either the artist or the viewer. Either the artist intends to make art (even by “not making art”), or the viewer intends to see something as art, or the viewer sees something and interprets it as art. Outside of intention, though, I’m not sure what kind of common ground you will find.

Personally, I feel that art is best defined through the specific “lenses” crafted by the artist or viewer. To me, the question “is it art?” seems to be the wrong question — anything can be art when seen from the right viewpoint, culture and critics be damned. The “right” questions are numerous, and include “what effect will this art have on the viewer?”, “how and where was this art created?”, “what (if anything) does this art attempt to say?”, “who will see this as art?”, “how does this art play against the context of other current art?”, and so on. The question “is it art?” should be replaced with “HOW is it art?”, which is an amalgam of infinite other questions. Although, oftentimes the most interesting art leaves the viewer speechless, unable to even formulate a question — perhaps because there are too many questions to even consider.

Of course, there are alternate viewpoints — Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” is a great example, and is interesting because it draws attention to the fact that overinterpretation can be detrimental to the experience of art. To me, though, interpretation is as essential as the initial experience, and critical questions are there whether your mind consciously engages with them or not.

Sorry about the rant; hope this helps though. I’ve been reading art theory and this is the result of it. 🙂

• To echo one of Brett’s points: I have a suspicion that ‘art’, the concept, inherently defies objectification… if you were able to define art, you may have just defeated it.

That would be a sad day… but, if it does come to be, you can probably make a lot of money selling your findings to Bed, Bath and Beyond.

• I think in the end the bet best answer will be informed heavily by evolutionary biology. By this I mean that art will best be conceived as the behavior of evolved organisms in an environment.

Not sure how much further that goes, but I think it’s the right starting point.

• Not sure how to respond directly to your comment, but to your point, Peter: I think you have found a good strategy here. If you begin by looking at art from a distant, external standpoint (such as evolutionary behavior), you will have a much clearer starting point than if you were to approach it from the inside out. Taking it further, you could drill into individual contexts (biology/neurology, psychology, sociology, history, artistic process, critical interpretation, etc.) and draw connections until a full understanding emerges. Again, I don’t think this can create a simple “definition” of art, but it would certainly paint a rich picture, which is the best one can do with such a complex topic.

2. Two confounding objections:

“To put it one final way, for any given thing T, T is either art or not art, but not neither or both. I’m not sure one can coherently disagree with that much, though I’d love to see it tried!”

The context in which T exists, or is presented, might matter in determining whether or not it’s art.

“Identifying art and artists in the world seems to be a fairly easy and intuitive process, but defining either without reference to the other (i.e. offering an intrinsic definition) seems much more complicated.”

I think “an artist is one who creates art” is fine; circular definitions are bad, but you only need one term defined without reference to the other in order to break the cycle.

• I feel like there is an interesting response that touches on and combines both your points (context and circularity). Here’s a shot:

Context:

Imagine two scenarios (one at a time is easiest).

Scenario 1 is an art gallery opening. On the wall are 4 indistinguishable squares of red paint.

Square 1 was painted for the opening by a local artist. It is completed and is titled “Red.” Square 2 was begun but not completed by another artist. The backdrop was to be solid red, but the artist had planned and still plans to paint over most of it with a living room and still life bowl of fruit. Currently called “Incomplete red living room with bowl of fruit.” Square 3 is a large red industrial ceiling tile that fell off a truck and was found by the museum curator and hung on the wall. Titled “untitled.” Square 4 is actually just painted on the wall of the gallery itself. When the curator bought the space, it had been entirely red. She painted over most of it with a kind of eggshell, but ran out of paint and had to leave that square red. Complete coincidence, but happens to align perfectly with the other three (hanging) squares. Has no title.

Which of the four identical red squares in scenario 1 is art? Why?

Scenario 2 includes the same four squares in the same room, but it is no longer and never was an art gallery. It is now an unused industrial storage space never attended by anyone for the purpose of viewing art.

Which of the four identical red squares in scenario 2 is art? Why?

Briefly think of your initial-response answers to the above before moving on.

Now to connect your context point to your circularity point. Did your answers to any of the above invoke the person who made the red square and the purpose for which they made it? If so, then it seems like at least part of your definition of art is going to refer, in some way, to the artist. Which means we need a definition of “artist” that doesn’t refer to “art”…

3. In day-to-day usage, “art” seems to be an honorific used to described things we like, kind of like how “democracy” is used in the vernacular of international relations to describe countries we are supposed to like. In any case, that seems to me approximately what I would take away from someone calling something “art”.

Suppose you found a “definition” of art, what art is. If you wanted to work as an artist, you’d have found a guide for your work. Just produce things that conformed to the definition, and so on.

Words are inherently sociological things, and “art” is a word. It doesn’t matter if your “definition” of “art” is “correct” or even if it’s the Truth. People needn’t adapt, and they can object to it without reason. Therefore it seems to me that a “definition” of art isn’t going to be very useful.

Words seem to me to mostly be conventions, so “art” is a convention of society at large. Some people identify themselves as “artists” and identify their work as “art”, and if we’d like to determine whether something else is art…well, this is almost merely a question of taxonomy w.r.t. the artists’ art (so, what I’m really saying is….that you should just ask Google Sets (which seems to have died)).

Moreover this has a long tradition, spanning various languages—in our case, English, it seems like we’re getting this word from Middle French, i.e. Latin ars, which goes back to Proto-European and which OED says relates to the ancient greek ἀραρίσκειν (interesting to look up this word)— and perhaps this hints at why “art” is primarily associated with “primitive” art forms—painting, sculpture, music….things that were high-tech and around in ancient greece, for example.

I guess I’m advancing a position which goes something like “There’s no difference between something being art and people agreeing to refer to it as art. People do refer to things as art because it does indicate a vague set of things. I doubt, however, that this set of things shares characteristics that are not sociological or historical—characteristics that are significantly different from ‘things and activities found to interesting by a group of people’.”

• Eric,

I feel like I disagree strongly. It sounds as though you are advancing a pretty strongly “relativistic” (though I hate to use that word) position. You say:

‘I guess I’m advancing a position which goes something like “There’s no difference between something being art and people agreeing to refer to it as art. People do refer to things as art because it does indicate a vague set of things. I doubt, however, that this set of things shares characteristics that are not sociological or historical—characteristics that are significantly different from ‘things and activities found to interesting by a group of people’.”’

I guess in some trivial sense I agree that the definition (or, probably better–concept) of art is going to be inextricably entangled with human activity–art is, in fact, a human activity!–but I think we can (and in any event should try) to find something of what I’m calling an intrinsic definition of the stuff. What properties do all or most artworks share that confer upon them status as artworks? I think there is such a list, and, while it includes sociological and historical stuff, I think that is only part of the story. Further, I think the sociological/historical features of art are going to supervene on the intrinsic features. In other words, people as a matter of fact lump stuff together and call it art *because* it is in fact art. Not vice versa. This, at least, I’d like to be true.

So, what is our intrinsic definition of art? I think a number of promising leads have emerged in this discussion. One was M-Ray’s suggesting that it need be lacking in pragmatic functional value. Another is hinted at by your introduction of etymology. When I think of the word “art,” I think of “artifice” (involving trickery). You also bring up the latin root “ars” (involving skill/craft). If those tell us anything about art, they seem to suggest that it is stuff made with skill for the purpose of tricking the viewer (i.e., creating a temporary reality). Add M-Ray’s requirement that it not serve a practical functional role outside it’s aesthetic appeal, and I think we have a really strong first pass at a working intrinsic definition (one that does not refer to artists or other people in any way). I think if we divided up the world into two piles, A and B, with useless, beautiful, constructed things going in pile A and everything else in pile B, we’d have in A a fairly nice collection of art.

Finally, I think there is a clear distinction between what artists produce and what scientists produce. Each is creative and involves the consumption, processing, and synthesis of information from the creators environment, and each involves the production of some final product which when decoded using appropriate techniques offers some novel insight about the world (or at least about the creator’s relation to the world). But beyond that, the aims, socio-historical status, and intrinsic structure of artworks and pieces of science seem worlds apart. Do you agree?

Peter

• i just want to test if wordpress supports latex by default $\frac{1}{2}$

please delete/ignore

• i just want to test if wordpress supports latex by default $\frac{1}{2}$

please delete/ignore

• say, what is latex? i’ve taken multiple-choice tests in college with “made using latex” at the bottom. is it something i should have?

• 0. “In other words, people as a matter of fact lump stuff together and call it art *because* it is in fact art.” I am not sure how to interpret this statement. I think it says that art exists as something outside of human experience. It is not clear to me that that’s the case. Can you elaborate?

1. Here is approximately what I’m thinking to myself when we are talking about the other part of the problem.

Let $A$ be the set of things an arbitrary person (let’s call them Percy) calls “art” or, alternatively, thinks is “art”. If Percy was the only human in the universe, then $A$ would be “art”.

In our universe, there are lots of people. Searching for an intrinsic definition means, I think, searching for a definition of art which is invariant when you change the way you’re looking at it.

Suppose we have a new universe, which consists of two people, Percy and Chauncey. Let $B$ be the things Chauncey calls “art” or, alternatively, thinks is “art”. In this universe, art is $A \cap B$. In other words, art is the set of things called “art”, no matter who we ask (which, in this universe means: no matter whether we ask Percy or Chauncey).

With lots of people, let’s say we have $N$ people, we can do the following. First we get ourselves an index set $\Omega$, i.e. $\Omega = \{1,2,...,N\}$ over everyone in our universe, so that we have an indexed family of our “art” sets, $\left(A_{i}\right)_{i \in \Omega}$. To illustrate, in the two person universe, $\Omega = \{1,2\}$, $A = A_{1}$, $B = A_{2}$, and art is $A_{1} \cap A_{2}$. In the many person universe, once again $\Omega = \{1,2,...,N\}$, and art is $\bigcap_{i \in \Omega} A_{i}$. Let’s set $\aleph = \bigcap_{i \in \Omega} A_{i}$.

There are lots of problems with $\Omega$. For instance, language. Let’s restrict $\Omega$ to people who speak English, let’s pretend like that’s doable, and let’s call this subset $\bar{\Omega}$ and correspondingly $\bar{\aleph} = \bigcap_{i \in \bar{\Omega}} A_{i}$. So, $\Omega$ is a pretty big problem, which I don’t see how to get around. Let’s suppose we did, let’s suppose the proper index set is called $\bar{\Omega}$, which may or may not include the language restriction or other restrictions.

Then your statement that “I think there is such a list” becomes $\bar{\aleph} \neq \emptyset$, where $\emptyset$ is the set with no elements. That is not obvious to me at all.

Furthermore, I don’t see a qualitatively different way to approach the problem than what I have done above, which is riddled with complications, but I would be very interested in one…

• “Suppose you found a “definition” of art, what art is. If you wanted to work as an artist, you’d have found a guide for your work. Just produce things that conformed to the definition, and so on.”

You seem to be neglecting the existence of bad art.

4. I don’t think who created it, or why they created it, matters. I think only the presentation matters.

5. Hmm… So on your view, each of the red squares in scenario 1 is the same piece of art, or at least copies/versions of the same piece of art, while each of the red squares in scenario 2 is equally not-art? Is that right?

6. Well, they have different titles, they’re made of different materials, they’re presented in very slightly different contexts, etc. I’m sure you could come up with examples of why each of those qualities could be relevant in determining if something is art or not.

7. I see.. Let’s say in scenario 1, the curator has given each the same title (“Red Square”) and presents all four in the same gallery at the same time, while in scenario 2 each has no title and hangs in the same empty industrial storage space at the same time. In neither case is an “artist’s” name attached to any red square.

Is the art/not-art status equivalent for each of the 4? Is each 100% art in scenario 1 and 0% art in scenario 2? Is there a gradient? What factors determine their location on the gradient?

These of course are optional questions. But I think your view is coming into sharp relief.

My own (current working) view is that square 1 is definitely 100% a piece of art in both scenarios, square 2 is an unfinished piece of art in both scenarios, square 3 seems to be a kind of “found-object installation” (so, art) in scenario 1 (the gallery) but just a tile on the wall in scenario 2 (the empty industrial storage space), and square 4 is art if given a title and “included” in the show in scenario 1 but just paint on the wall in scenario 2.

That, anyway, is what my intuition and a little bit of reason tells me is obviously true. The upshot, however, is that 8 identical red squares, which give the viewer an identical experience on “cold viewing” (seeing the work for the first time with no prior knowledge), have different art/not-art statuses depending on historical information of a sometimes-highly-arbitrary nature. Which means the “artwork” is not the painting on the wall (or the experience of the painting on the wall), but rather the painting on the wall + a bunch of information about the painting on the wall (or the experience of the painting on the wall plus the knowledge of a bunch of information about the painting on the wall).

So, now I would ask, what information needs to go on that list?

• In either scenario the red squares possess aesthetic qualities dependent on a viewer and irrespective of artistic intention.

take for instance this picture of rust : http://www.photographyblogger.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/0511.jpg
do I need to understand oxidation for rust to be art?
do I need to read some guys artist statement for rust to be art?
does it have to be in a gallery for rust to be art?

“what makes the artist:art pairing different from the engineer:bridge pairing?”

Practicality

• Hm. Is any object capable of being appreciated aesthetically thus “art”? I think the rust is beautiful, but I think it clearly isn’t art. I think a photograph of it hung in a photography exhibit is clearly and uncontroversially “art.” I think an identical photograph of it taken by a non-artist for non-artistic purposes (e.g., a scientist studying oxidation or a forensic expert surveying a crime scene) is not art.

“do I need to understand oxidation for rust to be art?
do I need to read some guys artist statement for rust to be art?
does it have to be in a gallery for rust to be art?”

For me, each of those questions does affect the work’s status as art. A picture of a rusty wall taken by a photographer tracing her long-forgotten family lineage in South America is a different piece from a visually-identical one taken by an Art 101 student behind the Arby’s near campus. They mean different things. Further, I wouldn’t know that by looking at them, so the one by the South American traveler loses a lot of its meaning when presented without that information.

Does your last statement mean you think art needs to lack practical value? I think I agree, but I’m not sure why.

8. Is “an unfinished piece of art” art?

Potentially controversial claim: anything presented as art is art, but perhaps *bad* art.

Meanwhile, the placement of 4 red squares in perfect alignment in an art gallery could be taken as a statement about the artistic merit of “red square presented as art”, by highlighting its indistinguishability from unfinished paintings, industrial tiles, and running out of wallpaper a little too soon. You could call this “meta-art”, but I’m content to keep calling it “art”.

The same 4 red squares in an industrial warehouse makes a similar statement, perhaps more strongly. Imagine some warehouse worker storing three works of “art” lined up with an unpainted section of wall and smirking at the pretentiousness of the “artists”.

In both cases, again, the intent of the artist (the gallery’s curator or the warehouse worker) doesn’t matter, only what an observer experiences. That’s what I’d take away from either 4-red-square installation though.

“Which means the “artwork” is not the painting on the wall (or the experience of the painting on the wall), but rather the painting on the wall + a bunch of information about the painting on the wall (or the experience of the painting on the wall plus the knowledge of a bunch of information about the painting on the wall).”

The experience is everything; if the artist neglects to include some information that contributes to the artistic merit of the work, that’s the fault of the artist and the work may suffer.

For example, a political cartoon could be considered a work of art, but without the context of the politics to which it refers, it might not be. Years later, an observer might have to do some independent research into the original context in order to appreciate the work. Generations later, that context could be lost entirely and the work might lose much or all of its value.

• I think an unfinished artwork is uncontroversially an unfinished artwork. If “artwork” here implies “finished art work,” then no, it isn’t an artwork. If “artwork” doesn’t imply “finished,” then yes, it is an artwork. If I were asked “is a half-full glass of milk a glass of milk,” I’s similarly reply, “If by ‘glass’ you mean ‘full glass,’ then no…” etc.

If a seemingly-unfinished artwork is presented as a statement about the artistic process, then in any case it is a completed artwork. If it’s just an actually incomplete artwork and your definition of “artwork” implies “completed artwork,” then it is not an artwork.

In regards to the “meta-artistic” statement of the gallery curator or the warehouse worker, respectively, you say:

“In both cases, again, the intent of the artist (the gallery’s curator or the warehouse worker) doesn’t matter, only what an observer experiences. That’s what I’d take away from either 4-red-square installation though.”

Not only do I disagree, but I think you do as well (i.e. I think you’ve contradicted yourself). First my disagreements:

I imagine my experience of the red squares would be different in each of the 8 cases, depending on the amount of information I have. Knowing that, for example, Red Square #2 was intended to be a living room with still life fruit but is currently unfinished makes me view it differently than the (completed) Red Square #1. Not knowing that information would render the experience of the two works identical. Walking through an industrial warehouse with 4 red squares on the wall would be a markedly different experience than attending a gallery opening titled “Four Red Squares.” As a kind of tangential but immediately compelling example, there’s a reason not every copy–no matter how accurate–of the Mona Lisa is *the* Mona Lisa. For me it seems obvious that a complete experience of a piece of art is more than the sensory experience of the cold viewing. Why that is so–and the degree to which it *should be* so–are of course complex questions. But whether it is so is straight-forward. I’m curious, does your reasoned reflection upon your past experience and intuition not bring you to the same conclusion? For you, is a poster of the Mona Lisa (in pristine condition) in a gas station urinal the same experience as seeing it in the Louvre? Not saying it shouldn’t be, but I’d be surprised if it were.

Now to where I think you contradict yourself (or I misunderstand you). In response to my claim that the artwork is more than just the sensory experience of a cold-viewing and includes extra-artistic information, you say:

“The experience is everything; if the artist neglects to include some information that contributes to the artistic merit of the work, that’s the fault of the artist and the work may suffer. For example, a political cartoon could be considered a work of art, but without the context of the politics to which it refers, it might not be… Generations later, that context could be lost entirely and the work might lose much or all of its value.”

But:

1) If the work suffers from a lack of extra-artistic information about it, this means your experience changes with additional information.

2) This means your experience of each of the 4 red squares in each of the 2 scenarios is subtly different.

3) Which means you agree with me when I say “the ‘artwork’ is not the painting on the wall (or the experience of the painting on the wall), but rather the painting on the wall + a bunch of information about the painting on the wall (or the experience of the painting on the wall plus the knowledge of a bunch of information about the painting on the wall),” which was the statement you were purporting to refute.

Each of those steps seems quite direct and non-hand-wavy, and they get me to an absurd conclusion (i.e., one that contradicts one of the premises necessary to support it) fairly quickly. Where did I go wrong? The move from your statement to (1), the move from (1) to (2), or the move from (2) to (3)?

In conclusion and summary, in this post I:

1) Fleshed out my thoughts about completed/incomplete artworks’ status as artworks, noting the possibility that “artwork” might, for some, imply “completed artwork,” just as “glass of milk” might, for some, imply “full glass of milk.”

2) Enumerated my disagreements with your statement that an artwork is completely described by an account of the sensory experience of the cold view, also showing how your later statements contradicted this statement.

• “…which was the statement you were purporting to refute.”

For starters, it’s not the case that when I quote you and then say something myself that I am attempting to refute your quote. I’m *responding* to it. I know the difference can be subtle when talking to me, but there it is. 😛

“For you, is a poster of the Mona Lisa (in pristine condition) in a gas station urinal the same experience as seeing it in the Louvre? Not saying it shouldn’t be, but I’d be surprised if it were.”

Of course not; gas station urinals are generally pretty vile, for starters. If I wanted to stand in front of the Mona Lisa in quiet contemplation, the smell of a fas station urinal would harm the experience.

You keep referring to “extra-artistic information”, but my claim is essentially that there is no such thing. In the case of the political cartoon, the art is the cartoon *in the context of the political atmosphere that makes it relevant*. The background is part of the art, and removing it harms the work. In the case of red squares, if there’s something about the first one that’s supposed to set it apart from the fourth one, that something needs to be included in the experience or there is nothing to set the two works apart. This is practically tautological.

9. Alright, I think this clarifies things.

“You keep referring to ‘extra-artistic information,’ but my claim is essentially that there is no such thing.”

I claim there is information present within the work (the paint on the canvas, the words on the pages, the sounds emerging from the instruments, etc etc etc), and I claim there is information about the work or about the artist not contained within the work (biographical, historical, cultural, personal, etc etc etc). I and many others name the latter category “extra-artistic” (or “extra-musical,” as I am most familiar with it) information. I and many others define a “cold viewing” (or “cold hearing”) of a work as one that precludes access to the extra-artistic information (i.e. one that allows the sensory experience of the work itself and nothing else). I finally claim that a cold viewing (or hearing) and a viewing (or hearing) informed by extra-artistic information are two different experiences. I want to know which is the experience of the artwork. The response I have articulated at length above is that the informed one is the experience of the artwork.

I still don’t know what kind of information should be included on the list of extra-artistic information. It seems like some should be legitimate while some information would be irrelevant.

So, the original question was: which of the 4 red squares is an artwork in which of the two scenarios?

My answer is still:

“My own (current working) view is that square 1 is definitely 100% a piece of art in both scenarios, square 2 is an unfinished piece of art in both scenarios, square 3 seems to be a kind of “found-object installation” (so, art) in scenario 1 (the gallery) but just a tile on the wall in scenario 2 (the empty industrial storage space), and square 4 is art if given a title and “included” in the show in scenario 1 but just paint on the wall in scenario 2.”

Perhaps that wraps things up? This was a fantastic discussion and precisely what I want this blog to foster.

(Of course, if it isn’t wrapped up for David, or anyone else, please don’t let me stop the conversation!)

10. “Is any object capable of being appreciated aesthetically thus “art”? I think the rust is beautiful, but I think it clearly isn’t art. I think a photograph of it hung in a photography exhibit is clearly and uncontroversially “art.” I think an identical photograph of it taken by a non-artist for non-artistic purposes (e.g., a scientist studying oxidation or a forensic expert surveying a crime scene) is not art.”

So what you are saying is “Put it in a gallery. It’s art!”

The last one is DTI tractography btw.
This girl in my lab is going to submit the tractography from her doctoral dissertation in an art auction. At what point is the tractography art?

• “So what you are saying is ‘Put it in a gallery. It’s art!””

No, no, and not at all. A lot of things have been said on this thread, but that sure ain’t one of them. “Have an artist make is for the purpose of making art and put it in a gallery displaying it as art viewed by viewers for the purpose of viewing art and supplement it with relevant extra-artistic information. It’s art!” is much closer.

I think that last link is beautiful science photography. I don’t know at what point it become art, but submitting it to an art auction is a big first step.

• I think the main point of all of this is that the artwork is not just the physical object/physical sound waves. It isn’t even just the phenomenological experience of the viewer upon a cold viewing/hearing of the object/sounds. It is the object, the phenomenological response, the extra-artistic information, and probably lots of other things. I don’t know where the boundaries are, but I’m quite sure that some things are art and some things are not. I also believe that sometimes those things can look/sound very similar.

The purpose of the “Red Squares” thought experiment is to tease out one’s intuitions on the matter so they can be subjected to rational scrutiny.

For the record, I do think a lot of progress was made in this lengthy discussion. I know, at minimum, that I developed many of my thoughts and pursued them into some new territory. Thanks to everyone!

11. I still don’t have a good intrinsic definition of either “art” or “artist” though! Someone help!

• Actually, reading over this a final time, I think M-ray’s point about practical uselessness being an important component of an intrinsic definition may be our way forward. Beautiful bridges aren’t art because they are made first to get people and vehicles over rivers and and to look nice second. Beautiful red ceiling tiles aren’t art because they are made first to insulate rooms and second to decorate them.

So, imagine a room with 4 identical red ceiling tiles…

12. Eric,

Our discussion has become too nested in the comments thread and I am no longer able to reply directly to your most recent comment. Let’s continue the discussion here at the bottom of the page.

You say (quoting me):

“0. ‘In other words, people as a matter of fact lump stuff together and call it art *because* it is in fact art.’ I am not sure how to interpret this statement. I think it says that art exists as something outside of human experience. It is not clear to me that that’s the case. Can you elaborate?”

I can. I was aiming to establish a metaphysical hierarchy between two possible methods for grouping things in the universe into art/non-art groups. One method uses the intrinsic definition of art (the set of properties that all artworks share and all non-artworks lack). (That we haven’t yet established what these properties are does not preclude us from believing there to be such a list. Indeed, believing there to be a list is the first step in making the list.) The other method uses observation of actual human behavior and beliefs with regard to art. I claimed that the former was metaphysically prior to the latter. So, on my view, it is the case that people actually group things into the “art” category because they recognize the intrinsic art properties in those objects. (And, of course, people can be wrong/disagree with regards to the list of intrinsic art-properties as well as with regards to any given object’s instantiation of some or all of those properties.) On my view, it is not the case that artworks instantiate art properties because people actually believe them to be artworks. This is what I meant when I wrote, “the sociological/historical features of art are going to supervene on the intrinsic features.”

You say:

“1. Here is approximately what I’m thinking to myself when we are talking about the other part of the problem.

Let A be the set of things an arbitrary person (let’s call them Percy) calls ‘art’ or, alternatively, thinks is ‘art.’ If Percy was the only human in the universe, then A would be ‘art.'”

I strongly disagree. Employing the distinction I articulated in the above paragraph, you are claiming that objects are conferred “artwork”-status as a result of people’s (here, Percy’s) beliefs about them, not the other way around. I claimed the opposite. This point of difference may be where we need to focus our discussion going forth.

You say:

“In our universe, there are lots of people. Searching for an intrinsic definition means, I think, searching for a definition of art which is invariant when you change the way you’re looking at it.”

I’m not sure I disagree, but I think this is a confusing and potentially wrong way to put this. On my view, the intrinsic definition (upon reflection, “concept” might be preferable to “definition”) of “art” is the set of properties instantiated by all actual and possible artworks.

You go on to add more people to the universe, and you claim that the concept of art in any given universe is the intersection of all actual people’s lists of believed artworks. (Did I get that right? You employ some logical notation with which I am unfamiliar. What should I read to understand it better? Also, what is Latex, and should I get a copy?) I strongly disagree. I think the intersection of all actual people’s lists of believed artworks is simply the list of all actual objects held by all actual people to be actual artworks in the actual world. I do not think it tells us anything about the concept (what I have been calling the “intrinsic definition”–sorry to shift terminology here. It is not sleight-of-hand. I’m just doing what I set out to do with this blog and developing my thoughts and refining my language as I go) of art. I think people can be wrong and disagree. If this isn’t clear, imagine the following scenario:

The universe has 12 people and 8 objects. Each of the 12 people believes the same 3 objects to be art and the other 5 to be non-art. There is universal agreement. One day, person 9 (Nancy) is hit on the head with a brick and suffers severe and lasting head trauma, the only affect of which is that Nancy’s beliefs about art/non-art are reversed. Nancy now believes that the other 5 objects are art, while the 3 she originally held to be art are now non-art. On your view articulated thus far (or perhaps your attempt at paraphrasing my views?), the concept of art has changed (and now includes no actual objects in this universe). I think that’s wrong. On my view, the only thing that has changed is Nancy’s beliefs (and presumably behaviors) with regards to art. The concept of art in this universe has not changed. This is because I believe people’s beliefs/behaviors with regard to art supervene on the concept of art, not vice versa.

To summarize and conclude this post, I:

1) Suggested we move our discussion to the bottom of the page rather than nesting it deeper inside the comments thread.
2) Began using “concept” in lieu of “intrinsic definition.”
3) Elaborated upon my position that people’s beliefs/behaviors with regard to art supervene on the concept of art, and not vice versa.
4) Introduced a new thought experiment to make vivid why I believe that people’s beliefs/behaviors with regard to art supervene on the concept of art, and not vice versa.
5) Interpreted Eric’s remarks as defending the opposite position (that the concept of art supervenes on people’s beliefs/behaviors with regards to art, not vice versa), and suggested that this might be the most fruitful avenue on which to continue our discussion.
6) Asked for clarification/suggested reading about the logical notation Eric used in his most recent comment.
7) Asked what Latex is and if I should get a copy.
8 ) Summarized and concluded my comment in a self-referential, moderately witty, dead-pan eight-point list.

Peter

• “This point of difference may be where we need to focus our discussion going forth.”

Now we’re talking! This is great! I strongly agree, and I’m going to step back and try to fish out better what I’m trying to say here.

• I am leaving this as a reply, since I am going to address minor things:

0. In the future, I’ll post at the bottom and just use quotes to reference previous posts.
1. I think the Wikipedia article on naive set theory would suffice:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naive_set_theory
2. LaTex is a typesetting program commonly used in science because it makes the typesetting of texts with a large amount of mathematics particularly easy. Actually, LaTex is really built on TeX. Both are free, the question is whether you want to learn TeX/LaTeX. In my experience, the best introduction is Knuth’s The TeXbook.

13. I don’t know if you remember, but there was one afternoon in the Up-room (my sophomore, your junior year) when we developed what we then called “the Method.” It involved slowly and clearly offering a single discrete piece of information at a time and then allowing the other person to respond, and so forth. Not unlike a game of chess, each player can think ahead many moves if he wishes, but he may play only one before allowing his opponent to respond. This assures that no points will be ignored and that we remain on roughly the same page. I propose we dust of the Method and employ it hence forth. Agreed?

Also (here I am… violating the Method already), I propose we always comment at the very bottom of the page, in the “Leave a Reply” box, rather than clicking the little “Reply [down-arrow]” link at the bottom of each other’s recent comment. This will preempt runaway nesting.

• Again leaving as a reply, since it’s minor and self-contained.

Actually, my memory of the Method is most strongly tied to the Down-room sometime that evening. Might be one of the most structured conversations I have ever had. I am going to strive to maintain such a standard in my posts.

14. Eric: You say:
“Let A be the set of things an arbitrary person (let’s call them Percy) calls “art” or, alternatively, thinks is “art”. If Percy was the only human in the universe, then would be “art”.”

But this has an obviously fatal flaw: people are fallible, sometimes egregiously so.

If I tried to define a more straightforward concept (like “life”, “truth”, “cheese”, or “3”) in a smilar fashion, such that something can only meet the definition if everyone in the world agrees that it does, nothing would ever qualify as anything.

In other words, if your definition collapses into the empty set the instant one internet troll speaks up and says “I don’t think anything is art”, then it was a bad definition.

15. @David and @Eric

I think the elephant in the thread that the three of us are dancing around is the question of Platonic universals. Are there absolute concepts of things (like “art”) independent of human beliefs/behaviors, or do human beliefs/behaviors aggregate (roughly) around consensus concepts. I and most living professional philosophers think the latter (although the ultimate cause of the aggregation remains intriguing).

Eric articulated a kind of anti-Platonism, but, as I (at length) and David (rather precisely and pithily) have shown, it in its current form doesn’t get us where we want to be.

My answer may look dangerously Platonic, which I’d like not to be the case. For me, the live question is now: “what is the content of the concept of “art”? what is the ultimate source of that concept(around which human beliefs/behaviors supervene/aggregate)?”

• and i still think, as i think it went unnoticed/un-replied-to above, that our conceptual content of “art” is going to include at a minimum three components: 1) lacks functional utility, 2) offers aesthetic appeal/creates temporary reality, and 3) is made with skill/craftsmanship.

do we all agree on this (i’m going to go ahead and assume “no”)?

• “do we all agree on this?”

Hahahahahaha no. 😛

16. Straw man proposal from earlier in the thread: “anything presented as art is art, but perhaps *bad* art”

Importantly “presented as” (since presentation matters) but not “intended to be presented as” (since intent does not matter).

17. I think these are too entangled with human behaviors/beliefs. I’m really trying to get at the conceptual core of “art,” and my tri-partite definition I think gets it right or damn close. Do you think there is a conceptual core unrelated to human behaviors/beliefs? That’s how I read your recent reply to Eric (“people are fallible, sometimes egregiously so.”) Maybe I misread you and you think there isn’t.

Maybe you are approaching this all from a different framework than my conceptual core vs. human beliefs/behaviors one?

You say:

“Importantly ‘presented as’ (since presentation matters) but not ‘intended to be presented as’ (since intent does not matter).”

I can’t make sense of this. Seems to me that “presented” implies both a presenter and a presentee. How does one present without intent? How can one be presented to without intent? (My answer to both: one cannot).

18. Regarding presentation independent of intent:
A painting hung in an art gallery is presented as art, regardless of the motivation of the agent who hung it there.

19. Hm… this is interesting. In such a case, what person/institution is presenting the painting?

20. Consistent with my claim that the intent of the artist is irrelevant, so is the intent of the presenter (if any). So, it doesn’t really matter who did the presenting. All that matters is that which is available to be experienced by the observer.

21. Ok, but what person/institution is presenting the piece in such a case? Is it presenting itself (I don’t think paintings can present themselves)? Is it the museum/gallery in which it hangs or the person who hung it or both? If neither, who is presenting it? To whom is it being presented?

I think all these questions have straightforward answers.

Mine are that the museum/gallery is doing the presenting. The patrons/attendees are the presentees. The painting is not presenting itself. Do you agree?

22. I’m not saying those questions are unanswerable, just that the answers don’t matter to me. 🙂

23. Alright. I think the answers should matter to you, because you (“importantly”) drew a distinction between “presented as” and “intended to be presented as.” I think you drew this distinction because you believe all that counts towards the meaning of an artwork is the phenomenological (experiential) state of the viewer in the moment he or she is engaging in a cold viewing of the artwork and nothing else. On your view, the background and intent of the artists is irrelevant, which is why you think the 4 red squares in the gallery are copies of the same artwork. On your view, the intent of the gallery is irrelevant. I think you’d probably say that intentions matter only in so far as they affect the phenomenological state of the viewer in the moment of the cold view. Is this your position? It’s a standard and well-defended one. I think it’s wrong.

I think it’s wrong because I know that viewing one red square which I know to be a completed minimalist color block painting by a certain important minimalist American painter at a certain moment in his or her career is a different experience from viewing a visually-identical red square which is an unfinished backdrop of a still life by a moderately-talented art student. Some people think this difference is invalid and shouldn’t be part of my aesthetic experience. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this, but I know that it would be very hard to force myself to ignore things about the piece, and I know that I value richness of experience, so I’m inclined to admit extra-artistic information to my aesthetic experience. I’d need a reasoned argument to convince me to go through the effort required to ignore that extra information, anyway.

Just so we don’t lose track, this portion of the thread goes back to me offering a working definition of the concept of “art” (“1) lacks functional utility, 2) offers aesthetic appeal/creates temporary reality, and 3) is made with skill/craftsmanship”) and David disagreeing, offering in its place his own definition (“anything presented as art is art, but perhaps *bad* art”). I think the “presented as art” plays an important role in David’s conception of art, and I’ve asked him to elaborate. I think “anything presented as art” sounds more like a proposed extrinsic definition than an intrinsic one. Further, I think “presented as,” as employed by David, makes clear and direct reference to the intention of the presenter. David disagrees, and I am struggling to make sense of that.

My position is that “presenting” cannot occur without a presenter and a presentee, both of whom must by definition have intentions (can non-intentional non-persons “present” something to non-intentional non-persons? I think not).

From the above, I think David’s definition of art makes reference to the intention of the artist, or at least the intention of the museum curator. I think this is at odds with the rest of what David has argued above (“the intent of the artist is irrelevant, so is the intent of the presenter (if any)”).

I continue to offer my tri-partite definition of art: 1) lacks functional utility, 2) offers aesthetic appeal/creates temporary reality, and 3) is made with skill/craftsmanship.

24. @Peter

“Employing the distinction I articulated in the above paragraph, you are claiming that objects are conferred “artwork”-status as a result of people’s (here, Percy’s) beliefs about them, not the other way around. I claimed the opposite. This point of difference may be where we need to focus our discussion going forth.”

Let’s stay with the one-person universe (Percy’s universe).

I do not think I really understand this distinction, but I will try to contrast “art” and art. With “art” marked by quotations, I will mean something like the signifier, with art, something like the signified.

Imagine Percy speaks a language other than English (say, Percian).

My idea is that, in the Percian universe, art does not exist. ( )

If Percy’s universe is like ours, then there will still be things in the Percian universe that would be art (not just “art”) for us if we inhabited the Percian universe.

Art is not just a collection of things. If it were, it would be possible that in Percian there could exist a word which signifies the precise set of things that for anyone of us is art.

For me, it’s an open question whether objects signified by thingwords (could) exist in the Percian universe. For me, it’s an open question whether cheese could exist in the Percian universe.

##########

I’m sorry all my ideas on all this stuff are so inexact. If I tried to make everything precise, I doubt I would ever get to a point where I could hit submit. In lieu of that, I’m trying to represent as clearly as possible the convictions that I have in my head. I already feel like I have gotten past some dumb convictions. Thanks for that.

25. @David

“But this has an obviously fatal flaw: people are fallible, sometimes egregiously so.”

I strongly agree.

If language was like a democracy, and my idea that art is determined by the way “art” is used, then something would be art if a majority of the people used “art” as its signifier. In my previous model, something was art only if everyone used “art” as its signifier.

One can clearly then say that “majorities are fallible, sometimes egregiously so.” I agree.

But this then begs the question of what “intrinsic” could possibly mean. This was one of the main points in constructing the model. I was trying to reproduce and expatiate Peter’s suggestion that there is something intrinsic about art.

I don’t understand what it would mean for some object/concept to be “intrinsic” unless it means that object/concept is still present/preceptible, no matter who is looking at it.

If you accept this conception of intrinsic, and the claim about the one-person Percian universe, then I think you pretty much have to go the way of my model.

You can try to tweak it on the back-end, by relaxing the way you aggregate people’s preferences. As above, you could try something like majority-rule. One could obviously also try more complicated things.

But, in any case, the line of reasoning leads to absurdities, which I think means searching for something which is intrinsically art is a chimera.

26. Eric,

Your view is becoming clear. What’s your criticism of this intrinsic definition/concept of art:

1) is made with skill/craftsmanship
2) gives an aesthetic experience/”tricks” the viewer/creates a temporary reality
3) lacks functional utility (as its main intended/actual purpose)

I think if we partition the universe into two piles A and B, with A including all things that actually fit the above description (with no reference to any person’s or group of people’s beliefs/behaviors about the matter) and B including all other things, in A we’d have all the art in the universe. Do you agree?

I feel like I’m not adequately responding directly to your thoughts as you present them, and for that I apologize. I’d hate for us each to continue to talk past each other by approaching the issue with irreconcilable frameworks.

Do you see a way to map my above comments into/onto your recent comment? Do you have any targeted replies?

Peter

27. “I think if we partition the universe into two piles A and B, with A including all things that actually fit the above description (with no reference to any person’s or group of people’s beliefs/behaviors about the matter) and B including all other things, in A we’d have all the art in the universe. Do you agree?”

I do disagree. Pointedly, because I think

” . . . we’d have all the art in the universe.”

must read

” . . . we’d have all the art in the universe, according to Peter.”

If you think the three criteria are well-defined and would be identically interpreted by anyone to whom you conveyed them, then we could write

” . . . we’d have all the art in the universe, according to Peter and anyone that agrees with his 3 criteria.”

I don’t think that could be called the “intrinsic”-icity of art.

28. Eric,

I think we’re getting somewhere. In response to your most recent comment, I’d like to introduce a new distinction.

In response to my “two piles” thought experiment, you say:

“I do disagree. Pointedly, because I think

‘ . . . we’d have all the art in the universe.’ [quoting Peter]

must read

‘ . . . we’d have all the art in the universe, according to Peter.'”

Later:

“I don’t think that could be called the ‘intrinsic’-icity of art.”

I’m going to present my case by posing a series of questions. Please briefly consider your answer to each before moving on.

Do you think there are* such things as intrinsic natures/intrinsic definitions/conceptual cores (of “art” or anything else)? (If you do not, then we should move our debate up a level. I am operating under the assumption that we hold in common a belief that such an intrinsic nature/conceptual core exists. I am under the impression that we are wrestling with how to best articulate it.)

[*lengthy aside: “are” here needs not be a robust kind of Platonic world-of-the-forms existence. It might just be a kind of semantic existence claim,” looking like, “It’s best to talk about things in such a way such that we sound like we are talking about existing intrinsic natures.” Kind of like how it’s best to talk about “2” as though “it” “exists,” even though it’s probably just patterns of neural activity in homo sapiens. In other words, it would make math and just about everything else really tedious if we always had to map things back onto neurology. It seems to work perfectly if we just act like “2” exists, even if we aren’t sure exactly that that means. And, just like human beliefs and behaviors with respect to “2” aggregate around and supervene on the intrinsic concept “2,” (whatever/wherever/whenever that may be) human beliefs and behaviors aggregate around and supervene on the intrinsic concept “art.” In what sense that concept “exists” is a worthwhile metaphysical question (exists in time? in space? extended? changing?), the answer to which seems to wash out at this level of our discussion. Do you agree?]

If you do agree that there is such a thing as an intrinsic nature (onto which human beliefs/behaviors supervene and not vice versa), then do you think it is possible to be put into words?

If you think the concept of art can be put into words, do you think it’s possible that Peter Sloan could put it into words?

What is the difference between a case in which Peter Sloan has put into words the actual concept “art” and a case in which Peter Sloan has shared his reasoned but not necessarily true opinion about the concept “art”?

As should be clear, I’m aiming at a distinction between “‘art’ according to Peter and anyone who agrees with Peter” and “‘art,’ which may or may not be correctly articulated by Peter or anyone else.” I think if there is such a thing as “art,” then Peter (and anyone else) should be able to say what it is. I think such a case is importantly different from one in which we simply have Peter’s reasoned but not necessarily true opinion.

My distinction, quasi-formalized:

Let Ap be the case where Peter is correctly articulating the concept “art,” while
Pa is the case where Peter is sharing his reasoned but not necessarily true opinion about the concept “art.”
I think we agree that if we are interested in either, it is Ap.

I think we need a methodology for distinguishing between Ap and Pa. It might be democratic, or it might involve conceptual analysis by professional philosophers. It might be empirical and relate to evolutionary biology.

Regardless of the details, my intuitions remain strongly that such an intrinsic concept exists, and upon reasoned reflection I see no reason to abandon those intuitions.

Thoughts?

Peter

29. Not to break the method Method, but there might be an even simpler response:

What leads you to the conclusion that my tri-partite concept of “art” is not the right one (and is instead merely my reasoned but not necessarily true opinion)?

In other words, I’ll just pose my question again:

“What’s your criticism?” Or, can you identify an art object that does not instantiate the concept?

Peter

30. I’ll get to the rest when I have more time, but I can reply to the very last thing you wrote rather quickly, and I think it’s not an un-important point.

Namely, you wrote

““What’s your criticism?” Or, can you identify an art object that does not instantiate the concept?”

I can trivially deem something to be an art object, i.e. I call it “art”, which does not instantiate the three criteria. I need only deign to do so. In this case, who’s capital-c Correct? More directly, who’s the capital-c Correct referee?

I don’t think there is one. One can clarify one’s own thoughts, and one can present the results of one’s thinking very logically, but that doesn’t get us to intrinsic. That gets us to a system we consider as well thought out.

I think it’s tangential, but I can nevertheless present an object that I would consider art, which does not fulfill the 3 criteria (most egregiously violating #3).

http://www.mikroe.com/pdf/adc_board_schematic.pdf

That’s a simple circuit diagram for an analog-to-digital converter. In good faith, I think that’s art. It is, however, created to serve a functional purpose.

31. Hm. Strong disagreement throughout!

You:

“I can trivially deem something to be an art object, i.e. I call it ‘art,’ which does not instantiate the three criteria. I need only deign to do so. In this case, who’s capital-c Correct? More directly, who’s the capital-c Correct referee?”

Earlier, you agreeing with David (seemingly in preemptive response to yourself):

“people are fallible, sometimes egregiously so.”

My point:

One (here, you) can “trivially deem” anything one wants. One (here, me) can also trivially dismiss these kinds of points.

An example helps:

“I can trivially deem this glass of battery acid to be “water.” It does not instantiate the criteria our socio-politico-chemico-industrial power complex holds are necessary conditions for being deemed “water” (namely that it be composed of H20 and almost nothing else). But who is capital-c Correct? Who is the capital-c Correct referee?”

How is the above paragraph structurally different from your recent comment?

The object you present is art in some cases and not in others. I mean:

If the original was designed to be a digital circuit diagram to be read by electrical engineers for the purpose of mass-producing circuits, then regardless of how pretty it looks, it isn’t art.

If the original is found by a museum curator and hung in an art museum as part of an exhibit highlighting the beauty old industrial diagrams and making some sort of artistic statement, then it is art.

If the original is found by a museum curator and hung in a history museum as part of an exhibit on old industrial diagrams, then it isn’t art.

Regardless of how beautiful you find it (satisfying criteria 2), more is required for it to be an instance of the concept “art” I have been advancing.

Finally, you:

“I don’t think there is one [capital-c Correct referee]. One can clarify one’s own thoughts, and one can present the results of one’s thinking very logically, but that doesn’t get us to intrinsic. That gets us to a system we consider as well thought out.”

How is this specific to this conversation? In other words, how is this not a criticism leveled by any side in any debate about any topic ever? Is it meant as a general critique of intrinsic-ness? That’s a tough pill for me to swallow; regardless of how difficult it is to articulate (even if it is in principle impossible for homo sapiens to have access to), surely we accept that there are things that have intrinsic properties, no? “the thing in itself”?

Peter

• I would like to suggest that “art” (the signifier) is a social construct whose meaning varies widely between individuals and cultures. Water exists on its own without humans, but I would argue that “art” does not; without people, sculptures would become a certain interesting shape of stone and nothing more. “Art” is just like “virtue” in this way, and as social constructs, both are highly variant depending on cultural and individual perspective.

32. Hey Brett. I’m interested in your water/art/existing without humans example.

Tell me, in what sense does art cease to exist but water not cease to exist when humans disappear? Seems like if humans disappeared tomorrow, all art (and all water) would stay just the way it is. Anything meaningful to humans (about either art or water) would disappear. Yes?

Do you mean that if humans never existed, art never would have existed? I can’t argue with that.

It seems not-obviously-wrong that the concept “art” might be culture- or individual- relative. On your view, is it possible for an individual or a culture to be wrong about the nature of “art”?

Peter

• I would say that it is only possible to be wrong about the nature of art within a specific context. One can be wrong about what another person considers art. One can be wrong about what a society will consider to be art. But there is no way for an individual or culture to be wrong about the universal nature of art, as the very idea of the “nature” of art is an illusion. Art is like politics; there are unlimited points of view, and none of them are quite correct.

• @brettcoburn:

“But there is no way for an individual or culture to be wrong about the universal nature of art […]”

Well then, all is fire. Case closed.

… but that doesn’t really *mean* anything, does it? 🙂

33. Brett,

I’m having trouble swallowing such a relativistic pill. How is the following view structurally different from yours:

“I would say that it is only possible to be wrong about the nature of water within a specific context. One can be wrong about what another person considers water. One can be wrong about what a society will consider to be water. But there is no way for an individual or culture to be wrong about the universal nature of water, as the very idea of the “nature” of water is an illusion. Water is like politics; there are unlimited points of view, and none of them are quite correct.”

Peter

34. It’s a bit silly, I think, but I am going to lay out my reply in three posts. This is the first one, which just describes itself and the other two.

After thinking about the topic for awhile, I opted for a big picture reply. After reading my post(s), please let me know if you think we’re still getting somewhere. If not, let me know, and I think I can return and reply in a small-picture way, to keep the ball rolling.

So I wrote my reply straight through, and afterwards I realized that I wrote in some non-germane stuff. The next post will just contain everything, including the asides (since I thought they were irrelevant but illustrative), and the third one will contain a subset of that material which I think is most germane to your most recent post.

35. I think the best answer we could get to a question such as “what is art?” would be a definition which, when adopted by different people, resulted in the same group of things being called art. I feel like that’s as much intrinsic-ness as we’re going to get (although I have absolutely no proof for that asseration).

Like I think I showed with my example*, I do not feel like you are going to access some abstract concept of art which will be inevitably perceived as art by different people. I do not see why one would posit that there is an “artness” out there, which we must find if we look. I think the fact that different people and cultures/languages have different concepts of “art” suggests this.

I do not think one can get out of this by pointing out that people are and can be fallible.

I think people can be fallible inasmuch as they can adopt premises and therefrom draw incorrect conclusions. I think one can, for example, experience this pretty well in debates with contemporary Christians vis-a-vis religious beliefs. You can always just axiomatize everything you want to be true to avoid having to communicate with other people and defend the results of your thinking. But then you just live in the universe where everything you want to be is trivially true. If you don’t ever adopt anyone’s premises other than your own, which tautologically have you being correct, then you don’t ever have to be wrong, and this option is available to everyone.

That is to say, there’s being fallible and there’s having different ways of viewing the world, different values, different premises. No one is required to adopt our definition of art, they can have their own, and as long as it is consistent, then that’s an “art” concept, take it or leave it.

The only way out of this, towards some capital-I Intrinsic definition of art, as I see it, is to say we’re after the one and only consistent defintion of art.

As proof, you would either have to consider every possible conception of art one-by-one and show yours is consistent and every other one isn’t, or, since that’s impossible, show that if any conception varied from your conception, it would consequently be inconsistent.

To show that an “art” conception is inconsistent requires that you show that the defintion contains a contradiction. In other words, you need to show that the conception defines an object as “art” that is not…er…art.

Anyone could instantaneously fix their problem by throwing that object out. Since they’re the ones determining what is and isn’t a priori art, they’re the ones who can fix the consistency of their system.

If you could, perhaps, beforehand on an intuitive basis, get someone to fix their set of “art” objects, you could inspect the consistency of their “art” concept.

Actually, that’s a bit heavy. It would be faster to get them to first present their definition, then proceed one-by-one through their “art” objects until you found a contradiction. This method won’t get you to consistency, but it will weed out the inconsistent ones faster.

Anyway, I think I can clearly present what I see as the stumbling block. Supposing you could, in theory, fix, on something like an intuitive basis, a set of objects that are to be considered as art, you might be able to find the one and only consistent defintion (modulo trivial rephrasing etc.) of art for this art set. That is, you might be able to show that, if an art definition differs from yours, it’s inconsistent, over this set. That would get you the intrinsic properties of these objects, and since for you they are everything that is art, that would get you the intrinsic properties of art. But we have to note that, we’ve only gotten the intrinsic properties of Peter’s art.

I think it’s tangentially relevant to add that:

I think that in science we’re not in the business of finding out what the world IS, as much as we’re trying to answer the question “how can we slice, dice, and categorize the world so as to consistently explain the largest number of things?”

So, from this point of view, water, electrons, etc. are a _theory_. It just happens to be massively inconvenient to refer to them all the time in this way, so we talk about something “being” an electron.

*-the one heavy in set-theory notation.

36. I think the best answer we could get to a question such as “what is art?” would be a definition which, when adopted by different people, resulted in the same group of things being called art. I feel like that’s as much intrinsic-ness as we’re going to get (although I have absolutely no proof for that asseration).

No one is required to adopt our definition of art, they can have their own, and as long as it is consistent, then that’s an “art” concept, take it or leave it.

The only way out of this, towards some capital-I Intrinsic definition of art, as I see it, is to say we’re after the one and only consistent defintion of art.

As proof, you would either have to consider every possible conception of art one-by-one and show yours is consistent and every other one isn’t, or, since that’s impossible, show that if any conception varied from your conception, it would consequently be inconsistent.

To show that an “art” conception is inconsistent requires that you show that the defintion contains a contradiction. In other words, you need to show that the conception defines an object as “art” that is not…er…art.

Anyone could instantaneously fix their problem by throwing that object out. Since they’re the ones determining what is and isn’t a priori art, they’re the ones who can fix the consistency of their system.

If you could, perhaps, beforehand on an intuitive basis, get someone to fix their set of “art” objects, you could inspect the consistency of their “art” concept.

Supposing you could, in theory, fix, on something like an intuitive basis, a set of objects that are to be considered as art, you might be able to find the one and only consistent defintion (modulo trivial rephrasing etc.) of art for this art set. That is, you might be able to show that, if an art definition differs from yours, it’s inconsistent, over this set.

That would get you the intrinsic properties of these objects, and since for you they are everything that is art, that would get you the intrinsic properties of art. But we have to note that, we’ve only gotten the intrinsic properties of Peter’s art.

37. Hi Eric,

I think this post is helpful. Good to zoom out and see where we stand (or, at least, where you think we stand). I have a number of replies:

You:

“I think the best answer we could get to a question such as ‘what is art?’ would be a definition which, when adopted by different people, resulted in the same group of things being called art. I feel like that’s as much intrinsic-ness as we’re going to get (although I have absolutely no proof for that assertion).”

Me:

I am thinking of intrinsic-ness/concepts/natures as existing independent of human beliefs and behaviors. Thus, I think any statement/definition of a concept must lack any reference to people’s beliefs/behaviors.

You:

“Like I think I showed with my example [in heavy set-theory notation], I do not feel like you are going to access some abstract concept of art which will be inevitably perceived as art by different people. I do not see why one would posit that there is an ‘artness’ out there, which we must find if we look. I think the fact that different people and cultures/languages have different concepts of ‘art’ suggests this.”

Me:

On the “artness ‘out there'” point, I will say firstly that I am not interested in committing myself to a cosmic-geographical location for the Platonic form “Art.” Indeed, I am not interested in any robust Platonism whatsoever. As I said in a previous post, I think we can adopt a kind of semantic Platonism (like we do with numbers). The concept “2” is best conceived/discussed as existing independent of neural activity in homo sapiens, even though I think strictly speaking that’s all it “really” is.

On the “cultural disagreement” point, I have a hard time accepting such a relativistic stance. To see why, imagine replacing “art” with “medicine.” Many cultures/sub-cultures adopt radically divergent conceptions of “medicine,” ranging from one informed heavily by modern science to some informed primarily by Iron Age texts and astrological voodoo. I will say unequivocally that the modern science approach to medicine is the right one, and most others are the wrong one. I think the same can be true with respect to “art.” “People can be wrong, sometimes egregiously so.”

You:

“I do not think one can get out of this by pointing out that people are and can be fallible.”

Me:

Care to elaborate? I think David’s “internet troll” thought experiment (in which one contrarian denies any definition posited by anyone) shows quite nicely why conceptual analysis must not and cannot be a democratic process.

You:

“I think people can be fallible inasmuch as they can adopt premises and therefrom draw incorrect conclusions. I think one can, for example, experience this pretty well in debates with contemporary Christians vis-a-vis religious beliefs. You can always just axiomatize everything you want to be true to avoid having to communicate with other people and defend the results of your thinking. But then you just live in the universe where everything you want to be is trivially true. If you don’t ever adopt anyone’s premises other than your own, which tautologically have you being correct, then you don’t ever have to be wrong, and this option is available to everyone.

That is to say, there’s being fallible and there’s having different ways of viewing the world, different values, different premises. No one is required to adopt our definition of art, they can have their own, and as long as it is consistent, then that’s an ‘art’ concept, take it or leave it.”

Me:

I’m surprised you are aligning your defense with contemporary Christians’ patterns of reasoning.

On the last sentence (“then that’s an ‘art’ concept, take it or leave it.”), I maintain that that’s just flat wrong. As wrong as the people holding up their mistaken conception of “art”/primitive cultures holding up their mistaken conceptions of “medicine”/Christians holding up their mistaken metaphysics. “A [posited/defended] ‘art’ concept” does not mean “an ‘art’ concept” or “the ‘art’ concept.”

You:

“The only way out of this, towards some capital-I Intrinsic definition of art, as I see it, is to say we’re after the one and only consistent definition of art.

As proof, you would either have to consider every possible conception of art one-by-one and show yours is consistent and every other one isn’t, or, since that’s impossible, show that if any conception varied from your conception, it would consequently be inconsistent.

To show that an ‘art’ conception is inconsistent requires that you show that the definition contains a contradiction. In other words, you need to show that the conception defines an object as ‘art’ that is not…er…art.

Anyone could instantaneously fix their problem by throwing that object out. Since they’re the ones determining what is and isn’t a priori art, they’re the ones who can fix the consistency of their system.”

Me:

I don’t think we should admit such conceptual gerrymandering as legitimate.

You go on, and I don’t have any very specific targeted replies except to say that I think (as I state at the outset of this comment) that starting from people’s/a person’s beliefs/behaviors with respect to art is the wrong starting point. “Conceptual analysis is not a democratic process.”

I’ll go on to say that I think art is probably best conceived of in terms of evolutionary biology. It is a class of behaviors of a class of organisms in a class of environments. All art behaviors share certain characteristics. I have posited that the list of characteristics is three-fold:

1) made with skill/craft
2) offers an aesthetic experience/creates a temporary reality
3) lacks practical utility as its primary intended/actual function

Just as zoologists studying beavers do not and should not poll beavers on their beliefs about their behavior, philosophers of art need not poll artists/consumers of art on their beliefs about art.

You:

“I think that in science we’re not in the business of finding out what the world IS, as much as we’re trying to answer the question ‘how can we slice, dice, and categorize the world so as to consistently explain the largest number of things?’

So, from this point of view, water, electrons, etc. are a _theory_. It just happens to be massively inconvenient to refer to them all the time in this way, so we talk about something ‘being’ an electron.”

Me:

I strongly agree. Another way to put your point is that ontology (the study of what kinds of things there are) is subject-relative. Science is quite powerful in providing a natural ontology, but we go wrong when we think it is an absolute natural ontology, generating statements of the form “X is a class of thing that exists.” I think science actually provides an ontology relative to the human observer, generating statements like “X is a class of things that exist to observer Y.” Thus, when we say “electrons exist,” we are saying “electrons exist [not exclusively to] humans.” “Nature has no joints.”

A nice thought experiment to convince the skeptical of this is as follows:

Imagine a universe with three substances and two observers. Call the substances “land,” “water,” and “air.” The substances are arranged such that there is a single island of “land,” its bottom half surrounded by “water” and its top half protruding into the “air.” A normal island.

Both our observers have evolved sensory/perceptive faculties allowing them to distinguish “land” from anything else. Both can walk on “land.”

Importantly, however, one of our observers (Allen) has further evolved sensory/perceptive faculties allowing it to distinguish “water” and “air.” It can swim through “water” and fly through “air.” The other observer (Bob) cannot distinguish “water” from “air.” It can swim/fly through both.

Allen (or a race of Allens) could perform science on their universe and correctly generate a three-part natural ontology consisting of “land,” “water,” and “air.” Bob (or a race of Bobs) could perform science on their universe and correctly generate a two-part natural ontology consisting of “land” and “not land.”

How you intuitively respond to the above says a lot about your views on the philosophy of science. For example, many are inclined to say, “but…. Bob is just *wrong*! There really is both “water” and “air.” He just can’t tell the difference.” I, however, think this assumes a kind of God’s-eye view-from-nowhere observer. To make this clear, imagine if Allen were no longer in the picture. The universe contains only Bob. On what basis could we tell Bob his natural ontology is wrong?

Peter