A Picture of Art

In my philosophy of art course this term we are talking about Tolstoy and Collingwood on expression, Plotinus and Hume and Kant on beauty, and Dewey as a kind of semi-successful synthesis of these two dimensions of art (artist and audience, expression and beauty). As the course goes on we will spend more time discussing whether any of this sort of theorizing survives the new approaches of conceptual art. I think it does – at least, I think these ideas and thinkers remain useful for thinking about art today – but I don’t want to argue that here.

The word ‘beauty’ is a mess in philosophy, as perhaps befits the unbeautiful state of the broader human world. The important (meta-)property this word is trying to pick out in aesthetics is the one involved when you say “what a magnificent landscape” or “you must see that movie” or “Memoirs of Hadrian is a genuinely great work of literature” or even “Cezanne’s many landscapes with Mont Sainte-Victoire and still lives with apples gave us a new way of seeing the world, which has since become one of our basic cognitive touchstones for judging and understanding visual art.” (In this last it is the way of seeing offered in a variety of paintings offered as the property you must notice if you are also to perceive their beauty, along with the usual move indicating an expansion of our conceptual resources in understanding art on the basis of Cezanne’s success.) Plausibly, this property is something like a type of interest or enjoyment which is (1) valuable and/or normative and (2) in some way socially shared, intersubjective, general, or universal. (Credit here to Richard Warner and Steven Wagner as well as to Immanuel Kant for shaping my thinking on this subject.)

But for our purposes ‘beauty’ can be semi-defined as ‘the property(-ies) that make artworks interesting as artworks to their audiences’, sidestepping the harder questions. The point of the term theoretically speaking is to organize audience aesthetics, the reception of artworks by audiences.

The philosophical problem here, which at least has structural similarities to a real problem that artists face in relating to their audiences, is this. We have a reasonably good account of art from the artist’s point of view in the expression theories. And we can form a reasonably good working grasp of the sorts of value one may find in the experience of art first and foremost from the artworks themselves, second from the works of the best critics, and also from the best philosophers of aesthetic experience, such as Plato, Plotinus, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche.

Presumably an adequate theory of art would provide a unified view of these two dimensions of art.

Collingwood and Dewey both had useful and somewhat similar things to say about how these two faces of art might be connected. For Collingwood, the making of an artwork is an act of imaginative emotional expression. The audience’s job is then to reconstruct that expressive act from the performance or object the act yielded, which means, in part, to use the performance or object as a vehicle for their own expression, or at least to try it out in imagination as a candidate for such. (Judgments like “very impressive, but not for me” can sometimes acknowledge artistic success along with the unwillingness of that audience member to inhabit the artist’s perspective, on this view.) For Dewey, the making of an artwork is an encoding of experiences, and although there are differences in the details, the overall picture of what the audience does is again a perceiving aimed at reenacting the artist’s expressive process, at least within the limits of one’s own different perspective.

Dewey’s word ‘experience’, and his idea that the artist must “embody in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works” – meaning not that he must worry about what audiences or fellow artists will think, but that he is creating something for perception and should generally treat it as such as he makes it – help take something like Collingwood’s idea and connect it more explicitly to the idea of beauty. Perhaps ultimately beautiful expressions are just some subset of interesting ones, but one connects the idea of beauty to that of experiences and series of perceptions which are ‘textured,’ meaningfully directed sensual surfaces, seemingly disparate ideas unified at some level just beyond our ability to directly grasp, and which unify us in their apprehension.

This last (and crucial) social dimension of art is more or less left out of the current path of thought, rendering it incomplete, but with one more ingredient we will at least have the ingredients for a picture of the connection between the artist’s expression and the audience’s reception. This piece is the answer to Plato’s question about where art comes from – where artists get their inspirations.

Broadly speaking answers to this question fall into five categories, which should not be taken as mutually exclusive: the supernatural (God, muses, spirits); the intellectual (ideas or theories, theses about art itself); the natural (typically, sensuous forms which the artist’s power of selection singles out for attention owing to their distinctive power of aesthetic reward; ‘significant form’); the cultural (the artist as the vehicle of one or more identities which the artist inhabits and which are taken to have their own unique characters of expression; or, as the channeler of broader energies informing the time and place in which she lives); and the individual (the artist as spokesperson for her own viewpoint, or as idiot-savant of the genius of her own unconscious).

My proposal here is merely structural: that where there is art there is inspiration, and where there is inspiration there is some source or sources for it, drawn from any or all of the five categories above. Even if we think of expression in the older terms of feeling or emotion, feelings and emotions come out of people in their encounters with the world. The ‘source’ of art is just the complex combination of past experiences and reflections on those experiences to which the artist reacts and whose outlines form the space which her aesthetic idea indicates a path through and/or organizes. The art is not reducible to its source(s), but as an expression in reaction to them it is not independent from it either, and in reconstructing the expressive act that constitutes the work the audience must find connected sources in their own experience if they are to understand the work’s aesthetic idea and find meaning in it.

The following diagram is offered as a way to organize this particular way of looking at the relationship between artist, artwork, and audience:

Cropped Art Diagram

The reversed half-arrows here are meant to indicate that as the artist moves from inspiration to creation, she enters into dialogue with her materials and with the finished work that she sees emerging from her creative process; and that as the audience member moves from perception to recreation, she attempts to connect the thing she is perceiving to the sources from which it came, and as taking a particular stance with respect to those sources, so that she can perceive it as the kind of expressive act it is.

On this view, then, the property formerly known as beauty is something like a positive feedback loop between the perception of the artwork and the recreation of the ‘source’, a meta-level property of audience reception. When what there is to see gives us a lot to think or feel, which makes us look again, which gives us more to think or feel, culminating in a kind of satisfaction which constitutes one kind of aesthetic understanding.

One Way of Thinking About the “What is Art?” Question

What is an artist? Someone who makes artworks.

What is an artwork? Something which is for audiences to experience (perceive, receive, evaluate, interpret, regard, etc.).

These might seem to be definitions, but most would find them insufficient, too broad, as will be clearer shortly. However, they do seem to be true, and they give us, if not information, at least a helpful framework for thinking about art.

(The only loaded term I see above is ‘for’. The argument here comes from the notion of ‘private art’, as made e.g. (apparently) not by Emily Dickinson as she was but Emily Dickinson as we imagine her: if one writes for one’s journal, not for the public, is one still writing for an audience? I say yes: a poem (e.g.) is an entity-made-for-an-audience whether or not it is actually shown to this or that audience or not. There are cases where the difference between activities assumed private and activities assumed public is important, but I am not sure that they undermine the idea that art is in some fundamental sense communicative whether it is used to communicate or not. I also don’t accept a universal skepticism about purposes/ends of activity or our ability to perceive them in our activities and their products.)

Here’s a sort of picture:

Art Diagram

On this picture, the artwork is an entity-made-to-be-experienced.

You will find worse definitions of art than this here and there in the literature, but as it stands most people would find this too broad. Some apparent counterexamples would include roller coasters, those little plastic monsters you buy from grocery store vending machines, and (this last example thanks to Noel Carroll’s Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction) neatly manicured suburban lawns, which are prepared in meticulous detail to exacting yet plausibly undefinable formal specifications for an appreciative yet critical audience of neighbor-lawn manicurists. Most of the contested, ‘it-might-be-art’ categories like cuisine, comic books, and pornography all clearly get into the ‘art club’ on this definition.

There is something to the broad category we pick out here, though. Poems, paintings, dances, and Seven Easy Pieces are all entities-made-to-be-experienced; forks, stop signs, airplanes, and my dog are not. (They all can be experienced, and the stop sign arguably requires being experienced as a precondition for communication, but plausibly none of them are ‘for’ being experienced in the way that a painting or poem is.) So it seems at least plausible that there is some broader category here, Experiential Objects say, of which Artworks form a subset.

I can imagine a philosopher of art suggesting that Experiential Objects is the only interesting broad category into which artworks can be lumped, and that our narrower and more precise definitions of ‘art’ are actually no such thing, but rather various views about which types of makings, entities, and experiences count as ‘good’ or ‘valuable’ art, masquerading as theories of art-in-general. Certainly we use ‘art’ both as a descriptive and as an evaluative term in different contexts, and this might serve as a lever for an able art theorist/philosopher to attempt to defend the broader category as the only relevant one at the level of pure description, even while allowing that there might be good reasons to restrict good, important, or valuable art to one or more proper subsets of the Experiential Objects at the level of evaluation.

But this is not what is normally done. Instead, philosophers of art normally look to narrow down on what type of maker, entity, and/or experience count as art. Oversimplifying in the usual ways, representation theories and formalist theories narrow down on the type of entity (one which represents and/or possesses appropriate formal virtues); expression theories adverbialize the whole diagram (expressive making, expressive entities, experiencing-as-expressive), aesthetic experience theories narrow down the type of experience the object is made for, institutional theories contextualize the diagram within a special group of people, and ‘conceptual theories’ (this is a sort of catch-all term, although if you theorize about art academically from the arts and humanities and you are not in a philosophy department you may well hold such a theory – I would put Joseph Kosuth and Thierry de Duve here for example) least suggest that we take the diagram as only signifying ‘art’ when applied at the meta-level, so that a proper work of art is not just made for experience but is ‘about’ making-for-experience, sheds interesting light on it by doing it in a new way or transforming the way we think about how it is done in existing ways.

The suggestion of this post is that this might be a useful framework to think about the ‘what is art’ question in terms of. I have found it so, in any case. If there is a theory of art you like, consider what restrictions it places on the category of Experiential Objects. Why are those worthwhile restrictions to place? Why should we call just this restriction ‘art’, and exclude what lies outside it? What values do we realize in so doing? What light does this restriction shed on the actual history of art? (We don’t necessarily have to universally affirm the objects which are currently thought to belong in that history as artworks, but we do have to account for them in some way – even Tolstoy did that.)

This is not a call for a sort of universal enfranchisement of Experiential Objects in the Artworld. I have no objection to ‘art’ being an essentially normative term and discipline. The philosophical challenge might just be to understand and make a good case for that normative dimension. And the descriptive category of Experiential Objects might make a good background against which to think about which norms might be constitutive of arthood and why.