When we ask “What is art?” what we are often really asking is “What kind of thing is art?” Every adult speaker of English has learned to use the word ‘art’, so obviously we must know what it means. We don’t not know. We are not confused in ordinary circumstances. We can point to objects that are art and we can decide with good reason between something like music (film, painting, sculpture) that is art and music that is not. That is, we are comfortable making decisions about ‘art’ with the same confidence and lack of confusion as we are in deciding whether a Ford, a Chevy, a BMW, and a potato are cars.
This does not mean that we are in complete agreement with our fellows about things counting as art, but this is less a confusion about the ‘thing’ that art is and more a difference between what we learned to use the word for. When we learned language we learned what things count as art and what things don’t. Some learn differences that we do not. This is how we grow to make sense of the world.
Its not a closed book we are exposed to. We are shown parts of the world, how to categorize things, choose members, the criteria that count, limiting cases, where the grey areas are, and then proceed to engage with the world in meaningful ways. We advance our understanding into unfamiliar areas. We learn the world and our language hand in hand. Not everyone learns all the same criteria we learn. And when we find that others disagree with us we can imagine they are missing something essential. As if they don’t have the facts right.
But this is our confusion. We imagine that if they had all the right facts they would see the truth as we do, as if relevant parts were simply hidden from view. The question is whether asking “What is art?” picks out a thing that is as neatly circumscribed as ‘cars’, ‘books’, ‘knives’, ‘plants’, ‘beetles’, and other sorts of thing we have little trouble identifying. Is ‘art’ a thing that is narrowly circumscribed? We sometimes assume that it is. At least, asking the question seems to presuppose that it is. But maybe, in fact, its the wrong question.
Perhaps we should first ask ourselves whether ‘art’ names something that can be used in the ways we want to use the term. We are frustrated that when we talk about art in the context of research, policy, and funding it comes to us as a slippery customer. We imagine that if we only tightened up what is meant by ‘art’ we would be able to achieve the things we want. We imagine the problem is that we have not yet precisely figured out what kind of object art is, and that by identifying its proper definition we will have a greater understanding of what ‘art’ really means. We take it that the ordinary use of the term, which leads to our confusion, is flawed and that there is some better more ideal way of conceiving ‘art’ that would avoid the problems. We imagine that we suffer a lack of precision, and that this is our fundamental problem.
But what if the problem were not our ordinary hamfisted use of the word in normal circumstances but actually demanding that it behave itself in this specialized ‘precise’ way? As if ‘art’ named a perfectly recognizable entity such as ‘cars’ etc? What if we are asking for trouble specifically because we are using a word that does not actually *name* something as much as it points to a diverse collection of objects and practices, grouped according to our own conventions and the accidents of our cultural history? What if ‘art’ were not a natural object that could be picked out once and for all by some essential characteristic, but a plurality of diverse things we call ‘art’ which at most share a family resemblance and are united only by our own linguistic practice rather than an inherent quality they all equally share?
What makes one thing art will not always be what makes another thing art, and that lack of consistency, that lack of continuity, stands at the crossroads of our difficulty. What if we are asking the wrong question, and that rather than looking for the object that art is we instead should be looking at what art means in real human lives? Diverse lives? What if we are simply asking the wrong kind of question?
As Wittgenstein says in The Blue Book,
“WHAT is the meaning of a word?
Let us attack this question by asking, first, what is an explanation of the meaning of a word; what does the explanation of a word look like?
The way this question helps us is analogous to the way the question “how do we measure a length” helps us to understand the problem “what is length?”
The question “What is length?”, “What is meaning?”, “What is the number one?” etc., produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we can’t point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something.(We are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it.)”
The substantive, ‘art’, has bewitched us into thinking there is some ‘real’ thing corresponding to it, that the word *names* something specific, and that our problems are just that we have not figured out the exact thing which is being named. We think the problem is that we have only done a poor job of defining what ‘art’ is, and not that looking for a better definition is itself part of the problem.
We don’t understand ‘art’ not because we don’t know what the word means (We do. We use it comfortably all the time), but because we are confounded by the idea that ‘art’ must name something specific. We attempt to use ‘art’ as if it works that way, and making it conform to a strict use is precisely what gets us into trouble, unfortunately. Its not that we are confused about art especially. What we are confused about is how specific that word can be made to function.
When we are looking for something that does a specific job, we may simply have the wrong tool in mind. But wanting a job to be done is no guarantee that any particular tool will suffice. We can imagine far more things than we are disposed to handle in the real world. Asking a question does not always mean there will be an answer. How many Angels fit on the head of a pin, after all? Some questions are simply bad questions, and our problem is that we can’t often tell the difference.
If the term ‘art’ causes problems for research, for policy, and for funding, perhaps its not art’s fault but our own. Perhaps we are simply asking the wrong sorts of question. That seems worth considering. We are far too naive about the ‘things’ our words name, the ordinary and correct uses of the words we have, and its far too easy to blame the words for our own inadequacy.
Things to think about, at least.