The trouble with ‘art’

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?

Figure 'A' shows an essence shared between all members of the community, figure 'B' shows an ideal case that every member is related to, and figure 'C' shows how not every member of a f\group has to be related in the same way to every other member. They can instead be related through an overlapping and intertwining of intermediate cases with nothing strictly held in common by all members. This is what is meant by 'family resemblance'.

Figure ‘A’ shows an essence shared between all members of the community, figure ‘B’ shows an ideal case that every member is related to, and figure ‘C’ shows how not every member of a group has to be related in the same way to every other member. They can instead be related through an overlapping and intertwining of intermediate cases with nothing strictly held in common by all members. This is what is meant by ‘family resemblance’.

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.



About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The trouble with ‘art’

  1. I just left this comment on Doug McLennan’s blog:

    What are we doing when we define terms? Are we more precisely locating the true nature of the thing defined? Are we doing a sort of science with words such that our terms more accurately represent the reality behind language? Are our current definitions inadequate because they somehow fail to properly agree with objective reality? A better definition is simply the one that is closer to reality? Is that what language does? Does language give the proper names and comprehensive definitions of true things in the world? Can a definition be more right or more wrong simply as a matter of agreement with the facts? Again, are we doing science with words?

    Maybe sometimes its like that, but for most of our ordinary language its not. The things we pick out, like ‘art’ and ‘opera’ are not natural objects in the same sense that the hard sciences carve up the world with ‘fauna’ and ‘flora’, ‘reduction’ and ‘oxidation’. Some terms pick out a taxonomy of natural categories within the world. The terms ‘art’ and ‘opera’ don’t. They are wholly human cultural constructs, and so represent entirely human interests. A better definition of ‘opera’ is not somehow closer to reality but rather closer to our human designs for employing it. If we want opera to mean these specific things, that will be how we best define it. We are not plumbing the ‘true nature’ of opera any more than we are getting out microscopes and scales to measure what things really count as opera.

    Understanding that ‘opera’ is a convention of use in a human language points to a cultural reality that is not necessarily based on things operatic having a single underlying shared essence. That needs to get straightened out. Wittgenstein introduced the words ‘family resemblance’ to help us understand that certain concepts are united not by a shared mutual continuity but sometimes through overlapping strands that some members have but others do not. We call things ‘opera’ and ‘art’ not because there is some one thread that unites them, but from the diverse usage that lumps them all together. Defining those terms is inherently problematic if we are hooked on the notion that better definitions get us closer to a correct and singular underlying meaning.

    So, when you ask what someone’s definition is what you are really asking is what things they would include by their own preferences and rationales. What you are really asking is “What things matter to you?” Its not science. We choose the definition to fit the purpose.

    So perhaps the better question is “Why is it important to limit opera to these things and not others?” The definition we have will only ever suit that circumstance. The definition is the least of our concerns. Why we include these things and not others is what needs to be explained. Our own agenda lies at the root of these questions. The definition we choose is only code for being interested in these particular aspects and not others, and the difference between definitions is not a disagreement over the reality behind the words as much as between the ambitions for using the terms. We give power to words according to what we want them to do for us. In the end we are talking about our own designs and priorities for the world rather than some true state of the world behind our words. We need to be as clear about that as we can.

    I am curious how many folks in the arts have read Wittgenstein or other of the Ordinary Language philosophers. What I have said is not so far out on a limb.

  2. My response to William Osborne’s comment on Doug’s post:

    Most of what you are saying makes perfect sense, but I’m not sure you understood what I was aiming at. The problem I sometimes encounter is that when we reach for a more adequate definition we imagine we are aspiring to an unvarnished and agnostic truth. The better definition might be code for “What do we *really* mean by ‘opera’ (or the like).” In science its often easy to determine a best definition because the objects and processes do seem to turn on universals. The difficulty we have is that the ideal of science is not as useful when applied to cultural entities and concepts.

    But not finding a determinate ‘thing’ at the center of our investigations doesn’t mean that anything goes. What Wittgenstein asked us to consider, in his later phase of work, is that the basis of meaning is how the words are actually used. You point this out, and you also correctly point out that use is found in constructs of what we might call ‘language games’.

    And you are right to point out that people can ‘game’ the language games for their own purposes, but the point I am trying to make is that purposes are the only source of justification we have in the first place. If its not an absolute ‘thing’ that stands outside of language, meaning must be rooted within the field of how language gets used. Now for any whimsical person to come up with their own uses is not to grant them equivalent status. If only one person uses words a certain way, in what sense should we accept them as meaningful? The real ground for meaning is in the way of life that supports our linguistic habits. So a good question might be “For whom do these terms have such and such a meaning?”

    Made up uses for words is, in fact, the problem Wittgenstein was addressing in calling out much of Philosophy as spending all its time mistreating the real function of words. Philosophers are often so far afield in their use of language that it rarely if ever touches ground. Wittgenstein was, in fact, attempting to clear up the misuses of language.

    So the point I was making is that there can be any number of purposes that are actively used to define what does and does not count as something (like opera). There are different legitimate cultural practices where some things are called ‘opera’ and in other contexts they are not. The difference is not a matter of one group having the right facts and the other not, but that they do different things with the words. The things the words refer to have different, though often related, roles in their lives. The borders of many concepts are under constant negotiation, and this is especially true in cases where the uses are being fleshed out in active investigation. The point isn’t what kind of thing ‘opera’ is, as if that could be settled once and for all, but what we intend to do with it. The point is that opera may matter to some people differently than it does to others, and that because of this difference it will not have the same place in their lives.

    Quick example: Are dogs food? How would you answer that? Obviously for some they are, while for others they are not. What is the better definition of food, the one that includes dog or the one that excludes it?

    The thing I am suggesting is that a definition at most speaks for an attitude toward the role things will have in a specific way of life. If we are not naming determinate things with our concepts we are naming what and how a diverse collection of things come to matter for us.

    When you declare, “We can use terms to describe some of the basic categories of music theater that to a reasonable extent meaningfully describe what we are doing, while at the same time leaving those forms open for exploration.” you are proposing a research program, and the necessary first step in any good science is to define one’s terms. My point is that what we are investigating is not a ‘natural’ object, and that at best we are spelling out our own preferences for what things will count. Which is fine to do, but lets not pretend we are speaking for every active interest. Our definitions are not agnostic or innocent by any means. They have currency when they speak to real roles in people’s lives.

    So the thing I am proposing is that we be clear about what those roles and biases are, that we put them up front on center stage, and not hidden behind some fanciful attempt at an objective seeming definition. Humans are interested in things. We tend to spend all our time looking at the things and so little time looking at our own interests. It is fascinating that things matter to us. We peer out at the world as if our interests were embodied in the things themselves when we should instead be paying attention to the roles and function these things have in our lives. Culture isn’t a collection of things but a way of life in which things take on meaning.

    Did any of that make sense?

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