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A historically oriented, relational theory of art is one of the more
promising current approaches to the search for a definition of art. As an
attempt to improve or give a more detailed version of the historical
approach, this paper combines parts of the Kripke-Putnam story of what
determines the extension of a term with a historical approach to defining
art.^ The idea that art can be identified historically is not new. The idea is
contained in Arthur Danto’s famous remark that “to see something as
art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic
theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.”^ Both Jerrold
Levinson and Noël Carroll have recently offered versions of a historical
theory of art which I consider in section V.^
I understand attempts to define artworks historically as attempts to
provide accounts of the nature of artworks. Common to all historical
theories of art is the notion that we identify a new work as art in virtue of
a relation in which it stands to things already acknowledged as art. What
is essential to being an artwork is having the right sort of relation to
previous artworks. Objects are works of art in virtue of standing in some
designated relation to past artworks.
It is part of the Kripke-Putnam story that what determines the exten­
sion of a term is the “nature,” broadly conceived, of the kind of thing to
which the term refers.^ ‘Artwork’ is not a natural-kind term if a naturalkind term must designate a kind that is part of nature, as opposed to
culture. ‘Artwork’ is a social-cultural-historical kind term, not a kindfrom-nature term. Still ‘artwork,’ it seems, is a term for a real kind, and
I wish to propose that its extension is fixed historically according to
something like the Kripke-Putnam pattern. Specifically, W is an artwork
if it is of the same kind as indexically picked out samples. Being of the
same kind consists in having the right sort of relation to past artworks.
What I propose the relation to be is explained next.
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 12 (1991) 272-289
0279-0750/91/0400-0272 $1.80
Copyright © 1991 University of Southern California
The Style Theory o f A rt
What I will call the historical/style theory of art is anchored to an
extension of the Kripke-Putnam theory of reference for natural-kind
terms, though ‘artwork’ is not construed as a natural-kind term. What is
borrowed from this well-known view is that W is an artwork if and only
if it is of the same kind as the W’s to which ‘artwork’ has been applied,
where same kind is construed as standing in a specified relation to past
artworks, and where the “originating samples,” Ur Art, are indexically
designated. Most individuals in a community that use the word ‘artwork’
need not have the identifying knowledge. The word ‘artwork,’ on the
view, exhibits what Hilary Putnam calls a “socio-linguistic division of
labor.” It is enough for users to rely on knowledge and expertise at large
in the community. Three elements are borrowed from the KripkePutnam account: (a) indexical component for ‘artwork’; (b) linkage via
same kind, where kind need not necessarily be natural-kind; and (c) sociolinguistic division of labor by way of relying on knowledge of experts,
those who are suitably informed about art.
‘Same kind’ here is vague, and ‘knowledge of experts’ is obscure. A
style theory approach provides explication of ‘same kind’ and ‘expert’
that, I hope, is both promising and interesting. Five features make up the
theory. They are:
(1) At any time in history there are a finite number of objects regarded
as artwork, allowing for borderline cases, and most of these are classified
by art historians in terms of general styles.
(2) Though there are no uniquely correct style classifications, no in­
variant general styles, there are limit constraints that allow for a degree of
objectivity in style classifications, and thus for knowledge and expertise.
(3) An object is artwork if and only if it can be linked by those suitably
informed, along one or more of various specific dimensions, to a past or
present general style or styles exhibited by prior artworks.
(4) The ways to make the linkage are open-ended. Some of the
common ways are: show that the object in question is a repetition,
amplification, repudiation, synthesis or reinterpretation of a general
style or styles.^ Other ways include: preserving, distorting, extending,
restructuring, reanimating, or radical reinterpreting. '
(5) Following Danto, anything whatever can in some possible arthistorical context be an artwork, though certain works could not be
inserted as artworks into certain periods of art history, due to the un­
availability of linkage to general styles.^
Of the five features, (3) is the most important since it is the one that
gives conditions for an object’s being an artwork. If an object stands in
the designated relation to past artworks, then it is an artwork. But are
there other sufficient conditions for arthood that are independent of any
historical connection of this sort? If so, the conditions in (3) cannot be
necessary conditions. Before giving my reason for believing that there
may be no sufficient conditions for arthood independent of the causal
history of an object, I shall provide some details of the theory and some
illustrations. This discussion which follows focuses on visual artworks,
primarily paintings. I believe there are no theoretical or practical obstacles
that prevent the theory from applying to all forms of artworks.
Determining General Styles
Crucial to the view is an account of what are correct art history classi­
fications, and of what gets hooked up to historical styles when an object
is a repetition, amplification, repudiation, and so on of a general style.
Three preliminary points need to be made. First, there are two ways to
understand ‘the style of x.’ This can be taken as referring to the general
style of Xor the individual style of x. Picasso, Braque and scores of other
artists painted in the Cubist style, yet each had his or her individual way
to do Cubism. For example, Diego Rivera during his Cubist period
incorporated a use of color after Matisse and incorporated a formal
structure influenced by Cézanne. Second, it is important to distinguish
the style of an artwork, either general or individual, from interpretations
of the artwork. Style explains why a work looks the way it does. Style, in
the visual arts, results from the kind of approach used to solve pictorial
problems of expression, representation, and form. It is a schema for
conveying significant content. Style can also include characteristic
choices of subject matter. I take the style of an artwork to consist of
those features of the form and content of a work that are characteristic
of artist, period, place or school. Characteristic style features cut across
the form/content distinction.^ A style feature of Fauvism is the use
of bright, primary colors for expressive purposes. A style feature of
Suprematism is the use of colored geometric form for representing
gravitation-free objects. Interpretation involves fixing the particular
meaning(s) of an artwork executed in a style. Third, aesthetic features of
an artwork are style constrained features. Since in another place I present
some arguments for this last view, I will ignore them here.^ The idea is
that representational, expressive, or exemplified features of an artwork
depend, in part, on the style supposed for the artwork.
Linkage to past or present general art styles requires that there be some
non-arbitrary, largely empirical way to identify general art styles. I
suggest that there are at least three levels of constraints that are implicit
in the practice of art history and are strong enough to provide something
of an empirical base for classifying artworks in terms of their style.
Level 1: Any serious art historian is a revisionist to some degree.
Art historians typically reevaluate established views. Any degree of
innovation is made possible by changing the existing order. Thus new
classifications or reinterpretations of old classifications start with the
consensus classification.
Level 2: Single out the artists in target classification whose quality and
originality make them prototypes of artists working in variations of the
target classification. With respect to these prototype artists, determine
their individual styles.^ Here, I suggest, a set of limiting conditions comes
into play which provides constraints on what is taken as the correct S for
an artwork. I suggest that the following limiting conditions, none of
which alone is sufficient, count toward a style S being the individual style
of the works of an artist:
- Limit 1: The fact that art-historical consensus has it that S is correct
(unless there is a good reason not to follow consensus in every
- Limit 2: The fact that a relatively large number of features are
standard with respect to S. (This condition is taken from Kendall
Walton’s well-known set of criteria for determining the correct cat­
egory for W.)^®
- Limit 3: The fact that S accords with the artist’s aims and goals.
- Limit 4: The fact that S counts toward explaining the relationship
between W and past general styles.
- Limit 5: The fact that S helps explain the relationship between W and
culture and history of the time.
Level 3: Relate individual styles to the general style by providing an
interpretation of the general style that allows for the individual styles’
being variations of it.
To illustrate, consider the general style Symbolism. One starts with the
artists being regarded as Symbolists and with the consensus interpretation
of Symbolism, Level 1. On Level 2 select those artists which best exemplify
the style, for example, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Ferdinand
Hodler, and George Minne. Locate these artists in their social and
historical context. For example, identify the ideologies, life-styles, and
interchanges among painters and other artists and critics that character­
ized the climate in the Symbolist decade (late nineteenth-century). Pro­
vide an account of individual styles that explains the recurrent themes
such as Salome, the Holy Grail, Orpheus, and so on; and the occurrence
of decorative motifs, and so on. Relate the individual styles to the
general styles, such as those of the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists,
and the Expressionists who succeeded them. Consider how these artists
understood their own works. Taking the works of the selected artists
as variations of Symbolism, provide an interpretation of Symbolism,
Level 3; for example. Symbolism rejected objectivity in favor of the
subjective, and turned away from the direct representation of reality in
favor of a synthesis of aspects of it, aiming to suggest ideas by means of
themes such as Salome, and so on.
Though the aims and goals of prototype artists are one of the Level 2
limiting conditions, neither this condition nor the others are taken as
crucial or basic; none has priority over the others. They lean on one
another. A prototype historical account of a general style is a holistic
account that best blends the limiting conditions. When the limiting
conditions compete or conflict, trade-offs are made, different balances
are struck. Thus it is possible that in some cases little weight is given
to a prototype artist’s aims and goals. Cases like this occur when
the expressions of intentions are murky and/or contradictory. Kasimir
Malevich (1878-1935), the Soviet artist who pioneered the general art
style Suprematism, is an example of an artist whose remarks about the
aims and goals of his art are notoriously obscure and inconsistent. Some­
times an artist is inexplicably aloof with respect to how he or she thinks
of his or her works, for example, the neo-Dadaist Jasper J o h n s . ( I n
limiting condition (3) ‘aims and goals’ is narrowly interpreted in terms of
conscious psychological states. If ‘aims and goals’ is broadly defined as a
pattern or patterns in a whole series of actions, then there seems to be
little difference between an artist’s individual style and an artist’s aims
and goals.)
Most artworks have a correct style. In cases where the limiting con­
ditions do not signal an S, they constrain what goes into the set of
possible correct S’s. For example, neither Johns nor Malevich would be
taken as a prototype Symbolist, and one could hardly interpret Symbol­
ism as art that places stress on the importance of color and structure, as
in itself enough to provide the content of a work of art, as is true with
Fauvism. Such an interpretation of Symbolism would not explain how
Symbolism was an outgrowth of the style of the Pre-Raphaelites, and
how it influenced Expressionism; it could not relate the artworks to the
social history of the time; it would conflict with how the artists under­
stood their art; and so on.
Style classification unavoidably reflects both the values and attitudes
of the historians doing the classification and the functional theories of
art favored by the historians. Currently art historians give greater
relative weight to social history, ^^ por example, we find historians giving
great weight to the relation between Humanism and the Italian Renais­
sance, stressing the social issues at stake in the art of Die Brücke,
focusing on the utopian aspirations and the art of the Soviet Constructiv­
ists, noting Baroque art. as a response to the aims of the CounterReformation, connecting American Western art of the last century to
Manifest Destiny, and seeing American art between the 40’s and 80’s as
uncritical of culture and taken up into the market system because of the
economic shift from production to consumption. Not too long ago,
historians who extolled the sanctity of the flat surface under formalistic
influences gave greater relative weight to how a general style is to be
understood as a development out of earlier styles—art understood as
development within a flat medium that is contentless and politically
neutral, and is evolving to pure abstract art. Before formalism there was
a time when scholars thought that the artist’s biography should be given
greater relative weight as part of style fixing. A scholar may believe
that there is some kind of linear or progressive model for art history.
For example, E.H. Gombrich seems to believe that representation, by
“making and matching,” evolves towards some kind of verisimilitude,
and that most of twentieth-century abstract art is lamentable due to the
rejection of realism. An unsympathetic attitude toward twentiethcentury abstract art could motivate a historian to ignore such art in
relating new twentieth-century realistic styles to previous abstract art
Because of this irreducible value component in style fixing, there are
no uniquely correct classifications; no invariant classifications. Terms
for general styles are also social-cultural-historical terms and not kindfrom-nature terms. But the dismissal of a uniquely correct classification
does not block discrimination between correct and incorrect classification.
The limiting conditions provide enough constraints for a degree of ob­
jectivity and for knowledge and expertise within an overall relativistic
General art style classifications have changed. Some classifications fall
out of use. More commonly the extension of a general style or the
interpretation of the style or both undergo change. For example, the
general style ‘Classical’ for a long time referred to Greco-Roman
antiquity, and to periods that drew their inspiration from the ancient
world, especially the Renaissance and seventeenth-century France.
Today, the art of Greece and of Rome are seen as totally disparate.
Historians tend to restrict the Classical art in Greece to the late fifth and
early fourth centuries, and the Classical art in Rome to the Augustan
period. Thus there has been a narrowing of the extension of ‘Classicism.’
The mòre recent general style. Abstract Expressionism, has undergone
a change in interpretation rather than in extension due, 'in part, to the
values of historians and critics who have examined it.^^ In the 50’s it was
interpreted in two ways: as Action Painting, according to which the
artists express their personal emotions with little attention to form, style,
and subject matter; and as representing traditional American concerns
with emotional honesty. In the 60’s the formalist Clement Greenberg and
most critics and historians located Abstract Expressionism as a stylistic
evolution of European modernism to pure art. Since the 70’s critical
attention has been turned to subject and meaning as well as to form.
Abstract Expressionism is now seen as an art with a subject matter, and it
is examined within a social and historical context.
Linkage to General Styles
On the theory, there is an open-ended set of strategies for linking works
of the present to past general styles—repetition, amplification, repudi­
ation, and so on. On the theory, what is repeated, amplified, and so on,
are style characteristics of past and present general styles.
As an illustration consider Academic Art. Jean Léon Gérôme, French,
1824-1904, is amost everyone’s prototype of the academic painter. His
style was founded on intense admiration of ancient art, the primacy of
accurate draftsmanship, high finish, archaeological realism, anecdote,
and exotic themes from historical episodes. Using Gérôme and others as
prototypes of academic painters, one can obtain an interpretation of the
general style of Academic Art. Such an interpretation is made of a set of
characteristics. For example: representation by accurate likeness through
skillful use of techniques; expression achieved by narrative content;
representational and expressive content having primacy over any other
considerations; use of biblical, classic, and exotic themes from history;
and morally uplifting themes which serve as an instrument of national
Linking a painting to a previous general style or styles by repetition,
reinterpretation, repudiation, and so on involves explaining the way a
painting looks. Consider, again, the characteristics of Academic Art.
Amplification is explaining how a painting looks in terms of following
the practices of Academic Art to a higher degree than usual. In this
regard compare the works of Lebrun with those of Ingres. (Though
Ingres was not following the practices when, for example, he gave his
Odalisque an extra vertebra in her back.) Repudiation is an explanation
of a painting in terms of conflicts with the stylistic practices of Academic
Art. Here one could cite Gustav Courbet and his realism, the view that
art should be about the everyday world, and the idea that art should
serve the aspirations of the working class. Synthesis is blending some of
the practices of Academic Art with the practices of one or more other
historical general styles. Delacroix, for example, followed many of the
academic practices but freed color from the restrictions Academic Art
had put on it. He was inspired by Constable’s The Hay Wain, laying
down areas of color rather than blending them. The result was a more
lifelike color. Radical reinterpretation is delineated as a new way to, for
example, represent or achieve moral narrative content. It is arguable that
Anselm Kieffer’s art is, in part, a radical reinterpretation of Academic Art.
These examples are to illustrate, not to suggest that any of the works
of Courbet, Delacroix, Ingres, Gerome or Kieffer were publicly ques­
tioned as art, or that they had to be identified as art. Objects can be
linked by quasi decision. Most artworks are artworks because of de facto
linkage, without the need for those who have expert knowledge about the
artwork to provide an explanation.
The question whether something is an artwork has often been raised,
for example, in connection with such objects as Readymades, Found art.
Minimal art. Marginal art (quilts, folk art, Keith Haring cartoons, etc.)
and recently with photographs such as those by Robert Maplethorpe and
the works of Ruby, an elephant in the Phoenix Zoo. Some of the painted
billboards in Los Angeles today are regarded as artworks. However when
Gino Raffaelli executed his classic 1939 billboard for the Forest Lawn
cemetery, it was not seen as art by any art community. Raffaelli’s 1939
classic billboard appears to be a spotlighted marble sculpture of a mother
and child that came so close to being successful trompe-Voeil art that
many spectators thought they were looking at a sculpture. It was only
with later works such as Kent TwitchelFs nine-story-tall painting of
Edward Ruscha completed in 1987 that L.A. billboard art was taken as
art.^^ This was brought about in part by linkage to Photorealism, and
by works such as Chuck Close’s 1969 Phil, The artists of these handpainted billboards used techniques pioneered by Michelangelo and made
use of bold, knock-out colors reminiscent of the Fauvists. Interestingly
Raffaelli’s earlier work got linked to past art styles via a style that
followed his own works, i.e.. Photorealism.
Advantage o f Historical Approach
to A historical Approaches
In Anglo-American philosophy the attempts to define artwork can be
sorted out in terms of four approaches: functional approach, anti­
definition approach, institutional approach, and historical approach. In
this section I will very briefly consider the three ahistorical approaches.
Functional approach. Though artworks have 'many useful
functions, some theorists find that artworks have a special function in
culture and that this function is the primary reason we value artworks.
Definitions for artworks are then constructed around this function. On
this approach art is a functional concept, and whether or not something
is art is seen as the question whether it meets what is regarded as the
reason art is valued.
The traditional theories of art proposed by such figures as Kant,
Tolstoy, Collingwood, Fry, Langer and Beardsley take this approach.
Some examples: An artwork is an artifact that is intended to have the
capacity to provide an aesthetic experience (Beardsley). The nature of art
is to give conscious expression to feelings by giving them definite form
(Collingwood). Art is iconic symbols of the forms of feelings (Langer).
Each of these approaches is ahistorical in two ways. First, artwork is not
explicitly defined in terms of any relation to past artworks. Second,
whether an object has the relevant property for arthood can be deter­
mined from a point of view external to the history of art. For example,
anyone who is sensitive to form can be aware of the unity and intensity of
complex regional qualities of an artwork responsible for sustaining an
aesthetic experience, independently of any knowledge about the relation
of the artwork to past artworks.
There are two common objections to defining art simply in functional
terms. One is that it is too restrictive; there are too many counter­
examples. The other is that there are a variety of reasons why artworks
are valued, and there is no compelling argument to make one of these
paramount. Neither of these objections is insurmountable. It is not
inconceivable that a functional definition can take a form that involves
all the functions that art has at some given time.^^ Such a definition may
not present functionalism in its most plausible or convincing form. But
I wish to consider another issue. A piece serves the function(s) of art by
virtue of aesthetic features. It is having aesthetic features that allows it to
meet the function(s) of art.
Aesthetic features, including exemplified features, are style dependent.
They are not discoverable independent of some understanding of the
history of the artwork. The identification of such features presupposes
correct style assignment. The colors of Fauvist landscapes do not apply
to what is depicted because in Fauvism colors are used for expressive
purposes. The abstract colored shapes in a Malevich Suprematist paint­
ing depict gravitation-free objects in space because of the painting’s
historical style. The abstract colored shapes and colors in an Ad Reinhardt
painting do not depict anything because they are Minimalist artworks.
Hudson River Western landscapes do not depict any actual places
because the painters used a composite style in order to represent the ideal
of what the West ought to look like. A Whistler painting lacks narrative
or symbolic content not because of what is to be seen in the painting,
simpliciter, but because of what is to be seen relative to the correct
historical style.
A historically minded functionalist must concede that only an artist
working within a historical tradition can bring about an object with
aesthetic features. A historically minded functionalist cannot maintain
that objects are art simply in virtue of a connection to previous artworks.
W is a work of art, for the historical functionalist, if and only if W
exhibits some style and the maker of W intended it to fulfill a function.
But if W is regarded by the cognitive art community as exhibiting a style,
not just showing one, why is this by itself not sufficient for its being an
(2) Anti-definition approach. The anti-theory movement of the 60’s
tried to explain why traditional functional theories failed by arguing that
artwork cannot be defined. The reasons given, however, are compatible
with the possibility of an essential definition. Where they may have had
some success is in arguing that if a definition characterizes the nature of
art in terms of properties that can be discovered (if discoverable at all) by
examining the artworks themselves, then there are no such features
common to all artworks, and if one insists that some such feature is
necessary for arthood, then this could legislate out style innovations.
If no essential definition is possible, then it is not unreasonable to
infer that one needs to look to the concepts that people associate with
‘artwork’ to account for how things get classified as artworks. The anti­
theorists hypothesized that individuals rely on various criteria for recog­
nition; thus the concept of art is open and is made up of open disjunctive
sets of criteria of recognition that have a family resemblance.^^ (Cur­
rently, asking individuals about their concept of art is likely to elicit “Art
is what an artist says is art,” “Art is what the artworld regards as art” or
some functional theory.) The historical/style theory is compatible with a
variety of different ways for people to recognize artworks. The theory is
an attempt to explain the nature of artworks. The theory is not an
analysis of the various prototypes of art that individuals rely on in using
the word ‘artwork.’ The extension of ‘artwork’ is not wholly explained in
terms of individual subjects’ dispositions. Something is artwork, on my
proposal, if it stands in the posited relation to objects to which the term
‘artwork’ has been applied. Consequently, ‘artwork’ can be an open
concept, if by this one means that a nominal definition of ‘artwork’ is
likely to result in some kind of open-ended disjunction. But this is
compatible with there being an essential definition for artwork.
(3) Institutional approach. Works are artworks as the result of the
place they occupy within the established practices of the artworld. On the
new version of George Dickie’s theory, “a work of art is an artifact of a
kind created to be presented to an artworld public.
No historical
condition is explicitly included in the influential view. Many and various
objections have been raised to the th e o r y .I believe that the most telling
objection to the view is related to its circularity. In particular, in Dickie’s
new theory the definition for artwork is one of four definitions. Each
art term is defined in terms of another, resulting in a circular set of
definitions. (Dickie, of course, is aware of this but argues that circularity
is unavoidable.) Dickie’s definition allows for more than one model. If
‘work of art’ is replaced with, for example, ‘baseball game’ or ‘fashion
show’ in the definition of work of art, one obtains: a baseball game is an
artifact of a kind created to be presented to a baseball public. The
definition shows us that works of art, along with baseball games and
fashion shows, are x’s that are presented to an x-public. But this defini­
tion is useless in determining the extension of ‘art’ or ‘baseball game’
other than showing that x’s are members of a class that includes art,
baseball games and fashion shows, and that x differs from things that are
not artifacts and that are not in some way present to an x-public. As
Robert Stecker makes this point, “unless artworld systems can be dis­
tinguished from non-art artifact presentation systems, the framework
Dickie gives us tells us no more than that art resembles many other kinds
of a r t i f a c t s . Be l o w I argue that a historical theory can avoid such
Advantage o f Historical/Style Theory
to Historical/Intention Theory
Both Noël Carroll and Jerrold Levinson have proposed that a historical
approach to defining an artwork is the best approach. For Carroll W is
an artwork if there is a narration that relates W to historical practices by
showing that the new object is a repetition, amplification or repudiation
of the historical practices. Though Carroll’s view is one of the chief
sources of inspiration for my view, I, like Stecker, find the view “overly
1 find Carroll’s view in need of more details and improvements
which I propose can come in part from the Kripke-Putnam story and in
part from historical art styles. Without further details, Carroll’s view
faces the very difficulty he and others have pointed out in the openconcept approach. If “narration” is simply explained as describing a
resemblance between W and historical practices, then without some kind
of account of resemblance in what respect, the explanation is without
much use. However, a more serious concern for this paper is that Carroll
sees his view as “compatible” with Levinson’s view and “perhaps
mutually informing. ”23
Levinson’s view, if I understand it correctly, is contrary to the
historical/style theory. His version of the historical approach is a
historical/intentional theory. An artwork, on Levinson’s theory, is a
thing intended in a specified way. As he most recently expressed his
A work of art is a thing intended for regard-as-a-work-of-art: regard
in any of the ways works of art existing prior to it have been correctly
regarded. 24
The regarder is a person with proprietary rights to the artifact. This
person is usually the artist, though Levinson allows for some member of
the art community (“subsequent proxy”) getting proprietary rights, and
appropriating the would-be artist’s work at a later date with the right
intention, and so bringing it into the sphere of art.^^ Someone can make
art without having in mind any particular past artworks; the agent can
have a transparent or intrinsical intention; or someone can be making art
in virtue of intending his object for regard as some particular past
artworks are correctly regarded, without having in mind any specific
regards; the agent can have an opaque or relational intention. The most
usual case is “mixed,” involving a relational regard that is a regard in
some way.
On the historical/intention approach the required relation between
now objects and past artworks is that of making something which is in­
tended for regard as previous artworks have been correctly regarded. On
a historical/style approach, the relation is a linkage between the object
created by the artist to some past or present general styles exhibited by
some prior artworks. The relation is not achieved exclusively through
intentions of the would-be artmaker. There needs to be a work with
certain features, and there also needs to be the disposition on the part of
the cognitive art community to regard the object as linked to prior
artworks. On Levinson’s view, an individual’s intentions play a para­
mount role; on the style approach, intentions comprise only one of a set
of considerations for correctly figuring out the style of an artwork. The
style theory also provides a reason why would-be art objects are regarded
as artworks: linkage to past styles.
What troubles me most about the historical/intention approach is that
it makes an individual’s psychological state, if it answers a certain
description, sufficient for something to be art. It seems to me that there
can be cases where: (a) an object has certain features; (b) it has them as a
result of an agent’s action; (c) these features are put there intentionally,
with the anticipation they will be regarded in one of the ways some pre­
existing artworks were correctly regarded; and (d) the object is not an
artwork because the object does not support being regarded in the
intended way.
For example, imagine a young artist entranced with Marcel Duchamp
and his Readymades. He also is enthralled with tall buildings and one
day designates the Sears Tower in Chicago as a Readymade. He uses a
spray can and writes ‘Mr. Mutt’ on the building. He regards the building
in the various ways that the art community have regarded Fountain—as,
for example, expressive of the idea that there is no reason to use an
antiquated medium such as painting or sculpture to create visual art, or
what is important in visual artworks is as much the conceptual as
anything else. If necessary we can add to the story that he is also a very
rich Japanese investor who just bought the building. That the person
lacks authority in the art community cannot explain the failure, for
Duchamp himself actually tried to transfigure the Woolworth Building in
New York into a Readymade. Whether something is art is not reducible
to the exercise of an individual’s intentions. It seems that an artist must
succeed in some way in giving features to an object, either by modifying
by work or by bringing about some cultural significance for the object (as
Duchamp did in Fountain) that supports the art community’s regarding
it in the way some previous artworks have been regarded. (The indi­
viduals doing the regarding that makes the link, on a style approach, are
members of the relevant cognitive community, in this context, knowledge­
able members of the art community.)
There also needs to be a good reason for intending something for
regard-as-a-work-of-art. Levinson is sensitive to the condition and sees
this intuition explicitly reflected by adding another necessary condition
to his definition: “so that an experience of some value be thereby
obtained.” For W to be an artwork, is it necessary that its would-be
artmaker intend W for regard in some way pre-existing artworks are
regarded, so that an experience of some value be thereby obtained? Some
art critics have not liked or admired some paintings. This has been true
for Pop art and Minimalist art. That a Warhol Cornflakes Box can be
important in twentieth-century art strikes some as the saddest thing
one could say about the art of our time. A would-be artmaker could
regard his or her output in the same way, and nevertheless succeed in
producing art.
Some Objections to the Historical/Style Theory
I will end this paper by exploring certain objections that can be raised to
the historical/style theory.
New works are artworks because of a relation to past artworks;
artworks of the recent past are art because of a relation to not-so-recent
art; and so on. This string of relations ends with Ur art, objects that are
artworks but cannot stand in the relation to past artworks. How can the
theory account for Ur art?
Carroll tries to solve this problem by maintaining that Ur Art will be
identified as artworks in virtue of their function, so historical narration
is not the only means of identifying artworks—though, he maintains, it is
the primary means of identifying objects as artworks.^® The result is that
there are sufficient conditions for arthood that are independent of the
posited relation in the historical theory. And if Ur art can be functionally
located, then why can’t later objects?
Levinson’s general strategy to accommodate a historical definition to
Ur art is, I believe, more promising. A historical definition is put
forward as an account of the nature of art. The aim is to display an
extension of those things that are artworks. The definition does provide a
procedure for ferreting out all examples of Ur art from, as Levinson puts
it, their historical hiding places—trace them back to the initiating
samples, the roots of Western art. Perhaps the tracing of a hand on a
cave wall in the Paleolithic Age would turn out to be Ur art. The defini­
tion can generate the extension of those things that are artworks—the set
of Ur art plus all the objects that stand in the posited relation. Ur art
gets tagged as artworks indexically (the “originating samples”) and
not because of providing aesthetic experience or some other function,
family resemblance, or because of being proposed as candidates for
(2) An object can have aesthetic features independent of exhibiting a
style, and this can be the reason for arthood; thus the conditions in the
style definition cannot be necessary conditions. For example, an indi­
vidual isolated from any art community who grows up alone can, say,
mark a stone in such a way that it is a representation of a recognizable
This object could initiate a process that results in an art culture, and
thus relative to this culture the object could be Ur art. But does the
object, given its causal history, have aesthetic features? In particular,
does it depict something? We can see figures and other things in clouds
and rock formations, so we could see a tiger in the marked stone. Does
the marked stone depictively represent a tiger? On some accounts of
depiction it seems that it does. Richard Wollheim takes seeing-in as the
key to pictorial depiction. From seeing figures in things such as stained
walls there is, on his theory, a “smooth transition to seeing a water-mill
in Hobbema’s c a n v a s . F o r Wollheim “a picture represents that which
it has the power to cause a suitably sensitive, suitably informed spectator
to see in its surface and which the artist marked the surface so that the
spectator should see in it.” ^^ The problem I have with Wollheim’s
account is that it is incom plete.For Wollheim the experience of seeing-in
has two aspects: when one looks at a tiger-picture one recognizes a tiger
and one is aware of the marked surface. In what sense does -a spectator
recognize a tiger, since the spectator does not recognize an actual tiger?
The explanation that what one recognizes are marks that resemble a tiger
is not an option for Wollheim. If, however, one selected this option, an
account of the resemblance involved would be necessary. Here it seems
to me the only plausible account is that the style supposed for the artwork
provides the standard for resemblance; consequently, the standard for
resemblance varies with different styles.
(3) Circularity enters the theory in the same way it does in the insti­
tutional theory. Reviewing the definition reveals that the word ‘art’
appears on the right side of both versions of a historical definition. The
historical definition is no more useful than the institutional definition.
One has to know what artworks are to use it.
Here Levinson has also provided a solution. The definition can be
reformulated without presupposing the concept of art, but only pre­
supposing the past extension of ‘artwork’ at some time:
W is a work of art if and only if W is an object of which it is true at t
that it is related in the required way to objects in the extension of
‘artwork’ prior to t.
(4) There is the intuition that there is some connection between arthood and being a good or valuable artwork. In functional theories this is
a deep-rooted intuition. In the historical/intentional theory of Levinson
“so that an experience of some value be thereby obtained” gets added to
the definition. Where is good art connected to the historical/style
The style theory accommodates a weak connection between art and
good art through the indispensability of aesthetic values in art classifica­
tion, and in the linking-regard of now objects to past artworks.
(5) The theory suggests that in order to create artworks, in particular
some new style or revolutionary style of art, the artists must limit them­
selves to variations of prior general styles.
Readymades are a prototype of a revolutionary style that is different
from revolutionary styles, such as the first systematic school of nonrepresentational art, Suprematism. Suprematism was just a step away
from prior styles, such as Cubism and Futurism, and thus exhibited
similarities with past art styles. (The style theory does not require that all
aesthetic features of an object be linked to prior art.) Levinson suggests
two strategies for reconciling a historical theory to radical revolutionary
art, such as Readymades.These can be “translated” into the historical/
style approach. The first is that the Readymade gets regarded in the way
that past artworks have, thus becoming linked to past styles; and when
this proves to be frustrating and unrewarding, the public is prodded into
regarding the work in a new way. Many have, in fact, regarded Fountain
in the way that traditional sculpture is regarded; take Dickie’s reply to
the contention that it cannot be appreciated: ''Fountain has many
qualities which can be appreciated—its gleaming white surface, for
example. In fact, it has several qualities which resemble works of
Brancusi and Moore.
The second strategy—and the one I favor—does not require that the
Readymades be regarded in the way past sculptures have character­
istically been regarded, but that they be linked by way of contrast to or
against previous art styles. Readymades get linked by being regarded
partly as repudiations of past ways to do art, but also partly as retaining
some features of past artworks: Readymades show that the artist can
make art without messing around with a medium as long as there are
concepts and ideas that are expressed.
(6) In the earlier discussion some examples of successful linkage are
given. However something can be, for example, the repetition of a style
and not be a work of art. For example a reproduction of a painting—say,
a forgery—reproduces the painting’s style, but may not be a work of art.
What distinguishes real links from such cases? What is the repetition
relation such that objects that bear it to a past or present style are
themselves works of art? Analogous problems can be raised for the
various other dimensions for linkage.
Arthur Danto argues that replications are logically styleless. A replica­
tion can show a style but not have a s t y l e . O n e can distinguish the
relation of reproduction by copy—copying, for example, a Fauvist
landscape—from the relation of repeating a style—painting a landscape
in the way the Fauvists did. Usually when an artist copies a painting, say,
a Fauvist landscape, this is the relation of repetition by copy; it shows a
style, but it does not have a style—the copier does not paint a landscape
in the way the Fauvists did. To do this involves, among other things,
making use of vibrant colors for expressive purposes.
(7) Sometimes artists paint copies of their own paintings. The
eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Simeon Chardin from time to
time painted copies of his own paintings—for example. Soap Bubbles,
1733—and may have tried to pass them off as originals. In such cases the
copies not only show a style but have a style.
I am Inclined to say that the Chardin case, and self-copying in general,
are cases where an object both shows and has a style and is, consequently,
on the theory, an artwork. Artist self-copies tend to be treated as if they
were artworks. Each of the permanent collections of the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art, the National Gallery, and the Metropolitan
Museum has a version of Soap Bubbles. The practice of honoring and
appreciating creativity from the hands of the artist is evident in connection
with all the versions.
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona
* In earlier papers I have proposed that the concept o f art can be defined historically.
“Defining A rt,” British Journal o f Aesthetics, vol. 15, 1975, pp. 191-206 and “What is
Art?” Journal o f Aesthetic Education, vol. 17, no. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 85-92. There the
attempt made was to combine the Kripke-Putnam account with traditional art theorizing.
My approach suggested that ‘artwork’ is a natural-kind term. The shortcomings o f this
approach have been well highlighted by Thomas Leddy, “Rigid Designation in Defining
A rt,” Journal o f Aesthetics and A rt Criticism, vol. 45, no. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 263-272. In
the earlier papers, being the same kind as the indexically identified samples, past artworks,
is identified with the help o f art theories. On my new theory, being of the same kind is
identified with the help o f art history. New objects are identified as art through the history
of art rather than through art theories.
2 Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” reprinted in Dickie, Sclafani, and Roblin (eds.).
Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, 2d ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 177.
^ Jerrold Levinson, “Defining Art Historically,” British Journal o f Aesthetics, vol. 19,
no. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 232-250 and “Refining Art Historically,” Journal o f Aesthetics
and A rt Criticism, vol. 47, no. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 21-33. Noël Carroll, “Art, Practice,
and Narrative,” Monist, 71, 1988, pp. 140-156.
^ Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).
Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning o f ‘Meaning,’ ” in Putnam, Mind, Language, and Reality:
Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 215-271.
5 Carroll, “Art, Practice, and Narrative,” suggests that linkage is by a narration that
connects the object in question to previous art practices by way o f repetition, amplification,
repudiation, synthesis, or reinterpretation.
6 Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration o f the Commonplace (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1981), pp. 44-45.
Nelson Goodman writes “style consists o f those features o f the symbolic functioning of
a work that are characteristic o f author, period, place, or school.” “Style and Signature,”
Ways o f Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1984), p. 35. Except
for “symbolic functioning” my account is similar to his. Both accounts take style as
cutting across the form/content distinction.
® James D. Carney, “Style and Formal Features,” Southern Journal o f Philosophy,
vol. 29, no. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 431-444.
9 My suggestion for what are the limiting conditions for individual style determination is
found in “Individual Style” Journal o f Aesthetics and A rt Criticism, vol. 49, no. 1, Winter,
1991, pp. 15-22. There I argue that the only difference between individual style and general
style is that the latter is true o f more than one individual.
Kendall L. Walton, “Categories of Kri,” Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, pp. 394-414.
Walton suggests four rules to determine correct category, C, for a work o f art, W: (i) the
presence in W o f a relatively large number o f standard features with respect to C; (ii) the
fact that W is more aesthetically pleasing when perceived in C; (iii) the fact that the artist
who produced W intended it to be perceived in C; and (iv) the fact that C is well-established
in the society in which W was produced. He writes that “. . .in almost all cases at least one
o f the historical conditions, (iii) and (iv), is o f crucial importance” (p. 411). All my
conditions except Condition 2 are historical conditions. Only (i) is borrowed from Walton’s
set. “Intentions” can be understood in several ways, so I choose “aims and goals o f the
artist”—the conscious way the artist understood his or her work. Also I do not take any of
the conditions as crucially important.
Even those who know him are sometimes struck by how oblique Johns can be. “You
ask Jasper what time it is and the kind o f answer you get might be something like, ‘I didn’t
know you were interested in time.’ ” Helen Dudar, “Enigmatic, Distant, Jasper Johns Is at
the Top of His Form,” Smithsonian, 21, 1990, pp. 56-68.
^2 Bradford R. Collins, in his recent reviews o f popular and new art history textbooks, is
critical o f the older approach and is enthusiastic for the historical approach. A rt Journal,
48, 1989, and 49, 1990.
For E. H. Gombrich’s view on the evolution o f representation see A rt and Illusion
(New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962). For his view on 20th century art see his The
Story o f Art, 14th ed. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1985), pp. 451-474.
These different ways to interpret Abstract Expressionism (and others) are discussed in
Stephen Polcari’s “Abstract Expressionism: New and Improved,” A rt Journal^ 47, 1988,
pp. 174-180.
Here I am following the discussion o f Doug Stewart in “In Los Angeles, Billboards
Are Seen as High A rt,” Smithsonian, 21, 1990, pp. 99-111.
*6 This possibility is suggested by Stecker in “The Boundaries o f A rt,” British Journal o f
Aesthetics, vol. 30, no. 3, July, 1990, pp. 269-271.
*”7 Stephen Davies provides one o f the best accounts o f the objections that have been
raised to the anti-definition approach in his Definitions o f A rt (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1991). He also provides illuminating and helpful accounts o f the problems for other
approaches to defining artwork. What is especially relevant for this paper is that he
criticizes Levinson along similar lines as I do and raises against the functional definition
some o f the worries I raise (while allowing for the possibility of historical functionalism).
Davies favors the institutional theory and attempts to formulate it in a way that avoids
Morris Weitz in “Art as an Open Concept,” Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, p. 159,
writes that we do not need a theory to answer what is art because we rely on reasons that
relate to “disjunctive sets o f nonnecessary, nonsufficient criteria.”
1^ George Dickie, The A rt Circle (New York: Haven Publications, 1985), p. 80. Also see
“The New Institutional Theory o f A rt,” Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, pp. 196-205.
20 I find that Robert Stecker in “The End o f an Institutional Definition o f A rt,”
Aesthetics, pp. 206-213 has raised the key criticism o f the theory.
21 Stecker, “The End o f an Institutional Definition o f A rt,” p. 208.
22 Stecker, “The End o f an Institutional Theory o f A rt,” p. 269.
23 Carroll, “Art, Practice, and Narrative,” p. 155.
2^ Levinson, “Refining Art Historically,” p. 21.
25 Levinson, “Defining Art Historically,” p. 242.
26 Levinson, “Refining Art Historically,” p. 25.
22 Levinson, “Refining Art Historically,” p. 29.
28 Carroll, “Art, Practice, and Narrative,” p. 155.
29 Levinson writes that objects that are Ur art are “simply stipulated to be art works.”
“Defining Art Historically,” p. 249. It seems that he wants no part o f indexicality except in
the case where the artist’s regard is relational. He writes that “it is no part o f my view that
art is anything like a natural kind.” “Refining Art Historically,” p. 31.
30 Richard Wollheim, “A Note on Mimesis as Make-Believe,'' Philosophy and Phenom­
enological Research, vol. 51, no. 2, June, 1991, p. 408.
31 Wollheim, “A N ote,” p. 403.
32 The incompleteness problem for Wollheim’s seeing-in account o f depiction is raised
by Kendall Walton in several places, most recently in “Reply to Reviewers,” Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research, vol. 51, no. 2, June, 1991, p. 425. Not having resem­
blance available to complete the account, Walton naturally suggests that only make believe
is left.
33 Levinson, “Defining Art Historically,” pp. 241-242.
34 George Dickie, “A Response to Cohen: The Actuality o f A rt,” Dickie and Sclafani
(eds.). Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), pp. 199-200.
35 Danto, Transfiguration, p. 204.
36 I wish to express my appreciation to the anonymous referee o f this journal who had
the patience to review several stages of this paper. The referee rooted out a set o f fallacies
and is responsible for the formulation of several of the objections in the last section. I also
wish to express my gratitude to Thomas Leddy and my colleague Bernard W. Kobes for
helpful suggestions.
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