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Space does not permit a detailed review of the evolution of that debate. How-
ever, brief mention of three of the major moments in that dialectic will be useful.
For the positive position advanced in this essay is supposed to have the advantage
of overcoming the liabilities of these earlier interludes in the discussion.
Within the Anglo-American tradition, one initially compelling picture of
what is at stake in answering the question “What is art?” involves envisioning
a cosmic warehouse full of objects (henceforth, “objects” is often shorthand
for “objects and performances”) to be sorted into piles of art and nonart.1
Many proposals about the way in which this sorting is to proceed have been

From: The Monist, vol. 71, no. 2 (April 1988), 140“56.

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64 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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proffered, each with its own shortcomings. Three that have been particularly
influential are:
A. Stage-one essentialism. Figures such as Bell, Croce, Collingwood, Tolstoy,
and Langer have been associated with this approach. Their theories of art are at
least said to be attempts to specify, by means of real definitions, the identifying fea-
tures of art objects, which definitions, in turn, would then be used to carry
through the sorting described above.These real definitions, that is, would be used
as rules assigning objects to the realm of art or nonart. Candidates for the identi-
fying marks of art include significant form, clarified intuition or emotion, the
capacity to elicit aesthetic experience, forms of feeling, and so on. Ostensibly,
whether an object possesses the relevant, manifest properties can be determined
from a point of view external to the artworld “ as if artworks were natural kinds.
And, furthermore, possession of such properties is taken to satisfy necessary and
sufficient conditions for regarding an object to be art.
B. The open concept approach. This view, as popularized by Morris Weitz,2
depends upon the anti-essentialism of Wittgenstein™s later writings, explicitly
applying those criticisms to that which has just been called stage-one essentialism.
Against any variant of stage-one essentialism,Weitz denies that art can be defined
by necessary and sufficient conditions.Weitz™s leading notion is that art is an open
concept “ one that is applied without reference to necessary and sufficient condi-
tions.The ground for suspecting that art is such a concept is not that past theoret-
ical attempts to define said conditions have all failed “ though that seems to be the
case “ but rather that the arena demarcated by the concept of art is one in which
we legitimately expect novelty, innovation, and originality. In a manner of speak-
ing, previous art theory, of the stage-one essentialism variety, was doomed to fail
just because in codifying the necessary and sufficient conditions of the class of art-
works up to the present no accommodation could be guaranteed for the innova-
tions of art of the future. Such definitions of art, one worried, function as rules in
a forum of activity valued for not being strictly rule governed.
On the positive side, Weitz also suggested a way in which to sort the art
from the nonart. Following Wittgenstein™s analysis of the concept of games,
Weitz maintained that membership in the class of artworks was to be deter-
mined on the basis of family resemblances. Shakespeare™s Pericles resembles
Homer™s Odyssey by virtue of certain manifest plot motifs and, whereas neither
obviously resembles Goya™s The Sleep of Reason, both resemble Hamlet, which
shares darkly brooding, manifest expressive qualities with The Sleep of Reason.
The family of art, so to speak, is bound together by strands of discontinuous
though interlacing resemblances.
But this invocation of family resemblances was quickly challenged. It rests on an
analogy between family resemblances and relations of similarity between artworks.
However, the analogy is incongruous. The relationships of resemblance among
members of a family are significant, that is, are family relations, because they are the
result of an underlying generative mechanism.They are not merely surface resem-
blances. Mere resemblance between people, and, by extension between artworks,
ART, PRACTICE, NARRATIVE 65
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does not portend inclusion in a family unless that resemblance can be shown signif-
icant by reference to a specifiable generative process. Moreover, by overlooking the
importance of underlying, nonmanifest generative processes, proponents of the
open concept approach missed the possibility that one might develop a theory of
what is common to the members of the order of art in terms of their origination
through a shared generative process or procedure.3
C. The Institutional Theory of Art. This approach, in its classic statement by
George Dickie,4 identifies an artifact as art only if it is generated by the right
process, an institutional process, which Dickie initially thought of as the conferral
of status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf
of the artworld. In certain respects, the Institutional Theory of Art reminds one of
a positivist theory of law. X is a law if and only if it is generated by the right pro-
cedure, for example, passage by Congress. Likewise, an artifact is a work of art if it
is introduced by the right persons for the right purposes “ for example, as a can-
didate for appreciation. Dickie™s theory is what can be thought of as stage-two
essentialism for it is stated as a real definition. However, it is not threatened by the
anxiety of foreclosing artistic innovation that perplexes the Wittgensteinian pro-
ponents of the open concept approach for insofar as one reads the Institutional
Theory of Art as a pure procedural theory for generating art, no expressive, the-
matic, aesthetic or formal breakthrough is blocked, so long as it is presented by the
right person for the right purpose. Furthermore, the theory exploits what was
overlooked in the open concept approach by focusing on the nonmanifest, rela-
tional properties of putative artworks, that is, on their common relation to the
generating procedure of the artworld.
However, despite the ingenuity of Dickie™s theory in evading the drawbacks of
its predecessors, it too has been subjected to much criticism. One notable line of
rebuttal zeroes in on the notion that the artworld is an institution analogous to a
legal system or a religion. Specifically, it is argued that it is implausible to regard
the artworld on a par with such social formations.Within any given legal system
or established religion, the roles, powers and objects of concern “ the players and
the pieces, if you will “ are strictly regulated. In fact, the regulations here are what
make institutions out of these practices. But where are the regulations in Dickie™s
artworld? What specified conditions does one have to meet in order to act on
behalf of the artworld and are there really any minimal conditions for being a can-
didate for appreciation? One might attempt to say that the rules of the artworld
are informal, but in response it can be stressed that it is exactly the formality and
explicitness of specific legal systems and religions that makes institutions of them.
Pace Dickie™s classic formulation of his theory, art is not an institution if that con-
cept is to be rigorously applied.
Our view “ of art as a cultural practice “ attempts to negotiate through the
pitfalls in previous theorizing. It does not foreclose artistic innovation while it
does attend to the generative processes through which objects enter the realm of
art. In some ways, it resembles the institutional approach; however, it does not
claim that art is an institution but only makes the less ambitious observation that
66 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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it is a cultural practice. Also, it regards the question of whether an object is art as
one internal to the cultural practices of the artworld and goes on to discuss the
coherence of that practice.

II

Calling art a cultural practice, it is to be hoped, is noncontroversial. To refer to
something as a practice in its simplest sense is to regard it as an activity that is cus-
tomarily or habitually undertaken; a cultural practice, in this sense, applies to the
customary activities of a culture. Shaking hands is a customary activity of greeting
in our culture. But though custom and habit have a large part to play in what I am
calling a cultural practice, they are by no means the whole of it.
The sense of cultural practice I have in mind here is that of a complex body of
interrelated human activities governed by reasons internal to those forms of activity
and to their coordination. Practices are aimed at achieving goods that are appropriate
to the forms of activity that comprise them, and these reasons and goods, in part, sit-
uate the place of the practice in the life of the culture. Such practices supply the
frameworks in which human powers are developed and expanded.
Custom, tradition, and precedent are integral components of a cultural prac-
tice. Nevertheless, cultural practices need not be static. They require flexibility
over time in order to persist through changing circumstances. They tolerate and
indeed afford rational means to facilitate modification, development into new
areas of interest, abandonment of previous interests, innovation, and discovery.
Practices sustain and abet change while remaining the same practice. Practices do
this by a creative use of tradition, or, to put the matter another way, practices con-
tain the means, such as modes of reasoning and explanation, that provide for the
rational transformation of the practice.
In one sense, callng art a practice in the singular is misleading. For art is a clus-
ter of interrelated practices. The plurality of practices here involves not only the
diversity of artforms, whose interrelations are often evinced by their imitation of
each other, but also by the different, though related, roles that different agents play
in the artworld.
Of special note here are the roles of makers and receivers. In many respects,
the activities or practices of these two groups diverge. And yet, at the same time,
they must be linked. For art is a public practice and in order for it to succeed pub-
licly “ that is, in order for the viewer to understand a given artwork “ the artist
and the audience must share a basic framework of communication: a knowledge
of shared conventions, strategies, and of ways of legitimately expanding upon
existing modes of making and responding. This point is often partially made by
saying that the artist is her own first audience; artistic practices must be con-
strained by the practices of response available to audiences in order to realize pub-
lic communication. A similar constraint operates with the audience not only to
assure communication in the basic sense, but, in the long run, to keep the activi-
ties of the artworld coherently related.
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Two points in the preceding, rather general, discussion of a cultural practice
need to be connected. Art is a cultural practice. A cultural practice is an arena of
activity that governs itself such that it reproduces itself over time. A cultural prac-
tice, to speak anthropomorphically, needs to provide for its continuance over time.
In one sense, it must replicate itself. However, this replication cannot be absolutely
rote. For the practice must also readjust itself and evolve, in order to adapt to new
circumstances.Thus, a cultural practice requires rational means to facilitate transi-
tion while remaining recognizably the same practice. That is, a cultural practice
must reproduce itself while also being able to change, without becoming an alien
practice; it must have not only a tradition, but ways of modifying that tradition so
that past and present are integrated.
Furthermore, the essential publicity of art requires that these modes of repro-
ducing and transforming the practice be available to both the makers and receivers
of putative artworks, not only so that they have the possibility of understanding
each other but also so that the practice evolves coherently.To put the matter more
concretely, an artist needs to know the constraints on diverging from the tradition
in such a way that her activity changes it rather than ends it, and the audience, or
at least certain members of it, needs to share the knowledge of the modes of
expanding the tradition in order not only to understand the artist™s work, but,
even more fundamentally, to recognize it as a development within the tradition.
One mark of a practice is that participants be able to self-consciously identify
themselves as participating within the practice. But if practices change, this
requires that the participants have the means to self-consciously identify them-
selves as partaking of the same practice through change and transition.
This, of course, through a roundabout route, returns us to the initial question
of how we identify works of art.That is, as the cultural practice of art reproduces
and transforms itself, makers and receivers need ways in which to identify newly
produced objects as members of the same tradition as antecedently existing art-
works. In our own time, this question is made especially urgent by the avant-
garde. But it has been an issue for art throughout its history, given its proclivity for
self-transformation.
As I have already intimated, I think that the means for identifying a new object
as part of the corpus of art are internal to the practice of art, and, furthermore, are
related to the reproduction of the practice as a self-transforming tradition. The
means of identification, here, are rational strategies rather than the types of rules
that are, for example, identified with stage-one essentialism. That is, given a new
work of art, we do not have a rule or set of rules to determine whether it deserves
inclusion in the order of art; rather we have several strategies for thinking about
the object and for justifying its acceptance in the tradition. Moreover, these strate-
gies need not converge on a single theory of the nature of the artwork.
Perhaps an analogy with morality is useful here. Even if the practice of moral-
ity is not founded upon a single moral doctrine of the good act, from which all
moral precepts flow (in the way championed by Kantians and utilitarians), we still
have rational strategies with which to reasonably conduct moral debate. Con-
68 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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fronted by an action we adjudge immoral, we may press its perpetrator by pursu-
ing certain well-known lines of argument: for instance, pointing out that she
would not like the same act visited upon her, or that he would abhor the conse-
quences of everyone behaving in the manner he does.These argumentative strate-
gies do not in themselves amount to a unitary moral theory; however, they do
provide immensely serviceable means with which moral practitioners can adjudi-
cate disputes. Similarly, I hold that with respect to the artworld there are strategies
of reasoning, as opposed to rules, definitions, first principles or unitary theories,
which enable practitioners to identify new objects as art.
The best way to convince you that there are such strategies is to call your
attention to some of them.Three spring immediately to mind. Confronted with a
new object, we might argue that it is an artwork on the grounds that it is a repe-
tition, amplification, or repudiation of the works that are already acknowledged to
belong to the tradition.5 In each case, given the need of the cultural practice to
reproduce itself, we connect the new object to past artworks, but the nature of
that connection differs with each strategy of argumentation.
The simplest form of argumentation is to note that the object in question is a
repetition of the forms, figures, and themes of previous art. For example, the bal-
let Giselle (choreographed by Coralli and Perrot) could have been identified as art
by its original audience in virtue of the way in which it repeated the vocabulary,
themes, and genre conventions of La Sylphide (choreographed by F.Taglioni). Sim-
ilarly, the works of contemporary portrait painters and of authors of bildungsromans
are counted as art because of the way in which they repeat the structures, tech-
niques, donn©es, and themes of previous art.Where narrative arts are concerned, a
repetition involves a modification or variation in the particularities of content of
a genre or form; character, events, and places change while basic narrative tech-
niques and genre conventions remain intact. Identification as an artwork in such
cases involves demonstrating the way in which the later work repeats the form,
conventions, and effects of past work.
This can fail in various ways: the forms of the past or present works can be
misdescribed, for example, or the repetition noted in the present work may only
be of vaguely peripheral significance to the traditional forms or genres cited as
precedents. As well, repetition, in the relevant sense, is not exact duplication.
Baldly copying a previous artwork so that it cannot be distinguished from its
model cannot count as art under the rubric of repetition. It is either plagiarism,
or, if it is art, it™s so classified generally because it can be interpreted as some form
of complex repudiation.
An amplification is a formal modification that expands the presiding means for
achieving the prevailing goals of a given genre or artform. In identifying new
works as art, amplification figures importantly in the problem/solution model of
discussing art history.A form or genre is presented as dealing with a problem, and
later works, which diverge in evident respects from the earlier work in the tradi-
tion, are said to solve the problems that beset previous practitioners.The history of
Western painting essayed in Gombrich™s Art and Illusion is perhaps the stellar
ART, PRACTICE, NARRATIVE 69
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example of this approach. Stylistic divergences of later stages are shown to be con-
tinuously integrated with the work of earlier pictorial traditions, in Gombrich™s
account, insofar as the later work introduces new techniques for the purpose of
realizing the antecedent goal of “capturing reality.”
Likewise, at a given point in film history “ one often associated with the name
of Griffith “ devices such as parallel editing and the close-up were introduced,
producing movies of a new sort.These could nevertheless be identified as contin-
uous with previous filmmaking, since they were amplifications of the preestab-
lished aim of making film narratives. The earlier films in this tradition, as well,
could have been identified as art by showing the ways in which they repeated the
donn©es of existing forms such as narrative painting, theater, and the novel.Trav-
eling forward in film history, the work of the Soviet montage school could be
identified as art by virtue of the way in which it amplified the goals of the Grif-

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