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located, the process of identifying the new objects to be included in the series is
IDENTIFYING ART 75

pursued by means of narratives whose elaboration, in turn, explains the historical
unity of the practice to us.
Basically, by way of considering art as a cultural practice, I have advanced nar-
rative as a primary means of identifying artworks and of characterizing the coher-
ence of the artworld, in contrast to the inclination to deal with these matters by
proposing defining sets of necessary and sufficient conditions. Roughly stated, I
have advocated what might be called narrativism over essentialism.This reorienta-
tion, moreover, correlates with a growing tendency in many schools and areas of
inquiry on the contemporary intellectual landscapes.13




IDENTIFYING A RT
As a student of George Dickie™s, I have been profoundly influenced by his con-
tributions to the philosophy of art. I believe that his criticisms of the notions of
aesthetic perception, aesthetic attitudes, aesthetic experience, and so on remain
fundamentally sound. And, as well, they place important constraints on theories
of art. Notably, they preclude the possibility of sustaining what are currently
called aesthetic theories of art: that is, theories of art that propose to define art in
terms of the engendering of aesthetic experience. George Dickie™s rejection of
aesthetic experience, of course, set the stage for the proposal of his own variations
on the institutional theory of art by effectively removing one sort of rival “
aesthetic theories of art “ from the playing field. And I am convinced that this
move is still decisive.
George Dickie also successfully undermined the open concept/family resem-
blance approach to identifying art as a way of dialectically arguing in favor of
institutional-type theories of art. In this matter, too, I believe Dickie™s arguments
are still powerful.
In challenging the viability of aesthetic theories of art and the open con-
cept/family resemblance approach, George Dickie showed the importance of
social context for the prospects of identifying art. His own variations on the insti-
tutional theory of art are contested, but his emphasis upon the relevance of social
context represents a major contribution to the philosophy of art. In my own
work, I have become suspicious of the plausibility of institutional theories of art,
including its most recent reincarnation. I have argued that art is not identified by
definitions, institutional or otherwise, but by narratives.The essay that follows is an
attempt to provide further clarification of the narrative approach, which I advo-
cate, to the problem of identifying art.1

From: Institutions of Art, ed. by Robert Yanal (University Park: Penn State University Press,
1993), 3“38.
76 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
AND


Nevertheless, though I have departed from the letter of George Dickie™s
approach, I am still touched by its spirit, especially by its emphasis on the central-
ity of context. And, as well, my conception of the structure of the dialectical field
on which debates about identifying art are staged is deeply indebted to Dickie™s
always careful and clear way of setting up the problem.

I D E N T I F I C AT I O N , E S S E N C E , A N D D E F I N I T I O N

One of the central questions of analytic philosophy in the twentieth century “
notably in the second half of the twentieth century “ has been “What is art?”
Whether it was an issue of much urgency earlier is a matter of genuine historical
dispute.And even in the second half of the twentieth century, there have been dis-
tinguished theorists “ like Nelson Goodman2 and Kendall Walton3 “ who have
wondered whether there is much profit to be found in this issue. Indeed, in his
landmark treatise Aesthetics, Monroe Beardsley did not bother to address the ques-
tion in its canonical form.4 Nevertheless, the sheer statistical evidence seems
enough to warrant the claim that it has been a central question of analytic philos-
ophy even if, at the same time, it is true that our energies might have been spent
more fruitfully elsewhere.
However, even if it is granted that this has been a central question for philoso-
phers, it has been noted less often that this question may be taken in a number of
different ways “ ways that diverge from the interpretation that contemporary
philosophers are often predisposed to give it, and ways that do not connect in a
neat package of interrelated answers. That is, the question “What is art?” may, at
different times, signal a request for different kinds of information, and that infor-
mation, furthermore, may not be linked logically in the manner most contempo-
rary philosophers anticipate.5
Some of the primary issues that the question “What is art?” may serve to
introduce include the following. First of all, how do we identify or recognize or
establish something to be a work of art? That is, how do we establish that a given
object or performance is an artwork? This request for information has, of course,
become increasingly pressing for nearly a century, a period that we might label the
“age of the avant-garde.” For in its urge to subvert expectations, the art of the
avant-garde, which would appear to have the most legitimate historical claim to
be the high art of our times, has consistently and intentionally produced objects
and performances that challenge settled conceptions about what one is likely to
encounter on a visit to a gallery, a theater, or a concert hall. It can be no accident
that the art theorists of the last century have become so obsessed with the ques-
tion “What is art?” during the age of the avant-garde. For theory here would
appear to be driven by practical concerns: that is, given the consistently anomalous
productions of the avant-garde, how does one establish that these works are art-
works? Indeed, recalling what Stanley Cavell has identified as the modern audi-
ence™s fear that it might be the butt of a continuously floating confidence game,
we surmise that the issue is one of how we are to go about establishing that the
IDENTIFYING ART 77

works in question are works of art in the face of worries, if not downright skepti-
cal objections, to the contrary.6 Again, it can be no accident that one of the most
tempting theories of art to emerge in this period was George Dickie™s Institu-
tional Theory of Art, which, if nothing else, was perfectly suited to perform such a
service for the works of Dada and its heritage.
This, of course, is not said in order to claim that in previous times there never
arose the question of how to identify something as a work of art.The explosion of
romanticism certainly anticipates some of the quandaries of the age of the avant-
garde.And there are other precedents. My point is simply that in the age of the avant-
garde, the question of how one recognizes and establishes something to be a work of
art is irresistible in a way that is reflected by the concerns of contemporary philoso-
phy of art. Moreover, the question of how one establishes that something is a work of
art gives rise to a deeper philosophical vexation:Are there indeed reliable methods for
establishing or identifying something to be a work of art?
Another issue that might be introduced by asking “What is art?” may be the
question of whether art has an essence. Here, following T. J. Diffey,7 by essence I
mean some general, shared feature or features of artworks that are useful to mark
but that are not shared by artworks alone. When Plato and Aristotle agree that
poetry and paintings are imitations, they point to what they take to be such an
essence, though this feature, despite its significance for art as they knew it, was also
shared, even in their own times, by childhood games of emulation. In this sense, an
essence may be a necessary condition, and it is my suspicion that art theory before
the age of the avant-garde was concerned primarily to isolate only such conditions,
especially where identifying these shed illumination on artistic practices.To say that
art is essentially communication or that it is essentially historical is to claim that art
has an essence in this sense, which is a matter of pointing to an informative general
feature of art without maintaining that it is a feature that uniquely pertains to art.
When, for example, George Dickie says that an artwork is of a kind designed for
public presentation,8 he marks an essential feature of art, though neither essential
public presentability, nor historicity, nor communicativeness is a property of art
alone. In asking “What is art?” we may be introducing the question of whether art
has a noteworthy essence or necessary condition “ a question that, if answered
affirmatively, will be followed by a specification of what that general feature might
be. Moreover, citation of that feature need not be proposed for the sake of saying
something unique about art, but only as something that helps us understand art “
that points us in the direction of something we have missed or helps us get out of
some problem into which we have backed ourselves.Again, much previous art the-
ory might be read profitably as presenting answers of this general sort.
Third,“What is art?” may also be taken as a request for a real definition in terms
of necessary conditions that are jointly sufficient. This is the interpretation of the
question that Morris Weitz attributed to the conversation of art theory that pre-
ceded his neo-Wittgensteinian de-Platonization of it.Whether Weitz™s diagnosis of
the tradition was an historically accurate conjecture is open to debate. However, the
particular spin that Weitz put on the question “ construing it as a request for a real
78 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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definition “ is the one that subsequent theorists, like George Dickie, have taken to
be the most “natural” interpretation (though it pays to remark here that it may only
seem natural in the context of a debate where Weitz and the other neo-Wittgen-
steinians had laid down the dialectical challenge that it cannot be done).
These three issues “ Is there a reliable method for identifying art? Does art
have an essence? and Does art have a real definition? “ are the primary questions
that may be introduced by asking “What is art?” However, there are two other
questions worth mentioning, even though I will have little to say about them.
They involve requests for information about the importance of art as a human
activity, which some theorists, though not I, regard as inextricably linked with
what I have identified as our three primary questions.9 These questions “ which I
think of as secondary “ are as follows. First:Why is art valuable as a human activ-
ity? Here we might be told that art is a cognitive instrument or a means of moral
education. Moreover, this request can be made in an even more demanding man-
ner. Specifically, we may be asked what makes art uniquely valuable “ that is,What
is the peculiar value of art in contradistinction to the values available in every
other arena of human activity?
Now it seems to me that the reason all these questions “ ranging from “How do
we tell something is art?” to “What is the peculiar value of art?” “ have been lumped
together is that there is an underlying philosophical dream such that, ideally, all the
relevant answers in this neighborhood should fit into a tidy theoretical package.
Consider the primary variants of our question: Is there a reliable method for
identifying artworks? Does art have (some) essential feature(s)? Can art be
defined? The philosophical dream to which I have alluded wants to answer each
of these questions affirmatively, in such a way that each affirmation supplies the
grounds for subsequent affirmations.That is, an affirmative answer to the question
of whether art has any essential features may be registered in the expectation that
these can be worked into a real definition such that the relevant necessary condi-
tions are jointly sufficient for identifying something as an artwork.Thus, the defi-
nition functions as the reliable standard for assessing whether or not something is
a work of art.
Of course, there is an even more ambitious dream in these precincts, one that
hopes not only to link up the answers to our primary questions but to link up our
secondary answers as well.That is, there is the expectation that we shall be able to
say why art is important, even uniquely important, in the course of defining art.
Here there is the conviction that, among the necessary conditions listed in our
definition, there will be some feature or features whose citation makes it evident
that art has value or even a unique value. An example of this variation of the
dream is Monroe Beardsley™s aesthetic definition of art, in which affording aes-
thetic interest is related to the value of art as a human activity.That Beardsley sup-
poses that some such account of the value of art should be part of the definition
of art, moreover, is indicated by Beardsley™s criticism of the Institutional Theory of
Art in terms of George Dickie™s failure to say anything about the “pervasive
human needs that it is the peculiar role of art to serve.”10
IDENTIFYING ART 79

Stated in its most ambitious form “ that an identifying, real definition of art
will yield an account of what is uniquely valuable about art “ the dream seems
exactly that. For, save embattled defenders of aesthetic theories of art, the remain-
ing consensus is that art may serve a motley of purposes and, in consequence, that
it possesses a motley assortment of values. But even the less ambitious dream “ that
artworks might be identified by means of a real definition that comprises sets of
necessary conditions that are jointly sufficient “ is dubious. For as the neo-
Wittgensteinian™s “ Weitz, Kennick, perhaps Ziff, and others “ maintain, it is at
least possible to answer what I have called our three primary questions in ways
that are independent of each other.That is, there may be no reason to suppose that
the relevant answers dovetail “ indeed, they may come apart.11
For example, it is possible to deny that a real definition of art is possible, as
Weitz did,12 and to deny that artworks share any general features or essences, as
Kennick did,13 and still argue that we do possess reliable methods for identifying
or establishing that a given object or production is a work of art.That is, we may
be able to identify candidates as art even if art lacks an essence. After all, we man-
age to identify a great many other things for which we lack a real definition. Of
course, the leading candidate for a reliable method of art identification “ the one
that the neo-Wittgensteinians championed “ was the notion of family resem-
blance. In fact, it may be the only well-known alternative to definition to be
found in the literature so far, though, by way of preview, I should say that I plan to
introduce narration as another alternative.
On one variation of the family resemblance approach, we begin with a set of
cases of acknowledged or paradigmatic artworks. Given a new candidate for
membership in the set, one identifies it or establishes it to be a work of art by
determining whether it is sufficiently similar to our starting cases in a number of
respects.This resemblance to our paradigm is called a family resemblance. Estab-
lishing that something bears a family resemblance to our paradigms, or to works
whose resemblance to our paradigms has been previously recognized, is enough to
establish a new candidate to be an artwork. However, whether the family resem-
blance approach is a reliable method is subject to a number of challenges.
The first objection takes note of the logic of resemblance. Starting with a hand-
ful of paradigms, we can identify a second generation of what Arthur Danto has
called “affines” “ things that share discernible similarities with our paradigms.14 Yet
these affines also have a great many properties that are not shared with our initial
group insofar as things that are similar to each other in some respects also differ from
each other in further respects. Consequently, a third generation of affines can be
constructed that bears a large number of resemblances to the second generation but
few to the first. Clearly, in the fourth and fifth generations of affines, we can get very
far away from the package of properties possessed by the first generation. In fact, in
short order, since it is also a feature of the logic of resemblance that everything
resembles everything else in some respect, enough generations of affines of the sort
that I have in mind can be arrayed so that anything can be said to bear a family
resemblance to either an artistic paradigm or an affine thereof.
80 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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Now this may not seem to be a particularly bothersome consequence in a
world that has been shaken by Dada. However, the family resemblance method
seems liable to identify anything as art for the wrong reason.A given snow shovel
might be recognized to be art as it is in the case of Duchamp™s In Advance of a Bro-
ken Arm; but I cannot claim that my snow shovel, which resembles Duchamp™s in
a hundred ways, is art on that basis. Perhaps my snow shovel could be made into a
work of art “ maybe as a deadpan counterexample to the family resemblance
method. But it would require more than resemblance for that. In such a case, it
would require what Danto calls a “background of theory.”15
One may worry whether the preceding demolition of the family resemblance
approach has not proceeded too hastily. For the family resemblance approach
depends upon our starting with some paradigmatic exemplars, and one might sus-
pect that the use of paradigms here could provide some constraints that would
halt the headlong rush to the conclusion that everything is art. For example, the
relevant resemblances, which this approach invokes, are said to be family resem-
blances. So perhaps that places suitable restraints upon what resemblances can
count in the process of establishing that a candidate in question is art.That is, the
collection of paradigms is a family, and any candidate that is to resemble them in a
family way must share whatever property (or properties) makes the collection a
family. But, of course, it has long been a criticism of the family resemblance
approach that the notion of “family” that figures so prominently in its name really
performs no work in the theory.16 Nor is this an accidental oversight, given the
other commitments of the most radical neo-Wittgensteinians. For if there were
criteria of family resemblance or criteria for what sort of resemblances count as
family resemblances, then the neo-Wittgensteinians would appear to be commit-
ted to the concession that there are at least necessary conditions for art. And that
is not a concession they will make.
At this point, one attempted rejoinder might be to say that the neo-
Wittgensteinians need not rely upon the notion of necessary conditions in
order to cash in the idea of family resemblance, but instead need only claim
that a family resemblance to our paradigmatic artworks is a resemblance by
virtue of correspondence to one or more members of a disjunctive set of the
paradigmatic artmaking properties of our paradigmatic artworks “ that is, those

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