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properties by virtue of which the artworks in question belong to our collec-
tion of paradigms. In other words, our collection of paradigmatic artworks
yields a disjunctive set of paradigmatic artmaking properties; and, so, a family
resemblance is a similarity to the paradigms in terms of one or more paradig-
matic artmaking properties.Thus, not just anything could become art, because
in order to be art a candidate would have to possess one or more of a disjunc-
tive set of paradigmatic artmaking properties.
However, this maneuver is not open to the neo-Wittgensteinian because such
a theorist is committed to the view that one cannot fix a paradigmatic set of art-
making properties. And if such a set cannot be fixed, then we are back to sorting
candidates in terms of resemblance rather than family resemblance. And that,
IDENTIFYING ART 81

combined with the principle that everything resembles everything else in some
respect, will leave intact the reductio ad absurdum initiated four paragraphs earlier.
The preceding dilemma demonstrates the inadequacy of the family resem-
blance approach as a reliable method for identifying artworks.And this, along with
the recognition that, pace Weitz, a definition of art, properly framed, need be no
impediment to artistic creativity, encouraged a return to the dream of finding an
identifying definition of art in terms of sets of necessary conditions that are jointly
sufficient. This drama has been played out most explicitly with reference to
Dickie™s institutional theory of art.17 Yet, to date, despite the voluminous
exchanges on the topic, the prospects for securing a real definition of art along
institutional lines seem slim.
George Dickie™s most recent version of an institutional theory is advanced in
his monograph The Art Circle. The core of the theory is a definition that proposes
that “a work of art is of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.”18
This definition, in turn, is elucidated by the following four definitions: “A public
is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to under-
stand an object which is presented to them”;“An artworld system is a framework
for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public”;“An artist
is a person who participates with understanding in the making of an artwork”;
and “The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems.”19 The first thing to note
about this set of definitions is that it is circular insofar as the concept of a work of
art is material to the definition of the artist, which, of course, is presupposed by
the definition of an artworld system that, in turn, supplies the basis for identifying
an artworld public upon which the very notion of a work of art depends. Of
course, noting this circularity is no news. Dickie himself calls attention to it, argu-
ing that the definition is circular because the concept of art, like other cultural
concepts, is inflected. Perhaps, however, rather than saying that the concept of art
requires a special sort of inflected definition, it might be more to the point to
admit that this reformulation of the institutional theory of art has just given up
the aim of producing a real definition of art where that is understood in terms of
the challenge that the neo-Wittgensteinians advanced.
Moreover, it seems to me, there is a real question as to whether the new institu-
tional theory is really a theory of art. For the inflected set of definitions, though
mentioning “art” at crucial points, could be filled in just as easily with the names of
other coordinated, communicative practices like philosophy or wisecracking. For
example, we might say that “a work of philosophy is a discourse of a kind created to
be presented to a philosophyworld public” or that “a wisecrack is a discourse of a
kind created to be presented to a jokeworld public” while also adjusting the related,
elucidating, inflected propositions so that the structure they picture is analogous in
terms of functional positions to the artworld and its systems.
But then the question arises as to whether George Dickie has really said any-
thing specific about art, as opposed to merely producing something like the nec-
essary framework of coordinated, communicative practices of a certain level of
complexity, where such practices cannot be identified in terms of their content.
82 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
AND


Art is an example of such a practice. But in illuminating certain necessary struc-
tural features of such practices, Dickie has not really told us anything about art qua
art. Rather, he has implied that art belongs to the genus of complex, coordinated,
communicative practices, and he has shown us by example some of the features
that such practices presuppose by way of interrelated structural functions.
Undoubtedly, such an analysis is not without interest. But it is not what disputants
in the conversation of analytic philosophy expected in the name of a definition.
Another way of making this point might be to agree that Dickie™s new version
of the institutional theory does tell us something about the necessary conditions
of art insofar as art is the product of a coordinated social practice. But the neces-
sary conditions in question are features shared also by social practices other than
art. This is not to say that the reformulation is uninformative. It points in the
direction of a social framework for artmaking that many philosophers may have
heretofore ignored. However, if at best George Dickie can claim only to have elu-
cidated some necessary conditions for artmaking of the sort shared by comparable
coordinated social practices, then he should give up talking about defining art. For
he is no longer playing that game according to its original rules, and it only con-
fuses matters to pretend that a real definition is still in the offing.20
Dickie™s response to the failure of family resemblance as a reliable means for
identifying artworks was to return “ undoubtedly egged on by Weitz™s challenge “
to the project of framing a real, identifying definition of art. However, there may be
another lesson to be derived from the neo-Wittgensteinian episode and another
response to the failure of the family resemblance method. We may provisionally
accept the neo-Wittgensteinian suggestion in one of its weaker forms “ to wit: that
a real definition of art is at least unnecessary “ and agree that we nevertheless have
reliable means at our disposal for establishing whether or not a given candidate is
an artwork. Such a method will not be the family resemblance approach, of course,
since the objections of George Dickie and others do seem pretty compelling.
However, the refutation of that particular approach does not preclude that there
may be other methods for establishing that something is art and that these other
methods are not susceptible to the objections leveled at the family resemblance
approach.The particular method I have in mind is historical narration of the sort
that I will characterize in the next section of the present essay.21
But before turning to that analysis, let me summarize my argumentative strategy
in light of the framework set forth in the preceding pages. I intend to answer the
question “What is art?” (where that question is taken to pertain to answering affir-
matively whether we have a reliable method for identifying art) by specifying the
nature of that method. My proposal is that we do have a reliable method for identi-
fying a candidate to be an artwork and that that method is historical narration.22
Concerning the question of whether art may be characterized by means of a
real definition, I remain agnostic: not only have George Dickie™s attempts to pro-
vide one failed, but, as I shall try to show in a later section of this essay, recent
attempts by Jerrold Levinson and Arthur Danto appear deeply problematic as well.
Needless to say, such failures do not prove that there is no essential definition of
IDENTIFYING ART 83

art. But since I maintain that we do not really need such a definition, our agnosti-
cism is not of the anxious variety. For the question of whether art can be defined
is “academic” in the strong sense of the term, since artworks can be identified by
other means.

N A R R AT I O N A N D I D E N T I F I C AT I O N

As previously suggested, a major impulse for a great deal of what we call art the-
ory derives from the practical pressure of adjudicating momentous shifts within
the practice of art.This is an historical conjecture. Perhaps some evidence for this
conjecture is that the greatest variation in art theories corresponds to the period
in Western art history that is marked by the fastest rates of innovation and change.
That is, the most seismic shifts in art theory have occurred during what I referred
to previously as the age of the avant-garde. Again, this is not said with the inten-
tion of denying that in previous epochs major changes called for theoretical
accommodation; I claim only that the seminal role of theory in negotiating spiral-
ing historical transitions becomes particularly salient in the age of the avant-garde.
The dialectical conversation of the analytic philosophy of art has unfolded against
the backdrop of avant-garde practice.Whether or not this has always been explicitly
acknowledged by the major participants in that conversation, it should be clear that
developments in the avant-garde have motivated what are identified as the crucial
turning points in the dialogue. Implicit in the theories of Clive Bell23 and R. G.
Collingwood24 are defenses of emerging avant-garde practices “ neoimpressionism,
on the one hand, and the modernist poetics of Joyce, Stein, and Eliot on the other.
Indeed, these theories might be read as an attempt to realign the compass of art in
general according to a grid extrapolated from the previously mentioned avant-garde
movements. Susanne K. Langer™s theory of dance, in turn, might be read as a gloss on
the aesthetics of modern dance;25 while, given the premium they place on innova-
tion and originality, neo-Wittgensteinians would appear to have virtually incorpo-
rated the ideals of avant-gardism into their concept of art.
Likewise, George Dickie™s initial version of the institutional theory of art requires
something like the presupposition that Dada is a central form of artistic practice in
order for its intuition pumps (like Walter de Maria™s High Energy Bar) to work; while
Arthur Danto wondered at the end of his “The Last Work of Art: Artworks and Real
Things” whether his essay was not just another avant-garde artwork.26 In any case,
Danto has freely admitted that the historical conditions for initiating a philosophy of
art, as he construes it, were secured by the avant-garde production of what he calls
“indiscernibles,” such as Warhol™s famous Brillo boxes.27
Moreover, the linkage between art theory and avant-garde practice is evident
outside the canonical progression of analytic philosophers of art. Russian formal-
ism was intimately connected with Russian futurist poetry,28 while the recent
influential essays of Barthes and Foucault concerning the death of the author pro-
mote the explicit modernist ideals of cited authors, such as Mallarm© and Beckett,
as the conditions of all writing.29
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AND


The recurring correspondence between developments in art theory and devel-
opments in the avant-garde supplies a clue to the aims of art theory.Though art the-
ory may appear to be a purely abstract activity, it, like other forms of theory, has a
point and a purpose within the tradition and practice from which it has emerged.30
Stated bluntly, the task of art theory in the age of the avant-garde has been, in fact,
to provide the means for explaining how the myriad modern subversions of tradi-
tional expectations about art “ or at least some subset thereof “ could count as art.
The question “What is art?” as it is posed by the art theorist in the age of the avant-
garde has generally, though perhaps in many cases only tacitly, been a question of fit-
ting innovations into the continuum of our artistic practices. That is, on my
interpretation of the history of art theory, the task of modern analytic aesthetics has
really been one of providing the means for identifying the revolutionary produc-
tions of the avant-garde as artworks.Theory does not blossom in a vacuum; it is for-
mulated in a context that shapes its agenda. And the context that motivates
theoretical activity in the branch of art theory concerned with the question “What
is Art?” is one in which change, transition, or revolution is a central problem.
As noted above, in many cases in the analytic tradition it is said that the answer
to the problem is sought in terms of real definitions; however, the family resem-
blance method has also attracted a vocal minority. So far, neither of these strategies
has proven to be entirely satisfactory. So perhaps another approach “ the narrative
approach “ is worth considering.
On my view, the paradigmatic problem that is, in effect, addressed by contem-
porary art theory is one in which the public is confronted with an object or per-
formance that is presented by an artist but is at odds with the public™s expectations
about what counts as art. Some, often outraged, members of the public and their
critic-representatives charge that the new work is not art; others claim that it is
art.The question of whether or not the work is art is then joined, with the burden
of proof placed on those who maintain that the new work is art.
How does one go about meeting this challenge? I think that the most com-
mon way in which this is accomplished is to tell a story that connects the disputed
work x with preceding artmaking contexts in such a way that the production of x
can be seen as an intelligible outcome of recognizable processes of thinking and
making within the practice.
Typically the question of whether or not x is art arises in a context in which a
skeptic fails to see how the object in dispute could have been produced in the net-
work of practices with which she is already familiar “ that is, if those practices are
to remain the same practices with which she is already familiar. There is a per-
ceived gap, so to speak, between the anomalous avant-garde production x and an
already existing body of work with an antecedently acknowledged tradition of
making and thinking. In order to defend the status of x as art, the proponent of x
must fill in that gap.And the standard way of filling in that gap is to produce a cer-
tain type of historical narrative, one that supplies the sequence of activities of
thinking and making required to, in a manner of speaking, fill in the distance
between a Rembrandt and a readymade.
IDENTIFYING ART 85

In order to counter the suspicion that x is not a work of art, the defender of x
has to show how x emerged intelligibly from acknowledged practices via the same
sort of thinking, acting, decisionmaking, and so on that is already familiar in the
practice.This involves telling a certain kind of story about the work in question:
namely, a historical narrative of how x came to be produced as an intelligible
response to an antecedent art-historical situation about which a consensus with
respect to its art status already exists.With a contested work of art what we try to
do is place it within a tradition where it becomes more and more intelligible.31
And the standard way of doing this is to produce an historical narrative.
The paradigmatic situation I have asked you to recall in order to motivate my
hypothesis is one in which a work is presented and challenged and in which the
challenge is met by means of a narrative. However, equally typical is the situation
in which the narrative is told proleptically “ that is, told ahead of time in order to
forestall an anticipated challenge.This proleptic story may be told or published by
an artist, perhaps in the form of a manifesto or an interview, or, more likely, by a
critic. Indeed, much of the task of the critic who champions the work in question
is to place it in a framework that will render its connections with acknowledged
portions of the tradition intelligible.32
For example, in order to allay misgivings about a painting by Morris Lewis,
Clement Greenberg provides a narrative that connects it to the program of ana-
lytical cubism.To a certain extent, the choice of the starting point of the narrative
may be strategic. That is, the defender of the disputed work x begins the story
with a body of artmaking techniques and purposes that she supposes the target
audience acknowledges to be within the artistic tradition. However, in principle,
such narratives are always open to being, so to say, pushed back further in time
under the pressure of skeptical questioning. Thus, if analytical cubism is not a
pragmatically effective starting point for defending the painting by Lewis, one
may have to tell the narrative that gets us from impressionism or even realism to
analytical cubism before one tells the narrative from analytical cubism to Lewis.
Nevertheless, though these narratives may be “strategic” in the sense in which I
have just conceded, this does not entail that they are arbitrary or imposed in the way
that historical constructivists maintain. For there is no reason to suspect that the his-
torical connections that figure in our narratives are not literally truth-tracking.
Obviously, this method for identifying or establishing a proffered work x as an
artwork presupposes some body of work and associated practices that are agreed to
be artistic by the various parties involved in a given debate.That is true, but it is not
a problem for the narrative approach to identifying artworks. For example, it makes
no sense to charge the narrative approach with circularity on the basis of these
assumptions. For circularity is a defect in real definitions, and the narrative approach
to identifying art does not entail definitions. Narratives are not definitions.
Furthermore, presupposing that we approach our problem knowing some
examples of artworks and their associated practices is an assumption made not
only by the narrative approach but by its competitors as well. Clearly, the family
resemblance approach makes such assumptions in presuming that we can desig-
86 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
AND


nate a set of paradigmatic artworks. Likewise, George Dickie admits that knowl-
edge of art as we know it is requisite for mobilizing his conception of the art cir-
cle; at the same time, definitionists in general must allow that we have some core
knowledge of art and its practices in order to frame their theories and to weigh
the force of counterexamples. Consequently, the presupposition that the narrative
approach assumes “ that there is already some knowledge about art and its prac-
tices “ should be no obstacle to its potential as a means for identifying art.
Previously I claimed that the question “What is art?” serves as an umbrella
under which a series of questions might be advanced, including these: Is there a
reliable method for identifying artworks? Does art have any essential or general
features? and Can art be defined? The narrative approach answers the question
about whether there is a reliable method for identifying art affirmatively.That is,
the narrative method is one reliable method. On the question of whether art can
be defined, we are, as noted, agnostic; like many agnostics in the realm of religion,
though, we are not tortured by our suspense in this matter. For if our earlier his-
torical conjecture is correct, if what drives art theory is the quest for a reliable
means of identifying artworks, then the narrative method satisfies our needs in a
way that makes answering the question of art™s definition academic. Whether art
has a definition may remain a question of some marginal philosophical interest;
but art theory can discharge its duties without answering it.
I have supplied answers to two of the three primary questions sketched earlier,

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