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but the issue remains as to where the narrative approach stands on the matter of
whether art has any essential or general features. Here the version of the narrative
approach that I wish to defend delivers an affirmative answer.Though I am con-
vinced that art has more than one essential or general feature, for the purpose of
advancing my narrative approach it is necessary only to argue that art has at least
one necessary feature: historicity.
Art, as R. A. Sharpe nicely puts it, is an affair of ancestors, descendants, and
postulants.33 Each artist is trained in a tradition of techniques and purposes to
which her own work, in one way or another, aims to be an addition.34 The artist
learns the tradition, or at least crucial parts of it, in the course of learning certain
procedures of production, along with their attending folkways, self-understand-
ings, rules of thumb, associated values, and even theories. In producing artworks,
the artist remains in conversation with her teachers “ sometimes repeating, some-
times improving upon, and sometimes disputing their achievements. But in every
instance, the artist is always involved in extending the tradition; typically, even the
artist who repudiates large portions of it does so in order to return it to what she
perceives to be its proper direction.
Alongside the artist™s traditions of production, there are also traditions of
reception “ that is, traditions of appreciating and understanding works of art on
the part of audiences “ that include paradigms for looking at, listening to, and
interpreting works of art. However, such traditions are not entirely disjunct from
those of production, if only because artists are audiences as well. That is, they
attend to their own works and to those of others in the ways provided by our tra-
IDENTIFYING ART 87

ditions of reception and, in consequence, these artists then produce works gov-
erned by the internalized norms and purposes that they, the artists, have derived
from our practices of appreciation and understanding. Of course, to a lesser
extent, especially in modern society, audiences are also introduced to the artist™s
side of the exchange, typically receiving some rudimentary training in some art-
making practice along with training in various practices of appreciation (e.g., inter-
preting stories for their morals).
The coordinated traditions of production and reception provide artists, audi-
ences, audience/artists, and artist/audiences with the means for orienting their
activities. Understanding a work of art, in large measure, is a matter of situating it,
of placing it in a tradition.This may not be immediately apparent to some because
the degree to which historical sensitivities, categories, and concepts are enmeshed
in our art education blinds us to the influential, sometimes constitutive, role that
they play in our appreciative responses. People deploy far more art-historical
knowledge than they are often self-consciously aware of deploying. But even the
simple identification of a drama as Shakespearean or a film as a silent comedy
mobilizes historical knowledge that, in turn, shapes appreciation in terms of
appropriate modes of response, including the postulation of relevant comparisons,
expectations, and norms. Producing art, on the other hand, also, often unavoidably,
involves awareness of the tradition “ awareness of precedents and predecessors, of
available techniques and purposes, of influences and the anxieties thereof,35 of
audience expectations, and of the historically rooted reactions that are apt to be
engendered by subverting such expectations at a given moment.
Art has an inexpugnable historical dimension because it is a practice with a
tradition. Moreover, this tradition is taught historically. Artists study their prede-
cessors, their aims, and their breakthroughs in order to prepare themselves for
their own contribution to the tradition.And the audience learns to appreciate and
to interpret the productions of artists in terms of period concepts, in terms of
generational strife and competition between artists, in terms of evolutionary solu-
tions to preexisting problems as well as through historically grounded standards
such as innovative/conservative, original/unoriginal, revolutionary/retrograde,
not to mention the very idea of the avant-garde. Without art history, there is no
practice of artmaking as we know it, nor is there the possibility of understanding
that practice to any appreciable extent. In this sense, history is a necessary condi-
tion for art; and, thus, art has at least one essential feature.
Moreover, the assertion that art has this essential feature is connected to the
strategy “ historical narration “ that I advocate as a reliable method for identifying
art. If understanding a work of art involves placing it within a tradition, then chal-
lenging a particular claimant amounts to the charge that it cannot be placed in
any intelligible way within the tradition. Meeting that challenge, then, is a matter
of placing the claimant within the tradition. The challenge, if unwarranted, is a
failure of historical understanding. Deflecting the challenge involves delivering
historical understanding.And the most straightforward way of supplying historical
understanding is historical narration.
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Of course, I have said that a historical narrative will do the job if the challenge
is unwarranted.This allows that a challenge may be warranted, which, at the very
least, effectively implies that there is no adequate historical narrative available to
connect the work in question to the tradition.
The perplexity that the work of the avant-garde provokes in the skeptic is a
function of the skeptic™s inability to discern a plausible connection between the
work in dispute and the rest of the tradition.The task of historical narration in this
context is to make such a connection visible to the skeptic. Historical narration is an
appropriate means for establishing whether or not the work under fire is art because
it is a way of showing whether or not the work is part of a developing tradition.
So far, a great deal of weight has been placed on the role of historical narra-
tives in identifying art. However, little has been said about the nature of these nar-
ratives. At this juncture, then, it will be useful to characterize the relevant features
of the species of historical narrative that we deploy in order to identify and estab-
lish a claimant to be a work of art.
The first and perhaps most obvious thing to say about such narratives is that
insofar as they are historical narratives, rather than fictional narratives, they are com-
mitted to reporting sequences of events and states of affairs accurately or truthfully.
That is, in order to succeed fully in establishing the claim that a given work is a
work of art by means of a historical narrative requires at the very least that the
narrative be true. This means that the reports of events and states of affairs that
constitute the narrative must be true and that the asserted connections between
those events and states of affairs must obtain. If it is an ingredient in the narrative
that x influenced y, then it must be true that x influenced y. If the narrative in
question is at best plausible, given our state of knowledge, then it must be plausi-
ble that x influenced y.
The historical narratives that identify art are, among other things, ideally accurate
reports of sequences of events and states of affairs.That they are accurate reports of
sequences indicates that they respect a certain temporal order.A narrative is a time-
ordered series of events and states of affairs. This does not mean that the order of
exposition in the narrative must mirror the order of the chronology to which it
refers, but only that the actual chronology of events be available from the narrative.
This is consonant with the requirement that the narratives be truthful, since in order
to be truthful the narrative should not rearrange the chronology of events. But this
requirement does not follow from the demand for truthfulness, since the require-
ment for time-ordering would be violated where it is impossible to discern the
actual sequence of events and not only where the proposed time-ordering is false.
Thus far we have said that the relevant type of narrative aspires to be an accu-
rate report of a time-ordered sequence of events. In other words, it must be at least
what is often called a chronicle.36 But more is required for the sort of narrative we
need.The kind of narrative we are looking for has an explanatory role to play: it
has to explain how an anomalous work in the present is part of the previously
acknowledged practices of artmaking. Before undertaking a narrative of this sort,
we already know where it must end in order to be successful. Specifically, it needs
IDENTIFYING ART 89

to end with a presentation of the work or works, or the performance or perfor-
mances, whose status is contested. The task of the narrative is to show that this
event is the result or outcome of a series of intelligible decisions, choices, and
actions that originate in and emerge from earlier, already acknowledged practices
of artmaking. That is, the narrative must represent the presentation of the con-
tested work as part of a whole process that can be recognized to be artistic.37
Moreover, though it may be controversial to claim that all historical narratives
have unified subjects, the historical narratives discussed here will have such a sub-
ject insofar as they are organized around the dominant purpose of explaining why
some contested work is art.38
The endpoint of such a narrative “ its moment of closure, if you will “ is the
presentation or production of the contested work. On the other hand, the begin-
ning of the story sets the stage by establishing the art-historical context of the
work “ generally by describing a set of prevailing artmaking practices about
which there is consensus that the works produced in that context are bona fide
art. Pragmatic considerations may determine how far back into history the story
must go in order to be convincing for given audiences. However, wherever the
story begins, it must be connected to the subsequent events recounted in terms of
real historical relations such as, for example, causation and influence. Pragmati-
cally, the choice of where to begin such a narrative may be relative to an audi-
ence™s consensus about what is indisputably art, but whether the states of affairs are
part of the series of events recounted is not arbitrary.And, perhaps needless to say,
I am presuming that there will always be some earlier point in time about which
there is consensus about acknowledged artmaking practices.
By now, we have some sense of where the kinds of historical narratives in
question begin and end. But what constitutes the middle of the story or, as I
would prefer to call it, the complication?
The narrative begins by describing an acknowledged artmaking context. For
simplicity™s sake, let us imagine that there is consensus about the art status of the
artistic practices that exist just prior to the appearance of the disputed work. In
this case, the story begins with a sketch of the relevant artworld at the time the
artist, whose work is contested, enters it.Thus, if our subject is the work of Isadora
Duncan “ of which Vaslav Nijinsky charged, “[H]er performance is spontaneous
and cannot be taught. ¦ [I]t is not art”39 “ then we are likely to begin our story
with an account of the turn-of-the-century theatrical dance scene in the West
that was dominated by academic ballet.
The complication in the story then emerges as we outline the artist™s assessment
of the artworld as she finds it. Of course, an artist may assess a given artworld to be
unproblematic and simply go on to produce works in the same manner to which
she has become accustomed.40 But then the story is a very short one. However, in
the case of innovative work of the sort that is likely to cause dispute, the artist is apt
to assess the existing artworld as requiring change or alteration either in the direc-
tion of solving some problem internal to existing artworld practices or in the direc-
tion of radically reorienting the project of the relevant artworld.41
90 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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Duncan, for example, assessed the ballet-dominated dance scene in late-nine-
teenth-century America to be tired, rigid, and stifling “ features she associated
with the Old World. In contrast, she searched for forms that were spontaneous and
natural (by her lights) and would serve to emblematize the Whitmanesque strains
of her vision of the American spirit.42
The complication in our narratives commences as we introduce the artist™s
conception of the context in which she finds herself.The story gets rolling when
we establish that the artist is resolved to change that context in one way or
another. In noting the artist™s conception of the situation and her resolve to
change it, we elucidate the impetus of her assessment of the need or opportunity
for change. Here the impetus may come from pressure within the artworld or
from concerns derived from broader cultural contexts, or from a mixture of the
two. In Duncan™s case, for example, the aim of rejuvenating dance as well as the
impulse to align it with romantic aesthetics might be thought of as imperatives
internal to the artworld, while the desire to forge a style of dance with a distinctly
American identity implemented a broader cultural politics, one heralded, for
example, in Emerson™s essay “The American Scholar.”
Once we have established the artist™s resolve to change artworld practices, and
once we have shown how it is intelligible that someone in that context might
come to have the resolve in question, then we go on to demonstrate how the
artist™s choice of the means to her end makes sense in the historical context under
discussion.That is, we show how the means adopted would be deemed appropri-
ate for securing the artist™s purposes given the alternatives the situation afforded.
Or, in other words, we must show that what the artist did in the existing context
was a way of achieving her purposes.This involves sketching the situation in such
a way that it becomes evident why certain artistic choices make sense given the
values, associations, and consequences that are likely to attach to them in the per-
tinent historical context.43
Thus, to return to the case of Isadora Duncan, we continue her story by not-
ing the way in which her choice of the bare foot as her medium contravened the
constrained pointwork of ballet in a way that within the presiding cultural frame-
work would be associated with freedom, spontaneity, and naturalness. Similar
observations might be made about her choice of loose-fitting tunics in opposition
to tight ballet corsets.
In order to show that the disputed work of an artist is art, we must show in the
course of our narrative that the artist™s assessment of the initiating situation and the
resolve she formulated in response to that assessment were intelligible.To do this we
need to show that the artist had a reasonable interpretation of certain general under-
standings of the purposes of art that were abroad and alive in her culture.These gen-
eral understandings include such purposes as the following: that art is expressive, or
that it challenges complacent moral views, or that it is about itself. It is the artist™s
reasonable interpretation of these general purposes that ground her assessment and
her resolve. In the case of Duncan, her claim to return to the natural expressivity of
Greek art situated her revolution in recognizable artistic purposes.
IDENTIFYING ART 91

Once it is established, by narrating the conditions that give rise to her assess-
ments, that the artist™s resolve is intelligible, we go on to show that the techniques,
procedures, and strategies she enlists are effective ones for realizing her purposes,
given the lay of the artworld “ that is, given the alternative, available strategies and
their associated values.44 Finally, this elaboration of choices and rationales “
including, possibly, a citation of the artist™s experimentation with different alterna-
tives “ eventuates in the production of the contested work. My claim is that if
through historical narration the disputed work can be shown to be the result of
reasonable or appropriate choices and actions that are motivated by intelligible
assessments that support a resolution to change the relevant artworld context for
the sake of some recognizable aim of art, then, all things being equal, the disputed
work is an artwork.45
In theory, these stories sound immensely complicated; in practice they are not.
For example, gathering together the fragments, recited so far, of the Isadora Dun-
can story, when someone denies that her barefoot prancing and posing in Chopin
Waltzes is art, we could tell the following narrative:
Turn-of-the-century theatrical dance in the West, excluding Russia, was
dominated by forms of academic ballet that contemporary commentators,
like Bernard Shaw, felt had become tired and cliched. From Isadora Duncan™s
point of view, the problem was that ballet was an ossified discipline, mechan-
ical and uninspired. As a child of the New World, she saw in it all the vices
Americans attributed to Europe. It was artificial, lifeless, and formal. It was
the epitome of the Old World. Duncan aspired to new dance forms that
were spontaneous and natural. She found her sources in disparate places,
including social dancing, physical culture, gymnastics, and the Delstarte
deportment movement. From 1904 to 1914, Duncan was at the peak of her
career. She replaced the toeshoe and the corset of ballet with the bare foot
and the loose tunic.And her ebb-and-flow movement in pieces like Chopin
Waltzes was designed to recall the natural rhythms of waves. At the same
time, the use of running and walking in her choreography exchanged the
measured and predetermined cadence of academic ballet for the more per-
sonally inflected gesture. Undoubtedly her conception of art as a means to
individual expression derived as much from romantic poetry as it did from
the tradition of American individualism. But Duncan did not see herself as
creating something completely new. She conceived of herself as returning
the dance to the founding values of naturalness which she identified with
Greek art.Thus, with Chopin Waltzes, Duncan was able to solve the problem
of the stagnation of theatrical dance by repudiating the central features of the
dominant ballet and by reimagining an earlier ideal of dance.
Narratives like this can be expanded in many directions. Further details may
be included about the initial art-historical context: more background on the
artist™s influences, assessments, and decisions can be added, along with further
descriptions of central and/or exemplary events, experiences, and experiments
92 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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that contributed to the artist™s resolutions and actions. Such narratives may appear
seamless in the hands of an accomplished art critic, but they have a great deal of
structure. So, to return from simple practice to abstract theory, let me try to cap-
ture that structure with a formula:
x is an identifying narrative only if x is (1) an accurate and (2) time-
ordered report of a sequence of events and states of affairs concerning (3)
a unified subject (generally the production of a disputed work)46 that (4)
has a beginning, a complication, and an end, where (5) the end is explained
as the outcome of the beginning and the complication, where (6) the
beginning involves the description of an initiating, acknowledged art-his-

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