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torical context, and where (7) the complication involves tracing the adop-
tion of a series of actions and alternatives as appropriate means to an end
on the part of a person who has arrived at an intelligible assessment of the
art-historical context in such a way that she is resolved to change (or reen-
act)47 it in accordance with recognizable and live purposes of the practice.
Undoubtedly some clarificatory remarks about this formula are in order.
My point has been that art theory has been driven by the question of how we
identify innovative works as art, especially in contexts where such works are
subject to dispute. I claim that the way in which this is done is by historical
narratives of the sort we call “identifying narratives.” An adequate identifying
narrative establishes that a work in question emerged in recognizable ways
from an acknowledged artworld context through an intelligible process of
assessment, resolution, and action.
If we review the conditions I have advanced for an identifying narrative, it is
probably pretty apparent that the explanatory force of this sort of narrative relies on
the fact “ most evident in my characterization of the complication “ that underly-
ing this narrative is the structure of practical reasoning.48 The artist™s assessment
leads to a resolution, which leads to the choice from alternatives of means to that
end, which choices then ensue in the action we want explained “ the production
of the disputed work. If in our reconstruction of this process we are able to show
that the assessments, resolutions, and choices were intelligible in context, we are
well on our way to showing that the work in question is an artwork.
It is not my contention that the explanatory power of all historical narratives
rests on an underlying structure of practical reasoning, but only that the explana-
tory power of many historical narratives, including identifying narratives, does so.
That many narratives are similarly based in the structure of practical reasoning
should be noncontroversial.Think of the degree to which most popular narrative
films, like Terminator 2, are founded almost exclusively on the problem/solution
structure. That it should turn out that identifying narratives are also of this sort
would seem to follow from a natural interpretation of the question that motivates
them. That is, when confronted with an anomalous production that forces the
question of whether it is art, a natural path to the answer is to hypothesize why
someone would, in a given context, produce such an object for presentation to an
IDENTIFYING ART 93

artworld audience. And answering that question is a matter of reconstructing a
process of intelligible assessment, resolution, choice, and action.
Though the example I have developed of the identifying narrative is relatively
simple, it is easy to envisage more complex, expanded identifying narratives. Iden-
tifying narratives may include “embedded” narratives “ for example, identifying
narratives within identifying narratives dealing with cases where certain avant-
garde experiments prove unsatisfactory (from the artist™s point of view) until the
final production of the disputed work. And identifying narratives can be
“enchained” “ that is, several identifying narratives may be arrayed “back to back,”
as in our example concerning the Morris Lewis painting.49
Furthermore, though the reliance on practical reasoning seems to restrict
identifying narratives exclusively to the productions of individuals, there really is
no reason why identifying narratives cannot be extended to movements.That is,
not only may we mobilize identifying narratives to say why Richard Long™s hud-
dle of rocks called Cornwall Circle is art, but we may also employ such narratives to
say why movements like Dada, given the Dadaists™ assessments and resolutions,
confronted the artworld with certain objects and antics. Ultimately, such narra-
tives may have to be cashed in with reference to the activities of specific artists.
But if that constraint is understood, there is no problem in depicting a movement
in terms of its corporate assessments, resolutions, and choices when we explain
why the movement in question produces the kind of objects it does.
One objection to the narrative approach might be that there are intelligible
processes of assessment, resolution, and choice in artworld contexts that do not
issue in artworks.Thus, identifying narratives of certain objects and performances
might be told of productions that are not art. In the lore of film history, for exam-
ple, the story is told that as a result of their heated and long-standing debate about
the nature of film montage, Sergei Eisenstein named his dog “Pudovkin” in dis-
honor of his rival V. I. Pudovkin. In this, Eisenstein was not some sort of precursor
of William Wegman. Eisenstein was not turning his dog into an artwork. He
meant to insult his competitor Pudovkin. But surely a true story could be told
about the way in which Eisenstein, in the context of an artistic debate, came to an
assessment that resulted in the naming of his dog Pudovkin as a means of express-
ing his resolution that the “linkage” version of montage (Pudovkin™s version) be
discarded. Does this show that Eisenstein™s dog was a work of art? How can the
narrative approach keep dogs out of the artworld?
But, of course, we do not really want to keep dogs out of the artworld sim-
pliciter. We only want to keep Eisenstein™s dog out of the Soviet filmworld in par-
ticular and out of the pre-World War II Soviet artworld in general. In order to do
so, it seems that we need to add to our account the constraint that the thinking and
making that our identifying narratives reconstruct be localized to activities occur-
ring within recognizable artworld systems of presentation: that is, artforms, media,
and genres that are available to the artist in question.Thus, Eisenstein™s naming of
the dog Pudovkin, though a creative act by an artist, is not counted among the
accomplishments of the golden age of Soviet art because the relevant thinking and
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acting was not transacted in the context of a recognizable artworld system of pre-
sentation. Surely the dog was not a film or a poem. Soviet Russia before World War
II simply lacked a structure or convention of presentation in which Eisenstein™s dog
could “ through an act of christening “ become an artwork.
To say that the solution to this problem is that identifying narratives be
restricted to thinking and making within recognizable artworld systems of presen-
tation may appear simply to move the problem up a notch. But I would prefer to
say that what it does is move the solution up a notch.The putative problem with
relying on recognizable systems of artworld presentation is this: How are we to
identify those systems? Here I feel we can say that, for the most part, there is an
acknowledged consensus about a large body of available artworld systems of pre-
sentation in our culture, just as there is a large body of objects that we agree are
art. In most cases, the question of whether the relevant thinking and making tran-
spired in such a system can be settled straightforwardly. Of course, we can also
point to cases in which there are disputes about whether or not a putative system
of presentation is an artworld system.The issue then becomes a matter of how one
identifies a system of presentation as a recognizable artworld system that is avail-
able to the artist in question.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, my answer to the question of how we go about
establishing that certain presentational systems are artworld systems is “by means
of historical narration.”
Novel artworld systems of presentation do not simply appear on the landscape
by magic or by acts of nature.They are evolved from preexisting artistic practices
by their proponents through self-conscious processes of thinking and making.
Early filmmakers succeeded in turning a new technology into a recognizable art-
world system of presentation by initially adapting it as an effective means for dis-
charging the preexisting purposes of already acknowledged arts such as theater,
painting, the short story, and the novel. Establishing that film was an artworld pre-
sentation system is a matter of explaining how the choices of early filmmakers
flowed in a recognizable manner from the intelligible assessments and resolutions
they made with respect to the artistic potential of the new technology.
Of course, there are other ways of introducing novel presentational systems. Film
was introduced initially by mimicking existing, acknowledged forms of artmaking
and their purposes. But novel presentational systems have been introduced in living
memory by other strategies. For example,“happenings” seem to have developed as a
reaction to existing artworld practices, notably practices in the precincts of painting
and sculpture. Artists like Allan Kaprow, feeling the constraints of a high modernist
aesthetic that bracketed the exploration of space and content from the canvas and
prized what was called “objecthood” (by the likes of Michael Fried) over participa-
tion, invented the happening as the arena in which those preexisting artistic con-
cerns that had been repressed under the Greenbergian dispensation could return.
Similar and indeed related stories can be told about the emergence of conceptual art
and performance art. But in all these cases, the point remains the same. Contested
presentation systems are established to be artworld systems when we can account for
IDENTIFYING ART 95

their emergence through narratives of thinking and making that connect them in
recognizable ways with preexisting artworld systems and their purposes. Eisenstein™s
dog Pudovkin was not art because there was no artworld system available to Eisen-
stein through which he might have implemented an intention to make his dog art.
That Eisenstein might have introduced such a system is irrelevant. For that is quite
literally another story.50

L E V I N S O N A N D DA N T O

The narrative approach I have developed for identifying art emphasizes the impor-
tance of art history. However, it is not the only contemporary approach to look to
art history for ways of answering the question “What is art?” Powerful, alternative,
historicist theories have been advanced by Jerrold Levinson and Arthur Danto. In
this section, I would like to examine the viability of these rival theories.
One difference, of course, between the narrative approach and the theories of
Levinson and Danto is that their approaches remain definitional. That is, they
attempt to provide the means for identifying and establishing that something is art
by means of real definitions.
Levinson™s method, which he explicitly calls defining art historically,51 contends
that
X is an artwork at t = df. X is an object of which it is true at t that some
person or persons, having the appropriate proprietary right over X, non-
passingly intends (or intended) X for regard-as-a-work-of-art “ i.e., regard
in any way (or ways) in which objects in the extension of ˜artwork™ prior
to t are or were correctly (or standardly) regarded.52
This is a definition of art at a given time (t) in terms of what art has been in
past times.To be art at t is to be intentionally related in the required way to some-
thing that is art prior to t. Furthermore, the intention has to be stable or, as Levin-
son puts it,“nonpassing.”That is, in order to turn something into a work of art it
is not enough just to have it flash momentarily through your mind that a certain
object might be regarded as an artwork; Duchamp would not have turned a uri-
nal into an artwork if he just momentarily thought that a urinal might become an
artwork.The intention required has to be long-lived, firm, and stable; as Levinson
puts it, nonpassing.And lastly, the artist in question has to have a proprietary right
over the object.This stipulation appears to be intended by Levinson to block the
possibility of artists scurrying willy-nilly through the world, christening as art
everything in sight.
Levinson™s theory contains two necessary conditions “ the proprietary condi-
tion and the intention condition “ that are jointly sufficient. Let us look at these
proposals in turn.
The proprietary right condition seems irrelevant to the question of art status.
Suppose a well-known artist stole her painting materials “ stole the canvas, stole
the paints “ and painted the work during hours when she was contracted to be
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doing some other project. Nevertheless, she paints the work with the nonpassing
intention that it be regarded in an art-historically, well-precedented mode of
appreciation. Such a work might involve illegality, but surely, all things being
equal, it would be a work of art.
Questions of legality are independent of art status.There may indeed be cer-
tain art forms, like urban graffiti, that require as a condition of class membership
that they be illegal “ that the graffiti be drawn on objects, like subway cars or ten-
ement walls, over which the artist possesses no proprietary rights.
The motivation behind this condition is Levinson™s desire to block certain
types of appropriationist or conceptual art. Levinson wants to deny that simply by
pointing at something “ or by writing out a specification of what an audience is
supposed to look at (à la conceptual art) “ the artist can turn Marilyn Monroe, the
Empire State Building, or a slice of life of a family in Queens into a work of art.
But even if these things cannot be turned into works of art, the reason cannot
be that the artist does not own them. For, presumably, if the artist did have a pro-
prietary right “ if Marilyn Monroe and the Queens family consented to being
artistically transfigured, or if the artist bought the Empire State Building “ then
anyone who was inclined to be skeptical about the art status of the result would
still be skeptical.
Levinson appears to presuppose that where an object is used to realize two
conflicting intentions “ where one of the intentions attaches to the owner and the
other to an appropriator “ the intention that determines its use is the owner™s. So
the appropriationist artist™s intention that the object be used to support some art-
historical regard will be trumped by the owner™s intention wherever it conflicts
with the artist™s. But I do not see why the owner™s intentions have so much onto-
logical weight. Someone can certainly use my shotgun to shoot me despite my
intentions that my shotgun not be so used. I might wish that my shotgun not have
the status of a murder weapon. It might not be very nice to shoot me with my
shotgun; but you can do it nonetheless. Similarly, I do not see how my ownership
of the Empire State Building would be enough to stop someone else from turn-
ing it into a readymade.
My recommendations about identifying art come closest to Levinson™s with
respect to his second condition.53 However, even though he speaks of his method
as a matter of defining art historically, Levinson™s theory is really very ahistorical.
For Levinson supposes that something might be art now just in case it supports
any type of regard, treatment, or mode of appreciation that was appropriate to at
least some works of art in the past. The problem here is that not every mode of
appreciation that was lavished on artworks in the past is eternally available. Some
modes may have become historically obsolete. Making artworks in the present to
support such obsolete, historically outmoded, and historically unavailable modes
of appreciation should not, on the face of it, result in things that we now count as
artworks. Levinson™s theory is ahistorical at least in the respect that it does not
allow for the historical obsolescence of art regards. He treats his art regards as ahis-
torically eternal “ as always available modes of appreciation. But modes of appre-
IDENTIFYING ART 97

ciation may pass away. This is something that any theory claiming to be histori-
cally sensitive should acknowledge. But Levinson™s does not.
This may sound like a somewhat abstract objection. Let me introduce a coun-
terexample in order to give it some purchase.
It seems fair to suppose that sometime in the past artworks were thought to
perform such services as propitiating the gods. That is, artworks “ such as those
performed at religious festivals “ were offerings to the gods (offerings predicated
on either exciting their favor or, at least, mitigating their disfavor). Since this was
once a function of what we call artworks, presumably one way of appreciating
such artworks was in terms of how suitable or how effective such works were in
propitiating the gods. Perusing some works in this light, we might think that they
were very powerful examples of propitiation; other works might be assessed as less
powerful.We might appreciate such works with respect to propitiation in the way
that we appreciate thoroughbreds with respect to their racing potential.
Now if what I have said so far is plausible, then assessing, appreciating, or
regarding some historically acknowledged artworks as vehicles of propitiating the
gods was an appropriate way of regarding artworks. On Levinson™s view, it must
count as an integral form of artistic regard. It is, in other words, a form of regard
that a contemporary artist might seek to facilitate with respect to a contemporary
candidate for the status of artwork.
But consider this case. Jones is a person who knows something of the history
of art. He knows that artworks were sometimes used to propitiate certain gods.
Let us even suppose that Jones believes in these gods and thinks that they ought to
be propitiated. Jones also owns a chicken farm and an automatic assault rifle. He
has a proprietary right over both the relevant chickens and the rifle. By dint of
these property rights and a certain intention, Jones sets out to make an artwork.
Specifically, he shoots a mass of chickens in record time in order to propitiate the
gods. Moreover, he presents the massacre as an artwork: onlookers are invited to
appreciate it, assess it, or regard it in terms of its effectiveness as a means of propi-
tiating the gods. This was a correct way of regarding some artworks in the past;
and Jones intends to facilitate this way of regarding his massacre of the chickens as
a means of producing a contemporary artwork.
Here it is important not to confuse Jones™s activity with the activities of other
proponents of the art of slaughtering chickens. Jones is not a conceptual artist
who seeks to make some kind of statement about art or life by means of slaugh-
tering chickens; nor does Jones hope to turn chicken-slaughtering into art by cre-
ating something that is full of dramatic excitement and color. His intention is
simply to make something that is to be regarded and assessed as an effective vehi-
cle for propitiating the gods, where propitiating the gods was once an acknowl-
edged purpose of art and where regarding the work™s viability in discharging this
function is one correct way to treat artworks.
So Jones makes a work at t “ September 25, 1992 “ with the nonpassing inten-
tion that it, the chicken massacre, be an object for regard as an artwork. In partic-
ular, it is to be regarded in terms of its efficacy for propitiating the gods “ which,
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