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of course, was a way of correctly regarding artworks in the past (prior to Septem-
ber 25, 1992).
It is hard to see how Levinson™s theory can avoid admitting Jones™s chicken
massacre to the roster of art. But surely Jones™s chicken massacre is not a work of
art, even if an indiscernible chicken massacre by the modern artist Herman Nietze
is.There must be something wrong with Levinson™s theory if it entails that Jones™s
chicken massacre is art.
Moreover, I do not think that this counterexample is idiosyncratic. Rather, it
points to a systematic flaw in Levinson™s theory “ namely, that it is ahistorical
(despite its claims to being historical) in the sense that it fails to take account of
the fact that some regards-as-a-work-of-art may pass away. Indeed, it is very easy
to multiply counterexamples of this sort when one recalls that a great deal of art
in the past was produced for religious purposes and was properly regarded as the
focus of devotion. But when I was a first-grade student in Catholic school and I
put two Popsicle sticks together in the shape of a cross with the intention that it
be a devotional object, the result was not a work of art, even though it was correct
to regard some artworks in the past as devotional objects. Obviously, the religious
functions of art and their attending regards can produce, in fairly predictable ways,
a substantial number of problem cases for Levinson™s theory.
Arthur Danto™s theory of art is another rival to my narrative approach, for in
it, too, art history performs an important role in identifying works of art. But
Danto™s theory, like Levinson™s, differs from the narrative approach insofar as it
proposes a definition as the reliable means for identifying art.
Danto never states his definition of art outright. But he does seem to believe
that something is a work of art just in case it (1) is about something (2) about
which it projects some attitude or point of view (this is what Danto means by the
work™s possession of a style) (3) by means of metaphorical ellipses that (4) depend
on some enthymematic material from the historico-theoretical artworld context
(this material is generally what Danto thinks of as art theories), and that (5)
engage the audience in interpreting the metaphors elliptically posed by the work
in question.54
This is an immensely complicated theory of art, and full justice cannot be
given to it in a page or two. But, prima facie, it does seem to be far too exclusive to
serve as an adequate definition of art. Surely some tap dancing, such as the work
of Honey Coles, counts as art. But that work need not be about anything; it need
not propose a metaphor about anything; it does not engage or require an inter-
pretation about its (probably nonexistent) metaphorical import by audiences; and
its reception does not depend upon art history, where that is construed narrowly
in terms of art theory.
Admittedly, it will require some art-historical background to establish that
such dancing is art, if it is challenged; but it need not be background of the order
of art theories. Rather, that background can be woven into suitable art-identifying
narratives without recourse to theories of dance. For there is probably nothing
that we would count as a theory of dance in the actual historical background of
IDENTIFYING ART 99

Honey Coles™s tap dancing.That is, where Danto proposes to identify artworks in
terms of their connection to historically existing art theories, I think it is enough
to tell stories about their connection to preexisting art contexts which may or
may not possess anything like art theories.
Of course, Danto might modify his view, as he sometimes seems to do, by
dropping the emphasis on the background of art theory. But even with this
modification, his definition seems too strict. Surely some artworks are not
about anything. Do not certain works of pure pattern count as art? And even of
those remaining works that are about something “ those that have a semantic
component “ many need neither be construed as metaphors nor interpreted
that way. There are plain-speaking works of art. Hogarth™s “Cruelty in Perfec-
tion,” from his The Four Stages of Cruelty, is not a metaphor (not even a visual
metaphor), and it does not elicit or require metaphorical interpretations from
viewers. Indeed, it is not clear that the work requires any sort of interpretation,
metaphorical or otherwise, if one agrees with Annette Barnes™s argument that
interpretation is an activity we engage in only when the point of what we are
attending to is not obvious.55
Perhaps Danto thinks that all works of art are about something because they
“comment” on their tradition. But surely this is a figurative use of the notion of
commenting. Many works of art bear relations to their tradition upon which we
comment. It is strained, however, to relocate what are our comments in the work
of art. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that those works of art that do
comment on other works of art always do so in a metaphorical mode. Daumier™s
1856 lithograph Photographie: Nouveau Procede comments disparagingly on the art
of photography, but without metaphor.
Danto™s emphasis on the importance of the art-historical context, especially
where the latter is not associated strictly with existing art theories, is a valuable
insight. In fact, it is an insight that led me to my own thoughts about the role of
historical narration in identifying art. However, many of the other conditions that
Danto adds to the condition of historical relevance seem to render his theory far
too exclusive.
The theories of Danto and Levinson seem the closest competitors to the sort
of historical approach I advocate.Their accounts, of course, are both definitional.
The problems I have sketched in regard to their theories reveal that there are con-
tinued difficulties with definitional approaches, even when putatively informed by
historical considerations. In a dialectical sense, the failure of these theories at least
recommends attention to the narrative approach.

In the present essay I have maintained that in asking the question “What is art?”
we may be requesting different types of information.We may be asking whether
there are reliable methods for identifying and establishing that something is art;
whether art has any general or essential features; whether there is a real or essen-
tial definition of art. Moreover, as a historical conjecture or diagnosis, I have
claimed that the actual project of philosophical art theory in the age of the avant-
100 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
AND


garde is, in fact, the issue of how to identify and establish whether the often unex-
pected productions of the avant-garde are art. In this context, I have proposed that
identifying narratives provide us with a reliable method for establishing the artis-
tic status of the works in question. Such narratives ideally explain the way in
which a disputed production is an artwork by showing how it emerged through
intelligible processes of assessment, resolution, choice, and action from acknowl-
edged artworld practices within a context of recognizable presentational systems.
Securing such narratives for contested artworks represents a sufficient condition
for establishing that such candidates are art. Moreover, my invocation of acknowl-
edged artworld practices and systems should raise no worries about circularity,
since we are talking about identifying art, not defining it.
One criticism of my emphasis on identifying narratives rather than on art def-
initions might be that this is not really philosophy. But isolating the reliable meth-
ods of reasoning and argument that we use in our practices certainly has a prima
facie claim to the status of philosophy.Another worry about the narrative approach
might be that it makes it seem easy to establish that something is art.This does not
strike me as a problem. Establishing that something is art is generally not a very
daunting task.
The narrative approach offers a way of answering the question “What is art?” that
is different from the one George Dickie proposed. It employs narration rather than
definition, and it makes much more explicit reference to art history than Dickie™s
more explicitly sociological approach does. However, the move to art history that I
advocate might be thought of as a matter of seizing an opportunity opened by
Dickie™s seminal emphasis on the indispensability of context for art theory.




HISTORICAL NARRATIVES
A N D T H E PHILOSOPHY O F A RT


I . S E T T I N G T H E S TAG E

If one surveys the canonical history of the philosophy of art in the English-speaking
world “ as it is enshrined in numerous textbooks and anthologies1 “ it is difficult to
resist the conjecture that it has been driven by the development of the avant-garde.
This may appear to be a controversial hypothesis because it does not seem to square
with the field™s explicit understanding of itself. For on that understanding, the dom-
inant view is that the philosophy of art has been concerned with successive attempts
to characterize the nature of art from an ahistorical point of view. However, a close

From: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51, 3 (Summer 1993), 313“26.
HISTORICAL NARRATIVES PHILOSOPHY ART 101
AND THE OF


look at the way in which later philosophers have dialectically constructed their
views against the backdrop of earlier, rival philosophies of art reveals an unmistak-
able trend “ namely, later philosophers in the historical series are attempting to
come to terms with certain recent mutations in the practice of art that were not
accommodated by the proposals of earlier philosophers of art.
For example, as is well known, Clive Bell™s dismissal of imitation theories of art
and his defense of formalism were motivated by his perception of the conceptual
failure of earlier approaches to art to accommodate neo-impressionism. R. G.
Collingwood™s philosophy of art attempts to create a space for the modernist
poetics of Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Stein; while the theories of George Dickie and
Arthur Danto emerge in the process of taking Dada seriously.
In his recent book, Definitions of Art, Stephen Davies draws a distinction
between functional and procedural definitions of art.2 Functional definitions
attempt to define art in terms of some function or point that art has “ such as the
production of aesthetic experience “ whereas procedural theories identify objects
as artworks in virtue of their introduction by means of certain procedures “ such
as the conferral of art status.
Monroe Beardsley™s aesthetic theory of art “ which might be thought of as a
summation of views that flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth cen-
turies “ is the most sophisticated functional theory of art, while George Dickie™s
institutional theory is a major example of the procedural approach to art. Davies
himself notes that procedural theories of art have an edge over functional theories
of art because the practices of art have departed from the initiating functions or
point of art.3 Obviously, anti-aesthetic art cannot be theorized in terms of the
production of aesthetic experience. Other approaches, such as, Davies surmises,
those advanced by proceduralists, need to be found in order to secure the where-
withal to identify art in the age of the avant-garde.
Of course, Davies™ account of the functional/procedural distinction confirms
my historical conjecture. Whereas functional theories “ such as the imitation
theory or the aesthetic theory “ tracked earlier art (art created to acquit certain
specifiable functions) somewhat adequately, as art began to depart from those
initiating functions “ as art became for example, anti-mimetic and anti-aesthetic
“ procedural theories came to the fore. Procedural theories are more compre-
hensively sensitive to the range of modern art. That is, procedural theories are
more attractive because they are better suited to accommodate the develop-
ments of avant-garde art.
My point in alluding to Davies™ distinction is not, however, to argue in favor of
procedural definitions of art. Rather, I mention Davies™ account in order to bolster
my historical conjecture that what has been the driving, though perhaps not fully
acknowledged, force behind the philosophy of art for at least a century “ a cen-
tury that not coincidentally could be called the age of the avant-garde “ has been
the startling innovations of modern art. It is no accident, in other words, that the
philosophy of art, as we currently conceive it, is primarily a creature of the twen-
tieth century. For it is in the twentieth century that the theoretical task of coming
102 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
AND


to terms with virtually continuous revolutions in artistic practice has become
urgent. That is, it is in the twentieth century that the problem of identifying art
has become persistently unavoidable.
Undoubtedly, this is not the way that most practitioners of the philosophy of art
would articulate their project. Many would be prone to say that they have concocted
ahistorical theories of art that in the process of capturing the essence of art, of course,
apply both to the art of the present as well as the art of the past. But this account is
insensitive to the flagrant historical fact that what we call the philosophy of art has
consistently reawakened from its dogmatic slumbers at the prodding of momentous
mutations in artistic practice.Thus, a better diagnosis of the project of the philosophy
of art as we know it is that its underlying, though not generally explicitly avowed, task
has been to provide the theoretical means for establishing that the mutations issued
from avant-garde practice belong to the family of art.That is, the recurrent task of the
philosophy of art, as a matter of fact, has been to provide means to identify new and
emerging work, particularly work of a revolutionary sort, as art.
Resistance to this hypothesis may derive from the view that philosophical
positions address problems from the standpoint of eternity, situated somewhere
near erehwon. But theory in general is beholden to practice and it finds its prob-
lems in specific historical contexts. And this is true of art theory as well.4 More-
over, if we attend to what philosophers of art have done, as opposed to what they
say, it appears undeniable that most of the activity of theory construction on the
part of modern philosophers of art has been devoted to establishing theoretical
connections between the innovations of the avant-garde and the body of work
antecedently regarded as art.5 In a manner of speaking, one might say that a great
deal of modern philosophy of art is an attempt to come to a philosophical under-
standing of the productions of the avant-garde.
If it is plausible to hypothesize that the underlying task of the philosophy of art
historically has been to supply the means by which innovative mutations “ especially
avant-garde mutation “ in artistic practices are to be counted as art, it is even less his-
torically adventurous to note that the most popular approach to discharging this task
has been to propose definitions of art.That is, the dominant presumption has been
that what are called real definitions of art “ definitions in terms of necessary condi-
tions that are jointly sufficient “ provide us with the means to identify objects and
performances (whether they be strikingly innovative or traditional) as artworks.
Typically, the philosopher of art propounds a definition of art that foregrounds
some feature putatively made salient by innovative art “ such as significant form or
institutional status “ and then attempts to show that this is also a necessary feature
of antecedently acknowledged art.Thus, the means for identifying avant-garde art
is the same as the means for identifying previous art, namely, the application of a
formula that sorts artworks from everything else. A commonly accepted way to
introduce the philosophy of art is to recite the succession of these formulas,
where, as I would emphasize, later definitions in the sequence are continuously
adjusted in order to, among other things, secure the identification of emerging
mutations as artworks.
HISTORICAL NARRATIVES PHILOSOPHY ART 103
AND THE OF


However, once we agree that the central task of the philosophy of art has been
to isolate a method for identifying artworks, then it should be clear that we have
no prima facie reason to expect that that task must be fulfilled by means of a the-
ory in the form of a definition. For we are able to identify a great many things
without resort to definitions.That is, we often have reliable methods for identify-
ing objects and actions as members of a class where we lack real definitions.Thus,
it is possible that the solution of the task of the philosophy of art “ the task made
pressing by the historical avant-garde “ need not involve the production of a real
definition of art.The task of the philosophy of art “ the identification of objects
and performances (most pertinently avant-garde objects and performances) as art
“ may be satisfied by some instrument other than a real definition, which alterna-
tive instrument nevertheless presents a reliable method for determining that the
candidates in question are artworks.
The solution that I propose to the central problem of the philosophy of art is
an alternative to the definitional approach.Whereas the definitional approach pre-
sumes that we identify art “ including, most particularly, avant-garde art “ by
means of real definitions, I propose that a compelling alternative view is that we
identify works as artworks “ where the question of whether or not they are art
arises “ by means of historical narratives that connect contested candidates to art
history in a way that discloses that the mutations in question are part of the evolv-
ing species of art.6 I call these stories “identifying narratives,” and it is the purpose
of this essay to analyze these narratives. It is also the contention of this essay that
identifying narratives provide the philosopher of art “ in search of a reliable
method for identifying art “ with an attractive alternative to real definitions.7
One way in which to situate the strategy that underpins my advocacy of iden-
tifying narratives is to recall the neo-Wittgensteinian approach to art theory pop-
ularized by people like Morris Weitz.8 According to this view, a real definition of
art is impossible, but we may nevertheless still possess reliable methods for identi-
fying candidates as artworks. The reliable method that Weitz had in mind was
what was called the family resemblance method.That method, of course, was sub-
jected to a number of decisive criticisms.9 And, historically, the defeat of the fam-
ily resemblance approach heralded a return to the project of defining art
essentially (most notably in terms of George Dickie™s institutional theory of art).

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