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However, the rebuttal of the family resemblance approach should not obscure
one of its founding insights, namely, that there may be reliable means for identifying
something as an artwork apart from real definitions.That criticism has shown that the
family resemblance approach is not such a method does not preclude the possibility
that there may be some other method that reliably identifies artworks sans real defin-
itions. It is my view that identifying narration provides such a method.
Weitz believed that he possessed an argument that foreclosed the prospects for
real definitions of art on logical grounds. For he contended that the very concept
of art implied commitments to originality, creativity, and innovation that are con-
ceptually inimicable to the treatment of art as a closed concept, susceptible to real
definition. Weitz™s so-called argument was undermined by counterexamples “
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such as Dickie™s Institutional Theory of Art that, despite being a real definition,
placed no constraints on what kind of thing10 could be art and, therefore, no lim-
itations on artistic originality and creativity. Moreover,Weitz™s view that somehow
real definitions contradict the concept of art and its implied commitments to
innovation has always seemed to me doubly murky insofar as it is difficult to
understand exactly what he means by the concept of art, and, therefore, rather
unfathomable to ascertain whatever it implies and contradicts. Consequently, I,
unlike Weitz, do not think that we have any principled reason to believe that a real
definition of art will never be constructed. Rather, all we have before us is the
continued failure of attempts to construct such definitions.
However, it is possible to make an end run around this apparent impasse. For
though Weitz was mistaken in his conviction that he had demonstrated the logical
impossibility of a real definition of art, his contention, along with that of other neo-
Wittgensteinians, that artworks can be identified reliably without recourse to real
definitions, remains quite sound.Though we may not be able to prove that a real def-
inition of art is impossible, it may nevertheless turn out that a real definition of art is
unnecessary. For if identifying narratives realize the task of the philosophy of art by
providing a reliable method for determining whether or not a candidate “ especially
an avant-garde candidate “ is art, then, if my historical conjecture is correct, the issue
of whether or not art is accessible to real definition becomes somewhat marginal and
academic.That is, if the following account of identifying narratives is persuasive, then
the central problem “ as I have characterized it “ of the philosophy of art can be
addressed while bypassing the question of the real definition of art.

I I . T H E RO L E O F I D E N T I F Y I N G N A R R AT I V E S

I have claimed that, in fact, the central problem of the philosophy of art has been that
of identifying “ or of finding ways to identify “ objects and performances as art.This
is a problem because art mutates and evolves historically.11 Art today may look and
even communicate very differently than art of yesteryear. Indeed, art often mutates
radically.The task of the philosophy of art, first and foremost, is that of handling such
radical mutation, a task that dominates the foreground in the age of the avant-garde.
The characteristic situation in which this problem arises is one in which a
public is presented with an object that defies its expectations about what counts as
art and, thereby, leaves the public bewildered. One might hear it said: “That™s not
art; a child could do it.” Frequently, when confronted with such art, the public, or
its representatives in the critical estate, charge that the work in question is tanta-
mount to a practical joke or a confidence trick. For example, Jules Renard wrote
in response to the first performance of Alfred Jarry™s Ubu roi: “If tomorrow Jarry
does not write that it was all a hoax, he™s finished.”12 Such outrage signals disbelief
that the work in question is art.And the burden of proof weighs upon those who
contend that the new work is art.
How is this challenge met? Generally, the proponent of the work in question
responds by telling a story that links the contested work to preceding art making
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practices and contexts in such a way that the work under fire can be seen as the
intelligible outcome of recognizable modes of thinking and making of a sort
already commonly adjudged to be artistic.
When the public and/or some of its designated critics react incredulously to a
mutation like Ubu roi, it is a function of their inability to locate the work in question
within the context of the artistic practices with which they are already familiar.Their
problem is one of how to “place” the work.And this is a problem of historical under-
standing.The more that we know of the history of a work “ of the tradition from
which it emerges “ the “more rapidly we ˜place™ a work we are hearing, reading, or
seeing for the first time; once we ˜place™ it we know what to look for, and so the work
becomes intelligible more quickly.”13 For example, we begin to understand Yambo
Ouologuem™s Le Devoir de violence when it is historically situated as a reaction against
Chinua Achebe™s Things Fall Apart and Camara Laye™s L™Enfant noir.14
Avant-garde mutations often strike the public and some critics as unintelligi-
ble, and, therefore, as not art, because such audiences are unable to place the work
in question in the tradition of what they already regard as art.They fail to be able
to respond to the work correctly because they lack a recognizable context. The
way to assuage their apprehension is to supply the context by telling a story about
the way in which the work in question derives “ through recognizable processes
of thinking and making “ from a background of practices that they already
acknowledge to be artistic.
Confronted by a postmodernist pastiche like Ronnie Cutrone™s 1984 Idolatry “ a
painting of an outsized Smurf figure stretching before posterlike cultural icons of
John Wayne and Elvis Presley “ one may be tempted to reject the work as romper-
room or adolescent wall decoration. However, the piece can be profitably situated in
an intelligible artworld tradition, one centered around the notion of critique.
Paintings by Cubists are said to be critiques of the conditions of painting,
which critiques proceed by acknowledging the flatness of the picture plane; while
subsequent large canvasses by Pollack are explained in terms of a similar reflexive
gesture whereby line and color are saliently advanced as the basic constituents of
painting. In turn, the minimalists who succeeded Pollack™s generation expanded
their field of critique, making works that were structured in a way intended to
transform the spectator into an amateur phenomenologist, reflecting self-con-
sciously upon the ways in which the painting or sculpture shaped and modified
the spectator™s attention.The name of the game was still critique but whereas the
object of critique for Pollack was the painting itself, the object of critique for the
minimalists was the conditions of pictorial and sculptural perception.
The advent of what is called postmodernism on the gallery scene marks a shift
from the idiom of phenomenology to that of semiotics and poststructuralism.The
basic constituents of painting are no longer identified as lines and colors, but signs.
The object of critique, in turn, becomes signs, and the task of the postmodernist
artist becomes the critique of signs, particularly the signs and symbols of contem-
porary culture. The thought that motivates Idolatry, then, is that by thrusting
Smurfs, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley on our attention, Cutrone promotes the
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spectator™s reflection upon the status of signs and their circulation in our culture.
Cutrone, by displaying Smurfs with the salience Pollack displayed line and color,
invites the spectator to enter into a process of critique of the kind the artist
engaged in originally structuring the work.
By showing “ through a historical narrative of the sort exemplified above “
that Idolatry belongs to a continuous artistic tradition (call it that of “artworld cri-
tique”), we produce evidence that it is a work of art and not romper-room wall-
paper.The preceding narrative does not establish that it is good art, but it provides
a prima facie reason to accept the work™s claim to art status.That is, if the histori-
cal account that we have offered of the emergence of Idolatry from the series of
historical events and motivations is accurate, then we have established that Idolatry
is an artwork (or, at least, we have shifted the burden of proof to the skeptics).
Of course, pragmatically speaking, our particular narrative will only work for
listeners who are prepared to accept what I have dubbed “artworld critique” as an
acknowledged practice of art. However, if the starting point of my story here is
controversial, that is of little moment, since I can always begin the story at an ear-
lier historical juncture “ say impressionism or the work of C©zanne “ that is
uncontested and from which the notion of “artworld critique” itself can be sensi-
bly derived by means of a plausible, art-historical narrative.
Another example of the role of historical narration in accommodating artistic
mutation can be found in the notion of the shifting dominant that was introduced by
the Russian Formalists and exploited by the Prague Structuralists.To audiences mys-
tified by the arrythmia of then-contemporary Czech poetry, Roman Jakobson
pointed out that Czech poetry was always comprised of several components “
including rhyme, a syllabic scheme and intonational unity “ but that in different peri-
ods these components stood in different orders of hierarchy.15 In the fourteenth cen-
tury, rhyme dominated, but was displaced in importance in the realist Czech poetry
of the second half of the nineteenth century in favor of emphasis on syllabic pattern.
Then, under the pressure of innovation in the twentieth century, the role of the dom-
inant feature in verse shifted again, giving intonational unity pride of first place.The
emphasis on intonational unity evolved from a recognizable tradition of Czech
poetry by means of an intelligible artistic concern, the pressure for innovation and
differentiation. Skeptical challenges to the artistic status of the new poetry are met by
telling the story of its evolution by means of straightforwardly artistic processes from
acknowledged poetic practices.
Of course, not just any story can be told in order to secure the art status of an
embattled work or practice. Insofar as the stories told are historical narratives, they
are committed to historical accuracy. The stories must aspire to truth. Historical
narratives may be challenged epistemically.They may be rejected where they are
factually flawed or where the modes of thinking and making to which they advert
are anachronistic. However, if such a narrative connects a disputed work to
antecedently acknowledged art by way of narrating a satisfactory historical
account of the way in which the work in question emerged intelligibly from pre-
vious artistic practices, then its defender has established its art status.
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So far, I have characterized the paradigmatic situation in which identifying
narratives are mobilized to identify and establish the art status of contested works
as one in which a candidate is put forward and then challenged by skeptics. How-
ever, nowadays, especially, it is often customary for the identifying narrative to be
advanced prior to skeptical challenges.That is, the identifying narrative takes, so to
speak, the form of a preemptive strike. Through artistic manifestos, interviews,
critical reviews, and lectures, the story of the place of a new work in an evolving
tradition is told and publicly circulated “ via art journals, gallery handouts, sym-
posia, catalogues, lecture-demonstrations, and so on “ prior to or in tandem with
the new work.These stories articulate the art-historical considerations that led to
the production of the work “ the constraints the producer was working with or
against as well as the recognizably artistic motives that prompted her to negotiate
those constraints in the way she did “ and, thereby, these stories attempt to make
the new work accessible to audiences. At the same time, they function to explain
why the work in question is art.
It is an expectation of artists that they be concerned to make original contri-
butions to the tradition in which they work.These contributions can range along
the creative scale from slight variations in established genres to revolutions. In this
respect, Jeffrey Wieand has pointed out that art history is analogous to a conversa-
tion in which each artist-conversationalist makes or, at least, is expected to make
an original contribution to the discussion.16
However, as in a conversation, the contribution must also have some relevance
to what has gone before. Otherwise, there simply is no conversation. Wieand
writes: the artist must be “asking or answering a question, elaborating on what
someone else has done or disagreeing with it, demonstrating that something is
possible, and so on.The artist™s contribution should in this way be relevant to the
existing practice, concerns, and interests of the kind of art he makes.”17
Of course, the problem presented frequently by avant-garde art is that the artist™s
interlocutors “ the public “ often fail to catch the relevance of the artist™s “remark”
to the ongoing conversation in its artistic context.The audience may discern, so to
say, the “originality” of the work, but not its relevance. There is, in a manner of
speaking, a gap or a glitch in the conversation. But if this is the problem, then it is
easy to see how to repair it: reconstruct the conversation in such a way that the rel-
evance of the artist™s contribution is evident “ bring perhaps unremarked presuppo-
sitions into the open, point to overlooked features of the context, make the
intentions the artist intends to convey explicit, show that said intentions are intelli-
gible in terms of the conversation and its context, and so on. Moreover, reconstruct-
ing the conversation in this way amounts to a historical narrative.Where something
is missing from the conversation “ some connection “ it is supplied by a retelling of
the conversation that historically reconstructs it.
An identifying narrative establishes the art status of a work by connecting the
production of the work in question to previously acknowledged artistic practices
by means of a historical account. In this respect, this procedure requires that there
be a consensus about certain objects and practices in the past. That is, we must
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agree that we know that certain objects and practices already count as art. Histor-
ical narratives then connect contested works to works already identified as art.
For those who confuse the narrative approach with the definitional approach,
this may seem problematic; they might worry that this method is circular. How-
ever, whereas circularity is a problem for definitions, there is no problem of circu-
larity with narratives. It is not circular, for example, to identify rapping as a
recognizable variation of traditional forms of African-American performance by
arguing that it has emerged from a continuous process of evolution from such
practices as, among others,The Dozens and The Toast.
Moreover, it needs to be noted that no procedure for identifying art can proceed
without the antecedent conviction that some objects and performances are art. Def-
initions require agreement about some clear-cut cases in order to be motivated, while
some knowledge about what is and is not art is necessary to adjudicate counterex-
amples. Likewise, the family-resemblance approach to identifying art requires that we
begin with paradigm cases that afford us the basis for charting correspondences
between new works and acknowledged works.Thus, insofar as the narrative approach
presumes that we know that some past objects, performances, and practices count as
art, it makes no assumption not made by competing approaches to identifying art.
As noted earlier, the narrative approach to identifying art has more in com-
mon with the family-resemblance approach than it has to the definitional
approach. However, it is not susceptible to the line of criticism customarily leveled
at the family-resemblance approach. For when the narrativist draws correspon-
dences between contested candidates for art status and past artworks, those corre-
spondences are not merely grounded in manifest or exhibited similarities between
the old and the new. For the narrativist, the antecedent artworks and practices in
question play a generative role in the production of the new work “ a role that the
narrative makes explicit in its reconstruction of the causes and effects, and the
influences and intentions that give rise to the work in question.
Identifying narratives are genetic accounts of the provenance of artworks;
they do not simply track manifest resemblances.18 Whereas a proponent of the
family-resemblance approach might defend the art status of Manet™s Olympia or
Le Dejeuner sur l™herbe by noting that his use of nudes resembles previous uses,
the narrativist explains that Manet is explicitly working in the historically estab-
lished genre of nude, making a modern, revolutionary statement by populating
that genre with contemporary figures, such as the grande horizontale, in strident,
intentionally outrageous opposition to the more typical mythological or exotic
damsels who standardly inhabited the genre.

I I I . T H E S T RU C T U R E O F
I D E N T I F Y I N G N A R R AT I V E S

An identifying narrative is a historical narrative.This entails that it has the features
that we expect from any genuine historical narrative, namely, that it portray a
sequence of past events and states of affairs whose time-ordering is perspicuous;
HISTORICAL NARRATIVES PHILOSOPHY ART 109
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that the events and states of affairs it portrays be connected; and that the account
be committed to rendering the past accurately “ that is, the events, states of affairs,
and the connections between them that the narrative depicts should all obtain.
The point of an identifying narrative is to situate a candidate for art status
in the history of art in such a way that the work can be placed as an intelligi-
ble contribution to the tradition.This aim implies where the stories in question
will end; they end with the production of the work whose art status is con-
tested. Challenged by Renard™s charge that Ubu roi is a hoax, the defender of
Jarry proposes a historical narrative that shows how the play emerged through
intelligible processes of thinking and making from recognizable artistic prac-
tices.The culmination or resolution of the story is the production and presen-
tation of Ubu roi.19
The narrative plays the role of an argument in which the conclusion is the
production of Ubu roi. The narrative elucidates the way in which Ubu roi, as a set
of choices, issues from acknowledged modes of thinking and making, pursued

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