Danto’s predicates on art

Just over a month ago, I was considering the possibility of taking up future philosophy classes as a supplement for my planned art theory classes. I had read up on a few philosophical works, mostly on phenomenology and aesthetics. However, I didn’t know much about the University’s philosophy department. Nothing came out of my sparse attempts to ask people what the department focused on, and I thought it was weird that there are hardly any students from art studies department taking philosophy electives. Online listings of subjects confirmed that they do have one aesthetics class, although I wasn’t sure if it was even still being offered.

I eventually had a clue of what the philosophy department was all about when I waited for a friend attending a graduate student’s symposium. Outside the event venue, they had posters describing each department in the college. Apparently, the focus of the department was on analytic philosophy. I had only taken up Philo 1 and everything I knew about philosophy was rudimentary and a product of my own self-directed readings, and so I was baffled on what analytic philosophy even meant. A quick google search eventually gave me a beginner’s perspective of what I needed to learn: that there was a difference between analytic and continental philosophy rooted in what appeared to be historical (and even geographical) antagonisms, that analytic philosophy concerned itself with language and meaning, and that it was more readily applied to scientific fields, while continental philosophy was more often read by people from the humanities and arts. The thinkers that I had often read about were squarely on the continental camp. The only one I have read on the Analytic camp was Wittgenstein. Then again, I did first encounter him in Philo 1 class, and although I enjoyed reading about his ideas, I wasn’t sure if it was possible to apply them to the study of art.

Things didn’t sound very promising for my planned art studies direction. Briefly, I flirted with the idea of taking up philosophy classes in a nearby private university– they seemed to have a broader program and had faculty members who studied continental philosophy– and hoped that it might be possible for me to cross-register my units. I verbalized these thoughts to my friend, who rightly pointed out the unwieldiness of my plan and the heavy financial costs it would entail.

Days later, was able to obtain a better perspective of what philosophical ideas had been in play with regards to art when I cracked open my copy of Contextualizing Aesthetics. While the list of authors in the analytic camp, aside from Danto, were strangers to me, the Continental list was extremely familiar– there was Barthes, Foucault, Heidegger, Derrida, Benjamin, Adorno, Jameson, Lyotard, and even the art historian, Pollock. I decided I probably should read up on analytic philosophers who delved into aesthetics.

Of interest was Arthur Danto’s “The Artistic Enfranchisement of Real Objects: The Artworld”. Danto has been credited for developing the institutional theory of art, a theory which views art as existing within the physical and institutional structures of the art world. Thus, an object is an artwork if it is created by an individual accepted institutionally as an artist, when it is presented in a context from which it is viewed and consumed as an artwork, and/or  the discourse surrounding that object allows it to be accepted and understood as an artwork. In the essay, Danto further explains “the theories that make artworks possible” through a matrix that looks like this:

F        G

+        +

+        –

–        +

–        –

Now, Danto asks us to assume that there is a class of art objects called K which are either F or non-F. He goes on to explain the matrix:

“Now it might happen that, throughout an entire period of time, every artwork is non-F. But since nothing thus far is both an artwork and F, it might never occur to anyone that non-F is an artistically relevant predicate. The non-F-ness of artworks goes unmarked. By contrast, all works up to a given time might be G, it never occurring to anyone until that time that something might both be an artwork and non-G; indeed, it might have been thought that G was a defining trait of artworks when in fact something might first have to be an artwork before G is sensibly predicable of it– in which case non-G might also be predicable of artworks, and G itself then could not have been a defining trait of this class.”

One might wonder what all this theoretical gymnastics might be useful for. It is by this time that Danto asks us to assume that G stands for representational and F for expressionistic. This brings us to an appreciation of the quoted paragraph and of the matrix. For the latter, we can understand artworks as being representational and expressionistic (fauvism), representational and nonexpressionistic (neoclassical), nonrepresentational and expressionistic (abstract expressionism), and finally, the double negation nonrepresentational and nonexpressionistic (such as hard-edge abstraction).

But surely artworks are more complex nowadays as to be confined to those four combinations? But Danto’s matrix is not rigid. Stylistic changes and shifts can be accomodated with the addition of new predicates. This happens when new styles or -isms appear which change the course of art production and theory. When predicate H appears, “both H and non-H become artistically relevant for all painting, and if his is the first and only painting that is H, every other painting in existence becomes non-H and the entire of community of painting is enriched, together with a doubling of style opportunities.” What is fascinating about this conception of art is that it makes room for the understanding and appreciation of works that were unfortunately out of fashion when they were created. Every new style does not obliterate/turns passe everything that came before it, but rather opens up avenues for richer art discourse.

It also helps us to understand art that has been so stripped of everything, we are left with, say a monochromatic canvas. These are the works which occupy the bottom row of the matrix, all of the negatives.

“In this regard, notice that, if there are m artistically relevant predicates, there is always a bottom row with m minuses. This row is apt to be occupied by purists. Having scoured their canvasses clear of what they regard as inessential, they credit themselves with having distilled out the essence of art. But this is just their fallacy: exactly as many artistically relevant predicates stand true of their square monochromes. Stand true of any memeber of the Artworld, and they can exist as artworks only insofar as “impure” paintings exist.”

Danto’s ideas can be particularly helpful for someone who is just beginning to understand art theory, for we are often tempted to choose a certain camp over another, or to dismiss a certain style/ way of art-making because we think only G types of works are relevant or important.

Arranging the bookshelf

Just a short in-between post. So today I cracked open the storage boxes of books I had in the upstairs room and started arranging my bookshelf.

So far I’ve almost filled up 5 shelves, one of which was dedicated to art books. It hit me that I have spent most of my youth reading and thinking about art, instead of creating and looking at actual art (unless you count the hours I’ve spent looking at art in printed books). Somehow, this realization makes me content.

Things have clicked, somewhat.

Art & Ethics

Months ago, I found this gem of an interview by John Reed with Miguel Angel Hernández, author of “Escape Attempt”. It was refreshing to read an art critic speak so candidly and free of the mind-boggling jargon that easily find their way in many critics’ lexicon.

In the interview, Hernández talks of his fictional novel but also of his own views on art making, in particular, on its ethics and politics.

“As a critic, I have great difficulty looking at that kind of art; works that I consider good art but works I have problems with as a citizen. Sometimes you have to choose between art and life.”

Probably the first time I felt a rupture between art and life was around three years ago, while sitting in an academic forum about art in the university. One of the topics was a group of public outdoor art installation nearby that included a mirror installation by artist Reggie Yuson. The work was situated in the middle of a vast field– a vista reflected by the large mirrors. As such, according to the speaker in the forum, birds have accidentally flown into the mirror at high speeds, which I suppose have led to several deaths. Although accidental, I found it revolting. That moment ingrained in me the idea that art had its limits. Life, along with the dignity inherent in human and animal life, were more important.

“Jacobo Montes works to put injustice in the museum. In that sense he is the social artist of the hour, but his work is quite problematic — as political art often is, in the sense that art may not be the best way to speak to some issues. And that’s also my position; I don’t believe that art can show something that immediately changes our perception of the world. The audience that goes to a museum to see art about injustice usually agrees with the artist. That is to say, artists are confirming our vision, creating a space of consensus. That’s for me the liability of political art; you are not changing reality. Political art has to be a little bit more complex; when a work of art is about something it can’t change, it is just reproducing it.”

Some artworks are created for their shock value and political message; while consciously straddling ethical boundaries, or at the very least, creating that illusion. Take for example Guillermo (Habakkuk) Vargas’ works that supposedly involved tying up a dog in a gallery and leaving it to starve, or Axioma, which purportedly documented the daily physical deterioration of a different dog. The artist and gallery owners have denied that the dogs were abused, only that the work gave the illusion of such. (According to other news articles that were mostly in Spanish, in the former work, the dog was fed regularly and only tied up for the three hours when visitors were allowed to view the exhibition; and in the latter, the presentation of the pictures were apparently reversed to show the dog growing thinner overtime, when it was in fact the other way around.) Similarly another artwork, albeit a fictional one, that comes to mind is Carlton Bloom’s work in the first episode of the British series Black Mirror.

Visually, there is little that separates these works from the real life horrors that are documented and even uploaded online. The blurring of reality and the illusion of the work (as in Vargas’) lends the work its power and shocking reception. However, if the artwork, hoax or not, were to inspire real horrors, should the artist feel guilt or shame? Or would this further validate contemporary society’s frailties and inhumanity?

“Your first place of engagement has to be your medium. And this is also working for an artist. Imagine you are an artist making pictures of some sort of injustice. If you are not questioning your medium, your task, the memory of the tool you are using, the same idea of representation of injustice … if you are not doing that your art is futile. So our privilege is the capacity of actually transforming our medium. That’s for me the political engagement of art. Only then, after that, you can represent injustice. But this is a second step.”

These complexities however makes political works well-worth pursuing, in terms of both content and form. This is something that Hernández shares in his interview, along with how fiction writing, another form of art-making, has affected how he writes art criticism and his appreciation of visual art.

“My way of writing art criticism changed completely. After publishing the novel, I could not return to scholarly writing and the established formulas of criticism. For some months I felt blocked. And in the end I decided to write another novel — also close to art. My texts are now far from what you’d expect from an art critic. They are more like experiments, experiences, closer to narrative or even fiction. Curiously, I feel now that I understand art better than when I wrote traditional art criticism. And I must add that the experience of writing a novel changed my perception of art. It made me love the art more.”

In the end, the art critic extols the virtue of asking questions and the dangers of being convinced with answers, a sentiment poetically expressed in this online comic by Kostas Kiriakakis.

“A future of change is only possible if we have open questions. Answers are dangerous. I fear people with answers. I fear they might convince me.”


Image of the book “Escape Attempt” taken from http://hispabooks.com/home/32-escape-attempt.html.