Zee Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in her 5th year at NYU’s department of Philosophy. Zee sometimes says she likes the metaphysics of X for most Xs. She’s writing a dissertation about the metaphysics of physics, specifically the metaphysics of physical quantities, but she has a long standing professional and personal interest in the ontology of art. Her semi-professional website is here.
What I’d like to do with this post is present some half-baked ideas I’ve been not-quite-working on and see if the ensuing discussion can’t help bake them a bit further.
Consider what an artwork “puts before” its audience. Artworks, like paintings, present features, like an arrangement of colors, textures, brushstrokes, etc, to their audiences to be seen and appreciated. Sometimes these features are presented via that artwork’s instances, like how a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica presents sounds (and perhaps sights), which an audience is meant to listen, evaluate and appreciate. Artworks as public entities. It’s natural and tempting to say that an artwork’s “public” features, those features it puts before or presents to its audience, are of particular importance to that work’s value and identity.
I want to ask what possible role features of an artwork that are NOT put before the audience, features which are inaccessible to an audience member qua audience member, could have.
To do this properly, we need to have a better idea of how an artwork presents its features to an audience.
The proper way to engage with an artwork (or one of its instances), as an audience member, can vary greatly from work to work. One engages with instances of films, plays, symphonies or operas by (usually!) sitting in one seat and quietly looking and/or listening to what’s going on in front of you. Installation or sculpture, on the other hand, is often engaged by walking around the gallery floor, getting a look at the work from a variety of angles.
If Xis some art-object (‘art-object’ here meaning an art-instance that audiences are meant to engage with, regardless of whether that instance is identical to the artwork itself) with some property P, it isn’t enough that I, as an audience member, can come to know that X has P. What’s necessary is that it’s (in principle) possible for me to come to know X has Pby engaging with Xin the prescribed way.
Furthermore, there’s no need to restrict to what the audience actually picks up on, or even on what the actual audience could have picked up on. An art-object XpresentsP to its audience just in case—holding fixed how Xactually is—(1) there could be an audience member, A, (2) properly engaged with X, (3) such that A could (in principle) come to know that Xhas P by being so engaged.
I’m not sure if this is the exact right way to think about presentation (I’m open to suggestions or amendments!), but its fine for our purposes.
There’s a thesis I’ve seen implicit in various positions in the philosophy of art. Roughly, it amounts to saying that no feature of a work can be constitutiveof that work unless it is (or is supposed to be) presented to that work’s audience (either directly or via its instances). Most folks I’ve talked to about this thesis claim to be at least somewhat sympathetic to it. I’d like to put some pressure on it here.
Before I do that, let me say a very little bit about what’s constitutive of a work of art. Here are three marks that a feature of a work is constitutive: (1) A work’s constitutive features are appreciation-relevant. (2) If a work has instances, its constitutive features are the ones possession of which determine whether and to what extent a potential instance is a correct instance of that work. (3) To appreciate a work with multiple instances, we identify and appreciate the features of the instance which are constitutive of the work it’s an instance of (e.g., we appreciate that a symphony is moving because we recognize that the performance we’re attending is moving).
I’ve said the above thesis is implicit in a good deal of our thinking in the philosophy of art. D. Davies (2010), for example, writes “An instance of a work is something that makes manifest to receivers certain properties that bear experientially upon the appreciation of the work.” Receivers here are audience members, and an instance “makes manifest” to them properties which “bear experientially”[my emphasis] on appreciation of the work. That is to say: the properties of an instance which bear correctly on appreciation of that work (the properties constitutive of that work), are presented (“made manifest”) to the audience—which is why it’s appropriate to say they “bear experientially” on appreciation.
A less straightforward example comes from a popular style of account of fictional truth or fictionality. Accounts of the sort I’m talking about are couched in terms of invitations to imagine, e.g. P is true according to a given work of fiction if the author of that work invites her audience to imagine that P (see Currie (1990) p.31-49 and Lamarque and Olsen (1994) p.45).
What’s important is that an author invites her audience to imagine P by presenting her audience with the work. The way you engage, as an audience member, with a work of fiction is by identifying what you’re invited to imagine and then imagining it. So you are only invited to imagine if it’s in principle possible for you to identify that you’re so invited by engaging with the work in the right way.
Both of these positions involve something close to the spirit of the thesis that what’s constitutive of a work must be presented to its audience. What I’m interested in doing here is looking at a few cases that put pressure on this position. Once I’ve presented these cases, I’ll largely leave the hard part—sorting out what’s going wrong and determining what course of action to take next—to you, the reader, to work out in the ensuing discussion.
Case 1: Doubt.
This first case was described to me as fact on two different occasions by two unrelated sources (I haven’t been able to actually verify their story).
John Patrick Shanley wrote a play called Doubt (which was later made into a movie starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman) about a Catholic priest accused of assaulting a member of his parish. The audience is meant, in keeping with the play’s title, to be extremely uncertain about whether or not Father Flynn is guilty or innocent by the end of the show. What’s unique about Doubtis that Shanley has (allegedly) in fact made a decision about Father Flynn’s innocence. And for any authorized performance, Shanley shares this secret decision with that performance’s director and the actor playing Flynn.
We can respond to this in at least two ways:
(1) Shanley’s belief that P(where P is either “Flynn is guilty” or its negation, depending on what Shanley actually believes) is fictionally true in Doubtis really just a matter of Shanley having a favoriteinterpretation of his own play. His choice of interpretation makes no difference to anything constitutive of the play.
(2) Shanley’s belief that Pand the fact that he shares that with the director and actor playing Flynn is evidence that Preally is fictionally true in Doubt. P influences the play’s direction and the performance of the actor playing Flynn.
Importantly, Doubt‘s audienceis not invited to imagine that P. The audience is explicitly intended to be remain in doubt as to whether Por ~P. The invitation to imagine P is patently not presented to the audience.
I’m not going to take a stand on whether (1) or (2) is right. I think there’s a good case for each. I do think that our art theory shouldn’t rule out either option before the discussion starts. Specifically, given that Shanley himself likely accepts something like (2), and that the gimmick of the play is that the audience is in doubt about something of which there’s a fact of the matter,our theory of fictional truth or fictionality shouldn’t automatically rule this option impossible.
Case 2: Conflict.
Consider another play called Conflict. The plot revolves around a character, Marjorie, getting an important letter. She won’t tell her various friends and family, only opening the letter in secret to read it.
Suppose further that the play is performed in a variation of theatre-in-the-round (pictured), with the audience split between seats on the North and South sides of the stage. Marjorie reads her letter in secret standing by the bookshelf at point A and later crouched behind the couch at point B. At point A, which all of the North but none of the South sides of the audience can see, the letter she reveals is clearly bad news. At point B, which only the South side of the audience can see, the letter is clearly good news.
Both Marjorie getting good news and her getting bad news are presented to the audience, since, there exists a way of engaging with the work (namely, sitting on the north/south audience) for which each is presented. As such, there’s no problem in saying that either element of the play is a constitutive part of the work.
However, it’s extremely plausible that the fact that the North and South sides of the audience are given conflicting informationis constitutive of the work. It’s a feature of the performance that correctly bears on the appreciation of the play itself. However, it’s also clearly not presented to the audience. The suitable way to engage with a play like this is to stay in one’s seat and attend to what happens on stage. There is no way that this mode of engagement could give one epistemic access to the mismatch in what the two halves of the audience witness.
Case 3: Interactive Art.
This last case concerns an entire art form, interactive art. Thinking about what could be constitutive of an interactive artwork was what got me thinking about presentation in the first place.
What’s presented to the audience of an interactive artwork varies. Videogames present sounds and images on a screen. Interactive literature, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire (which can be read in a variety of different orders) or a Choose Your Own Adventure book (of which different portions are read depending on what decisions the reader has the protagonist make), present a series of words on pages in a particular order. Interactive theatre/installation like Sleep No More (explained) present elaborately dressed sets in various rooms each audience member can freely explore (some of which are occupied by actors or other audience members). For all interactive artworks, exactly which images or words or performances are presented needn’t be the same every time (and will be different if the audience interacts with the work differently).
What is the same every time is also what I think plausibly constitutes works like these. Each instance of these works has the same (or, in the case of the Sleep No More, relevantly similar) modal character—facts about what would happen ifthe audience were to press this or that button, or turn to this or that page according to the instructions, or walk into this or that room at a given point in time. Modal features, however, are notpresented to the audience. Proper engagement with a single instance simply can’t give an audience member enough information about what would happen had things gone differently.
Modal features are very good candidates for being constitutive of interactive artworks. We evaluate instances of interactive artworks based on more than what they actually present us on one encounter. These modal features of instances bear correctly on the appreciation of interactive works themselves; Sleep No More makes you feel like a voyeur by giving you absolute freedom because that’s what its performances do. Having the right modal character also matters to the correctness of instances; if a videogame would have suddenly exploded had you deviated at all from what you actually did while playing it, then it’s broken (regardless of what it actually presented to you).
Last bit: Discussion.
So what should we say about these cases? I’m interested to learn what you think about them. Let me close with two (brief!!) points to clarify and direct the discussion here.
First, I think it’s not at all obvious that the same thing’s going wrong in each of these cases. Much of what’s wrong with Case 3 and (perhaps) Case 1 can be treated in terms of what would have been presented/invited had things gone differently. But there doesn’t seem to be any way of accurately framing Case 2 in this way. Similarly, there may be a way of dealing with Case 1 which gets our account of fictionality out of hot water but has nothing whatsoever to say about Cases 2 and 3.
Second, allowing that artworks can have constitutive features which are not presented to their audience may require us to reexamine the role of the audience in appreciate and evaluation. If being in the audience isn’t even in principle sufficient to evaluate and appreciate every (relevant) thing about a work, then what’s so special about engaging with art directly anyway?
Lamarque, Peter (1994). Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. Oxford University Press.
D. Davies (2010). Multiple Instances and Multiple ‘Instances’. British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (4):411-426.
Gregory Currie (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge University Press.