Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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What follows is a guest post from Elizabeth Cantalamessa.

Think about the endless debates over what, really, is art. We get it over the latest Star Wars movie, or over Richard Prince’s series of Instagram screenshots titled New Portraits, or the recent Banksy “art-world prank” where a print of Girl With a Balloon “self-shredded” upon its auction. Articles are written, exhibitions are curated, theories are proposed – but, if there’s no fact out there in the world that can settle the debates, why do people waste their time trying to get others to agree with them? It seems that we face a dilemma: either people are wasting their time trying to figure out what “really” makes something art – or there is some deep fact about these objects that would settle the debates if aestheticians and the like just do enough analysis and theory.

I want to offer a third option – one that enables us to appreciate both that there may be no deep fact about whether some controversial work is “really” art and that, despite this, people are not wasting their time arguing over and analyzing the criteria for what makes something ‘art’. I propose that debates over subversive, innovative, or controversial artistic objects enable what some philosophers call “conceptual negotiation” and “conceptual engineering” over our concept ‘art’ as well as many of its relevant criteria, such as beauty or originality.

Conceptual negotiations are distinct from factual disputes. By factual I mean that the solution depends in some way on how the world is. If you and I are debating about whether Austin is the capital of Texas, and I erroneously think it is San Antonio, we can settle the dispute by reference to a map. One of us was mistaken about how the world is. It turns out we weren’t really disagreeing in the first place. Easy enough. However, in some cases, it doesn’t seem like we can just look to a dictionary to settle the issue. Consider the recent hot topic debate on social media about whether a hot dog is really a sandwich. In this case the disputing parties have access to and are aware of all the relevant information, such as the sorts of things we unproblematically refer to as sandwiches, like a ham sandwich. Instead, the problem seems to consist in how we are to weigh and evaluate the relevant information – is it essential that the two pieces of bread be distinct? Does it have to involve sandwich meat? Let’s call these sorts of debates non-factual. Non-factual debates aren’t settled by how the world is because they are over how we categorize, thinkand talk about the world in the first place.

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Going, going, gone…

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Consider again Banksy’s recent “art world prank” where he had a print of Girl and a Balloon “self-shred” upon its auction. What kind of artwork is it? While before the gavel was pounded we could easily say the work was a print in a fancy frame (the frame more or less incidental), someone could now claim that the meaning of the work involves a critique of the artworld itself (or the commodification of art in the artworld) – and so the frame-shredder is essentialto it. Was the original print destroyed? The resultant half-shredded print is now titled Love is in the Bin. We can reasonably ask: is it a print, or a sculpture, or a performance piece? Wikipedia refers to it as an “art intervention”. Perhaps now the responses of the audience members are also a part of the work, or the fact that the value increased. We can reasonably and coherently ask: Did the work exist throughout the time period before the print was actually shredded? Did it come into existence when Banksy created the frame with the intention that it shred upon auction? Does it matter that it didn’t completely shred, as intended? Hell, do Banksy’s intentions matter at all? These sorts of considerations aren’t just about how the world is – they are about how we are to think about the object in the first place. It is a type of non-factual dispute.

Non-factual disputes can then be of two kinds – substantial and non-substantial (really, it’s degrees – but let’s just assume they are kinds). Non-substantial debates are definitional or just over word use, such as the debate about hot dogs. If you and I recognize that we take different factors to be necessary for sandwich-hood and yet we continued to debate over whether a hot dog is really a sandwich, it seems we would be wasting our time. In the case of debates over Love is in the Bin we also cannot merely appeal to facts about word use or what sorts of objects we in fact refer to as sculptures to settle the debate. However, unlike the sandwich case, when two people recognize that they take different criteria for being an artwork, or a sculpture, continuing to debate about the object doesn’t seem like a waste of time – in fact, people write articles, books, and have careers dedicated to defending various positions in art appreciation and ontology. Isn’t it possible that two people with radically different approaches to art could have a meaningful debate with each other about the nature of some object or artwork without thereby concluding that one of the two is mistaken?

How about this: when two or more persons disagree as to the aesthetic merit of some contested object but agree on all the relevant facts, then they are making implicit prescriptive claims about how the object should be appreciated or what criteria should be required for being an artwork, not simply how art works are in fact categorized. In that way, non-factual debates over art are similar to debates about whether a fetus is a person or whether free will is necessary for moral responsibility. Such debates are better understood as conceptual negotiations.

This question is misleading, they are really asking: should this be art?

A conceptual negotiation is not merely about accepting certain pieces of evidence but for advocating for a particular conceptual framework (way of thinking about things). Take Richard Prince’s recent series New Portraits. The series is comprised of publicly available Instagram photos and selfies which Prince screenshotted with his phone, added a comment, and printed on large canvases. The pieces sold for upwards of six figures with none of the money going to the people whose portraits Prince used. Imagine that you and I are debating about whether New Portraits is art. In asserting that Prince’s New Portraits is a significant work of art (just go with me here) I am at least implicitly advocating for a concept of ‘art’ that does not require that an object owe its existence to the artist or author and that it need not be physically created by the artist (as Prince declared on Twitter “making art with your phone is post-place”). Merely pointing to the history of art and telling me that an Instagram screenshot has never been categorized as an artwork would not convince me that New Portraits cannot be a work of art. Maybe you think New Portraits is not art worthy because Prince appropriated the images without the consent of the original posters. Now we can ask: should it matter that the persons whose portraits were appropriated by Prince didn’t have any say in the matter, and if so, why? Many of the original posters, some of which are professional models, have levied copyright lawsuits against Prince – should art be beholden to the law, specifically copyright law? These sorts of questions, while relevant to whether I should care about New Portraits as a work of art, are not mere appeals to how the world is.

If many pervasive aesthetic disagreements are in fact conceptual negotiations as I am suggesting, then there is a further question as to what it would take to resolve them. In the end, I wouldn’t want you to merely defer to my preferred conception of art or beauty – I want to work out what it is that makes me (and therefore you) care about the thing (or not care, etc.). That’s where the value often lies – not in the “end” goal of agreement (although that can be an additional good) but in the process itself. When we have a non-factual dispute with someone we have to give reasons for why we believe what we believe, or for what we think the other person has reasons to agree with. Giving reasons is a way to articulate one’s aesthetic and metaphysical commitments, as well as what we think follows from categorizing something as art, or what criteria we think are necessary. Conceptual negotiations are substantial because they reveal the sorts of values we think are important for engaging with art works, and by extension, what values we think are important for society in general. To categorize something as a work of art is in some sense to elevate its social value. We preserve, promote, and admire works of art in way that we don’t for other artifacts like tools or microwaves. We spend time and money interacting with artistic works. Art is the backbone of culture. How we think about art matters.

This is similar to disagreement in disciplines such as history, philosophy, and science. A healthy degree of disagreement between experts is a sign of an investigative practice in “good working order”. But unlike science, being an expert does not seem sufficient for settling disputes over artworks. Disagreement in art is (at least in principle) a more egalitarian practice than academic disciplines like science. We can reasonably disagree with what the experts say. People will probably continue to debate about the artistic merit of works like New Portraits and Love is in the Bin just as they might over Duchamp’s infamous Fountain. Innovative or subversive art works are like anomalies in science – they show the limits of our categories and ways of thinking about art itself. They also enable us to see what other concepts are presupposed by or connected to a concept like ‘art’, such as uniqueness and originality. We can then reasonably debate over whether uniqueness is required for being art and what exactly is entailed by saying something is unique, such as physical creation. Negotiating the concept ‘art’ means negotiating the requisite criteria and concepts related to art and art appreciation. I believe artistic innovation and its demand for conceptual refinement is also a form of what some philosophers call “conceptual engineering”.

Conceptual engineering is the view that our concepts like ‘person’, ‘free will’, ‘truth’, and ‘art’ can be refined or improved. Conceptual engineering may be necessary in light of cultural and technological developments – for example, in the advent of the printing press we needed to develop a concept of ‘authorship’ and ‘copyright’ whereby we could ensure economic entitlements in the reproduction of literary works. Now, consider again Prince’s Instagram series – who is the real author here? Am I asking a strictly legal question? In light of the prevalence of appropriation art and the rise of internet memes, perhaps the better question to ask is: What concept of authorship should we have? This is a question in conceptual engineering.

The presentation of appropriated works such as New Portraits demands that we make explicit our commitments with regard to authorship and originality. If you don’t believe me, next time you’re out at a bar with friends or teaching a class, bring up a Google image of New Portraits and ask your audience whether they think it’s art. Many people will call it “lazy” or “cheap” – “all he did was take a screenshot” …and so on. Our aesthetic commitments are implied by the sorts of claims we make when arguing about the work. Does authorship require physical creation? Or unique properties? If not, can someone be an author of a free form poem? If so, is the same true for a painting done by an animal? Some philosophers, like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, have argued that in light of technological advancements in reproduction, the concepts ‘author’ and ‘authorship’ are no longer necessary – the notorious “death of the author”. Conversely, Darren Hudson Hick has argued that authorship is an important legal and aesthetic concept that should be connected to artistic responsibility. While philosophers are perhaps more prone to engage in this sort of conceptual work, and often do so explicitly, I think innovative works as problem-posing objects enable audiences (experts and non-experts alike) to do the same sort of conceptual hygiene, albeit implicitly. By debating over the legitimacy of works like New Portraits we are negotiating the criteria we think are necessary for being a work of art and in doing so we are also revising the concept ‘art’ itself. Perhaps artistic practice and its pervasive disagreements just is a form of conceptual engineering.


Obviously, the presentation of innovative works has enabled changes in what sorts of objects count as art works by expanding the norms for being an object worthy of aesthetic contemplation, as well as what sorts of criteria are considered necessary for artistic success. This is what makes art so interesting from a philosophical point of view. The presentation of subversive and innovative art works is like technological advancements because it can reveal the (hitherto unacknowledged) limits and commitments of our art concepts. Viewing aesthetic disagreement as a form of conceptual negotiation and as an aspect of conceptual engineering allows us to appreciate the meaningfulness of such debates (from you and I at the coffee shop to art experts and professional aestheticians) while also acknowledging that there may be no deep fact as to what makes something art. In debating about innovative or controversial art objects we make explicit our aesthetic commitments, our metaphysical positions, and at least to a certain degree, what values we think are important for society at large. In the end, there may be no ultimate winner, but the race is still worth it.

Notes on the Contributor:

Elizabeth Cantalamessa is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Miami. Her current research focuses on disagreements over social kinds and conceptual engineering. She is also a pathological fan of Bob Dylan.

Image credits: Splash image, Last image: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Edited by Thi Nguyen

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