Given that artists often have views about the function(s) of art and often intend their artworks to have that function, I wonder whether we can just dismiss the approach of determining the function of art through looking at artists’ intentions concerning that function.[This paper is based on comments delivered at the ASA Pacific Division conference in 2013 in response to Justine Kingsbury’s paper “Function Claims About Art:What (If Anything) Makes Them True.”]
Here is one possible solution to the problem of how to determine the proper function of art while focusing on artists’ intentions. We begin with three plausible propositions. (1) The proper functions of any one artwork include minimally the function or functions intended by the creator. (2) The proper functions of any particular type of artwork, at any particular time, are whatever functions most art makers attribute to their artworks in that genre at that time. (3) The proper functions of art in general consist of the various functions listed in the previous group. (I will not, in the end, advocate this approach: but it is a nice starting point.) Carlson and Parsons in their book Functional Beauty do not talk about the function of art. However, they do talk about the function of a pipe cleaner. They comment that a pipe cleaner may have some functions today which were not intended by its original designer. Art works too may have new functions. We might then say that the functions of any particular artefact (artworks included) can also include (in addition to the intended function) whatever fits what the user intends its function to be, as long as it serves that function well. A pipe cleaner serves the function of material for children’s crafts quite well, and is intended to serve that function by some of its users, and so we can say that this is one of its current functions even though it was originally intended just for cleaning pipes.
But what of the distinction between proper and accidental function? A belt buckle might accidentally function as a shield when it deflects a bullet. However, a proper function has to be more than accidental: it has to be at least part of a practice. This does not mean that the class-room pipe cleaner usage is not a proper function. When pipe cleaners function as play-room tools this is part of a regular practice and not merely accidental. We could also say that a function of art is to support a repressive regime. But is that its proper function or is this function merely accidental? This is a hard question since art works may function in this way systematically in particular societies, which seems to make it a proper function. I will return to this question later.
Some people believe that the best way to talk about art’s proper function is to talk about it as something biological, for example on the analogy to a heart. A heart’s proper function is to pump blood. But how far does the analogy go? Isn’t interesting that although there is nearly universal agreement concerning the proper function of the heart (although there may be debates in the margins) there is practically none concerning the proper function of art. We cannot get much help from biological analogies in trying to determine whether the proper function of art is, for example, to support a repressive regime. The say that this is not part of art’s proper function to to go beyond scientific knowledge and beyond analogies to proper functions in biology. Some might think (as Kingsbury has suggested to me in a letter) that supporting a regime, although a function of art, is not a function of art qua art. However, this then moves us away from just talking about biology-like functions to the question of defining art, which I think is the real question at issue here anyway. That is, questions about the proper function of art are really, despite their science-like look, philosophical questions about the essence or proper definition of art.
On my view, when we think of the proper function of a thing qua that thing we are thinking about what should be. That is, when people ask “what is the function of art qua art” they are asking what should art (and thus artists) be trying to do. This is very much unlike asking about the function of something biological, like a heart. Function questions in regards to social institutions and the concepts tied to them look to the future, i.e. look to possible reform or possible activity. Claims about the proper function of art are normative claims about the direction of art. Dennis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct famously argued that art took a wrong turn in the 20th century, away from its proper function, a function established in Pleistocene times. However, the proper function of art is much more flexible and changeable than that. There can even be many competing proper functions of art. It is because Dutton had a vision of the essence of art, and therefore about where art should be going, and not because of any knowledge he had about prehistoric practices, that he could comfortably speak of art as taking a wrong turn. Following Plato (which of course is an unusual thing to do these days…but it works here), we could say that the proper function is the function that allows the object or genre in question best to participate in the good (where that is taken to be the sum good for a cultural unit, a society, humanity in general, or even some larger unit). That’s why we would reject saying that supporting a repressive regime is part of the function of art qua art.
However, although I am attracted to the Platonic approach mentioned I would relativize it and situate it within a historical, rather than an ahistorical (i.e. Platonic), dialectic. The proper function of architecture would be the function that best realizes the good (in society, say) at that time in history, i.e. as response to the previous best understandings of the essence of architecture. When Robert Venturi defined architecture as a decorated shed he was saying that this is the proper function of architecture relativized to his own cultural context (he even says that this is the definition his firm is working with now). Call this the relativized idealist view of proper function. The proper function, on this view, might be quite different from the standard function. One evokes the proper function when one wants to make the world better. It might also be quite different from the intended function although it would be the intended function for anyone who held this theory of the proper function, for example Venturi himself. This of course would be very different from looking at whether art promotes gene survival, causes women to be sexually attracted to male artists, or confers advantages on social groups. All of these things can be functions of art, but not necessarily the or even a proper function since, for example, whatever confers advantage on a gene or social group may not be good in a broader scheme of things or may not be good for us now. Why should we assume that the or a proper function of art should be whatever function one of the ancestors of art had insofar as it promoted survival amongst hominids at some time in the past? Moreover, limiting discussion of proper function to the relativized idealist model focuses on what is actually of concern to artists. Those who understand the proper function of art in biological terms generally understand it in terms of how it will promote certain genes. Yet, artists are not concerned (consciously at least) about promoting their genes. Function claims about concepts like art, democracy, knowledge, and so forth (that is, all the things we like to debate about in philosophy) are grounded in overall visions about what makes a society, or human existence generally, good. A function claim about art tells us how we can use art to fully realize our ideals for society or human existence. Function claims about art are deeply normative.
How, then, does one decide between two function claims about art? If one is normative and the other is merely descriptive then both can be true and we do not have to worry about deciding between then. They are just two different kinds of claims about two different kinds of things. However, we should bear in mind that many supposed descriptive claims are actually secretly normative. For example, if someone says, like Clive Bell, that all things correctly called art give aesthetic ecstasy in response to significant form, one could say that this is really a normative rather than a descriptive claim about the function of art.
When both of the competing claims are normative, then, since we are talking about competing ideals, and systems of ideals at that, there does not seem to be any way to resolve the debate by way of a correspondence theory of truth. However, a pragmatist theory of truth would simply ask us to look at which theory works best: i.e. which reverberates most strongly in the culture, which has the power to generate new valuable work in that art-form, and so forth. Robert Venturi’s definition of architecture in which he gave the function of architecture in a normative way as “a work of architecture is a decorated shed,” was extremely powerful in that it contributed to the founding of a new school of architecture which is still influential today. One could say that it therefore fit the pragmatist criterion for truth. Remember that, on this view, truth is relativized to context, so that Venturi’s account of architecture was more successful than that of Gideon during the 1970s, but it would have been less successful in another social context, for example in the context in which Gideon’s definition was successful. When it comes to functionalist definitions, not everything is possible at every time. Choosing between different functionalist claims is a matter of choosing what future one wishes to project for one’s group, society or for humanity itself. The definitions that work best are the ones that work over the long run. Those who chose a Stalinist ideal of socialism found that this choice did not work over the long run in their functionalist definition of democracy, or of socialism for that matter, and so the related functionalist definition of art (e.g. social realism) also failed over the long run, although admittedly it had some limited success in the short run. “The long run” however can be defined in different ways, and even the longest runs are small when looked at from a grander perspective. Perhaps the best that we can hope for from a functionalist definition of art is that it captures what is living and has real potential in the best art of today, projecting out to some sort of “long run.”
Functionalist definitions of art, on this account, are pretty much the same as what Morris Weitz referred to as honorific definitions, which are significantly more important, at least for artists, than debates over what George Dickie referred to as descriptive definitions. (Treating functionalist definitions as honorific definitions resolves one of the problems Justine mentioned about functionalist definitions since honorific definitions are not intended to cover all things called art, and thus resist refutation by counterexample.) In any case, we need to bear in mind that debates over the proper function of art are quite a bit different from debates over the proper function of a can-opener, and certainly than debates over the proper function of a heart. “Art” is what W. B. Gallie referred to as an essentially contested concept. When we debate over the essence of art we are debating over its function in a normative sense. As I have suggested, debates over the function of art, are ultimately aspects of larger normative debates over what it is to be human or even what it is to be, i.e. debates between worldviews. By contrast, debates over the proper function of a can-opener are usually short and philosophically uninteresting.
In sum, whether there is a logic of proper functions with regard to essentially contested concepts such as “art” (as opposed to say bodily organs such as the heart) is an open question which may only be resolved by not limiting ourselves to strictly science-centered notions of functionality and incorporating philosophical notions, such as for example that of honorific definition.