Thursday, October 24, 2013

When an Art Teacher Says "Your Work is Similar to X."

According to Theodore Gracyk in The Philosophy of Art, the position called ontological contextualism says that "some aspects of an artwork's identity depend on the art-historical context of its time and creation" (Gracyk, 85).  This in itself is not a controversial view.   However it quickly becomes clear that ontological contextualists believe that all aspects of an artwork's identity depend on the art-historical context of the artwork's time of creation up to and ending abruptly at the point of completion of the artwork.  Thus Gracyk observes that ontological contextualists believe that some art historical contingincies are relevant to artwork identity and other ones (that are after the point of completion of the work) are not (86).  In regards to this, he observes, they say that Paul Cezanne's paintings were always proto-cubist.  This is a way of countering the claim of the constructivists (or, more properly, to keep the parallel, constructivist contextualists) that identity is not frozen at the time of creation and that artworks gain properties after creation, the development of Cubist painting giving new significance to Cezanne's work.  So do the paintings remain unchanged?  That is the question.  (Gracyk also has the odd view that "Constructivism is only plausible so long as we regard every artwork as an abstract structure that lacks determinate meaning."  Why would he believe that? I would think that constructivism is only plausible if it holds that artworks are actual things that have various properties including potentialities which may be actualized in various ways later, mainly in the experience of audience members, but also in the various manners of the work's presentation). 
An art student of mind has observed that, in looking that some examples by Cezanne, although they do occasionally have cube-like shapes they are not cubist in the sense of Picasso and Braque.  I actually think that it is hard to tell just by looking at paintings whether ontological contextualism or constructivism is true.  And maybe if that is so then it is just one of those philosophical debates that comes down to nothing but word choice.  Still, it does seem important.  Is context limited to the material leading up to the completion of the work or does it extend to things that happen after its completion?  I favor the second view. 

In addition the student raises an issue about teaching with respect to her recent work and responses to it.  These responses take the form, "Your piece is like X" by which is probably meant something like "your piece is essentially like X" or "your piece is very much like X."  These comments may be intended to get her to become more like X, to learn more from X, or even to react against X and become less similar to X.  In terms of what we were talking about earlier, X could be seen as already having the property "likeness to G [my student]" when it was created.  But that seems strange.  Yet if we are to say that Cezanne already had Cubist properties before Cubism, why not also say that X had Guerin properties before G?  .

G also suggested that comparisons of this sort are "inadequate to describe" her work.  I am not sure that this was your teacher's intention, but her point raises the interesting issue of whether pointing out similarities does not also occlude important differences.  G.'s work was being compared Milton Resnick.  But in looking at slides of her work and Resnick's it looks like G. is much more concerned with three-d texture and also with qualities of realism that can be achieved with texture, all of this related to a contemporary deep interest in environmentalism.
From one perspective it could be argued that Gs work, although superficially similar to X, is essentially different.  If so, then merely pointing out similarities does not help much.  A big question is:  what role do similarities play in teaching and understanding art, and what role should such practices play. 

Does anyone have some thoughts on this?

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