Saturday, August 28, 2010

How Important are Author's/Artist's comments about the Meaning of their Work?

This is a question that garnishes an astonishing amount of discussion in the circles of analytic aesthetics.  A recent article "Intention, Interpretaion, and Contemporary Visual Art" by Hans Maes (British Journal of Aesthetics 50:2 (2010) 121-138 argues that such pronouncements are defnitive.  His proof though is insufficient.  He simply observes that often when looking at contemporary art we do not understand the meaning of the work until we find out what the artist has to say about it.  An example he gives is a work by Amer Ghada called 2002.  I am nervous about putting an image of Amer's on my blog, but here's a  link.  Just looking at the work itself (considering for example only the most abstract image in the link) does not allow one to know that the abstract images are derived from pictures found in pornographic magazines.  Arthur Danto observed this in a review of Amer's paintings for The Nation.  Now I do agree that this sort of thing is common and that we often today accept what the painter says about her work, and see the work in terms of that afterwards.  But does this really prove that we should always do so?  It seems that this is just typical of certain kinds of avant-garde work in our century:  the work is not just what you see but also what is said by the artist about it.  But this does not mean that what the artist says about a piece determines what it means in a definitive or absolute sense.  It is still the case that the artist can say misleading things about the meaning of the work.  Of course the real position at issue here is whether the meaning of the work is determined by the artist's intention at time of completion of the work.  This position is called Actual Intentionalism.  However the position simply assumes that there is something in the artists mind, something like a sentence, which is the artist's intention.  The idea is that we find out the artist's intention if we find out the sentence or sentences that accurately describe that state of mind.  Yet is there such a thing?  Aren't intentions simply constructions, often constructions after the event?  Aren't artist's comments about the meaning of their work such constructions?  If I say something to you and you ask me what I meant, am I looking into the past and finding the actual intention I had when saying it, or am I constructing something that will work for the occasion?  Isn't it myth to think there really is a thing that corresponds to what we call the actual intention?  In short the kinds of cases Maes discusses do not speak strongly in favor of Actual Intentionalism, as he argues, but simply speak in favor of using that theory when looking at works of this sort.  By the way, if you are already familiar with Amer's work and have seen examples that are less abstract, it is fairly obvious that these lines are derived from pornographic images, so the claim that you need to rely on her words to understand the work is a bit disigenuous. What is in the mind at the time of creation of the piece?  Are unconscious phenomena allowed? If so, could the artist be channeling the spirit of the age unbeknownst to her/him? If so, what does this do to the claim that the meaning of the work is what the author/artist intended it to mean? 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Riggle on Street Art

Nicholas Alden Riggle explores a new domain of art with his "Street Art:  The Transfiguration of the Commonplace."  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:2 (2010) 243-257.  He begins by developing a definition "An artwork is street art if, and only if, its material use of the street is internal to its meaning."  As a result, some graffiti (but not all) is street art.  Works that count as street art are used to illustrate the article:  one piece by Blu in 2007, another by C215, another by Swoon. I have no objection to his definition but wonder whether the tile works by Richard Hawes on the bridge on San Antonio Street in San Jose count as street art.  The street is used in the work since the tiles face the street from both sides of the bridge.  Riggle allows that Invader's works, which use tiles, are street art.  This work probably would not appear in a book on street art since Hawes is not part of the hip-hop culture.  On the other hand, Invader is the kind of artist whose work would appear in a book on Street Art.  Hawes works were placed there (as it turns out without clear legal authority) over a period of a couple years.  He was originally invited to do this work by one of the local neighborhood associations but the work was not sanctioned by the city public art program (at least not at that may now have some retroactive sanction).  Riggle would probably exclude Hawes' work from street art as Hawes did not make a commitment to ephemerality.  Riggle thinks that Tilted Arc by Richard Serra is not street art since it rejects ephemerality and because it "transforms the public space into an artworld-sanctioned artspace" which is not then, any longer, a street.

Returning to Hawes's work, I should observe that a few years back it was partly destroyed by an over-enthusiastic "protector" of the bridge.  When I discussed this with Hawes he was upset about it.  So he was not in favor of ephemerality, and, like Serra, was not in favor of the destruction of his work.  Unlike the Serra case, however, one could not argue that Hawes had turned the space into an art-sanctioned space with not internal connection to the street, no real use of the street.  I should note that I played some role in this drama.  My wife and I apprehended the art vandals in the act of destroying works with crowbars and managed to scare them away, mainly by taking photographs of what they were doing.  The local communities (including Olinder Neighborhood, the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood, and Naglee Park) rallied in favor of the art works (petitions were distributed, emails flew, and a newspaper article was written in the San Jose Mercury News).  The works that were not destroyed remain on the bridge, including ones that were partially ruined by the art vandals.  I would tentatively include Hawes work as street art, but I am somewhat nervous about this since it is not connected to any street art tradition, for example it is not connected in any way with graffiti or graffiti art.

Riggle's definition would include Hawes' work except for the ephemerality condition.  However, are street artists really always committed to their art being ephemeral?  How do they show this belief?  What if they would prefer it to be up as long as possible?  What about a mural artist who is paid to put up a relatively permanent mural by the city?  What about architects?  Many of their buildings will be destroyed in their lifetimes:  does knowing this mean that these artists are committed to their work being ephemeral?  How do we distinguish this commitment from mere acceptance? 

More important, Riggle says that street art is "antithetical to the artworld."  Wouldn't this, if true, pose some serious problems with atworld theories of art?  One of Riggle's main points is that street art allows art to "join the living" by which he means that it allows art to be integrated in everyday life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Margolis on Defining Art

My aesthetics blog has been pretty dormant recently, but since I am gearing up to teach Introduction to Aesthetics again this fall I thought I would jump in again. Although he makes a tough read sometimes, and although it is a bit hard to take his self-certainty, I still think Joe Margolis is one of our best aestheticians. His “The Importance of Being Ernest about the Definition of and Metaphysics of Art” (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:3, 2010, 215-223.) is yet another example of his trenchant thinking. The main thrust of his article is an attack on Weitz’s skepticism concerning the possibility of a definition of art. His strategy is to argue that Weitz has misunderstood Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” concept. Although I feel that Margolis treats Wittgenstein too much as an authority here, I do like a couple things in this article. One is that Margolis allows for accounts of art that are both realist and essentialist and also open to revision and reinterpretation. He also allows that the great philosophers’ attempts to define art or its genres are not worthless. Nor are they just disguised theories of evaluation, in the manner that Weitz suggested. I like particularly his ability to accept both Aristotle’s and Nietzsche’s definitions of tragedy, recognizing that each has something to contribute. As Margolis observes, most philosophers who have discussed the definition of art have done so without discussing or perhaps even thinking about the very nature of definition itself. He argues for instance that there are many different kinds of definition, and that art can be defined for a special purpose. (I had argued something similar in my “Socratic Quest” article.) The article begins with talk about Danto and Dickie as well as Weitz, and ends with a brief discussion of Berys Gaut’s cluster theory of art. There is much talk of Wittgenstein in between. At one point Margolis argues that none of the philosophers he discusses “addresses Duchamp’s challenge straight on.” I am still trying to figure out what this means. What I think he means is that unlike Warhol, or in a more dramatic way, Duchamp challenged the boundaries between art and life, challenged the very notion of a separate “artworld” that could stand as a basis for an institutional definition of art.