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.

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