Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Proper Function?

Daniel Libeskind, Royal Ontario Museum, Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition, Toronto, 2007,
Every once in a while I read one sentence in an article that causes me to question the entire theory being proposed.  So I am reading an article on "Fact and Function in Architectural Criticism" by Glenn Parsons (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69:1, 2011, 21-29.) and I read "the proper function of most pipe cleaners made and sold today is something else:  these are not smoking aids, but children's craft materials."  (27)  So this implies that if someone took a pipe cleaner and used it to clean a pipe, Parsons would say "you are not using it for its proper function."  This is just plain silly.  Another oddity in the sentence is the word "most."  Perhaps Parsons would allow that the proper function of some pipe cleaners is to clean pipes:  but how would you know which was which?  Does it really matter whether someone uses a pipe cleaner made for a crafts market to clean a pipe, or vice versa? This takes us back to Parsons' overall theory about proper function, which initially sounded pretty plausible.  "X has a proper function F if and only if Xs currently exist because ancestors of X were successful in meeting some need or want in the marketplace because they performed F, leading to the manufacture and distribution of Xs." (26) Parsons recognizes that that theory would seem to imply that the proper function of the pipe cleaner is to clean pipes! So he modifies his claim: "the effect might be the cause of the type's continued existence at times subsequent to" the time of its original existence.(27)  This is the modification that leads Parsons to think that the current usual use of pipe cleaners wipes out the original proper function, and that the proper function is "what explains existence in the recent past."  I think that this is a refutation of the original formulation and not a mere modification.  Either we pay attention to the ancestors or to current marketplace (unless he wants to say that the pipe cleaners can have two proper functions:  original and current...something Parsons hasn't tried). 

Another sentence that gets me going is in order to determine the proper function of an architectural work in Toronto called the Royal Ontario Museum, ROM one would have to examine its recent history and "identify those effects of the structure that explain the ongoing public support for its funding and maintenance."  (28) However, I would think that if you did this all you would find is what it is currently used to do by the people who financially support it.  It tells us nothing about what is proper or not.  Current financial function is not the same as proper function, as we saw above in the case of the pipe cleaners.  Imagine that the board of directors for the building were sitting around trying to determine the future uses of the building.  One of them suggests that it be changed into a church.  Another says "It's a museum.  Being a church would not fit its proper function!"  On Parsons' view, this would be out of line since after all it is the committee itself that decides what the proper function of the building is:  if they decide that its proper function is to be a church then it will be..

There is nothing wrong with changing a museum into a church and thereby giving it a new function.  The real question is whether there is any use for the word "proper" in all of this.  Would it always be wrong to use something in a way that goes against the financial reasons for its existence?  Somebody uses a car as a home.  Perhaps the person bought it to use as a home, not as a means of transportation.  But the car would not exist if the only market for its existence would be to be purchased as a home.  What's the car's proper function then?  Is it as a car or as a home?

What about people who use buildings for things not sanctioned by the financial supporters of buildings?  For example, a group might try to use a church that has been turned into a museum as a church again.  Does appealing to "proper function" help here?  What about disagreements between financial supporters: does the biggest financial supporter get to determine the proper function? 

Parsons began the article by asking whether the Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the ROM was actually serving its proper function.  His conclusion is that it is in fact serving its proper function since, presumably, it is doing precisely what its financial backers wanted it to do.  Many have argued that the proper function of a museum is to display artifacts and that it is too difficult to display artifacts in this addition.  Parsons' claim is that the proper function of museums has changed:  they are now a kind of public space, and that this building serves that function well.  In support of this he quotes from the museum's director, William Thorsell, who said that the museum is a new agora and that the ROM's primary function is as a "cosmopolitan community center."  I think that Thorsell's idea about the function of a museum is interesting and important, but I am less sure about giving him ultimate authority in determining the proper function of the building.  (To be fair to Parsons, he does not go so far as to give Thorsell ultimate authority:  he says, more weakly, that his vision "may have some grounding in reality."  Still, he does offer this as the best explanation for the proper function of the building.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about "proper" but I think the view that a particular object has a function is too limited and so prevents a rich understanding of humanity.
You might think the function of a screwdriver is to turn screws. I build shelves and as part of the construction I use screws and a screwdriver. But when it comes to varnishing same shelves I use brushes and varnish and a screwdriver to open the tins. I use it for stirring the varnish and I also use it to bash down the lids of the tins when I've finished. So the object named screwdriver has lots of uses, only one of which corresponds to what it was (presumably) designed to do.
If we replace "proper function" by "what it was designed to do" we get away from the legitimacy/normativity conferred by the use of "proper" and the implication of improper usage of an object. I think we want to do this because, as you argue, there's a lot of difficulties in ascribing a normative property to an object that seem to lead to incoherence. I can see that moving away from nomativity leads to a relativity that some philosophers may find discomfiting - today it's a school, but on Sunday it's a church - but one distinctive feature of humans is the extent of our use of objects as tools (i.e things to use to accomplish individual or societal ends) without thought of what they were designed for (i.e the reason for their creation) but with thought of some future state of affairs.
I think this is what Duchamp/R.Mutt was doing with his urinal.