Thursday, February 27, 2014

Are there correct categories for perception of art?

An immensely influential work not only in the aesthetics of art but also in the aesthetics of nature is Kendall Walton's "Categories of Art" Philosophical Review 79 (1970) 334-67.  However the article is based on a fallacy, one that has not been previously discussed of taken account of.  The idea is that some sort of objectivity is available in aesthetics if we assure that the aesthetic object is perceived under its correct category (this often taken to mean the correct name for the school or style under which the artist is working).  This seems initially plausible since seeing a cubist painting as confused might be the result of seeing it under the category of painterly realism.  However what sense can really be made of the notion of "the correct category"?  Correctness in category ascription is a very different idea than that of seeing it under a category that works well.  That would be a more pragmatist way of approaching the question, and much more plausible.  Noel Carroll in "On Being Moved by Nature" is a typical user of Walton's distinction.  (The distinction is very popular in the aesthetics of nature.)  Carroll writes: "logically speaking, if an aesthetic judgment is true (or appropriate), then that is a function of the perceived, nonaesthetic properties of the artwork being comprehended within the context of the correct category of art." (Carlson and Lintott, Nature, Aesthetics and
178) (I have a problem with the notion that contextualizing non-aesthetic properties has importance in the making of aesthetic judgments, but will not discuss that here.) For example, argues Carroll, one must perceive a cubist painting under the category of cubism.  How does one determine the correct category?  Carroll lists two ways.  One is to ask "which category (genre, style, movement) the artist intended for the artwork" and the other is to look at "whether the category in question is a recognized or well-entrenched one."  Although these are not the only ways of fixing categories, Carroll considers them "fairly decisive."  Consider, then, Picasso in 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and consider any visitors to his studio who may have seen it there in 1907.  Neither Picasso nor his visitors would have any notion of the concept of "cubism"!  Picasso, no doubt, would have categorized this painting under other concepts.  Nor was the concept of cubism "recognized or well-entrenched" at the time.  It was not even known.  So it follows, according to Walton's theory, that Picasso and his friends would have misconceived the correct category for the painting and hence could not make any aesthetic judgments about it with any grounding.  This is absurd.  Perhaps you do not accept that this painting is cubist:  sometimes, indeed, it is called "proto-Cubist."  But Picasso would equally have had no idea what "proto-Cubist" meant.  Moreover, the same point can be made about Braque's Houses at L'Estaque, which was said to have been the occasion for Louis Vauxcelles to use the term "bizarreries cubiques." Vauxcelles, too, knew nothing of "cubism" when he made this comment since that term was coined later.  This ignorance of the so-called correct category is not uncommon.  The impressionists did not at first know that they were supposed to be impressionists; the postimpressionists and the fauves ditto.  Movements are constructions created by various events including statements by artists, reviews by critics, major shows, chapters in art history books, etc.  The concept of "cubism," and its boundaries, changes over time.  This is not a "natural kind."  Even Picasso himself, after he started using the term "cubism" or thinking of his art as "cubist," probably meant something different by this in 1914 than in 1910.  So the theory can't be saved simply by observing that Picasso sometimes though of some of the paintings later included by some art historians under the chapter for "cubism" as cubist.  Note that I am not saying that there is no such thing as cubism or that the sentence "Picasso was a cubist" has no truth value.  I am just saying that these things need to be understood as dynamic in a pragmatist way, and that, when they are, the way in which "correct category" guarantees objectivity of aesthetic judgments is pretty much lost.

There is another problem with the Waltonian theory.  Many movements of art share similarities.  Was Jean Metzinger a cubist (as was said in 1912) or a fauvist?   What if one saw one of his paintings as a fauvist, rather than as a cubist painting?  Would this be a category mistake?  But look at his paintings from this period:  they can be seen easily as either.   Similarly, what if someone read Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2 (1912) as a futurist rather than a cubist work?  Who is to say what the "correct" category is in this case?  Let's take this a bit further.  Although on a multiple-choice exam in an art history class it would be incorrect to call this work a dadaist work since dadaism in the history books is supposed to have started in 1916, might it not be interesting or useful to see it as such?  Walton and his followers might concede this much and yet would refuse to abandon the idea that there is one correct category.  But how valid is multiple-choice-exam-knowledge of this sort anyway?  Isn't the "correct" answer whatever the teacher said the correct answer is?  If you mark "cubist" and the teacher had said "fauve" in the class then you are "wrong," and this even though there may be books defending the idea that the work is cubist.  But this is the way of conceiving knowledge that Walton's idea of "correct category" leads us to. 

Moreover, isn't it interesting that whenever someone has a major insight into the nature of something it is posed not in terms of correct category ascription but in terms of a metaphor that violates category dimensions.  It would appear that deep knowledge of anything is always impossible for correct aesthetic judgment on Walton's view.  In On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche refers to "the rigid regularity of a Roman columbarium" and this is what we have here.  It is worth quoting his sentence:  "Whereas each perceptual metaphor is individual and without equals and is therefore able to elude all classification, the great edifice of concepts displays the rigid regularity of a Roman columbarium..."  But, Nietzsche argues, concepts are merely residues of metaphors.  If so, then concepts have lives:  they begin as metaphors and end as rigid categories that need to be superceded.  The Waltonian approach to objectivity in art judgment (and aesthetic judgment generally) relies on the dying end of the life-span of the concept.          

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