Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is Lopes' buck-passing theory of art really even a theory?

The theory of art proposed by Dominic Lopes in Beyond Art (Oxford, 2014) is called the "buck passing theory of art."  It is a theory, he says, because it is "a proposition that answers a 'what is...?' question.  This is somewhat confusing since it is supposed to answer a "what is" question by "passing the buck" on answering that question.  (Normally, "passing the buck" is considered a vice.  Lopes is cleverly trying to make a vice a virtue.  But can he?  Years ago, George Dickie tried to make the circularity of his definition of art into a virtue, and he called his book The Art Circle.  The book was a great contribution to philosophy, but did he solve the circularity problem?)  It is not at all clear to me that the "buck passing theory of art" is a theory at all.  It has no real content:  it is just a formal maneuver, a clever way to suggest we stop trying to talk about art in general and just focus on individual arts.  Of course, the word "art" still appears in every question directed to an individual art:  so refusing to answer the question "what is art?" doesn't really help us to understand "what is music, as an art?" since it tells us nothing about the nature of art.  I suggested in my last post that Lopes is abandoning the "what is" question. He does not think he is.  He thinks that not answering the question, but pointing elsewhere for a possible answer, is an answer to the question.  This is like saying to the teacher "My answer is that you have the answer!"  Right.

It is noteworthy that Lopes takes a comment made by comedian Groucho Marx that "Art is Art" to be a theory (although he admits it is uninformative.)  I would not call this a theory: it is not only circular but completely without content.  It is funny.

Here is the buck-passing theory, the "theory of art" offered by Lopes (trumpets blare) "x is a work of art = x is a work of K, where K is an art."  (14)  This is a circular definition.  In a circular definition you include the term being defined in the definition.  Maybe strict circularity is avoided since the term being defined might be said to be "work of art" and not "art."  But this is quibbling.  If you explain x with a sentence that contains x you have a circularity problem.  I also think that trying to define "work of art" is not a good way of going about doing philosophy of art or asking the "what is" question about art.  Art includes not just objects but practices, institutions, roles, and ways of appreciating.  To just focus on identification of objects as works of art is to miss most of art.  But Lopes thinks "a theory of art states what makes each [of a wide variety of items from different arts] a work of art."  He thinks that, with one exception, philosophers have all interpreted the "what is art?" question as really "what is a work of art?" (he is excluding philosophers in the continental tradition, such as Heidegger.)  Lopes does admit that there are other senses of "theory of art" for example John Frow's definition in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (that it is "a systematic account of all or many elements in the domain of art") and that Lopes' own use of "theory" only covers, at best, a component of this.(12)  Frow's idea sounds about right to me and I have yet to see the advantage of Lopes' narrower meaning, although he is perfectly free to coin terms or give terms special meaning.

Lopes knows, of course, that the collecting of various Ks (music, video games, etc.) under "art" also demands a theory.  However, by the end of the book he thinks that prospects for such a theory are weak.  So the buck-passing theory really doesn't give us anything but a nudge to paying more attention to individual arts. 

In the definition, the term "an art" is understood by Lopes as "an art kind."  The term "art kind" is, however, ambiguous.   Photography is an art kind but only in the sense that there are photographs that are art, i.e. that there is such a thing as the art of photography.  Many photographs are not art:  photos taken by a surveillance camera with no art intention behind them, and no art context in which they can become art, are not art.  This is also true for paintings, dances, and gardens.  In each case there are examples that are art and examples that are not.  If I dance across the room (not lovely to look at) this is not an art work.  Lopes seems to be ignoring the ambiguity when he talks about art kinds, thinking that if he just lists various art kinds he can avoid defining art.  But if dance which is art is distinguished from dance which is not we still need to define art.  Lopes says "any item is a work of art if it is a work in an art kind - if it is a work of music, architecture, dance, or the life."(16)  So can he tell me whether my dancing across the room or my singing in the shower is a work of art?  Is he packing the needed distinction into the word "work" so that he can insist that since my dance is not a "work" then it is not art?  But then isn't this circular too -  since "work" needs to be defined as a work of art (as opposed to what I do in the privacy of my home.)     

Lopes has a kind of answer to a similar question, whether the coffee mug on my desk is an example of ceramic art.  He recognizes that this would be a counterexample to his theory if it were.  (Hmmm.  If I am in the business of coming up with counterexamples then am I admitting that he has a theory?)   He thinks the objection will fail if we can show that not everything made with ceramic slip is a work of ceramic art.  But then he says that it is up to the theory of ceramic art to show that the coffee mug is not art.  Similarly, I presume, it is up to the theory of dance art to show that my dance is not dance and up to the theory of music art to show that my shower song is not music.  But wait, my dance does fit some definitions of dance and my song fits at least some definitions of song, and songs are generally included as examples of music.  The point isn't that my song is not music:  it is that my song does not belong to the art of music.

I said that this is a kind of answer (see his page 17), but isn't it just a circular answer?  Lopes, if I am reading him right, is saying that the coffee mug is not art because, even though it is made of the same materials as ceramic art (ceramic slip) and through similar processes, it is not an example of ceramic art, since it does not fit under the (not yet stated) definition of ceramic art (although this definition avoids answering the question "what is art" which has been ceded to the various art forms of which ceramic art is one).  My head spins.  

Morris Weitz has an advantage over Lopes on one point.  Lopes has no resources for dealing with new art forms.  His theory of a work of art depends on there being certain art forms that are already established.  New art forms pose a problem for him.  What if there is something that seems to fit no previous art form.  Lopes gives the example of Barry's Inert Gas Series, which is neither painting or sculpture.  Weitz simply asks the relevant authorities (mainly art critics and art historians, I think) to decide whether something is sufficiently similar to things previously called art to be admitted into the realm of art, probably by way of coining a term for a new art kind, e.g. "conceptual art."  "Sufficiently similar" is vague, and I think that Weitz should have said "essentially similar" or similar in the sense that it too fits under the essence of art.  I discuss this in my unpublished book (see "pages"). 

Above I implied that the buck-passing theory is not informative.  Lopes argues that it is no less informative than buck-stopping theories (i.e. traditional theories of art, for example "art is significant form.") Neither is informative since "both set us off to think more about the individual arts."  (20)  Wait!  "Art is significant form" tells us something about the essence of art and also tells us what makes an art form and art form.  The buck-passing theory tells us nothing about art or about the what makes an art form an art form.  It is therefore less informative.

Lopes argues that a theory is correct if it is viable and informative.  As we have seen, his "theory" is neither viable (it is open to the counterexamples offered, e.g. the coffee mug and the problem of introducing new art forms) nor informative (it tells us nothing, and certainly less than the traditional theories).  Nor is it even a theory.

Actually, I really hate the kind of paragraph the previous one is.  A good reader, in my view, should not just be dismissive, but should alternate between combat and charity.  With no sympathetic side, reading is pointless as a communicative enterprise.  Reading is also pointless in philosophy if there is no combative side.  There are no knock-down arguments, only stages in an unending path.  Sympathetic open-mindedness to the point of acceptance is also unworthy of philosophy.  Balance between the two is needed but difficult to achieve.

I even have a problem with this style of philosophy. Lopes' style is typical for analytic philosophy and my own when I start talking in the same style.  This style takes the methods of logical analysis we teach in critical thinking classes too seriously since it typically reduces complex nuanced arguments and positions to a series of premises and a conclusion none of which (usually) were ever actually asserted by the proponent (an example of this is on page 39).

Yet there is much value in Lopes' book (not in the so called "theory" but in the theoretical thinking presented in the book as a whole): it is exciting to have something so intelligent and so maddening to think through and argue with, and I look forward to writing further posts.  

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