Distinguishing Art from Non Art: Discussion 2, part 2

Weitz, Wittgenstein, Family Resemblances

In part 1 of discussion 2 we looked at Weitz’s critique of theories that proposed necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing of the world to be art versus non art. In his view, none of the theories were seen to adequately provide criteria. Weitz saw each of the theories as proposing jointly necessary and sufficient conditions and failing on this account. Let’s explore this a bit further.

A condition was necessary for a thing to be art, and that condition was sufficient if it applied to all things that could be art. For example, Formalists stated that the condition for a thing to be art was significant form caused by plastic elements coming together to evoke a unique response.

The problem that Weitz pointed out, using Formalist elements as an example, was that things normally not considered art, a garbage can, or a sponge, or a rock, could fit this criteria along with things considered art.

The Child’s Bath, Mary Cassatt, (1893). Art Institute of Chicago. Wikimedia, Public Domain

Further, while Formalist criteria might be obvious in by Mary Cassatt,Formalists might argue that plastic elements being arranged are not to be found in Tom Friedman’s art work entitled This work is a blank piece of paper that Friedman supposedly stared at for 1,000 hours. Should this be considered art? Well, it is now housed in the collection of Museum of Modern Art in New York City. What are Formalists to do with this information?

Again think of our imaginary circle.

Image: Christopher Willard

Each theory of art may be seen as defining a circle with it’s criteria forming the boundary between art and non art. So Weitz asked, what if someone creates something considered art that doesn’t fit the criteria, Tom Friedman’s paper for example? It sits outside the circle but many still consider it to be art.

Image: Christopher Willard

We have a dilemma. We either have to expand the circle to include that new work of art.

Image: Christopher Willard

Or, we have to start a new circle with new criteria, in addition to the first.

Image: Christopher Willard

Thus, in Weitz’s view there was the real possibility that we would continually have to expand our our criteria to include new art. To do so would be to create a list without any particular rationale.

Weitz then clarified. “The problem with which we must begin is not ‘What is art?’ but ‘What sort of concept is art?’” And this was a philosophical question. It was a question that asked when the concept “art” might correctly be applied.

Here, Weitz, drew upon the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) who considered a similar problem. In his , published posthumously in 1953, Wittgenstein considered the word “game.” He wrote,“Consider…the activities we call ‘games.’ I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to them all?

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Wittgenstein didn’t want us to just say ‘there’s something in common to all games’ because he knew if we looked carefully we wouldn’t find anything common to of them. Any criteria we come up with fails. For example, we might say a game is always entertaining, but the game may be boring to someone. We may say there is always a winner and loser, competition between players, but then what about bouncing a ball against a wall or playing solitaire? Wittgenstein said that all the things we call games have And he called these similarities “family resemblances.” While some games share aspects, there is no one jointly necessary and sufficient condition that makes all activities games.

Weitz applied Wittgenstein’s idea to the problem of art and said, there is no one or set of jointly necessary and sufficient conditions that guarantee a thing is art versus non art. New cases of art will constantly arise, these will be, “new art forms, new movements will emerge… its conditions can never be exhaustively enumerated since new cases can always be envisaged or created by artists, or even nature.

Now let’s turn to the practice of applying value judgements onto art, to see how all these theories discussed with respect to Weitz play a role. Recall Collingwood and presuppositions. If we can locate the presuppositions someone holds about what makes art, then we can better see the reasons for the way they value art. And this is extremely important.

For example, the art critic Clement Greenberg held aspects of Formalism and Emotionalism. For him, great art manipulated formal elements to evoke emotion. This alignment influenced his value judgements; art that evoked emotions was good. On the other hand, kitsch, that he listed as things like popular culture, commercial art, magazine covers, pulp fiction, comics, etc, was possibly not real art. His presuppositions about necessary and sufficient conditions for art directly translated into value, or quality.

Similarly, when someone expresses a value judgement about a work of art or art generally, we can we can inquire into the presuppositions about necessary and sufficient conditions. For example if someone says, “This art works,” a common phrase in art school critiques, the person may presuppose both Formalist and Organicist criteria.

This is why I say that part of our job as artists is to look for underlying presuppositions, or as Robin Collingwood said, “to untangle all this mess.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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