Distinguishing Art from Non Art: Discussion 3, Part 2

Goodman and the question “When is Art?”

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Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, (2012). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s think of rock in a driveway. Goodman said that in everyday conditions the rock is not normally considered to be art. However, if the rock is placed on a plinth and exhibited in a museum, the placement and location draws attention to the rock’s aesthetic features, and the rock functions as art. But Goodman asks, doesn’t this make all rocks in the driveway works of art? He continues, if it’s only the exhibiting of the rock that makes art, isn’t this an unconvincing answer to the question, What is art?

Goodman provided an answer in his 1978 book Ways of Worldmaking as follows. The question shouldn’t be, “What is art?” Rather the question should be “When is art?”

Things are not works of art all the time. In the driveway the rock doesn’t function as a work of art. When is the rock art? When it is exhibited in a museum, for example. We think of Walter de Maria’s The New York Earth Room, a gallery in which the floor is covered with dirt, an interior sculpture that continues to be on exhibit since it was installed in 1977. In Goodman’s view the dirt was probably not art before it was installed in the room. Basically for Goodman, a thing is art when it functions as art. To function as art exemplifies, or expresses, or draws attention to specific aesthetic features.

1.) It is a syntactically dense system. Syntax may be seen to be the marks themselves. The system is syntactically dense when it “provides for infinitely many characters so ordered that between each two there is a third.” Individual marks may be different, no matter how small the difference. The work is dense with these differences.

2.) It is semantically dense: there may be various ways to feel and to interpret the thing. Each mark or group of marks can symbolize things. No interpretation may be exactly the same.

3.) It is syntactically replete: replete, meaning abundantly supplied. The marks make up something that has a large number of features that work toward the creation of meaning. While a line drawing by Matisse may be the same sort of line that makes up an electrocardiogram, in a Matisse drawing, the line changes visual speed, thickness, direction, distance from other lines, and so forth. There are more features within the entire thing that build up in a rich manner.

4.) It exemplifies, or draws attention to some property it possesses, for example a painting may exemplify happiness with its subject and colors, but the painting itself is not happy because it cannot feel.

5.) It is characterized by multiple and complex references, for example an oil painting may reference work of the past done with oil paint, or it references images of past art or the real world, it may reference an artistic movement, and so forth. A viewer could locate numerous references.

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Jaume Plensa, In Seed Time Learn, in Winter Enjoy, In Harvest Teach, (2000). Wikimedia Commons.

Goodman was clear too, there is no one set of properties, no necessary and sufficient conditions, to guarantee a thing is art at all times. The symptoms he outlined were to be seen as clues to indicate a work of art. And, things could slip in and out of art status. To a cold person on a subway platform, a oil paint on canvas could be blanket. To a museum goer the same thing could be a painting. And he noticed that some works of art seemed to have a certain permanency, a Rembrandt painting might remain a Rembrandt painting even if used as a blanket.

Questions arise again about art versus non art. Consider Robert Barry’s works of thought, such as All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking — 1:36 PM; June 15, 1969. The art work recognizes he knows many things, both knowing how and knowing that, to use Gilbert Ryle’s distinction, that he may not be thinking about. For example he may know how to ride a bike but he’s not thinking of that. Once the work is over (it’s unclear how long the work actually existed for) it is documented with words. We can read the title or at times he put the text into an exhibition. We can argue whether the documentation is properly part of the original work of art or not. If the documentation text is not considered to be part of the original work, then what exactly are the aesthetic properties of All the things I know…?

It should also be pointed out that Goodman noted that his idea of aesthetics fit things not generally considered to be art, a neatly manicured sports field, or items mass produced by machines such as shampoo bottles.

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Cut emerald. Wikimedia Commons.

Over time, the classification system we use becomes habit, he calls this ‘entrenchment.’ As we construct the world we set up a reality in one way, not another. The symbols that are seen as familiar rather than avant-garde are those that become customary within a certain community. The symbols making up a certain type of art become familiar when accepted by the artistic community, paint on canvas for example. Goodman says that understanding art requires that we interpret the various symbols involved. We analyze the symbols as they relate to art, to language, to the symbol system we created, and to the world we live in. Goodman’s cognitive approach does not strictly allow us to differentiate art from non art, but it does remind us that we set up the classification system, and in turn once the system is widely accepted, it modifies our view.

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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