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The Art Word

An open letter to Jeroen Stout responding to his blog-letter Discourses: Reflecting on the A Word with Chris Bateman at his Tumblr as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome from anyone!

Banksy Street ArtDear Jeroen,

If setting aside the word ‘art’ means opening up a treasure trove of aesthetic relations obscured by it, then ditching art would indeed seem to be desirable. After all, this is exactly what I argue in the case of ‘game’, another umbrella term where the confusion between aesthetics and ethics breeds discontent. But can’t we have the best of both worlds? Once we recognise that we are dealing with sets (in the mathematical sense) and not simple ‘black-or-white’ Boolean logic, do we need to give up ‘art’ or ‘game’? Besides, what if the words themselves gave us something that the more nuanced discussions you allude to could not get?

Your missive arrives at a most excellent moment, for I have finished writing my new paper for the British Journal of Aesthetics but have not yet submitted it (although I will have by the time you read this). Thoughts about what might or might not qualify as art are its specific subject, for it asks “Can a rollercoaster be art?” To my charmed and mischievous delight, there is something within it that matches what you deride as “a little weasel-game” of dividing art into ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. Looking at the attempts to define art, they can be divided into those that propose a concept of art in a strong sense (which is expressly valorised) and those who instead offer a weak sense (which is only implicitly valorised).

The musician Brian Eno, for instance, in this year’s Peel Lecture, defined art in a weak sense as “everything you don't have to do”. He admitted this meant that boob jobs are art in this sense. I find in this a wonderful parallel to Nöel Carroll’s criticism of Arthur Danto’s later theory of art, which Carroll suggests would support condom packets as art. Such is the normal business of a weak sense of art, which is certainly related to the concept of ‘low art’, although I think a clear distinction can be made. ‘Low art’ is expressly derogatory – it is intended to add magical lustre to ‘high art’ by contrast. Weak senses of art are not derogatory: Eno means no disrespect to boob jobs in choosing to cast a wide net. Indeed, he implicitly valorises them, even if it is only to a small degree.

So I shall see your weasel and raise you a statue, for my only explicit disagreement with what you write here is the idea that terms such as ‘statue’ are “benign” since something can be a “poor statue and a statue still”. This entails the idea popularised by the logical positivists, and largely set in motion by G.E. Moore, of a distinction between facts and values. It is true that we may recognise something as a statue and still judge it poor. But consider the art teacher who, facing the formless splat of pottery her student has wrought, remarks “it’s only barely a statue” or “I thought I asked you to make a statue?”

Judgements never cleave perfectly into fact and value, an issue Kant accidentally put into play with the now universally deployed concepts of objective and subjective, and one I try to address in Chaos Ethics. You will not build a device for detecting what is or is not a statue, nor does a human judgement in this regard fall into pure subjectivity. The concepts of language are always practices, as Wittgenstein realised. What is or is not a statue is not a fact, nor is it a purely ‘subjective’ value. It is something that is explained solely by the practices of sculpture, and if we had no familiarity with these we could not use the term coherently.

One problem with ‘high art’ as a concept is that it has tended to accord with the notion of specific practices (such as sculpture) getting a free pass into strong senses of art. I certainly have no interest in this. This brings me to the question of why the term ‘art’ could matter at all. If you are correct that we would benefit from folding up the umbrella term and embracing “an open-ended series of ideas” – and on the latter point we concur – what exactly is the use of the art word? Especially since, much as with ‘game’, the umbrella not only blocks our view but all too quickly turns to a weapon. (I made the same allusion regarding gender last week: this is not a coincidence). Is there something the art word does that we can’t do without?

What makes ‘art’ an indispensable term is precisely its role as an umbrella that collects together disparate practices that cannot be collated into a coherent definition without substantial violence to the way it is used. Its usage, as Wittgenstein attests, is its meaning. Here we cross from the individualist pragmatism that animated your argument to the question of the institutions of art. These institutions are far from trivial elements of our cultures, and include a vast host of diverse organisations and practices that defend not one but many conflicting strong concepts of art. What one gallery (to pick upon the most physical of art institutions) deems art in the strong sense, and hence worthy of exhibition, will not match the judgements of another gallery. But no gallery can get to the decision to display anything without accepting some conceptual framework for art in the strong sense. Hence Rancière’s assertion that art is what reveals the arts to us, as mentioned in my previous letter to you.

Now as a sheer point of political actuality, we would all be greatly impoverished by the elimination of galleries – not least of all because the consequence of this would be that the great artworks (however conceived) would become solely the preserve of the wealthy few. (I find a worrying shadow of this in Wu-Tang Clan’s decision to make and sell an album to a single purchaser, which I find fairly appalling, although understandable). But the word ‘art’ is not just the mythology animating the gallery system that ensures the poor can share in the work of artists, it is also a mythos that gives politicians reasons not to remove art from the curriculum, and that encourages the wealthy or politically connected to support those institutions that will pursue creative projects for reasons beyond profit or utility.

Returning to the question of the relationship between games and art, I can in this context give the clearest indication of why this matters. For Tale of Tales, who made this intersection their home for a marvellous decade, could not have pursued any of their works without the support of the Belgian arts council. Here is the corporeal consequence of the intangible spectre of the art word: there are no art councils without it. The institutions that support the creation of public aesthetic works depend upon the notion of ‘art’ to justify their existence. And, if I am frank, the same is equally true of the mythology of ‘science’, which in many respects is far more problematic at this time than that of ‘art’ – and I say this without in any way contradicting my life-long love of the work of scientists. Institutions accrete around the broad terms that give them meaning. As such, we must be careful not to look behind the curtain if there is something for which we should like the great wizard to deploy its mystique.

The variegated tapestry of art institutions defend the myriad practices of artists from being crushed beneath systems of governing that will commit billions to bombing the poor abroad with ever more complex weaponry, and lock us all into uncritical acceptance of unjust infrastructures that ensure poverty and forms of death so prevalent our so-called ‘news’ services don’t even bother to report upon them. Art may be too weak a word to stop any of this from happening, but its institutions are one of the few places where this grotesquely destructive obsession with narrowly-conceived utility can be resisted. You may say all this could happen without ever speaking the name ‘art’. I am radically unconvinced of that.

With love and respect,


Happy Winter Solstice! More nonsense in the Gregorian New Year.


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