The Ear Trumpet of the Artworld Has Been Struck by Lightning

This paper was originally contributed to an issue of Artlink [30 (2, 2010): 51-53] called Underground, guest-edited by Lucas Ihlein. It is also reprinted in my book Get a Life (2014)

 

I am not sure whether the artworld walks past me as if with an iPod in its ear as a reproof, because it thinks that those it has pronounced dead should stay quietly buried, or because my own choice of a subterranean rostrum was imprudent in the first place.

This rumination is provoked by a recent essay in which two historians do not quite decide where to lay the blamei. They write:

Brook never became firmly part of the Australian art establishment … because [he] was not at all concerned about Australian identity, nor about provincialism, nor about regionalism versus internationalism. Brook had argued that there was a difference between dissent within art institutions – within a closed shop – and dissent issuing from art. Only the former, which could be appropriated easily by galleries and their curators, was to remain visible within art discourse.

I go for inaudibility rather than invisibility, but what calls for elucidation is the distinction between a form of dissent that is perceptible to the artworld and one that is not. Much of what I wrote forty years ago certainly registered as dissent within the artworld, as if it had been opinionated critical grandstanding of the usual sort. My important message—what these writers call ‘dissent issuing from art’—did not try to tell ‘artists of high and serious ambition’iii what they should do next. It tried to tell the artworld that it had the wrong idea about what art is.

It has only recently become obvious to me that there is a sense in which having the wrong idea about what art is doesn’t matter very much because art cannot be deliberately made in any case. There is no such thing as knowing how to make it. Back then, however, promoting the right idea about what art is seemed to be important.

Naturally, the artworld did not believe that it had the wrong idea about what art is. It thought then and it continues to think that art can be made, and that its vicissitudes and mutations have a history. The trick it wanted to master was to be so prescient about the way art’s history will go next that the smart operator will be able to get there ahead of it.

The issues here are so hard to untangle that I made a lot of mistakes. In the late ’sixties and early ’seventies. I seemed to be promoting something that I called post-object art as if I conceived it as the upcoming style or movement that was about to annihilate abstract expressionism or Antipodeanism or post-painterly abstraction before being itself overtaken by the next big deal. In more theoretical writings I insisted that this was not what I meant, but those artists who only read exhibition notices in the newspapers and the occasional magazine article could be forgiven for getting the wrong take-home message. I wanted to undermine, not to reinforce, the suggestion that artists need to know what art is in order to make some just as we all need to know what hors d’oeuvres are if we hope to knock up a batch in the kitchen.

My really subversive polemic was directed against the idea that ‘art’ is the word that names the class of works of art. Of course things that have been, or are likely to be, classified as works of art can be deliberately made. Moreover, all of the ways in which they have been made in the past display evolutionary histories. But every attempt I made to speak carefully about this was hijacked by the way casual speech conspires with institutional punditry to generate confusion.

There is an easy way of explaining—but alas no easy way of eradicating—the disputes and exchanges of ill-feeling that constantly break out about all this. Fundamentally, the trouble is that the inscription ‘art’ is a homographiv that deceptively accommodates two very different words. One of them is the word we use in sentences like ‘art is a sort of revelation.’ The other is the word that appears in sentences like ‘some works of art are rubbish’. Art is not instantiated in every work of art just as sucrose is not instantiated in every date; and certainly not in dates such as the 17th of September.

The artworld uses the word ‘art’ to mean ‘the class of works of art’. It also understands, correctly, that the class of works of art has been historically shaped. It then incoherently asserts that art is what it always was, for Aurignacian cave-dwellers just as it is for Generation Y. This contradiction is so egregious that the need to resolve it should have become obvious at least a century ago: certainly after Duchamp’s cathartic challenge and the subsequent triumph of the so called ‘Institutional Theory of Art’.

The artworld still does not understand that although the Institutional Theory is correct it is not—despite its name—a theory about what art is. It a theory about the way in which some things come to be classified as works of art while others do not. The slogan ‘Art is whatever the artworld says it is’ is false. Art is not whatever the artworld says it is. We should say instead ‘Works of art are whatever the artworld says they are’. This is the simple truth.

I cannot myself say what art is in a few words; nor do I need to do so in order to press my argument against the artworld. I believe that ‘art’ is the most appropriate general name for memetic innovation,v and that accidentally generated new memes drive cultural evolution in a way analogous to the way in which accidentally generated new genes drive biological evolution. Most of the artworld believes, quite differently, that art is a distilled essence of aesthetic goodness. This difference is not, however, the basis of the dissent that motivates this essay. It is motivated by the conviction that whatever one takes the abiding nature of art to be (and whether one is right or wrong) it is impossible to have one’s cake and eat it. If art is what it always was, then art does not have a history.

Sadly, an intellectually disreputable branch of scholarship called ‘Art History’ has lent its authority to the incoherent doctrine that what artists make is art, and it changes over time. Art History is an ‘academic discipline’ dedicated to the construction of a rag-bag of stories about the ways in which certain loosely related cultural kindsvi have emerged, have changed, and have eventually been superseded. These cultural kinds are constituted by objects that have come to be classified as works of art, often for quite arbitrary reasons. Minoan oil storage jars, Byzantine religious mosaics and bizarre performances for which the artist does not even turn up are typical examples.

The stories told by ‘art historians’ are a mish-mash of gossip about social and political contexts and the hare-brained ideologies of popes and princes. They are stories about the infidelities of artists and the dodgy practices of dealers; about the fickle tastes of patrons, curators and beady-eyed collectors; about the machinations of auction houses and about accidental finds in attics. If it is ever to claim respect as an intellectual discipline Art History must be re-named; perhaps to ‘The Histories of Artworks’ or even to ‘The Histories of Artworlds’. It must then make the best case it can for adoption by departments of Sociology or Anthropology, against whatever resistance is to be expected. Anthropologists and cultural historians have their own blemishes, but they smell humbug.

Art historians are not the only villains in my piece. Since the eighteenth century a world of philosophical aesthetics has sprung up adjacent to the artworld, conspiring with the art historians to mislead artists. I have a foot in both camps and once offered the world of philosophical aesthetics a document that I called ‘A transinstitutional non-voluntary modelling theory of art’. This bizarre title was compassionately put down by the editor of The British Journal of Aesthetics, who published the essay as ‘A new theory of art,’vii offering me the incidental encomium that ‘[T]his is the most exciting article to reach me since I took over as editor. It is a privilege to accept it for publication’viii.

Whatever got into him, I wonder? My ‘new theory’ has been casually cited perhaps two or three times in thirty years and I think that it may have only once elicited a response from an Australian art historian, who found it extremely distastefulix. To his credit, though, he seems to have intuited that what I set out to address was the question of what art is rather than the question of how things get to be classified as works of art. It would be difficult otherwise to understand why he charged me primarily with the offence of neo-Kantianism, presumably because Kant is known not to have been much interested in works of art. How otherwise should my neo-Wittgensteinean analytics have scored such a flattering association with transcendental idealism?

***

Here is an important caveat. I do not say that there is no relationship at all between art and works of art. The point I make is that this relationship is contingent and accidental. The manifestation or the embodiment of art is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for classifying a presented candidate as a work of art. Which is not to say, of course, that things are disqualified from figuring in significant passages of cultural evolution merely because they have been classified as works of art.

Many of the things that we now cheerfully classify as works of art were more influential in shaping cultural evolution during the mediaeval and European renaissance periods than their notional equivalents are today. The contemporary artworld is correctly regarded as a branch of the entertainment industry. It has little or no credibility with the general public as the place where intelligent people must go in search of new insights about the best way to expand their minds and revise their social institutions. In these respects the accessibly popularised worlds of digital communications, molecular biology and nanotechnology leave the artworld for dead.

In spite of this the artworld still has a significant social role, distinguishing it from many other branches of the entertainment industry as well as from the everyday world of work. It is the principal promoter of the detached mode of contemplation, actively sponsoring an open-minded responsiveness to its presentations. Without this new and entirely unexpected insights would be crowded out by practical, instrumental, thinking and by the constraints of habit and prejudice.

It has been suggested to me that the artworld’s inability to hear what Barker and Green characterise as ‘dissent issuing from art’ may be attributable to some other cause than the homonymic nature of the inscription ‘art,’ taken together with the adverse conditions of subterranean voice-projection. Could it be that I am simply wrong?

This explanation strikes me as implausible. I prefer to speculate that the ear trumpet of the artworld has been struck by lightning. This misfortune has had the consequence that only those popular voices of confusion delivered by megaphone are clearly audible, and familiar enough to be believed.

***

i Heather Barker and Charles Green, ‘Flight from the Object: Donald Brook, Inhibodress and the Emergence of Post-Studio Art in Early 1970s Sydney.’ Emaj issue 4, 2009. http://www.melbourneartjournal.unimelb.edu.au/E-MAJ .

ii As above, p.21.

iii I quote the late Clement Greenberg with irony, and some disdain.

iv Homonymity is what may (or may not) make today’s date inedible. Roughly, homographs are different words written in the same way; homophones are different words that sound the same. ‘Art’ as written is a homograph and (when spoken) a homophone.

v For a more comprehensive account see my recent essay in book format, The awful truth about what art is (Artlink, Adelaide, 2008).

vi A cultural kind (such as the motor vehicle or the Etruscan sarcophagus) is like a biological kind (such as the Chinese cabbage or the rock-wallaby). In both cases there is an evolutionary history.

vii ‘A new theory of art.’ British Journal of Aesthetics 20 (No. 4, Autumn 1980): 305-321.

viii T. E. Diffey, in a personal letter dated 9 August 1979.

ix B. Smith, ‘Concerning Donald Brook’s “New Theory of Art”.’ Meanjin 47 (No. 1, 1988): 5-10.