Art is not a verb

This essay, originally delivered as a lecture under the title ‘More on art is not a verb’ in the Hetzel Lecture Theatre in the Institute Building in Adelaide on 19 March 2015, was prompted by the exhibition ‘Art as a verb’ (14 Feb-26 April 2015). I have significantly updated that text, and reverted to the simpler title ‘Art is not a verb.’

The exhibition title ‘Art as a verb’[1] compresses a fantasy about what art is into four words that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Processes and performances are contrasted with objects not as if they were animated objects but as if they were not objects at all. I made a few sceptical remarks about this when launching the exhibition in Adelaide on 19 February 2015;[2] but more needs to be said.

There have been at least four stories about why some artefacts are more popular than others, and about why their artificers deserve unusual respect. These accounts of the relative virtues of things and of the people who make them have shown up historically in four distinguishable ways, that might conveniently be called the ancient artschtick, the modern artschtick, the heretical artschtick and the awful truth.

This is roughly how it went.

The ancient artschtick

Most if not all cultures seem to have used a pair of words to mark an intuited difference between the use of the word ‘art’ on the one hand and of ‘craft,’ or ‘skill,’ on the other. The categorical nature of this distinction has always been elusive, but the availability of different locutions clearly signals different ways understanding not only why some artefacts are preferred to others but also of why their artificers should be differentially admired.

Words equivalent to ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’ hovered uncertainly between their roles as markers of differences in the degree and of differences in the kind of approbation that would be appropriate. Artful and therefore well-rewarded lawyers would be able to get their manifestly guilty clients off Scott free, unlike merely competent practitioners of legal skills that any diligent student could acquire in law school. Artful and therefore celebrated picture-painters would be able to make speaking likenesses of real things and astonishing images of imaginary things by exercising skills that they seemed not to have acquired by assisting their ordinarily competent teachers. Skills were supposed somehow to underlie displays of artfulness, but commendation as an artist invoked skills that were not merely elevated but also, to some degree, mysteriously inexplicable.

It may have been an impulse to demystify this difference that propelled the story on toward the modern artschtick, in which the significant difference between the skills of artists and those of artisans would be elucidated more explicitly in terms of their sort than of their level or degree. The conviction grew that the skills of artists are so recondite that ordinary artisans would not find it merely difficult to acquire them. They would find it impossible. A myth of genius took hold.

The modern artschtick

For white Australian boat people, if not for the Kalahari bush people or for the Inuit, the modern artschtick had its cultural origins in the European renaissance. We owe the twaddle that now passes for art theory mainly to the ruminations of its late-flowering crop of eighteenth century philosophers. Very roughly: it had always been obvious to everyone that when the grounds of our common admiration for preferred objects and processes are exhaustively spelled out there seems to be an important remaining consideration that doesn’t relate to any useful, or practical, or instrumental consideration that we are able to specify. We are apparently engaged with a free-floating virtue unrelated to identifiable amenities such as comfortably fitting the foot or persuasively telling the bible story or profitably selling soap, or relieving indigestion.

It became increasingly tempting to identify this inexplicable ground of attractiveness with our pleasurable response to certain naturally occurring things that are arguably of no material concern or use to us. Butterflies’ wings, waving daffodils and green tree frogs are typically cited. It is not obvious why cane toads and green slime miss out, but their repellent nature is similarly uncontested. Beauty was and remains the word available in conversational English for this quality.

It became increasingly fashionable in Europe some five or six hundred years ago to attribute beauty not only to favourably endowed natural objects, including people, but also to a culturally favoured set of useful artefacts. These originally comprised expensive buildings and statues of important real and imaginary persons, as well as instructive or morally uplifting wall and panel paintings. Things of these sorts soon came to attract more admiration for being beautiful than they did for being useful, notwithstanding their obvious and continuing practical, social and ideological purposes. A superior kind of artifacture evolved, restricted in its forms and media to the service of a new cultural domain that would come to be called The Fine Arts.

The philosophical basis of the distinction that was opening up between the new fine arts and the older, coarser, arts was obscure and there were rough edges to the emergent cultural practices. Generous appreciators of the ancient handicrafts continued to characterise the exceptionally skilful makers of wheelbarrows and prosthetic limbs as artists. The knot of questions about whether gifted artisans working in these less exalted domains would ever deserve acclamation not merely as artists but as fine artists was not teased out in ordinary conversation. What did it matter, except to the rich and powerful?

Whether it mattered or not, it was the question that prised open the old conceptual lesion allowing the modern rot to take hold. The philosophers moved in and disputation flourished among the wealthy and the literate. Should works of fine art be judged beautiful by virtue solely of their formal or ‘intrinsic’ properties, like peacock’s tails? Does a painting of Heaven qualify as beautiful in the same way as a daffodil qualifies as beautiful? If so, do we not situate artists at some risk of doctrinal self-condemnation, or of a futile raid on the the impossible, when we challenge them to paint for us a beautiful picture of Hell?

One stratagem for coping with this dilemma might be to rule that the beauty of works of fine art should be sought not in their strictly formal attributes but in a more relational or operational way. Should they not rather be conceived as the instrumental sources of a distinctive, intrinsically valuable, inner experience generated in appropriately sensitive human perceivers? An explanation will be required in that case of how and why the inner of experiences of beauty induced by encounters with works of art differ from those that are induced by encounters with naturally beautiful objects. It might call for attention not only to the formal properties of artefactual works but also to their intentional and purposefully inserted content. Only with some such conceptual apparatus might we be able to distinguish clearly between the beauty of works of fine art and that of natural objects; and perhaps even works of coarse art too. A putatively distinctive and virtuous unity of form and content that is perceptible only in works of fine art might do the trick.

And so on.

We need wade no deeper into the intellectual midden of Philosophical Aesthetics, or press on into the postmodern art school travesty that came to be called Art Theory, to see that a consensus of sorts had emerged by the end of the nineteenth century. The vulgar concept of beauty, rooted as it had been in an inscrutably beneficent Nature, would not be capable of dealing with the more sophisticated demands of the fine arts. Aestheticians would need a more technically circumscribed concept to fit up the sceptics and doubters in the way in which bent cops fit up suspected crims, by drafting their confessions for them and planting the evidence. Beauty must be relegated to casual conversation: aesthetic value will be where it’s at, in the artworld. Only artworld-accredited experts will be deemed capable of speaking with authority about which things standing for recognition as works of fine art do, and which of them do not, incarnate the required quantum of aesthetic value.

By the early to mid-twentieth century it had become the conventional wisdom that there are, strictly speaking, no such things as works of coarse art. These are only arts and crafts. Works of art are, by definition, works of fine art, They are artefacts in which aesthetic value has been purposefully incarnated. There was a radical version of this story in which those things that are judged not to be works of art fail conclusively on the ground they are without aesthetic value. There was also a more plausibly moderate version in which it was conceded that things that do not qualify as works of art might nevertheless have some aesthetic value in them; although not enough to interest the artworld.

Detection of the qualifying amount of aesthetic value in candidate objects had come to be firmly in the hands of accredited agents of the artworld whose processes of introspection disclosed to them the emergence of an aesthetic experience that is indubitably distinguishable from a moral experience, from a near-death experience, from an acid trip, from orgasm and from gastric reflux. Whatever passes this test has aesthetic value, and (subject to vague tests of plausibility on grounds of form and medium) is almost certainly a work of art and not, let us say, merely a ceramic vessel or a video clip.

It was a great felicity of aesthetic value (unlike moral or political or any other value) that it should have turned out as it did to be potentially worth an enormous amount of money. Also, any anxiety that amateur art-appreciators might feel in case they should mistakenly suppose themselves to be encountering aesthetic value when facing up to a pizza with everything can easily be dispelled. It is not a subjective question. When push comes to shove it is an objectively determinable question that will be definitively settled, through the courts if necessary, by accredited agents of the artworld fronting up as expert witnesses.

This patently mythical belief system worked in astonishing harmony with a financial investment industry that had evolved almost simultaneously out of an originally amateurish trade in antiques and cultural collectables. There have always been items of cultural interest that were not considered to be works of art but were nevertheless irresistibly attractive to collectors and investors. I do not know how much Nelson’s waistcoat is worth, or John Fowler’s beam engine or a signed first edition of The origin of Species, but it would almost certainly be blown away by a well-credentialed work of art such as Jeff Koons’ Orange Balloon Dog, of which the aesthetic value was recently determined at public auction to be around $58 million US dollars.

We have not yet come to the awful truth that points us ahead of the history stories toward a curiosity about today’s artworld. Because it is so rapidly shedding the social class and elitist affiliations that once sustained and shaped it, proliferating into cyberspace and flourishing in popular forms and media, one might have expected to see the fine arts breaking up into undifferentiated arts of craftier and more demotic sorts. With the twitterati kneecapping the intelligentsia and cognoscenti whose once authoritative facade is collapsing into the shallow joviality of The Mix,[3] one might have expected to see the concentration of the artworld’s active ingredient diluting to levels familiar in homeopathic medicine.

It isn’t happening. An apparently inexhaustible well of capital gushes up at the artworld’s centre, funding fresh acres of art museum space in roughly inverse proportion to the diminishing stock of agricultural land. The auction houses boom. Artists retain their status as the exploited producers of product; increasingly certificated arts administrators remain the product marketeers and—just as it is with Coles and Woolies—the market rules.

This observation is more than a grace note to my account of why art is not a verb, that I shall come to in a moment. The modern artschtick has not been seriously threatened by those heretics whose spiel will be considered next.

The heretical artschtick

There have always been dissenting voices within the artworld, about what and where the art is. With the objects that artists make and the inner states of their aesthetic contemplators both under suspicion, a new story has emerged. The reason why we remain so unconfident about our ability to assess the aesthetic value of works of art (so we are now told) is not because the experts are untrustworthy. It is because we have been looking in the wrong place. We should be directing our attention neither outwardly toward the objects on display nor inwardly toward our own aesthetic emotions. We should be attending to the distinctive aesthetic process that is allegedly being deployed by artists only when they are making works of art and—by implication—is not called upon when they break off to make a ham sandwich. (Unless, of course, they are offering the process of making a ham sandwich as a work of art).

The catchy way of telling this story in a slogan has been to say that works of art are things that have been arted. This passive construction seems to be derived from a notionally active verb that would need to go: ‘I art; thou artest; he she or it arts; we, you and they art.’ There is seductive backward glance here, toward the ancient artschtick. Arting things is clearly conceived as a skill analogous in some ways to sandpapering or knitting things, except for the obdurate mystery that will not go away. Whereas anyone can acquire such pedestrian skills as knitting and sandpapering things, and even such elevated skills as sequencing DNA, artists alone command the skill of arting things.

Despite its reassuringly backward look and the indubitable fact that many artists have been seduced by it, there is almost nothing to be said for this. Without any appeal to the nit-picking of the dictionaries, there are at least three things seriously wrong with it. First: art—whatever it may be that is named or referred to by the word ‘art’—is not a word, and it can be assigned no grammatical status whatsoever. This consideration alone should be conclusive, but it will not deter the rampant heretics who find appeals to the difference between meaning what one says and saying what one means irritatingly academic.

Second: the process of making something, as when a performance is unfolding, does not contrast appropriately with the object that is being made. A process presented to an audience for appreciation as a work of performance art is an object that is accessible to public appraisal. Actors, dancers and musicians have always understood this. There seems to be a misunderstanding here for which I have myself occasionally been partly blamed; although I plead not guilty. Just 46 years ago I delivered a lecture called ‘Flight from the object,’[4] in which I was mistakenly thought to have contrasted processes with objects as if processes were not objects. But I was contrasting objects of one sort with objects of another sort, offering by way of clarification two concluding principles one of which I called The Principle of Publicity. It went like this:

Whatever the artist, as such, makes or does should be in principle a public entity; because only that which is (in principle) available to anyone is capable of supporting a common language, a common understanding, a community of values.

The attempt to locate art in a process that is distinct from its own public manifestation only pushes question one step back along an infinite regression. Can there not be an art of making the process of making a work of art? If so, shall we find it in the art of making the process of making the process of making a work of art? And so on.

The third and perhaps most compelling objection to a putative skill of arting is conceptual, and very simple. The word ‘art’ is the name of something we find, that we did not expect to find. Contrastingly, the goals of purposeful skills must be and cannot but be anticipated goals. The purposeful performance of an action of making an unanticipated thing that we are unable in any way to represent or to describe prior to or during the course of the action is not merely impractical: it is inconceivable.

The awful truth

The fact that the awful truth about what art is can, at a pinch, be tweeted in 140 characters does nothing for its credibility in the artworld. Art is an illumination that enables actions to be performed that subsequent performers of these actions had not previously known to be possible. It is found everywhere and can’t be purposefully made.

By way of illustration: many years ago I sat at a waterside restaurant table in Greece. Like everyone else I was capable then just as I am capable now of displaying behaviours with no currently assignable goal or expectation. Infants do this and so do adult victims of Tourette syndrome. I was, of course, also capable of performing actions purposefully directed toward anticipated goals that I could optimistically specify. I could, for example, perform the purposeful action of scaring away a seagull that threatened to steal my calamari by clapping my hands. The expected flight of the bird would be the anticipated consequence by virtue of which observant bystanders might confirm their estimate that my hand-clapping behaviour was performed as a purposeful action of seagull-scaring.

This bird-scaring action was certainly related in some intimate way to the bodily movement of clapping my hands; but I characterise this bodily movement neutrally as a behaviour, and not as an action, for the following reason. In a different situation—for example when attending a musical concert—an appropriately timed and pitched behaviour of hand-clapping would qualify me as a performer of the action of applauding the pianist. Under these circumstances nobody should be willing to concede that I might be performing the action of scaring a seagull.

The countless performable actions that are always available to all of us, linked in context-dependent ways to our bodily behaviours, can conveniently be called memes. There are also and always innumerable viable memes potentially available to us that we have not yet assimilated into our repertoires; memes that we do not yet know about, and therefore cannot presently exercise.[5] One such meme became available to me at that restaurant table, as a small epiphany. I clapped my hands in the purposeful performance of an action of scaring a seagull, and to my surprise a waiter came running from the kitchen to me.

This was not such a grand epiphany as the revelation of Christ’s divinity to the Gentiles but it was a revelation nevertheless. I had discovered what was, for me, a new publicly viable and regularly efficacious meme. Under appropriate circumstances I could thereafter purposefully perform an action of summoning a waiter in a Greek restaurant by clapping my hands. The scope of my purposeful engagement with the world, enabled by its objective and publicly exploitable regularities, had been incrementally enlarged.

The example is trivial but its relevance to the concept of art is profound. It offers us the key to an old and invariant use of the word ‘art’ as a name for the unexpected discoveries of ways of thinking, feeling and acting that can thereafter be expressed as skilled performances. New memes stand at first outside our repertoires of competence, in the domain of ignorance or innocence in which purposeful action is inconceivable. There cannot be a purposeful action of ‘arting’ for this reason. The concept of art is not related to the concept of skill along any notional scale of relative competence, or of magically acquired purposefulness. Art is categorically distinct from skill.

In summary

Opposition to this awful truth is indomitable in the artworld. Proponents of the modern artschtick and of its heretical variation are equally committed to a conflation of the two words spelled ‘art.’ Nobody conflates the three or more radically different words all of which are spelled ‘bow,’ confusing the front end of a ship with a primitive weapon or with the deferential respect shown by an Australian Prime Minister to an English Prince. Nobody mistakes a garden rake for a deplorable male person habituated to immoral conduct. The artworld, however, trades on its willful conflation of the name of memetic innovation (which is the engine of cultural evolution, and is of profound importance) with the similarly spelled word that is used to name the class of works of art, of which most presented items are trivial, or artless, or both.

Artists are called artists because they make works of art just as pastry cooks are so called because they cook pastry. They are not and cannot be called artists because they make art for the insurmountable reason that this is not merely a difficult task. It is impossible. Artists are often conflicted in their motivation between an intuitive but strongly repressed understanding that art can only be unexpectedly found and the hair-raising demand for purposefully wrought product by an artworld that offers them comfort, support and a flickering prospect of fame, in return for compliance with its mythology.

Central to this mythological system is an idolatry of ‘aesthetic value.’ When I am invited to agree that a work of art is beautiful I think I know roughly what what’s intended and my assent may be spontaneous, and even sometimes unqualified. The beauty of a work of art may be—although it is not necessarily—one of the considerations that motivate me to admire the object or the performance and to commend its author. Contrastingly, when I am asked to agree that a work of art has aesthetic value I don’t know what to say. This was troublesome in my days as a critic, and it probably accounts for the outraged correspondence my editors used to get from dealers whose marketing exploits turned on the flow of testimonials that were the quid pro quo for their advertising revenue.

Let us then, for the sake of argument, give the existence of ‘aesthetic value’ the benefit of the doubt alongside such better-credentialed amenities as moral value, scientific value, polemical or political value and therapeutic value. The point to which I draw attention is that if there is indeed such a thing, and if it is a thing of a sort that can be purposefully generated, then it cannot be identified with art. Truly admirable works of art can do very well without it.

So: despite the melancholy fact that the exhibition ‘Art as a verb’ is seriously misconceived we may take consolation in the thought that, under the eye of eternity, it doesn’t matter much. In practice the processes and performances that are offered up for our contemplation are ingenious, provocative, occasionally hideous, sometimes comical and always entertaining. They serve to keep the artists responsible for them updated about where the visual artworld branch of the entertainment industry is presently going, and about what they will need to do next if they wish to have attention paid to them.

More significantly: in our encounters with works of art it is possible that we shall find the world transfigured by some unanticipated revelation of a new way of grasping its possibilities, of extending our powers and of enriching our lives. Luckily, this is so and it has always been so, whether or not the artworld finally gets it right about what art is.


1.   The exhibition, curated in Melbourne, was presented at the Flinders University Art Museum and City Art Gallery, 14 February -16 April 2015 and will travel elsewhere throughout the year.

2. Available at

3.     A 2015 ‘Arts’ program of the ABC.

4.     See the 1969 John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art. ‘Flight from the object,‘ Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts. 1970, 1-22. Also reprinted in my book Get a Life, Artlink, Adelaide. 2014.

5.     All of this material is set out with more precision and in greater detail in my book The Awful Truth About What Art Is (Artlink, Adelaide, 2008) as well as in numerous papers: notably ‘Art history?’ in History and Theory 43 (February 2004), 1-17

For art, against aesthetics

This conference address first appeared in print in Ian North, Ed., Visual animals: crossovers, evolution and aesthetics, published by Contemporary Arts Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, 2007. It was reprinted in my book Get a Life, Artlink, Adelaide, 2015.


Whoever wishes to know what art is had better ignore the Irish advice: if that is where one wants to go it would be better not to start from here.

‘Here,’ for me, is the Anglo-American language-analytical movement that I inherited just after the second world war, along with an optimism that turned out not to be well-founded. The excoriation of essentialist theories of art was already well advanced. William Elton’s 1954 anthology called Aesthetics and Language summarized the state of play. Quite soon George Dickie, Arthur Danto and others, would divert the attention of English-speaking philosophers from the notional referent of the abstract noun ‘art’ to a concrete social formation called ‘the artworld;’ a historical institution credited with the power to determine the admissibility of candidates for recognition as works of art on an ad hoc daily basis.

Speakers of most European languages welcomed the collapse of the eternal verities, but found their Anglo-Saxon obituaries over-fastidious. Whereas English-speakers were cautioned to ‘say what you like, but be careful,’ the University of Paris encouraged its spectacular rhetoricians to go for their lives.

The artworld has never been primarily English-speaking. Most of the artists considered to be important had spoken Italian, and the leading authorities on their importance had mainly spoken German. After the war, the readiness of everyone except the French to speak American did not bring with it a respect for analytical philosophy. It brought instead an accelerating confidence that one could say absolutely whatever one pleased because nothing that anyone said stood the slightest chance of being true. Artists, by and large, did not understand what this bonfire of the verities was really about, but they danced around it gleefully.

Unfortunately, whether the good news was brought to them in guardedly language-analytical or in recklessly deconstructive terms, their old anxiety remained. What artists still wanted to know, even half a century after the end of truth, was not whether to go with Baudrillard on the question whether there had been a first Gulf War. Such intellectual antics dominated the new tertiary subject called ‘Theory,’ but for art practitioners it got no solid grip on the question why Damien Hirst’s pickled shark deserved to win the Turner Prize. The insomnia of the artists was fuelled on rumination about how anyone could tell—never mind about Theory—which works of art are really good, and why. Postmodern libertarianism quickly became a conspiracy in which everyone suspected that everyone else had been admitted to a secret from which he or she had been excluded.

Even before Aristotle tutored Alexander philosophers were generous with advice. Philosophers of art had long equivocated between spelling out for the benefit of practitioners the criteria of identity and individuation for works of art, and promoting doctrines about their value. Language-analysts and post-structuralists joined forces in bucketing essentialism, but all of them found it hard to shake off the conviction they had acquired in childhood that beauty (or ‘aesthetic quality,’ to hedge the bet) is what art is really about. Those few serious philosophers who persisted beyond the eighteenth century with the opinion that pictures are interesting began to call themselves ‘aestheticians,’ as if the essentially aesthetic nature of art—whether on Kant’s account of the word or Baumgarten’s—was common ground.

The association of art with beauty came under savage assault in the second half of the twentieth century, when art galleries began brazenly inviting their visitors to wade in drillers’ mud or to bestow their admiration upon the canned ordure of the artist. The fact is, of course, that philosophers—most of whom rarely visited art galleries and knew about this mainly by hearsay—had never been entirely comfortable with beauty. Beauty has an indelible association in the common mind with birds, bees and flowers, and it turned out not to be at all easy to distinguish ‘aesthetic quality’ as a species of beauty that is peculiar to works of art without defining ‘aesthetic quality’ in a circular way as ‘the sort of beauty that works of art have’.

I do not single out beauty for denunciation because I dislike either daffodils or attractively constructed pictures of them, but because otherwise reputable philosophers have lately been discovered prowling the graveyard of the essences in an attempt to resurrect beauty on behalf of art; perhaps with the aid of neuroscience. This seems to be a project motivated in part by the utopian conviction that neuroscience has overtaken sliced bread in the race to a perfect world; but it must also be responsive to the distress of those practising artists who find themselves mired in the swamp of postmodernity. It takes a callous philosopher to turn a deaf ear to the lamentations of a profession that must rely on the jury of the Turner Prize for instruction on what is and what is not to count as a work of art[1], and must wait until the auction rooms have settled the question if they wish to be sure about how good it is.

One understands the grave-robbers’ motivation, and one wonders whether it is possible to find some way out of the morass of relativism. I believe that there is; although not hand in hand with a revenant beauty. But before I offer a more plausible suggestion, let me go back to a comparatively recent moment in the ‘discourse’ about beauty. In 1995 the popular art theorist Suzi Gablik nailed her colours to the following mast:

[Hilton] Kramer is in the forefront of those who believe that when art is actively engaged with the world, its aesthetic quality is necessarily compromised. I, on the other hand, consider that such art is often intensely aesthetic, because in responding compassionately to whatever it touches, it is helping to create a more beautiful world. Artists whose work helps to heal our soulless attitudes toward the physical world have my full respect and attention because, for me, beauty is an activity rather than an entity, a consciousness of, and reverence for, the beauty of the world.[2]

What I should like to distil from this ardent passage is not at first Ms Gablik’s submission to the beautiful, whether in nature or in art. I draw attention to two other elements of her claim: first, her characterization of art as ‘an activity’ rather than ‘an entity;’ and then her implication that the reverence implicit in this activity is transhistorical and trans-cultural. She is surely right on both these points; but I suggest that she is seriously wrong in her identification of the beauty of the world as the proper object of reverence.

Irrespective of their objective justification, all attributions of beauty—whether natural or artefactual—incorporate a favourable judgment. They bestow a seal of approval upon the object of contemplation. But I am convinced that we do not treat the world with the respect that is due to it as an object of reverence by judging that it deserves our approval, no matter how well-founded we take our endorsement to be. A truly reverential attitude must situate the world as the inscrutable source of all as-yet undisclosed contingencies, many of which—notably including our own extinction as a species—we are likely to find thoroughly uncongenial. Reverence for the world is more like awe than it is like gratitude.

I share, of course, the ambivalence of the prophet Jeremiah about the fate of human kind, and would distinguish hope not only from faith and charity in the usual ways but also—and more clearly than he does—from both optimism and pessimism. We must look forward with a hope that is untainted by anthropic prejudice. A world that is capable of delivering up George W. Bush and the Ebola virus is not intrinsically designed to solicit our approval.

Hope, epiphanies and memes

So here, in a nutshell, is my case.

Whether our psychological attitude is optimistic or pessimistic, we look forward to a world that will endlessly reveal to us new insights into its regularities, and hence new ways of acting with deliberation. We expect to see, day after day, how to do things that we had not known we could do. Our usually self-serving exploitation of newly acquired powers will not necessarily have beneficial consequences, even for ourselves; but it is the anticipation of their emergent availability that dominates our minds as—one supposes—it gets little or no grip upon the minds of beetles. Virtue and vice flourish just because our capacity to act with deliberation is not fixed either by our current genetic endowment or by our current understanding of what it is possible to do. The world commands our reverence not because it is disposed to provide us with some kind of satisfaction but because it is an endless source of new insights into its regularities, and the potential for action that flows from these regularities. Shall we or shall we not buy an iPod? Shall we or shall we not agree that terror and drugs are entities against which warfare can intelligibly be conducted?

So my principal argumentative move is to offer (just as Ms Gablik does) a transhistorical and transcultural account of art; but not to construct it either in terms of gratitude for what we consider to be beautiful or of the conviction that, whether we are grateful for it or not, our lives and histories are shaped by this amenity. Instead, I identify art with revelation; or—to put it less grandly—with the acquisition of new capacities for purposeful action flowing from extensions in our understanding of what it is possible to do. It is the emergence of new insights into the world’s regularities that is of the essence; not the gratification of a taste for beauty.

‘Meme’ is a neologism that I shall use to express the idea of a regular and imitable way of generating any item of a recognisable cultural kind. I have offered an account of the meme that differs slightly from Dawkins’ in several papers[3]. In brief: a meme is a piece of behaviour such that predictable consequences can be expected to flow when and only when it is performed in a correctly recognized context. To raise a hand in a context that is appropriate for generating a vote is not merely to raise a hand; it is to exert what might be called the voting-by-handraising meme[4]. In a different context the same bodily movement will predictably generate not a vote but a greeting, or an application to leave the room, or a summons that will be recognized by taxi-drivers.

There is an obvious analogy between memes and genes. The effect of genes when they are exerted in appropriate bio-chemical contexts is to generate items of specific biological kinds: a partridge, perhaps, or a pear tree. Comparatively, the effect of appropriately exerted memes will be to generate items of specific cultural kinds: a poached egg, perhaps, or a funeral oration. For every individual the discovery of a new and reliable meme is a more or less momentous epiphany; an insight into the way the world’s regularities can be exploited.

The meme can thus be conceived as the fundamental unit of cultural evolution, in parallel with the gene conceived as the fundamental unit of biological evolution. This corresponding apparatus of theory offers to historians a systematic way of understanding how cultural kinds emerge, how they are shaped by variation, and why they eventually pass into extinction. Both new and variant memes, projected as they are into more and less receptive cultural environments, make the evolution of kinds such as the rococo ceiling and the Mars bar as lucidly explicable as the evolution of species like the cuttlefish and the cauliflower.

Most significantly for my immediate purpose, the availability of a truly evolutionary account of culture should encourage the prospects of a revelation theory of art; a theory in which both the acquisition and the successful propagation of new memes play a significant role.

A Revelation Theory of art

Let me remind you of the way the revelation theory of art used to go, in the words of Professor H. D. Lewis. They were written in 1949, when postmodern and language-analytic philosophies were contending for dominance and Jean Baudrillard and I—both of us then in our early twenties—were, in our different ways, highly sceptical.

For the artist is, in the first instance, a seer [whose] essential function, in relation to others, is to make them see something to which they are normally blind. This may be something in Nature or in human life; it does not matter which. But we must in some way be made aware of objects and events in a fashion which is like seeing them for the first time. The artist wrests their secrets from objects and makes them glow with a distinctiveness which escapes normal consciousness of them. This illumination of the world, which almost amounts to a transformation, is the essential function of art, and where some special sense of clarity and penetration is lacking, where there is no heightened consciousness of inhabiting a world which thrusts itself upon the mind with a peculiar sharpness and insistence, there is no art.[5]

I am still out of sympathy with much of Professor Lewis’s general philosophical position, but I believe that in a certain way, and with some drastic revision, he was right about art. Plainly, we cannot countenance the unnatural and perhaps even supernatural powers that he attributes to artists. Individuals certainly differ in the insightfulness of their responses to the world, but increments of understanding are not granted only to those people who have taken the trouble to acquire skills in a recognized genre of art. Small epiphanies are commonplace; even major ones may come occasionally to anyone, by luck or by accident.

Speaking for myself as an artist and as another person, I believe that artists are very much like other people. In particular, artists are occasionally delighted to see something that they have themselves made or done that was not what they intended: something that they did not previously know to lie within their competence. In the course of exercising familiar memes we discover new ones. Artists may even try to surprise themselves, in a way that is strongly discouraged in brain surgery, as it is among short-order cooks. I shall develop in a moment the point that a detached review of what one is oneself doing may be more rewarding within the institution of art than exercises of the intent purposefulness that characterize professional and trade practices.

Another element of Lewis’s account of revelation that must also be repudiated is not the universality of his claim, which I believe to be appropriate. It is its hint of grandiosity. He clearly takes revelation to offer a momentous and profound illumination; but the fact is that most of the new memes we acquire are not only minor and trivial but often distasteful or maleficent in their effect. Great epiphanies are rare in any context, and I suggest that the road to Damascus is no more likely to pass through the art gallery than through the supermarket. If switching a light bulb on and off in the Tate discloses to us a regular way of generating items of a new cultural kind, nobody seems to have found it to be a meme worth perpetuating. In the art schools, of course, imitation is compulsive, but it will be surprising if this fatuous practice propagates as vigorously as the display of prints of Van Gogh’s sunflowers on living room walls.

So, with these reservations, I return to the theme of reverence: the reverence that is appropriate to a world with an apparently inexhaustible capacity to disclose unanticipated but exploitable regularities that enable us to see for the first time what can now be regularly made or done, and how to do it. Such epiphanies are characteristically marked by the exclamation ‘Aha!’ and I suggest that ‘Aha!’ is a more profound expression of reverence for the world than any appreciative response to a presentation that we judge to be beautiful.

The meanings of ‘art’ and ‘work of art’

An identification of art with the transhistorical and transcultural category of revelation sails us close to the wind of essentialism, and there is a consequence that must be confronted. We may be forced to withhold from the artworld a fundamental right that is claimed for it by institutional theorists: namely, the right to decide for itself, in its own way and in its own time, what art is. If art is transhistorically and transculturally identified with revelation, then the artworld not only can be mistaken from time to time about what art is; it usually is mistaken. It will, indeed, be most egregiously mistaken when it identifies art with beauty.

There is a related problem. If—contrary to current dogma—the artworld does not have proprietorial rights over the use of the word ‘art,’ then how shall we explain the fact that the class of works of art has been so variably constructed? Notoriously, those ‘heathen idols’ that were assiduously collected by nineteenth century colonial missionaries did not qualify as works of art until quite recently. It must somehow be possible to concede to the artworld its hegemony over the use of the phrase ‘work of art’, while simultaneously withholding from it the right to speak authoritatively about what art is[6].

There is a way to do this, and it is simple. We need only place no restrictions of scope whatsoever upon those objects of contemplation to which we attribute a revelatory potential. On the basis that everything has a revelatory potential, so-called ‘works of art’ will be comprehended as a set carved out by the artworld in its currently preferred way from the most abundant of all possible quarries. There is a sense in which all sensible people know this already, for everyone except the aesthetician speaks confidently of the arts of viniculture, of medical radiology and of motor cycle maintenance.

This point about the universal scope of art, as contrasted with the restricted scope of artworks, has been an inconvenient part of the artworld’s conventional wisdom ever since Duchamp displayed his ‘readymades’ a hundred years ago. An awkward accommodation has been reached by assigning a dominant role to the word ‘work’ in the phrase ‘work of art.’ The artworld nowadays uses ‘work’ to invoke a concept of artefacture such that readymades do not qualify as works by virtue of being artefactual in the ordinary sense. They qualify by virtue of the ‘work’ that is done by the artworld itself, when it bestows its preferred mode of attention upon whatever it happens to favour as a candidate.

There is a familiar problem here about the particular and the general. How shall we classify particular objects that are significantly similar to recognized works of art, although the institutional ‘work’ of recognizing them has not yet been performed upon them? Here the artworld equivocates. It is confident enough that every hand-painted and framed depiction of rural vegetation will qualify as a work of art sight unseen, while maintaining with equal confidence that most bottle-drying racks and bicycle wheels (however similar they may be to Duchamp’s and whether they do or do not stand on a plinth) do not qualify.

I leave this garden of weeds untended, and merely reiterate my conclusion that, however bizarre its practice and however obscure its justifying theory, the art world does as a matter of fact determine—and from time to time it determines differently—what is to qualify as a work of art. Moreover, in the exercise of this power it is not in thrall to any transhistorical or transcultural account of the meaning of the word ‘art.’ Moreover, the sense in which the artworld can not be wrong is not the shallow sense in which it can not be right either. It is the deep sense in which, because of the universality of art, whatever it nominates from time to time must have, and cannot but have, some revelatory potential. This simple truth is unaffected by the consideration that, from time to time, the artworld or some portion of it does as a matter of fact proclaim a revelation theory of art. When this occurs it is a purely accidental felicity.

So what is the artworld for?

If the art institution is usually mistaken about what art is, and if this is not after all a matter of huge consequence to anyone, we may well ask: what truly art-related purpose does the artworld serve? Manifestly, it serves a range of purposes with no necessary relation to art, such as the decoration of walls, the promotion of political and religious ideologies, the elevation of cultural heroes and the generation of wealth by capital appreciation. Is that the truth, and the end of the matter?

At least it is not a simple truth. The artworld straddles a range of public entertainments, and entertainments in general have a distinctive and important role in our lives. What they significantly share is an audience or visience of participants whose attention, is in a certain sense, disengaged from the performers’ skilfully directed intentions. Spectators at an entertainment are not committed, as they are when participating in a practical task, to the purposefully goal-directed behaviours that unfold before them. It is by virtue of this detachment that they find themselves free to seize upon unanticipated, and occasionally unintended, aspects of what is presented to them. The range of ways in which spectators are entitled to take a performance is radically unrestricted and the availability of epiphanies, whether absolute of merely subjective, is correspondingly enlarged.

Unintended readings of the presentations that are received as entertainment—even gross misreadings of them—offer abundant revelatory opportunities. ‘The arts’ are distinctive only to the extent that, in spite of the prevalence of intentionalistic forms of criticism, their style of entertainment is characterised by the boast that the skills displayed are only a means, and not an end. But in that case, what is the end? I suggest that it is the encouragement of those epiphanies that extend somebody’s—and ideally everybody’s—memetic repertoire.

The custom of calling those entertainers who make works of art artists is merely an artefact of linguistic history. The artworld’s use of the classifier ‘artist’ does not attribute to the performer a reliable understanding of what art is, any more than the classifier ‘sportsperson’ attributes to all-in wrestlers a reliable understanding of what sport is. The demand for an explanation is appropriately met by linguistic historians, not by philosophers.

So, to sum up: I am suggesting that the artworld institutionalises a form of entertainment that, by the simple virtue of its open-ness, is well-adapted to provoking the ‘Aha!’ response that signals the acquisition of a new meme. It makes available what I called, some years ago, the best game in town[7]. It is, of course, far from being the only game in town with a revelatory potential, but it is the one to which H.D Lewis’s prescription offers the best fit. Let me remind you: ‘… where some special sense of clarity and penetration is lacking, where there is no heightened consciousness of inhabiting a world which thrusts itself upon the mind with a peculiar sharpness and insistence, there is no art.’




[1]          It is famously untrue that anything goes, even with the most radical of relativists. In 1997 the artist Tony Kaye tried to secure the endorsement of a homeless steel worker as a work of art and as his entry for the Turner Prize, and failed.

[2]          Suzi Gablik, in a symposium on The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art, a symposium sponsored by the New York Open Center and the International Society for Consciousness in the Arts, October 1995.

[3]                See particularly my ‘Art History?’ in History and Theory 43 (2004): 1-17. Also ‘If Art Has No History, What Implications Flow For The Art Museum? In Rethinking History 9:1 (2005): 71-90.

[4]          In spite of my earlier dismissive remark about neuroscience I welcome the discovery of what researchers are now calling (I think misleadingly) ‘mirror neurons’. This name is chosen because distinctive patterns of cortical activity are found to be similarly occurrent whether a person is performing a contextually governed goal-dependent action or is watching someone else perform a similar action. (See, for example, Rizzolatti, Fogassi and Gallese, ‘Mirrors in the mind,’ Scientific American 295:5 (2006): 30-37). I am only surprised that these researchers should be so surprised by their discovery.

[5]          H. D. Lewis, ‘Revelation and Art,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 23 (1949): 7.

[6]          Without applying to the artworld for his license, Major General William B. Caldwell IV, speaking in Baghdad at a news briefing on progress in the Iraq war (as quoted in The New York Times of November 3 2006 and elsewhere) remarked: ‘Every great work of art goes through messy phases …’.

[7]          Donald Brook, ‘The Best Game in Town.’ Artlink 6 (1986): 29-31.

Experimental art (updated)

This is a  substantially updated version (in 2015) of a paper originally delivered as a keynote address at a plenary session in the main Conference of the National Institute for Contemporary Arts in the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales on 19 August 2011.

It was published in its original form under the title ‘Experimental art’ in Studies in Material Thinking 8 (May 2012), Paper 12.


The inscription ‘art’ is homonymic. The more important of the two words spelled in this way descriptively names a universal category of memetic innovation that is instantiated in every cultural domain and not only in the various institutional domains of the so-called ‘Creative Arts.’ Significant memetic innovation nowadays occurs frequently in the domains of science and technology, and less abundantly (but no less influentially) in other institutional domains such as banking, agriculture, law and politics.

The artworld uses a similarly spelled but different word ‘art’ to refer more economically to a class of artworld-endorsed objects characterised individually as works of art, many of which are entirely artless, no matter how skilfully made or praiseworthy in other respects they may be.

I elucidate memes as  purposefully efficacious actions, and account for the significance of memetic innovation in terms of a theory of cultural evolution that, despite a difference in one crucial respect, is structured in precisely the same way as a Darwinian account of biological evolution.

The expression ‘experimental art’ is taken to be tautological on the ground that new memes cannot be generated by purposeful action, and cannot but be discovered ‘experimentally,’ in the more significant of the two senses of this word. Because newly discovered memes cannot be purposefully generated in the way in which works of art, like all other culturally identifiable artifacts, can be purposefully generated experimental art is not one sort of art: it is the only sort of art.

Some implications of these fundamental points are briefly sketched: notably, the way in which the relevance for artists of the cultural domains of science and technology (in which experiments are purposefully performed) has been seriously misunderstood.

I draw on several essays about the nature of art, of cultural evolution and of history, that have already appeared in several papers elsewhere, either in print or online[1].

‘Art’ is a homonym

We have in common use two very different words, both spelled in the same way, as  ‘a-r-t.’ They are regularly conflated within the artworld, encouraging a self-serving confusion that has taken a grip on ordinary conversation. Perhaps no other pair of similarly spelled but different words is as troublesome. No lending or borrowing institution profits from a widespread temptation to open a savings account in a bank whereon the wild thyme grows in the way in which the artworld exploits the misapprehension that works of art are justifiably so called only on the ground that art is incarnated in them.

The most common use of one of these words is probably to name the class of works of art. This loosely assembled collection of objects and processes comprises particular items of various sorts that had traditionally been sub-classified as paintings, sculptures, poems, symphonies and so on. The modern range is much more accommodating. Art galleries are so-called because they are places where items that have been classified as works of art are collected and displayed. People speak (confusedly, as I argue) of visiting an art gallery to appreciate the art that is on display there.

Despite the elusiveness of its meaning, the more important of the two words spelled a-r-t is not this one. It is the word we use when we speak about the art of picture-painting (for example) as contrasted with the skill, or craft, of picture-painting. The same goes for the art of mathematics; the art of marriage counseling; the art of motor cycle maintenance, etc. The denotation of this more significant word is notoriously hard to fix, but it is certainly not a name that is appropriately given either to a class of perceptible objects, or to the particular items of this class. It is a word that optimistically invokes some teasingly elusive basis on which people take themselves to be relying on a categorical contrast with the purposeful skills of making that everyone routinely exercises in every institutionally structured domain of human concern. Whatever the putative art of motor cycle maintenance may be, it is not supposed to be a teachable and learnable mechanical skill of the sort that can be acquired be enrolling in a technical college course.

Art (as everyone knows, but cannot easily prove) is not something that can be purposefully generated by the mere fact of exercising even complex skills such as those that are exercised when making filo pastry or a herb garden. Nearly everyone acquires a huge repertoire of skills and can demonstrate this ability in a purposeful way, on demand. We do not expect to be taught how to make art in the way in which we expect to be taught how to make a work of art, or how to make a hire-purchase agreement, or how to make a serviceable bookshelf. The elusive entity that we want to characterise as art whenever (comparatively rarely, in practice) we happen  to stumble upon it is something that has taken us by surprise—and sometimes by delight—in every domain of cultural life, no matter how practical or impractical the sorts of objects and processes that we find there. We even, occasionally, stumble on art in a work of art just as the artist responsible for this work may or may not have stumbled upon art in the course of making the work in what can only have seemed—until the revelation—to be a familiarly purposeful way.

The artworld (with the art gallery as its figurative shopfront) is a cultural domain in which the  conflation of these two very different words was mainly an intellectual frolic of the Enlightenment. A fugue of dreamwork delivered up to us an ethereal, property-like, figment of the philosophical imagination called ‘aesthetic value’ with the imputed capability of welding the denotation of the word ‘art’ to that of the phrase ‘work of art’ so seamlessly that they might seem to be one and the same thing. ‘Aesthetic value’ (whatever-it-may-be) was successfully exported from the artworld into ordinary language, as a technically superior name for whatever had formerly been identified, in a less technical way, as ‘beauty’ or ‘expressiveness’ (or whichever virtuous property had been assumed to account for our otherwise inexplicably greater admiration for one painting or poem or dance than for another. Artists came to be credited with an uncanny ability to purposefully insert this ‘aesthetic value’ into any work of art that they set about making, by virtue of which these otherwise mundane artifacts would acquire their right to recognition as works of art .

In the strongest and least plausible version of this story the putatively purposefully contrived incarnation of ‘aesthetic value’ in any object or process is treated as the single necessary and sufficient condition by virtue of which—if it is satisfied—the thing becomes identifiable indubitably as a work of art. In short: all and only works of art are entities in which ‘aesthetic value’ is incarnated.

In a weaker and marginally more defensible version of the theory, ‘aesthetic value’ may be occasionally encountered in objects that do not qualify as works of art; but institutionally endorsed art critics going about their proper business will only pay attention to it when they are off duty, and at their peril.[2] Moreover, the question of what other condition, in that case, must be satisfied if a candidate object is to fully qualify as a work of art is left unresolved.

The preferred mode of appreciation that the artworld expected appraisers to bestow on works of art (and only on works of art) came to be seen not at all in the same terms as the forms of appreciation that are appropriately bestowed by their appraisers on things of other sorts that their critics are generally welcome to admire or detest for every imaginable sort of reason. In relation to works of art, and only in relation to works of art, an assessment of their  ‘aesthetic value’ became  the fundamental appreciative strategy. Aesthetics: problems in the philosophy of criticism[3] emerged as the exemplary essay and book title in the lush new field of scholarship that proliferated around the appraisal of old works of art and the production of new ones.

This shotgun marriage of the concept of art to the concept of the work of art was first challenged in a conspicuously public way by Marcel Duchamp, early in the 20th century. Even some fifty years later, when the so-called Institutional Theory of Art[4] supervened over the traditional ‘essentialist’ theories (that art is essentially catharsis, or that it is essentially imitation, or that it is essentially expression, and so on) the conflation of the two words persisted. The Institutional Theory of Art is correct and it might, when properly interpreted, be regarded as no more than an endorsement of common sense. That is to say: the theory is correct when it is taken—whether in a language-analytic way or in a post-modern or ‘structuralist’ way—to be a theory about the way in which we come to classify some things as works of art. Notwithstanding H. L. Mencken’s remark that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong we have, for once, an answer to a complex problem that is clear, simple and correct. Works of art are whatever the artworld, from time to time and for whatever reason or even for no reason, decides to recognise as works of art. Moreover, should a decision contested by laypersons be subjected to judicial challenge, artworld-accredited experts will be summoned before the court to settle the question.

Despite its misleading name the Institutional Theory of Art gets no grip at all on the question of what art is. It offers only a more or less technically intricate way of conceding what should be obvious: namely, that the classification of things as works of art, and the acceptance or the rejection of new candidates for endorsement, is at the discretion of the most powerful  currently accredited agents of the artworld such as the directors and curators of major galleries, no matter how this discretion may be exercised. In much the same way, sacred sites are whichever places an established religious or quasi-religious institution resolves to endorse as sacred, for whatever reason or, indeed, for no reason at all other than the firm conviction of opinion-leaders in the accrediting social institution.

The currently popular elucidation of the word ‘art,’ in terms of the ‘aesthetic value’ that is allegedly distinctively incarnated in works of art, is a vacuous way of accounting for the intuition that has always been deeply rooted in the ordinary-language distinction between art and craft. It is a distinction that can be much better understood not by conceiving of art in terms of ‘aesthetic value’ but in terms of the memetic innovation by virtue of which new skills and new crafts unexpectedly emerge. The point is only partly grasped by those who wave the wand of creativity optimistically across every institutional domain as if it (creativity) were a sort of skill with which some people are more copiously endowed than others.

Memetic innovation is a sub-category within the more general category of unexpected discoveries. Like discovery in general (although narrower in its scope) memetic innovation does not have a history despite the fact that its concrete instantiations cannot but occupy temporal locations. The category itself is what it always was, for Aurignacian wall-painters and for modern muralists alike.

The Institutional Theory based its case partly on the indefensibility of traditional essentialist theories about what art is. By the middle of the twentieth century few theorists were prepared to assert that all and only works of art are cathartic, or imitative, or expressive, or revelatory, or whatever. (In anticipation of an objection to my own account of art as memetic innovation, on the ground that it is itself an essentialist theory barely distinguishable from the Revelation Theory, I hasten to point out that what I offer is a theory about what art is. It is not a theory about what works of art are, that I take to be a settled question. If, in a particular case, there is a relationship between art and a work of art it is contingent and accidental, like the relationship between art and a display of motor cycle maintenance.

A comprehensive account of memetic innovation cannot be given in a few paragraphs and I have attempted this elsewhere. I shall try to briefly sketch the sense of, while remarking incidentally that artists do not need to know what art is in order to make works of art. If this had been a necessary precondition for making works of art, then the galleries of the world would be sparsely furnished, if not bare. It is a matter of fact, however, that artists are more inclined than most people to take an interest in the question. Their pale philosophical fire is unfortunately all too easily extinguished, either by the smothering blanket of ‘aesthetic theory’ or the rhetoric that booms through the artworld from the megaphones of national cultural ideologues and identity politicians.[5]



The art that shapes the evolution of cultural kinds in every cultural institution is a much older and more universal driver of change than any of the activities going forward in the artworld around the concept of the work of art. Memetic innovation has always been the initiator of change in the nature and direction of those purposefully performed and predictably efficacious actions that are available to social participants of every sort. Without memetic innovation the emergence of new cultural kinds could not occur and newly emergent cultural kinds would not subsequently acquire their historical shapes in a the regularly explicable evolutionary way that we can easily observe.

Somewhere along the  complex tracks of biological evolution a few accidentally favoured kinds of organisms acquired the behavioural capacities needed for imitable memetic innovations to supervene upon the substrate of biological variation that propels bodily and behavioural changes. Once memetic innovation requiring a transmissible capacity to imitate  the observably efficacious behaviours of similar organisms becomes available the historically explicable shaping of cultural kinds begins. Like biological kinds, cultural kinds (if they could have emerged at all) would  persist unchanged were it not for genetic variation on one case and memetic variation in the other.

I shall lay out a sketch of the Darwinian account of biological evolution,[6]  followed by its supervenient parallel in the process of cultural evolution that comes with the onset of the purposefully imitative behaviours of perceiving organisms.

It is a fairly uncontentious opinion that living organisms have evolved in distinguishable kinds, or ‘species’[7], each of which has an evolutionary history that is causally explicable. The emergence of each distinguishable kind, its persistence, its historical shaping and its final extinction are accounted for in the following way.

(a) The genes responsible for generating the items of a recognisable biological kind are replicated (Although Darwin himself was unaware of it, the splitting of paired spiral molecular strands is significantly implicated in this process); and

(b) the replication of ‘genes’ is inexact, so that the genetically replicated items of a given kind are not identical; and

(c) the structurally and functionally variant items of a kind are differentially well adapted to the changing material environments in which they find themselves; and

(d) those items that find themselves best adapted to their inevitably changing environments are most prolifically replicated.

The evolutionary pattern displayed by biological hinds is paralleled by the pattern of the evolution of cultural kinds such as the wedding ceremony, the agricultural tractor and the Impressionist painting. Unlike the biological kinds that are perpetuated by the inexact replication of genes, however, cultural kinds are perpetuated by the inexact imitation of memes.

Here is the matching story about cultural kinds.

(a) The memes responsible for generating the items of a recognisable cultural kind are imitated (mirror neurons are surely implicated here); and

(b) the imitation of memes is inexact, so that memetically imitated items of a given kind are not identical; and

(c) the variant items of a kind are differentially well adapted to the changing cultural environments in which they find themselves; and

(d) those items that find themselves best adapted to their inevitably changing material and cultural environments are the most prolifically imitated.

In explanatory stories about the evolution both of biological kinds and of cultural kinds—in short, in the elucidation of the histories of these kinds—the generative role of the meme (in the cultural context) corresponds to the generative role of the gene (in the biological context). The inexact imitation of memes with adaptive consequences is potent in the former case; the  inexact replication of genes with adaptive consequences in the latter case.

What are memes? Many meme theorists have followed the mistaken lead of Richard Dawkins in offering such things as catch-phrases or popular songs as paradigm examples of the meme. But if the evolutionary parallel between the shaping of biological kinds and the shaping of cultural kinds is to be seriously maintained, then an item of a cultural kind such as a catch-phrase or a popular song cannot possibly qualify as a meme. Only a demented biologist might be tempted to offer an item of a biological kind such as a kangaroos or a turnip as an example of a gene.

Memes cannot possibly be items of the cultural kind that they are instrumental in perpetuating, just as genes cannot be items of the biological kind that they are instrumental in perpetuating. Memes are regularly efficacious actions that can be purposefully performed by the members of some, but not all, biological kinds: notably, of course, by ourselves and no doubt (although it may not be easy to demonstrate) by all organisms of the kinds that we deem to be perceivers. A meme is a purposeful action, undertaken in the credible expectation that an item of a recognisable cultural kind will thereby be generated. An item of a cultural kind such as a poached egg is not a meme. A poached egg is an item of the poached egg cultural kind that is perpetuated by the orchestration within a purposefully acting individual of a great many memes that are already dispositionally available within the bodily repertoire. To poach an egg one must be able to orchestrate such dispositionally triggerable memes as lighting the gas, boiling water, cracking an egg, watching the clock … and so on.

The biological parallel to the generation of an item of a cultural kind such as a poached egg must be with the generation of an item of a biological kind—a hen, for example—that requires no purposeful action at all but only the complex bodily orchestrated behaviours of around 20,000 parental genes. Biological evolutionary explanations and cultural evolutionary explanations differ most significantly in our appeal to the causally driven behaviours of the bodily parts of organisms in in the former case, and to the purposeful actions of entire organisms in the latter case.

New memes (considered as purposeful actions with anticipated goals) must be discovered and cannot themselves be purposefully generated. Before developing this point, however, I should stress the point that if (as I propose) we are to identify art with the unexpected emergence of opportunistically successful and regularly imitable memes, then we have access not only to an understanding of why it is that cultural kinds have histories but also to a regular way of accounting, in terms of causal regularity and of unexpected contingency, for the de facto shaping of these histories in particular cases.

Two senses of the word ‘experiment’

When we speak about experimenting it is a moot point whether we should take ourselves to be using two words spelled in the same way (as we do in the case of the inscription a-r-t), or to be making use of a single word in different, but lucidly related, ways. I shall take the latter course.

The sense of the word ‘experiment’ on which I wish concentrate attention is probably not the one that is most commonly invoked. It is the sense of the word in which optimistically gesturing experimenters do not presently know, and cannot presently say, what outcome they expect to emerge as a consequence of their current behaviours. This is the sense of ‘experiment’ in which, as an eager child, I unwrapped my first chemistry set and began to perform experiments. There was an instruction book explaining some of the established memes of chemistry, but I was too impatient to read it. I simply added some blue crystals to a yellowish fluid extracted from a bottle with a warning label. Nothing much happened; but it might have done. No matter how improbably, I might have stumbled upon a regular way of generating something marvellous that—to pursue a fantasy—had hitherto been lurking unrecognised outside the established memetic repertoire of chemistry.

‘Just to see what happens…’ is the sense of the word ‘experiment’ with which we are able to conceive of an experimenter who is lurching forward through more or less random behaviours in a limbo of ignorance, but with some (usually unjustified) air of optimism. It is also the sense in which, in the course of doing something that the experimenters do know how to do (such as boiling flasks of urine), they unexpectedly discover how to do something that they did not know how to do and thereafter—if an unexpected but desirably efficacious outcome has emerged—are able to do ‘the same thing’ again, although now in a differently purposeful way.

I draw this malodorous illustration from Joseph Wright’s picture of a legendary moment of revelation, called The Alchemist in search of the Philosopher’s Stone Discovers Phosphorus (1771). Following this moment of epiphany not only the experimenter but observant bystanding alchemists everywhere came to know how to do purposefully something that they did not know how to do before. They still did not know how to make the gold that they were trying to make, of course; but they now know to make phosphorus (under whatever name may be given to this unexpected element). A new meme has entered the public domain.

The more methodically puritanical sense of the word ‘experiment,’ to which science has given huge respectability, is significantly different. This is the sense in which an experimenter purposefully deploys memes that are already familiar in the plausible expectation that stepping purposefully through the appropriate actions will most probably generate an item of the recognisable cultural kind describable as a conclusive falsification (or as a failure to falsify) some presently stable theory or hypothesis. The goal of the experiment is known and purposeful ways of achieving it are triggerably available.

In deference to those philosophers of science who have moved on from Karl Popper, and perhaps also from the more adventurous Paul Feyerabend, I shall say no more about this. There is ample room for dispute, but it should be obvious that, no matter how we theorise the scientific method, those scientists who are performing experiments by and large take themselves to be acting purposefully in the anticipation that the most likely consequences of their actions are presently statable. In the same way, when artists set out to make things of the sort that they anticipate will qualify, by virtue of the purposeful actions they are performing, as works of art. Works of art are items of a cultural that can be more or less skilfully generated, just as scientific findings are items of a cultural kind that can be more or less skilfully produced.

The expression ‘Experimental art’ is a tautology

Several of the threads teased out so far can now be drawn more coherently together. If we identify art with memetic innovation, while simultaneously using the word ‘experiment’ in the more radically optimistic of its two senses, the expression ‘experimental art’ must be tautologous. The unexpected discovery of new memes cannot but be experimental, coming as they do to a potential user of them as a discovery, a revelation, or—more grandly—an epiphany. Whether it is describable as purposeless or as purposeful, a behaviour undertaken with some other goal in mind than that which is manifestly achieved, may unexpectedly make available a new and regularly useful meme that will thereafter be imitably performable. It will become available not only for regular and imitable use by its discoverer but also by those other imitating performers for whom this is also a discovery.

The memetic repertoires of the members of a community of performers of purposeful actions could be expanded in no other way than by discovery. Although the Revelation Theory of Art may have had its head in the clouds when it was misconceived as an answer to the question about how we should recognise a work of art, its feet were always on the ground in relation to our understanding of what art is.

In ordinary conversation we do not usually distinguish sharply between these two radically different senses of the qualifier ‘experimental.’ Nor do we trouble to distinguish sharply between purposeful actions and those behaviours to which no goal whatsoever is attributable. This is why the remark that scientists are not purposefully making art sounds perfectly obvious, whereas the claim that artists are not purposefully making art sounds paradoxical. But it is not paradoxical. It is the awful truth. What the artist is purposefully making is a work of art. Unexpectedly finding viable new meme in the process, and being subsequently capable of exploiting this discovery, is a stoke of good fortune that is as available to a scientist as it is to an artist.

Some implications

It should be clear that artists (who are so-called just because they are the purposeful makers of works of art) are not required to engage with science and technology under any internal institutional constraint, or by virtue of any obligation owed to the artworld by its participants. Like many other people I was much attracted, some forty or fifty years ago, to the idea that serious artists had a duty to engage with science and technology on the ground that these are the cultural domains in which the emergent public understanding of new ways of acting purposefully in the world is occurring most dramatically. The potentially exploitable memetic innovations that are the drivers of cultural change were emerging more abundantly and more influentially in these domains than in any of the adjacent institutions of morality, political ideology, financial counselling and grocery retailing. Every adventurous artist had a duty to go there .

The fact is, however, that although artists have been ambivalently welcomed into the domains of science and technology as amateur and occasionally thought-provoking nuisances, the notion that they are capable in some way of offering guidance to their new colleagues as if they were super-scientists or super-technologists is preposterous.



In conclusion

A point that is worth worth repeating for emphasis is probably this. Valorously self-styled ‘experimental artists’ should understand that the expression ‘experimental art’ does not prescribe a distinctive sort of art. contrasting with other sorts of art. There is no other sort of art Moreover, the project of producing works of art that are ‘experimental’ in the alternative sense that they might fail to gain recognition by the artworld  as works of art is by now only marginally viable. When the attraction of the sciences was first powerfully felt by artists the fabrication of objects or processes with a strong scientific or technological flavour for submission to the artworld as candidates for endorsement as works of art, the qualifier ‘experimental’ (used in this way) may have been justifiable. Over the decades, however, it has become obvious that artistic excursions into what was once alien territory are no longer considered outrageous, even by the aesthetes. The artworld has capitulated and there is now almost nothing from which it can withhold its endorsement. It is ready to attribute ‘aesthetic value’ to any display of the behaviour of bacteria in any Petri dish that a bona fide artist is disposed to offer up for exhibition.

The problem facing artists who are eager to be recognised as experimental must therefore be radically reconsidered. They cannot purposefully make experimental art (whether or not it arguably scientific or technological) for the insurmountable reason that art cannot be purposefully made. Nor can they purposefully make experimental works of art because the artworld has long since abandoned the right of rejection it wielded so magisterially when Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson ran the operation.

What then is left?

Those for whom recognition as an artist is most pressing there is only the maintenance of a foothold within any branch of the entertainment industries that sufficiently well-established as a province of the expanding artworld. Web-designing or making video clips may qualify; playing rugby football under water and breeding greyhounds may not.

For those whose credentials as artists are already  impeccable, but who wish to be recognised as experimental artists, there is a faint residual possibility of toying with a prospect of expulsion from this world by seeking memetic innovation in some domain of institutional activity that is manifestly unrelated to the entertainment industries.

The adoption of an alertness to the possibility of encountering a publicly viable revelation in anything that is made or done by anyone, in any institutional domain, is not a gift with which artists are peculiarly endowed. Biological organisms that are incapable of unexpectedly acquiring publicly imitable skills  that they had not hitherto known to be available must thereby put in doubt their eligibility for recognition as human beings.


[1]          See, for example: ‘Art history?’ History and Theory 43 (February 2004): 1-17; ‘If Art has no history, what implications flow for the art museum?’ Rethinking History 9 (1, 2005):71-90; ‘For art, against aesthetics,’ in Ian North, Ed., Visual Animals: crossovers, evolution and new aesthetics. Contemporary Arts Centre of South Australia, Adelaide. 2007. 84-90; The awful truth about what art is. Artlink, Adelaide, 2008.

              ‘Muffled sounds: the eartrumpet of the artworld has been struck by lightning.’ Artlink 30 (2, 2010): 34-36.

[2]             I was once, as a newspaper art critic, severely chastised for reviewing a shop window full of pin-ball machines.

[3]             Monroe C. Beardsley’s Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958) is still an influential text. The criticism he analyses is, of course, art criticism.

[4]             I refer to classic formulations such as those of George Dickie and Arthur Danto. Continental European equivalents emerged in various ‘structuralist’ and other articulations of so-called ‘French theory’.

[5]             A recent change of name from the Experimental Art Foundation to the Australian Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide shows the insidious power of identity politics in the popular understanding. The name National Institute for Experimental Arts, adopted by the newer institution in Sydney, is less compromising. The annexation of art to national cultural identity projects is attractive to politicians, especially when public patronage is being solicited.

[6]             The story that elaborates what Daniel Dennett called the best idea that anybody ever had.

[7]             Biological kinds have complex taxonomies (e.g. kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species, according to Linnaeus), all of them compressed into ‘species’ in general accounts of evolutionary theory. We do not yet have any comparably useful taxonomy of cultural kinds.