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.

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