At least since the appearance of Marcel Duchamp’s fountain, gallery audiences have been plagued by the question: why is this art? The problem originates in people’s adoption of an 18th century understanding of art as beautiful, pleasing to the senses and the intellect. From that perspective, most contemporary artworks fail to even count as art. But according to a different line of thought, starting with Plato and continuing in Hegel, art is the embodiment of meaning, and contemporary art fulfills that criterion in spades, writes Jonathan Loesberg.
A number of recent artworks, most famously, perhaps, Banksy’s shredded painting (first named “Girl With a Balloon, but renamed, post-shredding, “Love is in the Bin”) and Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian” (almost always identified by its description, banana taped to a wall), have re-raised the issue of what constitutes an artwork, and, more to the point, what people are buying when they buy it.
This question, of course, has kept recurring for more than a century with the appearance, and prompt disappearance, of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the mounted urinal, in 1917. Then, of course, Andy Warhol created multiple copies of “Brillo Box”, and conceptual art became an art movement. The problem of why these works are artworks might be one that has been plaguing audiences since Duchamp’s “Fountain,” but ultimately it’s a philosophical question, and one that only aesthetic theory can answer.
To do this in needs to turn away from questions of judgment and evaluation and focuses on the question of definition. In other words, instead of confusing the issue of whether an object is an art object or not with the question of whether it is a good artwork (by using beauty as a criterion both of definition and of evaluation), it asks simply what makes an object an art object. Works such as Duchamp’s and Catellan’s obviously aren’t beautiful in any traditional way since, as we will see, they do not really exist as material objects of any kind. Once we understand why they are art objects, though, we can at least interpret how they work as such objects.
The root of the problem seems to be that most art critics and most of the audience operate under one definition of what art is, while the artists are operating under another.
From Beauty to Philosophy
The root of the problem seems to be that most art critics and most of the audience for art, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, operate under one definition of what art is, while the artists are operating under another. Since the eighteenth century, most Anglo-American aesthetic theorists and art critics have held generally that art has a special form which provides a particular kind of pleasure that appeals to the intellect through the senses. From this perspective, art must be formally distinctive, either beautiful or striking. But there is another tradition, dating back to Plato and widely held among German aesthetic theorists from Hegel through Heidegger, by which, to generalize broadly, art embodies meaning rather than referring to it. Plato thought art to be an illusory and often inaccurate representation of reality, desiring to replace it with philosophy. But, in the Phaedrus, he claimed that the highest form of sexual attraction occurred when one saw in one’s object of desire as the embodiment of the ideal form of beauty. Hegel then made embodied meaning the defining feature of art. The Hegelian tag line defining art as the sensuous embodiment of the Idea of Beauty sounds very much like what Plato had said. But Hegel specifies that art “only fulfills its supreme task when it has placed itself in the same sphere as religion and philosophy, and when it is simply one way of bringing to our minds and expressing…the deepest interests of mankind and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit.” Art is now a meaning-bearing discourse that works through the senses rather than simply a sensuous experience.
Hegel specifies that art “only fulfils its supreme task when it has placed itself in the same sphere as religion and philosophy”.
Hegel, though, still includes the concept of Beauty in his definition. For him, art works are beautiful because being beautiful is what sensuous embodiment means. There is thus an implicit evaluation in this definition. Following in Hegel’s footsteps, Arthur Danto took the definitional aspect of this theory further. He used a standard philosophical practice of taking two objects that are indiscernable in appearance and made the claim that art objects, in contrast to mere objects, convey meaning, and that art objects, in contrast to diagrams or other non-aesthetic images, work rhetorically rather than referentially. More cursorily, art (1) is about something and (2) embodies what it is about. The one great advantage of this definition is that it swiftly handles the problem of what makes “Fountain” an artwork and not (merely) a urinal, and it does so while still being able to account for all the usual works of art. It is a definition that captures the things that get called art while not being forced to exclude those things that it does not like or cannot fit into that definition, such as “Fountain” and “Brillo Box.” Whether for good or ill, it also establishes why something is an artwork by interpreting it as one kind of object rather than another, instead of evaluating it.
There is an odd, more anomalous feature common to both Hegel and Danto, however. For both, the role of art comes to an end at a certain point; art is engaged in a philosophic project. For Hegel, it expresses the spirit’s understanding of itself and its world, and it does so by embodying that understanding. But once the spirit’s understanding passes beyond that which can be adequately embodied, art’s role is taken over by philosophy. For Danto, art, or at least art at its terminal point, embodies its own understanding of itself. But once it has embodied it, philosophy takes over the role of discussing its significance. In effect, both of them take art to embody not just any meaning, but a specific meaning that it will be philosophy’s job to articulate in referential language. In the end, they, as much as Plato, think art needs to be replaced by philosophy.
Warhol wanted to question the distinction between commercial art and so-called fine art. He used the technique Duchamp had initiated to ask the question of what made an object an art object.
Making sense of bananas, urinals and the art market
To return to contemporary art, Danto’s error is evident in his own theory’s model example. Unlike Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the “Brillo Box” was not indiscernable from a commonplace object, but from an object that already embodied meaning in its appearance. Like any good commercial product, the appearance of a Brillo Box is designed to convey impressions appropriate to making one want to buy the product it contains. Obviously, commercial art does this by being visually attractive. But being visually attractive serves the purpose of embodying why the product was desirable, rather than being the reason it was desirable. Warhol, who began as a commercial artist, wanted to question the distinction between commercial art and so-called fine art. He used the technique Duchamp had initiated to explicitly ask the question of what made an object an art object, but he extended its relevance, which is why we think commercial art is different from what we call art, per se. Why do we distinguish it from fine art? And, indeed, in contrast to Duchamp’s urinal, at least, many of Warhol’s works can be evaluated in terms of their beauty, as any commercial artwork can.
This brings us to Banksy and bananas. Both artworks portray precisely what made people so exercised over them. They question the dependence of the artwork on having a material reality and they question how far the art market can be pushed to buy objects that seem to fly in the face of normal market expectations. Banksy’s painting, “Girl With a Balloon,” (a version of his 2002 spray painted “Balloon Girl,” whose popularity made it ideal for the spectacle) sold for a respectable sum of slightly more than £1 million and was promptly shredded as the soon as the auction hammer went down. The buyer, wisely enough, kept possession of the renamed “Love is in the Bin,” and it recently resold for $25.4 million. Obviously, destroying a painting at the point of sale and then making the new object a new work, containing the event of the old one’s destruction, can only be an artwork to the extent that it remains commercially viable.
Artworks becomes more than a joke when everybody chooses to participate in the joke. Cattelan’s “Comedian” was never saleable as the object was originally displayed in the museum. Even during that display, another performance artist ate the banana, at which point it was merely replaced. Had that not happened, the banana would ultimately have gone rotten and fallen apart. The three buyers of the original edition bought not a banana, but a certificate of authenticity and a manual for how to mount it. Based on this, they can choose to exhibit it in a museum, should the museum be interested—as one surely will be. One of the buyers, while claiming to understand the absurdity of the “object,” also claimed that it was as valuable an artwork, in its way, as Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (an imprecise analogy since that work was a painting made up of thirty images of the soup can). Both of these artworks exist less as objects than as actions. They extend Duchamp’s question on what counts as art into broader questions about the art market.
Now, none of this shows that these works are good art. Plato and Hegel thought that an embodiment of beauty or the mind’s understanding of itself was, by definition, beautiful and an object that was art was, by definition, good art. But, as Danto argued, embodiment of meaning can simply be a definition, not an evaluation. Moreover, there is no denying that art since Duchamp, even in formalist theories like those of Greenberg and Adorno, has been persistently self-referential. Embodiment, after all, is a kind of meaning, not a kind of beauty. As meaningful things do, it demands interpretation and not necessarily evaluation (though, of course, meaningful things can be evaluated).
If critics have found these artworks worthy of attention and have turned the spotlight unfairly from all the multitudes of artworks that closer correspond to our usual notion of such works as being beautiful or striking or visually engaging in some way, that is another issue. To approach art, finally, in definitional terms, we also need to detach it from the historical projects both Hegel and Danto give it. Historical projects will always come to an end when art adequately embodies what its historical project has been. But, embodiment is a way of seeing something, and things other than the end of this or that philosophic project (the spirit’s understanding of itself or a manifestation of what art is) can be embodied. Works such as the ones discussed here are kinds of artworks and do accomplish the things that artworks can accomplish. They are not the only kind, though. Obviously, since their being succés de scandales is part of what they mean, we tend to not separate the attention they garner for what they do as artworks and unfairly turn our attention away from other artworks whose embodiments do not entail the same self-referentiality.
The service of aesthetic theory, at least the branch of aesthetic theory that discusses art in terms of embodiment rather than in terms of formal beauty, is to tell us what kind of thing art is—embodied meaning—and why it is a specifically human endeavor and not a type of natural beauty. That the theory has explanatory power is evident in its continuing ability to deal with such scandalous works as “Fountain,” “Love is in the Bin,” and “Comedian.”