April 2017

Response to JAAC on Discarding "Fine Art"

by Michelle Marder Kamhi


Note: The following remarks were sent to the editors of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in response to their rejection of "Why Discarding the Concept of 'Fine Art' Has Been a Grave Error."


Referees' Favorable Comments

First, I'm pleased to see that both referees have found some substantial points of value in my paper. Most significantly, Referee 1 (R1) agrees with my argument (summarizing the crux of Ayn Rand's theory of art) that the function of the fine arts is to "give concrete external form to our inmost ideas and feelings about life and the world around us." R1 further observes:

Whatever one may think of some other views for which Rand is famous, this view certainly deserves respect, and a defense of it in the pages of JAAC is obviously appropriate (emphasis added). I'm inclined to go further, and to agree that any theorizing about the arts that doesn't embody this insight is badly misguided. Furthermore, there is some truth to the author's observation that in the contemporary art world of galleries, auction houses and critical notice, "Anti-traditional forms such as 'installation' and 'performance,' and 'transgressive' works of painting and sculpture are regarded as the only contemporary art that counts, while talented artists pursuing a more traditional approach to art-making are ignored." This fact has seemed odd, sad, and unfortunate to a great many appreciators of the arts. It deserves comment and analysis.

That sad fact is of course a major reason for my writing this paper. Moreover, recognition of the value of Rand's view of art is particularly welcome, given that JAAC declined to review What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (which I co-authored) on its publication nearly two decades ago (very likely on account of "some other views for which Rand is famous").

Referee 2 (R2) judges that my "summary of the eighteenth-century aesthetic positions is accurate, and the slippage in the treatment of architecture [that I point out] is interesting to note." Let me add that my account of that "slippage" is entirely original. To the best of my knowledge, it was first noted in a section entitled "D'Alembert's Error" in What Art Is (2000) and has not been dealt with comparably by anyone else. A referee for an earlier version of the present paper that was submitted to the British Journal of Aesthetics observed: "The useful concept of the fine arts begins, the author argues, to lose its viability when d'Alembert adds architecture to the list of the fine arts. This is an interesting claim and the author goes some measure of the way towards defending it."

Unfortunately, despite these two significant points, the referees recommended rejection of the paper, for reasons discussed in the next section.


Referees' Other Comments

My Paper's Thesis

R1's characterization of my thesis as "defend[ing] the view that in the West, from the time of the ancient Greeks to the present, there has always been a unified group of arts which are properly called fine art" is only partly correct. My ultimate point is that the major mimetic arts dubbed "fine" in 18th-century Europe have played a central role in diverse human cultures worldwide, not only in the West (and probably extending to prehistory); and that their essential nature is dependent on the relationship between perception, cognition, and emotion in human consciousness. My references to Greek antiquity in particular were prompted mainly by Kristeller's failure to recognize the depth of the kinship between the 18th-century concept of the "fine arts" and ancient ideas about the "mimetic arts."

Philosophers as "Gatekeepers of Culture"

R1 objects to my asking: "Shouldn't [philosophers] be the intellectual gatekeepers of culture?" It is important to know the context of that query. It was in response to Arthur Danto's admission that his influential institutional theory was based on "the eviscerated work the artworld now enfranchises." And it followed my asking "why should philosophers necessarily give credence to whatever 'the artworld now enfranchises'--however 'eviscerated'?." Isn't that a question worth asking and answering?

R1 argues:

[T]o view philosophers as "the gatekeepers of culture" . . . is to act as if we lived in Plato's Republic. Whatever these supposedly postmodern scholars have contributed to the art world, it has surely followed after and tried to explain what goes on in that world far more than it has shaped or defined it. Working artists hardly need license from aestheticians, nor does such license, if granted, much affect their work or careers! Arthur Danto's career may have been greatly advanced by his writings about Andy Warhol, but the converse is hardly true.

My implicit point was that by merely trying to explain what goes on in the art world, rather than objectively critiquing it, philosophers have tended to legitimize those practices. Moreover, to argue that Danto's theory has had little influence in the artworld is profoundly mistaken. At the very least, the theory has surely had a strong indirect influence, by undergirding the basic assumptions of leading critics and curators regarding "contemporary art." For example, as noted in What Art Is:

[New York Times critic] Roberta Smith . . . has candidly declared that she cut her "art-critical eye-teeth" on the dictum "If an artist says it's art, it's art." So, too, [dance critic] Jack Anderson subscribes to the admittedly "extreme" view that "dances are dances and ballets are ballets simply because people who call themselves choreographers say they are." Another writer, Rita Reif, cites art historian Robert Rosenblum . . . as an authority for the opinion that (as she puts it) "if an artist makes it, it's art. . . ." In the view of [critic] Grace Glueck, something is a work of art if it is "intended as art, presented as such, and . . . judged to be art by those qualified in such matters."

Aren't those simply restatements of the institutional theory? So, too, Glenn Lowry, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, has declared: "If an artist does it, it's art"--as I've noted in Who Says That's Art?. That guiding assumption ensures that virtually any work--however trivial, bizarre, anti-traditional, or "eviscerated" (to borrow Danto's term)--can receive serious artworld attention. Moreover, in such a freewheeling cultural environment, would-be artists know that the surest way to gain attention is merely to do something totally new, the more outrageous the better.

Arthur Danto's View Compared to Ayn Rand's

R1 suggests that Danto's definition of art [as "embodied meanings" in his book What Art Is] "would bear an interesting similarity" to Rand's view of artistic embodiment. The similarity is only superficial, however. As I've indicated in Who Says That's Art?, the crucial difference lies in how art works are deemed to embody meaning--and in the sorts of work that are judged to do that. Danto holds that his defining attribute of "embodied meaning . . . applies as much to [Jacques-Louis] David's [Death of Marat] as to Warhol's [Brillo Boxes]"--as well as to Donald Judd's "sculptures," for example. Neither Warhol's simulacra of supermarket cartons nor Judd's abstract work would even remotely qualify as art on Rand's view, however.

My Treatment of Other Authors

R1 claims that my treatment of the views of other authors, like that of Danto's, is "weak and wooden." In particular, R1 objects:

Kristeller surely does not "fault the ancient writers and thinkers for their inability or unwillingness 'to detach the aesthetic quality of . . . works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical function or content,' as well as for their failure "to use . . . aesthetic qualit[ies] as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation." His point is simply that, by contrast with Batteux and others, those ancient writers and thinkers did not make these distinctions or associations. He may be mistaken about this, but he is making an historical claim, not a claim about what the system of the arts should be.
Contrary to R1's objection, here is what Kristeller says in his final paragraph dealing with antiquity:

[C]lassical antiquity left no systems or elaborate concepts of an aesthetic nature, but merely a number of scattered notions and suggestions that . . . had to be carefully selected, taken out of their context, rearranged, reemphasized and reinterpreted or misinterpreted before they could be utilized as building materials for aesthetic systems. We have to admit the conclusion, distasteful to many historians of aesthetics, but grudgingly admitted by most of them, that ancient writers and thinkers, though confronted with excellent works of art and quite susceptible to their charm, were neither able nor eager to detach the aesthetic quality of these works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical function or content, or to use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation.

I submit that Kristeller is indeed "faulting" the writers and thinkers of antiquity by clearly implying that their "scattered notions" regarding the arts were inferior to the "comprehensive philosophical interpretation" offered by eighteenth-century thinkers, for the reasons he cites. His claim is more than merely "historical." It is evaluative as well.

Regarding my treatment of other authors, R1 further argues:

[David] Clowney does not "applaud" (or bemoan) the rise of "fine crafts" within the world of art, as a way of "advocating a conceptual breakdown." Like Shiner, Clowney seeks to notice, not to promote, an incoherence in "the concept of art." If anything, he and Shiner seek to appreciate, not to denigrate, both the older unity of art with craft, the newer "art for art sake" ideas of the modern system, and possible ways of keeping the best of both of those worlds.

I'm not sure how "art for art's sake" got into this discussion, as it bears no relation to the view of "fine art" that I espouse. In any case, R1's objection here seems to reflect the common confusion regarding questions of "craft" and "utility" in the arts. My view of the "fine arts" recognizes that craftsmanship plays an indisputable role in their creation. And I do not regard them as "useless" (as they are sometimes characterized)--that is, as having no "utility." As I implied, their "utility" (properly speaking, their function) is a purely psychological one--as contrasted with the primarily physical one of objects of "decorative" art" and "craft." In contrast, both Clowney and Shiner clearly regard the postmodernist blurring of the distinction between these two major categories as a positive development. If Clowney does not quite "applaud" or "advocate" a "conceptual breakdown" on the page I cited (315), he certainly does so in the conclusion of the same essay, when he writes:

I have tried to show that certain claims about the historical origins of the modern idea of art . . . lead us to conclude that attempts to define art are misdirected. . . . [T]hese are also reasons for not trying to decide whether some new medium or some particular work is art. . . . Accepting these reasons would no doubt produce a shift in the way philosophers thing about art. . . . [O]ne part of the shift would involve recognizing the degree to which the designation art is about status, and how little else it tells us about the features of any particular work, practice, or artist.

. . . Furthermore, abandoning the definitional quest and recognizing the arbitrary character of the boundary between art and non-art might well widen the scope of philosophical aesthetics.

Surely that amounts to embracing a conceptual breakdown. Similarly, as I've noted in Who Says That's Art?, Shiner laments (The Invention of Art, 5, 101)

that eighteenth-century European culture introduced a "fateful division . . . in the traditional concept of art" when it elevated the status of easel painters over that of the "decorators of furniture, coaches, and signs." Prior to the eighteenth century, he argues, "the terms 'artist' and 'artisan' were used interchangeably, and the word 'artist' could be applied not only to painters and composers but also to shoemakers and wheelwrights." In a similar vein, he celebrates the fact that "women's needlework has [at last] been rescued from the dungeon of 'domestic art' to enter the main floor of our art museums."

That clearly sounds to me like welcoming the breakdown of the conceptual distinction between the "fine" and "decorative" or "utilitarian" arts.

Finally, R1 claims that the weakest part of my argument is my "use of Halliwell on mimesis." In his view:

It does not take much reflection on Halliwell's account to realize that "mimesis" is a very flexible notion, as readily applicable, at least in some of its classical versions, to the paintings of Kandinsky as to the symphonies of Beethoven. It would be no great stretch to apply it to architecture as well, most especially when the architect has paid careful attention not just to practical needs but also to the creation of a meaningful and pleasurable environment for living. In short, whatever the merits or usefulness of defining art as mimetic, the contours of that notion as outlined by Halliwell don't provide much reason for ruling out abstraction, or many other modern developments, from the realm of the arts.

As it happens, I've written to Stephen Halliwell, and he has in fact fully affirmed my interpretation. In addition to observing that I am "surely right about the essentials of where Kristeller went wrong," he states that he

did indeed argue that mimesis was a more 'flexible' concept in ancient texts than has often been appreciated, but certainly not to the point of suggesting that it could encompass anything like abstract art. My main concern was to insist that in many contexts the force of mimetic terms is strongly 'expressive' as well as representational, but that is a more subtle point than the one the referee tries to make.

With Halliwell's kind permission, I am forwarding the full text of my email exchange with him.

Polemical Tone

R1 objects that the tone of my paper is "polemical," and regrets that I have not treated other JAAC contributors as "collaborators of good will who seek illumination and better understanding . . . , and whose opposing views deserve respect." On the first count, I plead guilty. I have indeed presented a polemic--that is, a "controversial argument . . . refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine," to quote one definition. It is not the good will of fellow discussants that I've questioned, however. What I am disputing is their judgment. Moreover, I say unapologetically that while well-meaning discussants indeed deserve respect, not all their views do. In that category, I would unhesitatingly place Danto's institutional theory based on Warhol's "eviscerated" Brillo Boxes.

Finally, the very brief comment by R2 that I was permitted to see (regrettably, some of his comments were sent only to the JAAC editors) objects that my "essay appears reverse-engineered for the purpose of condemning anti-traditional forms such as 'installation' and 'performance,'" and further claims that my "approach is a-historical." On the contrary, I have in fact sought to indicate (however briefly) the history of both traditional and anti-traditional art. In so doing, I have suggested what the defining attributes of traditional art have historically been. I have also indicated that the inventors of anti-traditional forms such as "installation" and "performance" not only deliberately abandoned those attributes but explicitly referred to their inventions as non-art or anti-art. To use the term art to refer to such work is a classic example of what Rand identified as the fallacy of the "stolen concept"--that is, "using a concept while denying the validity of . . . earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends." It appropriates the value-laden aura surrounding the concept of art, while abandoning the attributes that it subsumed.

Given what critic and art historian Thomas McEvilley has celebrated as the "triumph of anti-art" in today's culture, I trust I may be forgiven if my tone at times seems polemical.

I do not expect that my remarks here will prompt the JAAC to reverse its decision regarding publication. My hope instead is that those who read them will at least be prompted to give serious consideration to the ideas and arguments I've highlighted here, as well as in the paper itself.