April 2017

Response to BJA Regarding Kristeller et al.

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Note: The following remarks were sent to the editors of the British Journal of Aesthetics in response to their rejection of a paper entitled "Why Kristeller et al. Are Wrong about 'Fine Art'"--on which "Why Discarding the Concept of 'Fine Art' Has Been a Grave Error" was largely based.

Referee 1 (R1) sees sufficient value in this "highly suggestive" paper to prompt me to appeal your decision, and to explore whether the points of perceived value may yet be salvaged for BJA readers.

As both referees recognize, this is indeed an ambitiously revisionist paper. As I indicated, it is prompted by concern about the utter chaos in today's artworld. Lamented by many art lovers, that chaos is acknowledged even by philosophers who seem untroubled by it. It means, at root, that the term art has become so open-ended as to be meaningless.

Like the beginning sentence in a child's game of Gossip, what R1 refers to as the "[once] useful concept of the fine arts" has become ever farther removed from its starting point at each successive iteration until it bears no resemblance at all to the original. That, I think, should be a matter of urgent concern to all philosophers of "art."

Referee 2 (R2) objects that I "seem to want to blame the messenger for the message." In this case, the message cannot be separated from the messengers. The question of whether something qualifies as "art" (and why) is a matter of philosophic judgment.

R2 also argues that "most people since d'Alembert do accept architecture as one of the Fine Arts." Indeed, that's just my point. They merely take it on authority and custom, even though they often acknowledge the fundamental disparity between the two categories. I cite several instances of explicit contradictory statements to that effect (many more could be found).

R1, in contrast, considers my claim regarding the problematic inclusion of architecture among the fine arts to be an "interesting" one, which I go "some measure of the way towards defending." Yet he/she asks "Was it really with d'Alembert that the rot sets in?" Kristeller's answer to that question (though he didn't view the matter as "rot") was clearly yes. And, as I noted, the Oxford Dictionary of Art agreed.

Since architecture was rarely grouped with the other major arts before the Encyclopédie, but was commonly included with them after its publication, there seems no reason to doubt that judgment. Yet no one has bothered to examine d'Alembert's flimsy justification for his relatively unprecedented view. Isn't all this worthy of bringing to the attention of BJA readers?

R1 correctly discerns that my key "Anonymous" source was the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand, and argues that an adequate defense of her analysis of mimetic art would require an entire essay or book in itself. Parenthetically, R1 wonders why I anonymized my references to her theory. The reason is that the book-length study that my husband, Louis Torres, and I devoted to Rand's aesthetic theory sixteen years ago (What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, Open Court, 2000) has been virtually ignored by philosophers of art, owing mainly to a pervasive animus against her among American academics. The two major aesthetic journals the book was submitted to in the U.S. declined to review it. Moreover, the editor of one confided to me that she thought the book was an important one meriting review, but that every potential reviewer she had approached had responded with a "knee-jerk reaction" at the mere mention of Rand's name. They would not even look at the book.

In contrast, the philosopher who reviewed the book for the American Library Association's Choice magazine recommended it highly for all academic levels and general readers. In addition, the British Association of Art Historians' Art Book judged it to be a "balanced critical assessment" of Rand's ideas. Finally, America's pre-eminent cultural historian, Jacques Barzun, found considerable value in our analysis of Rand's theory (see C-Span In-Depth at 2:38:45; also letters from him).

The present anonymized paper therefore sought, in part, to introduce Rand's ideas to philosophers of art without encountering bias at the first hurdle that would have proved an insurmountable impediment.

In R1's astute view, "much more needs to be said on the subject" than I can fit into one essay. "Other writers who have views similar to Rand's need to be discussed in this context," and I should "engage more fully with the contemporary philosophy of art literature." What Art Is--which deals with all the major arts--has done just that, as has my more recent book, Who Says That's Art? (2014), which focuses on the visual arts. Philosophers whose work is cited or discussed in What Art Is range from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel to Suzanne Langer, Ortega y Gassett, W.E. Kennick, R.G. Collingwood, Richard Wollheim, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, Arthur Danto, Stephen Davies, Louis Arnaud Reid, Morris Weitz, George Dickie, and Roger Scruton.

When What Art Is was written, we were not yet aware of the significant similarity between Rand's mimetic view of art and that of Baumgarten and Kant. Their ideas are among the new material included in Who Says That's Art?, along with more cross-cultural material and relevant insights from neuroscience.

In the limited space of this paper, I indeed offer only one email message regarding African art (as censured by R1). But a section of What Art Is is devoted to "The Art and Artifacts of Africa." In it we argue, in part:

Though the distinction between fine and decorative art (or craft) has only become explicit in the West since the eighteenth century, it is implicit in other cultures, as we have noted in our discussion of Ellen Dissanayake's work in Chapter 7. African societies, for instance, accord the highest status to the art forms and works of art which most fully integrate and perceptibly embody the primary values of the society. An implicit distinction between merely decorative imagery and representations that are invested with deep significance is evident in the West African culture of the Baule people, for example. Private devotional sculptures known as "spirit figures" (small wooden sculptures representing the "spirit" husband or wife believed to be left in the other world before birth) depict a Baule ideal of physical beauty and social perfection, and are much more highly valued than the diverse utilitarian objects whose ornamental figures lack profound meaning or "content," serving only to afford esthetic pleasure and to bring prestige to their makers and their owners. According to the principles of Rand's esthetic theory, we would argue that the spirit figures clearly qualify as works of ["fine"] art, although the language of the Baule lacks a comparable term.

In contrast, the Western tendency to regard African masks as autonomous objects of "fine art," in isolation from their intended cultural context, is mistaken. Such masks are created as dramatic props, or dance regalia, meant to be seen as but one element of a complex esthetic experience incorporating music, poetry, and dance. Typically, they are not intended to be experienced apart from such a ceremonial or entertainment context, and should therefore not be regarded as works of ["fine"] art.

That view is affirmed by the African scholar quoted in the email message I cite.

One further word about engagement with contemporary literature on the philosophy of art. As argued in the present paper, that literature suffers from the prevailing tendency to accept virtually anything put forward in the artworld as "art." In the Introduction to Who Says That's Art?, I note that Arthur Danto's What Art Is, for example, defines works of art as "embodied meanings"--which seems to resemble the definition offered by Rand. When one considers the bafflingly disparate objects he regards as work of art, however (from Warhol's Brillo Boxes to Duchamp's Fountain), the apparent similarity evaporates.

In my view, a more productive approach than examining the philosophic literature is to examine the ideas and motives of the avant-garde innovators who broke with the mimetic tradition. That approach informs both What Art Is and Who Says That's Art?. With respect to abstraction, we show that the pioneers of "abstract art" aimed to create a completely "New Art" requiring unprecedented powers of perception, and that it therefore ultimately failed to communicate to viewers not yet "beyond reason." Regarding postmodernist "new forms" such as "conceptual art," we show that they began as explicitly "anti-art" gestures.

Since R1 would welcome "an argument for why conceptual art, etc. should not be admitted into the category of art," let me quote a brief excerpt from What Art Is:

No other aspect of postmodernism has more profoundly or pervasively undermined the practice of the visual arts in the years since the early 1960s than the notion of so-called conceptual art. As defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988), the term refers to "various forms of art in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any." Like Pop art, conceptual art was initially a reaction against the meaninglessness of abstraction. Whereas Pop artists mainly rejected the expressionist pretensions of recent abstract art, conceptual artists are more concerned with repudiating the formalist view of abstraction promulgated by Clement Greenberg. In a perverse kind of dialectic, however, they embrace the opposite pole of a false dichotomy. Greenberg's formalism had mistakenly predicated esthetic forms emptied of ideas and meaning. Conceptual art abandons esthetic forms entirely--in favor of "ideas."

Like other purported twentieth-century innovations in the arts, conceptual art rests on a set of false assumptions, about human perception and cognition, about the nature (and purpose) of art, and about the properties of the various art forms. In the earliest theoretical statement on the subject, for example, Henry Flynt (a self-styled philosopher and practitioner of the movement) wrote: "Concept art is . . . an art of which the material [medium] is concepts, as the material of music is sound. Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language." What he ignored of course is that such an art form already existed--that is, literature. Nonetheless, Flynt acknowledged that the notion of a wholly "non-aesthetic" art form is rather contradictory; and he even suggested that it might be better to seek another term, and "to recognize my activity as an independent, new activity, irrelevant to art" (emphasis ours). In effect, he was admitting that his "new activity" did not really qualify as art. All the same, he retained the term art, in part because, as he explained, "the antecedents of concept art are commonly regarded as artistic, aesthetic activities." To use the term art for work that flouted the concept's defining attributes, however, was but another of the artworld's many instances of what Rand referred to as the "fallacy of the stolen concept."

On his website, Flynt himself characterizes his outlook as "anti-art." As I argue in a chapter of Who Says That's Art?, however, anti-art is not art.

If on reading all the above, you agree that there is sufficiently new and substantial material in my argument to warrant serious philosophic consideration, I'd be happy to try to revise the paper along any lines you might suggest to make it more acceptable for BJA publication.