Social practicism about art

We can distinguish three different approaches in philosophy of art. They have consequences for art ontology, appreciation, and the nature of genre.

TL;DR: Some stuff about norms. The third approach, social practicism, needs a better name.

The first approach is nominalism.1 An artwork is just made up of its non-relational features. Appreciating a work of art just means engaging with the physical object which has those features. For example, the Mona Lisa just is (or is entirely grounded in) paint on a wooden panel. Any physical engagement with that paint and panel are encounters with the artwork and opportunities for appreciation.

Nominalism naturally fits with a view of genre which characterizes genres as sets of works with some shared features.

It has fallen out of favor these days, because many philosophers think that a work of art also involves a prescriptive frame— that is, some norms about how the object is supposed to be encountered. For example, a typical painting is meant to be viewed straight on from the front. If you were only to see the back of the wooden panel, then you would see the physical object but not the artwork of the Mona Lisa.

Of course, an avant garde artist could make a precise replica of the Mona Lisa and frame it so that the viewer sees only the back of the wooden panel. They might give it a cheeky title like Mona’s Behind. Importantly, this would be a different work of art than the original Mona Lisa. The new work would not be a traditional painting, but instead a different kind of thing— conceptual art, maybe. The crucial difference between the two works (one might think) is that Leonardo intended to make a painting of the usual kind, whereas the new artist intended something different.

The second approach— let’s call it intentionalism— says that the norms for how to appropriately encounter an artwork are set by the artist’s intention.2 This is both a view about ontology (a work is an object + a norm) and appreciation (a work should be appreciated in the prescribed way) where the norms and prescriptions are the ones intended by the artist.

Intentionalism naturally fits with a view of genre according to which genre membership is (at least partly) a matter of intention. A song counts as Country because it is meant to be Country.

My worries about intentionalism come from thinking about Evan Malone‘s work on genre. Whether a song counts as Country does not depend just on how it sounds, as nominalism would suggest. And it may not matter at all whether the artist intended to write a Country song, as intentionalism suggests. The crucial norms which determine whether it’s Country or not are the norms of audiences (Country fans) and institutions (like Country radio stations and popular Country charts). There is some back and forth, because the institutions shape what the audiences hear, and audience opinion will shape what the institutions recognize as Country.

Starting from Evan’s view of genres as practices, we can work backwards to an approach to ontology and appreciation.

Imagine this course of events: The curators at the Louvre turn Mona Lisa around during off-peak hours, to protect it. Some visitors who come at these times enjoy looking at the back of the wooden panel. They find it transcendently beautiful. We might say that these visitors are not appreciating the Mona Lisa anymore than they would if they tasted a corner of it, because they are encountering the physical thing without encountering the artwork. When the painting is turned backwards, the artwork is not on display. Yet suppose that these visitors share their experiences on social media. A whole community forms around viewing the object in this way. Tourists come to the Louvre at odd hours so as to see the back of the wooden panel. Eventually, curators at the Louvre extend the times when the back of the panel is visible so as to accommodate this demand.

If this all were to happen, there would be a norm of viewing the object in this new way. This shows that we can accept the anti-nominalist intuition without embracing intentionalism. The artwork is no mere thing. It is at least a thing plus a prescribed way of encountering it. Even though that prescription might be one the artist intended, it does not need to be.3 It might instead be determined by the norms of audiences and institutions. At the end of the thought experiment, viewers who marvel at the unadorned back of the wooden panel are engaged in appropriate appreciation.

The third approach takes these social practices to determine the relevant norms. For lack of a better term, call it social practicism. Although it is inspired by Evan’s view about genre, it also has consequences for ontology and appreciation.

  1. I am using labels that make sense here, but I am not taking them from anyone who uses them in just this way.
  2. If you are worried that intentions are inaccessible because they are in the artist’s mind, an intentionalist could add that there must be some public signal of the intention. The creator of Mona’s Behind both intends for the painted surface to face the wall and also tells the museum curator to display it that way.
  3. See the previous footnote.

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