Art and meaning

Tags: works of art, paintings, Andy Warhol, art criticism, Robert Rauschenberg, commercial art, Steve Harvey, Brillo box, distinction, fine art, Bruno Bishofsburger Gallery, Brillo boxes, Brillo pads, Whar Harvey, Baroness Hilla Rebay, definition of art, rhat, practical art, handsaw, George Dickie, institutional theory of art, inner reality, nonobjective, Museum of Non-Objective Art, philosophical objections
Content: Art and Meaning
Throughout the history of philosophical specuIarjon o n arr, it was tacirlv assumed that works of art have a strong antecedent identity, and rhat onk cotlld tell them apart from ordinar): things as easily as one could tell one ordinary thing from anorher-a hawk from a handsaw, say. So obvious was the distinction between arr and everything else rhat the Greeks evidently did not require a special word for designating artworks,which they nevertheless undertook to account for in the grandest metaphysical terms. There have, especially in modernist times, been eforts to transform the term "art" into a normative concept, according to which "good art" is tautologous since notlring can be both art and bad. Nav York critics were known to say of somethirlg they disapproved of that it was not really art, when there was very little else but art that it could be, Any term can be ilormarivized in rhis way, as when, pointing to a cerrain handsaw, we say, "That's what I call a handsaw," meaning that the tool ranks high under the relevant dorms. But it would seem queer for obiects which rank low under rlrose norms to be exiled from the domain of handsaws, and in general normativization must drop out of the concept, leaving a descr~ptiveresidue, It is with reference to this residue that works of art were tacitly held to be recognizable among and distinguishable from other things. At the beginning of the modernist movement, say in the mid-nineteenth century, ccttain problems arosc at the boundaries of the concept, initially, perhaps, with photographs, which were unmistakably pictures thmgh produced, as the cu-inventor of the process, Fox Talbot, phrased it, hy The Pencil of Nature. There was a double history until very recent trmes as photographers attempted to emulate paintings, and painters legan to distance their work from photography by one or another of the stylistic matrices nf modernism-Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, Fauves. Photographv was still an outcast in the era of Stieglitz's Camera Work, and perhaps irs claim to 130
Art and Meaning 131
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Art that
opened the happened,
rhe dirtinctlon henveen pictures drmn by Nature's Pencil and those by rhc
Ir;lnd-beldpmcils of painrers dropped our of rhe concepr of art. And ar-
ricLilatingthe logical smrtures of that concept proved to be more exacting
rhan anyone mighr have believed, when it had been taken for granted t h a t
,,,w)rks constit~~taedrelatively homogeneous classof things, the members
of\,Thichcould be picked out easily and immediarely. It was consistent with
{hisassumption that the borderlines expanded and dilated under pressures
ofv2~inussorts: articlesoffurniture, forexample, would have been consid-
ered works ofart in the eighteenth century, when made of precious vptieerq
and elegantly designed bymaster ibinistfi. But when Jacques-Louis'David,
nssocintifig these luxurious objects with the aristocracy, drew a sharp line
beween High Art and practical art, objects of itertii had to emigrate, like
tlletr noble patrons, and became craft instead of art. The distinction re-
mains in effect tuday, so rhat one dismisses as art anything that carrirs an
aura of utility, leaving behind the uncomfortable idea that works of art can
have no function, which is a desperarc way of keeping borders closed. This
leare-esintact the assurnptjonthat amotks are a special class of thmgs, and
rhat one couldwalk through any space whatever and pick the artworks out
wrth a high probability of attaining a perfect score. In this respect the dis-
tinction between art and anything else was understood as in no way differ-
ent from the distinction between any pair of cIasses-hawks and handsaws,
once again. From rhat perspective, the question "What is art?' was never
urlderstood as "Which are the arrworks?"-to which it could he assumed
rhat we knew the answer-but rather "What are art's ess~ntiafleatures?"
What set my book The Trnnsfiguration of the Cornmonpiacc apart from
that philosophical tradition was its recognition rhat the distinction between
works of art and ordinary things could no longer be taken for granted.'
The question with which the book wrestled was, "Given two things which
resemble one another ro any chosen degree, but one of which is a work
of art and the orher an ordinary objecr, what accounts for this difference
in status?" This would not have been a question philosophers could have
asked when the difference between artworks and ordinary objecrs seemed
for the most part obvious and uncontroversia1,They would not have asked
it, I tl~inkb, ecause thc issue had never arisen. Inthe twentieth century, how-
ever, through certain internal transformations in the History of Art, works
o! art began to appear which eisher were, or appeared to he, objects of
daily life and use. Ducl~amp'sreadymades (1915- 17)were ordinary snow
shovels, bottle racks, gmrning combs, and, in one bmous case, a urinal,
and thcse, before Duchamp, w(auld certainly have been considered as en-
tirely ourside the scope of art. My favorite example was Andy Warhol's
Rrillo Rox, a photograph of which would be indiscernible from one taken of the commonplace containers in which the soap pads were shipped to supermarkets. So why was one art and the other not, since they looked as much alike as anyone cared to make them? So much alike that the assumption that we could pick the anworks our was put ineradicably in doubt. The Transfiglrratronsaught to answer this question, and it arrived at a provisional formulation of part of the definition of art. I argued, first, that works of art are always about something, and hence have a content or meaning; and second that to be a work of art something had to embody its meaning. This cannot be the entire story, hut if I could not get these conditions to hold, I am unclear what a definition of art without them would look like. So let me first respond to certain philosophical objections meant to put my meager set of conditions in doubt. George Dickie, founder ofthe institutional theory of art, insists that there are counterinstances to my first claim, offering nonobjective paintings as his example.' It would be extremely interesting to consider what nonobjective paintings Dickie could have had in mind. The Guggenheim M t ~ s e u min New York was originally caSled the Museum of Non-Objective Art, and it displayed work by Kandinsky, Mondrian, ~MaIevich,and Rudolph Rauer, ar the time the lover of Baroness Hilla Rebay, the museum's director, The term nonobjective, if not firsr used by Rodchenko, was certainly used by Kandinsky to designate a pure art that seeks to express only "inner and essential feelingsw-and the phrase "nonobjective" is closely synonymous with the ward "subjective." The paintings present a reality, albeit an inner reality, or if an outer reality, then one which has the same spiritual identity as inner reality. And this, to take the other seemingly difficult case, was Schopenhauer's view of music: it is the language of our nou~nenal being. Similar stories could be t d d about Suprematism and what Mondrian rermed Neo-PIasticism. The inner atmosphere of the Museum of Non-Objective Art endeavored to make objective the spirit embodied in the redemptive paintings in which Baroness Rebay believed, which hung on its gray velvet walls, washed over by the music of Bach. Malevich perhaps invented monochrome painting, but would have been astonished ro be told chat his Black Square was nor about anything. Robert Rauschenberg's all-white painting was about the shadows and the changes of light which transiently registered on its surface, and in that sense about the real world. To be sure, I cannot account for every historical example, but I am fairlyconvinced chat T could if presented with any historical case. So we are in the realm of the philosophical counrerexarnple, leached of any content, namely, "What about a painring about nothing?'' I would want to know if it had geometrical forms, nongeometrical forms, whether it was monochrome or striped or whac-and from this information it is a simple matter
Art and Meaning 133 r~ imagine what the appropriate art criticism would be, and to elicit the kind of meaning rhe work could have. Sean Scully's paintings are composed c h i d of stripes, but they are meant to assert propositions about human life, about love, about, even, death. We can of course imagine someone in the spirit of philosophical counterinstantiation painting a work about nothing. But rhere is a problem of distinguishing between not being about anything and being about nothing, and I incline to the view that nothing is what the painting is about, as in an essay by Heidegger. So my challenge to Dickie would be: give me an example, and I will deal with it. Without some specificity, the game of counrerinsrances gets pretty tiresome. The second condition was that a meaning is materially embodied in artworks, which show what they are about. This, if true, must put me in ronflice wirh Hegel's formulation of what he terms "'symbolic art," the meaning ofwhich, as wirh a name,is external to, rather than embodied in, rhe object, though he and I would be in harmony in respect to the other two forms he distinguishes, classical and Romantic art. Since his example of symbolic art is the pyramid, it can certainly be questioned whether the shape, dimensions, and vectors d o not embody the meaning appropriate to its mummified tenant. But there is a more immediate objection to my second condition, namely, that something can at once possess aboutness, and embody its meaning,and yet not be a work of art. It has, for instance, been pointed out that the ordinary boxes of Brillo in the stockrooms of supermarkets are about something- Brillo-and that they embody their tncanings through the designs on their surfaces. Since I wanted a definition that woujd distinguish artworks from real things, however something looked, I cannot have succeeded. since the definition, while it fits Warhol's box, fits equally well the ordinary boxes from which I was anxious to distinguish it. This was raised as a friendly criticism by Noel Carroll, and it rcqilires a somewhat intricate answer? There are two senses of "content," that in which Brillo cartons physically contain soap pads, and thar in which we may speak of the content ofa work of art, which may in no physical sense whatever he "in" the work. What the content of Brillo &oxas a work ofarr might be was a matter of interpretation, having norhing to do with opening the box to see what was there. The "combines" of Robert Rauschenberg possess content in both senses: they physically incorporate ordinary objects-cans, funnels, brooms, Coke bottles- which then contribute to whatever larger meaning the works may convey. The way in which these ordinary objects get taken u p and transfigured is, in Rausrrhenbergk case, partly achieved by heeding what one might call the poetry 06 the commonplace. The objects of the household, for example, are dense with meanings we begin to grasp when they are lost or broken or worn out.They define the strucrures of lifens it is lived, and, if we
suffering and joy. So the line bemeen commerc.cia1art and fine art became a problem. In my early essay "The Art World" I invoked a knowledge of the rheoy and the history of art to solve the problem, and while this tactic worked, I now think we might talk as well ahout different structures of art criticism connected with the NO objects. Or three objects, if we expand our group to include the Brillo box by the appropriationist artist Mike Ridlo, who, in an exhibition as the Bruno Bishofsburger Gallery in Zurich, installed, in the same configuration in which they were shown at the Pasadena Museum of Arr in 1968, cighty- five Brillo boxes, which he had fabricated. The show war called Not Andy Warhol. So let us mount the usual exhil~itionF try to i~naginewhen I discuss these matters-the Warhol box, the Not Warhol box, and the "real" Brilla box made famous bv Warhol b t ~atlso not Waehol, but nor Not Warhol either. I ask you m &ant me their relative indiscernibiliry, in thet rhe differences behveen the objects do not penetrate the differences between the works, since they could as readily be imagined as belonging to rhe ochers instead of the one they belong to in fact. If you look at Warhol's box, there is a kind of dripping where the paint is stenciled on, showing a certain indifference to clean edges. Rut the Warhol could be clean and the Bidlo dripping. O r they could both be clean and the real Brillo box be dripping-or at least some of them, say a bad batch. There is no reason to protract this reasoning. So let us apply the structures of arc criticism so the three, and imagine that they look entirely alike, and that no visual basis is to be invoked for discriminating the two examples of fine art from the one example of commercial art, or, for the matrer, discriminating between the appropriation and the appropriated. Et is now well known that one of the reasons the design of the Rrillo box is so good is thar it upasdone by a fine artist who was obliged to pracrice commercial arr when Absrract Expressi~nisrnfaded in the early sixties. This was Steve Harvey, about whom I would like to know a great deal more than I do. In any case, his Brillo carton is not simply a container for Brillo pads: it is a visual celebration of Brillo. The lmx is decorated rvith two waw zones of red separated by one of whire, with blue and red letters. Red, whin. and blue are the colon of patriotism, as the wave is a property of water and of flags. This connects cleanliness and dutv?and transforms the side of the box into a ffag of patriotic sanitation. It gives two conneoed reasons for using Brilla, which is printed in prwlarnatory ietters a-R-I-L-L-oth,e consonants in blue. the vnwels- r and o- in red. The wnrd itself is dog Latin, narneiy, "I shine!"-which has a double meaning, one of which is consistent with the condition of embodied meaning. The word conveys an excieernent which i s carried out in the various other words, in which the idioms of advertising are distributed upon the surfaces of the
Art nnd Meaning 137 box, the way rhe idioms of revolution or protest are boldly blazoned on banners and placasds carried by strikers,The pads are GIANT. The product is NEW. It S H I N E S ALUM] NUM FAST. The carton conveys excitement, even ecstasy, and is in its own way a ~nasterpieceof visual rhetoric, intended to move minds to the act of purchase and then of appIication. And thar wanderful band of white, like a river of purity, 113san art-historical origin in the hard-edged absrrilcrion of Ellsworrh Kelly and Leon Polk Smith. Ft could nor have been done before that movement, the clean edges of which give a certain palpable contemporaneity to Brillo. Even in 1944 it was urgent to belong to the Pepsi Generation of with-it p u t h . I-Tarvey deserved a prize, and Warhol, who had won prize after prize as one of New York" leading commercial arrisrs, wou~dhave been the first to appreciate its value. That, in genera!, is a sketch of the art criticism Eor Ster-eHarvey's Brillo cartons, and you can see how meaning and embodiment are connected. Whar Harvey 'would never have thought was that it might be fine rather than commercial art, in part, 1 suppose, because fine arc by his criteria kvould have been the paintings he admired by Pollock and de Kooning and Rothko and maybe Kline. 50 what Warhol did was to make something visually of a piece with his, bur which w05 a work of fine a n . And one will have ro note that none of the art criticism appropriate to Harvey's box is appropriate to Warhol's at all. Warhol was not influenced by hard-edge abstraction: he reproduced tlir forms of an artist who was, only because they were there, the way the logo of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis was there, certifying rhat Brillo was kosher (as it was in 1964).It was essential that he reproduce the effectsof whatever caused Harvey to do what he had done, without the same causes explaining why they are there, in his BrcIlo BQX of 1964. So where does art criticism come in? It comes in because commercial art was in some way what ZVarhol's art \ a s about, He had a view of the ordinary world as aesrherically beausihl, and admired greatly the rhings Harvey and his herws would have ignored or condemned. He laved rhe surfaces of daily l~fe,the nutritiousness and predictability of canned goods, rhe poetics of the comm~nplace.Aher all, the Rrillo box was but one of the cartons he appropriated for that first show at the Stable Gallery, all of which had their rhetoric but none of which were as successful as Steve Harvey's Brillo box. By 1964 real objects had ~enetratedart as subjecrs for realistic depiction: a case in point is the sign For Mobile gasoline, rhe Flying Red Horse, in a characteristically haunting painting by Edward Hopper. And that crossing the line shows a philosophical shift from rejection of Industrial Society-which would have been rhe attitude of William klorris an$ the Pre-Raphaelites-to endorsement, which was what one miglrt expect from someone born into poverty and in love with the warmth of a kitchen in which all the new products were used. So rhe cartons are
as philosophical as the wallpaper of William Morris, meant of course in morris"^ case, to transform rather than celebrate daily life, and to redeem its ugliness into a kind of rnedievalized beauty. Warhol's boxes were a reaction to Absrracr Expresrianism, bur mainly with respect to honoring what Abscract Expressionism despised. That is part of the art criticism ot Brilh Rox, and there is a great deal more. But the nvo pieces of arr chticism arc disjoint: there is no overlap between the explanarion of Harvey and the explanation of IVarhoI. Warhol's rhetoric has no immediate relationship to that of she Britlo boxes a t all. And this is true of Bidlo's work as\vell. Bidlo appropriares famousworks in order re understand what it must be like to make them-what would it feel like. This helps him understand the object. He is currently making urinals, since the entiregenention of urinals from which Marcel Duchamp drew his notorious Forrntain (1917) I~asdisappeared from the face of the earth. He is making, so to speak, handmade readymades. He did the same in painting hiorandis and Picassor and Lcgers. Ir happens rhar his boxes look as much like Harvey's as like Warhol's, b~lr[hey are about Warhol's and not about Harvey's, and they are about what Warhol made with no special further interest in why lie made it. It is crnrral to Bidla's projecr that the number and array of his boxes be connected wirh the number and array of Warhot's boxes in Pasadena. In Warhol's case, by contrast, rhe number may have been adventitious and the arrangement a rnaner of indifference. Bidlo's was in some way an installation, whereas Warhol's was jusr a number of artworks. E do not want to prolong my discussion past this point. The claim is that all of these diflerences are invisible, rhat the actual box before you underdetermines which work it is, Warhol, Harvey, Bidlo. It is imporrant m the problem r h t in all relevant visual respects, they are entirely alike. That is what I have meant in saying so oken that what makes something n n is nor somerhing rhat meerr the eye. And that makes clear as well why so much rests on meaning, which ir is the task of art criticism to make ex- plicit. The works are nor, as it were, synonymous. T h i s is not to say there are not visible marks by which to re11 Warhol from Bidlo and Bidlo from Harvey. There are, and thew would be enlisted in the connois~eurshipsso important ro collecting and selling arc and, after all, to how wve look ar these things and think about them. We don't want to discover chat we were thinking ahour rhe Bidlo when we thought we were thinking about the Warhol. Still, telling a Harvey From a Warl~olfrom a Bidlo, while it is selling a work of fine a r t from a work of commercial art, and an original born an appropriation, is not in any further sense relling the difference hetween fine arr and commercial art, which rests instead upon phiiasophy. And this is true even if you are teIling the difference between a work of fine art and
Art and Meaning 139 one not a work of fine are. f h e criteria may depend upon measurements, painr samples, mode of imprinting, and the like, none of whirl1 pertains to the conceptual division between these various objecrs. The dcfin~tionof a n remains a philosophical problem. And we can confirm this if we think for a moment o n how the flagged properties of the connoisseur are p r e c i ~ l yrhow on the basis of which fakes are constructed. The forger is in constant symbiosis wirh rhe connoisseur, anempring ro outflank him by incorporating as many of the relevanr properties into his fabrications as can be foi~ndT. he great Morelli based connoisseu~shipon properties no one had paid attention to, which opened possihiliria up for t'orging Fra Lippo Lippi in such a way thar a Morelli could mistake it far Filippino Lippi. Ridla, doubtless in order to demonarate rhe irrelevance of connoisseurship to distinguish his work from Warhol's, made no efTort ro duplicate the latter millimeter for millimeter, or to ernploy just the same plywood Warhol used-which by now would prob- ably kas difiiculr to find as a token of the same .Moa Works urinal type to which Fountdirr belonged. Rut the poinr is rhat telling art from n o n m , if we can identify rhe latter at all, is not like distinguishing two works horn one another when their status as art is not in question-as with Lippo and Filippino. But this returns me ro rhe distinction between art and reality, from which the recognition of commercial art diverred me. 1 have argued that with the emergence of indiscemihles, rhe true philosophical question w a s recognized this way: given two indiscernible objects, one art and the other not, what accounts for the difference? The insufliciently considered case of commercial art did nnt belong to this question, though an analogous problem arose in case someone thought thar com- mercial art must in every instance look different from fine art. My view, in any case, was rhat once the question arose, anything could be an artwork, and thar, in consequence, the history of art, construed as the quest for self-consciousness, had reached its end. Bur I would like t o make an observation concerning aesrhetic responses to objects in the post-historical period, as I have come ro call rhe history of art since it achieved whar 1 rhink of as philosophical self-awareness, What does it mean to Live in a world in which anything could be a wwrlr of art? A family mapshor. a most-wanred porter, an aluminum kettle, a hawk, a h a d s a w ? For me, it is ro invent a suitable art criticism for an objecr, whether or not it is a work of art, though if it is not one-if, for instance, it is not about somethingthe criticism is void. It is KO imagine whar could be meant by the object if it were rhe vehicle of an artistic statement. 1 recently visited the Museitm of Modern Art in San Francisco nnd went the next afternoon to lunch with the Graduate students in art hlstory at Berkeley. As 1 headed for the elevaror, I passed a room on the first floor

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