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Mark Kingwell: Outside the White Box : Can art make anything happen?

21 January 2016

Mark Kingwell reflects on the space where art and politics meet. First published at

Ever since 1964, when Arthur Danto described the art world as a discursive space in which any object, however humble — a soup can, a garden tool, a urinal — might be aesthetically transfigured, philosophers of art have been painting themselves into an increasingly tiny conceptual corner. So-called analytic aesthetics now wallows in a deflationary phase, fighting shy of familiar questions about art and beauty. One recent exemplar of this literature, Dominic McIver Lopes’s Beyond Art (2014), cheerfully defends a “buck-passing” theory of art. That is, art is whatever different “arts-discourses” (i.e., painting, sculpture, performance) choose to talk about and to make. In the book’s terms, “X is a work of art if and only if x is a work of K, where K is an art.” A general theory of why there can be no general theory is a brainchild only an academic could love.

So what is the difference that makes a difference? Philosophers are correct, I think, to avoid treating this generalized question as the only, or even the central, problem of art. Ontological identification is never a matter of simple mandarin taste — “Trust me, I know it when I see it.” The point, rather, is that the baseline philosophical desire for generality cannot arise except from specific, nuanced, and temporal conditions. The philosopher Nelson Goodman, for example, suggests that we ask instead, When is art? This holds promise: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes this pipe is not a pipe. When, and why, not? This inquiry is a way of passing the buck, too, I suppose, but at least in a more illuminating fashion.

Perhaps, though, the more pressing question is: What is art for? That might sound even less fashionable than asking what art is. But, just for that reason, it seems compelling. After all, despite the monstrous self-absorption of the art world and the philosophical dead air, people today crave and experience art in numbers unknown to previous eras. Blockbuster exhibitions at MoMA and the Tate generate long lines of patient, eager patrons. We might well wonder what these people are looking for. The works they queue up to view, whether they are small Warhols or Martin Puryear installations that can exist only in gallery settings, are either beyond collecting or uncollectible. I think the best explanation is that people want to look at art so that they can feel the way Rilke felt when looking at the archaic torso of Apollo. They want to be told: “You must change your life.”

In Rilke’s case, the imperative derived from beauty itself, the incomplete statue’s “legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit.” Other prompts are more direct. Sometimes art is not only aesthetic but world transforming — as when Picasso’s Guernica inflects the discourse about war and its atrocities, or Duchamp’s readymades force us to regard everyday objects in new ways. In some sense that still uncannily matters, this is what art is for.

The terrain where art meets politics is marked by familiar controversies, though they are perhaps no longer the cause of Partisan Review polemics or cocktail-party fistfights, as they were in the days of Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollock. Is art a form of therapy, populist by intention and gated only by indefensible conventions? Is art a call to arms, or to spiritual improvement, that somehow avoids the depredations of propagandism and indoctrination? No answer to these questions can ever be clean, or comprehensive, and so we are thrown, again and again, to the works themselves — with, if we are lucky, a guiding voice in our minds.

Continue reading at Harper's Magazine

Filed under: art