The Transformation of Art into Icons


Below is a paper I wrote late in my time in University. It's essentially an answer to some definitional problems we might have about art, namely do art works ever go out of existence. This paper is significant to me for a two big reasons:

First, this is a great example of something I struggled to do in analytic philosophy and finally pulled off at the end of my time at university. See, so much of philosophy today is an exercise in writing far more conservative theories, after four years of reading and feeling like I had a good grasp on the wider world of philosophy, but being disappointed with the discipline and let down by my grades on papers, I worked on playing the philosophy game. So this paper demonstrates one technique to rise to the occasion of the analytic philosophical practice, it doesn't actually advance an answer on anything or provide a theory to accept or deny really.

Rather than advance a real theory about if artworks come and go out of existence, this paper advances a case where we can imagine that an artwork has gone out of existence with which to judge other theories. This is actually kind of important work in aesthetics, because this area of philosophy is missing out on a lot of these kinds of "intuition pumps" which are a dime a dozen in aesthetics's cousin ethics. So basically the paper provides a litmus test for other theories of art whereby you could go on to take or leave the results of the test as demonstrating either the strength or weakness of a theory of art. Again, this paper does not advance a theory, it provides a framework for testing theories. This kind of work--intentionally limited in scope and really not open to much challenge--is the goal of a lot of work in philosophy today.

To do this I even took my paper to a discussion session where I explained my test and tightened up some of the details about it. And the extra work I did on this paper to get it to an appropriate level of conservatism for the analytic tradition is part and parcel of the amusing second thing that endears this paper to me. I had a strict page limit and somewhere in the editing I cut out the second half of a paragraph and just left the damn thing with a sentence which trailed off into nothing. Fortunately I was graded on my ideas and not that sentence. 

This paper looks at a well known piece by Arthur Danto where he uses "the artworld" as a way to distinguish what counts as an artwork. Let me stress, Danto doesn't really mean the art world as a bunch of people standing around in a museum with their turtlenecks and suits, dropping their monocles at the latest thing Damien Hirst has pickled or whatever, but he also doesn't not mean that.

The Transformation of Art into Icons

Do artworks go out of existence? Physically they certainly do, but with robust analytic definitions of art it is not so clear that an artwork, once made and accepted can leave the predication ‘is an artwork’ behind. On Arthur Danto’s definition of art, art is a growing matrix of relevant predicates which accept certain manmade objects into the definition of art. With the creation of a representational artwork we create categories for subsequent works to fall into, either representational or non-representational. Subsequent artworks can stake claims in an expanding frontier of novel properties. ‘Artwork’ can become more nuanced in its definition as predicates are added. An apparent consequence is that the body of things called artworks is ever expanding. On the face of it, it seems that the set of artworks fills the set of predicates as it were. But I maintain, if we hold Danto’s view, artworks can transform from being artworks per se and leave their predicates behind in the definition.

Danto’s definition of art is problematic in light of the question “do artworks go out of existence?” I believe a definition of art is stronger when it handles cases of artworks leaving the artworks category, even if this is highly unlikely. It is evident that Danto’s account is uniquely unhelpful when we want to expel an artwork on the face of it because of the close ties he draws between artworks and the predicates which make up our definition. But as another issue, I believe that it may be the fate of artworks which come to be understood in Danto’s way that they cease to be artworks in some relevant sense. I believe that artworks so defined, and particularly as defined by some institutional Artworld, regardless of how loose Danto is with that term, may transform from being arts into being something else. And artwork ceases to be an artwork when it’s relevant properties are exhausted by an Artworld, it becomes merely an icon. Danto’s definition is an account of how the artwork concept expands, but it does not hold on to those artworks particularly well.

Danto makes a number of salient points. I’m going to look at three points he makes in the context of institutions of art and making art. These points from Danto are, 1) the demand for a theory; 2) expanding the definition as an artist; and 3) expanding the definition without artists. I will argue that an artwork, conceived of in Danto’s way, can become a mere smattering of well conceived predicates and is discontinued as an artwork. There will be a counter intuitive example. This would manifest the end of an artwork.

Danto motivates a definition by describing what he calls “the is of artistic identification” (Danto, 30). Essentially there are times when we identify a property of an object as that which represents, above and beyond physical properties, as being artistic. This kind of representation is a minimal condition for something’s being an artwork; it can be described in part with an is of artistic identification statement. We need this condition, it leads to more grand statements we would want to make about art. Danto explains that “to see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry--an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld” (Ibid, 32). This is a very philosophically motivating statement, it seems unlikely that art would exist with all its properties in a vacuum. Because people do see art and people make art, it makes sense to believe that a reasonable definition of art only comes from what we can predicate of art. Anyone as a critic of, or theorist of, or practitioner of art should want to and probably does contribute to a definition of art.

The way Danto sees art growing is fairly straightforward. He imagines that artists create art and that the properties of art which artists create become relevant as we accept them as artistic subsuming artworks under a definition of art. Danto imagines a matrix of definitions where artistic predicates and their opposites enter the defining qualities of art (Ibid, 33). In this way the types of things which might define art grow at a rate of 2^n and the definition of art, contextualized by those who look at it and make it, grows ever larger and ever more fine grained. Danto describes this process in action; “suppose an artist determines that H shall henceforth be artistically relevant for his paintings. Then, in fact, both H and non-H become artistically relevant for all painting… and the entire community of paintings becomes enriched” (Ibid, 34). It is a credit to this definition of art to allow it to grow by way of the production of artworks. As artworks are produced we come to know more about them. Even formal properties become relevant as we use the is of artistic identification to pick out what has become important to artworks.

Finally, however, the piece which describes the legitimacy of the predicates admitted, the artworld; “Fashion, as it happens, favors certain rows of the style matrix: museums, connoisseurs, and others are makeweights of the Artworld…. But this is a matter of almost purely sociological interest: one row in the matrix is as legitimate as another. An artistic breakthrough consists, I suppose, in adding the possibility of a column to the matrix” (Ibid). I take some umbrage with this point; here Danto forgoes “an artworld” for “the Artworld” and this is troublesome ground. Despite him seeking to accept the novel qualities artists bring to the table,  Danto has to acknowledge things like “entry into a specially prestigious exhibition” where this may be in a sense the end of an artwork’s time as truly an art (Ibid). At some point between an artworld and the Artworld, an artwork can cease to be a context for defining artworks. Its predicates no longer define that artwork in any unique way.

The Mona Lisa serves as the perfect example. An artwork that has been over taken; it sits in the Louvre but is ubiquitously known and appropriated to new forms depending on where the Artworld has moved since its creation. It is translated, it is understood, it is copied, it is remixed to such a degree that this is not a work of art, it is merely an icon of culture, merely an image that we imagine and reify to the tune of the Artworld’s passing interests. It has perhaps always been studied and well respected, but the predicates of this artwork do not define it. See it in Paris; be in the presence of it. But the Mona Lisa’s predicates are well worn by its copies and reimaginings. What does it give us that we have not already taken from it; nothing. The Mona Lisa is no longer an artwork, it is merely a set of predicates which we take for granted. Assuming that artworks are the source of our accepted predicates and opposites which artworks fall under, then, hyperbolizing from Danto’s matrix of terms we might reach the limit of the “something the eye cannot descry” and have a satiated Artworld from which some works have become icons, idols, or simply proving grounds, not works of art in a way which requires the is of artistic identification to be illuminated any longer.

Clearly Danto’s account works as a way of describing how we come to accept and command the relevant properties of artworks overtime in criticism. It is not outright an institutional theory of art in the sense that it is only an institution which can determine how artworks expand. But this reductive set of predicates which make up the definition of art do not contain the arts. On the contrary, they may just be a map to push artworks from being artworks and into being lofty icons of culture.