Saturday, September 11, 2004

Summer Reading 3

Art and Nonart and Basic Issues in Aesthetics by Marcia Muelder Eaton

The second of these books was on a reading list for a class I'm taking this fall. I picked up the first book just to see what else Eaton had written. I'll discuss Art and Nonart since the other is only a survey.

Art and Nonart appears to be some form of Eaton's dissertation. It reads like a dissertation (i.e., a bit dry) and is structured like one, too. The basic task of the book is to find a definition of art that will allow us to make a principled distinction between art and nonart. Eaton surveys a number of different ways to try to define art, and she finds each of them lacking. This material is presented in greater length in Basic Issues in Aesthetics, which provides a good survey of the field as it stood in 1987.

In Art and Nonart, Eaton's definition of art is as follows:

"x is a work of art if and only if (1) x is an artifact and (2) x is discussed in such a way that information concerning the history of production of x directs the viewer's attention to properties which are worth attending to."

(1) is accepted by pretty much everyone. Even though sunsets are beautiful, most people do not consider them to be works of art. There are some issues to be cleared up on this topic (e.g., when, if ever, can artifacts such as sticks or stones be considered art?), but for the most part (1) is noncontroversial.

(2) is where the philosophical action is at. There are four basic parts to (2).

(a) x is discussed
(b) information concerning the history of production of x
(c) directs the viewer's attention
(d) properties which are worth attending to

Regarding (a): This seems to be Eaton's innovation in philosophical aesthetics. She places quite a bit of emphasis on the fact that x must be discussed in order for it to be considered a work of art. On this issue, she makes a good response to the critic who says that her definition entails that history and criticism are more important than creation. Not at all, says Eaton: "no claim about importance is being made at all. A feature of an organism may not be the most important or interesting thing about it, but nevertheless may serve to distinguish it from other organisms" (p. 116).

Regarding (b): By bringing in "the history of production" to her definition, Eaton casts her lot at least partially with what is called the "contextualist" camp. Like the name implies, contextualist theories of art make reference to a context in order to define a thing as a work of art. Contextualist theories are in general opposed to formalist theories (i.e., theories in which only features of the work of art itself figure prominently in a definition of art). So, for example, in thinking about a painting, according to Eaton we should take into account "information concerning the history of production."

Regarding (c): Eaton says relatively little about what she means by "direct the viewer's attention." Perhaps she thinks it is obvious what is meant. Perhaps it is, and right now I have nothing to criticize her theory on these grounds. But I suspect more could be said and that this could turn into a really sticky issue.

Regarding (d): The information about the history of production must direct our attention to "properties which are worth attending to." These properties which are worth attending to must be intrinsic to the work of art; that is, they must be perceivable. So Eaton's definition is not solely contextualist; it stipulates that the context must direct our attention to intrinsic properties of the work of art. These intrinsic properties in turn must be "worth attending to," a phrase that, for Eaton, essentially boils down to "gives us aesthetic satisfaction," and these properties are not necessarily fixed. They can vary from tradition to tradition.

One upshot of Eaton's definition is that something like Duchamp's urinal should be considered a work of art. She states, "Not everyone sees the urinal as a work of art. But when enough people do, it becomes one. The important thing here is not to try to decide what the precise point is when an object or event becomes a work of art, but to realize that being seen as a work entails that we discuss it in certain ways, and look at it in certain ways, upon learning something about its history of production. Why are football games not works of art? Because they are not discussed mainly in aesthetic terms. They could be, and if they were, they would become works of art" (p. 118).

This strikes me as a defect in her view. My common sense position is that urinals are not works of art regardless of the manner in which they are discussed. People who discuss urinals as if they were works of art are behaving very silly. I have no defense of this view right now and am willing to admit that, in light of the absence of such a defense, that Eaton is probably correct.

Art and Nonart closes with a chapter on distinguishing good art from bad, or better from worse. It includes a case study comparing Jan Vermeer with Norman Rockwell, in which Eaton concludes that Rockwell's art (and she thinks it is art) is not as good as Vermeer's because its affect is "cheaply achieved" (p. 149) (i.e., his symbolism is direct and obvious).

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