thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Art in the family

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Leonardo da Vinci: Self portrait

Leonardo da Vinci: Self portrait

A lot of my posts are inspired by books I’ve read, or by posts on other blogs.

This one however is an initial response to a direct request from Terry Sissons, the author of one of my favourite blogs, The Other I. You could almost call it a commission – in a completely uncommercial sense of course, as befits the blogosphere.

In a response to one of my own posts, Terry asked me what I thought about this huge question:

…how do you validate the arts? how do we validate a conclusion that Beethoven is great music? or Da Vinci a great painter, or Auden a great poet? I think you might say that perhaps we can’t?

It got me thinking about how I would even begin to answer something like that.

I think I’d start with something that’s often puzzled me, and that’s whether ‘the arts’ represent a specific and defined category such that all ‘arts’ have at least some attributes in common which they don’t share with other things which are not ‘arts’. And by the same (or a similar) token do all ‘works of art’ have at least some attributes in common which things which are not works of art do not share?

Now this could be tantamount to asking whether it is possible to define ‘art’– something philosophers have racked their brains over for centuries.

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1947

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1947

One alternative to the view that all arts must have at least one special and defining characteristic in common is the idea that the various arts share ‘family resemblances’. This idea is associated with Wittgenstein, who (in his Philosophical Investigations) famously applied it to games. For Wittgenstein, different kinds of games – eg card games; board games; ball games like football and cricket; children’s games like ring-a-ring-a-roses – may not all have attributes shared by every game but only exhibit overlapping similarities.

This idea can be especially useful when applied to the arts as it allows the boundaries between different ‘arts’ to be drawn in different ways. So for example one category of art could be ‘painting’ and another ‘sculpture’. But both painting and sculpture can be either ‘representational’ or ‘non-representational’. So while all painting and all sculpture may share the attribute ‘plastic’ (as in ‘plastic arts’) – whereas (say) drama and music would be ‘non-plastic’ – only some painting and some sculpture would (along with some or all drama) share the attribute ‘representational’.

The point of the ‘family resemblances’ idea is that it absolves us from having to look not only for shared attributes, but for shared attributes which other things do not share. So for example it might not be too challenging to find something which all arts have in common – activity practised by a person or persons? activity practised intentionally? – but it could be a different matter entirely to find something which all arts have in common but which non-arts do not share. For example dance is generally considered an art form whereas gymnastics is a sport, but I would be hard-pressed to say where the distinction lies. Other more specific examples might be ice dancing and/or pair skating.

Ice dancing

Ice dancing

It may not be too far-fetched to bring in another reference to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: the idea of aspect perception, or ‘seeing-as’. It seems entirely reasonable to me that one member of the audience could be seeing a gymnastic display as ‘art’ while a second could be seeing it as ‘sport’ – and a third as both at the same time. (The same could also be true of the gymnasts themselves.)

What has all this to do with the question we came in on, which was about how we validate the arts? Well, if every art – or more specifically every work of art – does not have something about itself which it shares with every other work of art and does not share with everything else which is not a work of art, then it is at least possible that they may be validated in different ways – that is, if they can be validated at all.

Which means that the works of Beethoven may be great music for different reasons from the ones which make Auden’s poems great.

A small step forward perhaps, but enough for one day. Continued in: Ludwig van, and all that jazz.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

21 February 2010 at 12:33 am

One Response

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  1. […] people to thank for their thoughts on this question, most recently the latest posts on the blog Thinking Makes It So.  My conclusions, however, are nobody’s responsibility but my own.  And I unreservedly […]


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