Keith Gunderson Guest Lecture -
Aesthetics & Criticism


People who do art should be a fount of information about what they're doing. Now, sometimes you don't know what you're doing, so you can't just rely on introspecting your own processes because sometimes you're flailing around, you're learning things, and you don't have an acute self-awareness of exactly what you're doing with the medium. But at some point aesthetics should be beholden to the fact that it's human beings who are making these decisions in studios and elsewhere, with words on the page, and so on. And they're making certain kinds of decisions in order to solve certain kinds of artistic problems. So the connection between art production and aesthetic theory is quite vivid to me.

Secondly, of course, there's all the stuff that grows up in connection with art, once it's made, namely that people review it, take an interest in it, write about it...become inflamed about opposing viewpoints on what art is or should be, and so on. So there's art criticism...right from the beginning; and then there's art history, which tells you about how people have been worrying about this stuff, doing this stuff, for centuries after centuries. And I don't see how you could do an adequate job in either aesthetic theory or art history or art criticism without each knowing a lot about the other, and what they're working at. But I think this is not quite as true for the studio artist. I mean, I think there are people who don't have to become encumbered with all this more abstract second order kind of theory in order to do good, good work, fortunately for them.

It's not that they couldn't benefit as well, but I think we have more to learn from the studio arts people than, in a way, they have to learn from the other three branches. On the other hand, as T.S. Eliot said, if you're going to get beyond your juvenalia, you want to know what's going on in your field. You want to know what other people have tried and failed at and succeeded at, because those become your standards. Those become what you internalize, which you make at least tacit use of in trying to do your own work as an artist.

So I'm happy to be here, and what I want to talk about--or what I want to talk with you about--are what I view as, I suppose, the fundamental problems in aesthetics. It's going to be a kind of Walt Disney-ized tour of the subject, and all you'll get from me, I guess, is a kind of cross-section of my mind at the moment, in trying to draw out connections between different problem areas in aesthetics. Let me preface my remarks by saying that all sorts of aestheticians of good will and intelligence disagree with each other as to what the fundamental problems in aesthetics are.

What I want to talk about and talk with you about are roughly the following problem areas. The first, has to do with the question of what art is, and problems in defining art. I want to say something about how I feel about this whole problem area, and then draw connections between it and other questions having to do with the nature of aesthetic evaluation, appreciation, and assessment. As I see it, this latter set of questions is closely related to some other issues having   to do with an understanding of creativity in art, and the artist's intentions. And also, it has to do with certain aspects of what might be called tradition in the individual talent, following Eliot's title for his famous essay.

One thing about aesthetics is that it's not a settled field, by any means. I mean it's not a course you can teach (when you teach it) in the way you would teach a logic course. One way to put it is that it's pretty much up for grabs, whether there are any aesthetic principles whatsoever. And people disagree as to the extent that aesthetic judgments--judgments about the quality or the merits of works of art--are objective and can be tied in with certain acceptable universal criteria, or whether everything is relative. So that when somebody says, "X is a good work of art," it's really just expressing a matter of personal taste. All these issues, then, I see as unsettled, and I'm not going to make any breakthroughs here, unfortunately.

But let me try to sketch for you some of the problems as I see them, and beginning with the question of what art is, or problems that have worried aestheticians for centuries, having to do with giving a so-called definition of art. A couple of historical notes about this: Aristotle provided us with one of the first definitions of art, and I'll say a little bit about it in a minute. But, since Aristotle, people worried for a long time about how to define art. In the twentieth century, partly due to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous twentieth-century philosopher, a lot of philosophers got turned off the whole project of definition altogether and thought that was barking up the wrong tree, and decided that they should do something else than worry about it.

Then, in recent years, a philosopher out of Chicago, George Dickey, kind of revived interest in the idea of defining art. He actually proposed a definition, and I'll say a little bit about that. So philosophers are, once again, hot and bothered about how to define art, and that's been where some of the action has been in aesthetics in recent years.

But what is the kind of problem that's involved in defining art? Let me begin with a little thought experiment for you. Actually, I filched this thought-experiment from conversations with the philosopher Paul Zipf (he's down at North Carolina now). Paul Zipf visited one of my classes once, when I was teaching out here at UCLA many years ago, and the first proposal he made to the class was in connection with a theory that he wanted them to examine. It's a theory I would like you to think about. The theory is this: Something is a work of art if and only if it has a bit of blue in it. Now I'd like to ask you what's wrong with that theory, if anything? I mean, the theory has considerable scope. Think of the things that it includes. All of Picasso's works during his Blue Period, for one thing. All sorts of Turner seascapes, all sorts of Constables, and so on. You can think up probably countless examples of works of art which would be counted as works of art, given this definition of art.

So my first question to you is, what's right or what's wrong with the theory that something is a work of art if and only if it has a bit of blue in it? What does it leave out? (Comment: It leaves out Matisse's "Red Room," and my eyes, and your eyes too, for that matter.) Well, that's probably a good feature of it, isn't it? Unless you think that my eyes are a work of art. I mean, that would be one of the values of it, whereas the Matisse case, sounds like perhaps a counter-example to it.

I mean, what is essentially wrong with the theory? It includes a lot of things which are art, and it includes, notice, it projects to all sorts of future works of art which would happen to have some kind of blue in it. So it's too broad, it has too much scope. And it's also, what, too narrow?--too narrow, and perhaps also in a sense stupid. But why is it stupid? It's stupid because it's both too broad and too narrow at the same time. It includes too much, and it leaves out too much.

(Comment: There's no dealing with cause and effect. Art, in such a theory, is just something that happens.) Well, notice that the attempt to define art is not an attempt to  give a causal theory. It's not like a scientific explanation of how the brain works, or how thought takes place in the brain, or how, if you stick this gunk in the rats,. they do these sorts of things, and if you don't, then they do those sorts of things. So, trying to define art is not a problem of giving a causal explanation of art; it's an attempt at making sense out of certain broad classifications. Philosophers have haggled about this in terms of trying to define art for centuries. And though the theory, "Something is a work of art if and only if it has a bit of blue in it", is, as was said, a stupid theory, and a theory with both too much scope and too little scope, it's not much more stupid than most of the other theories about what art is. That's one of the most interesting things about the "bit of blue" theory.

If you look at Aristotle's theory of art--where, roughly, something is art if and only if it has a certain imitative relationship with certain other chunks of reality--you can think of countless counter-examples to it with the same facility that you can think of counter-examples to the "bit of blue" theory. Alright, not quite with the same facility. I'll say the "bit of blue" theory is worse than Aristotle's theory, because Aristotle's theory remarkably potent, as theories go. But the idea of art being imitation also suffers from too much scope and too little scope.

If you look at something like Clive Bell's theory of art, which has to do with art being that which has "significant form"--and significant form which we respond to in a certain way, so that when we gaze upon these works of art it sort of zings in on us--it's what one philosopher calls the tingle immersion theory of art. It means that in the face of art, it's as if you have this recognition capacity, and it goes zzzzzzz, and ahh, that's art...and what, precisely, makes you go zzzzzz? Why, it has "significant form!"

Now I don't want to go into the ins and outs and the problems with this theory, but what I just want to submit and we can discuss it if you want to later is that Clive Bell's theory of what art is in terms, of "significant form", like Aristotle's, and like the "bit of blue" theory suffers from too broad a scope and too narrow a scope. And so on down the line: Tolstoy, again, has too much scope and too little scope in his theory of art involving a certain clearly expressed kind of sentiment on the part of the artist so that it sets up a sharing experience with the reader or the hearer or the interpreter of the work of art, and sets up a correspondence between the artist and the appreciator, where what it involves is certain kinds of sincerely felt emotions about humanity being transmitted from one individual to another, with the net result of being a general improvement of humankind. Now, I'm not going into the problems with Tolstoy's theory; all I want to do is sort of dogmatically say that, like the "bit of blue theory," it suffers from too much scope and too little. So the "bit of blue" theory: maybe it's stupid, and it's not a good theory...and it isn't. But it's interesting that there isn't a really good theory, at the moment.

Yet one of the most potent theories around is called the "institutional" definition of art; this is due to George Dickey, down at Chicago. I'll give you the first version of it, not the severely refined version that has grown out of criticisms of this theory. Dickey has the following kind of proposal: Something is a work of art if and only if it is presented--and I'm just going to give a rough gloss on this--if it is presented by some person acting on behalf of the art world as something which should be appreciated by people. So the theory is that somebody places something, as it were, on view... somebody acting on behalf of the art world places something on view or before the public in such a way that it offers itself to them as an item or an object for appreciation. Okay? It's roughly something like that. The problem with Dickey's theory--as people have pointed out-- has to do with, in part, its circularity. Namely, it relies heavily on the notion of an "art world." But here we're defining what a work of art is by relying on the idea of an art world. Well, what is an art world? Dickey says that if he makes the circle big enough, it doesn't matter. He got this point from Zipf many years ago; remember Zipf saying, "What's wrong with circularity in an argument? Look at the dictionary! It's all circular. And yet you learn something; you define words in terms of other words in the dictionary. So what? So you get a circle--if it's big enough it can be illuminating." Dickey likes to think that his theory has a big enough circle, so, like a dictionary, it doesn't discredit itself, and it's illuminating. Others think that Dickey's circle is more like this (drawing a small circle), than like that: (drawing a larger one) so that it turns back on itself too quickly and relies on this un-analyzed notion of an art world.

If we could define an art world, then maybe we would be home free. But it seems that part of the same problem arises for defining an art world as arises for defining a work of art. For example, are we an art world here? And if I, say, pull out this (a little stuffed pink piggy), and put this on it here (adorning the piggy with a strand of pearls), and offer it up to you as an item of appreciation, have I thereby made it into a work of art? Or has it now satisfied the Dickensian--or the Dickeyan--conditions for being a work of art? (Comment: It's hard to say "no.")

Well, I mean, various questions leap to mind. The piggy does have a certain charm. I'll admit that, actually. He belongs to my wife, and he does have a certain kind of charm. But, one feels...well, how do you move on that? I mean, here Gunderson did it; Gunderson's in here giving a lecture on aesthetics; and here are a bunch of people interested in art. Are we part of the art world? And thereby did this know....

Here, I'd like you to appreciate...look at him, and offer him up as an item for aesthetic appreciation, and so on. Well, did I do it or not? So I think the problems with Dickey's theory turn out at rock bottom to be rather like the "bit of blue" theory. It seems that it includes either too much or too little; or else, we're just not quite certain how to move because we don't have a firm sense of what an art world is, and what this kind of gesture involves, and so on.

Beginning with Duchamp's Readymades, and found objects by other artists...and then, with the advent of happenings and pop art and conceptual art...with these kinds of cases, you get some weird things happening with what I will call, using a kind of ugly phrase, our "intuitive corpus" of works of art. Recall the way I was setting up here I was saying, and I was exaggerating in saying this, that we have a rough and ready but pretty reliable set of intuitions about what would count as a work of art and what wouldn't. Look, we have  to have some idea of what that is in order even to make a counter-example to any proposed theory. I mean, you have to have some idea of some clear cut cases that aren't art, which a theory might include, in order to provide a counter-example to the theory. Also, you have to have some clear cut ideas about art, or some ideas of clear cut works of art, in order to see if a theory is accommodating the right sort of subject matter. So we can't be pristinely ignorant in here; we have to have some kind of working sense or rule-of-thumb sense for what counts as a work of art, or what doesn't. If we don't have this, then there's nothing to do; we don't even have a place to begin.

So what I want to say is that what we have is this kind of rough sense of there being works of art. And we could stick in here all the non-problematic cases. Like the Mona Lisa, or or Shakespeare's sonnets, or Picasso's Guernica, cetera, et cetera, you name it, a  Mondrian or a Beethoven composition. And most people would not disagree on what goes in there. But things have gotten less, well, non-problematic in the twentieth century. Why? Because artists have, on occasion--and often on many occasions--kind of worked against what our intuitions tell us about what this corpus might be. And they have intentionally tried to subvert the kind of understanding which we feel is presupposed by being able to  distinguish between works of art and non-works of art.

You get Duchamp, for example, exhibiting a urinal. Or you get the following kind of case described by Harold Rosenberg, the late critic for the New York Times and writer of many books on art criticism. Rosenberg tells the following story, about the time de Kooning was sitting at an outdoor cafe, maybe you know this story, and doing some drawings. Now, Robert Rauschenburg was also at the same cafe, and came up to de Kooning, and he said, "Oh, what are you doing?" And de Kooning said, "Well, I'm making these drawings. I'm just doing some sketches and drawings." And Rauschenburg says, "Oh, I'd like one of those." And de Kooning said, "Well, what are you going to do with it?" And Rauschenburg says, "I want to erase it." And so de Kooning said, "Well, in that case, I'd better give you a good one." So he did a better one, and he gave it to Rauschenburg, and Rauschenburg exhibited it as an erased de Kooning by Rauschenburg.

There's another story that Rosenberg tells which had to do with Barney Newman...(Barnett) Newman, you know, of the primarily one-color (paintings) with a couple of vertical stripes down one side...or maybe a little one and a fat one....on a solid colored canvas. Newman was saying he'd been to a recent exhibit in Paris where what was exhibited by this young artist was five blank canvasses. And he says, "I just can't keep up with the avant-garde." He says, "I break my back getting those stripes down mine. I just can't keep up with the young anymore."

So you have the example of these five blank canvasses. Now, what do these sorts of things do to us? I mean, Duchamp's urinal, for one thing, exhibited as a work of art...the  erased de Kooning by Rauschenburg...and the five blank canvasses. What they do is to subvert our confidence in what we seem to tacitly assume here as a set of rules. Maybe we only have a dim grasp of what exactly a reconstruction of them would be like, but we feel now that whatever those rules were that were guiding us in distinguishing art from non- art, don't seem to be so stable any longer. The urinal case, the erased de Kooning by Rauschenburg, and the blank canvasses seem to suggest that this intuitive corpus is getting sort of broader, so that these funny cases are now becoming part of it. And if you have enough funny cases, then they start not to seem like funny cases any more. And it seems to be that, as Warhol says, "What's art is what an artist produces." An artist will tell you if it's art.

It's this sort of occurrence--in I think the latter part of the twentieth century--that motivates the kind of definition that Dickey gave when he proposed an "institutional" definition of art. Namely, the role of the artist has increased, and taken on a kind of magnitude, so that you identify the works of art by whether or not they first were seen as coming from an artist, rather than identifying artists as being those characters who produce works of art. So what we get is kind of a conceptual crisis in the latter part of the twentieth century, which is reflected in attempts to define art. I think these kinds of screwy definitions have come out of the crisis, such as Dickey's. I don't want to say it's screwy in the sense of being not intelligent, not smart, and so on; but it's skewed in a funny way, so that the prominence of an artist saying, "This is what you should appreciate in a certain way," takes precedence over, dominates, the work of art itself.

The next thing that comes to mind for me is the following: namely, supposing you had a definition of art. And supposing it was a fairly readable but a kind of finite-length definition...about that that now you knew. Let's just say this is the interpretation which we plug into here. Let's just suppose we had this El Dorado of conceptual analysis, so that now we had a definition. Now we...what could we do with it? Now what? I mean, okay, now you got it, now what do you want to do with it?

(Comment: "It gets funded.") Now you get funded. Now you have a kind of rule, and you can go around the Uffizi, and I suppose you could figure out if somebody had hung up something which--lo and behold!--isn't a work of art. "What the hell's that doing there?" you might ask. "Get rid of it!" And so on. But think about, you know. So you could go around armed with this conceptual apparatus, and pick out works of art from non-works of art (or works of non-art). What would you thereby understand about art, if you could do that? Here what I want to suggest is that even if we had a definition of art, it would be pretty slender, with respect to what the net results would turn out to be for us. That is to say, we could go around, I suppose, picking out art from non-art. But in doing that we would not have begun to address any questions having to do with understanding particular works of art, or appreciating particular works of art, or comprehending them, or even just interpreting them, and so on.

What I wanted to suggest was that this so-called intuitive corpus that I was talking about has become theoretically restless...partly because of the advent of the funny kind of cases. I think the funny cases have motivated a kind of "institutional" theory like Dickey's. Now there may be problems with Dickey's theory itself, but in a more over-arching way, what I want to suggest is that even if we had a definition, most of the interesting kinds of questions that one can raise about art, and the understanding thereof, would be left unanswered.

And so what I want to do is to move on to some slightly different matters. These have to do with questions about evaluation and assessment. There may be a whole area of evaluative judgment, such as, "This is grand, or beautiful, or sublime," and so on, where we would fight like cats and dogs and never have consensus. But it may be that those kinds of judgments are not where the action is, with respect to appreciating and understanding works of art.

If you look, for example, at the manuscript version of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," it's a remarkable document. If you haven't looked at it, you should sometime look at it. The first page of the manuscript--it's splendid--has a whole lot of lines...I don't know how many, maybe 40 lines, and the title of it is, I think--I'm not sure of this--correct me if I'm wrong: "He do the police in different voices." And Ezra Pound's pen went (scratching sound): "The poem begins here, 'April is the cruelest month."' But there's all this kind of doggerel and trash, and this kind of clunky title, and so on, and so you get this....

At the end of it all, Pound says to Eliot in a letter, "You bitch, I'm wracked with the seven jealousies, you've written...the most beautiful long poem in the English language for our time," or something, "don't go on with it any longer." I mean, Eliot was thinking of expanding it a little here and there. No, that's it. And so the adjective "beautiful" comes in and has a role as a summing up. But it's in the kind of judgments that were engaged in there--in the other detailed marginalia: "I don't know if the quote from Conrad will have enough power here," and so on--that you get a sense of a critical, appreciating mind at work. It's not in being able to say, "It's beautiful."

The problem of the borderline cases has come up with more of a vengeance since the early part of the twentieth century with the things Duchamp was doing, with the things that Dadaists ended up doing, and then later on, after a certain amount of hiatus with the sort of stuff that pop art presented, and conceptual art, and gesture art and whatnot, and that this became more vexing as a problem for aesthetic theory. The corpus seemed to be much less stabilized that we'd agreed on...what art is. I mean, one of the big shouting matches has to do with people feeling they were being taken in by this stuff, and they don't like it. I remember seeing some Ad Reinhardts--there were four or five black canvasses--it was either at the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art back in the '60s, and they were heavily roped off, and guarded. I was talking to the guard. The paintings were about the size of the white board here, and if you look closely--but he wouldn't let you look too close--you could see there were slightly different shades of black. And that's all they were. The guard was saying that he had never seen, in all his years at the museum, such vitriol and such hatred and detestation of something that was up there, and that he had to guard it from people who wanted to slash them or destroy them. They were very irritated...see, it was like they were being put on in some way, and they don't understand how or why, and they get mad, and they want to do something about it.

I think this issue of the avant-garde has probably always been with us. You know, the Impressionists weren't that well-received either. And I suppose there were people who thought what they were doing wasn't art, either...but I don't think with the same degree, or the same kind of severity, as what the latter part of the twentieth century has brought us. Looking back over the so-called history of art--but here I have to defer to people who know a lot about it, I don't know a lot about it--I don't know whether or not the avant-garde has ever provided as severe a challenge to our conceptions of what art is as it has in this century; or if you get into the same problems as to whether or not this is some kind of pre-art, or proto art, or not art at all, and so on...but historically interesting nonetheless because it led to something...and so forth. And so I don't know if the Ad Reinhardts or Barney Newmans...I'm not worried about Newman or Reinhardt, really, but more like the Duchamp urinal, or some of the Dadaist things, where it seems they're intentionally trying to parade something which we would intuitively take to be non-art...are art. That's what bugs people.

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