In the previous posts I attempted to provide some basic background to the question I am interested in, viz. What is the basis for establishing the value of artistic works? I have sketched out a basic argument for segregating the two general areas that are candidates for such basis: Properties that are not interpretable (aesthetic properties) and Properties that are interpretable (artistic properties).
I define aesthetic properties as not interpretable because they have no meaning. They are brute facts of the physical world like colors or sounds. As soon as one begins to ascribe meaning to any collection of aesthetic properties one has left the properties themselves behind and is embarking on a completely different task. We have moved to seeing as rather than merely seeing. This is the beginning of art. What is the meaning of being overwhelmed by the beauty of a sunset? And if the sunset is depicted in a painting, the experience is of the same kind. It is only when one interprets the sunset in the painting as symbolizing death or life or some such idea, that meaningful properties of the work are identified. Aesthetic value then may enhance the pleasure or desirability of an object, but will not have any effect on its artistic value.
It is not necessary here to defend a philosophical position regarding aesthetics itself. How the properties associated with beauty are determined is not the point. It is enough to know that they are part of the common experience of human beings and our discussion of the general idea of an aesthetic property is entirely intelligible to a “typical” individual.
Artistic properties then are those that are suitable to convey meaning to an observer.
Arthur Danto* was keen to make interpretation a critical part of his art theory, but neither he nor any of the other philosophers of art with whom I’m familiar made a clean break between aesthetic and artistic properties when it came to value. In my opinion, however, this move is necessitated by the facts. Whatever value we are willing to put in artistic works, it is our impression of the accurate interpretation of the work in its artworld context that determines its value as an art object.
Here are some examples to demonstrate this idea.
Modigliani’s Jeanne Hèbuterne, a portrait of his ill-fated lover, is certainly beautiful to look at. Nevertheless, his work was not considered so beautiful when it was made. It took some time for tastes to overcome the peculiarly rough treatment that Modigliani’s attenuated subjects were given. Even today, when any of his works would easily fetch millions at auction, the critics are divided. Nevertheless, his works are coveted by museums and he has entered the modern art canon as one of the greats of the Parisian avant garde.
So what makes the picture valuable? It’s just a portrait. What interpretation can we give it? Here are some statements about the work that relate to the artistic qualities of the painting:
- The artist is referencing the Mannerist period by elongating the bodies of his subjects.
- The subject was deeply in love with the artist at the time the portrait was painted and took her own life soon after she discovered she was pregnant.
- The artist is believed to have painted this work under the influence of hashish.
- The brushwork of the hair and background is uneven and looks unfinished compared to the delicate touches on the face.
From these random statements one can develop a reasonable interpretation of the work. Interpretation in this usage is not about the meaning of the image itself (although that is often the case) but rather about the work and its place in the artworld.
Here’s a more recent painting:
Critics loved Basquiat in the 80’s and he became a darling of the New York scene. His canvases looked more like the sides of subway cars than contemporary art. This particular piece is interesting in that it has some very pleasing aesthetic qualities that are not so easy to find in some of his other works. As to interpretation, we can let our minds wander if we like. The downcast eyes of a disembodied skull-like head full of clutter evoke an urban refugee in a hostile world. Perhaps it is a self-portrait. What is the artist saying about what is going on inside his head? We want to make out words in the scrawl at the top, but the letter-like strokes only confound.
The combination of symbolism, timing, artist’s biography and finally, the expressions made on the canvas itself are all artistic properties.
Even properties that one might associate with aesthetics are subordinated. For example, in this case the contrasting balance of the sky blue with the tangerine and orange is pleasing to the eye. But in order for these properties to be of any use in determining the value of the piece, they must be converted to artistic properties that can be ascribed to the intentionality of the artist. So in this example one could say that the pleasing balance of the use of color in the background sets up a tension with the contents of the skull-man’s head and invites the observer to make an effort to harmonize the solipsistic features of the portrait with the pleasing glow of an external world wholly ignored or invisible to the subject.
Both Modigliani and Basquiat were afflicted with drug addiction, sudden infamy and tragically premature deaths. In the world of art, these are aspects of the biography that also increase value if for no other reason than the resultant scarcity of works produced.
Artistic value, as determined by the socio-historical institution that prevails in the background, is the basis of conferral of art status. And generally only those properties that can be said to be determinate and intentional on the part of the artist, are those that qualify an artifact to be included in the collection of existing art objects.** In the case of Duchamp, it was the artist himself who conferred that status on the urinal. This conferral was then validated and reinforced over time by the institution despite the objective fact that the physical object itself was not an artifact of the artist. It follows that the creative act itself, is in many ways itself an act of conferral. It is in fact a declarative speech act, the truth value of which can only be verified by the consent of the cultural background prevailing at a historical moment.
*See Arthur Danto’s The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art for his version. Danto places special emphasis on interpretation to justify inclusion/exclusion in the collection of possible artworks. I believe this to be a consequence of analytic philosophy bias. The ontological status of an art object is determined by the denotation of the object making the conferral of art status something akin to a speech act.
**For those of you who are familiar with the Intentional Fallacy of Monroe Beardsley, nothing I have stated in this post is meant to contradict that argument. On the contrary, I believe Beardsley’s argument is airtight. Unlike Beardsley though, I don’t agree that artistic intention is completely outside the scope of interpretation. To the extent one can imagine the intentions of the artist, one is entitled to incorporate ones beliefs about such intentions into an interpretation.