But what are birds really?

I’m bored with artists thinking their main job is “exploring what art is.” This wouldn’t be acceptable in any other field. I don’t want my plumber “exploring the concept of what being a plumber is.” But what is plumbing really? Who are you to say putting your toilet on the roof isn’t plumbing?

There’s been a lot of progress in philosophy and psychology on how concepts work. The classical idea—that concepts have strict necessary and sufficient conditions—is pretty dead. The philosopher Wittgenstein came up with the idea of “family resemblance” models of concepts; the psychologist Eleanor Rosch came up with prototype theory. In short, many/most concepts have a cluster of correlated features none of which is necessary or sufficient. Concepts have gradients: Penguins are less birdlike than sparrows to most people.

So, how does this relate to art?

People value a lot of different things in art: direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, novelty and creativity, representation, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, imaginative experience, veneration.[1] (This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some central ones.) And these things can come apart! For example, I can have a novel thing that isn’t pleasurable, or I can have a pleasurable thing that doesn’t require talent.

It isn’t hard or particularly interesting to create a piece of art that has some but not all of the features that commonly correlate with art. You can do this with basically any category: Wait, you mean a paper bag on your foot is kind of like a shoe and kind of not like a shoe? Wait, you mean breakfast cereal mixed with sawdust is kind of like food and kind of not like food?


This is Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. It has some features of our art concept while lacking others. It’s a painting, on a canvas. Yet it doesn’t demonstrate skill and virtuosity, it’s not particularly beautiful, it’s not emotionally evocative, and it doesn’t generate vivid imaginative experience. Oh, you mean you can make a thing that’s in the grey-area of art and non-art? Woah!

This is aggressive banality.

Makers of this type of art might claim they are doing an important intellectual task, namely, making us analyze our concept of art. But thinking one non-prototypical piece of art can give us deep insight into “what art is” relies on a outdated, black-and-white view of how concepts work. Besides, there are far more fruitful ways to do conceptual analysis of art:

If a research team systematically gave people different quasi-arts, and had them rate them in terms of “art-like-ness”, to find out, statistically, what features most correspond to people’s art concept, I’d be in favor of this! But, having a singular quasi-art is simply not informative as a concept exploration tool.


When people object to art like Black Square, defenders will often accuse them of not understanding the piece, or being otherwise unsophisticated. More plausibly, people object to this type of art because it’s not giving them the things they want out of their art-concept (like beauty, technical skill, and imaginative experience). If I wanted to go to a national forest, and the tour guide took me to see a couple trees in the back parking lot of a New Jersey Denny’s, I think you’d agree that it would be appropriate to object. It would be boring for the tour-guide to say, “You don’t understand my concept of national forests. I’m expanding the definition of national forests. I’m helping you understand the definition of national forests.” So stop doing that with art.

Of course, it’s sometimes useful for people in professions to take a step back and ask questions about the norms and traditions of their trade. I can imagine a doctor usefully analyzing how involved in a patient’s personal life one should be. But when your primary focus is the meta-discussion about the concept of art, you are doing mostly philosophy and psychology, not art. So if you want to have that meta-discussion, then study psychology. Study philosophy. Study art-history. Don’t boringly make art that’s in the grey area between art and non-art and think you’ve learned anything interesting.

 List mostly from Denis Dutton.

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12 Responses to But what are birds really?

  1. curiosetta says:

    The problem is that the ‘art can be anything/ anything can be art’ mentality serves too many interests (most of which can be reduced to ‘money and/ or power’), and people with shared interests tend to club together and defend them.

    Obviously you have the scam artists and scam art critics out there, working in concert to capitalise on psuedo-intellectual one-upmanship and basically preying on the insecurities of the white wine sipping middle classes who are afraid they might not be cultured (ANSWER they are not, but they are conned into thinking that if they like the latest stupid pile of modern toss for no good reason then somehow that means they are).

    But I think there is also a deeper motivation at play too.

    If we were encouraged to judge art based on sensible and clear criteria (like you describe), then that would mean rejecting an awful lot of black squares, piles of bricks, giant rubber ducks, coloured spots, piles of girders welded together, pickled sharks and bits of string coming down from the ceiling as ‘not art’ (AKA ‘bollocks’).

    It is this very notion of the public feeling confident in approving or rejecting things based on clear criteria which is the problem. Artistic judgements are just too close to moral judgements!

    The same processes which determine what is good and bad in art (and what is and isn’t art) can equally be used to determine what is good and bad in society (what is moral and immoral). And there is the very real risk that if the public feels comfortable and confident (and perhaps passionate) about rejecting bad art (or ‘non art’), they might feel the same way about rejecting certain behaviours and institution in society for being immoral (non virtuous).

    And this is a terrible threat to the ruling classes, whose very existence depends on NOT being judged by clear, simple, universal moral standards ie the same moral standards that apply to the rest of society (aggression is immoral, theft is immoral, coercion is immoral etc).

    So I believe one of the main drivers of this ‘art is in the eye of the beholder’ mindset is the ruling classes, who are using art and culture to train the masses to accept the idea that ‘morality (virtue) is in the eye of the beholder’. Anything can be virtuous, even that which looks like evil!

    If someone makes a stack of bricks on the floor who are YOU to say that is not art and should be rejected? And if, say, someone commits genocide in the middle east, causing more genetic damage to the local population than Hiroshima, who are YOU to say that is immoral and should be rejected?

    What we have seen since the 60’s is not just an attack on good judgement, it is an attack on the very capacity and the desire to MAKE any rational and consistent judgements at all.

    The essential message of contemporary art today is “There is no truth”. Very Orwellian.


  2. haleyT says:

    I don’t think conceptual or self-reflexive art is substantially more trivial than any other kind. A concept can be beautiful or elegant, and there can be real labor in creating it; same with a landscape. Both of them can be beautiful in an equally trivial way. Certainly all of the above are subject to tribalness and fashion (eg, in the 19th century hyper-realistic and historical “academic” art was seen as intellectually superior/important much in the way abstract, activist etc art is now).

    I think a better question is what non-trivial art would look like.


  3. But what is to be done for someone who looks at Black Square and experiences it AS art and not on any meta level? I’m quite attracted to the screen that precedes movie previews. And not as any pushing the boundaries of art. I just find it quite beautiful.


    • sanerthanlasagna says:

      I have no problem with that! If you find it deeply beautiful, then love it. Shame on anyone who would want to stop you. But there *are* facts to be known about what sorts of things humans tend to find beautiful or impressive, and this matters when deciding which pieces of art we want to collectively celebrate.


    • Mike Powers says:

      I think that a person who looks at Black Square and appreciates it aesthetically would be told that they’re appreciating it wrong, that they aren’t *supposed* to find it aesthetically pleasing.


  4. Ezra says:

    Birds, really, are art.

    The singular questioning of artists (what is art? Is it really art?) is often tremendously annoying, and certainly outdated. Its also not very common. Its prevalence is something of a misconception, I think: Pieces like Malevich’s get boiled down to that, but that’s at most the very tip of the iceberg. Malevich is dealing with sticky puzzles to do with humanity’s ability to construct divinity, transcendent relationships, out of what is basically the muck, the all-mixed-togetherness, of actual reality.

    Part of that happens in the institutions of civilization: the granary, the armoury, the gallery. It happens in people’s minds, but its not stuck there. The viewer knows there are other viewers in the audience. They know when something being presented is banal or profane, both by their own estimation, and by the consensus.

    Art isn’t about ‘what-is-art’, its about how we construct meaning. You’re frustrated, I think, and quite rightly, by the overuse of this blunt tool. This question is a tool, to get at something else. The art isn’t important, it doesn’t exist except in relation to other things. Questions about art end up having broader implications when you try to answer them. The decision as to whether a piece is worthless or priceless is entirely constructed, but its not completely subjective: you can say all you like the mona lisa is BS, but that doesn’t make it so. The same is true of the Black Square: Its been deified.

    But these aren’t proper experiments. There’s no control group, the question isn’t there for a proper answer. It’s there for the other reason people ask questions: to MOVE things. To move people, groups, hearts, to plant dreams, change the conversation, to make your enemy realize all that they have is worthless, or to actually render it worthless, to inspire, to commit. It’s the terrain, the space in which we act. It’s architecture, it’s sound, it’s typeface, the whole built environment, the whole imagined collective consciousness. That’s what Malevich is doing, and it has impact. We’re measuring success by the impact, and also by the result of the impact, and so on.

    The other interesting thing that happens, in all those scenarios that you bring up: art. The plumber on the roof? They’re not doing plumbing shit anymore, that’s art. The national parks tour? You’ve just been sucked into an art performance. The birds thing? Those birds are now art.

    I’m not saying that these’re GOOD works of art. That’s quite immaterial, it would depend on how they were done, really a lot of factors. There’s a gap between the intention of the artist, and what the audience actually interprets, and that’s where the magic thing really happens. That’s where creation occurs, originality, failure. So maybe this performance or whatever, it changes you’re life, or maybe it totally falls flat.

    But it doesn’t work the other way, right? You can take a toilet or a grove of trees and make them art, but you can’t take a painting and turn it into plumbing, or a forest. And logistical challenges aside, even if you built a bidet out’ve a Monet, you still couldn’t ditch the ‘art’ designation. You’re just adding another layer. Because the art is happening in the consciousness of the audience.

    This brings to mind a well-known question: what if you had a art piece set up on the dark side of the moon, and no one saw it, or even knew about it? And the answer, of course: that’s a ridiculous question. It doesn’t mean anything. ‘Art’ is the word ‘art’ itself, it’s the physical thing (or activity), and it’s the experience in the audience. And from there, it’s the impact and story that get attached to it, extending the experience far beyond the physical piece. The Moon question, like the question and attitude you’re complaining about, takes one element of the definition, and treats it like the whole. ‘Art’ is just a word, and the only reason we care about the word is because we do some pretty excellent stuff with it. It’s got plenty of utility.


  5. sanerthanlasagna says:

    > “The other interesting thing that happens, in all those scenarios that you bring up: art. The plumber on the roof? They’re not doing plumbing shit anymore, that’s art. The national parks tour? You’ve just been sucked into an art performance. The birds thing? Those birds are now art.”

    Who are *you* to say they aren’t plumbing. Why is art allowed to have an expansive scope but plumbing isn’t? Who are *you* to say they aren’t national forests? I’m not doing art; I’m giving tours of national forests. I’m expanding the definition.

    All concepts are weird and problematic when you turn up the microscope on them. Thinking that “art” is this weird, complex concept in a way that other concepts like “trees” or “sewage” aren’t is a bunch of what I’m criticizing. Concepts have gradients. There are more and less paradigmatic examples. They can be cluster concepts with lots of independent but correlated constitutive parts. They can be heavily polysemous.

    Will write more on this later.


    • Mike Powers says:

      Part of the problem is when every artist thinks they’re the first person to ever wonder “what IS art, really? I shall make nonsense and call it “art” in order to provoke a conversation about the meaning of art!”


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  8. Valerie says:

    I’m not a fan of much contemporary art, but I do like the abstract expressionists. The abstract expressionists didn’t think paining should be “understood” intellectually, but experienced emotionally and used color and shapes to try to evoke certain feelings. But when I got to the ICA and I see gallery notes like “I wanted to explore concept of texture,” I want to put my fist through a wall.


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