Stuckism Wales logo

Identification of Art by Historical Narration

next    back     back to contents

In his "Philosophy of Art" Noel Carroll makes the claim that identifying works of art is more plausibly understood as a matter of narration rather than definition.

He notes that classification of objects generally is not always done by means of a definition. For example biologists determine species membership in terms of descent. Similarly, the way of identifying whether or not an artifact is a work of art or not may best be done in terms of an accurate historical narrative which attempts to demonstrate the descent of the artifact.

Thus it is argued, a historical narrative can realistically attempt to establish whether candidate works have or have not the status of art. It will work by describing how the artifact in question is descended from and related to a previous art object or situation about which there is a consensus on it's status as art.

Carroll provides one such historical narrative :
"For example, when Andy Warhol's Brillo Box appeared in 1963, questions about it's status as art were raised. After all it looked just like the cartons of Brillo in the grocery storeroom..........
In order to meet this objection, the defender of Brillo Box begins by pointing out something about the art-historical context in which the work appeared. For much of the twentieth century, a great deal of art had been dedicated to addressing the question of the nature of art. Much modern painting has been overly flat precisely for the purpose of asserting the idea that in reality, paintings are flat, two-dimensional things, not the illusions of three- dimensional objects they were often said to be. Painters in this tradition - which would include Braque, Picasso, Pollock, Klein and so on- were thought to be involved in a philosophical venture, the project of defining the nature of their artform. This was a reflexive enterprise - a matter of artworks reflecting on their own nature as artworks.
In this historical context, Warhol's Brillo Box can be seen as a contribution to an ongoing dialogue or conversation in the artworld. That is, Warhol's Brillo Box poses the question "What is art" in a particularly penetrating way, asking of itself what makes this object an artwork when it's indiscernible counterparts - everyday Brillo Boxes - are not artworks? Warhol's Brillo Box thus addressed an antecedently acknowledged, ongoing artworld concern in a creative way by focussing the reflexive artworld question "What is art" in a canny and strikingly perspicuous manner, reframing and redirecting it as the question: "What makes art-works different from real things?"
Noel Carroll notes that the method of historical narration is well capable of coping with avant-garde innovations in art which theories like the representational theory , the expression theory, formalism and aesthetic theories all found very indigestible.

What else might we say about the Historical Narration theory of Art relative to Conceptual Art?

The credibility of the Historical Narration theory is supported by the fact that works of art are, to a considerable extent, a response to art that has gone before. Indeed, one might go further and note that art which responds to previous art may be of some value because response is a genuine human characteristic. From this perspective, Duchamp's Readymades were an effective response to previous art and had therefore some value. Each such response can be regarded as questioning in some way the nature of art. But, as discussed in the section on Neo-Representational art, Duchamp's work was in fact an anti-art protest against the established art of his time. And while Duchamp's readymades originally made a point, the point has worn very thin now!

It is also worth observing that questioning of the nature of art is to an extent a matter for artists rather than the public and does not make for great art. To be important, art must be about the world and not about itself.

Another observation on the Historical Narration theory would be that it does rather remind me of the "six degrees of separation" theory which claims that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by no more than six people. The theory has received surprising confirmation from the worlds of computer simulations, mathematics and practical experiments but none of that need concern us here.

The following quotation from Janelle Brown is from a review (on which she did of the website sixdegrees which is based on this theory:
"It's a concept without a reason to live: that everyone in the world is connected by six people. Yes, the person serving you that juicy Big Mac at McDonald's may be your friend's roommate's cousin's co-worker's boyfriend's sister. OK, but so what?"
Similarly, whilst the descent connections cited by Noel Carroll are indeed very credible, it is tempting to add "So what?" in the manner of Janelle Brown.

For, the fact that the connections are credible does not in itself make the case for Warhol's Brillo Box being art. It just means that there are connections.

What Warhol produced can indeed be connected to the art concerns described by Noel Carroll but, for that matter, Brillo Box could be connected to quite a different art concern. For example, Brillo Box was produced within an art- historical context of Pop art being accessible to all. More than half a century earlier, Van Gogh had earnestly desired to paint pictures for ordinary working people, as clearly indicated by his letter to Theo van Gogh of 16 November 1882:
"I do not know whether you will think me conceited when I tell you that the following pleased me very much. Smulder's workmen at the other store on the Laan saw the stone of the old man from the almshouse, and asked the printer if they could have a copy to hang on the wall. No result of my work could please me more than when ordinary working people hang such prints in their room or workshop."
There is therefore a valid connection between Warhol and Van Gogh concerning the matter of art accessibility and one can therefore justifiably claim that Brillo Boxes addressed "an antecedently acknowledged, ongoing artworld concern in a creative way". Yet , no more than in Noel Carroll's example, does this connection make Brillo Boxes art.

I would submit that the Historical Narration method is excellent at making connections, some more credible than others perhaps, between artists and art concerns, in other words of placing an artist or art concern in it's proper context. But I cannot accept that this is a method of identifying whether or not a particular work is Art.

next    back     back to contents