What are national forests *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 But thinking one non-prototypical piece of art can give us deep insight into “what art is” relies on a outdated, black-and-white view of how concepts work.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.

[1] List mostly from Denis Dutton.

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