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“Deflationary Art”

This paper has been written for a symposium—the 'Girona Symposium', as we may call it—on occasion of the centenary of Wittgenstein's birth. It is primarily concerned with Wittgenstein's thoughts on art.

I have two reasons for this choice. I have been involved in art not only as an onlooker but also, and increasingly, as an insider. Secondly, although the bibliography on Wittgenstein—on his thought, as well as on his life—is immense, only a relatively modest amount of material deals with his philosophy of art or his aesthetics. This relative lack of interest in this aspect of Wittgenstein's thought is understandable in view of the fact that it occupies an insignificant portion of his published works; devoted to this subject we have only 36 pages (some of them touching upon other topics, mainly psychology) of a slim volume entitled Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, compiled from Notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees, and James Taylor. There is just one allusion to Aesthetics in the Tractatus and very little else in his other writings, including the Notebooks.

Yet, we know that Vienna, where Wittgenstein absorbed probably most of what at the time was considered Art and where his more enduring artistic tastes were shaped, was brimming over with discussions on art and aesthetics. We also know that he intensely enjoyed (some kinds of) music and (some kinds of) poetry. I assume, therefore, that throughout his life he was more interested in artistic and aesthetic problems than his writings and conversations reveal. To be sure, we cannot legitimately ascribe to him thoughts on these matters which he never explicitly held, and we must content ourselves with what we (at any rate, I) know, which is the very little that his works, notebooks, and "notes token by" manifest. But even this little is, in my opinion, more than sufficient to justify the claim that Wittgenstein's "philosophy of art" and his "aesthetic views" deserve further elucidation. They may even cast some light on other better known and more thoroughly scrutinized aspects of his thinking.

I shall begin with his most explicit thoughts on these matters as expressed in the aforementioned Lectures & Conversations.

A most intriguing claim of Wittgenstein, at the very beginning of his Lectures, is that "[Aesthetics] is very big and entirely misunderstood," a rather paradoxical claim in view of the fact that almost right after that comment he surmises that Aesthetics is not really a subject at all. Of course, neither is epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, or even logic. I do not know what to do with the first claim, except that it may be read as an occasional remark about something covering a vast cultural area and not yet sufficiently explored or, at any rate much less discussed than any other philosophical subject. But the latter claim is perfectly in tune with Wittgenstein's philosophical practice at least since the period when he succeeded in freeing himself from ein Bild, a picture which was itself "the picture theory of language", namely the view that there is such a thing as language simpliciter and that, as a consequence, "language (or thought) is something unique". When we are no longer "caught" by the idea—indeed, the superstition—that language represents, fails to represent, or misrepresents, reality, we can give up doing philosophy as if it consisted in a series of attempts, always doomed to failure, to picture some grand features of the world according to subject matters formally organized in disciplines—Aesthetics, among others. A philosophical subject matter is just one among various possible ways of handling, and eventually coping with, questions, or rather pseudoquestions, arising from linguistic puzzles hiding as real problems without the benefit of a supposedly universal method. The most philosophers can do, which is more than enough to keep them busy, is to go "from one subject matter of philosophy to another"—which is the same as going "from one group of words to another group of words". After all, "An intelligent way of dividing up a book on philosophy", Wittgenstein suggests, "would be into parts of speech, kinds of words".

What consequences ensue from these views, which are at bottom informal codifications of practices?

To begin with, this one: when dealing with such matters as "aesthetic problems", "artistic criticism", and so on, we should avoid using such adjectives as 'beautiful'—and, in general, any other similar overarching and high-sounding terms. These terms are meant to satisfy our (or is it only the philosopher's?) craving for generality, which should not be appeased but rather curbed.

It may be argued that when Wittgenstein recommends dropping such words as 'beautiful', he is not saying anything startling, or even new. He was aware of this: "If you ask yourself how a child learns 'beautiful', 'fine', etc., you find it learns them roughly as interjections. ('Beautiful' is an odd word to talk about because it's hardly ever used.)" (Italics by the author.) The same goes for other comparable terms. "It is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetic judgments are made, aesthetic adjectives such as 'beautiful', 'fine', play any role at all." (Wittgenstein had also mentioned the word 'lovely' as one whose use is unnecessary.) Now, I am not so sure that 'beautiful', 'fine',—and we could add 'remarkable', 'fabulous', 'despicable', 'horrible', and many others—"hardly play any role at all". If such were the case, how could we assert that there are "a large number of [similar] words used in these circumstances?" (Italics by the author) Maybe we can blame the obvious contradiction between "words which are hardly ever used" and "words used in these circumstances" on nothing more serious than Wittgenstein's conversational style. Or maybe we can explain the contradiction away by saying that there are two ways of using adjectives of this sort, and that each one of these ways corresponds to two different language games, as well as to two different kinds of people, cultures, periods, situations. etc. Thus, we can claim that casual onlookers of artworks are perfectly aware of what they mean when they use the term 'beautiful', and that is for them the end of the story, whereas theoretical aestheticians and sophisticated art critics, who are supposed to know better, are unsatisfied with such simple ways of expressing their appreciation. I prefer the second alternative, because I think that it is compatible both with many observations and with Wittgenstein's aperçus in the course of these Conversations.

It seems obvious that there are some fundamental agreements between Wittgenstein and the more alert aestheticians, philosophers of art, and art critics of the present. Yet, unsurmountable differences remain. They all may say very similar things, while intending something quite different or, if one wishes, aiming at different ends (putting the same words to quite different uses).

Both the community of experts (an abbreviation for all those concerned, philosophically or critically with the arts) and Wittgenstein would agree in having such adjectives as 'beautiful' quarantined. They both would also agree on quarantining some other words—as, for instance, 'fine', and 'excellent'. Curiously enough, however, Wittgenstein might have been in this respect less sanguine than the experts. The latter would object to the use of such words mainly for theoretical reasons, that is to say, because these words would not fit their ideas about what a work of art is supposed to be. Wittgenstein would not hold such prejudices, because he did not start with any definite aesthetics views. All words should be, in principle, welcome provided that they actually play a role in some discourse or in some language game, and, consequently, in some way of life. The only reason for quarantining some words is that they might give their users—if they happened to be philosophers—the impression that they were doing something called 'aesthetics', 'philosophy of art', or 'art criticism'. Thus, Wittgenstein's remarks about the need to quarantine such and such words when expressing aesthetic appreciation are not based upon a previous view of the nature, role, and scope of aesthetics. Aesthetics is not the problem. Aestheticians, or art critics, are. And, of course, belief in "language as such" (a fictitious entity) is. The aestheticians' views about the use of 'beautiful' are parochial only because they aim at being universal, without ever becoming so. Why should we worry about what is best for building a conceptual framework for a philosophy of art or for developing a system of aesthetics? The important thing here is not whether 'beautiful', or some similar word is or is not adequate to qualify a work of art. It is the fact that these words are always wrong in so far as they are required by a wrong theory of language—the picture theory.

What can one say about a work of art without appealing to words such as 'beautiful', 'lovely', and, in general, to value terms? Many things. Some of them may relate to the cultural background of the work of art, some others to the historical period, others to the style, others to the author's biography, etc. None of these things necessarily express any appreciation of the work. (To be sure, neither structuralism nor deconstructionism can be blamed in this respect and, therefore, both are less susceptible to criticism from Wittgenstein's point of view, but they still carry the original sin of having been the consequence of some craving for generality.)

It would seem that artistic appreciation and judgement are only possible when they are couched in value terms, and that if these terms are cast aside, only descriptive and explanatory terms remain as a possibility for aesthetics. But this would be tantamount to claiming that all the important functions of language have the form of statements and that these can be neatly classified as descriptive and explanatory. A way to correct this myopia would be to admit other functions—for instance, that there are not only statements, but also emotive expressions, prescriptions, etc. But this would have been totally insufficient for Wittgenstein. Therefore, it is not a question of substituting description for evaluation. It is rather a question of dissolving all the classically acknowledged types of linguistic expressions in order to show how much, and how often, they mix, blurr, and overlap. Once this dissolution is performed, we can do what formerly had been looked at suspiciously, namely, to admit value terms as a part of a vast repertory of names. But then, strictly speaking, they cease to be value terms and become moves—an indefinite and inexhaustible number of them—in one or more language games. Not simply the language game of aesthetics, or of art criticism, but a whole collection of games in each of which description, evaluation, appreciation, etc. may play a role.

Let me go back briefly to the Lectures.

If to say 'beautiful' or 'fine' or 'lovely', is, as Wittgenstein points out, like an interjection rather than a description or an explanation, what else can be said that is not only an interjection when talking about a work of art? Take 'lovely'. It can be used, of course, as an interjection. But it also can be used in order to give "something [in the present case, a work of art] a character." What does "give something a character" amount to? At first sight it does not seem to be a clear linguistic function, but this should not deter us from adopting this intriguing suggestion. Linguistic (and probably also conceptual) functions are not always well defined. In a great variety of cases, of which artistic appreciation is only one, perfect clarity would be a burden rather than an advantage.

The craving for generality has not been the only curse that philosophers have suffered; the craving for absolutely clear-cut concepts has been (and still is) no less burdensome. In fact, both cravings may be closely related: the more general a concept is, the easier to cut it sharply and make it clear. But then it may happen that it ceases to be in synchronization with the world. Let us not worry unduly, therefore, that the act of giving something a character by means of words lies in the twilight zone between stricty description and pure evaluation. Only by remaining in this twilight zone may we be able to say something interesting or suggestive about a work of art.

"Look at this statue of a Roman girl. Look how delicately turned her neck is." The statue may be made of marble or of bronze; it may be black or white, or it may originally have been brightly colored. Nothing of this matters very much to get right the "Look at this statue Look how delicately . . . " Art appreciation is full of these kinds of claims. They are often the kinds of claims made by people who are familiar with a work of art, with its period, the cultural background, perhaps even the biography of the author, people who have probably visited museums, or who have read histories of art, etc. They are not the only ones who make such claims, however. As Wittgenstein notes, these claims can also be made by someone who "has seen very few [works of art] but who look intensely at one or two . . . which make a profound impression on him [her]". There are all kinds of people for all kinds of works of art, but all of them need to have some interest in the work of art in question. It is most likely that without a minimum of interest, the person would miss something—for example, the delicate turn given the girl's neck by the sculptor. Interest alone, however, just as knowledge of the technique, the style, the period, etc—is not sufficient. Artistic appreciation is far from being a science (assuming that knowledge of facts and correct application of methods is all that is necessary for scientific procedures), but neither is the consequence of some mysterious intuitive faculty or power of the mind. There is something which artistic appreciation cannot dispense with, and that is some glimpse of the culture, that is to say, the way of life in which it emerged. "The words we call expressions of artistic judgment", Wittgenstein says, "play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call a culture of a period. To describe their use or to describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a culture". Notice that, as with all claims about how a work of art can be understood or appreciated, the ones just made are themselves far from being sufficient. Understanding and appreciation of works of art (not of art as such, which has no existence except in the minds of some philosophers) needs above all what Wittgenstein tried so strenously to teach, and what he himself said that it was the only thing he really wanted to teach, namely, "to see differences".

Giving something a character by means of some terms normally employed in art appreciation and art criticism is not the same as proceeding to some general characterization or definition of what constitutes (or, even worse, should constitute) a work of art, and looking for consequences. Nor should we be constrained by any set of terms even within some particular art, and (assumedly) only applicable to it.

Suppose that using an example, suitably modified, of Wittgenstein, a woman who knows a lot about dresses goes to a dressmaker, and a woman who knows nothing about dresses (perhaps, although most improbably, she is not interested) goes to a dressmaker. The knowledgeable woman will find all kinds of things to say about a particular dress. Some remarks may concern, as it were, technicalities: it is badly cut and badly sown. Some other remarks may be based upon what is considered fashionable: the sleeves are too long, or too short. Some assertions will be quite personal: it really fits me well, or makes me look too fat. Some other things are more difficult to characterize: the skirt is too narrow (too narrow far what?). In the latter case a certain (negative) appreciation is expressed which concerns what the woman considers appropriate, or adequate, or elegant, or whatever. Are we going to dismiss any of these? Some, we could: for example, a work of art, unless it is considered as decoration, does not necessarily fit or fail to fit a person, a room, a museum, a city, etc. But we cannot simply cast aside most of these, and other similar kinds, of remarks. Talk about works of art is indissolubly tied up to technicalities. (I hold the view, which I admit is debatable, that unless one knows something about how to make a work of art, even if one is incapable of actually making one, one should abstain as much as possible from art appreciation and particularly from art criticism.) The best of art appreciation is usually built upon art practice.

It may be argued that dressmaking is a very bad example, that dresses are not works of art. I am not so sure. Consider some of the costumes made for the film Dangerous Liaisons. They are gorgeous enough to deserve having been designed by Gainsborough. Would they be works of art if in fact they had been designed by Gainsborough rather than by a mere fashion designer? Of course, if suits and dresses, no matter who has designed them, are declared not to be works of art, then the costumes in the movie version of Les liaisons dangereuses will remain outside of the artistic sphere and therefore will not be a subject of artistic appreciation. Is W a work of art (good or bad) only because whoever made it, or his friends, or the standing critics have decided that it is? Is a work of art something originated by some kind of verbal fiat? Consider a recent example of the it-is-a-work-of-art-if-the-artist-says-so: a copy of the American flag on the floor of a museum with the title "One of the various ways of displaying the American flag". Should it be considered as a work of art? Yes, if we take it to be, in Arthur Danto's vocabulary, a "transfiguration of the commonplace". The square of red of which Danto spoke would be not only a full-fledged work of art, but one among many other possible works of art. To the names Danto mentions as candidates for giving the painted red square a title—"The Israelites crossing the Red Sea", "Kierkegaard's Mood", "The Red Square", "Red Table Cloth", we could add many others: "Detail of a Toreador's Cape", "Detail of open heart surgery", "Detail of the public image of the telephone directly linking the White House with the Kremlin", "All was red", "This is what he saw when he was insulted", etc. But then, again, why not the costumes in Dangerous Liaisons? Why not my wife's new dress? We may claim that is all a question of the degree of sophistication, real or conceptual, of W. But how are we going to measure such a degree of sophistication? To avoid this quandary without going back to the traditional conception of a work of art as one definite example of the Beaux Arts, it will be wise to follow Wittgenstein's way. Instead of trying to set up rules to define the meaning of 'work of art', we will examine in how many different ways an object (a landscape, a statue) or an event (a sunset, a performance of a musical score) can be appreciated by means of all sorts of adjectives—including facial expressions or gestures. Then, and only then, we will consider whether we have been concerned with a work of art.

Wittgenstein's main contribution to "Aesthetics'' is his effort to free us from all sorts of constraints. An important consequence is the indefinite extension of the artistic universe. Many advantages accrue from this extension, among others the possibility of considering as works of art many (or all?) products of craftmanship; also, and most interestingly, the possibility of examining performances (of a play, of a movie script, of the choreography of a ballet, of a musical composition) as works of art and submitting them to artistic appreciation. The distinction between work and performance had become an almost intractable problem because philosophers tried to solve it by means of an "ontology of artworks". Consider the problem about what, properly speaking, a musical composition is. Is it only, or mainly, the score? Is it the performance? Are there as many musical pieces as there are performances? No less intractable has been the question of the relation between crafts and arts, particularly when, as is often the case, the practice of an art requires a high degree of craftmanship. Is the craftmanship just a necessary condition? Or is it a basic ingredient of the work of art? Or are crafts, after all, fundamentally different from the Beaux Arts? The fact is that each work of art requires a much more complex and flexible treatment than philosophers have assumed. No doubt this procedure may lead to a dubious "artistic nominalism", not to say to a considerable amount of confusion. Yet in the last resort this would be preferable to a more or less inflexible "realism of art objects".

The title of this paper is misleading. The words 'deflationary art' may have induced the listener (or the reader) to believe that I was going to discuss various types of artistic products which (to limit myself to the so-called "plastical arts") have proliferated during the period extending from Duchamp to conceptual art and minimalism. These types of art are deflationary in the sense that they do not claim for art the exalted position that it enjoyed in Western civilization during the modern period and that reached its peak in the Romantic era. But rather than "deflationary art" I should have said "deflationary conception of art", which could be applied to all the arts of all the periods. With this proviso, I will dare to say that Wittgenstein's conception of art was deflationary. Curiously enough, this deflationary view is not at all incompatible with a much more flexible language, and even with an increased vocabulary. We must not, however, consider this flexibility and this vocabulary "inflationary". Inflation occurs (in economics) when something is given more value than it has, or when (in epistemology or in ontology) it is assumed that there are many more things than there are actually. Such, indeed, is not the case in the Lectures & Conversations.

These lectures and conversations are typical of the "later Wittgenstein", and, therefore, the only thing I can claim to have done is deal with the second Wittgenstein's views about aesthetics and art. Should I, therefore, conclude that the "first" or the "early" Wittgenstein maintained, or would have maintained, a totally opposite conception?

In many important respects, this is the case. Yet, one has always the impression that something of the early Wittgenstein still lingers in the later one.

What could that be in so far as aesthetics and the arts is concerned? In my opinion, it is the following:

Aesthetics, as well as Ethics (for Ethics and Aesthetics are "the one: sind eins"), remained within the framework of the Tractatus in a transcendental realm. Now, although the words used by Wittgenstein were, in fact 'ethics', and 'aesthetics', what they really meant were the realms of moral action and of artistic creation respectively. They lie beyond judgment, because they are too far above the world to be even appreciated. They only can be silently admired. They can be shown, but not talked about. Now, I see no reason why the later Wittgenstein would have ceased to hold this view for certain works of art.

To be sure, if there are such works of art, they must be very, very few. It may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, even to give examples. In order to find an example we should look at works of art which had been previously appreciated as such, and this is precisely what the very few works of art in question cannot be.

The only examples that occur to me at the moment are of a very peculiar character, because they are not found anywhere in the history of art. They can be found only within the framework of some previous artistic universe. Therefore, they are not only two, but even three steps, removed from reality. The greatest works of art may not exist except through the vision of a great artist; thus, the paintings of Elistir, the musical compositions of Venteuil, the novels of Bergotte in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

This paper is Wittgensteinian in at least one respect; it has a minimum of beginning and a minimum of end; practically everything is in the middle. I am not sure that this is always the best way to proceed in philosophy or, for that matter, in art—at any rate, in narrative art. But I suspect that, at least at present, it is legitimate enough when dealing with such matters as works of art and artistic appreciation. After all, there should be many ways of doing philosophy. The way I have done it here is not necessarily better than any other. But it seems to fit the two subjects I had in mind—Wittgenstein and art—more than any other I can think of. When dealing with art, and specifically with "Wittgenstein on art", perhaps the best thing we can do is what Wittgenstein did so many times, and much better than us all: assemble reminders.

Ferrater Mora, José. “Deflationary Art.” A Wittgenstein Symposium edited by Josep-Maria Terricabras (Girona, 1989):