Weinberger Essentially Right

David Weinberger reviews Paul Bloom’s Descartes’ Baby (come on, David, use some <cite> tags) this morning, with predictable insight. I appreciate the way David declines to let Bloom off for sloppy arguments (assuming David is correct) in a popular work; it’s always worth arguing carefully and precisely, especially in writing for a general audience. (If you’re going to oversimplify or
advance an under-argued claim, at least signal that you know what you’re doing.)

I felt particular sympathy with parts of this point:

More important, art refutes dualism. As Bloom acknowledges throughout the chapter — belaboring the obvious — we react to objects differently if we know they were created as art. So, here’s a physical object that embodies something mental and intentional. The artwork has no inner life, but it can’t be understood apart from the intentionality it embodies. Art and all objects we create are inseparably infused with matter and spirit. Monism is far more important to our experience than dualism.

As David surely anticipates my saying, I hesitate to go all the way with his “it can’t be understood” and “infused”; I argue that we can indeed understand them apart from inferring that they represent gestures in the discourse of “art.” (Indeed, I suppose that the category “art” involves judgments and conventions that militate against David’s ascribing “infusion” to the objects in quesstion.) He’s entirely right that art-stuff doesn’t differ in obvious material ways from “use-stuff” (Duchamp’s point?) or “nature-stuff” (the problem of driftwood, sea glass, `mountain landscapes: they’re beautiful, but under what rubric do they enter the discourse of “art”?), but we can differentiate art from urinals from driftwood not by a mystified infusion of artistic intention, but by the conventions we observe in how we live with them. We treat art differently; in my hobby-horse language, we participate in the signifying practice of artistic production by receiving certain objects as more valuable, more thought-provoking, than other very similar objects. The difference lies not in the material manifestation of the item, nor in the “artistic intention” that supposedly infuses it, but in the transactions by which we propose and accept meanings that the involve the object in question.

Apart from that, David sounds essentially right to me.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. If I’d written my post more clearly, you wouldn’t think we disagree quite so much. I didn’t mean to say that only artworks exhibit monism. All artifacts, so recognized, do, from Rembrandts to Duchamps to urinals. Nor did I mean to imply that to view art, we have to exhume the artist’s intention, or that the artwork’s meaning is exhausted by the artist’s intention.

    But we do disagree, I think. I find some of Heidegger’s simple-minded phenomenological explanation of art to capture (wait, am I allowed to say “capture”?) much of my experience of some of art: Sometimes an artwork affects me because the mute is brought to speech. Paint is squeezed from a tube and carries more meaning than words can express. A block of stone, once carved, speaks more eloquently than does flesh. That gets to me. It also makes art (for me) a particularly good example of the monism of all our artifacts because of the incommensurability of marble and meaning. We take the monism of a toothbrush for granted — of course we shaped plastic to suit human needs — but sometimes with art we can’t take it for granted. (That, of course, is not the whole story of art.)

    OTOH, the difference between you and me, AKMA, is that you humbly think you might be wrong about this, while I’m pretty well certain you’re right.

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