The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

Art & non-art

All of the following passages describe real objects, existing in the world (they are not wholly made up cases). But only some of them describe artworks. Can you tell the difference?

Art or not art?

Example One

A painting entitled ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by Hans Van Meegeren. This canvas is in the style of the painter Vermeer. It shows the biblical event of Jesus breaking bread with disciples at the town of Emmaus. It was bought in 1937 for 540,000 guilders and then exhibited at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

Answer

Not Art

This is in fact a well-known fake, passed off at the time as a genuine painting by Vermeer. To see a photograph of this painting and to read more about it, see here. Typically, we tend to disqualify ‘fake’ artworks as counting as genuine ones. This shows that what makes an object an artwork is not solely a matter of its perceptible properties. After all, a fake artwork might look exactly the same as an original work; but only one will count as art. (For evidence that fakes are not treated as art, see this news story – would objects considered to be genuine artworks be burnt by law?)

 

Example Two

Read the poem below

Roses
Auto-Beatnik, 1962


Few fingers go like narrow laughs.
An ear won’t keep few fishes,
Who is that rose in that blind house?
And all slim, gracious, blind planes are coming,
They cry badly along a rose,
To leap is stuffy, to crawl was tender.

Answer

Status Unclear

This is an example of what has been called ‘computer poetry’: strings of words in the form of poems, generated semi- randomly by computers which have been programmed with basic syntactical forms, plus lists of words it can use to populate those forms. It was produced in 1962 by a program called ‘Auto-Beatnik’. To call this an artwork (or even a real poem) violates what has seemed to many to be an essential condition on art – that it be produced in its entirety by a conscious human mind or minds. It’s true that a human mind created the programme responsible for the ‘poem’s existence. But it doesn’t seem to follow from this that a human mind created the ‘poem’ itself.
See also the case of paintings by elephants, here.

 

Example Three

A set of quilts, made in bright colours and geometric designs. They have been made by generations of African-American women living in a remote hamlet in Alabama called Gee’s Bend. Most have been made for personal and family use rather than to be exhibited.

Answer

Status Unclear

The Gee’s Bend quilts satisfy many of the characteristics we tend to think of as typical of artworks. They are beautiful objects made with huge technical skill. They are now exhibited in museums and art galleries, and sold at a high price. However they also have features which makes their classification as art more controversial. Most obviously they are ‘craft’ objects – objects made primarily to fulfil a certain practical function. Traditionally, a distinction has been made between ‘art’ and ‘craft’. Moreover, most of the quilts made by the group were not made to be admired or appreciated by others, but only for the use of the group themselves. For background, click here.

To Note

Feminists have pointed out that the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ might be a sexist one, which tends to privilege the activity of men. This is because historically it is likely to be men rather than women who have the means, time and social connections required to make objects to put in galleries. Meanwhile, this distinction tends to devalue the objects produced by women, who do not have these opportunities and are forced to focus more on producing useful objects in the home.

 

Example Four

Four minutes 33 seconds of silence.

Answer

Art

(in at least one case)
It is an aural composition by the American experimental composer John Cage, called 4’33”. According to the US Museum of Modern Art website: ‘Commonly known as Cage’s “silent” piece, 4’33″ comprises three movements during which a performer—or performers—are instructed to produce no intentional sounds for four minutes and 33 seconds. This radical gesture upended the conventional structure of music, shifting attention from the performer to the audience, and allowing for endless possibilities of ambient sounds to fill the space. Today, 4’33″ is recognized as a ground-breaking work that synthesizes Cage’s interests in chance operations, experimental music, and visual arts’. If this counts as an artwork, then it suggests that art does not have to provide any valuable or moving aesthetic experience, to count as such. Read more about the piece here, and you can watch a performance of it here.

 

Example Five

A mass-produced snow shovel, purchased in a shop, and hung from the ceiling.

Section 2

Art

This is a famous ‘ready made’ by Marcel Duchamp, which he entitled ‘In Advance of a Broken Arm’. It is treated as one of the most important visual artworks of the early 20th century. If this is right, it seems to suggest that to count as art, an object does not have to be individually made by an artisan, with a high degree of technical skill. It also again suggest that what makes an object an artwork is not solely a matter of its perceptible properties. After all, many other snow shovels which looked exactly like this one were made on the production line that day: but only one counts as an artwork – the one bought and exhibited by Duchamp. To see a photograph of this work and read more about it, click here.

 

Example Six

The activity of one man, in a New York street, following random strangers around until they enter buildings.

Answer

Art

This is a piece of conceptual art by Vito Acconci called ‘Following piece’. There is no physical object involved to be looked at or listened to; arguably, the art is the activity of following, itself. There are photos of the activity, which took place in 1969, in galleries, but these are not usually thought of as the artwork itself, but only documentation of it. Click here to find out more. This piece undermines the traditional idea of art as something to be contemplated by means of our senses. This artwork is, rather, something to be thought about rather than looked at.

 

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