Jerrold Levinson

Aesthetic Experience and Artistic Value

*** This is the final section of my interview with Jerrold Levinson. The full text — seven sections in total — is published in the book Conversations on Art and Aesthetics. Please note that this is only a draft. Not for citation.***


HM: Outside of philosophy, but increasingly also within analytic aesthetics, many have been very dismissive about the quest for a definition of art. How would you defend the project of defining art against those who think of it as a futile exercise in academic book keeping?

JL: Defining art sounds perhaps a bit too schoolmasterish. What I want is to understand what we mean by art. What I hope to achieve is a characterization of the broadest notion of art that we operate with. That seems to me of obvious critical and conceptual interest.

HM: The account you offer has met with many objections …

JL: You don’t say? I hadn’t noticed. (Laughs)

HM: Do I sense some underlying frustration here?

JL: Not really. It’s often taken to be a sign of value when your work is critically discussed. (Pauses.) Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Certain views are widely discussed simply because they’re so easy to criticize. They’re obviously wrong, but defended in a robust way that makes them enjoyable to criticize. I hope my own work isn’t like that. Anyway, I’m often reminded of what Peter Kivy, a long-time friend and frequent philosophical adversary, once remarked, when I was complaining about being the target of so many objections to what I had written on this or that: “What’s the alternative to being critically discussed? Oblivion.”

HM: Good, so now I can raise these objections with a clear conscience.

JL: Before you do that let me say, for the record, that I don’t regard the capacity to deal with every conceivable counterexample to be the central measure of the worth of a philosophical theory. It seems to me that that resides rather in the theory’s potential to interestingly illuminate some domain of human life or thought. Provided, of course, that it can accommodate most of the counterexamples raised against it!

HM: Be that as it may, one problem that critics of your definition have returned to again and again is that of ‘first art’: if art status depends on a relation to previous art, how do you account for art without historical predecessors? Others have described your definition as perniciously parochial in that it makes the art of every world at a given time, possible or actual, depend very rigidly on what is prior art for our community as it actually is.

JL: Let me here make a pitch for an essay on the definition of art by a young Parisian philosopher (and cartoonist!), Alessandro Pignocchi. Pignocchi proposes a theory of art that he labels an intentionalist theory of art, inspired in large measure by my account, but which diverges from my account at a crucial juncture. Pignocchi argues, roughly speaking, that something is an artwork, according to our intuitive concept of art, if it is intended for a kind of regard that some other acknowledged artwork has received. On my account, roughly speaking, something is an artwork if it’s intended for a kind of regard that some earlier acknowledged artwork has received. Pignocchi thinks that it is unnecessary to restrict the artmaking intention to earlier art, and he may be right. What is crucial is perhaps only that some other art–later, earlier, Martian, Sumerian, whatever—serves as implicit background for the intentional stance or projection in question. That seems a promising liberalization of the kind of account that I gave, and is motivated in part by reference to recent work in psychology on artifact concepts. The problem of parochialism and the problem of first art largely disappear if you take this line.

HM: Okay, but it doesn’t get round another classic objection to your account, one that argues not that the account is too restrictive, but rather that it is too liberal, in that it grants art status to things that we not normally consider to be art. For instance, some art in the past was intended to be viewed as perceptually similar to the objects that they depict, so it seems that ordinary home videos which also aim for lifelikeness would have to count as art on your view.

JL: That’s too partial an understanding of what counts as a regard-as-a-work-of-art. In my account, it has to be a total ensemble of ways that some putative artwork was properly regarded in order for invocation of that regard to turn an object into an artwork.

HM: Can you elaborate on this?

JL: Here is an objection of that kind. Carl Andre’s floor sculptures, say, those consisting of square arrays of identical lead plates, were intended to be both walked on and admired for their visual appearance. Now the newly-installed ceramic tile floor in your kitchen is also intended to be regarded in that double way. According to Levinson’s account, that would make your kitchen floor an artwork, since it is intended for regard as some earlier artwork was intended to be regarded, which is absurd. So Levinson’s account is clearly wrong.

I think you can see that this is a silly objection, since it doesn’t observe the caveat mentioned earlier. Andre’s lead plate sculptures were intended for, and are appropriately accorded, many specific regards beyond the two shared with your newly installed ceramic tiles. First and foremost, they were intended to be seen within the tradition of sculpture, in continuity with, but also in counterpoint to, the work of Michelangelo, Henry Moore, Brancusi, and so on. They were intended to induce reflection on the nature of sculpture, and its relation to painting, architecture, and other artforms. They were intended to be seen in the context of contemporaneous explorations of what one might call the minimalist impulse throughout the visual and performing arts. They were intended to be experienced for their expressive value, and for what they might be saying in artistic terms about space and how human beings inhabit and transform it. And so on. Your kitchen floor was not intended to be regarded in any of those latter ways, nor is it appropriately so regarded. And so, happily, my theory does not account it an artwork.

HM: If the intentional-historical definition of art is correct, and something is an artwork if and only if it is the product of an attempt to be regarded in some overall way in which pre-existing artworks are or were correctly regarded, then that seems to entail either that all art-attempts are ipso facto successful or that the success or failure of art- attempts is irrelevant to something’s being art. In other words, according to your definition of art, there can be no such thing as failed art.

JL: It is not impossible for artmaking to fail on my view, it is just rather difficult, at least compared to how things stand on other, more normatively-loaded accounts of art. Let’s be clear, first, that what is in question here is failure to be an artwork at all, not failure as art, that is, failure to make an artwork that is artistically any good. With that clarification in place, artmaking on my view can misfire if, say, a) the objects invoked in the projection-for-regard of a candidate artwork are not in fact artworks; b) the intrinsically characterized ways a candidate object is intended for regard are not ones that actually figure in the repertoire of acknowledged art regards in any artistic tradition; c) the would- be artmaker’s conception of his or her object or the ways it is to be regarded is confused, incoherent, or irredeemably vague. And there are probably other ways of misfiring that don’t come to mind right now…

HM: You are not only an intentionalist where the definition of art is concerned, but also where the interpretation of art is concerned. Hypothetical intentionalism, the view that you champion, states that the intention of the artist should not be ignored when interpreting a work of art. Can you make this more precise?

JL: Well, one could dispute whether what I call hypothetical intentionalism really is a kind of intentionalism. If you look at it a certain way, it’s on the other, anti-intentionalist, side of the fence, because it doesn’t take artistic meaning to be tied ultimately to the actual intentions of the artist. But it’s on the intentionalist side in that it says that the idea of the artist’s intention is necessarily involved in the enterprise of arriving at an acceptable interpretation of a work, because of what is implied by the notion of artistic meaning understood as a kind of utterance meaning. In a nutshell, I hold that the meaning of an artwork is the meaning one would most plausibly and charitably attribute to the author as intended, given the work’s features and the historical context in which it was produced.

HM: While the majority of philosophers nowadays defend some form of intentionalism, it’s intriguing to see how within the art world intentionalism is still a minority view. Most artists or art theorists profess to be anti-intentionalists, often quite proudly and defiantly. Why do you think that is?

JL: Well, because intentionalism of the strong kind really does make the artist’s actual intentions the ultimate arbiter as regards the validity of an interpretation. On that view it is the actual intentions of the artist that determine, grosso modo, or at least strongly restrict, what an artwork can be taken to mean. Artists don’t like this because it’s too limiting. They want their works to mean whatever they can reasonably and rewardingly mean to an informed public. They want them to be as meaningful as possible. So I think that’s why there’s that resistance against intentionalism. But I don’t know how widespread that resistance really is, because some artists don’t have just the desire to appeal as broadly as possible and to not constrain audience’s responsibly exercised imaginations, they also have the communicative desire, which pulls in the other direction, making them want the audience to actually understand what they are trying to say. So I think a lot of artists are certainly conflicted on this. They often have both these impulses, and it depends on which of them prevails whether they’ll be receptive to strong intentionalism or not.

HM: Do you think that philosophy could be useful here in dispelling this confusion?

JL: I do think that the middle-of-the-road position, hypothetical intentionalism, could mediate here and effectively reduce the tension between those impulses. On the one hand, you’re not restricting people’s understanding to what the artist actually thought of or envisaged when engaged in making the work. So, the work might be other, and sometimes better, than what the artist conceived it to be. On the other hand, the work, as a vehicle of communication or at least expression, cannot be legitimately detached from the artist as a meaning maker. The audience is going to have to take account of what the artist might reasonably have meant. If artists were to seriously engage with this philosophical debate, I think they would embrace something like this intermediate position. (Pauses.) But perhaps I’m being too optimistic here.

HM: On a more general level, do you think that aesthetics and the philosophy of art can be useful for art practitioners?

JL: I think it would be useful for art critics to have a better sense of, and a broader framework for, the concepts that they are necessarily deploying, like value, expression, representation, gesture and so on. As for artists? I actually think that what Barnett Newman notoriously said is right. You know, that aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds? By the way, there’s a duality in this quip that sometimes escapes non-native speakers of English. Are you familiar with that expression, “for the birds”, meaning “of dubious quality or interest”?

HM: Ah. I can see the pun now that you point it out. But was the pun intended, you think? I’m asking because I first came across that quote in a slightly different version: ‘aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to the birds’.

JL: If that’s how he formulated it, then the double meaning I’ve always heard in it would be excluded. But it seems to me likely that he said or wrote ‘for the birds’, at least on some occasion. It’s a good question, though. I have always assumed the pun was intended. Barnett Newman, though born in Riga, was eventually a New Yorker, wasn’t he? If so, he would have been no stranger to that expression. (Pauses.) But even if the double meaning wasn’t intended, I would still say that that’s the way it should be read!

HM: So you basically agree with the thought that aesthetics is not of any use to artists?

JL: That’s putting it a bit too strongly. What I think is that aesthetics is primarily for people who want to theorize about the arts. So, it’s mainly useful for philosophers, or more generally, people who are driven to reflect on the nature or value of art. But that isn’t to say that aesthetics is irrelevant to artists. For some artists aspire to theorize about art as well as make it, and some modes of art-making are inherently more theoretical than others, and some, such as conceptual art, are perhaps even essentially theoretical. In which case aesthetics will be of the directest relevance.

Still, it could be counterproductive for artists to delve too deeply into philosophical aesthetics, since it might conceivably hamper their creativity. There’s some reason to think that successful artists benefit from having something more like artistic “tunnel vision”, allowing them to think that their way is the “only” way to paint or write or compose music. For them to do aesthetics, and to inevitably come to adopt a more objective, analytical, and evenhanded view of the whole domain of art, could be to the detriment to their passion in artmaking, might compromise their commitment to their distinctive way of making art. For something like this reason, I haven’t been especially concerned to press the serious study of aesthetics on my daughter, a budding visual artist who works in photography, video, and sculpture.

On the other hand, as Socrates famously remarked, the unexamined life may not be worth living, so perhaps that goes for the artistic life as well….