Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Concept of “Art”

I spent part of this past weekend wrestling with an essay entitled “Art and the Arts,” which I found in the Stanford University Press anthology of works by Theodor W. Adorno collected under the title Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader. This was the essay in which I found Adorno making explicit reference to John Cage, and I figured I had better get a sense of the context in which that reference was situated. The title referred to the question of whether or not it made sense of have a concept of “art,” given the diversity of all the instances subsumed by that concept.

I was a bit surprised that this “philosophical reader” contained no reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein in this essay. After all, Wittgenstein had taken on the same question with regard to the concept of “game.” Ultimately, he concluded that, while one could not define the that concept through the necessary and sufficient conditions of a rigorous formal logic, one could not dismiss the concept out of hand. To borrow a later phrase from John L. Austin, this was just one of those examples of how we “do things with words,” regardless of whether or not what we do can be reduced to a formal infrastructure.

The bottom line is that categories are not mere abstract constructs. They are products of how mind imposes order on sensory input, which is why Gerald Edelman chooses to focus not on the categories themselves but on those processes that he calls “perceptual categorization.” This stance is particularly important where “art” is concerned. Like it or not, we exist in a social world of minds that have declared it a perceptual category, reinforced by how our capacity for language has chosen to hang a noun-label on it. We have done this without worrying about whether that label has a variable target. Indeed, we may even embrace the variability of that target, which is what I had in mind when, back in 2010, I wrote that Edgard Varèse had “laid siege to those perceptual categories that we all assumed would serve us when listening to music.” From this we may conclude that Cage showed up in Adorno’s essay because he came along with a bigger siege engine.

In order to advance from sensation to cognition, Edelman uses his foundation as a basis for building hierarchies of categories of categories. This hierarchical stance has appealed to the artificial intelligence set, where it was abstracted into “object-oriented programming.” Unfortunately, that approach tried to abstract away the social dimension, which is one reason why it still cannot come to grips with “game.” (I once had a colleague who wrestled with whether, in the hierarchy he was trying to build, a “toy truck” was a “toy” or a “truck!”)

My own interest, on the other hand, has been to determine whether or not the things we do with our words might fall into some “meta-level” set of categories that serve us when we talk about different art forms. I have been at this for some time. Thus, when I find myself wrestling with a particularly tricky aspect of the making of music, I still tend to turn to the medieval trivium to guide how I use my words within a framework of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. This does not strike me as far-fetched, since one of the key aspects of the social dimension of music concerns the intersection between how we make music and how we talk about making music.

This is not to imply that, in the course of my own doing things with words, everything always fits nicely into that framework. Sometimes I feel as if I have to take a shoehorn to what I am trying to say. Then I have to remind myself that rethinking the framework may be more valuable that cramming into it things that may not belong there!

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