By John M. Valentine

John M. Valentine, Savannah College of Art and Design

The paper is a critique of the so-called visually-indistinguishable-pairs argument which first appeared in Arthur Danto’s article, “The Artworld,” in 1964 (202-212). 1 In section 1.1, I present a summary of the argument. In 1.2, I explore the concept of the aesthetic and the issue of whether artifacts can have perceivable properties which qualify them for the status of artworks under specific conditions. Finally, in 1.3, I attempt briefly to situate my own conclusions about the identification of artworks in reference to the artworld theories of both Danto and George Dickie.

1.1 The Argument

The specific background of Danto’s article, “The Artworld,” is unquestionably the perplexity that audiences often feel with respect to the issue of what sorts of objects can be called art. How is it, for example, that ordinary items like urinals, beds, and Brillo Boxes could be so designated? As artworks, how would they be phenomenologically different from real urinals, beds, and Brillo Boxes?

Danto argues that they would not be phenomenologically different. He cites in support of this claim Andy Warhol’s displays of facsimiles of Brillo cartons, maintaining that it is “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld” (Readings 209) that makes Warhol’s boxes art, whereas the usual kind of Brillo Boxes at the supermarket are not. There are no perceivable properties as such, he says, which would distinguish the former as art. Rather, Warhol’s boxes are experienced as art only in terms of a kind of conceptual or theoretical shift whereby a properly informed audience senses that something has happened in the artworld. That is, a new understanding has emerged. Ordinary objects can now be perceived in terms of the “is of artistic identification” (Readings 206), as in the case of someone walking into an art museum, seeing Warhol’s boxes, and uttering sentences such as: “Look at those Brillo Boxes. They’re an interesting work of art.” The artistic context, the theory of the readymade, and the ideology of Pop Art make such sentences intelligible. Exactly the same sentences, uttered at the supermarket in the absence of such theoretical shifts, would be absurdly false or simply unintelligible. Conceptual shifts in the history of art, as well as specific artworld contexts, determine the identification of various objects as artworks, says Danto, not any particular properties of artifacts that are accessible through the senses.

In more recent years, Danto has not altered his position. For example, he argues that Marcel Duchamp’s famous work entitled Fountain is not strictly identifiable with the actual urinal. Rather, the urinal is the occasion or medium through which Duchamp made a philosophically stunning statement about what sorts of things could be art. Danto cites with approval the following explanation of Fountain which appeared in the early journal The Blind Man:

Mr. Mutt…took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object (Disenfranchisement 34).

Danto claims that no amount of sensory perception could ever reveal to us the full import of this readymade, its status as an artwork, nor indeed how it is that Fountain differed philosophically and artistically from any of the hundreds of other exactly similar urinals which were not designated as art. It cannot be a question of beauty, says Danto, because Duchamp was quite explicit in the theory of the readymade that they should be indifferently ordinary objects: “No beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly aesthetic about it…” (Disenfranchisement 34). Neither can it be a question of some type of pleasure response induced by perception of the work’s properties, such as “its gleaming white surface, the depth revealed when it reflects images or surrounding objects, its pleasing oval shape” (Dickie, cited in Disenfranchisement, 33). All of these aspects were surely perceivable in any of the other urinals, but they, in point of fact, were not works of art. And finally, Danto is very suspicious of the so-called aesthetic attitude theorists. That is, he is dubious of there being any kind of relevant state of disinterestedness—or its variants by other names—which would get us from the ordinary urinal to Fountain by way of an unusual or special state of consciousness. Thus, what remains in his analysis is Danto’s belief that Duchamp’s interpretation of Fountain, superimposed upon the urinal as a physical object, is what truly constituted the object as art and accounts for its lingering strangeness today.

It is important to stress three things at this point. Firstly, Danto is no friend of relativism. He does not believe that just any interpretation of the infamous urinal is correct. It must be Duchamp’s interpretation or a reasonable facsimile thereof (Disenfranchisement 44-45). Secondly, when Danto speaks of “interpretations,” he clearly seems to have in mind something like “theories.” This would mean that the quote from The Blind Man above constituted a theory or explanation of what Fountain was all about. Such theories are, of course, part of larger views or theory-shifts within the artworld. Thus, again, we come to his conclusion that there is simply no seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling as such which can help us identify objects as artworks independently of the interpenetrations of theory. Thirdly, Danto has been very clear about the Hegelian underpinnings of his philosophy of art; namely, the notion that all meaningful experience is mediated through ideas that have historical efficacy. It is clear that he sees dialectical consciousness at work in the idea of the readymade:

Hegel’s stupendous philosophical vision of history gets, or almost gets, an astounding confirmation in Duchamp’s work, which raises the question of the philosophical nature of art from within art, implying that art already is philosophy in a vivid form, and has now discharged its spiritual mission by revealing the philosophical essence at its heart. The task may now be handed over to philosophy proper, which is equipped to cope with its own nature directly and definitively. So what art finally will have achieved as its fulfillment and fruition is the philosophy of art (Disenfranchisement 16).

Thus, when Duchamp “created a new thought” for the urinal, he called into question the very definition of art from within the artworld itself and revealed the fact that philosophical ideas, not physical properties, are constitutive of the nature of art.

Such is the basic form of Danto’s argument. It has had a significant influence on many subsequent aestheticians, including especially George Dickie and his institutional theory of art. In the next section, I want to re-examine the argument in terms of the concepts of the aesthetic and intentional making.

1.2 Aesthetic Properties and Intentional Making

In this section, I want to explore the possibility of there being sensory properties of artifacts that would intrinsically constitute them as artworks under certain conditions of intentional making. But what could such properties be?

We might receive help here from three sources: (A) the ancient root meaning of the word aesthetics; (B) the critical theory of formalism; and (C) Wittgenstein’s comments about the duck-rabbit image.

(A) The key etymological root for the term aesthetics is the ancient Greek word aisthetikos, which refers to taking pleasure in some aspect or aspects of sense perception. I want to employ this emphasis on a sensory phenomenology but with an important modification. Rather than stressing the pleasure that one takes in sense perception, I want to stress the mere taking note of particular aspects of sense perception for their own sake, while ignoring other aspects or functions of the artifact in question. Thus, for example, in the case of a new car, it seems straightforward enough that we could ignore the use-function of the vehicle and instead take an intrinsic interest in its various sensory qualities. That is, our eyes could follow certain lines, shapes, and colors just as lines, shapes, and colors. Similarly, in the case of music, our ears could follow certain tones just as tones. Such an interest, no doubt, could be achieved with no ulterior motive beyond simply dwelling on these qualities as such. Of course, when we dwell on them, we may find that we like or dislike what we experience. Therefore, to build the notion of pleasure into aesthetic experience—as in the case of the strict definition of aisthetikos—would be a mistake. It would render bad art or other kinds of disagreeable aesthetic experiences impossible. What I am attempting to uncover here is a kind of “phenomenologically foundational” focus that we can take on the sensory qualities of artifacts. I explore this idea more fully in the next section.

(B) From formalism I want to borrow the emphasis on the following key aspects of perceiving artifacts: line, shape, color, tone, taste, and smell, etc., as well as the various ways in which these sensory elements interact. It seems to me that taking note of such phenomena for their own sake is tantamount to becoming aware of the aesthetic aspects of artifacts.

The concept of the aesthetic is, of course, complex. There are huge varieties of terms that have been employed with great intricacy in this area. 2 For instance, in his article “Categories of Art,” Kendall Walton discusses the issue of what it means to identify an artwork’s aesthetic properties. As examples of aesthetic properties, he cites “tension, mystery, energy, coherence, balance, serenity, sentimentality, and pallidness” (Walton in Readings 333). He argues that these properties are emergent attributes of works of art which are based on non-aesthetic properties such as colors and shapes, modulation of notes, and pitches and rhythms. In order to perceive correctly such aesthetic properties, he says, one must have a prior knowledge of and training in a variety of artistic categories. Some of these categories are commonly explored in formalism, but others are clearly contextualist and historical. Familiarity with such categories enables us to perceive some features of artworks as standard (e.g., the exposition-development-recapitulation form of classical sonatas), others as variable (e.g., the arrangement of colors in paintings), and still others as contra-standard (e.g., traditional sculptures which move on their own) (Walton 334-337). His analyses are rich and detailed. He does not, however, deal with the singular and foundational acts of perception which are necessary conditions for the basic recognition of artifacts as art.

Perhaps what is missing in Walton’s account is an attempt to describe what it means to experience lines, shapes, colors, tones, forms, etc., as themselves intrinsically aesthetic, especially again in light of the Greek root aisthetikos. 3 When one is drawn to line, shape, color, etc., as such, one is perceiving aesthetically. The nature of the drawnness is often non-reflective, immediate, and holistic. Of course, the sort of experience I have in mind is frequently presupposed for us in the artworld in terms of an artifact having already been contextualized: we see it in an art museum, hear it at a symphony, and so on. But there are unusual cases—such as readymades in their early years—where the artworld is at a loss in regard to certain artifacts, and audiences must fend for themselves.

Interestingly, Walton himself gives an example of this latter type:

If we are confronted by a work about whose origins we know absolutely nothing (for example, one lifted from the dust at an as yet unexcavated archeological site on Mars), we would simply not be in a position to judge it aesthetically. We could not possibly tell by staring at it, no matter how intently or intelligently, whether it is coherent, or serene, or dynamic, for by staring we cannot tell whether it is to be seen as sculpture … or some other exotic or mundane kind of work of art (351).

It is no doubt true that we would be at a loss as to how to apply sophisticated aesthetic terms to such an object (for example, “coherent” or “serene”) precisely because we would not know which categories of art pertain to it. However, we could still be drawn to or intrigued by its colors, shapes, and forms as such. In that case, we would be relating to the object as generically aesthetic. It seems likely that we could do this notwithstanding our lack of specific art categories, as Walton suggests when he acknowledges that we could attribute aesthetic properties to this strange object the way we do to natural objects, “which of course does not involve consideration of historical facts about artists or their societies” (352). But this would mean that, if we can be intrinsically interested in the lines and colors of a sunset, for example, we can be equally interested in the purely formal properties of an artifact. Tones, shapes, lines, colors, forms, etc., can have their hold on us even if we have no further ideas as to how to classify them. Correspondingly, it is perhaps useful to distinguish between what might be called “higher-end” aesthetic properties (such as beauty, mystery, and serenity) and “lower-end” ones (such as line, shape, color, form, etc., experienced simply as such). The latter are clearly necessary conditions for the former, but I see no reason to assume that they cannot be perceived on their own independently of any further knowledge of artistic categories or styles. The basic holding of our attention is singular and foundational in regard to the phenomenon of aesthetic properties emerging in our consciousness.

Following additional suggestions made by Monroe Beardsley (527-530), we might also think of aesthetic experience as a domain which involves the following features: (1) A situation where “attention is firmly fixed upon heterogenous but interrelated components of a phenomenally objective field” (527). That is, attention is highly focused on the object and its complexity, and the object controls the experience. (2) The experience is one of significant intensity: “Aesthetic objects give us a concentration of experience….They summon up our energies for an unusually narrow field of concern” (527-528). He goes on to suggest that aesthetic experiences are peculiarly able to shut out distractions. (3) The experience is highly coherent: “One thing leads to another; continuity of development, without gaps or dead spaces, a sense of overall providential pattern of guidance, an orderly cumulation of energy toward a climax, are present to an unusual degree” (527-528). According to Beardsley, when such an experience is broken off, it retains its hold on us and we can resume it holistically at will. (4) The experience is particularly complete in itself: “The impulses and expectations aroused by elements within the experience are felt to be counterbalanced or resolved by other elements within the experience, so that some degree of equilibrium or finality is achieved…” (527-528). In other words, aesthetic experience stands out in one’s memory as a singular event. Although Beardsley does not specifically discuss a “phenomenologically foundational” focus on formal qualities per se, his comments are clearly compatible with it. It seems likely that an aesthetic object could only emerge in our experience if we had suspended—to some extent at any rate—our normal patterns of dealing with our environment; e.g., patterns of manipulation, buying and selling, focusing on utilitarian functions, and so on. Thus, aesthetic experience will have, no doubt, a different feel to it to the extent that it is detached from normal routines and interested in the sensory qualities of artifacts only for their own sake.

(C) If I understand Wittgenstein’s comments on the duck-rabbit image correctly, he is suggesting that perception is inevitably concept-laden. He claims that in viewing this image we are bound to experience the “dawning of an aspect” (i.e., we would see either the duck or the rabbit), which he interprets to be a function of what he calls seeing-as (193-214). Seeing-as is sortal and operates by way of a foreground/background contrast. Thus, if we are acquainted with the concept of a duck (we have seen ducks before, we know how to use the word duck correctly, etc.), it is likely we will see the pattern as a duck if we are accessing at some level the concept of a duck. The same is true for the rabbit image. Of course, the accessing may be quite immediate and non-linear, and the experience is often one of “Aha! There’s the rabbit (or duck).” But still, as we perceive one of the patterns, the other one stays in the background. As Wittgenstein suggests, it is extremely unlikely that someone could perceive both duck and rabbit simultaneously. One may switch back and forth in a split second, but that is a different matter.

The sort of perceptual shift involved in the duck-rabbit image may have broader applicability. Consider how we might be able to perceive artifacts solely for their aesthetic properties. Duchamp’s readymades are directly relevant to this discussion.

I want to return for a moment to a somewhat more extensive version of The Blind Man commentary of 1917:

Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object. (2)

Undoubtedly, Duchamp’s agenda in submitting Fountain as a work of art in 1917 was destabilizing and deconstructive. It was conceived as a colossal joke played on a stodgy and conservative artworld. But (as Danto notes) there was a serious side to it as well. Duchamp’s intention seems to have been the total rejection of the European “aesthetics of taste”—especially the emphasis on beauty or ugliness—in favor of the “new thought” that anyone at anytime could simply choose to experience any artifact as art. Aesthetic form (as Duchamp understood it) was apparently irrelevant to this process. We can clearly see this from some of Duchamp’s later comments about critical reactions to Fountain. Duchamp’s patron, Walter Arensberg, “imagined the artist’s intent in submitting the urinal was to draw attention to ‘a lovely form,’ and to the formal parallels between this piece of industrial plumbing and the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi!” (TOUT-FAIT 7). But Duchamp’s reaction to this statement was, “I threw the urinal in their faces as a challenge, and now they admire it for its aesthetic beauty” (7). As Danto points out, “its beauty, if beauty there is, is neither here nor there. He was submitting it as a work of art, not something calculated to induce what he dismisses as ‘retinal flutters’” (7).

Philosophically, the most startling aspect of Duchamp’s readymades is the idea that any artifact can be experienced as art simply by choosing to do so. It would appear that Duchamp believed no further criterion for the identification of art was necessary: simply take an artifact, any one at all, and decide that it is art. In the process, no attention need be paid to aesthetic form at all. Indeed, as Danto correctly notes, Duchamp’s gesture here seems exactly parallel to Hegel’s notion that the idea of art as it dialectically metamorphoses into philosophy is vastly more important than the material or formal substrata of individual works of art.

From a formalist point of view, however, Duchamp’s theory of the readymade is extremely problematical. The wording of The Blind Man commentary is tantamount to the theory that art is anything anyone chooses it to be and an artist is anyone who makes such a choice. Such a theory—if I am correct in attributing it to Duchamp—is philosophically uninformative and trivial. Choosing in an ad hoc way to experience artifacts as art—with no other criterion than mere arbitrary choice—is hardly a solid basis for defining art. It should also be pointed out that Duchamp did not merely choose to perceive a urinal as a work of art. He did more than that: he titled the urinal, he signed it, he turned it upside down, and he re-contextualized it by entering it in an art show. Additionally, there is a certain inconsistency in Duchamp’s claim that there is “nothing particularly aesthetic” about readymades. In an interview given in 1915, he declared that:

The capitals of the Old World have labored for hundreds of years to find that which constitutes good taste and one may say that they have found the zenith thereof. But why do people not understand what a bore this is? …If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead—and that America is the country of the art of the future…. Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than these? New York itself is a work of art, a complete work of art… (8).

Similarly, in the same edition of The Blind Man in 1917, Louise Norton had this to say about Fountain:

…the jurors of The Society of Independent Artists fairly rushed to remove the bit of sculpture called the Fountain sent in by Richard Mutt, because the object was irrevocably associated in their atavistic minds with a certain natural function of a secretive sort. Yet to any “innocent” eye how pleasant is its chaste simplicity of line and color! Someone said, “Like a lovely Buddha;” someone said, “Like the legs of the ladies by Cezanne;” but have they not, those ladies, in their long, round nudity always recalled to your mind the calm curves of decadent plumbers’ porcelains? (2-3)

According to Danto, “one aspect of the highly overdetermined gesture of submitting the urinal was to de-Europeanize American art—to get Americans to appreciate their own artistic achievement. But that meant that Americans had to be made to see an article of plumbing as a work of art, but not necessarily beautiful in the way works of art had standardly been seen” (TOUT-FAIT 8). On this alternative reading of readymades—and given Duchamp’s penchant for American plumbing—it is possible to argue that what he wanted to accomplish with Fountain is the broadening and mundanizing of beauty in a way that transcended the aristocratic and snobbish traditions of Europe. If this reading is plausible, it is possible to conclude that the issue of Fountain’s beauty is a relevant and important issue in terms of the question of the perception of formal elements.

Even if we take Duchamp at his literal word that aesthetic form has absolutely no role to play in the theory of the readymade, it must be stressed that the “new thought” of ordinary objects as art would have to be grounded in basic formal features such as line, shape, and color—perceived as such—once the “useful significance” of said objects had disappeared. Without formal elements, the “new thought” would be entirely abstract and unrelated to the physicality of artifacts, a sort of free-floating Hegelian idea, if you will, adrift in Absolute Spirit. The reduction to absurdity of this idea would be the complete elimination of artifacts altogether. All one would need to do is simply think the thought that everything is art, and the pure choice would make it so. But the “everything” in question here is extremely problematical because the “new thought” is about artifacts and what are they if not collections of formal properties that come to the fore once “useful significance” disappears? Correspondingly, it does not seem so easy to dismiss the concerns of formalism, especially again in terms of Duchamp’s own ambivalence about them.

Among a variety of readings of Fountain, therefore, it is certainly possible to ignore the use-function of the urinal—as Duchamp himself suggested in The Blind Man commentary—and focus instead on the purely formal aesthetic properties of the object (its line, shape, color, as such). Of course, as the Bauhaus School taught, form follows function. But form is not identical with function, just as—to return to Wittgenstein—the duck is not identical with the rabbit. A possible reading of Duchamp’s readymades is that we may choose to place utilitarian factors in the background and focus purely on the foreground of intrinsic aesthetic properties (i.e., lower-end formal properties not to be understood as beauty or ugliness in the tradition of European aesthetics since the 18th century). We can shift back and forth quite readily in the case of a urinal, just as we can freely shift in regard to the duck-rabbit image.

I want to emphasize at this point that when I speak of a perceptual shift from use-function to aesthetic form, I am not presupposing any special kind of attitude or state of mind. George Dickie has, I believe, done a credible job of showing the many errors and problems connected with the aesthetic-attitude theorists (Ch. 3). The minimal shift I am stressing simply means that consciousness is moved from focusing on function to form, nothing more or less than this. If such a shift is commonly and naturally possible, then the next question I want to address is how we can get from the perception of an artifact’s aesthetic properties to the perception of it as art. What role does intentional making play in this process?

In order to develop my argument more fully, I want to distinguish between two types of artifacts: Artifact 1 and Artifact 2. Artifact 1 is any item produced by human hands with the intention that its aesthetic properties are to be noticed for their own sake. This would surely include the overwhelming majority of cases of artistic creation where some kind of raw material is fashioned into an aesthetic object. Artifact 2, on the other hand, is the readymade (by my interpretation thereof); that is, any item produced by human hands where there was no original intention that it be perceived aesthetically, but subsequently the artifact has been intentionally re-perceived and manipulated somehow into an aesthetic object (by focusing on its lower-end aesthetic properties). Readymades are certainly not the standard fare of artistic creation, but Duchamp has demonstrated, I believe, that their possibility must be taken into consideration. The object that is the readymade as such—a urinal, comb, bottle rack, snow shovel, etc.—is clearly a type of raw material that is being used by someone other than its original maker for non-utilitarian purposes. Of course, it is not the case that readymades lack intentionality. Someone must intentionally perform the perceptual shift on the artifact and alter it somehow. When this happens, we can get an odd result; namely, a situation where the person who does the shift first is the “artist” of the artifact, notwithstanding the fact that he or she did not create the artifact. This is consistent with Duchamp being known as the artist of Fountain. It is a very unusual application of the term artist but one whose possibility must be allowed. Where there is clear evidence that an artifact’s maker simply did not do the shift, we can do it in their stead. The intentional re-perceiving and re-making of the object can be as simple as titling and signing the object (as Duchamp did with Fountain), thereby intending that its previously unnoticed or unstressed aesthetic features be brought to the foreground as such.

If the preceding argument is correct, it follows that the creation of an Artifact 1 or Artifact 2 is tantamount to the creation of art. Since Artifact 1 is the standard case of artistic creation and Artifact 2 is statistically unusual, we might want to distinguish a strong sense of the word art from a weak sense. But both cases clearly involve a perceptual shift from function to form, as well as some kind of intentional making or re-making of the requisite artifact. This leads us back now to the indistinguishable-pairs argument. Are there, for example, inherent properties of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and those at the supermarket—and of Fountain and the various other similar urinals—that phenomenologically could constitute all of these as works of art in either the strong or weak sense of the term?

The answer, I believe, is yes. All these objects have lines, shapes, and colors that could be noticed simply as such (via the shift). When so noticed, and when the conditions of intentional making or re-making as outlined above are in place, what one is perceiving is basically the same in every case; namely, art. Undoubtedly, Warhol’s boxes are considerably more avant-garde than those at the supermarket and have a much higher dollar value. But this is irrelevant to their basic identification as art objects. Danto is surely correct in making visible the atmosphere of art theory which interprets such things as urinals, beds, and Brillo Boxes within modern art history, but it seems to me that they could be intentionally created (or altered) and perceived aesthetically without knowing anything about such theory or history. It is true that there is still an aspect of concept-laden perception in the shift, but it is hardly the full-blown, art historical perception that Danto has in mind.

I want to develop this last statement more fully. The physiological and psychological processes underlying our ability to identify figures such as ducks and rabbits, as well as our ability to shift from the experience of function to that of form, are certainly complex. They involve “top to bottom” neurological processing, acquisition of the ability to use and understand a natural language, and an impressive array of mastered concepts. We must learn, for example, what ducks and rabbits look like, and how correctly to use the words duck and rabbit. In like manner, we must also learn how to understand and use the concept of an object’s having a function, as well as what it would mean to suspend such an interest in favor of simply experiencing formal qualities as formal qualities (line as line, tone as tone, etc.). However, once the relevant concepts are understood, we seem able to exhibit a sort of smooth effortlessness in switching from one animal shape to another, and from function to form. Perceptual shifts of the sort I have described are thus anything but neutral and simple. On the other hand, however, the sorts of artworld concepts and theories that Danto finds indispensable to the very recognition of artifacts as art seem considerably more complex than anything found in the notion of the perceptual shift from function to form. Just in the case of readymades alone, think of the extensive historical knowledge of the artworld which is presupposed in gaining insight into what Duchamp did. What Danto is talking about in this case are sophisticated philosophical ideas which have interpenetrated the perception of a urinal as art. In like manner, Danto discusses Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke paintings of the 1960s. He argues that these paintings are heavily surrounded by complex theories which must be understood as fundamentally rejecting the style of brushstroke-making found in Abstract Expressionism (Transfiguration 105-111). Presumably, if Danto is right, an untutored viewer unaware of these theories could not interpret and perceive Lichtenstein’s paintings as art. No doubt, it is likely that all sensory experience is interpretational to a greater or lesser extent, but the conceptual machinery of the perceptual shift is far less complicated than Danto’s way of experiencing art through sophisticated artworld theories. If it is possible to perceive artifacts as art in a more straightforward manner than Danto has suggested, then inference to the simplest explanation might warrant taking this approach.

In concluding this section, I want to return to readymades one last time. It seems to me that what Duchamp did with Fountain was to broaden and mundanize the concept of art. In my reading of The Blind Man commentary, he appeared to be establishing a perceptual shift from function to lower-end aesthetic form. He seemed to be implying that any artifact could be so shifted and experienced as art if certain types of intentional re-making were also presupposed. And this would be true quite independently of the intentions of the creator of the artifact, since it seems unlikely that the original maker of the Fountain urinal had any aesthetic agenda in mind per se. Of course, he might have had such an agenda, in which case the famous urinal was already perceived as art (via the shift). But Duchamp’s actions lead us to infer that he (Duchamp) did not think this to be the case. Rather, his procedure was typically Dadaistic and subversive, and could be read as the incredible notion that all artifacts have artness as one of their potential properties if the function-to-form shift is done on them and they are intentionally altered somehow.

Finally, if a urinal is a type of raw material for the perceptual shift (Dickie 87), does this mean (as Danto has suggested) that “it is not even clear what color Fountain is, or if it has a color” (Danto Disenfranchisement 38). In other words, Danto believes—quite consistently with his theory of art—that Fountain is basically an idea superimposed on an artifact that must be understood via a theory-shift in the artworld. As an idea, it can have no perceivable aesthetic properties, such as color. But this seems very problematical. Fountain does have (or at any rate the original did have) aesthetic properties: once we shift away from its function as urinal, we can notice its white color, its shape, and its feel, all for their own sakes. In other words, we can hold it in our hands and have direct sensory access to it. This is true even notwithstanding Duchamp’s comment that readymades have “no beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly aesthetic about them.” My reading of this comment is that he was referring to the absence of higher-end aesthetic properties (such as beauty or ugliness in the traditional European senses) but not to lower-end properties such as the mere presence of line, shape, and color as such. No doubt, Duchamp was more interested in the joke he was playing on the artworld and the new idea of ordinary objects as art, but such interests would hardly negate the presence of lower-end aesthetic properties and the possibility of perceiving them in terms of an intentionally re-worked Artifact 2. The ostensive theory of The Blind Man commentary is the idea that we can arbitrarily impose the notion “that’s art!” on artifacts at will without grounding this in their formal elements, whereas my own position—perhaps a deconstructed version of The Blind Man commentary—is that artness is determined by a perceptual shift from function to form as grounded in low-end formal elements.

It is true, of course, that the 20th Century saw many conceptual experiments in the artworld. This has led a number of theorists to conclude that formal properties are not important or relevant in conceptual art. Where the idea of a work is paramount it can certainly seem as if sensory qualities are adventitious. But from a formalist perspective it is imperative to realize that sensory qualities are phenomenologically foundational—they help to establish the very artness of the work. It is the task of critical interpretation thereafter to determine what kind of art has emerged or what the artist is attempting to say in the conceptual piece. If the distinction is not maintained between (A) intentional making or re-making and the perceptual shift from function to form as determinative of artness per se, and (B) the critical interpretation of the work’s meaning or its place in art history, then a certain confusion arises in which artworld interpretations are taken to be constitutive of the piece as art rather than constitutive of the piece’s meaning. I believe it is precisely this problem which is evident in Danto’s visually-indistinguishable-pairs argument.

1.3 The Artworld or Institutional Approach to Defining Art

It is not my intention in this paper to present and defend a full-blown theory of the nature of artworks. 4 Rather, I see my comments as zeroing in on a potential weakness of the artworld or institutional approach to defining art. The main stumbling block for these theorists—among whom Danto and Dickie are probably the most sophisticated right now—is giving a plausible genetic account of how the artworld itself could have arisen in the first place. 5 Danto’s position is that the identification of artifacts as art can only take place in terms of various theories which are pre-existent in the historical artworld. This would mean that artworld theories are conceptually prior to and phenomenologically constitutive of individual works of art: theories of art precede the facticity of art. Thus, the artworld is a kind of regulative idea whose historical genesis is unclear. In his defense, Danto has articulated the thought that the artworld has emerged from historical thinking about the business of artifactuality and the point of art-making in a way that provides for the development of new works to be recognized in the context of theory and history. There is, he believes, no problem with the artworld’s genesis; it is coeval with artistic practice and appreciation. My arguments, however, are intended to make clearer the role of perceptual shifts and intentional making or re-making in this historical process. I believe it is important to stress how the earlier emergence of Artifacts 1 and the later emergence of Artifacts 2 make possible a basic understanding of art and the artworld in a way that does not heavily presuppose a great deal of complicated art historical theories.

In like fashion, George Dickie defines art, artist, artworld system, and the artworld as follows:

A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld publc. … An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art. … The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems. An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public. (92).

Although Dickie claims that the interconnectedness of all these definitions is inevitable and that they “bend in on, presuppose, and support one another” (92) the circularity is obvious. Even though Dickie does not find the circularity to be “vicious,” nowhere do we find a clear, non-recursive definition of art. Neither do we find a plausible account of how the artworld developed in the first place.

The sort of perceptual shift I have outlined would give a phenomenologically foundational account of how singular acts of perception (i.e., those that focus only on lower-end aesthetic properties of artifacts) probably existed—along with various forms of intentional making—and established early prototypes of art and the artworld. In other words, art would have been historically all and only Artifacts 1 (and then Artifacts 1 and 2 after the introduction of the readymade), and the artworld would have been the cultural contexts in which Artifacts 1 were produced, displayed, bought and sold, critically discussed, and so on. This grounding of the identification of artworks in the old tradition of aisthetikos—i.e., the perceptual shift as applied to intentionally produced artifacts—can, I think, be defended as an alternative to artworld or institutional theories.

Works Cited

Beardsley, Monroe C. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld,” in The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

—. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. New York: Columbia U P, 1986.

—. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1981.

—. “Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste: A Defense of Contemporary Art,” TOUT-FAIT: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Vol. 1/Issue 3, December 2000.

Dickie, George. Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach. New York: Oxford U P, 1997.

Duchamp, Marcel, Wood, Beatrice, and Roche, H.P. The Blind Man, May, 1917, No. 2, p. 2, in Collections, TOUT-FAIT: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Vol. 1/Issue 3, December 2000.

Levinson, Jerrold. “Defining Art Historically,” in The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Norton, Louise. “Buddha of the Bathroom,” in The Blind Man, May, 1917, No. 2, pp. 2-3, TOUT-FAIT: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Vol. 1/Issue 3, December 2000.

Sibley, Frank. “Aesthetic Concepts,” in The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Valentine, John. “A Formalist Theory of Art,” Southwest Philosophy Review, Volume 14, Number 2, July, 1998.

Walton, Kendall L. “Categories of Art,” in The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

  1. George Dickie’s naming of the argument can be found in George Dickie, Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach (New York: Oxford U P, 1997), 80.
  2. For a detailed discussion of various aesthetic terms or concepts and how they relate to “non-aesthetic” properties of objects, see Frank Sibley, “Aesthetic Concepts,” in Readings, 312-331.  
  3. A similar difficulty occurs in Sibley’s discussion of the connection between “non-aesthetic” properties and aesthetic concepts. If I understand him correctly, Sibley’s claim is that certain kinds of factual statements about physical objects reveal to us their non-aesthetic properties such as type of line or shape as line or shape, saturation of color as color, aspects of tones as tones, and so on. These properties provide a foundation for aesthetic concepts, although it is impossible, he thinks, that any collection of such properties would ever be logically sufficient to justify the application of the requisite aesthetic terms. What Sibley seems to miss, however, is that we can focus on lines, shapes, colors, tones, etc., for their own sakes in a phenomenologically foundational way. Such focus would be “aesthetically primitive” and would be distinguishable from the higher-end aesthetic concepts—such as delicacy, gracefulness, vibrancy, garishness, and so on—that Sibley cites. He is surely correct in arguing that these latter concepts are complicated matters of taste, but I am attempting to uncover a kind of raw experience of formal elements in terms of the old tradition of aisthetikos.    
  4. For an expanded discussion of my formalist theory of art, see John Valentine, “A Formalist Theory of Art,” Southwest Philosophy Review, Volume 14, Number 2, July, 1998: 139-150.    
  5. Although not an artworld or institutional theory of art, Jerrold Levinson’s theory of art shares a similar difficulty in that it attempts to define present art-forms in terms of historical antecedents and is thus essentially recursive in nature. See Jerrold Levinson, “Defining Art Historically,” in Readings 223-239.  

John M. Valentine

John M. Valentine received the Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University in 1974. He has taught at Mercer University, the University of Alabama in Birmingham, East Georgia College, and the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has articles published in the Southwest Philosophy Review. In addition, his book, Beginning Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, was published in 2001. He also writes poetry and has been published in the Sewanee Review, the Midwest Quarterly, the Adirondack Review, Chiron Review, and various other journals. His chapbook, Combing the Hair of the Dying, was published in 2002.