pourquoi? parce que

An essay on film as art (III)

leave a comment »

Part III: Why ‘art’ cannot be defined in relation to conditions

So far, we have established several criteria which are neither individually necessary nor completely jointly sufficient conditions to classify a film as a work of art. Those films produced by an artist and presented to an artworld public, which exhibit representational, expressive and formal characteristics, and which were intended to have the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest, can be works of art. However, if art is to be defined in terms of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, in lieu of such conditions, film cannot be described as an art form.

Dean argues that such conditions are not discoverable. Both cognitive science and (select) philosophy support the view that the structure of concepts mirrors the way humans categorize things: in respect to their similarity to prototypes, not in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (Dean, ‘The Nature of Concepts and the Definition of Art’ in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61). Against this it has been contended that such psychological theories of concepts afford, at best, an account of how people seem to classify things, but cannot account for the correct classification of extra-psychological phenomena; and that such theories are presently too controversial to draw substantive philosophical morals from. On the contrary, I urge that by mobilising certain philosophical arguments, the quest for a definition of art that states individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions can be proven misguided. We do categorize things in respect to their similarity to prototypes. This is clear both from psychological theories of concepts and Berkeley’s subjective idealist analysis of general names. Therefore, if we are to determine whether film is or can be an art form, art should be defined in relation to prototypes, rather than by assembling conditions.

How general names come to be

criesBerkeley objected to Locke’s suggestion that we take like qualities from our perceptions (the redness of the carpet, of the curtains, of blood, sky) and by this ‘compound abstraction’ emerge with the idea of, for example, red. He contended that those qualities cannot exist so separated: one cannot conceive of the redness of the carpet without the carpet. Nevertheless we do have an idea representing all examples of red, extant or otherwise. Instead, Berkeley proposed that a particular idea can represent all things of that kind: a red colour patch in one’s mind can represent all redness. This is achieved through ‘selective attention’: in picturing the red carpet I focus only on one aspect of the experience, colour, leaving other aspects blurred but not excluded (Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning The Principles of Human Understanding). However, Berkeley believed that there is no such thing as one precise and definite signification annexed to a general name. Thus, the particular idea, the red colour patch, represents all things red only in the context of creating the general name, not in the context of that word’s use. The idea of red may initially call to mind a red colour patch with all other aspects blurred, but eventually the resultant thought of this consideration will come to be associated with redness. In this manner, we skip the act of picturing, and develop the idea until the term red brings up the set of particular memories of appropriate situations. Thus, words do not refer to a distinct particular idea, but rather they excite a glut of imagery and emotion whose meaning is dependent upon and emerges from context.

Why ‘art’ is personal

Art is a general name, and the qualities of certain artworks represent what art means to us in the context of that name’s creation. If the concept of art is so structured, it cannot be defined in terms of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. And if the concept of art cannot exist separately from its manifestations, other than as an idea pointing to particular memories of appropriate situations, it is certainly not an extra-psychological phenomenon. In fact, to what the concept of art points is based upon personal criteria.

To what ought we look, then, when establishing what constitutes an art form? Wittgenstein suggests we look to a whole series of similarities and relationships, things held in common (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 66). This thought has given birth to a school skeptical of definitions, but whose attempts at a non-definitional account of art are highly problematic. Rather than follow that road, we might return to the definition of art in relation to prototypes.

Much as a red colour patch can represent all redness, certain aspects of the experience of an artwork can be selectively attended to and come to represent all art. Once this concept of art is created, the resultant thought of its consideration will come to be associated with artistic status. Something is an artwork if it resembles, in the right way, certain paradigm artworks. However, if the variety of resemblance is specified, then that resemblance will be either a necessary or sufficient condition for being an artwork. As we have seen, these conditions are not discoverable. How do we come to know, in the first instance, what is a work of art?

Wittgenstein considers the human constitution to be such that pointing to something in the physical world makes sense to the learner, and the context of the physical world to be what leads to understanding. Each individual is pointed to paradigm artworks, whether by a manifestation of an artworld institution, or by their own aesthetic experiences. This is partly why it proves impossible to identify universal conditions constituting the unity of a class of paradigm artworks. Principles which govern membership on such a list are subjective, and it is these principles which do the philosophical work. Moreover, according to Kristeller’s argument these principles also vary over time.


In the context of these arguments, it seems fair to state that one can only classify something as an art form for oneself. Films can be representational, expressivist, formalist; they can be intended to have the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest; they can be produced by an artist and presented to an artworld public; and all of this at once. Yet however many criteria we invoke, individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions through which to define art cannot be determined: we do not understand art on these terms. Each individual conception of art derives from the unique way we are each pointed to paradigm artworks.

bowerI, for one, am convinced by the Deleuzian view of expressivity that art first emerges when self-expression is externalised. This is not necessarily a human phenomenon – one example is a species of Bower-bird which compensates for a lack of internal expressivity (dull plumage) by choosing to express its self in an architectural structure (its bower or nest) as part of the mating ritual. The more internal expressivity is lacking, the more expressive the artwork tends to be (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). Here is a potential paradigm artwork in the architectural form – the nest manifests expressivist qualities, and its reception by its audience (a potential mate) is determined by its aesthetic quality.

Equally, I am wont to classify film as an art form, based on the traditional, aesthetic and institutional criteria by which potential art forms have been judged in the past. I consider Cries and Whispers an artwork because my particular knowledge of artistic theory and history has pointed me to its representational, expressive and formal properties, and because the aesthetic experience it arouses in me makes its artistic status intuitively obvious. But if the artistic aspect of something is not an extra-psychological phenomenon, I cannot determine with confidence whether film is an art form for anyone else.

Begun in parts I and II


Persona, Dir. & Writ. Ingmar Bergman, Star. Bibi Andersson & Liv Ullman, Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1966 // Cries and Whispers, Dir. & Writ. Ingmar Bergman, Star. Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin & Liv Ullman, Cinematograph AB, Sweden, 1973 // n.b. I now view this argument as slightly preposterous thanks to its subjective idealist basis; however I strongly believe there to be a case for this sort of analysis of how we come about concepts from mere aspects of phenomena (with regard to film aesthetics and generally).


Written by James P. Campbell

09/08/2009 at 18:01

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: