THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
by Alva Noë
I don’t know whether it is true that a janitor at an art gallery was fired not so long ago for sweeping up the artwork the morning after the opening, but the story captures a certain skepticism about art: if art is whatever “we,” or the art cognoscenti, say it is, then there is no such thing as art.
The worry that art is a sham is an old idea and it is one that art itself has cherished. The confounding of folk ideas about what is art and what it is not is one of 20th-century art’s most flamboyant gestures, and familiar clichés.
But skepticism about art—as I’ll call it—takes more subtle and more interesting forms.
Psychology and neuroscience give rise to such skepticism from a different angle. From the point of view of these fields, works of art trigger experience, and experience is a neurological effect. This means that the art itself doesn’t matter, not really. Art produces aesthetic experiences the way pills affect the body’s chemistry. And anyway, most psychologists are content to identify the aesthetic experience with the fact of your liking something. Since what we like is not confined to art, the implication is clear, even if it is not usually noticed: we can’t draw a meaningful line between what is and what is not art.
Skepticism isn’t confined to outsiders either. It is there in Michael Fried’s famous 1967 rejection of Tony Smith’s “Die” and other work that Fried characterized as theatrical or literal.1 Such art, for Fried, isn’t really art at all. It is something else masquerading as art. There is no art in mere place or scale or expanse, and it is never art merely to stage an encounter with these. Real art is meaningful articulation, it is made not found, the result of human decision-making. Minimalist sculpture of the sort Fried takes Smith to exemplify, occludes genuine art-making; it gets in the way of our doing the work we need to do as viewers to understand art.
Fried’s view is not exactly skeptical. After all, he starts from the idea that artists and art culture have turned their back on art. Fried says no to Minimalism because, for him, Minimalism says no to art. But I think we can see a kind of skeptical impulse at work nonetheless, because at bottom what Fried articulates is the thought that what passes for art among us is not really art at all. One could say that Fried criticizes theatrical art because it conforms to the psychological trigger theory of the neuroscientist. For what else is a Minimalist work than an experience trigger? That’s what makes it theatrical.
This worry that there might be art imposters on the prowl is certainly a live one in today’s environment, or rather, market, where prices are high and where there are, by now, lots of examples of experts being taken in by frauds.
Reflecting on this state of affairs, the critic Blake Gopnik observes that every time a connoisseur is fooled by a fake, the forger has taught us that connoisseurship is not to be trusted.2 Gopnik is attacking the myth of the connoisseur, the idea that some people, the experts, can tell just by looking whether a work of art is an original, and so whether it is a thing of value. He also insists that, where a forgery does fool the knowledgeable eye of the expert, we have no reason whatsoever not to think of the fake as on a par with the original. If it’s the artist’s idea that matters, and not the causal involvement of his hands, then if the forgery fools us, interests us, gives us pleasure, this can only be because it makes a move, does something, in the space of the artist’s ideas. It is prejudice, really, to think that one work is better than another because of who made it. If the works are not discriminable at the level of what even the connoisseur can see, then the works are not different in value. Not really.
Like Fried, Gopnik is affirming a conception of art that resists falling in line with current dogma or practice. For Gopnik there is something misguided about the whole business of connoisseurs and attribution. As he writes, what it is to be a Rembrandt is just not the same as what it is to be by Rembrandt’s hand.3
It is noteworthy that Gopnik strikes a familiar skeptical pose—that of the man or woman on the street—when he insists that it is a myth that there are art-world insiders, connoisseurs, or critics with special powers of sensitivity. But I wonder if we cannot discern in Gopnik’s argument the influence of a deeper and not entirely acknowledged psychologism, and so skepticism, about art. This comes out in the idea that forgery is valuable because it yields pleasure; that the non-expert’s pleasure is no less authoritative than that of the critic, and that the pleasure of the fake is no less authentic than that of the original; in the suggestion that if two works, or two objects, are identical in respect of their subjective effects, if they yield the same quotient of pleasure, then they must be the same in respect of value; that differences in provenance can only be of indirect (e.g. historical) interest.
It is right to reject, as Gopnik does, the myth of the connoisseur, but Gopnik does so for the wrong reasons. The problem with the myth is not that it attributes unrealistic powers of discernment and identification to the connoisseur or critic, but rather that it mischaracterizes his or her job, and so it misunderstands what powers he or she needs to do the job well in the first place.
Gopnik describes the connoisseur as if he or she were a human measuring device, someone who has been trained up to give the right answer to questions of value and origin. This thought leads directly to skepticism. For either we suppose that the connoisseur cannot be wrong, that whatever he or she says goes, or we suppose that a mistake is possible, that a different connoisseur or critic could offer a different answer—but if a mistake is possible, then we must admit that there are no settled criteria for deciding the question of value, there is only what you or I or we “like.”
The connoisseur or critic, crucially, is not a measuring instrument, a kind of authorship- or value-detector. Rather, they are bent on seeing, and seeing is not mere detection. Unlike detecting, seeing is not instantaneous, nor is it all or nothing or once and for all. Seeing is itself thoroughly critical; it is thoughtful and it is contextual. Stanley Cavell captures this idea when he explains that what distinguishes the critic is not that he or she can discern qualities that you cannot, but rather that, in discerning them, the critic can give you the means to discern them as well. Criticism is less an art of discrimination than it is a discipline of accounting for what one sees; it is a practice of making it intelligible to oneself and another.4 Critics make sense, and they give you the tools you need to make sense too. Critics don’t just see, they teach us how to see.
It is a commonplace—stressed recently by Peter Schjeldahl,5 commenting on Gopnik—that fakes expose themselves in time. They are designed to fool their audience; new audiences that come along later aren’t likely to be taken in. Schjeldahl concludes that the pleasures—he uses Gopnik’s word—provided by the fake are false pleasures that will soon reveal themselves for what they are.
I want to agree with Gopnik that engagement with a fake can yield not only genuine pleasure but also insight into an artist’s work. But crucially not because it fools the expert, as he says. And notwithstanding the fact, if it is a fact, that as Schjeldahl asserts, eventually it will not fool the expert either. The true pleasures of art, its true values, stem not from first impressions or brute reactions, not from detections, but are rather born of active and thoughtful engagement. The skeptical anxiety that we might be wrong and not know it has no force. For nothing that we might be wrong about is relevant, in the final analysis, to what we make of what is there before us.
But this can’t be right! Surely it is possible to be wrong, flatly, objectively, factually, about whether an object is by Vermeer, or Rembrandt? Here I think Gopnik is exactly right. The point is not so much that the question of value and that of authorship come apart. The point is that the question of authorship isn’t the same as the question of whether the artist’s hands were involved in the making. Once you recognize the possibility that a painting could be a Titian even though it is primarily the work of his studio assistants, then you must allow the possibility that a painting can be a Vermeer even though it is a forgery. As Gopnik thinks of it, you can think of the forger as a studio assistant who came upon the scene after the artist was gone, making a picture that the artist himself never got around to making.6
Yes, critics can be wrong. But only by their own lights! That is, critics aren’t wrong because they have misfired, because they have said “Yay” when, by external criteria, they should have said “Nay.” Critics go wrong when they misunderstand the significance, the importance, of what they uncontroversially see.
John Dewey writes: “By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which the formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.”7
The artwork is not the object, says Dewey; the artwork is the experience the object affords. Crucially, Dewey rejects the idea that experiences are interior, private, sensation-like occurrences triggered by events out there in the external world. That is, he rejects thinking about sensory events in the way that neuroscience tends to take for granted. For Dewey, as I understand him, experiences are made; they are transactions with the world around us; they are, in fact, exercises of a kind of criticism or critical seeing, to use Meyer Schapiro’s phrase.8
If we follow Dewey in rejecting a psychologized conception of experience, this opens up the possibility of taking seriously a new, more positive, non-mythological conception of the connoisseur, or the critic. It is the work of the connoisseur/critic—whether professional or amateur—to discern what a work is doing and so what work it is. We need the connoisseur to see that a work is, in the extended sense, an artist’s work.
We are all critics, and neither the possibility of forgery, nor that of perceptual error, should lead us to be skeptics, about art, or anything else.9
1. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
2. Blake Gopnik, “In praise of art forgeries,” The New York Times, 2 November 2013.
3. Blake Gopnik, “Rembrandt’s genius lies in the brand, not the hand,” The Wasthington Post, 30 April 2006.
4. Stanley Cavell, “On aesthetic problems of modern philosophy,” in Must We Mean What We Say (Cambridge, CUP, 1969), p. 87.
5. Peter Schjeldahl, “Faker,” The New Yorker, 8 November 2013: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/11/the-knoedler-and-company-rothko-fake.html.
6. The case of Vermeer is an interesting one. Art historian Benjamin Binstock has argued that a sizable portion of the stock of extant Vermeers were painted by his unacknowledged apprentice, his daughter Maria. Binstock believes that we can only make sense of Vermeer’s achievement by recognizing that he engaged, and was engaged by, another artist, who was also his model and a member of his family. From another point of view, like Gopnik’s, one might propose that even a Maria Vermeer is, in the relevant sense, a Vermeer. See Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery and the Unknown Apprentice (London: Routledge, 2013).
7. John Dewey, Art As Experience (London, Penguin, 1934), p. 1.
8. See Schapiro, “On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content,” in Theory and philosophy of art : style, artist, and society (George Braziller, 1994). Thanks to Charles Oliver O’Donnell for bringing Schapiro’s philosophical writings, and his interesting connection to Dewey, to my attention.
9. Thanks to Blake Gopnik and Alexander Nagel for conversation on this topic.
Alva Noe is an author and philosopher based in Berkeley and New York.