One of the least expected outcomes of the French Revolution was the birth of the public museum of fine art. Following frenzied iconoclastic attacks on the symbols of the hated ancien régime, the new National Assembly confiscated the royal art collection alongside other paintings and precious artifacts from churches and aristocratic estates, and put them on display as the public property and national heritage of the people in the former royal palace now turned public museum, the Louvre. Stripped from their resented religious and political meaning by the neutralizing space of the museum, the works could now be looked at and admired purely for their artistic qualities and craftsmanship.
More generally, though, the eighteenth-century rise of separate institutions for viewing art or listening to music contributed to the idea that fine art comes into its own when it is attended to aesthetically for its own sake. This idea comes under sustained attack in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s stimulating and absorbing book Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art. For him, this idea of art only as an object of aesthetic contemplation is a philosophical misinterpretation of the story of the social changes that affected art in the eighteenth century—the shift from patronage to markets, the rise of a middle class with increased leisure time, the importance of the education of taste, the prestige of connoisseurship, and so on. This pervasive misinterpretation—or “grand narrative” as Wolterstorff will call it—has led to a widespread neglect of art outside the modern “institution of art,” that is, the world of artists, art critics, curators, audiences, educators, and so on.
In Art Rethought Wolterstorff draws attention to the fact that there are many different ways of engaging with the arts that do not imply absorbed aesthetic attention. In order to analyze these different engagements, we have to shift our attention from the work-as-such to the social practices it is part of. The term “social practice” is borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre and used in the sense of an enduring tradition of know-how with its own world of shared skills, actions, and institutions. On this model the practice of making, presenting, and engaging with art as an object for absorbed aesthetic attention is just one social practice alongside others. Art can also be made, presented, and engaged with for the sake of commemorating, venerating, and so on. Wolterstorff therefore looks in close detail at five examples of art that functions in another social practice: memorial art, art for veneration, social protest art, art that enhances, and “art-reflexive” art.
When discussing these examples, Wolterstorff shifts his attention from the work-as-such to the structure of the traditioned social practice that embeds it. When one makes, presents, performs, dedicates, or attends to a work of art in any particular social practice, those actions do not merely cause the action of the social practice, they count as this social practice.
Memorial art is analyzed in terms of the practice of honouring. Whether one creates, curates, or weeps in front of it, all those actions count as one’s memorial honouring.
This shift of attention from work to practice enables Wolterstorff to recast the iconoclastic debates regarding the controversial status of images in Christian worship. Art for veneration is a way of commemorating and honouring someone. Hence, in the case of icons, “one’s act of kissing some icon counts as one’s performance . . . of paying honor to the person represented.”
Drawing on his book Journey Toward Justice(2013), Wolterstorff identifies five phases in a social justice movement: awakening, emotional engagement, analysis and critique, activation by means of imagining another future, and finally, keeping up the pressure on the perpetrators. A social protest novel such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin enables readers not only to “become emotionally engaged with the characters, feeling empathy with those who are wronged,” but also to transfer such emotions to people and situations in the real world.
In discussing art that enhances, Wolterstorff discloses that it was through listening to a radio program on work songs that he first started thinking about the difference between art as an object of aesthetic attention requiring leisure time and as embedded in a social practice. Work songs enhance manual labour.
In his last case study, Wolterstorff discusses what he calls art-reflexive art—this is art that presents itself as a counterexample to the dominant ideology of art at a particular time. In addition to well-known examples such as Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, he provides an insightful discussion of Sherrie Levine’s photographic work that challenges prevailing views of authenticity, originality, and ownership.
I can offer no more than a glimpse of the wealth of intriguing material covered in these chapters. Nor is it possible to do justice to the philosophical sophistication and analytical subtleties of Wolterstorff’s detailed arguments. So let me just offer a few general observations and pose some questions.
First, Wolterstorff’s philosophical attention to art outside the world of “high art” is important because, over the last three decades, contemporary art itself has outgrown the art institution and has become increasingly socially engaged, participatory, and interventionist. Last year’s Turner Prize, for example, the most prestigious contemporary art prize in the United Kingdom, was awarded to a collective of artists and architects called Assemble for their project of regenerating a derelict Liverpool street in close co-operation with the residents themselves. The project was as much about process and imaginative participation as it was about product and design.
Second, I agree with Wolterstorff that there has been a lack of philosophical attention to art as embedded in established social practices. However, this applies primarily to mainstream analytic aesthetics but less so to traditions such as pragmatism, critical theory, and phenomenology. Indeed, one could argue that it is analytic philosophy’s own ahistorical and acontextual character that has made it more prone to embracing the grand narrative of art, as canonized by Monroe Beardsley, with its exclusive focus on an object’s aesthetic features in the history of style. One problem with this view is that it characterizes aesthetic attention primarily in terms of what is in effect an attitude of connoisseurs and art historians rather than that of ordinary viewers and the general public. This kind of limitation has made analytic aesthetics particularly ill-quipped to theorize art in life.
There have, admittedly, been exceptions. Wolterstorff himself acknowledges the contributions of analytic philosophers such as Richard Shusterman, Arnold Berleant, Arthur Danto, and Noël Carroll, who reject both the hegemony of fine art and that of aesthetic contemplation. Danto, for instance, talks about art as “embodied meaning,” and Carroll emphasizes the moral and cultural significance of art. But even they, Wolterstorff claims, still cling to “the more fundamental hegemony of absorbed attention,” that is, “attention for the sake of the act itself.”
This way of putting it, however, suggests that attending to art with absorbed attention precludes engaging with it as a social practice. This does not need to be so. Practices such as commemorating and venerating also require absorbed attention as well as leisure time in the sense of time off from the necessity of productive labour. This challenges Wolterstorff’s sharp delineation between art for absorbed aesthetic attention requiring leisure time on the one hand and art as embedded in life on the other.
In his books Artistic Truth (2004) and Art in Public (2011), Lambert Zuidervaart captures the different social practices of making, presenting, and interpreting art under the organizing principle of “imaginative disclosure.” If we adopt this (grammatically active) term as the leading conception of art-as-such in place of the (grammatically passive) “serving as an object of absorbed aesthetic attention,” the gap between attending to a work as art and attending to it as, for instance, commemorative considerably narrows. Indeed, the social practice of imaginative disclosure and that of commemorative honouring could be said to combine quite well into a new social practice, or “double-duty art,” as Calvin Seerveld once dubbed it. This might also provide an answer to the question that seems unanswered in the book: What distinguishes a social practice done with art from one done without it? Put differently: How, if at all, is the social practice of honouring the dead through Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial different from honouring them through, say, lighting a candle or saluting a flag? Or how is the social protest practice of reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin different from, say, reading an abolitionist tract?
In order to get at this “how,” one cannot avoid the enduring question of the typical character or contribution of art, whether we understand that as “imaginative disclosure,” “embodied meaning,” “articulation of affective lived experience,” or any other similarly promising candidate. This question also nudges us to make space for an alternative reading to that of the “grand narrative” of the social changes of the eighteenth century. On such a reading, the emergence of art institutions and the concept of art-as-such does not need to be interpreted as a culminating elevation of art as an object of aesthetic attention detached from and transcending the mundane realities of ordinary life. Nor does it need to be read as a necessary neutralization of the controversial religious and political power art once held when embedded. Instead, whether intended so or not, the social changes that affected art in the eighteenth century can be read as a welcome recognition of the distinctive character and value of art-as-such and its contribution to human flourishing, whether on its own or as embedded.
Something like that seems inadvertently implied by Wolterstorff’s own example of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What is important to remember in this example is the fact that the novel itself, as a literary genre, is a paradigm case of art “coming into its own” in the eighteenth century. And it is precisely by means of showing “what it’s like to be a human being of a certain sort in circumstances of a certain sort” that it is able to evoke the indignation that is a necessary condition for protest action.
I conclude with another example of a “fusion” between embedded art and art-as-such.
In his chapter on commemorative art, Wolterstorff dedicates one section to the polemical, sectarian murals in Belfast. In his analysis he relies heavily on the work of sociologist Bill Rolston and his book series Drawing Support. Over many years Rolston has taken photographs of murals and documented them along the binary identity politics of Northern Ireland: orange for murals painted by (mainly Protestant) Unionists and Loyalists; green for (mainly Catholic) Nationalist and Republican murals. In his green section Rolston has also included some murals by the Bogside Artists from Derry/Londonderry. The artists are very unhappy about this.
Between 1994 and 2004, the Bogside Artists painted twelve large-scale murals depicting the seminal events that affected their community. The Bogside was the epicentre of the riots that sparked the thirty-year conflict called the Troubles, including Bloody Sunday. Unlike most murals in Northern Ireland, the Bogside murals are not sectarian. They don’t display slogans, symbols, or flags; they don’t appeal to any national or mythological history; they don’t issue threats or demonize the enemy. Instead, they tell the story of a suffering and resilient community as they lived through the traumatic events that unfolded on their doorsteps. It is a visual document that resonates with visitors from many other places of conflict around the world.
The artists have a long-standing disagreement with Rolston about his inclusion of their murals in the Republican section. They resent being defined in terms of the toxic sectarian politics of their country. In their defence, they appeal to the fact that their murals are art, not sectarian propaganda. They want them to be recognized as independent and autonomous expression of their community’s lived experience—that is, as a way of “showing what it’s like to be a human being of a certain sort in circumstances of a certain sort”—that does not follow any particular political agenda. Put differently, for their murals to be most effective both as commemorative and as social protest art, the artists want them to be attended to as objects of absorbed attention for their own sake, not for their formal features but for what they imaginatively disclose about the world.
It is this seeming paradox that invites us to rethink the relation between the social practice of engaging with art for absorbed attention and that of embedded art. Wolterstorff has given us much food for thought on that question. There are few books that could launch us better on this journey than Art Rethought.