Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014

On March 18, 2014, Chris Mansour, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, interviewed Larry Shiner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts at The University of Illinois, Springfield and author of The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), in which he argues that the category of art is a modern invention. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

To be clear, I’m not in Platypus anymore. Nevertheless, this is a good interview. It covers a number of topics relevant to this blog. Also, for anyone who’s interested, the above painting is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio at Les Batignolles.

Chris Mansour:
 You first wrote The Invention of Art in 2001, nearly 15 years ago. Why did you feel the need to write a book about the historical development of the category of “art” at this time?

Larry Shiner: In the field of philosophical aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, the focus of attention in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was on the issue of how to define art. A famous essay by Morris Weitz argued that art cannot be defined, and that the most we can do to understand art is to resort to what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.” This position was challenged in another influential essay by Maurice Mandelbaum, who said that we might not be able to define art in terms of any visual or perceptual properties, but we might be able to define it in terms of its relational properties, in terms of art’s social context. This set up a new pursuit for the definition of art, and it was considered a very important question during this time.

Among these attempts to generate a definition of the essence of art, one of the most influential writers was Arthur Danto, who said that the historical development of the concept of art needs to be taken into consideration if we are to define it at all. He believed that art’s essence has been revealed progressively, culminating in the twentieth century. I was skeptical of finding the essence of (fine) art as such. From my perspective, art does not have an ahistorical essence but is a multivalent term referring to a set of ideas and practices that function differently in society throughout time. Thus, The Invention of Art was an attempt to construct a sort of genealogy of art and to flesh out what it means when we consider art as an historically developing concept.

The historical transformations during the long eighteenth century, from roughly 1680 to 1830, culminated in the emergence of the cultural complex that we now call “art” today, that is, a semi-autonomous sphere of practices within society. This was a shared but unevenly developed trajectory of several art forms. Yet, despite the differences in the pace of the transformations of the various disciplines and mediums, these transformations were part of a total social process. Philosophy students as well as art history students need to know this history of the concept of art and recognize that (fine) art, as we now understand it, is the product of modern society and is barely 200 years old. Many art history books never bother to define what they mean by art, although there is a definition implied in what they exclude and what they cover. I consider my book to be somewhat of a companion volume for students and artists, helping them to situate art historically and to understand this historical process philosophically.

CM: You say art is barely 200 years old and is specifically a modern phenomenon. The early 1800s was a rapidly maturing period for global bourgeois society and culminated in the Industrial Revolution. What makes the practice of art in bourgeois society different from prior, art-like practices? Also, why is this historical distinction so significant in understanding art qua art?

LS: There is great importance, for me, in the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in history. Confusion arises from the fact that, since the late nineteenth century, the historically specific phrase “fine art” — as distinct from art practices before this time — has dropped the “fine” out of the phrase and we now simply term it “art.” However, the meaning of the term “art” is incredibly ambiguous.

One meaning descends from what I call the “older, broader” meaning of art, from ars in Latin and techne (τέχνη) in Greek. This use suggests any human craft or performance that is done with some skill or grace; in one sense, everything humans do is an art. Here, there is a complete continuity from the caves of Lascaux to the present. It is not only the bison depicted on the cave walls that are art, but also the stone tools used to create them. Art as techne or ars lacks the precision of what we define as art today, which is roughly a semi-autonomous set of social practices, often geared toward aesthetic contemplation.


The big change in art’s definition came when all those human arts got split up into various kinds: the first split was the opposition between the liberal arts and what the ancients called the “servile arts” (which was later replaced by the “mechanical arts”). That polarity was very different from the modern one contrasting the “fine arts” to the “applied arts,” “commercial arts,” or “craft arts.” The old schema of the liberal arts included what we call sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities. Part of what distinguishes the “fine arts” as a category of classification is that things like painting, poetry, architecture, music, and theater were pulled out of the old liberal arts and made into a separate category. In fact, things like painting and sculpture, because they involved physical labor, were not even considered part of the liberal arts until Renaissance painters, sculptors, and critics argued that these disciplines should be included among them. Up until the eighteenth century, for example, the producers of paintings and sculptures and the composers of symphonies were what I call “artisan-artists,” since these two terms, “artisan” and “artist,” were used interchangeably in English and many other languages. The old notion of the artisan combined genius and rule, inspiration and skill, creation and imitation, freedom and service. What began to happen in the eighteenth century is that these two notions were pulled apart and, by the end of the century, each term was defined as the opposite of the other term. It took decades for the new ideas of “Fine Art” and for the new ideals of the “Artist,” in contrast to the mere “artisan,” to become generally accepted.

By the time they did become generally accepted, the famous seventeenth-century “rise of science” had already split apart the liberal arts. At this time, the humanities, sciences, and fine arts began to emerge as distinct fields. A key point of my book is to show how the emergence of the category of fine arts, and its accompanying ideals of the artist and the aesthetic, occurred in conjunction with a new set of practices, institutions, and behaviors.

Paul Oskar Kristeller’s essays on the development of the classification systems of art were very influential for my book; I share his vision that the category of (fine) arts fully emerged only in the eighteenth century. Kristeller ended his essays with Kant and Schiller’s writings on the nature of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that the way we use the term art in the singular, as a kind of semi-autonomous subdivision of culture in the modern world, is still deeply influenced by the Romantics and the German Idealist philosophers. When I reread the literature, it struck me that the real culmination of the long process of constructing the social system of the fine arts occurred around 1830. This is why I speak of the long eighteenth century: You can see the beginnings of the fine art category and its institutions as early as the 1680s. My long eighteenth century encompasses the epoch spanning from the 1680s to the 1830s. By the 1830s, the fine arts system as we know it today was almost fully developed.

CM: How did the broader socio-political, institutional, and practical changes that happened in bourgeois society in the eighteenth century transform the liberal arts and fine arts system? What is the specialized fine arts system’s relationship to large societal transformations, and how was this relationship expressed?

LS: In very broad strokes, the historical transformation entailed the shift from an aristocratically organized society toward a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. The development of the market economy played an important role in the emergence of the categories of fine art and the artist. On the production side, the old order was dominated by the patronage-commission system. As an artist, you were typically either employed full-time by a lord or bishop, as were many of the great figures of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, or you received commissions as an owner or member of an independent workshop with apprentices.

For the most part, artisan-artists prior to the eighteenth century did not experience the scenario where the artist walks into the studio and faces the “anxiety of the blank canvas.” Prior to the eighteenth century, the subjects of paintings were commissioned, and very often the artist had a contract. One of my favorite examples is Leonardo, whom today we think of as a great independent artist and genius. However, he had a contract for Virgin of the Rocks that not only specified the subject matter of his work, but also the color of the virgin’s robe, the date of delivery, a guarantee of repairs, and so on. This is unthinkable for an artist with an independent practice working in the twentieth or twenty-first century. Turning out pieces that are intended for a particular purpose — and very often for a particular place — does not match our notion of the freewheeling modern artist.


The emergence of the market also created the possibility for more people with disposable income to emulate their aristocratic “betters” by collecting art. Most of the wealthy bourgeoisie did not have enough money for an “in-house artist,” but they could acquire paintings through dealers. There were all kinds of smaller institutions — not just large ones like the Louvre — that were created in the eighteenth century to facilitate this kind of transaction. Additionally, there was the rise of art galleries, art dealers, and specialists, which were rare before then. Until the eighteenth century, most paintings and sculptures were handled by furniture dealers. With the flourishing market economy, there was greater specialization and artists began anticipating what buyers might want.

Initially, many artists greeted the freedom of the market with great enthusiasm. They exclaimed: “Now we will not have some lord telling us what the subject matter will be! We can create things on our own, we can do what we want!” But, of course, it very soon became apparent that if artists wanted to make a living, they could only create what they wanted within the limits of what people were willing to buy, what dealers were willing to handle, and so on. It did not take very long for many artists to become disillusioned with their apparent new freedoms.

CM: How did the rise of the market system in the fine art world allow artists freedom in their practice and forms of expression? How did those same market forces simultaneously undercut the independence many artists thought they had achieved?

LS: In my book, I cite Annie Becq’s reference to the emergence of the modern category of literature with the shift from “concrete labor” to “abstract labor.” I think those two terms are useful ways to express the shift away from the patronage system for making a particular thing for a particular purpose. The patronage system made the value of art depend on such things as the place it was intended for, the difficulty of its execution, the cost of materials, and so on. Certainly, under the old system, the prestige of the workshop, and the artist whose name was identified with it, was part of the work’s value. But in the new system, what makes the production of art “abstract labor” is the emphasis on primarily valuing the creativity of the artist. This value is expressed in the ideas and facility embodied in the work. What you are paying for, as it were, is the reputation and the value that is created by the market itself.

Obviously, there is a continuum here between these two poles of labor. The shibboleth that art and money should have nothing to do with each other, that “pure” art is not affected by the dynamics of monetary value, has become a new hurdle for artists. But the fact is that art and money cannot be fully separated except in the case of artists with an independent source of income. Julian Stallabrass intelligently discusses a lot of these issues, especially how the high-end international art market operates, a market where all the players have to be very wealthy. It is an enclave, a world of its own, in which the auction houses, galleries, dealers, curators, and critics each have their role in establishing reputations and value.

CM: Artists need to be able to sell their work like any other commodity in the market, so one often finds that they conform their work to the predominant taste or demands of their time. They end up following a formula or make predigested marketable products. In this scenario, art is hollowed out to become a means for entertainment, status symbols, or fashion, and is not an autonomous practice that pushes the limits of human expression and creativity, which seemed to be the promise and potential of art in emerging bourgeois society. There are a host of other unfreedoms related to this, but the external demand of the market is the most general problem that has affected all of the arts, and that has undermined the freedom that the market offered the artist in the first place.

One thing I find very interesting about the rise of art as a distinct category, and embodying what you call “abstract labor,” is how it is coterminous with the rise and generalization of the commodity form of labor in society. Concrete labor is no longer measured in the same way it was in the pre-modern world. Abstract labor, under the capitalist mode of production, entails the valorization of the commodity form through the total sum of socially necessary labor time. Commodities thus become equivalent exchanges in the market measured by the time and labor-power it takes to produce them. But what seems peculiar about art is that it is not the same kind of commodity as labor or other objects in the market because it gains its value through idiosyncratic, particular, and concrete properties. Why do you think art gains a certain kind of value for being a concrete object when its production can be considered as a process of “abstract labor,” similar to other commodities produced in capitalist society?

LS: This relates to another theme in the book, which has to do with the spiritual function of fine arts. By the early nineteenth century, with the development of Romanticism and Idealism, the phrase “fine art” was often replaced simply by “art” in the singular (e.g., in the work of Schiller, Hegel, Schelling, etc.), an elevated notion in which art became reified. It seems to me we are still stuck with the fallout from the Romantic elevation of the artist to a kind of deity, or, at least, a priest with a sacred calling or vocation.

23962-view-of-the-grand-salon-carr-in-the-louvre-castiglione-giuseppe louvre4

Obviously, all kinds of twentieth-century artworks are stuck in this logic. Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons can make fun of it, and yet, in a way, they live by it. But the spiritualization of art, regarding it as a sacred calling and as an embodiment of human experience, is also a way to keep prices up. It is part of what drives the market. This relates to Benjamin’s observations regarding the work of art in the age of technical reproducibility: Art’s “exhibition” value, even though it is historically distinct from its prior “cultish” value, still maintains a fetish character, albeit under social conditions very different from the pre-capitalist past. Art’s aura, it seems to me, has hung on despite the Dadaist and Duchampian attempts to undermine it. These attempts persist, most famously perhaps with Warhol calling his studio a “factory.” These artists make fun of the aura, but they are nonetheless parasitic upon it. In this sense, art’s spiritual aura is needed to keep the market going. This is not to deny that there is a spiritual dimension to all art, design, and craft-making in the sense that such works can embody human meanings of many kinds — high, low, everyday, ordinary and occasionally extraordinary — but the notion that only the most celebrated artists selected by the high art curators, critics, and gallerists embody such spirituality is a market fiction.

CM: It may be the case that this spiritual element of art is what paves the way for the next new thing in art as a marketable trend. New forms of experience and expressions are created, and the market is able to use this creativity to reconstitute itself on a different basis while still operating under the same laws of motion. However, do you think there is the potential for something transcendental in art insofar as it embodies the experience of the new? Could the new in artworks be an expression of a form of consciousness that is not reducible to the logic of capital? The historic avant-garde, for example, used this understanding of art to justify their practices.

LS: I am very interested in contemporary artists like Thomas Hirschhorn and Tania Bruguera, both of whom are dedicated to political activism in their artworks. They can be considered part of what we have for an avant-garde today. I am sympathetic to their aims, but one of the problems — and I think this is the intrinsic problem of the modern autonomous social system of art — is that, as artists, they jump into the arena and make political interventions, but then they just as easily jump out. For example, Bruguera is celebrated by critics of the October type for creating a cultural center for immigrants in New York and for letting immigrants live in her apartment. She is seen as an artist who is grappling with capitalist life, with its reality. But once she is finished with that, she will move on to another project. Meanwhile, the ordinary social worker or community organizer does not receive the scantest attention. In fact, many people have contempt for social workers and often look down on them as petty bureaucrats. But social workers go back year after year and work in those situations. Thus, I am ambivalent about this kind of art. I admire it, but we also have to recognize that it is not superior to what the ordinary foot soldier is doing. It does not take place on a higher spiritual plane as is implied by continuing notions of Art with a capital “A.”

CM: Is it plausible to say that such politically-engaged artists who seek to integrate their practice more into the “real world” end up unconsciously rehearsing the older system of art before it became a specialized practice focused on formal and material concerns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

LS: There may be an aspect of that, but I think that we cannot go back in time. We can learn from the past and something about our situation through investigating history, but my ambivalence about Bruguera and Hirschhorn does not prevent me from spending time thinking about their work, which is more fruitful than thinking about the work of Jeff Koons. However, I also recognize that, since society has turned art into a specialized culture and has created the concept of an artist as one who can dip into gritty reality but with the protection of being residents of a spiritualized sphere, these practices are not the same as they were in the past. One possible exception to my concern about artists being trapped by their membership in the protected enclave of art is the practice of Theaster Gates in Chicago. Thanks to many invitations, he too is a world traveler, like Hirschhorn and Bruguera, but so far he has used his income and celebrity to continually develop his cultural interventions in his own Chicago African-American neighborhood.

CM: Then might it be the case that artists like Bruguera and Hirschhorn are expressions of a crisis in our current configuration of art as an autonomous sphere of production?

LS: I think the problem with the idea of crisis is that it suggests a turning point, or a moment of decision, whereas, what I describe in my book attempts to capture a much longer historical process. The eighteenth-century turn where all of these developments converged — that is, the market economy, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the emergence of new, separate art institutions, and so on — set the stage for a continuing crisis of art. Art is always in crisis in that its aspirations far exceed its reach.

The “crisis” notion relates to another movement that I trace in the book: what I call “the dialectic of assimilation and resistance.” “Resistance” refers to such things as the effort within the context of the French Revolution to hang onto or revive certain disappearing, older ways of doing things, for example, the “National Music.” This was also seen in the work of figures such as Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, and Hogarth. On the one hand, revolutionaries were happy to eliminate the power of the aristocracy, which one can see as part of the rise of the bourgeoisie. But on the other hand, the revolutionaries embraced such ideas as Rousseau’s notion of the festival and the program for a “national music,” with which they tried to make the arts directly serve the revolution. You can say that was a moment of crisis: the failure of the French Revolution on so many fronts, including the failure to maintain or restore the integration of arts and politics in daily life.

CM: Your reference to the French Revolution makes me think of the failed revolutions in 1848. For Marx, this was a world-historical moment because the bourgeoisie shifted to the side of political reaction. Marx argued that, from then on, the proletariat needed to organize itself autonomously and to maintain its independence from the politics of the bourgeoisie.

This moment is also significant for art. The transformation in politics for the working-class was simultaneous with a transformation in the production of art with the rise of movements such as Realism, etc., which ultimately led to the origins of modernism. In my view — and I am wary to stamp my own narrative onto yours — this crisis, of the failure of art to fully integrate into social life, deepened around 1848. The origins of modernism brought the crisis to consciousness, where it became an overt problem for the artist to work through. This crisis in some sense made art a practice of negation, where artists sought to fully realize the limits of art through abolishing its own history, as in Dada.

This kind of crisis that you speak of in 1789 might not have come to full fruition until 1848 with the crisis of the proletarianization of society. Do you see the perpetual crisis you speak of stemming from the fact that the universal freedom and egalitarianism promised by the French Revolution were never realized?

LS: Another crisis point we can add to this narrative is the Russian Revolution and the moment when the Constructivists, and the whole panoply of the different positions of artists at this time, had to grapple with the same kind of problems faced in the French Revolution: What is the social role of art and artists? It seems to me that these artists, many of whom proclaimed an anti-art position, were anti-art in a way very different from Duchamp and the Dadaists, who were their contemporaries. The Russian Constructivists thought that, in order to overcome the segregation of art in its own spiritual realm, they had to go into the factories and make objects for everyday use. Making art, to them, was being involved in the revolution in a very direct and productive way. It seems to me those were very fresh debates.


Unfortunately, they got cut off by Lenin and eventually by Stalin, so there really was only one answer permitted, namely traditional art forms with a Socialist Realist content. But I think the struggles of the artists involved in the Russian Revolution were efforts to bring art back into everyday life, something the Dadaists and Surrealists also wanted, but in a different and less serious way. The efforts of the Dadaists and Surrealists were swamped by the wider capitalist society and its democratic transformations. The Russian Constructivists, like the French Revolutionary artists and musicians before them, were caught up in a transformational vortex and, though they were crushed by the totalitarian turn of Stalin in a manner similar to the discrediting of the experiments of the French Revolution during the Napoleonic Empire and the Bourbon Restoration, their efforts remain thought-provoking for us.

CM: Are you saying that artists during the Russian Revolution were echoing a lot of the problems experienced in the French Revolution?

LS: Yes. These problems assumed a new significance and took place in a new context. But, to me, this continuity points to the underlying issue of art as an autonomous realm and the obstacle it runs up against in determining the role it should play within society during periods when people want to transform social, economic, and political institutions.

CM: Do you think that the overcoming of these social and cultural problems can be accomplished in the sphere of art itself? Or do you think it will take a socio-political revolution in order for art to work through its crisis?

LS: It will take a socio-political revolution because the problem with artistic revolutions is that most of them have been very quickly re-absorbed into the existing autonomous structures of the art world. If you take almost anyone who said that what they were going to make was anti-art, it is displayed and accepted in the museum the following week. In such a situation, where anything can be art for any reason offered by anybody, it is very difficult for art to be transformative. Yet, I am not completely pessimistic. I mentioned Theaster Gates’s determination not to get sucked into the enclave of the art world; some Chinese artists today, even one as celebrated as Ai Weiwei, have shown a way to make art that maintains a cutting edge. These are artists who not only make us think but also attempt to operate in a way that escapes the suffocating embrace of the high art world.

One thought on “Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

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