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. Continue reading

On the term “identitarian”

Yesterday I posted a brief exchange between Michael Rectenwald and myself about the pernicious effects of “identity politics” on the contemporary Left. Today I’d like to spell out two different uses of the term “identitarian” as a term of critique on the Left.

“Identitarian” ideology under Fordism

The first form of thought identified as “identitarian” here comes from Adorno. In his late magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno seeks to critique ideological representations of society that minimize or suppress real antagonisms and unresolved antinomies that historically persist. Adorno approaches this problem from the highest level of abstraction in modern (Western) philosophy, the split between subject and object. He takes issue with philosophies that contend that objects can be perfectly comprehended by the concepts of an apperceptive, epistemic subject. Though this seems to place Adorno at a further remove from Hegel’s speculative idealism and closer, as some have maintained, to Kant’s transcendental epistemology — in which the thing-in-itself, the original source of all a subject’s intuitions, remains forever unknowable — the non-identity of concept and object is not a permanent natural condition, but a potentially transient social condition. For Adorno, continued division, disharmony, and disequilibrium in cognition are constitutive of a society in which capitalism has not yet been overcome. Identitarian thinking, which obscures these uneven realities, belongs to a conceit symptomatic of the tendency to deny social conflict:

Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal. The force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same. Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies — that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking. This cognition seeks to say what something is, while identitarian thinking says what something comes under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity — of the object itself to the thought of it — come to live in identity.

To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity. The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. (Negative Dialectics, pg. 149)

Put differently, “identitarian” ideology for Adorno occurs wherever apparent homogeneity masks underlying heterogeneity. This can be elucidated with reference to the historical problem he was addressing. Following the end of World War II, with the defeat of Nazism and the onset of the Cold War, a kind of consolidation was achieved between Keynesian economic policies in North America drifting leftward and social-democratic economic policies in Europe drifting rightward. With the Fordist state’s periodic intervention to “correct” the market’s inherent volatility, by manipulating interest rates, controlling currency, and the creation of large bureaucratic welfare agencies through deficit spending, it appeared that the massive class conflict of earlier periods of capitalism had finally been resolved. Labor appeared to have been largely integrated into the new postwar constellation through collective bargaining and the emergence of big unions to match big business and big government. Continue reading

Man and Nature, Part II: The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature

Still from Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979)

When Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he was likewise concerned with the problem of man’s (specifically, the worker’s) relationship to nature.  It was part of the worker’s fourfold alienation under capitalist modernity: his estrangement from nature, from the products of his labor, from other people, and from himself.  As Marx explained, with respect to nature: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.  It is the material in which his labor realizes itself…”[1] However, as the products of the worker’s labor are expropriated, nature is reduced to a mere means of subsistence.  “In a physical sense man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.…Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body.”[2] The natural world is further and further removed from the worker, and arrives then only in a relatively processed, mediated form.  The immediacy of nature has been lost, and nature confronts humanity as an alien, unknown entity.  This alienation is exacerbated by the shared estrangement from nature that the individual sees in other men: “Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature.”[3] Or, as the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer would later put it, echoing Marx, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.”[4]

Clearly, the alienation felt by the Romantics toward nature was a real one, Marx recognized, but he did not see it as the result of some sort of spiritual downfall or fall from grace.  Rather, he understood it to be symptomatic of the rise of a new social formation — namely, capitalism.  That is to say, the alienation from nature that was registered ideologically (in poetry, philosophy, and art) by the Romantics was indicative of a deeper shift in the socioeconomic substructure of their time.

Although humanity’s alienation from nature was clearly a central concern of the young Marx, most of his later work was solely devoted to the analysis of class relations under capitalism and the critique of political economy.  It was thus Engels, rather, who would eventually take up the subject of nature again in his writings.  Not only in his 1883 Dialectics of Nature, a text that remains controversial within the annals of Marxist literature, but even in other works like Anti-Duhring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels discussed the way in which humanity became further estranged from nature even as science began to discover its innermost workings.  For rather than encountering nature in an organic, holistic fashion, natural science was methodologically microscopic, isolating individual phenomena from their original context and observing their operation in abstraction from the whole.  This entailed, as Bacon had already himself admitted, a certain domination of nature.  And this, in turn, implied an equal degree of alienation from nature.  Engels explained the historical unfolding of this process as follows:

The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.[5]

Although Engels himself repudiated the French materialists and natural philosophers like Bacon and Locke for their “metaphysical” approach to nature, and considered the mechanistic view of the world to have been superseded by dialectical thought, it was the mechanistic worldview that eventually won out in the field of the natural sciences.  It remains down to the present day — for better or for worse — the predominant mode of thought amongst the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology.  This is a large reason why Engels’ later Dialectics of Nature has subsequently been so disparaged by scientists and philosophers, despite the fact that some of its content is both salvageable and valuable to Marxist literature.

Continue reading