Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014
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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.

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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.

5341_lascaux_animals_cave_painting

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

Thinking Nature, a Speculative Realist Journal, Volume 1 Released

Thomas Cole's "A Tornado in the Wilderness" (1835)

Volume 1 of the Speculative Realist journal Thinking Nature is finally out.  Though I do not consider myself part of the Speculative Realist movement and have on several occasions been extremely critical of it, the content of my article was deemed relevant enough that it warranted inclusion in the journal.  My essay, “Man and Nature,” posted on this blog already, is written from a thoroughly Marxist perspective.  In any case, the other accepted submissions are listed below:

Volume 1

Essays

/1/ – What did the Early Heidegger Think about Nature? – Paul Ennis

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/2/ – Being and Counting: Speculative Materialism and the Threshold of the Given – David Lindsay

PDF version

/3/ – Unthinking Nature: Transcendental Realism, Neo-Vitalism and the Metaphysical Unconscious in Outline – Michael Austin

PDF version

/4/ – Philosophies of Nature in the Differentials of Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier – Himanshu Damle

PDF version

/5/ – Ecological Necessity – Tom Sparrow

PDF version

/6/ – Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity – Ted Toadvine

PDF version

/7/ – Some Notes Towards a Philosophy of Non-Life – Timothy Morton

PDF version

/8/ – Towards a Philosophy of (Dejected) Nature – Ben Woodard

PDF version

/9/ – Man and Nature – Ross Wolfe

PDF version

Man and Nature, Parts I-IV (Complete)

For those who would like to read my series of articles on Man and Nature, here they are, presented as a continuous text.  Also, for a detailed response to the fourth installment of my series on Man and Nature, please visit the Oroborous Self-Sufficient Community.  Its founder, the scientist Allister Cucksey, is a Robert Owens of sorts, and his counter-critique is welcome.

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Man and Nature, Part I: The Shifting Historical Conceptions of Nature in Society

Caspar David Friedrich, "Sunset" (1835)

History proves again and again

How Nature points out the folly of man…

— Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla”

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature.  The proper exposition of the problem would require a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into three separate blog entries, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.  After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations.

So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified.  The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format.  It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical, as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history.  For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it.

And so, to begin at the beginning:

At some points, nature was viewed as an adversary to be feared, bringing plague, catastrophe, and famine to ravage mankind.  Often these elemental forces were either animistically, naturalistically, or totemistically embodied as divine powers in themselves,[1] or anthropomorphized as gods who commanded these forces as they saw fit.  When cataclysms occurred, it was because the gods or spirits had somehow been enraged by the misdeeds of men, and thus they unleashed their fury upon the mass of fear-stricken mortals.  In Christian times, this same logic persisted,[2] with periods of plenty seen as signs of God’s providence and grace, while periods of blight were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness and iniquity of men.

Later, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, nature was reenvisioned as dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical but unknown laws, which could be discovered and mastered through careful study and observation under controlled conditions.  As the Baconian dictum went, contra Aristotle: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves better through harassments applied by the arts [torture] than when they go on in their own way.”[3] Thus began the “conquest” of nature, the quest to harness its forces so that they may serve the ends of mankind.  Robbed of their mysterious properties, natural objects therefore became “disenchanted,” in the Weberian sense.[4] With the arrival of the Enlightenment, as Hegel recognized, “the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”[5]

Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss, and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature.  The Romantics exalted the primitive, celebrating the charming naïveté of the ancient Greeks or their modern-day counterparts, who appeared in the form of “noble savages.”  The playwright Friedrich Schiller even dedicated an essay to the distinction between the “naïve”[6] and “sentimental” in poetry.  For modern man, he asserted, “nature has disappeared from our humanity, and we can reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world.  Not our greater naturalness [Naturmäßigkeit], but the very opposite, the unnaturalness [Naturwidrigkeit] of our relationships, conditions, and mores forces us to fashion a satisfaction in the physical world that is not to be hoped for in the moral world.”[7] The Romantics thus preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city.  Vitalistic explanations of nature, like Goethe’s and Schelling’s, were offered as alternatives to the Democritean-Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter and obeying a changeless set of mechanical laws.

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Competing Determinisms: Boethius, Kant, and Schelling on the Relation between Fate and Providence

Reading through Kant’s excellent 1795 political essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” last night, I happened across and interesting passage regarding the relation between Fate and Providence. Since this is a topic I became interested in through Schelling’s discussion of it in his 1802 Philosophy of Art, it captured my attention with exceptional force. It runs as follows:

The mechanical process of nature visibly exhibits the purposive plan of producing concord among men, even against their will and indeed by means of their very discord. This design, if we regard it as a compelling cause whose laws of operation are unknown to us, is called fate. But if we consider its purposive function within the world’s development, whereby it appears as the underlying wisdom of a higher cause, showing the way towards the objective goal of the human race and predetermining the world’s evolution, we call it providence.[1]

The italicized words are his own, so let it not be thought that I am reading any undue emphasis into his meaning. And, while its mention must be regarded as transitional, a remark made in passim, so to speak, it nonetheless reveals an interesting philosophical tradition underlying the distinction between the two forms of determinism. According to this tradition, Fate operates efficiently/ætiologically (as a causa efficiens), while Providence functions purposively/teleologically (as a causa finalis). This difference was first introduced to discursive prominence by the sixth-century philosopher Boethius, who in his masterpiece The Consolation of Philosophy writes that

[t]he generation of all things, and the whole course of mutable natures and of whatever is in any way subject to change, take their causes, order, and forms from the unchanging mind of God. This divine mind established the manifold rules by which all things are governed while it remained in the secure castle of its own simplicity. When this government is regarded as belonging to the purity of the divine mind, it is called Providence; but when it is considered with reference to the things which it moves and governs, it has from very early times been called Fate.[2]

In other words, viewing the determination of objects and persons, from the standpoint of Fate, their sequence seems wholly natural, impersonal. Conversely, its interpretation as an effect of Providence would have the succession proceed in a spiritual, personal manner.

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FWJ Schelling, color photograph

Man as an irony within nature

Schelling and the
presence of evil

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IMAGE: Color photograph of FWJ Schelling
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Western philosophy after Augustine traditionally accorded to evil a merely negative ontological status. That is to say, evil was considered to be the result of a privatio boni, or privation of goodness. Evil’s essential feature thus appeared in this model as absence. One might well have asked: “What specifically is absent from evil?” — to which it would be answered that evil indicates a lack of the universal goodness contained in God’s original creation. Evil was thought to stem from the imperfections inherent in created substance and the negativity this entailed (“the so-called malum metaphysicum,” as Schelling chided),[1] a postlapsarian fragmentation resulting from the first act of moral evil, or sin.

This explanation was meant as a monistic solution to the theodical problem of the origin of evil. It aimed to preserve God’s predicate omnibenevolence without resorting to a Manichaean dualism.[2] This conception of evil further allowed for the development of modern theodicy, a genre perhaps best represented by Leibniz’s eighteenth century masterpiece.[3] For now the appearance of evil could be seen as only setting the stage, so to speak, for the realization/revelation of the greater glory of God. The drama of this struggle with evil was severely curtailed, however, for the divine victory (the apocatastasis) was already guaranteed from the beginning — or from eternity, rather. The faithful could rest at ease, assured that Providence would prevail. Continue reading

The Tragically Sublime: Schelling’s Metaphysics of Fate and Freedom in his Philosophy of Art

The discovery that man’s actions fail to produce their intended results, that the world does not bend itself to his will — this is the first instance of his spiritual alienation.[1] For herein lies the recognition that the world is not of man’s making, the understanding that nature obeys laws utterly removed from his desires. Such laws, insofar as they are intelligible, do not yet threaten mankind’s claim to freedom as such. Their necessity is only empirical. That is to say, the limitations they impose are of a merely physical character. In this respect, these laws do not jeopardize man’s moral autonomy. Rather, they are seen to possess a sort of brute factuality, an objective regularity. So long as man exempts himself from their mechanism, his freedom is preserved. His actions would thus simply be subject to material constraint.[2]

Another necessity presents itself to experience, however, of a far more sinister aspect. This necessity, by contrast, appears irreconcilable with man’s sense of free will. Its source is likewise external (heteronymous), but its precise origin remains shrouded in obscurity. As such, its machinery is wholly incomprehensible.[3] Where the one necessity persists in universality, the other exhibits itself as entirely particular.[4] In other words, the determinations of the first sort are understood to follow a consistent, uniform pattern; conversely, those which issue from the second variety seem hopelessly arbitrary, catastrophic. The apparent indeterminacy of the latter’s foundation does not alter its necessity, however. Its dictates must not, for this reason, be thought any less binding. On the contrary, the decrees of this invisible necessity govern the outcome of men’s actions with irresistible effect, deciding their fortunes without their consent.

This latter necessity is commonly referred to as fate. Qua absolute necessity, it is the essential annihilation of human freedom. Our activities are thus revealed in their impotence: we are not the masters of our destiny. It is on this account that the intuition of fate is always accompanied by a distinct feeling of horror. The moral freedom we so fervently assert as essential to our subjectivity is contradicted outright by the objective necessity of fate. Each side (subjective and objective alike) claims total sovereignty, and can scarcely tolerate its opposite. Yet both seem to contain an equal degree of reality. How can this be? To admit the one would surely be to negate the other. Are these two sides not incommensurable?

For the idealist F.W.J. Schelling, this paradox was definitive of the human condition. Indeed, it was viewed as the central problematic at work in transcendental philosophy, since the very possibility of this philosophy rests on the presumption that free will exists. In his 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling explains the connection between freedom and fatal necessity as “a relationship whereby men through their own free action, and yet against their will, must become cause of something which they never wanted, or by which, conversely, something must go astray or come to naught which they have sought for freely and with the exertion of all their powers.”[5] Schelling here confirms much of what has been hitherto described: namely, that one’s free actions engender unimaginable consequences, regardless of intention; moreover, that the real results of his endeavors appear totally divorced from their ideal basis.

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