In August our Theory of Knowledge (ToK) class had an Art Day.  The day began with three lectures weaving together music, visual art, dance, and theatre, and concluded with a visit to Osage, a contemporary art gallery.  One of our students blogged about the exhibit; here are my observations and reflections on art, specifically, visual art.

“Yes, but…”

The day reminded us of the vast variety of creations that have been referred to as “art”.  Even within visual arts, there are different techniques, media, intentions, popularity, and a myriad of factors.  A large part of the day’s discussion revolved around “what is art”.

The issue is complex.  The discussions, as with many discussions of complex issues, went nowhere.  Throughout the day I sat back, musing why it went nowhere.

I first noted the poorly articulated positions.  This is not a function of the lack of ability by the students, but intrinsically that our (default) language is incapable of expressing the nuances required.  We live in a messy world with exceptions, corner cases, and chaos that cannot be neatly enclosed, interpreted by monkeys raised in vastly different conditions.  Any statement will be true in some cases, false in others, with a “truthiness” that vary between individual monkey.

Take the assertion A, “something mass-produced by non-artists cannot be art”.  This is true-at-first-glance.  At the same time, most people would recognize Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds as art, contradicting what we just agreed as true.  We could have modified the statement to be “something mass-produced by non-artists cannot be art except […]“, but that, you’d agree, is far from the default way we think or speak.

Truth in a continuum.

The “intermediate truthiness” has an interesting and ugly consequence in discussions.  Because we do not default to speaking in exceptions and probabilities, utterances can always be shot down by counter-examples.  I describe these as “sniping at positions”, because when Peter shoots Jane down with a counter-example, he is himself invulnerable (since he never attempts to hold any position to start with).  At the end of the day, nihilism rules, and we are forced to admit we know nothing.  Socrates triumphs.

And then there is the “individual monkey” problem.  In the Osage Market Forces exhibit, a piece by Kentaro Hiroki named “My Work is Rubbish” reproduces the rubbish collected from the street.  It’s a technical marvel.  The ticket stub, in all its verisimilitude, was hand-drawn.  Is this art?  To my grandma, this is just a waste of time.

Ticket replica, in “My Work is Rubbish” by Kentaro Hiroki.

I took home a few messages and a lingering inquiry.  As a facilitator I should frame the discussion as a collective construction effort.  A first step that can be taken is encouraging note-taking, and allowing periodic breaks for consolidating what was spoken and how it all feeds into a central picture.  (As a picture-thinker, I think we should all have enough visual literacy to draw and arrange our thoughts.  I admire Betrand Russell, but I’m firmly with Wittgenstein in “what can be shown, cannot be said”.)

A second step is in pointing out sniping as it is: a purely destructive action that does not advance the collective understanding, but could have easily be constructive by articulating the underlying phenomena.  With the Ai Wei Wei example, one could have continued on to list political statement as one of the factors worth consideration, and that would have advanced our collective understanding.

Then there is the specific question of how to approach What is (Visual) Art.  My intuition is that the first step is to develop an ontology (“explicit formal specifications of the terms and relations among them”), so I sat down to

  1. list possible criteria (concepts), and
  2. their possible values (slots/properties).

Some factors that are definitely (definitely?) in play. Any more that should be added to the list?

The next steps are

  • to think through their (i) types and (ii) relationships, and slot them into something like Protege.
  • Use the ontology to generate allowedall allowed combinations, and
  • Find examples that illustrate each combination.

An individual can then clarify what their positions are by classifying these examples as art or non-art.  There could be downstream investigations of whether experts have different weighing than non-experts, or cultural / age differences.

Chalk one more “large project” on the 70+ items to-do list.