Nelson Goodman


    The next readings consider the question, "What is art?"  As philosophers, the authors reflect on the way definitions are attempted.  Nelson's answer is that it is more productive to ask, "When is art?" rather than "What is art?" since something may only function as art on certain occasions.  To summarize too crudely, when something functions as art, some of its properties function as symbols—and NG has an extremely wide concept of symbol: see 240; 241.1; 245.0.


            Aiming at a definition (one interpretation of what it means to seek to grasp what Plato called a "form"), in classical terms the ideal is to state necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct application of the term.  X is a work of art if and only if X is [fill in the blank].  Note: this is not the same question as the question whether something is a good work of art.  Some philosophers try to give one or more necessary conditions.  E.g., "If it's art, it must (necessarily) be intentionally created or presented.  Some philosophers try to give one or more sufficient conditions.  E.g., "If most the art professors would classify this work as a paradigm case of a work of art, that would be sufficient to classify it to be a work of art."  You can challenge such definitions by coming up with a counterexample, something that satisfies the allegedly sufficient condition, but which is not classify as art, something that lacks the necessary condition, but which is art. 

Nelson Goodman (1906-1998), who began and ended his academic career as a philosopher at Harvard, was deeply involved in the arts as a collector, as the director of an art gallery, choreographer and concept originator for contemporary works.  His wife, Katharine Sturgis, was a skilled painter.  "In 1967, at the School of Education of Harvard, he established an interdisciplinary program for the study of education and the arts, "Project Zero," which he directed until 1971. Still at Harvard, he founded and directed the Summer Dance program. It is, then, not at all surprising that, amongst Goodman's works, we find, next to philosophical production, multimedia projects that combine . . . painting (including Sturgis's work), music, and dance . . . ." (Alessandro Giovannelli,  © 2005  November 29, 2005)

In the first selection, from Ways of World-Making, Goodman sets forth a concept of symbolic—not to rule out a different and common use, but to articulate fresh clarity.  "Works that represent anything, no matter what and no matter how prosaically" are symbolic.  "Every representational work is a symbol; and art without symbols is restricted to art without subject" (239).  "In the second place, not only representational works are symbolic.  An abstract painting that represents nothing and is not representational at all may express, and so symbolize, a feeling or other quality, or an emotion or idea" (241).  Some strings of words symbolize themselves (240).  How can we distinguish properties of works that symbolize from those that do not symbolize (since distinctions between intrinsic versus extrinsic and formal versus non-formal don't work)?  Consider the way a swatch of fabric in a textile shop symbolizes the texture and color (not the size and shape) of the fabric one may purchase—in those typical circumstances in the shop.  Thus even the purist's painting symbolizes the properties "that the picture makes manifest, selects, focuses upon, exhibits,  heightens in our consciousness—those that it shows forth—in short, those properties that it does not merely possess but exemplifies, stands as an example of" (243).  All art symbolizes, either by representation, or by expression, or by exemplification.

There are lots of answer to the question "What is art?" but none of them "carries any conviction" (244).  The wrong question is being asked.  However, the question, "When is art?"—when is something functioning as a work of art—does have an answer.  The answer, however, is not in the classical terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (see below), but in terms of five properties--symptoms--that tend to be associated with what we would call art.  

            Pay attention to Goodman's strategy in handling the problem of defining art.  As a philosopher, he rejects the Platonic idea of essences ("forms"), so it is not surprising that he presents no essence of art.  He is more interested in what art does than in what art is (245).  He approaches the question thus: "The question just what characteristics distinguish or are indicative of the symbolizing that constitutes functioning as a work of art calls for careful study in the light of a general theory of symbols" (244).  He advances five characteristics which he calls symptoms.  These symptoms are

·       not "disjunctively necessary": in other words, it may not be necessary for any of them to be present in order for something to be appropriately recognized as a work of art. 

·       Nor are the symptoms "conjunctively (as a syndrome) sufficient)"; in other words, if all the symptoms are present, you don't necessarily have a work of art.


Nevertheless, the symptoms do "tend to focus attention on the symbol rather than, or at least along with, what it refers to" (245).  The five symptoms are

(1) "syntactic density, where the finest differences [in the symbols] in certain respects constitute a difference between symbols."  The arrangement of things is meaningful in detail.  Recall the subtle (or "fine") differences in the two sides of the face in the painting of Madame Cézanne: those differences indicated her as a young person and as an older person.  [Low syntactic density is illustrated by a ballot where any dark mark in the little rectangle counts as a vote.  A child's drawing has low semantic density, since two somewhat different drawings would count as equivalent pictures of mommy and daddy.]


(2) "semantic density, where there are symbols to refer to the finest differences in the world to which the symbols refer."  [E.g., in the continuous lighting that a sunset brings into the sky, there are countless shades, and painting can represent (refer to in the mode of symbolize) that continuity by the most subtle mixing and blending of its colors.  An example of low semantic density?  A paint-by-the-numbers exercise, where the painter does not mix or colors, but simply selects from a limited number of tubes of paint which color to apply.]


(3) "relative repleteness, where comparatively many aspects of a symbol are significant—for example, a single-line drawing of a mountain by Hokusai where every feature of shade, line, thickness, etc. counts, in contrast with perhaps the same line as a chart of daily stockmarket averages, where all that counts is the height of the line above the base."


(4) "exemplification, where a symbol . . . [serves] as a sample of properties it literally or metaphorically [e.g., the music is cheerful] possesses."  Your attention is directed to certain features of the object, e.g., the shade, line, and thickness of a line.


(5)  "multiple and complex reference, where a symbol performs several integrated and interacting referential functions, some direct and some mediated through other symbols."  [Beethoven's opera, Fidelio, symbolized (1) the heroism of a loving couple facing a tyrant (who could symbolize any tyrant) and, (2) given the place and time of the performance, the tyranny of Napoleon (not explicit, for that would have been too dangerous).]


"Exemplification—the sort of reference typical, for instance, of tailors' swatches—requires possession. In addition to possession, however, which of course by itself is not a form of symbolization, exemplification requires that the exemplifying symbol refers back to the label or predicate that denotes it. Hence, exemplification is "possession plus reference" (Goodman 1976, 53). When a feature is referred to in this way, it is "exhibited, typified, shown forth" (Goodman 1976, 86). While any blue object is denoted by the label "blue," only those things—e.g., blue color swatches—that also refer to "blue" and analogous labels exemplify such color, are "samples" of it. An important characteristic of samples is that they are selective in the way they function symbolically (see also Goodman 1978h, 63-70). A tailor's swatch does not exemplify all of the features it possesses—or all the predicates that denote it—but rather only those for which it is a symbol (hence, e.g., predicates denoting color and texture, and not predicates denoting size or shape). Which of its properties does a sample exemplify depends on the system within which the sample is being used: color and texture are relevant to the systems used in tailoring, not size and shape.


            The second selection, from Languages of Art, sets forth that what's crucial in art is its cognitive function, and that focusing on this unlocks other questions in aesthetics.  Art is not about beauty (see the argument in the first paragraph of 247—and think how a reply might go).  Nor is art mainly about preparation for other activities in life, nor about the expression of a play impulse, nor about communication. 


What all three miss is that the drive is curiosity and the aim enlightenment.  Use of symbols beyond immediate need is for the sake of understanding, not practice; what compels is the urge to know, what delights is discovery, and communication is secondary to the apprehension and formulation of what is to be communicated.  The primary purpose is cognition in and for itself; the practicality, pleasure, compulsion, and communicative utility all depend upon this.  (248)


Symbolization, then, is to be judged fundamentally by how well it serves the cognitive purpose: by the delicacy of its discriminations and the aptness of its allusions; by the way it works in grasping, exploring, and informing the world; by how it analyzes, sorts, orders, and organizes; by how it participates in the making, manipulation, retention, and transformation of knowledge.  Considerations of simplicity and subtlety, power and precision, scope and selectivity, familiarity and freshness, are all relevant and often contend with one another; their weighting is relative to our interests, our information, and our inquiry. (249)


But what is distinctive about symbolization in art?


What we know through art is felt in our bones and nerves and muscles as well as grasped by our minds, . . . all in the sensitivity and responsiveness of the organism participates in the invention and interpretation of symbols. (249)


This approach helps with other questions in aesthetics.  Moreover, we can now see that the difference between science and art is not the interest in cognition, but the characteristics of the symbols.




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