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Joseph Margolis, What, After All, Is a Work of Art?

Joseph Margolis, What, After All, Is a Work of Art? University Park: Penn State Press, 1999, pp.143.

The work collects different lectures Margolis, delivered at different universities of Japan in the spring of 1997. The prologue to the book was delivered at the Thirteenth International Congress of Aesthetics in Lahti (Finland), in the summer of 1995. The author writes in the preface, "But the lectures do now confirm the organizing question of the entire set--namely, the sense in which artworks and human selves mutually inform the work of interpreting and understanding one another... for artworks and selves are both mutually fashioned artifacts--of however profoundly different sets."

Here is the content page: Preface

Prologue: Beneath and Beyond the Modernism/Post-modernism Debate

1. The History of Art after the end of the History of Art

2. Relativism and Cultural Relativity

3. What, After All, Is a Work of Art?

4. Mechanical Reproduction and Cinematic Humanism Epilogue: Interpreting Art and Life

The Epilogue unifies the arguments of all the separate pieces where Margolis puts up a common interpretive way for artworks and human life. Human beings change over time as they grow from childhood to maturity whereas artworks do not. Yet artworks are "like" persons: "What is common to selves and artworks is not biology but Intentionality: selves and, artworks are, materially embodied in different ways, but what is embodied are Intentional structures, and it is those structures that are affected in similar ways under interpretation. So there is nothing strange in saying that artworks are Mike' persons--without their being persons themselves... "What persons, and artworks share, in virtue of which the interpretations of them behave in similar ways, is their possessing or being histories rather than possessing natural kind natures or being natural-kind entities."

In the title essay Margolis observes that in spite of several theories (as also analyses) of artworks what remains constant is that artworks are not natural-kind entities--they are very strange "entities"--"artworks are physically embodied and culturally emergent entities"--a view that Margolis held long ago in his 1980 book Art and Philosophy. Restoring the same view of artworks in spite of controversies raised in the past (for example, Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art, 1991) Margolis states that "cultural entity" needs some more explanations. One way of explaining this cultural entity is to view phenomenologically that considers artwork as an intentional object--not the physical object in itself, but this object as it is experienced by the audience--an idea that" this reviewer has sufficiently elaborated up on in his recent discussion on Abhinavagupta's definition of art (See Stephen Davies and Ananta Sukla, Art and Essence, Connectient: Praeger Publishers, 2003). The Western critics who familiarized this view of artworks are Hasserlians like Roman Ingarden and Wolfgang Iser. A reader being a historically based cultural entity, and the properties of artworks being cultural such as linguistic, semiotic, gestural, political, religious and environmental, both the nature of artworks and their appreciation and interpretation will be inevitably determined by the cultural contexts concerned. Margolis elaborates upon these points in this title essay (pp. 87 ff.)

In the prologue essay "The Modernism/Postmodernism Debate," Margolis perceptively remarks that one cannot really discern what is uniformly "postmodernist" in the diverse art forms such as architecture, film and literature, nor are there particular critics who can be relied upon for uniformity. He then observes that "Modernism is the old option championed now against the challenge pressed in terms of (l)-(3). Postmodernism is the abandonment of modernism in the face of (l)-(3) or (l)-(4), and, as a consequence, the abandonment of any and every effort to legitimate our truth-claims, our claims to knowledge, "Western philosophy has, since French Revolution, divided its allegiance between items (1)(2) and (3)-(4)." "The dispute confronts us with a bogus choice: fall back to invariance and neutrality ... or give up the very idea of objective knowledge anywhere (which, we are told, cannot be rescued, if not by the failed first narrative). The business of the modernist postmodernist dispute blinds us to the fact that objectivity is constructed and endlessly reconstructed in the flux of history..."

In the essay "The History of Art after the End of the History of Art" Margolis perceptively disputes Danto in claiming that "we have now eclipsed the periodization of history itself as an expression of an essentialized history." End of the history of art means "end of the canonical history of art." Danto's notions of the end of art and history of art follows Hegel's philosophy of art and history of art. Coming to the questions of relativism and cultural relativity, Margolis exhibits his erudition and analysis in a masterly way that is rare in contemporary scholarship. "In the West" he says "the subject of relativism is relevant in the postmodern era that rejects any essence or unchangeable structure that defines truth and reality which are no more metaphysical, but political or cultural, and this cultural relativity is due to the differences in cultural phenomena such as language, history, art, religion, social customs and the political norms that determine its ways of living for the debate. For example, while thinking of modern painting one must take notice of Clement Grenberg and Rosalind Kraus. Thinking in terms of architecture calls upon Robert Venturz and Charles Jenells; thinking in terms of film invites Fredric Jarmeson's review of capitalism; ,and while thinking philosophically one takes Hatoinas, Lyotard and Rortry into account most reasonably. So the debate is more a symptom than a full problematic of its own. If one hesitates to believe with Kraus that postmodernism simply does away with referential processes or with Greenberg that modernist painting is or ought to be committed to not violating the absolute validity of the two-dimensional 'flat' surface of easel painting, one equally disagrees with Lyotard that second-order "met a narratives" (legitimation) may be discarded without a sustained argument. Margolis thus comments, "The modernists are as bad as postmodernists." (p. 3) One sincerely ponders whether there is really any conceptual transfermation in our time that is fundamental to the historical changes, and whether the debate has successfully attacked or eclipsed all the canons they claim (or aspire?) to do so. The conventional postmodernists Lyotard and Rorty, despite their subscription to the postmodernist theme, have gone much further in their arbitrary way, "recommending dismantling philosophy altogether and constructing such advice as the logical upshot of their own discovery." (p. 5)

Margolis observes some notable changes in the Western intellectual terrain: 1. Neutrality and objectivity are no longer thought to be self-evidencing assured; 2. All cognitive privilege is abandoned; 3. We acknowledge that our cognitive powers are historically (hence contingently and variably) formed; 4. We concede, as a consequence, that the "recovery of objectivity cannot consistently be secured, except in constructivist terms, under conditions collected as 1-3. Viewing phenomenologically, Margolis holds, "All that world toe needed would be to abandon the standard conviction that bivalence can not be coherently breached and that reality must possess determinate unchanging structures." Along that line artworks, like persons, actions and sentences, are not fully determinate, but are interpretively determinable in intentional ways; and intentional properties are not as determinate as physical objects. They are flexive, inherently subject to interpretation and reinterpretation and the hisoticized conditions of human life. (p. 65).
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Author:Sukla, A.C.
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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