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Robert Stecker, Artworks: Definition, Meaning, Value.

Robert Stecker, Artworks: Definition, Meaning, Value. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Pp.xi, 322.

In this book Robert Stecker sets out to answer three basic questions in the philosophy of art: What is art? What is it to understand a work of art? And what is the value of art? Stecker addresses each question in turn and delivers what he claims to be "a unified, if incomplete, philosophy of art--a theory of the nature and functions of art and of the practice of interpreting and appreciating it" (3). His strategy is to discuss thoroughly recent contributions to the debate concerning each of these questions and to put forward his own alternative answers. This leads to an extensive and detailed discussion of the journal literature on each of these subjects and considerable effort is spent both presenting and evaluating this literature.

Stecker's own answers to the questions are imaginative and original. However, in putting them forward, he is hampered both by the way in which he has formulated the questions and by his strategy. Though they have the appearance of fundamental philosophical questions, they are not universally regarded as the relevant questions to ask about art. A definition of art, it has been argued, in answer to the first question, simply does not address the vital concern why art or a work of art is important. By formulating the second question in terms of "understanding" rather than, for example, "appreciation," Stecker sets his inquiry on a course that tends to avoid the question of the role of perception and imagination in the apprehension of the work of art. It also disguises the problem whether there is any one form of understanding that is particularly appropriate to works of art. The third question is less problematic, but it is a question that has to be disambiguated before any meaningful answer can be given: the question "What is the value of a work of art?" needs a different kind of answer than the question "What is the value of the practice of producing and appreciating works of art?"

Stecker's choice of strategy limits his discussion in another way. In the philosophy of art a point is often best made by an extended critical discussion of a central example. Ideally one should offer detailed case studies as well as a discussion of recent theories and views. However, an extensive discussion of the journal literature on a subject tends to draw the focus of attention and interest away from any critical discussion of actual works of art at the same time as it leaves virtually no space for such a discussion. The result is that a theory that may look superior to another in abstract comparison will not be tested against the material on which it is supposed to work. These limitations make Stecker's own solutions less convincing than they otherwise might have been.

In answer to the first question--"What is art?"--Stecker distinguishes between three different ways of defining art: functionalism, which attempts to give a definition in terms of the function of art; institutionalism, which tries to define art in terms of social recognition (status conferral); and historicism, which tries to define art in terms of relevant similarities between artworks over time (49). Stecker spends considerable space and ingenuity in making his case against all these views. He finds functionalism most congenial, but distinguishes between what he calls Simple Functionalism and his own more sophisticated version. Among functionalist theories Stecker places "most attempts to define art in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. These include well-known expression, formalist, and aesthetic theories of art" (50) Characteristic of these theories is that they try to define art in terms of one or a "handful" of functions. According to Stecker there are two major objections against these theories. One is that "the function of art can change over time and so no simple list of functions can do the trick" (50). The second is that they allow no distinction between bad art and non-art. Against this Stecker sketches a theory of what he calls Historical Functionalism that recognizes the fact that the forms and functions of art are indefinite in number and vary over time. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and literature are umbrella terms for such multiple forms. This leads him to offer a definition of art as follows:
   Let C be the set of central art forms at time t, let F be the set
   of functions standard or correctly recognized for forms belonging
   to C; then w is a work of art at t, where t is a time no earlier
   than the time at which w is made, if and only if (a) w has a form
   that is a member of C and the maker of w intended it to fulfill a
   function in F or (b) w is an artifact that achieves excellence in
   fulfilling a function in F. (56)

This definition is not open to the same two objections as Simple Functionalism, but it does have problems of its own that Stecker fails to resolve. The identification of both C and F poses problems of principle. Stecker says that he "would be inclined to accept an institutional account (with a strong historical component) of central art forms: what makes something a central art form is its achieving a status in the artworld" (59). But it is far from clear that the concept of an artworld is a sufficiently sharp theoretical tool for dealing with the kind of historical contexts that Stecker's definition gives a central place. The concept of an artworld may be used meaningfully with reference to the informal institutions concerned with painting and sculpture in mid to late twentieth-century New York, but it would make little sense to talk about an artworld in early eighteenth-century England even if one localized it to London and limited it to one category of art, for example, literature. At the time there was a set of very complex relationships between different groups of audiences and between the kinds of reading material that were favored by the various groups. Stecker needs to come to grips with such concrete and complex historical examples in order to test and sharpen his theoretical instruments.

Since C is related to a time and place, F would also be related to the same time and place. What Stecker needs to show for his Historical Functionalism to have plausibility is that there are historically specific functions that are standard functions of art at a time t. To do this he needs to clarify the notion of what it is to be a standard function at time t, as opposed to a nonstandard function. Again, Stecker's strategy proves to be a weakness. His thesis calls for support through a detailed illustration that will make it plausible (for example, a discussion of the question "What were the standard functions of poetry in England in 1710?"). What he offers is a detailed discussion of competing theories. Even in the chapter "The Value of Literature," when he discusses what he considers to be four broad functions of literature today (aesthetic function, cognitive function, emotion-centered function, and interpretation-centered function), he focuses on the merits and weaknesses of views attributing these functions to literature. There is no attempt to establish that these functions are in fact functions of literature today or to develop criteria for deciding this question.

In his discussion of interpretation Stecker attempts to stake out a path between critical monism and critical pluralism, arguing that there are versions of these two views that are compatible and indeed complementary. Critical monism according to Stecker, is unavoidable if it is taken to say that there cannot be two interpretations of a work of art that are both incompatible and true or correct. Critical pluralism is saved by introducing the notion of an acceptable interpretation, the notion of acceptability being divorced from that of truth or correctness and instead tied to the notion of the purpose or aim of the interpretation. Thus, an interpretation of a work can be acceptable given, for example, the purpose of maximizing the aesthetic value of a work, though it may be untrue of that work. Or such an interpretation can simply be unasserted and thus make no claim to truth.

This is an ingenious solution to the problem of the apparent multiplicity of acceptable interpretations of a work and, true to his strategy, Stecker bolsters his own argument by showing the weaknesses of other current views of interpretation. However, again Stecker's strategy prevents him from developing his own solutions properly. Though his whole argument rests on the distinction between "acceptable" and "correct" or "true" interpretations, he does not make sufficient effort to develop this distinction and he fails to establish that the notion of an acceptable interpretation can be clearly distinguished from the notion of a correct or true interpretation. Acceptable interpretations, Stecker says, "must be consistent with some facts about the work" (136). There are some "ground rules" that have to be followed. Stecker maintains that "the purpose of these ground rules is not to lead to true interpretations but to interpretations that are of the work in question and that will enhance appreciation of it" (136). However, it is far from clear that it is possible to determine the identity of a work independently of a true interpretation of it. It is quite possible to interpret falsely John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman as a Victorian novel where the author has been persuaded to provide two alternative endings. Such an interpretation misrepresents what Fowles's novel/s and does not constitute a true appreciation of the novel that Fowles wrote. It is part of the identity conditions of the novel that it is a late twentieth-century novel making use of the form of certain kinds of Victorian novels. The fictional illustration of this problem that has received some attention in aesthetics is Jorge Luis Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," where the twentieth-century author Menard writes a work that is letter by letter identical with Cervantes's Don Quixote. However, the story illustrates that properties that can be truly attributed to Cervantes's work cannot be attributed to Menard's work and vice versa. Though these two works are identical letter by letter, they are different works with different properties. A discussion of this kind of example might have clarified how Stecker would draw the necessary distinction between ground rules that are simply meant to ensure that an interpretation is simply of a work and rules that are aimed at ensuring a true interpretation.

There is in Stecker's book a lot of detailed and tough argumentation on issues that have been much debated in Anglo-American aesthetics over the last twenty years. His discussion is well informed and his criticisms of other theories well taken. His book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debates and one can only admire Stecker's mastery of so many subtle points and arguments. For anyone interested in these debates, Stecker's book is an excellent point of reference. However, it can be questioned whether Stecker achieves his ambition to present to the reader "a unified, if incomplete, philosophy of art." To achieve this ambition Stecker would have to reformulate somewhat the questions he tries to answer and adopt a strategy that permitted a more extensive discussion of his own, positive proposals.


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Author:Olsen, Stein Haugom
Publication:The Philosophical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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