Richard Wollheim

Apr 01, 12 Richard Wollheim








The following dialogue never took place in the form shown below. Richard Wollheim is the author of the article „Art“ in Jane Turner’s art dictionary
The dictionary of art/ Editor: Jane Turner; consulting editor: Hugh Brigstocke; editorial advisory board: Terukazu Akiyama, et al.; London: Macmillan, 1996.
. All his statements in the following dialogue were taken from the mentioned article either literally or were altered in such a fashion they might fit into the dialogue. However the meaning of Richard Wollheim’s statements was not altered at all. Andrea Djemsen is a fictitious person.

Me: Dear Mr Wollheim, what is art?

Richard Wollheim: I don’t know.

Me: But aren’t you the person who wrote the definition of art in Jane Turner’s art dictionary?

Wollheim: Yes, I am. But I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t know what art is, yet.

Me: But we do know something, don’t we? What do we know till now?

Wollheim: We know that the scholars try to avoid defining art. As soon as the question is asked what art is, other questions arise promptly as well: “How do we know which answer is the correct one? And above all: How should we ask this question correctly?” These questions are discussed passionately, to such an extent that no one ever thinks to try and give an answer to the initial question “What is art?”.

Me: Are there at least any attempts?

Wollheim: There are many attempts. According to some, art is all but a universal feature of human society, inhibited only by the extreme exigencies of life.

Me: What does that mean?

Andrea Djemsen: I think that it means that a society, which is well off, produces art. In case that a society is deprived of everything and has to struggle to survive, it doesn’t have the time and the energy to produce art.

Wollheim: According to others, art is a rare feature of society, confined perhaps to post-medieval Western culture.

Me: Why? Was there no art before the middle ages? And other cultures, non-western cultures, don’t they have any art?

Andrea: Certainly there was art before the middle ages, and other cultures do have art as well. The people who consider that we may find art only in the western world refer mainly to the word art and not to the object art. That means that they measure the creations of other cultures with the ones produced by their own culture under the name of art.

Me: Why?

Andrea: Because otherwise they wouldn’t know how to treat the foreign art… maybe? I mean to say that if you want to talk about something you have to use words you already know. Thus if you want to find out whether something is art, you have to use the art you already know as a prototype and see whether you recognize anything similar in the foreign art.

Me: Why?

Andrea seems a little irritated when she answers to me: Because your brain is not clever enough to cope with foreign things in another way.

I wonder if I should feel offended by this answer or not and while I brood over it I forget to dig deeper.

It seems that Wollheim waited impatiently for us to stop talking at last and he continues.

Wollheim: To historians of ideas of a positivistic bent it has seemed necessary that for a society to produce art there must be a word for art in that society.

Me: What? Why?

Andrea: That’s the same as before: If you make art, you have a word for it.

Me: That’s not imperatively necessary I think. Just imagine that I am sitting there making art without knowing it and someone passes by and asks me: “What are you doing?” and I answer: “I don’t know. Something.” The fact that I’m not using the word “art” doesn’t mean that I don’t make it.

Andrea: You’ve already used a word in your story. You said you were doing “something”. So in your language the word for art is something.

Me: I thought I had to say „art“?

Andrea: No, you have to use a word that means art. In other languages the word art is expressed by other words. In German it is Kunst, in Italian and Spanish it is arte – with different pronunciations of course. The Czechs say „umění“, the Chinese use the word 艺术 (yìshù), in the Arabic language it is فَنّ (fan), and so forth.

Wollheim: Anyway it was decided that it was not compulsory for a society to have the word of art. It is enough for a society to have the concept of art.

Me: I see, you have to know, what art is, but you don’t have to express it linguistically.

Wollheim: That’s right. The only problem is: If you can’t express the concept linguistically, how are the others to know that you really possess the concept?

Me: Then you have to prove that you know what art is, don’t you? Do you really have to express it with words? Can’t you simply show it?

Wollheim: Theoretically it is possible, practically not. Just because one shows something and says this is art… is it really art? Or does the spectator only see art in the work he’s looking at, just because he knows that the person, who created it, is an artist, therefore he should know what art is?

I am a little confused: Yes. No. I don’t know.

Wollheim: Finally, it may be questioned whether the criteria for the possession of the concept of art can be exclusively synchronic or if they must also be diachronic in that there have to be recognizable ways in which the skills of artificer and spectator can be transmitted across generations.

Okay, if I was not confused enough before I am definitely now.

Me: Pardon me??

Andrea: He’s saying that maybe you learn from generation to generation how to behave and what to do when looking at art… and when producing it.

Me: But in that case it isn’t really art but more or less an agreement: If I fulfill these and those criteria, I produce art.

Andrea: Maybe that’s exactly what art is. Maybe there is nothing that is really art. Maybe art is simply an agreement between its participants.

Me: Seriously? Well then, who makes the agreement? And if it is only a game, why don’t they let everyone play? There are a lot of persons who say that they produce art but they are told: No, you don’t.

Andrea: Well, if they don’t know how to apply the rules correctly…

Me: What rules? Is there a manual somewhere?

Andrea: No, there isn’t.

Me: Then, how do I know what I have to do to make art?

Andrea: I don’t know.

Me: But haven’t you just said that there are rules?

Andrea: No. What I said is that if it is true that art is a game between the producer and the spectator, there must be certain rules in that game. But we haven’t to be aware of them, because if the game was developed generation after generation, it is possible that we assimilated the rules and act according to them, without being aware of them.

Wollheim: Anthropologists have mostly taken refuge in a form of relativism, according to which the activities that flourish in any particular society can be classified as, for example, religion, law or art only by reference to the aims, functions and structure of that society. Therefore we can conclude that anthropology can identify art, without having a general concept of art.

Me: That doesn’t make any sense. How can anyone know what kind of art he’s looking at if he doesn’t even know what art is?

Wollheim: That’s right. Taken literally it offends against the compositional nature of thinking.

Me: Then what? In conclusion we don’t really know what art is, because we can’t even decide how to reflect upon it and where to begin?

Wollheim: That’s what I’ve said from the very beginning.


The Dictionary of Art

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