In supplementary essay III, of Art and its Objects by Richard Wollheim*, a distinction is drawn between the aesthetic qualities of the idea of art and its physical properties. Wollheim makes no commitment as to whether-or-not aesthetic qualities are more revealing of the art experience, or, as I state, draw our attention from it, but he outlines the basic premise. He begins by declaring his middle ground.
“This theory is to the effect that in those arts where the work is an individual, i.e. painting, carved sculpture, and, possibly (see Essay II), architecture, the work of art is a physical object, and, after some consideration given to the theory, I suspend judgement on its truth. My plea is the metaphysical complexity of the topic. I give no conclusive answer to the question as to whether in those arts the work of art is really identical with, or is merely constitutively identical with or made of the same stuff as, some physical object.”
One could add music and dance to the Wollheim distinction. These activities display a similar physical object in that, even though they do not create a singular concrete image through the music score or the patterns of the dance – or the structure of film for that matter – as you would get in paintings or sculpture, sounds and movements are no less physical objects. They mould a discernible structure spread out over time, and their components are, like paint, clay, or stone, guided into patterns through an ordering of an arrangement of their elements. That you cannot hold a sound, or movement – or a moving image - in your hand does not mean it is any less real than paint, clay or stone. It would be intriguing to be able to stand and look at a solid form of music as you do a painting, or run your fingers around the shape of a dance as you would a sculpture or building, but sounds and movements display a different physical object. If you take a still from a film you destroy the essence of this physical object that only comes to mind through watching the entire film. This does not make music, dance or film any less physical, and just as the painter, sculpture and architect model their materials into a controlled form given structure through artistic intentions, the composer, the choreographer, and the film maker bring to what they do an equally physical object that reveals its reality over time. Even a conceptual artist, who claims to work with thoughts, has to write down in words, or set up an exhibition of an empty space, to draw our attention to a state of mind that we are asked to consider to be the essential element of the art experience. Conceptual art has to be filtered through physical material to make itself known, and whatever the conceptual experience is said to provoke from our minds an object has to be made to direct us to think in a certain way. The conceptual artist has to take material and arrange this material to tell us that a loss of the physical object is art.
We would do well to broaden our horizons and consider the physical object hypothesis in another way. Not just as a material object that points us to an idea of art that is of the mind, but let us bring to the argument the realisation that when we talk about art we are talking about an effect provoked within the mind by a physical thing. We learn to project well defined concepts about the objects we encounter in day-to-day life that, in some way, stop us sensing the physical object hypothesis. This hypothesis implies the physical object will be difficult, if not impossible, to grasp because what we make of objects will depend upon the ideas we learn to project over them. For example; the physical object of a motorcar is that of a pile of metal, plastic and rubber that has been arranged (designed) to uphold a certain order that set in motion material interactions that exhibit a useful purpose. In the case of a motorcar this arrangement of metal, plastic and rubber works to propel us from one place to another, and therefore we don't see the physical object for what it is. We don't look at the experience of a motorcar as a pile of metal, plastic and rubber, but we suppress this physical object through our ideas of the usefulness of the arrangement of the material. My neighbour spends every Sunday washing and polishing his pile of metal, plastic and rubber whilst my pile of metal, plastic and rubber failed to start ten years ago and I abandoned it – much to my neighbours annoyance – in my back yard. It now looks more like a pile of junk than a motorcar because the weeds have grown all over it and moss and mould cover the windows. One door has fallen off and it is open to the elements and wildlife lives in it. I think this is a beautiful pile of metal, plastic and rubber because, to me, it displays more of the physical object hypothesis than it did when I used to think of it as a functional motorcar. Here, you see, is the point of our argument about the physical object hypothesis. What the physical object hypothesis has at its core implies an experience of an object is denied to us through the way we think about what we see. My rusting useless motorcar now serves another purposes and one of these other purposes annoys my neighbour because he still thinks my pile of metal, plastic and rubber should uphold the value of a motorcar. He does not see the physical object has changed, and that what he so loves to polish every Sunday is an idea that stops him sensing the physical object hypothesis in his experience of the world. He is not an artist and so he has no interest in researching a way of sensing that his mind works to suppress through the ideas he projects over all he sees and does. If I try to explain this to him he will think me insane, and because my house displays a similar physical object hypothesis to my rusty useless motorcar – in that I hoard things – he may well declare me an undesirable in the neighbourhood. Old washing machines, old chairs and many other discarded items litter the outer and inner environments of my abode but, to me, my surroundings give to me a truer interpretation of a natural state of mind. My surroundings represents an awareness of the reality of the objects that surround me rather than that of artificial ideas that we learn to impose over things by polishing them, or, as in the case of the artist, turn paint or clay into a recognisable image. The residence in my road think I bring the value of the area down, but, for someone like me, a natural way of sensing is being suppressed by the ideas people 'think' they should impose over the material that surrounds them.
In modern art this division between the physical object and the need for ordered structured thinking is more pronounced than in traditional art. The physical object became the kingpin of modernism and created a rift between people who look to artists to make things that can be understood and useful through their ability to project ideas over the world– the traditional concept – and the modern realisation that only when you avoid this way of thinking does an insight into a lost way of sensing the world, once experienced through instinct, return to mind.
“The likeliest, though not the sole, alternative to holding the physical object hypothesis is to posit, for each work of art in question, a further individual, or a 'aesthetic object' with which the work of art is then identified. Light is thrown on the physical object hypothesis by examining this alternative to it – let us call it 'aesthetic object theory'- and, in particular, by contrasting the two different ways in which such a theory may be motivated, which are in turn reflected in two different forms the theory may take. One motivation is familiar, and much discussed in contemporary aesthetics, but the other motivation is less clearly recognised though it is to my mind more compelling.”
Aesthetic object theory does not reflect the base sensation of a world view built without learned understanding. The theory still looks to an ideal in what an artist creates through reasoned thoughts; an ideal view rather than a loss of ideals. Some form of mind over matter that injects into the material reality of all things the view that only intellectual intelligent commands in both art and life can result in guiding the artist, and the good citizen to a purposeful output. The physical object hypothesis has to be understood to uphold an almost opposing view to aesthetic object theory. The physical object looks to a natural way of sensing without learned thoughts, whilst the other, aesthetic view generates an artificial way of thinking that ignores the material and looks to the idea the material has been guided to portray. I assume, of course, that modern thinking now allows us to look towards the realisation that art could be a way of sensing without learned ideas having to be imposed over what the artist creates. The modern question is to ask as to whether-or-not art is a remnant of a way of sensing that only comes to mind when we stop trying to impose our will over all things? This question is now beginning to be taken more seriously in the light of our ideas of evolution. The case in relation to the concept of a physical object hypothesis is that it seems to have arisen in contrast to the age old human desire to uphold superior command over nature through the belief in the arguments for design. Design is an essential part of aesthetic object theory, whilst the physical object hypothesis is a glimpse of the hard realism of a vision of the world without design. That patterns are discerned in the world has always, until modern times, been assumed to be the work of a designer. Nature, it was thought, was designed by some omnipotent benefactor, but now it seems the patterns that emerge in nature do so by trial and error. What looks like purposeful design is an illusion created by cause and effect, and wondrous things evolve because the pattern propels order out of chaos. The physical object hypothesis implies that no matter how much thought and skill an artist puts into arranging the material to create a work that is classed as art, under any aesthetic criteria, the reality is that the end result is nothing more than a rearrangement of the material. Any intellectual meaning that is thought to be endowed into the art object is not a consideration in the physical object hypothesis because material, no matter how much you work on it, is all you are left looking at in the end result. Any aesthetic implications the artist imposes over the material can only direct your experience of what you see away from the reality of the physical object. This view of the raw physical reality of all things was available to you at the beginning of your work, but you posses no way to model it because any work will have to be directed through thoughts that have evolved to drive you away from seeing this base experience in what confronts you. The process by which an artist works, indeed the very way we all think, drives us away from sensing a raw material view towards looking for controlled meaningful content in what we see. The end result, whatever it claims to be about, is not what is relevant in the physical object model, indeed, aesthetics here in the western world has always driven us to look upon nature as a disordered place that needs human input to be controlled and brought to meaningful use. We look to engineer nature for our own ends, and this need to look for design is the basis of a philosophy of mind that is in direct opposition to the physical object hypothesis in art. The physical object cannot be thought to bring into existence an experience beyond the reality of the material through any input of controlled reasoned actions. Any such control will suppress the raw view that is generated by the sensation of uncontrolled input, and this view, because it seems destructive and disruptive, is a view that all our minds have evolved to remove from our sensation of the world.
“The first motivation comes from reflecting upon the physical painting, carved sculpture, or building quite timelessly. Such reflection reveals that the properties of the physical object may be divided into those which are, and which are not, of aesthetic interest. An aesthetic object to be the bearer of all of the first but none of the second set of properties, and it is concluded to be the work of art.”
The view from this reasoning is that the properties of the physical object are given a layered interpretation that covers the very base experience of what is seen as an undesirable state of the reality of raw material. Art is not considered in this view of aesthetics to have anything to do with the unguided accidental seemingly meaningless reality of the world around us without human input. The view is that human input is considered the essence of art that is infused into an object through varying degrees of order that models the material to reflect concepts of beauty, taste, design and intellectual command. That a view exists, that was once 'felt' (you cannot say known) without reasoned powers of recognition, and that this view will have remained at the very foundation of all we see and do, is not a concept that sites easily within any aesthetic model.
“A premiss to this argument is that a work of art has only aesthetic properties, it cannot have non-aesthetic properties, and the best way of considering this first vision of aesthetic object theory is through considering this premise. This premise gives the motivation behind this vision, which may be expressed as that of trying to safeguard the aesthetic character of the work of art”.
No matter how crude the object is it will, if it has been modelled by human hand, hold aesthetic qualities. Wollheim points out differentials in this view...
“The first questions the validity of the distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties, at any rate for the present purposes. For, though there is little difficulty in understanding the distinction broadly, aesthetic object theory in its present version requires us to have a fine grasp of the distinction so that every property of the physical painting, sculpture, building, can without remainder be assigned to one category or the other, so that it can be assigned between the two objects”.
Every property of the physical painting, sculpture, building (and music, dance and film) is given an aesthetic level of order. At the lowest level it is crude and naive and at the highest level it is refined and superior. The idea that there is no aesthetic in a natural way of sensing the world but only in the human intellectual view is not considered as relevant to the idea of aesthetic object theory. Art is only considered to be a human endeavour and therefore art will hold to some degree aesthetic qualities that the natural world does not. The physical object hypothesis, by contrast, would have it that art is an experience that only comes to mind as an inherent unlearned natural way of sensing and is, therefore, void in any aesthetic content. The artist will, in trying to model this experience bring aesthetic content into what he, or she, makes but the question is does this reveal the art experience or destroy it? The refined argument for aesthetics in art brakes down at this level, and it is here that a rift emerges in the assertions as to what is, or is not, an art experience. Is art created by the human command of mind over matter, or is it that this command is suppressing the reality of the experience artists — of a certain natural disposition — are more sensitive towards 'feeling' in their view of the world than the rest of us?
The second objection is that the aesthetic object theory distorts critical procedure.
"In trying to exhibit ways in which the work of art realizes the creative intention, criticism puts much effort into matching, alternatively contrasting, a single property or a set of properties with another : Distribution of pigment with representational effect, manner of cutting the stone with heightened drama or increased environment of the spectator, use of materials with declaration of architectural function. Now, if we allow ourselves the distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties – that is to say, we interpret it as broadly as we need to so as to make sense of it – we must recognise that, in many cases where the critic makes such contrasts or comparisons, he is in effect pairing aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties or sets of properties. The match or contrast is across the divide.”
The aesthetic object theory exists by demanding quite well defined limits. It upholds that you cannot venture beyond the art object as it is made by human thought and control of material composition to reflect some aspect of a seemingly desirable achievement. Marcel Duchamp's fountain hits this idea right were it hurts. His toilet urinal has to be brought into the aesthetic object theory as an example of a reaction against established values, and it is not thought to uphold the essence of artistic endeavour because it is ready-made. It is, quite wrongly in my opinion, explained away by critical contrast and comparison with the aesthetic object theory. In Duchamp's case a contrast is evoked between the high ideals of workmanship and meaningful content in art and the lower lesser ideals of a reaction against these values. The physical object hypothesis on the other hand would have it that this object is closer to the base sensation of the art experience in that the artist has had little influence upon creating it. Thousands of toilet urinals have been manufactured to a set standard of design and so the Duchamp exhibit points to a different set of considerations as to what the art experience is. Duchamp tells us the art experience is not unique but that it exists in any object and it's presence depends upon how you think. You are looking at an object that is not art and an object that has had its functional use removed. You are presented with an object that tries to make you look with no ideas about what you are looking at. This is a true reflection of the physical object hypothesis, but, of course, the urinal fails. It cannot present itself to you as something you have no ideas about because this is very difficult to achieve. What the Duchamp ready-made does do is point to the raw experience of the physical object that is the foundation of the art experience in a way that no composed aesthetic idea of art ever could.
A universal presence exists in all things that the aesthetic object theory fails to discern. Wollheim touches upon this realisation when he discuses a second motivation within aesthetic object theory. A universal quality comes to light that can only be glimpsed when you stop yourself looking at the story, or the intellectual content of the art object. When you stop looking at technique and all imposition of learning that the artist puts into the work. When you remove these values you find yourself faced with the raw reality of what confronts you and your mind gets to work to reduce the disturbing impact of this physical view. You find yourself...
“...reflecting upon the physical painting, carved sculpture or building not timelessly but at different moments in history. Such reflection reveals that, if we exclude merely determinable properties such as being of some shape or another, or being marked in some way or another, then for each object there is a continuum of sets of properties, such that each set is defined by the time at which it qualifies the physical object. This expresses the fact that in it's determinate properties the physical object changes over time, and it is explained by the fact that pigment, stone, and wood are eminently corruptible: colour fades, damp loosens the plaster, the atmosphere erodes the carving, But, by contrast, the work of art itself is incorruptible: its character does not alter with time, and it has no history – though it has, most likely, a prehistory. Accordingly, what is required – or so reflection suggests – is to select out of the indefinitely many sets of properties that qualify the physical object over time, one privileged set, which reflects the optimal state of the object, then to posit an aesthetic object, and make this object the bearer (atemporally) of these and only these properties. This object is the work of art. So we get the second version of the aesthetic object theory, to which may be ascribed the aim of trying to safeguard the aesthetic condition of the work of art”.
The whole point of the physical object hypothesis is rejected to safeguard the aesthetic condition. The aesthetic object theory bottoms out by forcing us to imagine art is a human quality that has been imparted into the material properties of the art object so that, even if it decays over time, these qualities will remain the essence of art as a human command over the nature of events. The physical object hypothesis would challenge this notion of grand design by seeing that the universal element in the art object is something far more subliminal in our thinking. The decaying object will not retain the grand essence of some artificial imposition of human command over a natural state of affairs. On the contrary, the decaying material of the art object, so lovingly placed into order by the artist, is returning to a natural disorder that will, by virtue of our inability to sense this underlying state of affairs, provoke an inherent unlearned way of sensing from the depth of the mind. We begin to sense that the artistic content of the object will decay and be corrupted and that disorder will reclaim the material, and we fear that all the intellectual imposition of ordered thinking will be lost. Popular belief would have it that some miraculous creative content will survive the inevitable decay of material, but the harsh fact is there is no grand message that transcends this inevitable event. Art is not some grandiose message from God that keeps the vulgar reality of nature out of our experience of the world, but is an artificial imposition of human aspirations upon a natural order of events. We look to suppress the seemingly disturbing meaningless and disruptive nature of the reality of decay through a desire for aesthetic concepts that impose order and organisation over our view of the world, but this is not the essence of the art experience as it is conceived through the physical object hypothesis. The decay of order and organisation can only be returning a sensation of natural awareness to our view of the world, but we look to transcend this seemingly undesirable state of affairs through the belief our thoughts can live on after the inevitable decline of material existence.
It beings to look as if the loss of the imposition of aesthetic control and order in art gives a glimpse into a far older inherent way of sensing. A view of the world void of intellectual command and belief, and in this state of mind the artist vaguely grasps a glance into a remnant of an older inherent sensation of intuitive instinctive awareness. In the light of modern thinking this experience that resides in the deepest darkest oldest areas of our minds can be no more than a sensation of animal origin that the artist will either want to bury behind the aesthetic content of their work, or try to reveal by the removal of this demand for intellectual command over what you do. Controlling your actions through learned thinking generates an aesthetic interpretation of the material reality of your work, and, depending upon your disposition, you will either think this destroys the essence of an original experience, or that you posses the ability to model the original experience. This contrast in thought is what discerns the physical object hypothesis from the aesthetic object theory of art, and you will either believe in one point of view or the other. There is no common ground between these two extreme points of view, and your idea of art will depend upon believing that either art is an attempt to discover your natural alliance with nature, or to suppress this alliance through you ability to control and design the physical world. To preserve the aesthetic object theory even change and decay that is beyond the artists control has to thought to have a purpose. There can be no surrender to the mindless reality of natural events.
“The present version of aesthetic object theory as it stands calls for two minor refinements. First, it might be thought that the privileged set of properties which the aesthetic object comes to enjoy are identical with the earliest set of properties possessed by the physical object: it is only if these are assigned to the aesthetic object that aesthetic condition is safeguarded. However, this is not in all cases correct, and specifically it does not hold when the physical object was made with the aim of maturing into its optimal aesthetic state. Examples of such works of art would be Chinese pots (e.g. Southern Sung) with a pronounced crazing which develops after the firing; Saarinen's John Deere Corporation Building on which the Cor-ten steel was intended to redden over a period of seven or eight years; of William Kent's garden at Rousham, conceived of with full-grown trees. In such cases fidelity to the artist' intentions requires us to privilege a later set of properties and ascribe them to the aesthetic object”.
Some modern artist now make works that only have a limited life span. Examples of can be found in the Wrapped Trees and Coasts made by Christo and Jeanne Claude with their temporality and feeling of fragility, vulnerability and urgency to be seen; Robert Smithson is noted for his Spiral Jetty, that consists of an arranged rock, earth and algae structure that forms a spiral-shape protruding 1500 ft into Great Salt Lake in Utah, U.S.A. How much of the work, if any at all, is visible is dependent on the water levels. Since its creation, the work has been completely covered, and uncovered, many times by water. The aesthetic element in these examples, rather than being drawn out over time, is lost.
"But this struggle (to safeguard the aesthetic condition of the work of art) is not best viewed a something forced upon us by an altogether accidental process of corruption to which the works of art are contingently subject. Two considerations support this. The first being that across all the arts aesthetic consideration is permanently at cognitive risk, through changes in culture, convention and perception. That in the individual condition is also at permanent physical risk serves to mirror this fact. But, secondly, there is the consideration that we have no clear way of conceiving of anything which is physically constituted – as works in these arts necessarily are – and which yet never dims or decays. What we need is not so much a theoretical bifurcation of the physical object and the aesthetic object, but a systematic account of how just the same predicates can be held to be both true of the work of art just at certain times in its existence and also, and as a consequence, true of it throughout its existence".
The physical object hypothesis would have it that such a predicate will be upheld because the art experience has nothing to do with the arranging of material to create a work. It makes no difference if you throw the material on the floor in an unguided way or chose to labour to model the material to create a form controlled and structured through your powers of intellect. The end result in both cases upholds that the art experience as an inherent way of sensing any object or event (Duchamp) and the only difference is that the unguided accidental form is closer to this innate experience than the guided output created through much thought and effort in the traditional way.
"At the beginning of this essay I said that aesthetic object theory is not the only, it is just the likeliest, alternative to the physical object hypothesis. The next likeliest alternative derives from the proposal of Nelson Goodman's that we should ask not, What is art? But, When is art? The proposal meets with two difficulties. It asks us to accept what its author recognises is the counter-intuitive proposition that something, which at certain moments is a work of art, at other moments is not. But, more significantly, it requires us to be very clear indeed about the function of art so that we can identify those moments when the thing becomes a work of art. Indeed what the proposal amounts to is the suggestion that the stable property of art should be understood in terms of the intermittent function of art. The function of art is an obscure issue, but there is an additional difficulty, relevant here, which a theory like the institutional theory, for all its imperfections, brings before us: and that is that some functions that works of art perform they perform only in virtue of having been recognised as works of art”.
An object becomes art by being accepted into a classification of type.
"Art trades on trust”.
What we find is that to maintain this point of view any none-art object has to be adopted as an art object because this act will safeguard the aesthetic character of the idea of art. There will, however, be a short interval in time when the non-art object creates a disturbance in the aesthetic arena that compiles the classification of type, and a different experience will enter the world of art. A view of an object or an event will be glimpsed without any established principles and an old inherent way of sensing will flood the arena. The safeguarded position of the aesthetic theory, that arose before we realised we inherit an older way of sensing the world, will falter. An new movement will arise in the art scene and we will sense the world as never before. The view will astound us, but it will quickly be assimilated, and the status que will be regained because our minds have evolved to rid our thoughts of the raw reality of what confronts us. The new none-art will be given a label that brings it within the establishment, and the professors and the theorists will fill our thoughts with ideas about the aesthetics of design and purpose in this new art form. The none-art object will become art and this widening of the classification of type will suppress the reality of an inherent way of sensing the world around us. We feel discomfort when faced by art that looks to abate aesthetic character.
* All quotations in this essay are from pages 177-184 of Art and its objects. Second edition. With six supplementary Essays, by Richard Wollheim. Cambridge University Press, 1990