Critical Reception of “Art or Bunk?”.
For responses to “Can We Understand Animal Minds?” go here
Translation of Critical Introduction to the Spanish Translation of Art or Bunk?
Salvador Rubio Marco
Translated by Miguel Ángel Gomes
When I started working on Wittgenstein’s aesthetics in the late 80’s, Art or Bunk? (along with texts by Jacques Bouveresse and B. Tilghman) was to become, because of its orientation and direction within the theoretical tradition, the cornerstone of my research. Obviously, Bouveresse and Tilghman were part of that tradition too but Ian Ground’s book had a special tone that differentiated it from the other texts that I admired so much. It combined a conscious pedagogy with a direct and provocative philosophical style. I believe that, despite the time that has passed, his style retains all its power today.
My final decision to render the original English title, Art or Bunk? as ¿Arte o chorrada? is intended to be faithful to that direct, provocative, deliberately unacademic style. The author himself (wisely advised by Prof. Hernández Villada) strongly supported this decision. Certainly, in the actual context of the word ‘bunk’ in the book, ‘chorrada’ appears a logical choice, as clearly shown, in, for example this passage referring to the ubiquitous Equivalent VIII by C. Andre:
And indeed the thought that Andre’s work was just ‘bunk’, seems best to capture what many people appeared to have thought and felt about it. It captures the sort of outrage that people felt in being asked to take Andre’s work seriously. It is just because of this, just because of the crudity of this term, because of all that we want to say when we use it, that this term has its part in our inquiry. (Chapter 1)
When it comes to the ‘shock’ of contemporary art, Ian Ground takes the bull by the horns by raising, at the level of philosophical reflection, those ‘coarse’ questions, which characterize the response by the common man in the street or the reactionary critic: Isn’t this pile of bricks in the museum just bunk? However, his intention is not to make us take sides for or against specific Minimalist or Conceptual works of art. This does not mean that Ground thinks we should not do so or that he does not do it himself in a private capacity (as we shall see, his book suggests, at times, a few specific criteria on the subject). On the contrary his intention is to use the ‘energy’ of the common response to fuel the building of a theory within philosophical aesthetics, one that the reader can see arising from the specific problems posed by the art world, and to demonstrate the fruitful potential of that theory without the urge (at least in the book) to rush to critical protests about any particular movement, author, or work.
In fact, there is a tout court defence of contemporary art underlying Ground’s book when he vindicates the idea of intelligibility as a central constitutive feature of art. But this is a defence that, necessarily, has to show the validity and relevance of the question that lends the book its title, despite recent attempts to negate that question or dismiss it as a naïve and/or reactionary denial of ‘all’ contemporary art.
Ground believes (see Chapter 3) that one source of the ‘bunk’ that characterizes much of the theory and practice of the visual arts tradition in the Twentieth Century, is the production of aesthetically interesting objects in the place of art. Such objects may have their place alongside works of art, but they fail to be works of art because their aesthetic intelligibility is not adequately connected to an intentional appearance that rewards a sensitive examination by a well or averagely informed spectator.
This statement is not directed towards stirring up the discussion about whether to grant certain objects or events the status of ‘works of art’. Ground believes that there should be no scandal whatsoever in stating that much of what is stored in art museums is not artistic, in the sense mentioned earlier. We are, after all, not shocked to learn that:
No one thinks that any piece of fiction found in a library must be a work of art. No one thinks that anything acted or danced in a theatre must be a work of art. No one thinks this of buildings in cities. (Chapter 4)
In connection with this, Ground thinks that a proper understanding of the differences between an aesthetically interesting artefact and a work of art would greatly help to get an appropriate appraisal of both:
a work of art is not simply an artefact designed with aesthetic ends in mind. It therefore does not matter that such artefacts are not works of art. Indeed there is every reason to believe that there are very many artefacts which are more valuable in respect of important sorts of aesthetic interest than very many works of art. Recalling this more often might help to produce both more interesting artefacts and more valuable works of art. (Chapter 1).
The validity of the distinction, however, is based not so much on logical foundations as ethical ones (this being one of the deeply Wittgensteinian ‘roots’ or ideas behind Ground’s book), given that “it is not possible to convince someone there is such a difference between our aesthetic interest in works of art and our aesthetic interest in other sorts of objects, if they wish consistently to deny this.” Nevertheless, it would be catastrophic in that “it would make a sham of everything which we think about works of art and everything for which we look to works of art” (Chapter 5).
This, and nothing else, is what meant by the regulative character of art (which following Wollheim’s example, Ground asserts) or, in other words, its normative character. This is exactly what makes a work of art appear as something different from, not just objects produced randomly, created mechanically or as a matter of whim, but also and especially, from artefacts deliberately made to provoke an aesthetic interest but which, for whatever reason, are not works of art. (‘Works of art are not just artefacts that have been deliberately made to provoke an aesthetic interest. They are artefacts whose essential interest involves that fact’) (Chapter 5). Through the recognition of that ‘constitutive humanity’ (parallel, by the way, to that of Tilghman in But is it Art?), Ground also alludes to an active theoretical debate (the debate on the autonomy of aesthetic judgments with regard to other types of judgements, such as moral ones), when he states that:
…reflection on the sorts of aesthetic order we can discover also shows us what sorts of personal, moral and social orders we are capable of.
…it may be that the classic thought of philosophical aesthetics directs our minds to the nature of a particular sort of being because to be able to see or hear or feel what fits, what goes, what makes sense, to be able to sense these things as perceptible features of the world, is to see the particular ways in which we make the world our world. We are able to see that it is through, and not in opposition to, the specifics of our culture and our history that we make for ourselves a world relative to a shared human nature.
Art or Bunk? and the Tradition of Analytic Aesthetics.
The direct style of Ground’s book coexists with a great concern to offer a synthesis of the tradition of Anglo-Saxon analytic aesthetics. Although in an apparently unorthodox style, his book is part of this tradition. The ideas of Wollheim, Cavell, Grice, Beardsley, Kennick, Winch and Tilghman are strongly present in its pages with, in the background, both explicitly and implicitly, Kant and Wittgenstein as two permanent points of reference.
The book as a whole serves as an explanation of the sense of the classic Kantian dictum according to which aesthetic interest is understood as directed towards the appearance of things. However the book and its meaning are also carefully imbued with the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical aesthetics as consisting in conceptual explanation. In fact, the book’s structure revolves around an approach to the false interpretations that arise when we consider the relationship between the meaning of the work of art and the artist (the role of intentionality in artistic significance) in Chapter 2, the connection with the audience (the relativity of aesthetic judgments) in Chapter 3 or with the artistic tradition (the historicity of the meaning of the work of art) in Chapter 4.
Wittgenstein is not only present, explicitly, in certain parts of the text but he is also behind the dialogical style of Ground’s philosophical argument. The author establishes an internal debate with the reader and between the different voices through which he develops the various conflicting positions. In my translation, I have kept the abundance of imperatives in the second person singular (Observa: observe, fíjate: look, imagínate: imagine) and I have chosen the informal Spanish form of the pronoun (tú instead of usted) to emphasize this direct style.
However that dialogical complexity can sometimes make the reader struggle to follow the general argument that Ground defends. I have tried to help the reader with typographical and layout resources, although as in the case of Wittgenstein, it is not always easy for readers to navigate their way through that network of different levels and unfolding processes. It is difficult not to become ‘immersed’ in the biased voices or to lose sight of the outermost ‘parentheses’ that represent the actual voice of the author.
Ground’s contribution, however, goes beyond being an excellent synthesis of positions and arguments of the tradition of analytic aesthetics (if today the term ‘analytic’, means something more than a general agreement on the way of doing philosophy). This is because, first of all, Art or Bunk? develops original lines of argument when, for example, comparing Moore’s sculpture and the meteorite (Chapter 1). Here, Ground proposes an unusual and alternative ‘experiment of indiscernibles’ (borrowing the terminology from Danto). He shows the inapplicability of genuinely aesthetic adjectives to an object whose appearance cannot be seen as something that is intended to have significance.
In opposition to Danto, Ground thinks that the conclusion of the experiment is not a demonstration of the concept of the ‘artistic’ but rather is revealing of the presuppositions which allow us, as spectators, to perceive ‘the artistic’. Some further particularly original developments are found in the exposition of the conceptual confusion about intention and process in the ‘action painting’ of Pollock (Chapter 2), or the conceptual confusion of means and material in much late modernist art resulting, for example, from the overuse of the concept of ‘flatness’ in painting. (see the influence of Greenberg here) (Chapter 4)
But the originality of Ground’s work also consists in being a perfect antidote against the very common accusations made, often rightly, against analytic aesthetics (and analytic philosophy in general): a cryptic jargon, only for the initiated, pathologically punctilious, unconnected with the real issues and concerns of the artistic praxis and today’s aesthetics and so on. Ground, relying on his experience in university continuing education (Lifelong Learning), shows that the content and methods of analytic philosophy are entirely compatible with a ‘philosophy made intelligible’, which doesn’t mean ‘made easy’, (nobody ever said Philosophy was easy, as Judith Hughes reminds us). Nor should such an approach be ‘superficial’, as Mary Midgley reminds us, simply because it is directed at an audience outside the strict limits of the theoretically specialized circles. I suspect that Ground’s book fails, perhaps, to reach the widest range of public ~ the man in the street unfamiliar with the philosophical essay (which includes many who describe contemporary art as ‘bunk’ without discrimination). But it does reach a university public who wouldn’t normally show interest in the more impenetrable treatment of these questions in the customary academic literature of analytic aesthetics.
Clear signs of that desire for accessibility are the summaries or recaps included at the end of every chapter, as well as the use of diagrams and illustrations (which I reproduce in full), the indicative nature of the notes and the additional references at the end of the book. I have also opted to keep the introductions by Judith Hughes and Mary Midgley, which join the author’s introduction to the Spanish edition and this one. I believe that, together, they help to give an accurate impression of the spirit of the book, should the book not achieve that directly.
Art or Bunk? is also to be valued for being a paradigmatic reflection of a crucial period in the development of what we have been calling analytical aesthetics (and that, by extension, includes the development of mainstream Anglo-Saxon philosophical aesthetics). In the characterization of that development I proposed in the introductory study of But is it Art? by B. Tilghman, (also in this same collection) I used the term ‘third generation of analytic aesthetics’ to refer to the period that Ground represents in an exemplary fashion. I said there that:
with the reassessment of the true nature and scope of the philosophical thinking of the later Wittgenstein, there are three distinctive traits that lay the foundations of this third generation: aesthetics’ concern for the problems of artistic ‘praxis’ (problems of criticism and art history), the redefinition of what we understand as aesthetic ‘theory’ and the reconsideration of the meaning given to the term ‘analytic’’ (op. cit. p. 24).
As I have tried to show, Ground’s book is imprinted with the thought of Wittgenstein. The text offers a direct approach to the real problems of artistic ‘praxis’ as well as an original synthesis of the contributions of the tradition of analytic aesthetics. As openly stated by the author, both the style and the objective of the book constitute a reassessment of and a reflection upon the role of aesthetic ‘theory’. This is founded on a clear understanding of the task of conceptual clarification that typifies philosophical aesthetics as well as its limits in connection with the fields of art history and criticism.
The ‘Equivalent VIII’ Example
Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre became a major point of reference during a particular period in analytic aesthetics, playing a role reminiscent of that played in other contexts by Duchamp’s Fountain or Warhol’s (and Danto’s) Brillo Box. Moreover, it has gained notoriety in the artistic field: something that Ground himself dislikes. Ben Tilghman, among others, places it in the spotlight of his But is it Art? published in this same collection. Undoubtedly, what called the attention of philosophers such as Ground, to this piece, was the resounding impact on the media (especially in the press) of the acquisition of the work by the Tate Gallery in 1972. It was, par excellence, an example of the shock of contemporary art.
However the example is not without problems. This is due to the fact that the conditions surrounding the exhibition of the piece (or its new version) in the Tate Gallery were not the original ones and its meaning was then transformed (the same can be said about the Tate Modern). In 1996, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford revived the exhibition of Equivalent VIII in the context of the early exhibition of Equivalents in the New York Gallery in 1966: the 8 equivalents (8 rectangular pieces each comprising 120 light gray bricks) were laid out in a specific way to create a balance between the area occupied by the bricks and the surrounding area of floor space, so that, when the spectator walked between the rectangular blocks, the spaces between them were as important as the pieces themselves, and these gray geometrical shapes could be seen (supposedly) as an aerial view of a field of clouds. Furthermore, such interpretation would link the title of the work to the famous series of photographs of clouds, Equivalents (1922-31), by Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and founder of the gallery ‘291’ in 1905 on Fifth Avenue, the true epicentre of contemporary art.
The second problem, that Ian Ground mentions in his introduction to this Spanish version, has to do with the historical vicissitudes of the work in Britain: nearly démodé in the 80s (seeming even then somewhat hackneyed and rehashed), the work came back into the spotlight in the 90s with the neo-conceptualist British revival, and since 2000, has taken its quasi permanent place at the Tate Modern.
However, it is certainly true that Equivalent VIII, regardless of the value of the original exhibition, ended up being sold, bought and displayed in the conditions and circumstances that we know today. This justifies Ground’s choice of it as a paradigmatic example in his book.
I must also confess that I found it difficult to translate the following terms that appear repeatedly in the book: modernist, Modernism, post-modernist and Post-Modernism. Today, ‘Postmodernismo’, ‘postmodernidad’ y ‘postmoderno’ are confusing labels in Spanish due to the ambiguity and diversity on their use across various traditions and disciplines, even within the field of philosophical aesthetics. The key reference, acknowledged by the author, is the use of the term by Clement Greenberg in his widely known essays. The reader can easily understand the difference between a ‘modern period’ (which came to an end, according to Greenberg, with Abstract Expressionism) and a ‘postmodern crisis’ which, in fact, can be read as a radicalization of the criteria applied to painting by Greenberg’s formalism.
During this postmodern crisis we witness the developments of Minimalism, Conceptualism and Pop Art, among others, and, in turn, the subsequent developments of Neo-conceptualism, Installation Art, Neo-Minimalism and so on. This does not imply that the reader has to equate Greenberg’s suspicions regarding the crisis with those of Ground. Indeed, we should infer from Art or Bunk? not the disqualification as art of the works produced in these postmodern developments, but rather the opposite: a determined and critical vindication of art and the concept of art.
Professor Salvador Rubio Marco
Department of Philosophy
University of Murcia
Professor Salvador Rubio Marco is Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of Art at the University of Murcia, Spain, the author of several works in philosophical aesthetics and the translator into Spanish of works by Wittgenstein and Bouveresse (1940-).
Art or Bunk?
Professor of Philosophy, University of Bradford
“Review of Art or Bunk? by Ian Ground” The Journal of Applied Philosophy 7, no. 2 (1990) pp. 240-242.
It would be a good idea if, let us say, Sandy Nairne were to read this book. One striking conclusion Ian Ground draws from his punchy introductory survey of philosophical aesthetics is that “the many galleries and museums all over the world devoted to recent traditions in the visual arts will not contain the number of works of art they lay claim to”. Some, says Ground, with reference to an extended discussion of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, will contain a lot less, and some even none at all. It would have helped Sandy Nairne in his preparation of the depressing State of the Art television series had he followed the reasoning that leads Ground to this conclusion; thinking about it now would undoubtedly be of value to him in his work as officer for the visual arts at the Arts Council.
Ground takes the aesthetic to be a category pervading the whole of human experience. It is to do with our sense of how things fit, how their appearance strikes us, what we think of the look or sound of them, and so on. Our interest in a subject is an aesthetic interest if we are interested in it in this sort of way, and not, say, for its material advantage or for its scientific significance, or even, I would add, for its moral implications. Aesthetic interest undoubtedly connects with moral interest and, as Ground says, may well be founded in universal features of human nature and social organisation, but it is not the same as moral or biological or political interest, and may indeed conflict with any of these, as when, for example, Yeats found a terrible beauty in a terrorist uprising and its aftermath.
Clearly we can have aesthetic reactions to things which are not works of art, to a landscape or untidy room or a tree. It is easy to see the difference between something designed by a human being and a purely natural object. When we take an aesthetic interest in a tree, we are not taking an interest in a product of human design. But, according to Ground, not all products of human design are works of art, even when we regard them aesthetically, as we are undoubtedly prone to do.
The crucial element making a work of art a work of art is not that it provokes aesthetic interest, nor that it has been produced by a human being or even an artist, but that it has been deliberately made to provoke aesthetic interest, and whose essential claim on our interest is that it has been so made. With a work of art, we are interested in the appearance of the thing just because its appearance has been intended to provoke such interest in us. The appearance, then, that interests us in a painting in so far as it is a work of art is not the appearance of the paint on the canvas, but rather the canvas as painted—with all that this implies about the significance and intentionality of the art of painting.
For the appearance of a painting is one in which both painter and audience will inevitably draw on the meanings established in the traditions of the activity of painting: on just what significance particular operations of paint on canvas have come to have in a particular tradition. Ground makes what I think is an illuminating and important distinction here between medium and material. Wood or stone, he says, is not the medium of sculpture, but rather its material. The medium of sculpture is the employment of such materials in ways characteristic of a particular tradition, so that the sculptor can be confident that his audience will take a particular operation with stone, as representing, say, massiness or reclining figure or both. To use Richard Wollheim’s terminology, the medium is what allows us to see or hear certain things in certain materials, and that which permits the artist or composer the intention under which he may manipulate his material in the expectation that his audience will see or hear such and such things in it. That is what Ground means by speaking of the intended appearance of a work of art. It is when a work of human design has an intended appearance in this sort of way that it can be thought of as a work of art.
When, then, is a supposed work of art bunk? Something masquerading as a work of art is bunk, according to Ground, when an artist repudiates his medium, repudiates, that is to say, the tradition which enables him to represent subtle and articulated intentions in his work, and grounds his work instead in a bogus idea, such as the one that conflates material and medium and so led to the pursuit of flatness in painting, or the one which thinks that an artistic idea can exist in the absence of material form, or that human intentions can be as well expressed by aleatoric or mechanical means as by the traditional methods in which every note and line is guided by a human intelligence, or the one which proclaims that anyone is an artist or dancer in whatever they do, whether what they do has any relation to a medium of expression or not.
It is this part of Ground’s analysis I think would help Sandy Nairne in his efforts. I am not so sure that Ground’s initial analysis of works of art in terms of a distinction between what is and is not deliberately made to provoke aesthetic interest through its intended appearance sufficiently distinguishes between works of art and decoration or design or how this analysis would deal with religious objects of artistic interest. But that artistic intentions are inextricably grounded in artistic media and what those media permit the artist to intend is both true and important. We can no more successfully intend to create new meanings in the artistic realm by abandoning the traditions in which such meanings perforce exist, than we can intend new linguistic forms by means unknown to any existing language.
Would it, though, matter if art is replaced by bunk, if works inspired by bogus ideas and faulty philosophising fill our galleries, rather than works of art continuous with achieved traditions of meaning and sensibility? Readers of The Journal of Applied Philosophy will no doubt have their own views on this, and on the inexhaustible potential of the media of artistic expression we have inherited. But it would be interesting to hear the views of Sandy Nairne and our other artistic administrators on this question, for they are crucially placed to affect the artistic future of our culture. Andre himself, meanwhile, is currently offering a pile of steel plates for $140,000.
Senior/Principal Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Brighton.
“Review of Art or Bunk? by Ian Ground” British Journal of Aesthetics 31, no. 2 (April 1991) pp. 173-174.
Surely every teacher of introductory aesthetics has longed for a text which is readable by those starting to think philosophically, which raises key issues and yet is philosophically rigorous. Ian Ground’s Art or Bunk? is an answer to such prayers. Clearly written, with considerable philosophical sophistication, it lays out a number of central questions of philosophical aesthetics in ways which—while perhaps not as fully comprehensible to the layman as Mary Midgley hopes in her ‘Foreword’ —are readily accessible to beginners. As both author and series editor note, for many British people Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, a ‘collection’ of firebricks, epitomizes all that is problematic about the idea of art current in Twentieth Century art-circles. The problem, of course, is not that works such as Andre’s fail to be art: ‘People could not understand how Andre had managed to fail in making a work of art at all’ (p. 3). Nor they could see no connection between art and Andre’s project (or his techniques). Ground seeks to explain such a worry could be met by systematic reflection on the nature of art.
Such reflection provides a framework for questions about the understanding of art, a framework with three key elements. As Ground puts it: ‘… first, the idea of a regulative concept of art; second, the idea of aesthetic intelligibility; third, the idea that there are important analogies and connections between understanding works of art and understanding other people’ (p. 143). Each of these ideas is introduced, explained and defended in the text. The brief overview here will ignore much else that is valuable: in particular, the discussion of the idea of a medium for art works is revealing, as is the discussion of the differences between history and tradition.
The book has three central sections: art and the artist, art and the audience, art and the tradition. In each, it is argued that an expanded conception of what it is to understand art will allow an informed confrontation with the issues arising in calling an object ‘art’ or in withholding that title. These issues are familiar: many have names in the literature. So that, for example, much of chapter 2 is a discussion of The Intentional fallacy but, consonant with the aims of the work, the emphasis is on a problem and what it means for art rather than on a discussion (far less a review) of a literature. And this attitude is a major strength of the text. Always the points are made clearly, and often with humour (and the use of cartoon-type drawings). For example, the presentation of a ‘perceptualist’ view of criticism (pp. 91-94) —a view I have espoused in this journal —is both very clear and accessible; and clarifies how critical judgement could be seen as other than merely inferential.
The final chapter, ‘Understanding Art and Understanding People’, draws together the major thrusts of the book by exploiting the comparison in its title: ‘One’s experience of a work of art is rather less like a special sort of event and rather more like a special sort of relationship’ (p. 141). Such a conception allows Ground to restate his objections to the idea that aesthetics is concerned with mere appearances; rather, it is built on ‘the distinction between works of art and other sorts of object of aesthetic interest such that the concept of art functions regulatively (‘a rule for the regulation of our interest in the object’ p. 139) rather than descriptively. Such a challenging conception of aesthetics has much to offer.
A few critical comments on the text itself are appropriate, and I will present each briefly. As a former sinner in the titling department, I am aware of the attraction for an author of what he hopes will be eye-catching, but also of the disadvantages. The lurid title of the book as a whole is matched by some equally vivid section headings. While some, such as ‘moore than a meteorite’ (p. 25), are both amusing and apposite, others are confusing or obscure. For example, ‘Tadzio and tigers’ (p. 12) rather ill reflects the content of the section. Relatedly, the lack of an index makes it hard to go back to any particular argument, since section titles typically fail to capture their content.
Since the focus of the book, as is acknowledged (p. 10), is on the visual arts, the implications of the ideas for performing arts (say, dance) remain dark. Moreover, the justification for that focus, in terms of the challenges to the idea of art in this century, seems problematic: isn’t literature as least as good a case? Still, visual art is an interesting example, and that is all that really matters. Some of the omissions are surprising. For example, the discussion of the role of society (in chapter 4) lacks any reference to discussion of the institutional theory of art. Its contemporary relevance and the fact that it offers another kind of insight into the nature of art prompts this objection — not merely its being a hobbyhorse of mine. Of course, such an objection might be dealt with via comprehensive notes: yet these too are not here. Further, the bibliographic material could constructively be expanded to act as a springboard for future study. The present ‘suggestions for further reading’ is helpful, but a fully satisfactory introductory text requires a larger list and more extensive annotations.
Finally, the book does not fully succeed in avoiding technicality. For example, the word ‘identical’ sometimes means indistinguishable (as in common usage), but sometimes it has the technical force of numerical identity. But perhaps the worst example is the quotation from Wollheim (p. 9). As a fan of Richard Wollheim’s work, I applaud both the emphasis on the view of art as a regulative concept and the homage to Wollheim implicit in the quotation. Yet the quotation itself is problematic. It is one of those places where Wollheim’s Freudianism is most apparent, where we have reference to ‘the vast Oedipal conflict’, for example. This really isn’t to the aesthetic point. And it is surely beyond beginners, at least if they are being asked to turn the comment into a specific thesis —especially a thesis in aesthetics.
But these are all minor cavils, nothing more. This is an attractively produced and durable paperback, at a sensible price. It gives me great pleasure to recommend it (almost) unreservedly.
University of Regina
“Review of Art or Bunk? by Ian Ground” Canadian Philosophical Review XI, no. 3 (June 1991): 193-195.
As the title suggests, a major theme in Ian Ground’s book is the difference between art and bunk. Ground uses Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII as one vehicle for exploring this theme. Equivalent VIII is a ‘work of art’ consisting of a set of 120 completely unworked fire-bricks arranged in a rectangle’ (1). According to Ground, what Equivalent VIII did was to awaken people to questions about the nature of art, what sorts of things can be works of art, and what sorts of things are ‘bunk’. The book, which has five chapters, attempts to answer these questions.
The first chapter (art or bunk?) provides the framework and structure governing the book’s overall discussion. Ground suggests three points of departure. These are: 1) art and the artist; 2) art and the audience; and 3) art and tradition. Each of the next three chapters is devoted to discussing one of these points. Ground concludes the first chapter with the contention that works of art cannot be understood purely in terms of their physical qualities. To illustrate this contention, Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure is compared to a meteorite, which happens to be physically identical to the Moore sculpture. The chapter ends with the claim that the work of art is properly identified with the ‘intended appearance’ of the object.
Chapter two (art and the artist) is an exploration of the notion of artistic intention. Continuing with the ‘bunk’ theme, the concern is how bunk relates to the artist’s intentions. The question is whether the difference between art and bunk ‘lies behind the object:… is it what the artist intended to do which makes the real difference?’ (31). Ground examines both responses to this question. This examination is then used as a springboard back to the idea of ‘intended appearance’.
The third chapter (art and the audience) begins with the question: ‘when it comes to art, isn’t bunk in the eye of the beholder?’ (61). This leads to a general discussion of the nature of skepticism and the possibility of knowledge. Out of this emerges the first discussion of one of the central themes of the book. Ground proposes an analogy between knowing a person and knowing a work of art. Reflecting on how we come to have knowledge of other people provides insight into how we come to have knowledge of works of art. There is also a rich discussion involving the levels of competence and knowledge that the audience brings to bear on works of art.
In chapter four (art and tradition), questions about knowledge and competence are tied to artistic traditions. The opening question of the chapter is the following: ‘Is the sort of difference there is between art and bunk determined by an object’s relations to the traditions of art?’ (100). Ground contrasts an analytic/nonhistorical construal of art with a Marxist portrayal of art in regard to this question. The discussion then proceeds to an excellent analysis of the difference between medium and material.
The last chapter (understanding art and understanding people) provides a summary that pulls all the threads and themes of the book together. In particular, there is more discussion of the ‘knowing people/knowing art’ analogy. More generally, there are several particular features of the book which are very good. Each chapter is divided into sections, and this makes the line of argument easier to follow. Ground makes use of cartoons and diagrams to illustrate his major points of contention. The links between the chapters are good. Ground’s book is a ‘good read’, and it presents and develops its themes in a clear way.
There is one other general comment that needs to be made. Ground claims that we need ‘to stop thinking of the notion of a work of art that we use as one which is solely descriptive’ (17). ‘The notion of a work of art is not a tag we place on the object after the main event. It is the programme for the main event. It is not merely a label. It is much more like a rule. The concept of a work of art does not describe; it regulates’ (27). Whatever one thinks about the philosophical method and assumptions that stand behind such an account, the question remains as to whether or not it is an appropriate approach in a book that is supposed to be an introduction to aesthetics. For example, there is something troubling about an “introductory” book that does not discuss, except in passing, formalism and expressionism.
However, it should be noted that this is not intended to be a standard introductory text. Art or Bunk? is one book in the Mind Matters series, and its purpose is not, as the series editor Judith Hughes notes in the preface, ‘to produce a potted history of philosophical ideas’ (x). Or, as Mary Midgley says in the foreword, the ‘series contains excellent guide-books… which are clear, but which are not superficial surveys’ (viii). Unless one is aware that Art or Bunk? is not a survey but a piece of original philosophy that is interesting and valuable in its own right, Hughes’ claim that Ground’s book provides a much-needed, lively and readable introduction to aesthetics’ (x) is misleading. Otherwise, Hughes’ claim is most certainly true.
Professor and head of the Department of Philosophy, Kansas State University.
“Review of Art or Bunk? by Ian Ground” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48, no. Summer (1990), pp. 267-268.
This book (in the publisher’s Mind Matters series designed for the layperson without formal philosophical training) begins with the question of what distinguishes art from bunk. Ground builds his discussion around Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, the pile of bricks that aroused so much controversy when exhibited in the Tate in 1972. The public’s outcry about this seemed to express the view that not only was this not a work of art but that it was not even a candidate for that title. This introduces the interesting and related question, in what ways can something fail to be a work of art?
In pursuit of answers to these questions the author discusses a number of relevant topics that include aesthetics and the looks of things, the intentions of the artist, the responses of the spectator, and the culture and its traditions within which both artist and audience function. The relations between these and various elements are aptly illustrated by a diagram borrowed from Kjell S. Johanessen. Especially interesting are his suggestions about the connection between understanding art and understanding people in which Ground makes clear that art does not belong to a special realm of “the aesthetic.” but is intimately joined with the whole of our lives.
The author is very critical of a number of current views in aesthetic theory, as well he should be. But he makes no explicit reference to any particular philosopher or text embodying those views. Notes at the end of the chapters, however, show who has influenced him and sometimes who his targets are. There is no index.
It would not be fair to give away what Ground believes the difference is between art and bunk. Let the reader discover it himself for this book will repay study. It is salutary in its insistence upon the relation between art and a background of tradition, not a tradition that is only an impoverished theoretical “art world” but one that includes the whole of our lives.
The layperson without formal philosophical training will surely gain something from this book, but how much I do not know. Philosophers will gain much although they may come away feeling that not enough has been done. The hints and suggestions about the connections between understanding art and understanding people, for example, are tantalizing. They make us wish for a further development of the theme replete with details of particular cases. Once we have slipped the surly bonds of mistaken theorizing we want to know how this new insight into our common humanity can lead us to a new appreciation of art, what it can produce in terms of concrete criticism and how it can be put to work by historians of art. This very incompleteness, however, can be taken as a challenge to get on with these further explorations and applications. (BRT)
University of Durham
“Review of Art or Bunk? by Ian Ground” Durham University Journal LXXX12 (June 1989) p. 334.
Art or Bunk? is one the titles which launch a series by Bristol Classical Press comprising slim paperbacks of modest cost but extensive ambition. As Mary Midgley says in her introduction:
[Philosophy] is at present being squeezed out even from university courses. But that cannot stop us doing it if we want to. This series contains excellent guide-books for people who do want to, guide books which are clear, but which are not superficial surveys. They are themselves pieces of real philosophy, directed at specific problems which are likely to concern all of us.
It has always been a problem to know where to advise an interested but inexperienced person to start the study of philosophy. Most introductory books are about the history or biographies of philosophy rather than actually doing it. But to launch into reading original philosophical papers or monographs commonly requires a degree of background knowledge which makes them incomprehensible to the beginner. This series therefore addresses a real need. It may interest readers of the DUJ to learn that all the authors are linked with the (late) philosophy department at Newcastle University; and specifically that Ian Ground developed the ideas incorporated in this book during his time as a postgraduate at Durham, and further refined them while teaching adult education classes at Newcastle.
Ian Ground gets the balance between simplicity and sophistication exactly right. He manages this remarkable feat by being firmly rooted in questions of general interest, and by his elegant, concise, witty prose which makes reading the book itself an aesthetic experience. The starting point is the public debate concerning the Tate Galley purchase of Carl Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII: better known as “the bricks”. As he says:
Equivalent VIII accidentally succeeded in awakening a new generation of people to an old question. Just what sort of thing is a work of art? Why on earth this question should matter and how to go about answering it is the business of this book. (p. 1).
The argument is developed clearly and systematically by examining contrasting emphases on the work of art/the artist, the artist/the audience, and contemporary art/the tradition; in order to establish just what is required from a satisfactory aesthetic theory. Most of the usual ways of talking about the arts are found to be unsatisfactory in important ways, while also containing insights which should be preserved. The final chapter draws together these diverse threads to synthesize a better set of concepts, and to suggest a better analogy for the activity of getting to know a work of art:
… Perhaps the classic thought of aesthetics, that aesthetic interest is directed to appearances, comes to this.
I say ‘No — hear it like this…’ and I play the unfamiliar music. And now I make a certain gesture. This time you say ‘Yes — I hear it now’. In seeing how my gesture was a reason for hearing the music in that way, in seeing that my gesture was on the inside of the music, perhaps it is indeed that we are mutually appraised of something it makes sense to speak of as the reality of appearances. On this view the triumph of the artist is to succeed in an appallingly difficult, but still human-sized task; the embodiment of life and thought and feeling in objects; the embodiment of the reality of points of view.
It is in this sense that there may be more than just analogies between understanding works of art and understanding people. But this is something of which one is convinced, if at all, not by listening to philosophical arguments but by understanding particular works of art. (p. 143).