Thoughts on Sellars, Art, and Language

February 16, 2015

[W]ith concerns Art, I think it is important to criticize the notion of the given, following Sellars’ thoughts in this manner. For Sellars, roughly put, the given is anything which can act as a directly known foundation for our thought — in Art this often takes the form of our experience of the artwork, and it is usually considered that this immediate experience of the artwork provides us with a type of knowing that can be received without and beyond any conceptual mediation. We can trace this mistake at least as far back as Greenberg and his misreading of Kant — that the critical task of Art is to categorically strip itself of anything that is not unique to its own enterprise. For Greenberg, this meant the stripping of Art’s disciplinary and conceptual dimensions in favor of a pure perception. This mistake is looked over by later generations of critics — Krauss, for example, carries it through, while simply loosening Greenberg’s categorical restrictions on the development of medium specificity, and considers the dimensions of space and time as the pertinent fields of development. As Duchamp is later championed in the cannon, all determinate restrictions are dropped in favor a general name of Art — such that anything which is nominated as Art simply becomes Art.

Nonetheless, all the unreconstructed experience of the artwork, as experience, largely remains untouched through these developments – resulting in a privatized and subjective discourse for art, in which the relative apprehensions of art fundamentally speak past one-another, since there is no overarching means of connecting the disparate discourses, and the immediacy of experience is not-translatable into language, which would be considered a conceptual impoverishment of the unique and immediate experience of the subject. In this world where no common measure of value can be discerned by the discourse of art itself, the value of money comes to substitute for aesthetic value, since it is the sole universally recognizable value.

So, following Sellars’ critique of the given, where he argues that all experience is invariably freighted with conceptual content — for while, in principle, perception and conception can be held to be distinct, in practice we cannot have experience without conceptual content, for without it, we would not be able to distinguish between the various objects of our experience (and it is quite likely that this cognitive processing even happens on a level below our conscious experience of it). So, if I see a red, triangular thing – I cannot make this distinction without the concepts ‘red’ and ‘triangular’, and furthermore, cannot even have those concepts without a whole battery of related concepts regarding colors and shapes.

If then, artworks do not provide some unique and immediate perceptual access to the truth about the world, which is often considered their epistemically privileged position, and they are in fact completely synthetic constructions, relying both upon their perceptual and conceptual effects, I think the next step is to highlight the conceptual dimension which has been obscured by the historical discourse, and in fact recognize their role as language entry and exits. Once we have placed them within the world of language, and furthermore, recognize the communal nature of language, it is a matter of revising the discourse of Art — of building a criteria which recognizes the commitments we make in the kinds of language statements we produce, and submitting them to the reciprocal process of reason

Of course – there is much more that needs to be said than this, re: the Archimedean point of the Peircish Scientific Image and Art’s abductive role to play in this, but its something I’m still working on, and I think relates to the specific form of language that is Art.