A Day at the Gallery: A Contrast of the Art Theory of Bell, Beardsley, and 80’s Dickie and Levinson

Philosophers Beardsley, Bell, Dickie and Levinson all present varied theories of what can be classified as art, each having their respective definition of an essence central to art’s definition. In this essay I will contrast the theories of these philosophers (focusing on Dickie and Levinson’s theories in the context of the 1980’s) by applying them to several pieces of artwork, drawing out the distinctions and comparisons that reflect their positions on the proper definition or classification of art. I will then conclude with commentary on the theory I find the most satisfying. 

If these art theorists were to view the statue group, Laocoön, it would likely illicit varied reactions and disagreements of the piece’s classification as art. For Bell, the statue would be considered art so long as it utilizes significant form (the particular combination of lines and colour) in eliciting the aesthetic emotion. Whether or not Laocoön would evoke aesthetic emotion for Bell is a query reflective of the subjective notion Bell considers to be inherent in art, as the emotion produced by the artwork is the sole factor by which humans can observe art. Regardless of Bell’s potential perceptive experience of recognizing the significant form present in the statue, the existence of the form is objective. Bell’s potential objections to this piece being considered artwork would however stem from a focus on content within the statue. It is likely that Bell might recognize Laocoön as art as the narrative focus present in the statue would allude to an overt concern on content, making it more a descriptive painting type of work. However, I think Bell’s recognition of the emotional focus on Laocoön extending further than the story of which it depicts, as the significant form present aims to reflect aesthetic emotion, would mean that Bell would recognize Laocoön as art. 

George Dickie would likely additionally consider Laocoön to be art. However for Dickie the reasoning would lie largely behind the connection that the work has (and previously had) with the artworld. The fine detail present in the sculpting of the work, and the resources required to create a work in times of antiquity leads to a reasonable assumption of the piece being created for the purpose of being presented to an artworld public and presence/belonging of an artworld system. Furthermore, the fact that the piece is an antique of human creation would additionally influence Dickie towards considering the statue as art. 

With respect to some aspects of similar focus, Beardsley would likely have a comparable interpretation to Bell of the 15th-16th century Aztec Water Deity statue. For Beardsley, his distinct definition of aesthetic experience was contingent on the distinguishing factors of complexity, unity and intensity. These attributes would emerge for Beardsley through the statue as they are within the objective features of the form of the work. The absorbing effect of the interwoven shapes that form the design of the statue reflect the complex nature of interrelated parts that Beardsley assigned to art. Furthermore, the complete nature in which these parts fit together, having a lack of asymmetrical aspects and a cohesive flow, form Beardsley’s notion of unity. Finally, the cultural significance and large experience to which the statue speaks to reflects the piece’s unity. The aspect of completeness, although not glaringly apparent, can, according to Beardsley, be gathered through a reasonable interpretation of the artist’s intentions. Within this aspect is the crucial definition for Beardsley that fits the water deity statue, the artwork was produced with the intention that it has the capacity to satisfy aesthetic interest. Beardsley would likely identify the statue as art as the presence of complexity, unity and intensity culminate in reflecting the artist’s intention of producing the work with the intention of giving an aesthetic experience. 

Bell’s theories would slightly contrast Beardsley for this statue as it is very possible that Bell would dictate the statue to be of religious focus rather than aesthetic, thus not classifying it as art as it is not of artistic aims. Beardsley exhibited more tolerance towards this notion, accepting religious focus in art so long as the intention of the work’s conception was to bring about satisfaction of the aesthetic experience. 

In the case of Cattelan’s, Comedian, which consists of a banana duct taped to a white wall, it is likely that 80’s George Dickie would not identify the piece of work as art. Conversely to Bearsley and Bell, Dickie’s classification of one of these pieces as art would be largely connected to social reasons. Comedian would likely fit Dickie’s definition of being a piece that has taken on the role of presentation to the artworld public. As such, the piece largely connects to the artworld and undoubtedly its conception is based in its presentation to the artworld. Although the piece would meet Dickie’s definitions in this aspect, it would however (being mostly a natural object) fail to be an artefact, an element additionally essential to Dickie’s definition of art. However, Dickie additionally acknowledges that artworld systems consist of many different practices with their own rules and conventions that are subject to change. Thus, it is possible that Dickie would consider the piece to be a form of conceptual art, a field that evolves what mediums are acceptable, eventually allowing a non-artefact item to form a piece that Dickie would consider art. 

Conversely, Levinson’s theories would not take a work lacking the classification as an artefact as a hindrance to assigning it as art. For Levinson, Comedian would reflect intention from an individualistic perspective towards the artwork in desiring it to be regarded in a way that past forms of art have been viewed, thus classifying the piece as art for Levinson. 

It is likely that Bell would recognize the commonality between Comedian and Laocoön in both provoking emotion; however would raise a distinction between the presence of significant form, identifying it in Laocoön as conceptualized and effective in producing aesthetic emotion, and not identifying its presence in Comedian.

Levinson similarly agreed with Dickie that the essence of art lies not in the apparent properties of given pieces of art, but in the greater framework of things relating to art. For Levinson, the intention of a work to be regarded in some form of which art has previously been seen is the defining factor. It is because of this that Levinson would classify Comedian as an artwork because of the presence of the right intention from the creator of wanting the work to be regarded as former artworks. Levinson would additionally classify Jack Bush’s Striped Column as artwork, not only because of the artist’s intention for the work to be regarded in reverence to past similar pieces (specific art-conscious intention), but additionally because of its coherence to Levinson’s specific requirements of intention. The prominence and recognition of Jack Bush as an abstract painter is able to reflect the lasting intention present within the piece and others of his work. This fact would be apparent to Levinson through the presence of the piece in a prestigious gallery and the display of the work alongside pieces reflecting a common regard. Furthermore, the cyclical dependency of Levinson’s theory would likely emerge in analysis of the piece, as Levinson’s assessment of Striped Column as being art would be dependent on his assessment of it relating to some form of art history. Similarly, Dickie’s cyclical dependancy would emerge in his theories as his assessment of Striped Column as art would stem from his initial understanding of its context in the art world, reflecting a recursive definition. 

In response to Philosophers Fleeing from the Power of Art, the art piece in which several philosophers flee from a gallery, it is likely these philosophers would have very different interpretations of the piece. For Bell, the piece could very well evoke certain emotions, likely some of embarrassment, fear or sentimentality. However, principally, Bell would likely identify the piece with being concerned with content more so than utilized form. Within this, Bell’s frustrations with notions such as art being beautiful imitation would likely inhibit him from classifying Philosophers Fleeing from the Power of Art as art. 

Beardsley would likely consider the artwork art so much as it has the capacity to satisfy aesthetic interest. Furthermore he would likely appreciate it in showing the value of art in refining perceptions and fostering mutual understanding. However, Beardsley would take issue with the non-complete nature of the piece, and the lack of intensity. 

It is likely that both Dickie and Levinson would be more favourable towards classifying this piece as art. This is largely because their classifications would not be contingent on the physical properties of the artwork, but of its place in a greater framework of relations that establish our understanding of art. I find the theories of Dickie and Levinson (particularly the refined theories of Levinson) to be particularly accessible and persuading. Levinson’s theories emerge as being the most intuitive in classifying art in most given instances as the basis is within the creation of the art, rather than the social conventions surrounding it or the physical manifestations present in it. I find this the most satisfying of the theories as its application is based in an analysis of the initial movement that brings the piece of art into the world, reflecting an intuitive effect. Furthermore, although the theory depends upon cyclical definitions, it creates a more arbitrary definition that can create refined meaningful conclusions on art without largely excluding any form. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *