Artist Intent: The Role of a Medium Who Talks

In the chapter, “Interpretation and Identification,” in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Arthur Danto considers two painting, J and K, that are “distinct, enormously different works, however visually indiscernible.”

The following example depicts a similar case to highlight Danto’s art philosophy argument.

The Creations of John and Kevin

John is in his fourth year of art school at the undergraduate level and still feels he has learned nothing about what makes a creation a work of art.

His drawings are drastically different from other students’ drawings in his classes, yet they are all treated as works of art during his class critiques. John’s drawings appear three-dimensional and resemble photographs, while many of his classmates do not approach art through realism, and instead produce, what John considers, very juvenile drawings. Nonetheless, these drawings are evaluated, put on display in school art shows, and considered art by everyone John comes in contact with, in the same fashion that his drawings are considered art.

One day, John gets fed up with producing art for a college that is going to consider anything he produces a work of art. He no longer wants to spend time using care and precision in his drawings to make them look like photographs. John decides that since his work will be treated as art regardless of what it looks like, he might as well not even physically produce the art himself.

To complete his work for the remainder of his time in art school, John designs a computer program that randomly generates “art.” The software produces colors and shapes that form a composition, and the only effort John puts into creating an artwork is pressing a “generate art” button. When John hears his classmates and professors try to analyze what the colors and shapes could represent in the first work that his software produces, he laughs to himself because he knows that no artistic intent went into the creation of the work. The composition took virtually no time to create and symbolizes nothing for John.

John’s classmate Kevin has a neurological condition called digit-color synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia, in general, is a condition that interconnects the senses, and in the specific case of digit-color synaesthesia, there is a sensory overlap between the auditory and visual senses. When Kevin hears words, he visually sees colors that correspond to each word. Though the colors that a digit-color synaesthetic individual sees upon hearing words may be different from another digit-color synaesthetic individual, within one synaesthetic individual, the colors that the individual sees upon hearing words are extremely consistent. This is due to the fact that each digit-color synaesthetic individual sees a color for each letter of the alphabet; therefore, the same color appears every time the letter is uttered or that letter is used in a word.

When Kevin is asked the color of an eight-letter name, he gives a detailed description of the color of each letter that makes up the name. For example, if a name begins with the letter “T,” “T” may be described as “red with a little bit of orange in it.” Each letter of the name is described to form the color description of the name.

The consistent aspect of synaesthesia is relevant here because no matter how much time has passed in between inquiries, for each color description that Kevin gives, when asked to give it again at any time in future, he will give the exact same description verbatim.

Since Kevin has had this condition his entire life, the colors that are associated with his family members’ names appear quite frequently for Kevin due to his common interactions with them and common discussions about them. These sensations are a very personal experience for Kevin, but he would like to try to show, physically, the colors that he sees in his mind. He also wants to make a family portrait, but instead of rendering his family members realistically, he decides to represent them by the colors that he sees when he hears their names.

Kevin creates his composition on his computer using different shapes to represent each family member. He colors in the shapes with detailed color transitions in the order that each color appears in his mind to depict how each color blends in with the next color that appears.

When Kevin finishes his creation on his computer, he prints it out, and it happens to be visually identical to the first work that John’s art-generating program produced. Are these identical creations both works of art?

If John’s frustrations are valid, then any object can be considered a work of art. We would not need to use the term “art” or the classification of something as “art,” if any type of creation could be viewed as “art.” Deeming something “art” would become obsolete, and the reference to something as an object, thing, or creation would suffice to describe a work in question.

I argue that if the term “art” is used to classify something, which it currently is, then there has to be some central properties or essence to the classification. Claiming that everything is “art,” or nothing is “art” does not further our concept of the genre that has been traditionally used to classify types of paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc. We need to find out the essence of artistic things.

To differentiate the two paintings, Danto places great importance on the artist’s explanations of what the works reveal:

How extraordinary, were one to hear these explanations, to discover the indiscernibility of the works. And at the level of visual discrimination, they cannot relevantly be told apart. They are constituted as different works through identifications that themselves are justified by an interpretation of their subjects … It is widely agreed that K’s is a success while J’s is a failure.

Danto uses K and J to refer to paintings that were created under similar circumstances as John’s creation, which can be equated to J, and Kevin’s creation, which can be equated to K. J was somewhat “randomly” produced, while K was composed with thoughtful preparation to serve a specific purpose. Danto argues that one needs to discover the circumstances of how a work was created to help determine if it is indeed a work of art.

As I have made explicit by now, my tattoo philosophy upholds a similar position. Situations such as the ones described above demonstrate that merely viewing a creation does not necessarily determine whether or not it is a work of art. For a view such as Danto’s and my own, the artist’s relationship to the work is a crucial factor in making an artistic discrimination.

But what if the artists are not always present to describe how the works were created when the physical creations J and K are displayed? How, then, would one be able to tell the difference?

In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman has the same concern: “the information needed to determine what, if anything, is denoted by a picture is not always accessible.” This is possible, in the art form of tattooing, by talking to the artist-medium to find out whether the tattoo is an artistic success, according to my criteria.

If the tattooed individual does not verbally acknowledge his role in the creation of the tattoo, one can quickly determine the medium is not also the artist. If a tattooed individual is deceased, or not able to speak, we have as much limited knowledge about the intent of the tattoo as we do a painting that is separated from its creator.

— This is an excerpt from The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art. —

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The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art
Stefanie Flaxman
is the creator of @RevisionFairy and author of a new book about heartbreak.

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About Stefanie Flaxman

Stefanie Flaxman is a digital copywriter and editor with an unparalleled eye for detail. She teaches better writing, disciplined creativity, and non-sleazy marketing. Get more from Stefanie on YouTube.