A Matter of Meaning It – Stanley Cavell



[…] I might define the problem of modernism as one in which the question of value comes first as well as last: to classify a modern work as art is already to have staked value, more starkly than the (later) decision concerning its goodness or badness. Your interest in Mozart is not likely to draw much attention – which is why such interests can be, so to speak, academic. But an interest in Webern or Stockhausen or Cage is, one might say, revealing, even sometimes suspicious. (A Christian might say that in such interests, and choices, the heart is revealed. This is what Tolstoy saw.) Philosophers sometimes speak of the phrase ‘work of art’ as having an ‘honorific sense,’ as though that were * surprising or derivative fact about it, even one to be neutralized or ignored. But that works of art are valuable is analytically true of them; and that value *s inescapable in human experience and conduct is one of the facts of life, and Of art, which modern art lays bare.

Of course there is the continuous danger that the question will be begged, *«at theory and evidence become a closed and vicious circle. I do not insist that this is always the case, but merely that unless this problem is faced here no problem of the right kind can come to focus. For if everything counted as art which now offers itself as art, then questions about whether, for example, figurative content, or tonality, or heroic couplets are still viable resources for painters, composers, and poets would not only never have arisen, but would make no sense. When there was a tradition, everything which seemed to count did count. (And that is perhaps analytic of the notion of ‘tradition.’) I say that Krenek’s late work doesn’t count, and that means that the way it is ‘organized’ does not raise for me the question of how music may be organized. I say that Caro’s steel sculptures count, and that raises for me the question of what sculpture is: I had – I take it everyone had – thought (assumed? imagined? -but no one word is going to be quite right, and that must itself require a philosophical account) that a piece of sculpture was something worked (carved, chipped, polished, etc.); but Caro uses steel rods and beams and sheets which he does not work (e.g., bend or twist) but rather, one could say, places. I had thought that a piece of sculpture had the coherence of a natural object, that it was what I wish to call spatially closed or spatially continuous (or consisted of a group of objects of such coherence); but a Caro may be open and discontinuous, one of its parts not an outgrowth from another, nor even joined or connected with another so much as it is juxtaposed to it, or an inflection from it. I had thought a piece of sculpture stood on a base (or crouched in a pediment, etc.) and rose; but a Caro rests on the raw ground and some do not so much rise as spread or reach or open. I had heard that sculpture used to be painted, and took it as a matter of fashion or taste that it no longer was (in spite of the reconstructed praises of past glories, the idea of painted stone figures struck me as ludicrous); Caro paints his pieces, but not only is this not an external or additional fact about them, it creates objects about which I wish to say they are not painted, or not colored; they have color not the way, say, cabinets or walls do, but the way grass and soil do – the experience I recall is perhaps hit off by saying that Caro is not using colored beams, rods, and sheets, but beams and rods and sheets of color. It is almost as though the color helps de-materialize its supporting object. One might wish to say they are weightless, but that would not mean that these massively heavy materials seem light., but, more surprisingly, neither light nor heavy, resistant to the concept of weight altogether – as they are resistant to the concept of size; they seem neither large nor small. Similarly, they seem to be free of texture, so critical a parameter of other sculpture. They are no longer things. (Something similar seems to be true of the use of color in recent painting: it is not merely that it no longer serves as the color of something, nor that it is disembodied; but that the canvas we know to underly it is no longer its support – the color is simply there, as the canvas is. How it got there is only technically (one could say it is no longer humanly) interesting, it is no longer handled.)

The problem this raises for me is exactly not to decide whether this is art ( mean, sculpture), nor to find some definition of ‘sculpture’ which makes the Caro pieces borderline cases of sculpture, or sculptures in some extended sense.

The problem is that I am, so to speak, stuck with the knowledge that this is sculpture, in the same sense that any object is. The problem is that I no longer know what sculpture is, why I call any object, the most central or traditional, a piece of sculpture. How can objects made this way elicit the experience I had thought confined to objects made so differently? And that this is a matter of experience is what needs constant attention; nothing more, but nothing less, than that. Just as it needs constant admission that one’s experience may be wrong, or misformed, or inattentive and inconstant.

This admission is more than a reaffirmation of the first fact about art, that it must be felt, not merely known – or, as I would rather put it, that it must be known for oneself. It is a statement of the fact of life – the metaphysical fact, one could say – that apart from one’s experience of it there is nothing to be known about it, no way of knowing that what you know is relevant. For what else is there for me to rely on but my experience? It is only if I accept (my experience of) the Caro that I have to conclude that the art of sculpture does not (or does no longer) depend on figuration, on being worked, on spatial continuity, etc. Then what does it depend on? That is, again, the sort of issue which prompted me to say that modern art lays bare the condition of art in general. Or put it this way: That an object is ‘a piece of sculpture’ is not (no longer) grammatically related to its ‘being sculptured,’ i.e., to its being the result of carving or chipping, etc., some material with some tool. Then we no longer know what kind of object a piece of sculpture (grammatically) is. That it is not a natural object is something we knew. But it also is not an artifact either – or if it is, it is one which defines no known craft. It is, one would like to say, a work of art. But what is it one will then be saying?

Two serious ambiguities . . . become particularly relevant here:

a) … [Am I] addressing the question ‘Is this music?’ or Ts this (music) art?’? I am very uncertain about this important alternation; but I want to suggest what it is I am uncertain about and why I take it to be important.

There is this asymmetry between the questions: If there is a clear answer to the question, ‘Is this music (painting, sculpture . . , )?’, then the question whether it is art is irrelevant, superfluous. If it is music then (analytically) it is art. That seems unprejudicial. But the negation does not: if it is not music then it is not art. But why does that seem prejudicial? Why couldn’t we allow Pop Art, say, or Cage’s evenings, or Happenings, to be entertainments of some kind without troubling about art? But we are troubled. Because for us, given the gradual self-definitions and self-liberations over the past century of the separate major arts we accept, Pop Art presents itself as, or as challenging, Painting; Cage presents his work as, or as challenging the possibility of, music. …It would be enough to say that objects of Pop Art are not paintings or Sculptures, that works of Cage and Krenek are not music – //we are clear what a painting is, what a piece of music is. But the trouble is that the genuine article – the music of Schoenberg and Webern, the sculpture of Caro, the Painting of Morris Louis, the theatre of Brecht and Beckett – really does challenge the art of which it is the inheritor and voice. Each is, in a word, not I Merely modern, but modernist. Each, one could say, is trying to find the limits or essence, of its own procedures. And this means that it is not clear a priori what counts, or will count, as a painting, or sculpture or musical composition. … So we haven’t got clear criteria for determining whether a given object is or is not a painting, a sculpture. . . . But this is exactly what our whole discussion has prepared us for. The task of the modernist artist, as of the contemporary critic, is to find what it is his art finally depends upon; it doesn’t matter that we haven’t a priori criteria for defining a painting, what matters is that we realize that the criteria are something we must discover, discover in the continuity of painting itself. But my point now is that to discover this we need to discover what objects we accept as paintings, and why we so accept them. And to ‘accept something as a painting’ is to ‘accept something as a work of art,’ i.e., as something carrying the intentions and consequences of art: the nature of the acceptance is altogether crucial. So the original questions ‘Is this music?’ and ‘Is this art?’ are not independent. The latter shows, we might say, the spirit in which the former is relevantly asked.

b) To say that the modern ‘lays bare’ may suggest that there was something concealed in traditional art which hadn’t, for some reason, been noticed, or that what the modern throws over – tonality, perspective, narration, the absent fourth wall, etc. – was something inessential to music, painting, poetry, and theater in earlier periods. These would be false suggestions. For it is not that now we finally know the true condition of art; it is only that someone who does not question that condition has nothing, or not the essential thing, to go on in addressing the art of our period. And far from implying that we now know, for example, that music does not require tonality, nor painting figuration nor theater an audience of spectators, etc., exactly what I want to have accomplished is to make all such notions problematic, to force us to ask, for example, what the art was which as a matter of fact did require, or exploit, tonality, perspective, etc. Why did it? What made such things media of art? It may help to say that the notion of ‘modernism laying bare its art’ is meant not as an interpretation of history (the history of an art), but as a description of the latest period of a history, a period in which each of the arts seems to be, even forced to be, drawing itself to its limits, purging itself of elements which can be foregone and which therefore seem arbitrary or extraneous – poetry wishing the abstraction and immediacy of lyricism; theater wishing freedom from entertainment and acting; music wishing escape from the rhythm or logic of the single body and its frame of emotion. . . . Why this has happened one would like to know, but for the moment what is relevant is that it has happened at a certain moment in history. For it was not always true of a given art that it sought to keep its medium pure, that it wished to assert its own limits, and therewith its independence of the other arts. Integrity could be assured without purity. So in saying that ‘we do not know what is and what is not essentially connected to the concept of music’ I am not saying that what we do not know is which one or more phenomena are always essential to something’s being music, but that we have yet to discover what at any given moment has been essential to our accepting something as music. As was said, this discovery is unnecessary as long as there is a tradition – when everything which is offered for acceptance

is the real thing. But so far as the possibility of fraudulence is characteristic of the modern, then the need for a grounding of our acceptance becomes an issue for aesthetics. I think of it as a need for an answer to the question, What is a medium of art?

Philosophers will sometimes say that sound is the medium of music, paint of painting, wood and stone of sculpture, words of literature. One has to find what problems have been thought to reach illumination in such remarks. What needs recognition is that wood or stone would not be a medium of sculpture in the absence of the art of sculpture. The home of the idea of a medium lies in the visual arts, and it used to be informative to know that a given medium is oil or gouache or tempera or dry point or marble . . . because each of these media had characteristic possibilities, an implied range of handling and result. The idea of a medium is not simply that of a physical material, but of a material-in-certain-characteristic-applications. Whether or not there is anything to be called and any good purpose in calling anything, ‘the medium of music,’ there certainly are things to be called various media of music, namely the various ways in which various sources of sound (from and for the voice, the several instruments, the body, on different occasions) have characteristically been applied: the media are, for example, plain song, work song, the march, the fugue, the aria, dance forms, sonata form. It is the existence or discovery of such strains of convention that have made possible musical expression -presumably the role a medium was to serve. In music, the ‘form’ (as in literature, the genre) is the medium. It is within these that composers have been able to speak and to intend to speak, performers to practice and to believe, audiences to attend and to know. Grant that these media no longer serve, as portraits, nudes, odes, etc., no longer serve, for speaking and believing and knowing. What now is a medium of music? If one wishes now to answer, ‘Sound, Sound itself,’ that will no longer be the neutral answer it seemed to be, said to distinguish music from, say, poetry or painting (whatever it means to ‘distinguish’ things one would never have thought could be taken for one another); it will be one way of distinguishing (more or less tendentiously) music now from music in the tradition, and what it says is that there are no longer known structures which must be followed if one is to speak and be understood. The medium is to be discovered, or invented out of itself.

If these sketches and obscurities are of any use, they should help to locate, or isolate, the issue of Pop Art. . . Left to itself it may have done no harm, its amusements may have remained clean. But it was not made to be left to itself, any more than pin ball games or practical jokes or starlets are; and in an artistic-philosophical-cultural situation in which mass magazines make the same news of it they make of serious art and in which critics in elite magazines underwrite such adventures – finding new bases for aesthetics and a new future for art in every new and safe weirdness or attractiveness which catches on – it is worth saying: This is not painting; and it is not painting not because paintings couldn’t look like that, but because serious painting doesn’t; and it doesn’t, not because serious painting is not forced to change, to explore its own foundations, even its own look; but because the way it changes – what will count as a relevant change – is determined by the commitment to painting as an art, in struggle with the history which makes it an art, continuing and countering the conventions and intentions and responses which comprise that history. It may be that the history of a given art has come to an end, a very few centuries after it has come to a head, and that nothing more can be said and meant in terms of that continuity and within those ambitions. It is as if the various movements claim to know this has happened and to provide us with distraction, or to substitute new gratifications for those well gone; while at the same time they claim the respect due only to those whose seriousness they cannot share; and they receive it, because of our frightened confusion. Whereas such claims, made from such a position, are no more to be honored than the failed fox’s sour opinion about the grapes. [. . . ]

First published in W. H. Capitan and D. D. Merrill (eds.), Art, Mind and Religion, Pittsburgh, 1967.

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