Paintings, Conceptual Art, and Persons

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  • Paintings, Conceptual Art, and PersonsAuthor(s): David CarrierSource: Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the AnalyticTradition, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Feb., 1980), pp. 187-195Published by: SpringerStable URL: .Accessed: 25/06/2014 06:29

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    (Received 23 February, 1979)

    Goodman says1:

    Let us speak of a work of art as autographic ... if and only if even the most exact duplica- tion of it does not thereby count as genuine. If a work of art is autographic, we may also call that art autographic.

    Paintings are autographic artworks identified with that object made by painter. Engravings are autographic artworks consisting of all those prints made from the right original plate. Written literary works are allographic artworks.

    Consider two questions about how painting might change. First, could paintings, like engravings, be construed as having multiple instances? Second, could painting become an allographic art? Clearly these are different ques- tions. I start with the first question.


    Today we say: Painting p at time t, is the same painting as painting q at later time t2 if and only if p is essentially the same physical object as q. The Mona Lisa is essentially that material object made by Leonardo; that is, we disregard minor repainting, or losses of small bits of the original pigment.

    Here is a thought experiment suggesting paintings could come to have multiple instances. Suppose Leonardo invented color photography, and made full size photographs of Mona Lisa. An art historian writes: "A dense film of varnish and patina has become a shield to our understanding of Leo- nardo's intentions"2. He might find such photographs more revealing about Leonardo's picture than the Louvre painting.

    Generalize this procedure. Call PI 1, P12, ...superxerox copies of p if when one of them is put side by side with p, nobody can tell them apart. Then,

    Philosophical Studies 37 (1980) 187-195. 0031-8116/80/0372-0187$00.90 Copyright ? 1980 by D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston, U.S.A.

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    P21, P22, ...are the superxerox copies of pII or p12 or.... Call any superxerox copy ultimately derived from p a descendent of p.

    To say - this painting was done in 1520: Take care in touching it, for it has just come out of the superxeroxing machine and is still wet - would be no more paradoxical than saying: Lolita was published in 1955; my copy was printed in 1973. Superxeroxing would change how we think about painting. But, altarpieces are taken from churches to museums; bright artificial lighting replaces natural lighting; works from very different periods are juxtaposed. Changes produced by superxeroxing may be no more drastic than these al- ready accepted changes.

    Painting would remain an autographic art. Any copy would be an instance of Mone Lisa if and only if that copy were a descendent of the Louvre Mona Lisa. Painting would become like engraving, an art where there are multiple copies of a given work. And like engravings, copies of a painting would be defined by their causal history.

    A simple extension of arguments drawn from chapter three, Languages of Art shows why superxeroxing won't work. Goodman shows that even if today we can't tell paintings p and q apart, in the future we may learn to tell them apart. With superxeroxing this problem is much more serious. Any copying process introduces errors. Even if I can't tell p and P II apart, nor Pn I and P(n + 1) 1 apart, I may be able to tell p and P(n + 1) 1 apart. However small the error at each stage of superxeroxing, after enough stages, that error can be arbitrarily large.

    In one crucial respect, superxeroxed paintings and engravings are very different. All engravings are made from one plate. Engraving involves only a single stage of copying. There is no way to make a genuine engraving by copying a genuine one. And the original plate is not itself an engraving. Super- xeroxing involves multiple stages of copying; and the original object, that object painted by the painter, is itself an instance of the painting. In the previous paragraph 1 used the fact that an arbitrary number of stages of copy- ing are possible to argue that superxeroxing is impossible. That claim needs justification. Otherwise a critic might hold, correctly, that by restricting the number of stages of superxeroxing, we can prevent the copies from looking too different from the original, and thus defeat my argument.

    Such a critic needs to explain why the superxeroxing should stop at any given point. Suppose the critic allows that PI1,P12, ...are instances of the painting. All of the reasons for thinking that also seem to be reasons for

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    thinking P2I, P22, ...are instances of the painting. To appeal to the fact that P I ,P12, ..., but notp21 ,P22, ...are copied directly fromp is illegitimate. For once the critic admits that p I , P 12 ...are, like p, instances of the painting, then p loses its special status as the painting and becomes just another instance of the painting.

    TIhe argument against superxeroxing cannot be defeated by noting that different genuine engravings do sometimes look quite different. My point about superxeroxing is that once we allow many stages of copying, descendants of the original may look arbitrarily different from that original. Thus, with the accumulation of copying errors, some remote descendent of Mona Lisa may look rather like Rain, Steam and Speed; conversely, some descendant of the Turner may look like the Mona Lisa. To accept this result is intolerable; we would have lost entirely our ability to individuate paintings. That is, we would be unable to tell of a given work whether it was an instance of Mona Lisa or an instance of Rain, Stean and Speed or an instance of neither.


    Could painting become an allographic art? Allographic arts possess a notation. The identity of allographic artworks is defined independently of their history. Thus a novel has certain words in a certain order. Any other text with the same words in the same order, and no other words, is an instance of the same novel. Different instances of the book may differ drastically in other ways. They may be printed with different type faces, or on different sizes and colors of paper.

    Of course, there are aesthetic but not strictly literary reasons to prefer one copy of a literary work to another. For example, the type face of one copy may be exceptionally attractive. And in a few cases, the artwork, though essentially a literary work, also has some qualities of a visual artwork. For example, in Un coup de des the spacing of the words on the page is important.

    Establishing the correct text of a literary work may raise considerable problems. Consider the issues raised by the recent publication of the original text of The Wasteland. But clearly these problems are not philosophical ones of interest here.

    Could there be a notation for painting? Goodman writes3:

    If and when reproductions of a picture come to be accepted as no less original instances than the original painting... then indeed the art could become allographic.

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    Thus the Homeric poems, originally part of an oral tradition, are now part of written literature. And improvised jazz or rock performnances can be written in a musical notation.

    Goodman distinguishes between the constitutive and contingent properties of a work. What is constitutive of a written literary work is that it possess the right words in the right order: the color of ink, type face used, word spac- ing, etc. are contingent. All constitutive features of a work need not be of aesthetic significance. My argument that follows relies only on the weaker claim that any constitutive feature may turn out to be an aesthetically significant feature, even if it isn't aesthetically significant today.

    For there to be a notation for painting we need a list fi ... fm of all the constitutive features. To show that no such list can be made f