Testing Joyce’s Definition of Art

In this post, as promised, I will take a look at some of Joyce’s tests for his definition of art (“Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end”).  The “questions” he asks are from an entry in his Paris notebook dated March 28, 1903 (please note that I am slightly rearranging the order in which the questions appear).

Question:  Can a photograph be a work of art?

Answer:  A photograph is a disposition of sensible matter and may be disposed for an aesthetic end but it is not a human disposition of sensible matter.  Therefore it is not a work of art.

Here, Joyce may be a victim of his times (though I find that hard to believe).  Photography was still a relatively novel mode of artistic expression at the turn of the century.  Perhaps Joyce was unaware of the photographic process, which includes framing, focusing, filtering, cropping, and countless other steps.  Each of these steps requires artistic choice on the part of the photographer (i.e., human disposition).  Joyce’s conclusion sounds curiously narrow and short-sighted.  I can only hope that, had he been aware of the photographic process in 1903, he would have considered the possibility that photographs can be art (and perhaps he did in his later life, but I am in no position to verify this).

Question:  Why are not excrements, children and lice works of art?

Answer:  Excrements, children, and lice are human products–human dispositions of sensible matter.  The process by which they are produced is natural and non-artistic; their end is not an aesthetic end: therefore they are not works of art.

Question:  If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood make there an image of a cow (say) has he made a work of art?

Answer:  The image of a cow made by a man hacking in fury at a block of wood is a human disposition of sensible matter but it is not a human disposition of sensible matter for an aesthetic end.  Therefore it is not a work of art.

First, are lice really human dispositions of sensible matter?  Excrement and children would have sufficed for Joyce’s purposes here.  Overall, I agree with his conclusion in both of these tests.  As objects in themselves, children, excrement, and randomly produced semblances of art have in no way been created for an aesthetic end.  However, as I said previously, the idea of an “aesthetic end” is where things get tricky in Joyce’s definition of art.  For example, I wonder if children or excrement can be re-purposed toward an aesthetic end through placement within a proper “artworld” context.  Are there any artistic traditions in which these products, as objects in themselves, could somehow take root and be seen in an artistic light?  Perhaps not, but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility.  The same goes for the unintentional cow sculpture.  If it can find a home within an artistic tradition (even as an unwelcome guest, as Duchamp’s Fountain surely was in 1917*), and no one knows what the artist actually intended (can we ever really know this?), we very well might be able to appraise the object aesthetically.

Thus, perhaps we can add an appendage to Joyce’s definition:

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end, whereby the aesthetic end is determined by context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal)–not by the artist.

For example, let’s say someone creates a painting.  His intention is to sell it to make money; he cares nothing for producing something of aesthetic value (but we do not know his intentions).  The artist sneakily places the painting in an art gallery.  Thus, we discover it within a recognized context in which we can appraise it as a work of art.  Next, we will try to determine to which artistic tradition the object belongs so that we can apply that tradition’s generally accepted evaluative criteria in our appraisal.  Let’s say that the painting is some sort of neo-realist portrait of a pop culture icon.  There can be a multitude of traditions in play, two obvious ones being postmodernism and realism.  So, based on our knowledge of the history of painting and of the specific traditions in which we’re hoping this painting resides, does the painting succeed in meeting the established criteria of these specific traditions?  Let’s say that it does.  Does it do anything new and unique within these traditions that would allow it to stand out as a new, vital piece of art, or does it just follow the numbers, play by the rules, and exist as a clichéd, unskilled artistic failure?  Let’s say the former; it’s an artistic success–a bold, exciting new work in the neo-realist and postmodern traditions.  We write a critical review of the painting to detail our analysis, and the review is subsequently taken seriously by a great many people.  At this point, the painting has officially become a work of art, and nothing the artist can say about his intentions can change that.  He had no role in the painting’s aesthetic appraisal; the artistic success of the painting was determined, as I have said, by context, tradition, and audience.  Not by the artist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Joyce asks one more question in his notebook.

Question:  Are houses, clothes, furniture, etc., works of art?

Answer:  Houses, clothes, furniture, etc., are not necessarily works of art.  They are human dispositions of sensible matter.  When they are so disposed for an aesthetic end they are works of art.

Here, unlike in the earlier questions, Joyce is open to the possibility that human dispositions of sensible matter can be disposed for an aesthetic end–but not necessarily so.  If that is indeed the case, how can we determine if utilitarian objects like houses (i.e., architecture), clothes, furniture, or even food are “so disposed for an aesthetic end” and not for their usual practical purposes?

I would suggest utilizing the process that I outline above.  First, the object in question needs an appropriate artworld context (e.g., architectural tours for houses, fashion shows for clothes, decorative art exhibits for furniture, tasting menus for food, etc.); then, the object must stand up to a tradition-based critical appraisal by an audience.  Unlike Joyce, as I have demonstrated above, I think this process should be open to any human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter, no matter how absurd, including the subjects of Joyce’s second and third questions.

Not every human disposition of sensible matter will be a work of art, but a work of art can come from any human disposition of sensible matter.


*Fountain is a special case.  It’s understood to have started the conceptual art tradition, but we must not forget that it still arose out of the more conventional traditions against which it was rebelling.


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