Interpretation and Identity in the Arts
By Daniel A. Kaufman
The late and greatest of the post-Second World War aestheticians, Arthur Danto, believed that artworks are constituted by their interpretations; that what makes this artwork this one and not that one is that this one means one thing and that one means something else. (Danto: 1986) The art-critical project, on this view, is crucial to the metaphysical one, for if one’s interpretation of an artwork is wrong, one has wrongly identified it. In fact, one is not actually talking about this artwork at all. “If interpretations are what constitute works,” Danto writes, “there are no works without them and works are misconstituted when interpretation is wrong.” (Danto: 1986) Of course, this raises the question of what, precisely, one is talking about, in the case of a misinterpretation. To say that my interpretation of this painting is incorrect is to say that I’ve gotten this painting wrong, which would seem to imply that the question of its identity has already been settled, prior to my interpreting it. Perhaps, in misinterpreting it, I am talking about another painting—wouldn’t it be fascinating, if with each misinterpretation, one brought a new work of art into the world?—but this clearly is not Danto’s view, for he says, quite straightforwardly, that an artwork’s meaning and identity are matters of objective fact: specifically, the correct interpretation of an artwork is the one that “coincides most closely with the artist’s…” (Danto: 1986)
Danto’s conception of artistic identity is certainly counterintuitive or at least, it is not what one would have expected. One would have thought that what makes Ingres’s Odalisque, Odalisque and not, say, Saturn Devouring His Son, is that the first is a picture of a shapely, nude woman, reclining on a divan and looking fetchingly over her shoulder, while the second is a picture of a hideous giant, gnawing on a bloody corpse. However, Danto insists that no such “perceptualist” account of artistic identity is possible and has even concocted a series of thought-experiments in order to prove it. I am thinking, of course, of the famous parade of “indiscernibles,” in his The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, all of which involve perceptually indistinguishable pairs of objects, some of which consist of artworks and things which are not art, others which are comprised of non-identical artworks.
To take one example from Transfiguration of the Commonplace — Danto’s fictional exhibit of paintings, all of which are square canvas painted the identical shade of red — what makes Israelites Crossing the Red Sea a different painting from Red Square (a “clever bit of Moscow landscape”), is not some perceptible quality—there are no perceptible differences between the two—but that they mean different things. (Danto: 1981) What makes Cervantes’s Don Quixote a different work from Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote, to take another example, is not the words on the page—they are identical—but that once again, they mean different things, the first being one of the earliest instances of the Novel and a satire on medieval chivalry, the second representing an adventurous instance of the literary avant-garde, whose story is “set in the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope de Vega.” (Danto: 1981)
Admittedly, these examples are fanciful, but we must remember that in the last century, the artworld served up any number of real instances of artistic indiscernibles: artwork-urinals, which are perceptually indistinguishable from actual pissoirs; artwork-shovels, which one cannot tell apart from the common implements that can be found in any hardware store; or artwork-Brillo boxes, which, perceptually speaking, cannot be distinguished from their non-art counterparts on the supermarket shelves. But whether one is talking of these real examples of artistic indiscernibles or Danto’s fictions, the point is that what distinguishes an artwork from something that is not art or one artwork from another is not a perceptible quality, but whether it means something (in the right way) or what, specifically, it means. And though we may still wonder whether the Readymades and the fictional examples they inspire tell us anything more than that hard cases make bad principles, the fact that Danto’s thought-experiments are rooted in real artistic movements means that they cannot be dismissed as mere exercises in ingenuity.
Nevertheless, I want to reject Danto’s account of artistic identity, for there are any number of examples which cut in precisely the opposite direction that Danto’s do; where it cannot be interpretations that individuate the artworks in question, because they mean the same thing, and where perceptible qualities are the obvious differentiae. Significantly, these examples are overwhelmingly of pre-modern origin (by ‘pre-modern’, I mean prior to the eighteenth century), and the charge that Danto’s theory of artistic identity fundamentally mishandles art made before the modern era is at the heart of my brief against it. Yet, it cannot be denied that Danto’s cases are compelling or that the “local” conclusions he draws from them are sound, so I am left wondering whether there can be any general rule of artistic individuation; any universal principle, by virtue of which an artwork is the artwork that it is and not some other. Is it possible that the belief that there is such a rule or principle derives from nothing more than the false assumption that when we speak of artworks, what we mean by ‘individual’, ‘different’, and ‘same’ remains uniform? Is it because we fail to attend to the fact that, as J.L. Austin observed, “ordinary words are much subtler in their uses, and mark many more distinctions, than philosophers have realized”? (Austin: 1962) And if we give up the “deeply ingrained worship of tidy-looking dichotomies,” (Austin: 1962) and attend to the different ways in which we speak about art, in different times and places, will we find that the problem of artistic individuation has not so much been solved as dissolved, in the manner promised by Wittgenstein and the philosophers of the Ordinary Language school?
My chief exhibit consists of two Lamentations, painted by the Northern Renaissance Master, Petrus Christus, which are commonly referred to as the Brussels and New York Lamentations (Figs. 1 & 2). They are the first examples of “meaning-indiscernibles” that came to mind, when I began exploring this subject with the students enrolled in my aesthetics course, in the Fall of 2005. As time has passed, my belief that these pictures provide a superb example of the failure of Danto’s theory has only grown stronger, for if there is no substantial sense in which they mean different things – if, as Erwin Panofsky suggested, the New York Lamentation is a “plainer variant” of its Brussels counterpart (Panofsky: 1958) — and if they nonetheless are different works of art, then they represent at least one counterexample to the idea that artworks are individuated by their interpretations.
Fig 1. Petrus Christus, The Brussels Lamentation
In both pictures, the post-deposition scene from the Gospel According to John is depicted, with a common cast of characters: the dead Jesus; the Virgin Mary; John the Evangelist; Mary Magdalene; Nicodemus; and Joseph of Arimathea. The Brussels Lamentation includes additional figures, not present in the New York version, and while they have not been conclusively identified, it has been suggested that they are Mary Cleophas (standing with the Evangelist) and Mary Salome and her husband, Zebede (standing off from the group). (Upton: 1990)
Fig 2. Petrus Christus, The New York Lamentation
The two Lamentations employ nearly identical symbolic elements, and these provide the primary basis on which the claim of meaning-indiscernibility rests. The instruments of the Passion (hammer, pliers, spikes, and salve jar) are present in both pictures, as are a skull and bones. Joseph and Nicodemus lift Jesus’ body on a white shroud, which recalls the elevation of the Host during the Mass and reminds the viewer of the relationship between the Host and Christ, and the Virgin collapses into the Evangelist’s arms, in a posture which mirrors that of the dead Jesus. This way of depicting the Virgin, the archetypal example of which appears in Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (1435-40)(Fig. 3), has the express purpose of emphasizing her role as Salvatrix Mundi and as co-Redeemer, the idea being that Mary’s suffering at her son’s death was so great as to constitute a form of martyrdom, in its own right, and that consequently, her sacrifice should be construed as comparable to Christ’s. This conception of the Virgin was part of a general expansion of her role in the Latin church, which began in the writings of Bernard de Clairveaux and Denis the Carthusian and culminated with the emergence of a full-fledged Marian Cult.
Fig. 3 Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross
The chief purpose of the two Lamentations, then, is to facilitate devotion and meditation on the themes of compassio and co-redemptio, by way of the distinctive humanist style of the Northern Renaissance. That there are minor differences between the two pictures is not disputable, but whether these differences entail or supervene upon differences in meaning, sufficient to differentiate the Lamentations, as artworks, is disputable, and in my view, they do not. It may be true that in comparison with its New York counterpart, the Brussels Lamentation wears its Rogerian influence on its proverbial sleeve, but both pictures reveal Christus’s stylistic and thematic departure from Rogier and from Jan van Eyck—the sense in which he sought to split the difference between the two masters’ respective commitments to emotional and pictorial realism—so it is difficult to see how these minor variations could indicate any substantial differences in meaning. There are also slight differences in the contents of the two pictures—in the Brussels Lamentation, for example, Mary Magdalene has turned away from the scene, while in the New York version, she is rushing to the aid of the swooning Virgin—but these also make little difference to their interpretation.
More substantial differences in interpretation might lie in the additional figures that we find in the Brussels Lamentation. At least one art historian has interpreted the presence of the three Mary’s (Mary Salome, Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary) as representing the “three devotional steps from meditation to repentance to divine contemplation,” (Upton: 1990) and if correct, this difference in meaning between the two pictures might be sufficient grounds for the view that the paintings are individuated by their meanings after all. This defense of the principle of identification-by-interpretation, however, is weak. For one thing, we can imagine that Christus had produced the Brussels Lamentation, without the three Marys—or alternatively, that he had included them in the New York version—and ask the Danto-supporter what would differentiate them on that occasion. Or, as I would prefer, we needn’t traffic in fiction at all, but merely suspend judgment, so that we might consider another example, where the claim that there are differences in meaning, sufficient to supply the appropriate individuating principle, is even more difficult to sustain: two paintings of the Last Judgment, the first by van Eyck (1435) and the second by Christus (1452) (Figs. 4 & 5)
These strikingly similar pictures (Panofsky goes so far as to say that Christus “copied” Jan’s Last Judgment (Panofsky: 1958)) which, like Rogier’s Descent, became archetypal in the way it presented its subject matter) share any number of common symbols and motifs, not to mention a nearly identical formal and narrative structure, and I would maintain that the differences that we do see (in the Eyckian version, Christ sits in front of the cross, while Christus has him flanked by the Cross and the Column; the Eyckian Last Judgment has the damned being pulled down from both the land and from the sea, but in Christus’s painting they are being pulled down from the land alone; and so on) are nothing more than matters of detail, with no consequences for interpretation.
More conspicuous is the relative sparseness of Christus’s Last Judgment, when compared with van Eyck’s—the throngs of the Elect and the Damned are greater in number in Jan’s version; Christus’s St. Michael is more plainly adorned than van Eyck’s (the latter sports peacock wings and multicolored armor); Christus’s Last Judgment eschews the ‘Chaos Magnum’ and ‘Umbra Mortis’, which appear on the wings of Death, in the Eyckian version; and so on—but far from suggesting differences in the meanings of the two pictures, the view among art historians seems to be that Christus simply wanted an image that would be suitable for a lay audience. (Panofsky: 1958) The pictures say the same thing, only Christus’s says it in somewhat simpler terms.
In reflecting on these cases, it just seems plain weird to say that we have one artwork—one Lamentation, one Last Judgment—rather than two, but this is precisely what we must say, if Danto is right about artistic identity. If artworks are constituted by their meanings, as Danto claims, then in a case where we have two paintings, sculptures, etc., which mean the same thing, we have only one artwork; that is, if we are counting works of art, the two physical objects constitute a single work of art. And while weirdness, even on such a large scale as this, is not the same as a formal contradiction, I would argue that it nonetheless constitutes an informal reductio of Danto’s theory of artistic identity. If a person tells me that two artists or a single artist, in producing two separate paintings, had, unbeknownst to them, created a single artwork, then he has obviously gone off the rails, and if the reason for his derailment is that he holds a certain conception of artistic identity, then it must be the wrong one; or at least, it is one that is misapplied, in the cases currently under consideration.
One way for the Danto-supporter to respond to this challenge is to accept the conclusion that we have one artwork and not two, but deny that there is anything wrong with it. The Danto-supporter might say that our intuitions are led astray, because we are confronted with the obvious physical duality of the Lamentations and Last Judgments, which obscures their less obvious (because imperceptible) singularities of meaning. The trouble, of course, is that this offers no real defense of Danto’s view, but merely reasserts it.
Alternatively, the Danto-supporter could deny that the pairs of paintings have identical meanings. He could insist that the stylistic and representational differences already mentioned do make for differences in meaning and that consequently, the examples bolster the case for the principle of identification-by-interpretation, rather than undermine it. I have already indicated the primary weakness of this strategy: we can create a Danto-style fiction out of the real-world cases; imagine the Christus Last Judgment without the simplified message, for example, or with the simplification reduced to a point at which it no longer provides a plausible basis for differentiating it from its more elaborate Eyckian counterpart. In his Red Squares exhibition, Danto stipulates perceptual indiscernibility, in order to draw our attention away from the perceptible qualities of artworks and towards their meanings, so why not stipulate indiscernibility of meaning in our own exhibits, in order to draw attention away from their meanings and back towards their perceptible qualities?
Furthermore, it is not obvious why every variation in meaning should be relevant to artistic identity and individuation, for even if we agree that there is some sense in which the meanings of the pictures differ, we need not agree that this provides a suitable basis on which to differentiate them as artworks. After all, Danto’s own real world examples are not genuine indiscernibles either. The urinal, from which Duchamp’s Fountain was made, was detached from its plumbing, turned upside-down, and had “R. Mutt” scratched into it. Warhol’s Brillo Box, Danto admits, “was made of wood and stenciled,” while real Brillo boxes “are made of corrugated cardboard and printed.” (Danto: 1992) Neither Fountain nor Brillo Box is perceptually indistinguishable from its non-artwork counterpart, then, at least, not in any literal sense, and Danto says that they need not be; that what matters is whether they are indiscernible in some relevant sense. (Danto: 1992) “To be sure, the resemblances were hardly so perfect that discriminability was out of the question,” Danto writes, but “a philosopher would sound foolish who said that being made of wood is what marks the work of art.” (Danto: 1992)
Returning to our first example, the two Lamentations are about Christ’s suffering and sacrifice and on the parallel suffering and sacrifice of the Virgin. Call this meaning ‘A’. Might we not say, then, along the lines just articulated, that it would be “foolish” to suggest that what makes the Brussels Lamentation a different work of art from the New York version are whatever minute additions to A are contributed by the alternative depictions of the Magdalene as facing the scene or turning away from it? Why would we think that this detail, trivial as it is, given the meaning of the pictures, constitutes a relevant differentiating principle, any more than we should think that such a trivial matter as whether a Brillo box is made of wood or cardboard determines which one is an artwork and which one isn’t?
At this point, it seems to me that the Danto-supporter has little choice but to argue that indiscernibility of artistic meaning is impossible. The challenge, of course, is to explain why. I think that a natural answer suggests itself, one that is within the Dantoian constellation of ideas, but which also suffers from a debilitating flaw: it is unfaithful to art history.
Danto believes that every artwork “means” by way of a style and that style consists of an artist’s “rhetorical” use of a format. The choice of a specific format reflects the artist’s desire to evoke certain attitudes in his audience, with respect to his subject-matter, which means that in works of art, form penetrates content, in a way that it does not in non-artistic representations. Danto illustrates this point, by way of a number of examples, the most prominent of which is Roy Lichtenstein’s Portrait of Madame Cézanne, in which Cézanne’s famous portrait of his wife is reproduced, with a diagrammatic grid laid over it, in order to communicate the clinical way in which Cézanne viewed the world. The diagrammatic format functions as a metaphor for an overly analytical and somewhat inhuman mind, and consequently, is part of the meaning of the painting, something that is not true of a nearly identical diagram that appears in Cézanne’s Composition, a textbook on the proto-Cubist’s technique, written by the art critic, Earle Loran. (Danto: 1981) Lichtenstein employs the format of a diagram, in order to make a certain point about Cézanne, while Loran employs it…because he is making a diagram. In the latter case, the format is used transparently—it is a window on the content, which exists independently of it—but in the former case, the format is not a window on the content, but part of the content itself; the key constituent of a pictorial metaphor.
This penetration of content by form renders artistic meanings individualized, in a way that ordinary linguistic and pictorial meanings are not. Formats and ordinary linguistic and pictorial contents are repeatable, because they can be separated and made conventional and routine: two or more people (or one person, on separate occasions) can say the same thing, using different means, or use the same means to say different things. But style and artistic meaning are neither separable nor repeatable, for Danto. The thematic purposes for which an artist chooses a format arise from his personal interests and aims, and these are the unique products of his individual psychology, which is itself, in good part, a product of his context; of his particular time, place, and circumstances. If style is individual and penetrates an artwork’s meaning, then an artwork’s meaning must be individual too, which means that unlike the sentences of natural language, which may differ syntactically, while being semantically identical and vice versa, artworks can never be identical in meaning or in style.
This line of defense rests upon a crucial assumption: that an artwork is the fruit born of a unique, individual inspiration. We see this assumption in Danto’s persistent emphasis, throughout his work, on avant-garde, rather than conventional subject-matter—on works like Brillo Box and Fountain, rather than Crucifixions, Lamentations, and such—but it is also reflected in the way that he brings individual style to the forefront, while national and period styles recede to the background, to the point of disappearing. The anachronism inherent in his account lies precisely in the way that it projects notions of artistic individuality, distinctive of modern and contemporary art, onto artworks made prior to the modern era, in which common national and period styles and conventional subjects and standard iconographies dominate, and signs of individuality and genius occur almost exclusively at the level of technique. Though individual style has always existed, in the sense that individuals inevitably do things in different ways, the idea of individual style did not become a part of the active consciousness of artists, until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and thus, could not have played a central role in art and art-making, prior to that that time. Ernst Gombrich observes that “[prior to the late eighteenth century], the style of the period was simply the way in which things were done…In the Age of Reason, people began to become self-conscious about style and styles,” something that was also true of the subject-matter of pre-eighteenth century art, which also was overwhelmingly conventional in nature: “[T]he majority of…older pictures…represent religious subjects taken from the Bible and the legends of the saints. But even those that are secular in character are mostly confined to a few selected themes.” (Gombrich: 1995)
Now, it is true that the idea of the artist as a unique talent goes back to the Renaissance, but, again, this speaks to the quality of his craft, rather than to the content of his work. We value a Madonna and Child by Raphael, over one produced by a lesser Italian Renaissance artist, not because it means anything different from the inferior version—it probably doesn’t mean anything substantially different from hundreds of such pictures—but because of the level of craftsmanship that it represents, in comparison with its lesser counterpart. The idea that the artwork is a unique individual, with a meaning and style all of its own, and the product of unique, inspired feelings and thoughts, represents a distinctively Romantic sensibility, evidence of which we begin to see at the end of the eighteenth century, in the writings of the Romantic poets. Wordsworth, in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, says that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…; by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply” (Wordsworth: 1802), and Shelley, in the Defence of Poetry, enthuses that “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” and that “the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence…awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed.” (Shelley: 1891)
So, whether we are speaking of Renaissance painting, in which artists produced scores of Crucifixions, Lamentations, and the like, employing common national and period styles and standard iconographies, or of ancient Greek sculpture, say the Kouroi, which “did not represent the individual…but rather “an ideal of physical perfection and vitality” (Janson: 2010), we are talking about works of art whose individual identities cannot be constituted by their meanings, since these belong to general types, which are repeated across scores of individual works. Rather, it is the perceptible differences between the Brussels and New York Lamentations that make them different works of art, and not that they entail or supervene upon differences in meaning. This is because for artworks, whose chief interpretive and stylistic properties are general, rather than particular, the relevant principle of individuation is more like that which operates over ordinary objects than anything else.
Yet, Danto is correct, when he says that what distinguishes Brillo Box from a regular Brillo box is an interpretive property and not a physical one; that what makes Israelites Crossing the Red Sea a different painting from Red Square is that they mean different things. But what should we conclude from these conflicting results? That we must redouble our efforts in the metaphysics of art, because there is a single principle of artistic identity, which we haven’t found yet? Or that there is no single principle of artistic identity; that art history presents us with different conceptions of “individual,” “same,” and “different” works of art? Obviously, the question cannot be decided conclusively, but I am inclined towards the second way of thinking, rather than the first. For one thing, the concept of ‘art’ has changed over time, so I see no prima facie reason to believe that the diverse things to which the word has applied must share a common principle of individuation. But more significantly, the broader history of ideas tells a story that coheres with the specific evolutionary account of Western ways of thinking about artistic identity that has emerged here, while clashing with Danto’s trans-historical account.
Consider the evolution in the Western conception of persons. In Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian antiquity and in the Middle Ages, one’s identity was defined primarily in terms of one’s relations to religion, family, vocation, etc., and thus, was essentially corporate in nature. (As Alexander MacIntyre wrote of identity in archaic Greek and Anglo-Saxon societies, “Every individual has a given role and status within a well-defined…system of roles and statuses…In such a society, a man knows who he is by knowing his role in those structures…” (MacIntyre: 1984)) In the modern era, however, personal identity came to be internally defined and was thereby individualized. Indeed, the transition from pre-modern to modern civilization is marked, in large part, by the emergence of this individualistic, interior conception of the Self, which was a product of the Reformation—and especially Luther’s rarefied Paulinism, with its intense focus on the soul—and of modern secular philosophy, most significantly, the philosophy of Descartes, who conceived of the conscious Self as privileged in the order of both knowledge and being. (Descartes: 1641)
Now, consider that the ideas of individual style and novelty of subject became a part of the active consciousness of the artist at the same time that the idea of the individual Self emerged on the scene. Is this an accident? Perhaps, but I believe that the two ideas are intimately related; that individuality in style and novelty in subject-matter comprise the means by which the individual Self expresses itself in the arts. After all, what is Wordsworth’s man “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility” or Shelley’s poetic mind, but the modern Self, with the Enlightenment faith in reason diminished, and who can fail to see the symmetry between the Romantic conception of the artist and what he does and the Cartesian view that knowledge is not the result of collaboration, but a product of the intrepid, individual mind?
There is good reason to think, then, that we have gone from a conception of artistic identity, in which meaning and style were conceived in terms of general types and where any conception of the individual artwork that existed was largely indistinguishable from the conception of it qua individual physical object, to a conception of artistic identity, in which the work of art is thought of as a unique individual, with its own meaning and style, the sources of which are the inspired thoughts and feelings of the individual artist. That this view has the virtue of belonging to a coherent historical narrative does not tell conclusively in its favor, of course, but for now, I am satisfied in having demonstrated that Danto’s theory cannot be generally true and in having provided some good reasons for thinking that it is because our understanding of artistic identity has evolved over time, in the way that I have described.
Daniel A. Kaufman is Professor of Philosophy at Missouri State University, and his main areas of interest are aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.
Works Cited in Order of Appearance
Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, edited by G.J. Warnock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character, Volume One (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).
Joel Upton, Petrus Christus: His Place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish Painting (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990).
Arthur Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992).
Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art, 16th Edition (London: Phaidon Press, 1995).
William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802).
Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821).
H.W. Janson, A History of Art: The Western Tradition, 8th Edition (2010).
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).