Location, Location, Location: On Modern Art

“At home, it is not a work of art; in Tate Modern it is.”  – Gordan Graham.

This week, we are working through Gordan Graham’s text Philosophy of the Arts, and chapter 10 in particular titled “Modern Art.”  By the title alone, you should note that something different is happening here.  Earlier in the book Graham was investigating the value of art.  While certainly any given work of art might be perceived as valuable because of its emotion content, beauty, spiritual significance, etc., Graham’s question in those early chapters was whether there is something distinctive about either “the arts” or “great art” that made one of these specific values more fitting.  In the end, Graham landed on cognitive value as the chief value of the arts, for the arts as a whole and their greatest exemplars are valued primarily because they provide some profound understanding of the world and human experience to which we would be otherwise blind.

In the chapter on Modern Art, Graham’s line of inquiry changes.  Of course, in order to pursue a question like “What is the value of art?” we have some operative assumption, however vague or exact, of what field of phenomena fall into the category of “the arts.”  We probably assumed, along with Graham, that “the arts” include phenomena like paintings (but not the monochrome painted walls in my house), articulate lyrical expression (but not diary ramblings), performances (but of a certain musical or theatrical kind), sculpted objects (but not mass produced ones.)  The question is, of course, why do we have the field of possible arts that we do?  What, in the end, actually should be considered art?

Graham postponed that question because whereas the question “What is art?” is conceptually prior to “What is the value of art?,” the later question is experientially prior to the former.  Calling into question whether something is art has not historically been at the forefront of experience, that is, until we get to Modern Art.  The shift that happens in this chapter is therefore twofold:  First, it brings up a different philosophical problem than before – the ontological status of art versus the axiological status of art.  Second, it introduces this philosophical problem in reference to a historical time period – 20th century western art.

First, if this textbook is not fiction, it must be the case that there is some identifiable phenomenon called “Modern Art” and some community of people for which this phenomena is meaningfully designated.  Who this community is we shall get to in a minute, but for now we should first note that by naming a phenomenon “Modern Art” indicates something that is somehow distinguishable from at least two other fields of phenomena we could call  “Non-Modern Art” or “Modern Non-Art.”  For example, Modern Art is presumably not Modern Technology nor is it Medieval Art.  To make a point that Plato’s dialogue the Sophist makes, naming a thing always gives language to both some being (that which a thing is) as well as some non-being (that which a thing isn’t).   You actually create (so-to-speak) non-being when you create being.  By so naming some new phenomenon, you thereby indicate something which it is not or some place which it is not.  You create difference.

Now this might seem like so much philosophical game-playing, but it actually gets at the crucial question of the chapter and what “Modern Art” actually is. For as Graham indicates, it seems widely recognized that something different happens in Modern Art than has happened before in the “Art World.” The relationship between something called “Modern Art” and things that are neither Art nor Modern is crucial to the very historical significance of “Modern Art.”

The way to sum all this up is that in the period of 20th century western art, the ontological status of art becomes of paramount importance.  Or as Graham succinctly states it, a significant new question that 20th century art provokes in its audience is—say when a readymade work is placed in a gallery – “But is it art?” This basic ontological question is at the root of the trends in Modern art from the introduction of the ready-made to the value placed on the Avant Gaarde.

Let us consider a key paragraph in Graham’s chapter.  I have broken this paragraph down into its components to show the argument.

CLAIM #1: “The art we have been brought up on, whether it be music, sculpture, film or dance, consists of deliberately created objects with aesthetic properties sanctioned by tradition.”

Note all the things that have to come together here in order to determine whether something will be deemed art at a given point in cultural history: deliberately created objects, with aesthetic properties, sanctioned by tradition.  The part many of us might be most uncomfortable with is that last one:  sanctioned by tradition.  We want are to be free from tradition, and yet we also want art to be more than ephemeral.  One of the reasons why many find the claim that art need be “sanctioned by tradition” is too constrictive is due, in part, to the legacy of Modern Art.

CLAIM #2:  “This means that our aesthetic awareness is confined by preconceptions about what art ought and ought not be like.”

“Confined” is a strong word here, but Graham’s intent is clear.  Embedded in our ontological judgments about what is and what is not art is also a normative judgment, namely what should be considered art and should not be considered art.  Danto will make this point more explicitly in chapter 12, but it is also related to what I said earlier: The recognition of something as art, carries with it an assumption of what is not recognized as art.  This kind of judgment is not simply made on the conceptual or intellectual level.  At a given point in cultural history, our very ability to recognize something perceptually as art or non-art is shaped by our traditions.

CLAIM #3: “But real aesthetic awareness needs to break free of these preconceptions, and the art of the readymade enables us to do this.”

Here we find a key question, “Is it in the nature of art to challenge the meaning of art?”  Certainly any cultural practice evolves over time.  Novelty happens (over and over again), but is there something about how we think about the arts that expects the arts to do this intentionally.  Different periods in the history of art have answered this question differently, though it is more commmplace now for us to think that art is not simply supposed to evolve but to challenge its own meaning.  In Graham’s chapter, this can be seen in how he nuances the difference between Beethoven’s revolutionary music and the explicit focus on the “Avant Gaarde” in the arts.

CLAIM #4: “It thus makes possible ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’–the title of a book by the influential philosopher of art, Aurthur C. Danto.

This last part of the claim can be understood in two directions, given what we have already done in the class.  One way to understand this claim is to connect it to the conclusion to the chapter on the cognitive value of art, which stated that the primary value of the arts is that they transform how we interpret and understand our own perceptual experiences in the world.  Modern art then is in keeping with what art has always done in its ability to change how we think about our own experience.

Another way to understand this last claim is the particular emphasis on the “common place.”  This is trickier in the case of the 20th century art.  It seems to be of two minds here.  First, with its emphasis on the Avant Gaarde and its seeming lack of concern with establishing any solidarity with the audience or larger public, Modern Art would seem an exclusivist and inward looking movement.  Second, in other regards Modern artists are clearly reacting against what they sees as the pretentious European traditions of the arts and aesthetic sensibility.

Modern Art emphasizes a host of questions that have been either underdeveloped in earlier parts of art history or have been consciously avoided.  Graham’s chapter works through key elements of the range of new issues brought to the fore by Modern Art.  In your own reflections comments below, ask yourself whether you support Grahams’ critical questions raised at the end of the chapter?  Which aspect of modern art, as Graham has laid it out, is most compelling, and why?  What do you make of the opening quote in this post by Graham made in the middle of chapter 10?

Submitting comments directions:

• Each student should write the equivalent of a full paragraph comment on these last two questions.

• Each student should also required to respond to another students comments with their own paragraph length comments.

• The discussion can be continued by anyone after these two openers have been written.

13 thoughts on “Location, Location, Location: On Modern Art

  1. I think the aspect about modern art that Graham brings up that is most compelling is that of how modern art can have a tendency to push past the boundaries of our traditional interpretation of what qualifies as art. Although he acknowledges that tradition has an influence on our preconception of art, modern art also causes us to think past our traditional parameters. Also, in keeping with his idea about the cognitive value of art being of the most significance, the pushing outside of the ‘norm’ causes people to become more involved and really pique their brains to try to find understanding in what we’re looking at, listening to, etc. I also think that location can definitely have an influence on how a certain work is perceived. Although something mundane like a cereal box may not strike the same interest on the kitchen table, it does make one stop and take another look when they glance and see it on a pedestal in an art gallery. The location of where a piece of art is displayed can also give it a sort of ‘frame’ – a contextual outline that signals the audience to stop and have another look, saying that some thought was put into the piece, and coaxing the audience to also put thought into how they look at it. Even for the ready-made works, someone had to have the idea (or in some cases of really clever art, the wit) to bring out the mundane and put it in an environment that makes it not so mundane. And also, even though the setting may seemingly not be a part of the artwork that’s displayed, it does give a background that, although is not the central focal point, does enhance what is meant to be focused on. Kind of like the background music in Starbucks. Although you may not remember what you were listening to, it somehow makes the cup of coffee all the more enjoyable, rather than if it were absent.

    • Hi Kathryn!
      What a great post! I really enjoyed your explanation of location as it relates to modern art. Do you think that a change of location though makes something that was previously non-art (such as a cereal box) become art? Or does the change of location simply change the way we think about a mundane or ready-made object? I think that Graham does a great job of explaining how in cases like this it seems that this approach to modern art is really turning art into philosophy. That is, the art becomes something other than art, it becomes an idea. Can we still call it art then? I would argue, no (and I am referring only to ready-made objects, not all modern art). I don’t think that taking an object and then changing its location to project a new idea that we otherwise wouldn’t consider, does not make that object art nor the person who thought up the idea an artist, but simply a philosopher using a physical object to make his or her point. What do you think?

      ~Alicia 🙂

      • Hey Alicia!

        You bring about some really good questions. I especially like your point about the ready-made, and whether or not its location causes it to be art or simply provokes philosophical thought about it. I think in answer to that, I would say that if some people find the value in art to be the cognitive value, then it could be art to them if it does indeed provoke thought in them. However, I know we discussed in class that although some values of art may be more universal or prominent, etc., than others, there is also value to be had in a piece if it provokes emotion, spiritual connection, aesthetic pleasure, etc. So I would say that if a piece causes perhaps more of these to come about, or come about to a more intense degree, then that makes it better art to the audience. I think either way it’s art, but when it provokes more out of the audience it becomes better art. Or at least, more valuable art.

        I hope I communicated all that ok. What do you think?


    • Yeah that makes sence, so because if a person knows that a pice is considered art, but the person doesn’t necessarily “get it,” right away then the fact that it is art already may compel that person to a deeper understanding, and causes the person to think past their traditional parameters, but isn’t this kind of a circular logic? The art critiques find meaning in the piece, since someone in the know finds that meaning we are to assume it has meaning. Of course even if it doesn’t that’s a kind of meaning in itself like a dude who tattoos a tricycle on in chest because he hates it when people have to get tattoos with meaning. I guess it’s just hard for me to except the exaltation of modern art. When I think that if a construction worker left a urinal he was meaning to install in the bathroom in the gallery, that it might be held in such high regard. Even so I fully except that I am wrong about modern art.

  2. Graham’s discussion of Modern Art is interesting as it, at first, moves us away from considering the value of art and toward the question, “what is art?” However, the questions he raises at the end of the chapter seem to put us back into the realm of questioning the value of art as a means to determine what art actually is. Graham writes that: “The art of the ready-made shifts attention from artwork to the artist. The next step if from art to idea. But this emphasis on ideas, and the move to make the conceptual central, implies that art is ultimately to be replaced by philosophy” (p. 198). I agree with Graham’s assessment. There must be more to art than simply a visual representation of philosophy. Modern art seems to rely heavily on the idea that the cognitive value of art is most central to art’s value and definition. Like the quote at the beginning of this lecture, we must question what makes something that is commonplace in the home, become art when placed in a gallery? Why should we spend an hour looking at a toilet just because it is in a museum? Perhaps we could call this toilet a form of philosophy because of the ideas of the artist that it conveys, but surely we cannot really say that such a thing is art? Is there really more to art than just ideas and porcelain thrones? What I find most compelling about Graham’s discussion of modern art is his analysis of conceptual art and transubstantiation. Concerning readymades, Graham asks, “Where is the artist’s art?” (pg. 192). That is, since the artist put nothing physically into the art, what have they created other than ideas and how is this different from philosophy? In response, Graham (drawing on Tata Modern commentary) invites us to consider the idea of transubstantiation: a Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist in which the bread and wine at communion are said to fully become the actual, physical body and blood of Christ, although the bread and wine retain their form and seem to be simply food. “This doctrine is not a transformative vision, but a metaphysical explanation of how the real nature of a thing can differ radically from its appearance” (Graham, pg. 193). Ultimately, Graham concludes that applying the doctrine of transubstantiation to conceptual art is simply, “bad metaphysics, since it cannot do more than assert its (strange) ideas” (pg. 193). I agree with Graham’s conclusion for a few reasons. One, transubstantiation is a religious doctrine thought to be made possible by the power of God. Surely, we do not want to attribute divine status (or, at least I don’t) to all artists just because they are able to metaphysically convey an idea. Trying to draw a parallel between the incarnation of Christ and communion and conceptual art just seems like a very long stretch. Also, like Graham explains at the end of his discussion on transubstantiation, some exhibiters were stopped by an agricultural department because they claimed a glass of water was really an oak tree. But when they were denied access, they quickly explained that it wasn’t really an oak tree, just water. As Graham points out, “No Catholic would ever say this of the Host” (pg. 193). So, if through transubstantiation an idea (a non-tangible thing) becomes the “real thing” of something else, is that really transubstantiation, which claims that some real, tangible things becomes some real tangible something else even though it looks the same? Okay, well now I am confusing myself. Anyway, in short – I don’t think that art can be defined as simply conceptual. There must be something more to defining art than ideas. I just an’t put my finger on it yet. Thanks for putting up with my super long, rambling post, everyone! I look forward to reading yours 🙂


    • Haha! You did fine Alicia. 🙂 This is all really confusing philosophy.

      Anyway, I do like your point about the ready-made not having so much physical effort put into it, and how for some people that takes away from its value. To be honest, I’m actually also wondering how artists are able to put a ready-made object on display and call it their own, when it was really made by someone else. Even if it’s kinda a cheap thing, like a cereal box, it was still decorated by another graphic artist, so I don’t know how copyright stuff works there. I know that’s going off on a bit of a tangent there, but I just thought I would mention it. What do you think?

  3. The opening quote from Graham is frustrating to me. I have always felt this way and first started to feel this way when I learned about Andy Warhol’s work. The fact that I can take a box from paper towels and duplicate it put it in a gallery and then sell that box for hundreds of dollar without even having paper towels in it is outrageous to me. On the other hand I have a lot of respect for Marcel Duchamp’s fountain. I think Duchamp making a move like sending in a ready-made object in, as a piece of art, is a wonderful challenge to thinking. My distinction between Warhol and Duchamp is that I feel Warhol was standing on the shoulders of Duchamp and taking credit for something and challenging the ideas and Duchamp did long before Warhol’s time. Duchamp doing that made people question the idea of art, which in my opinion is needed now more then ever. Duchamp makes me question the idea of art and then in turn makes me question the idea of a gallery space and what exactly makes a gallery a gallery. Following those thoughts I really like the discussion on the transfiguration of the commonplace. For me the idea of trying to connect with someone cognitively is very appealing, and I think that modern art is the perfect medium to do just that. In some ways I think it possible for a piece of ready made art to say more about society, values/morals, religion and whatever else then possibly a piece of art that was hand made by an artist.

    • I completely agree about Warhol. I think that there is a way to make art, whether the “making” is literally involved or not, that is for political or social purpose that legitimatizes the art itself and the artist. I believe that Duchamp had purpose and Warhol had fame. Both works were popular and controversial, and both eventually sold, but to me Warhol added nothing to the art world with his creation of those Brillo boxes.

  4. As i do agree that location is an essential aspect of art, i have to ask the question why does it really matter? We have been trying to ascertain a definition of what is art throughout the semester. Well there is no simple answer. To one person it may be the cognitive response a piece of art evokes. Or a spiritual reverence, or even a sense of beauty that one connects to. But there are flaws with each defining judgement of what is art. So by singling one aspect of art out to make a better judgement of it we are really condemning the institution. Anything can be art, there is no wrong definition. All or some aspects can be correct because no standard definition can be made of Art. ” Different periods in the history of art have answered this question differently, though it is more commmplace now for us to think that art is not simply supposed to evolve but to challenge its own meaning. In Graham’s chapter, this can be seen in how he nuances the difference between Beethoven’s revolutionary music and the explicit focus on the “Avant Gaarde” in the arts.” This proves my point exactly. The definition of art will constantly evolve and change with the time. Yes location may effect how someone views a piece of art. As you said early a cereal box on a pedestal will be viewed differently than a cereal box in a kitchen. But why does it matter how its viewed? Take any object and place it in a multitude of locations, the reaction and interaction with that object with varie from place to place and from person to person. Thus again proving there can be no one definition or superior way of looking at art. Modern art challenges our convictions of art by using methods that may seem radical or completely opposite from the traditional. But thats the beauty of modern art.

  5. If we are to answer the question what is art? It is important to take what we already know about possible values of art and see if they are met in the art. However I don’t think we can rely on these principals of beauty, emotional appeal and cognitive function to fully answer this question. A piece of modern art can expand the mind by causing it to think about things in unconventional ways, It can also invoke an emotional response depending on the viewers specific interpretation, and since I hold that their is a certain kind of beauty in every thing in the world, this requirement is also met. However in my option art should involve a certain amount of creation to form an object to express something inside of the artiest. I suppose modern art can do this in a way taking an object out of it’s traditional place to show a certain connection with it. The artiest chose the object for a reason and when put in a greater context it could convey a message, befitting to a piece of art. However the Idea of something so simple in art just doesn’t sit quite right for me, and even though this is most likely only my perceptional bias the conclusion I inevitably come to is that the artist did not put enough into the work for me to consider it art, or at least art not on the same level as something like The Sistine chapel, Carefully painted form unreasonable heights. I understand that art is constantly evolving and some evolution I will inevitably not understand, but because this dynamic exist it begs the question why define what art is, and how can it even be done. Will the definition stop in 20 years and then will know or is it in arts nature to continually expand? The fact is regardless of philosophical definitions the question of what is art is yealded to those who truly understand art, artists and true art lovers. When the question of is modern art, art was asked, we already had the answer. It was just a matter of philosophical reforging to come to the conclusion we knew to be correct. Would argue that even if we could develop the perfect philosophical conclusion against modern art as art we would still be wrong.

    • I personally don’t find modern art compelling. So what I find most compelling about modern art is that it is so compelling to so many.

  6. I think that this is an interesting shift from the intrinsic value of art that we have been talking about. Maybe mainly because it is the more tangible thoughts and values of art that I am more used to conversing about. This chapter brought up a lot more questions for me than it did answers. I completely agree with Graham in his quote on pg. 197 about the cultural complexity of the contemporary art world. That although popularity and mass awareness of art in the contemporary world are something that wasn’t as much of a point in historical art worlds, it is still not the number of people that view a painting that makes it valuable, it is still the beauty and creativity of it. The questions come from me when it gets into talking about readymades and how they are a modern thing. I suppose that Duchamp couldn’t have shown his urinal “fountain” in 17th century Rome and gotten away with it, but according to Graham’s values that he has been speaking of, it is not the acceptance of the majority that makes it art. I think that readymade sculptures usually require just as much if not more creativity that starting with a blank canvas and bringing something into being. All art is somewhat readymade in all cases and I believe that matching an object to an environment to create a mood or to provoke thought is the same as bringing paint to a canvas. The quote at the beginning of this lecture is interesting and really hard for me to agree with. In relation to our discussion about location, I think that a work and the space it is created in have connections whether the artists intends it with site specificity or not. Therefore, there is something beautiful in seeing Norman Rockwell’s paintings in his barn studio in his backyard that disappears when it is shown in the MET. Yet, all of this becomes controversial if we are going to dive back into whether the viewing of the art makes it art, or if it is art from creation whether viewed or not. I would argue the latter.

  7. A piece of work does not become art until it is shared with an audience. Whether that audience is one person or one million. Without an audience interaction I believe that piece of work is similar to a large meal. One that is cooked, but left on the stove. It never leaves the kitchen, never makes it to the table where it can be enjoyed and its flavors contemplated. I am in agreement with Graham on Art being able to allow us to “transfigure the commonplace.” It seems true to me that art is a fantastic vehicle for challenging the eye and the mind. In this way we use the arts to escape the limited ways in which we see, hear, and think. That is why Duchamp was rather brilliant with his urinal stunt. He begged the question, is this art? In my opinion, if anyone asks this about your work than it is art, perhaps even a higher form of art. I say this because once this question is asked it becomes clear that the individual is already contemplating what you are presenting. Andy Warhol has made his way into many of our discussions I think this is for a good reason too. I agree with Tom here, I believe that Duchamp is certainly the Avant Gaarde in this realm. However, Warhol was the one that popularized this type of artistic expression. Although I do not like the art all that much he was brilliant, because in making the statement similar to Duchamp’s toilet on a larger more popular scale that same statement gained a new dimension. While Duchamp begged the question is this art? Warhol hits you over the head with the same question. I believe the answer is yes because that art has been sincerely contemplated and considered on a mass scale. Pretty, decorative wall hangings can really pull a room together. Art has the ability to push and pull at our minds allowing us to come back together with a new insight or perspective.

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