Philosophy Fridays: Labeling Art?

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble on about some idea and maybe even interact with something I might be reading. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and speak into it offering a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it is Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll answer the question “how do we label art?”

With a sticker is not a proper answer. Neither a stapling gun or a labeling machine. What I’m looking for is how do we look at a work of art and say that it is “beautiful” or “ugly” or “funny”? On what basis do we apply those labels and are they merited?

Well, before we go there we have to wonder which side of the question we consider first. I mean, on one side we have the concept of Art and on the other we have the concept of judgments about Art. The reader might see this and say “so what” but he’s ignoring that in his day to day he employs value judgments on objects (not specifically Things, it can be People or Dogs or Children) without ever thinking “I’m judging a work of art.”

Imagine, when you walk by a person that you look at and think “Beautiful!” You obviously aren’t making a judgment statement about any piece of art but about an actual person. So how is that differentiated from when you stand in a museum in front of a Monet and say “Beautiful!”

That’s  the issue of the value judgment. But what about the issue of the art itself? Most of us modern folk would see a painting in a museum as a Work of Art but then our lines start to blur when we consider the beauty of a Mac over the beauty of a Dell. The Mac’s sleekness, aluminum finish, streamline design winds up being a work of art—but it’s not hanging up in a wall in a museum (well, it might be; apple sycophants know no bounds).

Maybe we can figure out how to apply the labels if we strip the content from the art. I mean, maybe the Mac is only “art” because of its utility, its functionality, on your desktop. If it was just a piece of metal on the side of the road and there was never any such thing as Apple Macs, would it still be “beautiful”? And maybe Monet’s piece is only beautiful because it’s this hazy filter while looking at water lilies on a pond? If it were just haze with no objects, would it still be “beautiful”?

So if we could, by some means, rise above the content, or the objects, maybe we can arrive at a place where we can really see where our labels come from: a world (as it were) of the truly sublime, the truly beautiful, and it is this “world” that we refer to when we dub things “beautiful” or “ugly”. Such and such thing falls short of That World of Ideals and maybe it’s not pretty anymore. Or such and such thing approaches that world so it is pretty.

But how do we have access to such a world if we’re grounded in objects? Is it only part of us, that non-physical mental part that makes that association? And frankly, why is it that some of us look at the same Thing and dub it differently than others? Doesn’t that say something about the arbitrariness of that world of ideals—or at least about its non-existence?

Maybe it doesn’t have to do with People reaching upwards to apply a label, but people acting in such a way that they apply labels. In other words, maybe it’s not so much that there is an invisible world that influences us, but that we’re part of a world where we each create derivative sub-worlds and label things from that perspective. In that case, it might say more about why we create more than how we label.

So how do we label art? Perspectivaly. Or not.

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