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Art in Three DimensionsReview - Art in Three Dimensions
by Noel Carroll
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Matthew Arnatt, Ph.D.
May 10th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 19)

Noël Carroll, Art in Three Dimensions, Oxford University Press, 2010, 539 pp.,

ISBN 9780199559312.  


Noël Carroll's Art in Three Dimensions, consisting of 22 chapters arranged according to loose connections in topic, has a brief introduction in which he gives what he describes as a backstory, he rejects the assessment of art in the tradition that focuses on essential qualities at the expense of particularity and seeks to set that tradition with its commitments to Art (with a capital 'A') against a further backdrop of philosophizing in a conceptualist (Carroll is referring to general background and motivation in the analytic tradition) tradition. This is all reasonable and not heavy at all, but it isn't yet clear that commitments associated with talk about 'Art' are evaded simply as a result of typographical self-consciousness, or awareness of conceived affects as affects. For instance, there will be, in ranges of examples produced to demonstrate some different, preferred constraint of actual and telling specificity, a definite obligation to avoid parochial exemplification, clashes in teacups etc., to cash some affects as a result of a knowing or improving pluralism (the rounded-out appreciation suggested by the title) ... perhaps now I'm just characterizing the book type (the objection is that some criteria -- defense of pluralism, the privileging of kinds of narrative structures -- are just familiar in this type of study). To make things a bit more concrete, I'd say that examples that accumulate in the book - when characteristic criteria associated with works or situations are given in accumulations of response orientated adjectives - seem to rely on, even as they seem to specify, qualities (that's how those adjectives work), which are just those individuating criteria that are generic.

 The first essay, 'The Descent of Art' begins where it probably should, with a somewhat dampening account of some pretensions of analytic philosophy cheekily tied to a local 'conceptualist' culmination in two aesthetics journals that Carroll mentions (in which one should expect to find analyses of concepts ranging from representation, authorial intention, (p. 20) through dance, metaphor, ugliness ... (p. 21). Around here I think Carroll becomes a bit unhinged: for instance, in actually wanting to strike a kind of obvious balance in connection with apparently foundational issues (the nature of art) in which a pressing-ness of questioning the classification of objects as artworks (at a general level) is pushed as a response to an urgent lack of consensus about that (why not just let that lack be?). Of course this is probably just some settling in the foundations, but taken in isolation this can call out for some obvious riposte - as a for instance, even the briefest discussion of related conceptions of authorial agency or intention should easily problematize assertions projected as relating an artist to a production or work (art object) in which there might appear to be a distinction drawable between that production or work in a guise of work, or as material which would occupy exactly that physical and material/spatial/temporal slot, but that was exactly that object prior to and excluding its identification as that object (apparent examples merely have what force they appear to have as a result of  a slippage;  the fudging of required co-indexing, say - presuming some ontology of some un-specified kind). I'm thinking here of Carroll's willingness (p. 21) to consider a Robert Morris as a pile of debris. Of course Carroll is merely setting things up, but there are basic problems in  (again) the underlying generalities implicit in the setting-out (just, for instance, the assumption that we might seek some clarification of art as a 'practice' (p. 21) needed an initial basic defense.) It's characteristic though of Carroll that even here he salvages something more interestingly provoking (when he talks of processes of the classification of artworks making 'possible' related 'artworld' activities; and as he easily unblushingly accepts non-randomness underpinning the Western conception of art).

 Other related issues, I think stemming in that last point, are pursued throughout the various chapters. Carroll is strong on seeing some corollaries of related or dedicated presumptions, in, for example, the thesis of formalism. So in 'Formalism' we get

Perhaps the most incendiary corollary of formalism is the idea that representational properties in artworks, whenever they appear in artworks, are strictly irrelevant to their status as art and to our appreciation of them as artworks. According to formalists, we must appreciate artworks in terms of their purely formal relationships, divorced from the claims and concepts of daily life. But this is a very unlikely doctrine, for the simple reason that what is called significant form frequently supervenes on the representational content of artworks. (p. 40)

Of course the notion of representational content is problematic however and wherever it occurs. I suppose that Carroll though prescinds from this in just alerting his readers (presumably suitably specialized) to whatever local difficulties are taken as arising in applications of terminology. Just previously Carroll had worked through material distinguishing some kinds of formalisms with their historical precedents. In fact one kind of characterization of the subject matter would relate his readership to the avoidance of some more specific corollaries of a (different type of) formalism, one that distinguishes artworks just from what is written or said about them in terms of levels. Still, Carroll pursues quite vigorously the limited goal of describing some quite limited applications or resources involved in individuating acceptable responses given characteristics associated -- as he concludes his chapter -- with 'design'.

The representational content difficulties that I think should undermine detailed discussion of intentional affects distinguished as such would apply to Carroll's discussion of content in relation to experience. I can't give the history of connected issues, but to give a flavour, the notion of je ne sais quoi, the notion of a 'quale', and certain 'pulsation' or feeling of 'tone' are linked together in characterizing - as taken as taken as distinctive, in associated aesthetic experience -- just the required conception of that kind of experience (p.79). This is a prelude to a discussion -- in which nothing is bypassed - of conceptual art (following chapter), when some usual platitudes are employed in the service of distinguishing objects which offer some sort of challenge to affect-orientated approaches, and where some kind of content might float free from some usual (again historically speaking) constraints on experience. Setting aside that it's depressing to see, again, lists of objects, films, whatever, appearing in their evidential roles supporting associated lists of properties: e.g., the statue, The Prince of the World, in Nuremburg, has 'salient aesthetic properties' whose purpose is tied to some authorial design (p.80); or, property of engendering a feeling of 'hopelessness' (proposed for Sartre's Huis Clos  (p.83)), it seems as if any thesis is peculiarly dependent upon one's acceptance of some credibly linked properties (whatever one feels might be a minimal specification for an existent artwork (that it is, in Carroll's words  '... an ensemble of choices intended to realize the point or purpose of an artwork', perhaps (p. 87)).

I think that the material in the two chapters 'Aesthetic Experience: A Question of Content', and 'Non-Perceptual Aesthetic Properties: Comments for James Shelley' is quite rewarding (although I have a plethora of caveats). For instance, in the first of those chapters, Carroll's comments about the possibility of distinguishing relevant features of artworks in the absence of a purported object as the source of those features, are  interesting and do support his retained formalist conception which had introduced the 'ensemble' quote above. Duchamp is not the example he requires though; it's just too easy to see any Duchamp as a cipher for any range of properties most obviously associated with being - as it were, forget the works - any kind of an art historical personage (so a Duchamp doesn't undermine any claims whatever).  Whilst I don't have much interest in the linked account of conceptual art, I think Carroll also does tease out some important distinctions at the level of what he calls object-directedness, axiological and critical approaches (with a formulation at the level of judgments-about), which might have the orientation that they have just as some historically connected response to a challenge associated with conceptual artworks. In this chapter Carroll gives a characterization of his preferred content-oriented approach

... a specimen of experience is aesthetic if it involves the apprehension/comprehension by an informed subject in the ways mandated (by the tradition, the object, and/or the artist) of the formal structures, aesthetic and/or expressive properties of the object, and/or the emergence of those features from the base properties of the work, and/or of the manner in which those features interact with each other and/or address the cognitive, perceptual, emotive, and/or imaginative powers of the subject. (p. 101/102)

 I'd like to think he's basically right, but one can see that there could be (amongst the caveats mentioned) referentialist (echoing descriptivist/referentialist links debates in philosophy of language) qualms about the involved contents, that would be, whatever the implied ontology and just as a matter of the functioning of some links.

More narrowly, this material gets looked at again in the chapter commenting on James Shelley (his paper, 'The Problem of Non-Perceptual Art', appeared in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 43, No. 4, 2003), where Shelley had made some claims relating to the non-essentiality of a kind of direct experience of properties inhering in artworks that were recovered through the senses. Again this material is related to conceptual artworks where -- for me -- there is a worrying assumption that such artworks are the source of distinctive experiences (when compared with other works). Much more interesting, I find, is the discussion in Shelley (p.372, 'tPoN-Pa') involving a passage from Frank Sibley, where it seems that a discussion can contract into the highlighting under unusual circumstances of conceptions of perception, in the light of what, under circumstances, we glean from content description.

Art in Three Dimensions is a substantial and well presented book, there is discussion of art and alienation, moral issues connected with the appreciation of art, the nature of narrative and performance. These discussions will support in detail Carroll's material that I have discussed. But I've been worrying, I think reasonably, that something like a 'candidate content' conception of artworks conceived as roughly rubrics too easily underscores vital points in some papers in this book. I think that Carroll or anyone so accused might of course direct one to the nature of an interest in art in terms of its history and so interpretation in light of its history, that respected the possibility of some critical differentiation necessitating linked conceptual matter, and, as a matter of fact, registration of that had underscored the reception of significant works. This type of defense might then additionally properly reel out materials connected with ... appreciation of art, the nature of narrative and performance etc., as Carroll does here.


© 2011 Matthew Arnatt


 Matthew Arnatt received his Ph.D from the University of London in 2009.  He is currently working on contemporary philosophical treatments of 'content'.




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