How is the aesthetic experience of art different from how we appreciate wonders of nature—a pretty flower, or a mountain vista, or a peacock's beautiful feather? In this brisk and bracing 40-minute discussion, Justin E.H. Smith is joined by critic and self-declared lover-of-art Becca Rothfeld to spar over what makes art art. They ask: Does it have to be something made by humans and for humans, or could one consider an animal or a machine an artist? Is there a stable, transhistorical definition of the term, or would what is considered “art” in one era be unrecognizable as such to those from another time? (That is: can we say that Paleolithic cave paintings are art in the same way a Basquiat painting is art?) And together they settle the matter once and for all: Are Marvel movies art?
Justin E.H. Smith [00:27]
Hello, and welcome to the "What Is X?" podcast for The Point magazine. My name is Justin E.H. Smith, and I am your host. The rules of "What Is X?" are very simple. For each episode we are going to ask a question of the form “What is x?”—after the manner of the Socratic dialogues written by Plato, which were based on questions of the sort: What is art? What is beauty? What is justice? What is… the good? Things like that. And I am going along with my guest to pursue such a question each week. Each week a different guest and a different question. We will seek to come to an agreement as to the definition of x over the course of a circuitous dialectical inquiry. And after that is wrapped up, we will determine whether we have reached agreement, disagreement, or aporia. And those are the three possibilities and then we will conclude with some postgame analysis. And we will thank our speaker and bid you the listener farewell until next week. So this week, I am delighted to have as our guest the intrepid Becca Rothfeld, who is among the editors at The Point magazine, an associate editor or editor at large—I forget her exact title, she can tell us. She is also an accomplished and very noteworthy critic on the literary scene in the English-speaking world. And she is also a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Harvard University, where she is working on questions pertaining to the concept and the problem of beauty in philosophical aesthetics. So welcome, Becca.
Becca Rothfeld [03:01]
Thank you so much. It's a great honor to be able to use my voice and speak to another human being—something I have not been doing as much as I would like to, lately in quarantine. I'm a contributing editor at department. I don't know what that means exactly, or how it's different from the other kinds of editors that one could be. I think you sort of covered the rest of my qualifications. I'm an art lover. So that qualifies me to say things about art I hope.
Justin E.H. Smith [03:27]
That's great. Yeah. Thank you. So contributing editor at The Point. Alright, shall we get started, then? Again, this is going to be—as I've described this to some people already, the feel of this should be roughly half Socratic dialogue, half game show. So something between the Meno and The Price Is Right is kind of the feeling we're going for. But that said, unlike The Price Is Right, there are no losers here, right? Even if we end up disagreeing, or even if we find we cannot come to a definition, that is just as legitimate as coming to agreement. It's not as if agreement equals winning. So what I would like to ask you is: What is art? What is art? It's a difficult question, because obviously, art is a term that is at the center of a huge semantic cloud with lots of other associated terms—notably: artifice, artificial, artisan, artistic, artisenaI… I could go on and on. And these all go back to the same route the Latin ars—a-r-s, that is—and we find a Greek equivalent in the term techne, which can be translated variously as “art,” or as “craft,” or indeed, as “skill.” It's not clear that these terms are any of these terms in any of the languages we've already invoked means the same thing from one century to another. So this is something else, we have to remain sensitive to—that it's a very historically embedded term, with different kind of connotations in one epoch than in another one. Indeed, if you use a compound phrase, like “art world,” that's obviously going to mean something very different for, say, the young British artists of the 1990s than it means even for us today, let alone say, for curator in the Victorian period. So Becca, do you have any thoughts on this? Can we get started? I have no idea what art is, do you?
Becca Rothfeld [06:03]
I do not have a great idea of what art is myself. And of course, the first question that I want to start with is the metaphilosophical question of what we're even doing when we ask what art is, what kind of answer would satisfy us. So as I was sitting down trying to write down things that I think are true of art in general, before this, I wondered if that would be satisfying, because things that are true of art, or characteristic of art, need not answer the question of what art is, because they may not be specific to art, plenty of things that are true of art, maybe even characteristic of art are also true, or characteristic, of other sorts of things. I wanted to initially ask me whether we're looking for necessary and sufficient conditions, or whether we're just trying to say things that are true and interesting about maybe not all, but many works of art?
Justin E.H. Smith [06:50]
That's a good question, I suppose what I would say and, of course, I don't really believe there's such a thing as metaphilosophy. I think that, you know, if you ask a metaphilosophical question, ipso facto, it becomes part of philosophy. Right?
Becca Rothfeld [07:07]
Well, that is certainly the case. I didn't mean to imply that I didn't…
Justin E.H. Smith [07:11]
That's that's just an aside, but I guess what I would say is that necessary and sufficient conditions are kind of like the gold standard of definitions. That's what we hope to get. But if we can't get that, maybe at least we can get some family resemblances. Or if we can't get any of those may be an inkling or a hunch, right? It's just kind of like, we do the best we can always hoping that we'll get something, ideally, that would be such that we can invoke it whenever we have the question, Is this thing here a work of art? Well, does it have these two or three or four elements? That would be lovely, I worry that we're probably not going to get that with art. What about you?
Becca Rothfeld [08:02]
I mean, I think art is particularly difficult in this regard. I mean, I think that most of my favorites accounts of art, or maybe they're not really accounts of art strictly speaking—most of my favorite discussions of art, take the sort of latter approach, the unsatisfying approach, where they don't attempt to offer necessary and sufficient conditions and instead they just apprise us with interesting things that art can do. Like Heidegger's discussion in "Origin of the Work of Art,“ I don't see as an attempt—perhaps you would disagree—to offer a definition of art so much as an attempt to characterize interesting facts that like art can have or something. But nonetheless, I would be interested, and attempting to offer some necessary and sufficient conditions, whether or not we're destined for failure…
Justin E.H. Smith [08:41]
No, but seriously, maybe this is important at the outset. Do you think it is a futile or even perhaps a silly undertaking? Do you roll your eyes at the idea of pursuing this question together?
Becca Rothfeld [08:56]
No, I don't. I will say that in the course of reading about definitions of art, I've come to the conclusion that maybe what is more important is not the question of what art is, but the question of what makes art good, and maybe even the question of aesthetic value more broadly. So even if we can't come to any, you know, consensus about what art is, it might be the case that there's something that unifies everything beautiful, and I feel more optimistic about the prospect of coming to a conclusion, a definition about that.
Justin E.H. Smith [09:19]
That's promising, but here's a problem with it, perhaps: that we would could easily end up having to accept, and you might want to accept, recognizing, for example, natural objects. For example, to use I think this is Richard Wollheim’s example, say certain forms of driftwood, or the contemplation stones that scholars put in their studies in classical China, things that are simply lifted out of nature and not transformed by human art in the literal sense, but that nonetheless have the power to provoke an experience of beauty in us, or an experience that we also associate with, say, a given painting or symphony or something like that. So if you're prepared, potentially, to admit aesthetic experience before the natural world as well, then we could pursue your line.
Becca Rothfeld [10:23]
No, so I wouldn't necessarily want to say that the Grand Canyon is a work of art or something like that. But rather, if left to my own devices, I would be more inclined to ask the question, “What makes something aesthetically valuable?” than the question “What makes something a work of art?” Because I think one, I guess, subsidiary question would be, what are the stakes of answering that question? What does it matter if something is a work of art? Does it follow that we treat it differently? And I mean, I think, actually, as I've been reflecting on it for this, I'd sort of dismissed the question and decided to ask after beauty instead. But I think that maybe—I mean, we do treat works of art differently. We write criticism of works of art; we don't write criticism of the Grand Canyon. So I think that maybe I had dismissed the question too cursorily in my first years of graduate school, but I think that's something to keep in mind. Because I think that aesthetic beauty is also important as it attaches to things besides works of art—human bodies, works of nature, so on and so forth. And so I think often, in the history of philosophy, when people have asked after the definition of a work of art, they should have been asking after aesthetic value, given what they care about, like that's true of Hegel, in my opinion, or whatever. Nonetheless, so we can ask after the necessary and sufficient conditions of works of art and do our best. I have one condition that I think is plausibly necessary, albeit not sufficient, taken from Hegel's Aesthetics, which I've just been reading, sort of in preparation for this, and also just to get into it. So I guess, it seems to me that it is a necessary constraint on art that it be made for and by humans, or things with humanlike minds.
Justin E.H. Smith [11:54]
Interesting. I was going to say a moment ago, when you suggested this very peculiar idea, let's say, some very foreign culture that we might land upon where we learned that they actually do write nature criticism, that would be really strange and interesting, right? But I was thinking about this in connection with Kant. Because Kant, in this very peculiar work of his, The Critique of the Power of Judgment,” where he combines what we might today call inquiry into the living world, on the one hand, with philosophical aesthetics, on the other hand, discusses such things as free natural beauties, like the feathers of certain tropical birds, and seashells, and so on, but also elsewhere, Kant discusses, at some point, his disgust at the thought of whales in the act of copulation, and, you know, is revolted by this on aesthetic grounds. And so I think that someone—if we're looking for someone who comes close to trying to combine the two, in a way that Hegel seeks positively to forestall, it would be Kant, and that might be an actually historically very interesting split, where, up until Hegel, we had the possibility of doing nature criticism and art criticism together. You want to agree with Hegel, though: you think it's right to restrict it to that narrower conception, where it's something humans or humanlike beings are coming up with—art? Why do you want to restrict it that way?
Becca Rothfeld [13:44]
I guess in response to all of that, I have like one thing to say, which is that I think historically, it is not true that up until Hegel, we don't admit of the possibility of excluding nature, because I think like people like Plato, who wants to say that art's primary function is memetic, which I think is definitely wrong, but I think that that rules out thinking of, like, works of nature, or works of nature—I've already conflated the two—beautiful things in nature as works of art. Why do I want to rule out the possibility that works of nature—my God, I keep saying it—but beautiful things in nature, count as works of art…
Justin E.H. Smith [14:20]
Well, the 18th century term would have been works of the creator, and so in the 18th century, you do have a strong convergence of the two through natural theology. But that's just an aside…
Becca Rothfeld [14:32]
Which makes sense because it allows you to apply the same kind of interpretive practices towards beautiful things in nature that you would towards works of art. I mean, I guess I'm inclined towards like an institutional understanding of what art is that art probably has something to do with the kinds of practices that were able to pick up in relation to it.
Justin E.H. Smith [14:50]
This is like George Dickie.
Becca Rothfeld [14:53]
Yeah, and I think Danto.
Justin E.H. Smith [14:55]
Danto is a good counterpoint as well. I like Danto. Sure…
Becca Rothfeld [14:59]
I mean, I think one reason why I'm inclined to say that I don't want to count nature among art, although, of course, I think that it can have aesthetic value, which even Hegel doesn't think that it can even have like that much aesthetic value. And I disagree with him about that. But I think it's because we have different processes in relation to nature. And so, I mean, I haven't actually spent a lot of time thinking about why it is that it would seem so futile to me to write a piece of criticism about a work of, piece of nature, perhaps God's creation. But I think maybe one reason might be that a lot of criticism aspires not just to describe whether something has aesthetic value or not, but rather to interpret something, and it only makes sense to interpret something that has an agent behind it. And that is plausibly understood as like a first symbol for something. So it's not it's not even sufficient if God is the creator of things like the Grand Canyon—he'd have to intend them to be symbols for something, or to admit an interpretation in order for us to take the same relationship to the Grand Canyon. I mean, no, I think that that—well, I'm sure that one could say different things about like various proponents of the institutional theory. And it's been a while since I delved into the details of the different views and how different people disagree about the details. But I think the basic idea is that the advent of modern art raises challenges that historical accounts of what art or aesthetic value are—it's not sufficient to respond to, because with the advent of modern art, and people like Duchamp, people are reappropriating everyday objects, and sometimes, I guess, even pieces of nature in recent years. And describing them as or treating them as works of art. So if we accept that these things are works of art, then traditional accounts on which art is something memetic, or art is something that has a particular kind of aesthetic value, like it's beautiful, are no longer sufficient. And so the best way for us to understand what makes something like a Brillo box or a urinal a work of art, is to appeal to its institutional history, and maybe also to appeal to the sort of practices that categorizing it as a work of art enables certain practices that we take up in relation to it. So I historically have found those sorts of accounts to be the most compelling, although perhaps, today, I will change my mind.
Justin E.H. Smith [15:54]
That sounds plausible to me. Yeah. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about the institutional theory, just so that we're all clear on this, because Danto’s preferred example is Andy Warhol's Brillo Box, and others such as he would put it, “transfigured commonplace objects,” so that for Danto, if I understand him correctly, it's perfectly okay to say that there is there is one Brillo box that is atomically, physically identical to the millions of other Brillo boxes out there. But unlike all those other Brillo boxes out there, which are mere commercial packaging, this one Brillo box that Andy Warhol has transfigured and had caused to be placed in a museum is a work of art. You mentioned kind of the historical conditioning of the notion of art, and the way that classical accounts are inadequate for, say, 20th century readymades and other avant-garde instances of envelope pushing. But when you say classical, I suppose you mean, the very distinct history of philosophical aesthetics that starts to emerge with figures like Alexander Baumgarten, and moves up through the 19th century in Germany. But then that gives us a reason to stop and think, Well, wait a minute, that was a pretty brief period of time. And surely what someone was saying about art circa 1800, was not only not suitable for explaining Andy Warhol or Marcel Duchamp, but it also wasn't suitable for explaining, say, medieval Orthodox icons or any other, let's say, tradition of religious art, where typically, the artist works anonymously and it's all subordinated to the greater glory of God and so on. So in that respect, one does start to worry that this is a particularly historically contingent concept, and that we're working with the final remains of a tradition that was actually very short. Would you agree with that?
Becca Rothfeld [19:48]
Sure. I mean, it does seem plausible to me that what people are apt to characterize as art and the institutions surrounding art change historically. It does seem that there is some continuity or—well, I suppose it seems like the institutional account, perhaps has the resources to accommodate this kind of thought and that it is open to institutionalists to say that the relevant sorts of institutions like evolve over time, so maybe the institutions surrounding art production in the Middle Ages are different. And so what makes something a work of art under other, those circumstances different. And I myself, I mean, I guess I'm a bit more of a perennialist, to use the language that you use in your book—which listeners, I've had a chance to read, and it's great. So I might be more inclined to say, I guess, that there are stable features of institutions that define art throughout history—some, I think, even in the context of medieval art, one assumes that there is a human agency behind it, even if we don't have a notion of the auteur in the way that we do now.
Justin E.H. Smith [20:51]
Yeah, so that's—I sympathize with your perennialism. One also, sometimes, though, wants to say with Friedrich Engels, right, that certain amount of quantitative change leads to qualitative change. And that, you know, if there's a certain number of transformations in the practices of artistic production, and a certain degree of transformation of the economy and the institutions that host artistic production, then at some point, you just have to say “this ain’t the same thing anymore.” Can I give you an example of something I read recently, and it's wild—
Becca Rothfeld [21:31]
Justin E.H. Smith [21:32]
So there are services for like ultrawealthy oligarch types, where you can get an art agent who will recommend purchases, and then once you authorize these purchases, the same agent will see to their storage for you—that is, out of sight, nobody will look at them, nobody will damage them with their breath, or light, or anything like that. And this is effectively for ultrawealthy people who see art not only as in part an investment, but as entirely an investment—as nothing more than an investment. So, imagine, I mean, here's where I think the institutional theory might reach its kind of limit of explanatory power: take some kind of hot new artist whose work has been purchased by such a service, and is now being stored in deep storage underground somewhere, and is just kind of hiding there secretly as a work of art. Right? It seems a stretch to say that that thing there even if it say, represents a human being on a canvas or a sunrise, or something like that, that that thing there is ontologically of the same kind as, say, a Paleolithic cave painting. Right? Would you agree?
Becca Rothfeld [23:05]
I mean, I guess I'm actually not completely sure about that. I mean, I think that if one takes the really bare institutionalist, unornamented institutionalist account, then one would have to conclude that they are both works of art. I think that what to me seems to make the institutionalist account more plausible, I guess, than it is, in the bare iteration as if one supplements it with the idea that there's something in common between all human institutions—not all human institutions, but like human institutions as they pertain to like a particular practice. I mean, that practice does seem… in some ways that practice seems alien; in other ways it seems pretty reminiscent of patronage systems in earlier epochs, where people were not so concerned with the artist that was produced by the people of whom they were patrons, but were just concerned to make themselves seem like they were interested in the arts or something like that. Although, I mean, I'm not super up on the history of it. I will say that I think that—I have rarely encountered an artwork, in particular a work of literature from a different era that did not seem comprehensible in some respects, to me, at least with some background information, which makes me feel like at least certain facts about literary institutions are common throughout time. And this even seems true to me when I look at art from the Middle Ages, literary art from the Middle Ages, anonymous or maybe even irrelevant authors, something like Gawain and the Green Knight I think can be read in a way that is very resonant, even to a person today, although of course I can never know for sure whether that's a function of my own imposition of my presuppositions onto it.
Justin E.H. Smith [24:45]
That's so interesting. I've thought a lot about this. And maybe one thing someone might say in opposition… I am often struck—I read a lot of epic poetry and oral epics of traditional cultures—and I'm often struck by what I take to be the aesthetic power of a kind of archaic perspective on human beings, in particular, a lack of any preoccupation with their inwardness. There's like zero Proustian quality in traditional oral epics, and I respond to that aesthetically, I dig it. But what I try to remind myself, though, is that this is not necessarily being done for aesthetic effect, it might be being done, because it's just the way they see people, but you see more continuity in the description of what we as human beings are from, say medieval tales to contemporary novels?
Becca Rothfeld [25:48]
Well, of course it depends, because I think that any reasonable person will come down in the middle, saying, there are some differences in the medieval perspective on personhood, and there are some similarities. But I have to say that I have not—and people always say this about Greek art and Greek conceptions of the person and say that there's no room for inwardness. And it's Augustine who invents inner life or something like that. But I have to say that I find—I'm not huge on Greek literature or anything, but I think that I think that a lot of the characters, especially in Plato's dialogues, for example, are super recognizable. And it doesn't seem to me that any sort of standard account of inwardness is expunged. For instance, I love Alcibiades's drunken speech in the symposium about how he loves Socrates. It's super recognizable. I think everybody has had the sorts of feelings.
Justin E.H. Smith [26:36]
Becca Rothfeld [26:37]
Most people have had occasion for drunken confession. And he seems to acknowledge, I mean, really, in the most literal sense, that Socrates has an inner life, that is, that he can look upon and love. I mean, you open Socrates, and you see beautiful statues inside and this sort of thing. Yeah. I mean, although I think that part of what is interesting about reading literature from other eras and other cultures is that there's all kinds of presuppositions that are alien to you. Like in courtly poetry from Japan, there's all these formal rules about the kind of landscape imagery that you can invoke in a particular kind of poem, and the intensity of the formal constraints is like really interesting and is super unfamiliar to somebody who's writing and reading after modernism. Nonetheless, I've yet to find a work of literature that does not seem to me to contain something recognizable. And I think that even in medieval works of literature, for example, like in Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain seems to have like a vivid inner life, he is resisting the advances of his hosts during the hunt passages—I don't know, if you've read Gawain and the Green Knight…
Justin E.H. Smith [27:43]
I have not. No.
Becca Rothfeld [27:44]
It's great, I highly recommend it, it's really awesome.
Justin E.H. Smith [27:47]
I'll put it on my list.
Becca Rothfeld [27:48]
It's a giant green knight—very exciting.
Justin E.H. Smith [27:51]
That's so cool. I could indeed be wrong about this. But I mean, of course, you know, you read even the most “archaic”—I'm doing scare quotes with my fingers, for people who can't see this—you read even the most “archaic” accounts of human action, and you still recognize it as action. And that already implies that there is some kind of motivation behind this and some kind of inner process going on that leads to the action. So indeed, I think you're very right about this, we do exaggerate the recentness of the discovery of the inner life. Let me throw you a curveball, I think, because you have already suggested it, so it's not that much of a curveball. That is, whether we can maybe get closer to a definition that we agree upon by looking at the parallel question on which I believe you do have strong opinions. Not what is art, what is beauty? So even if that forces us to take driftwood and gemstones and things like that into consideration as well, what is beauty?
Becca Rothfeld [29:02]
Well, I actually, I don't mean to throw such a curveball back, I suppose. But I think that this is a super independently interesting question. Like, I mean, one thing that my dissertation is about and that I care about, but I actually don't think this is a promising strategy for answering the question of what art is at all. Precisely because I think the two come apart so sharply. It's just that sometimes the fact that this is the more important question, or the question that maybe we have better prospects of answering, or something. But I think that plenty of artworks are certainly not beautiful. I mean, one question that we perhaps could take up is the question of whether it's possible for something to be bad art, like whether art is [inaudible], which I think is something that changes over the course of the history of philosophy, like people like Hegel use the term art, honorifically, and some other people are perfectly willing to admit that franchise superhero movies are art, whereas other people would want to say they aren't even art at all. That's a separate sort of question. But I…
Justin E.H. Smith [29:57]
I was just gonna say I'm very sympathetic. If we're looking for—if we need a definition, I'm very sympathetic to the art as… an honorific view, I think that settles the matter cleanly. We call art what we think deserves the honor and we withhold the honorific from that which is bad. I'm not saying I'm going to go for it, but I'm saying it has its attractions. So go on.
Becca Rothfeld [30:23]
I think that that raises other sorts of questions there, because there are more kinds of aesthetic value, at least in my opinion, than beauty. So in addition to there being things that maybe want to say that they're so bad that they're not even artwork, but there's something compelling about describing something as a bad artwork. That's one objection to that view. But another would be that it just raises a different host of questions. Because I think that there are plenty of artworks that we might want to say are, I don't know, maybe they're interesting, maybe they're disturbing, but without being beautiful, or something like that. And so then the question would be what are the range of aesthetic values that corresponds to artwork, or that define things as being artwork? And then there are all sorts of other related questions about, like, what makes something aesthetic, anyway? Like what makes something an aesthetic property, as opposed to an ethical property or just a descriptive property. And then you get into some other stuff. So while it might be true that the honorific account of what art is is ultimately salvageable I don't think it necessarily simplifies things. Because it raises other sorts of questions.
Justin E.H. Smith [31:25]
You're right, yeah, I can see that. Yeah, let's try to approach this from another perspective. You have written a lot in your capacity as a critic about literature. And this is, in some sense, as I understand your work, your home base in terms of thinking about what art is, so this raises the question of genre—genres of artistic production and of what unites them. In particular, with respect to literature, we often hear the phrase, the weird compound phrase “arts and literature,” which leaves literature as a kind of outlier. And the first question is: Why? And the second question is: Does this perhaps reveal something about the pieced-together, bricolage sort of character of what we think of as art, when we look at the way the different genres are just kind of thrown together?
Becca Rothfeld [32:37]
So, I think that there is a historical explanation for why this is so—and by the way, this is something that really irritates me. In reading like a ton of aesthetics, so much of it is just about—not even about all the arts except for literature, but just about the visual arts—like a lot of aesthetics seems to just assume without any justification that paintings and sculptures are the only, or at least primary objects of interest, to somebody interested in aesthetics. And they include things like dance, and there is a rich aesthetic tradition of people discussing music. But often when people do things like offer definitions of art, they sort of conveniently forget to care about things like music and dance, in addition to forgetting to care about literature, but I think that the contingent historical explanation for this is that people who are interested in aesthetics, or what they call aesthetics, at least initially, are interested in sensory experience. And they're interested in sensible properties. And so a lot of like the early Romantic and idealist attempts to understand what is distinctive about the aesthetic or what is distinctive about art appeal to something like sensible properties. Literature may or may not have sensible properties. Of course, literature can be read aloud, some literature is intended to be read aloud. And that sort of literature has auditory properties. But plenty of literature seems to not have that many sensible properties, unless we define sensible properties in a weird, counterintuitive way. So that's why I think that literature is often left out. I'm not sure that its historical exclusion is evidence that there is not something unifying about different sorts of art to be found so much as it just reflects a sort of Romantic bias, although interestingly, the Romantics also care a lot about poetry. Poesie is a really important category for them and think that does all kinds of important work or whatever. I myself am inclined to think that at least something can be found in common across different sorts of art, although I'm not sure that justify that.
Justin E.H. Smith [34:38]
I want to know what it is. You're inclined to think it—you suspect it but you can't pinpoint it.
Becca Rothfeld [34:43]
To me, it seems to have something to do with the appropriateness of doing criticism, vis-a-vis or upon, whatever the appropriate conjunction is, these objects.
Justin E.H. Smith [34:52]
Yeah. I mean, one worries a little bit, no offense, but that you are something like an ornithologist trying to make the case for your relevance to birds, to invoke that old example about how philosophers of science are no more necessary for science than ornithologists are for birds. You are a critic, and you are seeking to define art as that which opens itself up for critical engagement, right? And one might want to say to you as a critic, “Oh, how convenient.” Right? You see what I mean? You're defining art into your—you're giving art the definition that makes what you do, particularly relevant. And yet I'm inclined to agree with you. Yet I find it a pretty attractive proposal, when we're looking for what all these things have in common.
Becca Rothfeld [35:53]
In response to the ornithologist point, I was just reading a book where someone suggests to the spouse that the person should take up birdwatching and the response is "The bird should watch me," which I think is amazing. But—that's in Norman Rush's Mortals, it's a great book.
Justin E.H. Smith [36:10]
Becca Rothfeld [36:11]
But in any case, I mean—so I do think that I'm defining… Well, I guess, who knows what the direction is, maybe I became a critic because some part of me sensed that this is the appropriate attitude to take towards works of art. Or maybe I want to ensure relevance for myself by defining art in reference to criticism. I will say, though, that I think that what I mean by criticism includes more than formal criticism. And so, I mean, I think that it is at least important in discussing why art is important to us—and whether or not that should figure into our definition is sort of a separate question—but at least one reason why art is important to us is that we can engage in a series of critical—I keep using the word “practices,” I mean, it’s just the best word—critical practices surrounding it, whether they be formal or informal. So it's not just that there can be an Architectural Digest and that's what makes architecture architecture but rather that architecture is the kind of thing that you can talk about what your friends that you might be inclined to talk about with your friends. It is something of which it is sensible to ask why a certain choice was made. Of course, that isn't unique to art, because that's true of any any activity performed with human agency. But it's something of which it is fruitful to ask why particular sorts of choices were made. And I think that accounts of, I guess, aesthetic appreciation that I like most are ones that have it that aesthetic appreciation is not immediate but is rather the product of sort of discussion and consumption of artifacts, around the artifacts under discussion, because that seems to me to be true. And that seems to me to be a very important part of artistic consumption, to use an applicative word. So I guess, my justification for thinking that criticism has something to do with it has to do with the centrality of interpretive discussion and aesthetic practices—informal, interpretive discussion, often, just people debating, you know, whether the Beatles are better than the Stones or something that seems to be central to the way that we relate to artwork, even when we're not professional critics.
Justin E.H. Smith [38:10]
I think our time is just about up in terms of our dialogical inquiry. I think I hear some church bells chiming. That means we are in agreement.
Becca Rothfeld [38:28]
I wanted the goat bleat!
Justin E.H. Smith [38:32]
Well, look, technically, you're a winner. I mean, I didn't want to make you nervous. But the truth is, it's better to agree than to disagree. And I wouldn't say exactly, I mean, this was a tough call. I'm going with the church bells, because basically, we didn't come to any kind of necessary and sufficient conditions. That is, we didn't come to anything like the gold standard of definition, as we laid it out earlier in the show. But we came to something that felt like agreement, which is that art is whatever is open to interpretive criticism. And I've never even thought of that before. And so maybe, like, it feels like agreement, and then, you know, I'm going to come away from this conversation and I'm going to be like, Wait a minute, Becca and I don't think the same thing at all about what art is, but still, at least for the moment—like hearing this, this new understanding that appeals to me so much feels like agreement. So that's what we're going to go with and you're a winner.
Becca Rothfeld [39:44]
All right! It's at least a necessary condition. So that's half of what we wanted.
Justin E.H. Smith [39:48]
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I'm happy with that. I'm happy with that. But I mean, I just kind of called it right there because it's important to stick to time. But we have about one more minute to talk. So I thought I would throw another question at you. What about superhero movies? Are they an appropriate object of serious criticism?
Becca Rothfeld [40:13]
That's a good question. I mean, I certainly think—well, I say this from a position of total ignorance, because I actually haven't seen very many of them. Maybe any of them. I mean, I saw like the Batman movie in like, high school or something.
Justin E.H. Smith [40:24]
I think I saw the one with Michael Keaton in it, which might have been in like, 1989. That's my most recent superhero movie.
Becca Rothfeld [40:33]
I guess I watched part of the Jessica Jones TV show, which was on Netflix. It was not very good, in my opinion. I mean, the reason—so if they are anything like I assume they would be like, on the basis of seeing previews for them and finding myself totally disinterested in watching them, I would say that they are certainly bad art. But it is possible to write a pan of something. I mean according to some, the most thrilling critical genre is the pan. So I think that yes, they're an appropriate object of excoriating criticism.
Justin E.H. Smith [41:16]
Excellent. Yeah, I'm inclined to agree with you. Thank you so much, Becca. Again, this has been the "What Is X?" podcast, and I am Justin E.H. Smith. My guest has been Becca Rothfeld. And we have come to a sort of agreement on the question, "What is art?" I hope you'll join us again next time. Until then we'll see you later.