Artwork and Con-Text

The Origin of Confusion

“The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes.”

“…we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”

-Roland Barthes, philosopher, “The Death of the Author,” 1968

“What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art.”

-Arthur Danto, philosopher, “The Art World,” 1964


“Once upon a time, far from cities and towns, there lived two painters. One day, the king hunting nearby lost his dog. He found the dog in the garden of one of the two painters. He saw, by chance, the work of the painter and invited him to the castle. The name of the painter was Leonardo da Vinci; the other painter disappeared from human memory.”

-Braco Dimitrijević, visual artist and philosopher, “Story about Two Painters


How many times have you read or heard that a certain visual artist or a painter is controversial? That there are two distinct ways of looking at his work?

Some say that Damien Hirst is a genius, or that Tracy Emin is a genius, or that Andy Warhol is a visionary. In 2004, the work of Marcel Duchamp titled Fountain (1917) - in reality a common, generic urinal - was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals.

The opposition (Spalding, Hughes, Sewell…) says that the work of these and many other such artists is simply bad, to use a polite expression. Many say that the work of, for example, Yoko Ono is simply bad. But then why does her work go around the globe, exhibited in prestigious institutions?

How do these controversies arise? What is the truth of the matter?

The answer can be traced back to theory, more precisely, to the series of texts by various philosophers and visual artists that have been produced at least since the early 60s onwards. The three introductory quotes by three authors are like pointers that indicate the same direction. The contemporary culture – often unknowingly – has adopted these positions without questioning them, and the contemporary culture is derived following assertions such as those quoted in the beginning of this article. These quotes speak truth to a great extent, but urgently need to be corrected or complemented. The missing parts and corrections that need to be provided are crucial, in order to clear the mess - particularly in visual arts.

So let us deconstruct the quotes and see where they point.

Even from afar, Barthes' two quotes point to Hegel's triplicity of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The trouble is that, with Barthes, we only get the two: The thesis and antithesis. If Barthes' assertion, namely that it is the reader and not the author who exclusively imbues any text with meaning, is valid, then we have no defense against the claim of any reader of Mein Kampf that Hitler's literary attempt is really about his love for the Jews. And precisely this predicament in relation to Barthes's assertion was pointed out by Neil Postman, a theorist of communications.

Barthes might have retorted that it is a social agreement that we have reached that says that Hitler's book hates the Jews.

Obviously there is a social agreement that says that Hitler's book hates the Jews. But how or why have we arrived at such an agreement?

The answer is simple: We have arrived at such an agreement because following the precepts of the book resulted in the six million killed. Following Postman's intervention, the following conclusion can be reached regarding Mein Kampf: There is a social agreement that Hitler's book hates the Jews and this agreement was reached by looking at the reality of the six million killed. There is an objective reality and there is also a social agreement that confirms the said reality.

Something is, therefore, missing in the original assertion by Barthes. To find resolution, we might want to look at the possible synthesis of both of Barthes' pronouncements. What would the synthesis of Barthes' two pronouncements look like? It is obvious: It is both, the writer and the reader, who imbue - to a varying degree - any text with a meaning.

Philosopher Arthur Danto, in his essay, “The Art World” - probably involuntarily – comes to a very similar conclusion as does Barthes. Danto was looking at the Brillo Boxes made by Warhol that were exhibited in a gallery and compared them to the Brillo boxes in a local shop. These two sets of artefacts look the same, but one of these two sets is tagged as art, while the other is just consumer goods. What makes the difference?

Danto concludes that the difference is “a certain theory of art.”

Sounds nice, but Danto needs to be corrected. There is, in effect, no theory - as a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered - (which is one definition of theory by Merriam Webster) that would determine or explain the said difference between the two sets of objects. And neither does Danto provide any such theory that would determine such difference.

There is, in reality, only text or an agreement - and nothing more - among the people in the art world that Brillo Boxes in the gallery are art, and that the Brillo boxes in a local shop aren't. Such an agreement follows – implicitly or explicitly – Barthes's assertion that it is the reader (in this case the observer) and not the writer (in this case the visual artist) who imbues any work of art with meaning.

Dimitrijević suggests, in his fictional story quoted above, that it has always been this way, even in the time of kings, therefore – unknowingly – affirming Danto and Barthes. There is a king who, in Dimitrijević's story - in effect - plays the role of a Barthes' social agreement or Danto's mere text.

Thus we arrive at the origin of confusion: The meaning, and therefore the value, of any artwork is socially constructed, say - implicitly or explicitly – our three philosophers, and there is no objective reality to artworks. There is only “social agreement” or “text” that tells us that The Night Watch by Rembrandt is a work of a genius. So we can have the same agreement over Warhol's Brillo Boxes, too. The production of such “social agreements” has been going on from the time of the kings, anyway.

Looking at this principle in the present, we can easily see why so many of today's artists are tagged as “controversial:” geniuses to some, hacks to others. Those who assert that the Hirsts, Warhols or Emins are geniuses implicitly or explicitly adopt Dimitrijević, Danto and Barthes and other such thinkers, and don't bother to check if something is missing or wrong in their argument. Others, who see the above artists as hacks, by doing so implicitly or explicitly raise the doubts as to the assertions of our three philosophers.

It is namely not a mere whim of a king, it is not a mere social agreement, it is not a mere arbitrary reading that makes The Night Watch an ingenious work of art. Likewise, it is not a mere social agreement that makes Mein Kampf a book of hate.

There is also objective reality, and solid objects - works of art - that affirm such positions.

As there are objectively simple and complex biological organisms (amebae vs. dolphins, for example) there are also objectively simple, trivial, and complex works of art. The Night Watch is complex, anything by Hirst is not.