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Review of What, After All, Is a Work of Art?
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Joseph Margolis, What, After All, Is a Work of Art? (Pennsylvania University Press, 1999)

Reviewed by Steve Wall

Joseph Margolis’s latest book is a collection of lectures and essays on art, aesthetics, culture, and epistemology. Readers already familiar with Margolis’s work will find some clarifications and amplifications of his previous positions. Those who are not will find this book to be an excellent introduction to the more important themes of these philosophical areas as they have developed over the last three decades or so. A minor warning to this latter group of readers: Margolis’s language occasionally requires a second or even a third perusal. However, those who are willing to make this effort will be rewarded with the products of an engaging critical mind. Margolis’s acute, critical eye subjects all thinkers and ideas, regardless of their stature or reputation, to keen analysis. Whether the theorist in question is a contemporary luminary such as Arthur Danto, or is a member of the “canon,” such as Benjamin or Kant, Margolis is always willing to subject them to criticism. His criticisms are always interesting and, more importantly, frequently on the mark.

In his prologue, Margolis argues that in order to make sense of the recent modernist/postmodernist debate, it must be bracketed into local arguments: those of Greenberg and Krauss on modern painting, those of Venturi and Jencks on architecture, of Fredric Jameson on film, those of Riffiaterre, Hutcheon, and Hassan on literature and literary theory, and those of Habermas, Lyotard, Rorty, and Zygmunt Bauman on philosophy. There is not a “settled center” of the quarrel as different parts of the globe emphasize differing terms, nor is there a standard postmodernist perspective that can be gleaned from these disparate cultural disciplines. Margolis mimics this in the way he sections off the book itself. Margolis defines modernism as the notion that one can locate objective and secure interpretations of the world, while postmodernism stresses that we cannot, but he states that these distinctions are merely localized disputes that obscure the real puzzle and are symptomatic of a larger issue. He posits that the real issue that confronts us is not this self-deceiving distinction, but the recovery of historicity, and “historicity signifies the end of the necessary changelessness of the very structure of rational thought and, under post-Kantianism, the end of the changelessness of the very structure of the intelligible world. Historicity is the collective change of the structure of encultured thought through the processes of historical life” (8-9). The recovery of historicity leads to another insight: the presence of an agon between “modal invariance” and “flux”. While recent intellectual history has been couched in terms of invariance and neutrality, Margolis optimistically offers that an appreciation of the reality of the flux of history is emerging.

In the first chapter, “The History of Art After the End of the History of Art,” Margolis focuses on the art theories of Hegel, and to a greater degree, those of Greenberg and Danto, the latter two whom he considers adherents of Hegelianism. In response to Danto’s view that art has entered a “post-historical” phase in which no further developments or styles are forthcoming, and in which everything is permitted, Margolis poses the question: could it not be the case that the attitude which avers that the contemporary period of art has transcended all possible epochs of some master narrative of art might itself be simply the latest stage of that same narrative? He also asks: what of Danto’s history of art? If that is changed, his notion that art has ended evaporates. For Margolis, changing what counts as art results in an altered history, which makes the end of art as untenable as the end of human history.

In the second chapter, “Relativism and Cultural Relativity,” Margolis holds that relativism is a much more alluring position than philosophy, and particularly works such as Plato’s Theatetus and Aristotle’s Metaphysics, have allowed. He states that both the ancient and the modern critics of relativism (such as Beardsley and Hirsch) have made an unwarranted assumption: that what is fundamentally real is unchanging. For Margolis, relativism is not an inherently subversive doctrine; rather it is an honest way to avoid the illusions that issue from invariance and bivalence. And relativism is supremely operative in the cultural realm. He writes, perhaps in an over-general way: “Furthermore, the world of human culture?of language, languaged thought, history, technology, art, and most provocatively, whatever we suppose are the competence of science, and the conditions of the world’s intelligibility? is clearly contingently formed, impressively variable in structure, eminently alterable by human intervention, problematically intelligible under conditions that change with changing history, and endlessly novel and creative” (44). A bivalent mode of interpretation is inadequate for fluxive cultural phenomena; what is needed is an approach that accounts for the multiple ways in which they may be interpreted. Instead of only ‘true’ or ‘false’ values, Margolis introduces such values as ‘not false’ which are capable of accounting for multivalent interpretations. This multivalency nonetheless allows us to reach a form of “objectivity.” He alludes to Foucault’s treatment of Velasquez’ Las Meninas and Barthes reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine as examples of what he is suggesting but this reader would have preferred that Margolis had provided his own interpretations of a number of disparate works to illustrate his thesis. While Margolis is correct to suggest that a reductionist bivalency is inadequate to interpret many works, I don’t think he sufficiently appreciates the fact some interpretations are stronger than others; or that some interpretations are more indicative of the author’s intentions, while others simply reflect the critical prejudices of the moment.

“What, After All, Is a Work of Art?” is the third and central essay in terms of chronology, and since it shares the book’s title, one goes in assuming both that it will be central to the book’s thesis and will shed some light on an issue that has flummoxed many aestheticians and philosophers of art recently, namely how art might be defined in a manner that avoids circularity and question-begging. Margolis says that Morris Weitz, who is largely responsible for undermining the possibility of a universal definition of art, stated but did not demonstrate that art’s openness precludes locating a definition that will cover all possible manifestations of art. Margolis appears not to think that such a formal definition is all that important anyway. He retains his earlier notion that “artworks are physically embodied and culturally emergent entities” which possess histories. He concedes that this “generic (not yet specific) formula” has drawn its share of criticism and as one clarification of the formula he offers that “entities” are individuated, reidentifiable denotatum located in the realm of existents. This eliminates numbers, kinds, universals, types and similar groups as they do not exist. Were artworks to be counted among this group they would perforce lack perceptible qualities, which is not true. This clarification reduces the scope of what can count as artworks, but some readers might prefer an even more specific rendering of the concept of art.

In the fourth chapter, “Mechanical Reproduction and Cinematic Humanism,” Margolis discusses the evolution of film theory. He suggests that film has developed in a way its theorists could not have anticipated, and that many film theories err because they are not founded on an understanding of the human experience. He offers his relativistic logic as a way to effectively capture film’s interesting and open qualities. (In this chapter readers are also treated to some succinct criticisms of persons engaged in the philosophy of art. For example, of Kant, whose presence in aesthetics Margolis finds regrettable, and of Benjamin, whose stature as a force against totalitarianism prevents many commentators from criticizing him but whose ideas on art are nonetheless wrong-headed most of the time.)

This book will leave most readers hoping that Margolis will be completing another one soon. If I were to offer a suggestion for how he goes about developing that work, it would be that he apply his theories in an extended way to particular works of art.


2000 © Steve Wall

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