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Art, understanding of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M009-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Art engages the understanding in many ways. Thus, confronted with an allegorical painting such as Van Eyk’s The Marriage of Arnolfini, one might want to understand the significance of the objects it depicts. Similarly, confronted with an obscure poem, such as Eliot’s The Waste Land, one might seek to understand what it means. Sometimes, too, we claim not to understand a work of art, a piece of music, say, when we are unable to derive enjoyment from it because we cannot see how it is organized or hangs together. Sometimes what challenges the understanding goes deeper, as when we ask why some things, including such notorious productions of the avant garde as the urinal exhibited by Marcel Duchamp, are called art at all. Some have also claimed that to understand a work of art we must understand its context. Sometimes the context referred to is that of the particular problems and aims of the individual artist in a certain tradition, as when the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is understood as a contribution by its architect to the vexing problem of combining a tower with a classical façade. Sometimes the context is social, as when some Marxists argue that works of art can best be understood as reflections of the more or less inadequate economic organizations of the societies that gave rise to them. The understanding of art becomes a philosophical problem because, first, it is sometimes thought that one of the central tasks of interpretation is to understand the meaning of a work. However, recent writers, notably Derrida (1972), query the notion of the meaning of a work as something to be definitively deciphered, and offer the alternative view of interpretation as an unending play with the infinitely varied meanings of the text. Second, a controversial issue has been the extent to which the judgment of works of art can be divorced from an understanding of the circumstances, both individual and cultural, of their making. Thus Clive Bell argued that to appreciate a work of art we need nothing more than a knowledge of its colours, shapes and spatial arrangements. Others, ranging from Wittgenstein to Marxists, have for a variety of different reasons argued that a work of art cannot be properly understood and appreciated without some understanding of its relation to the context of its creation, a view famously characterized by Beardsley and Wimsatt (1954) as the ‘genetic fallacy’.

Citing this article:
Lyas, Colin. Art, understanding of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M009-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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