A pragmatic perspective on the nature of art

Last Saturday’s Guardian contained a lengthy piece promoting a new book on the history of modern art. The author, Will Gompertz, argues that art is what the artist declares it to be. Fountain, the urinal to which Marcel Duchamp did nothing other than sign it (as R. Mutt) before putting it on display, features prominently in Gompertz’s case for this claim about the nature of art.

Duchamp’s Fountain

Postmodern proclamations like this are often greeted with hostility. The idea that art is whatever the artist says it is strikes many as vacuous and self-important: just read the comments section below Gompertz’s article if you have any doubt of that. I’m sure that ignoble motives have sometimes lain behind such claims, but current research in pragmatics and other disciplines that study communication actually gives us good reasons to subscribe to this idea. I want to articulate some of these.


When we communicate, we do more than simply provide a signal for others to interpret. We also make it apparent to our audience that we are trying to communicate with them. Of course, when we talk it is obvious that communication is our goal, but for some other signals it is not always so clear. I was in a coffee shop in Edinburgh yesterday, and I wanted the waitress to top up my drink. To indicate this to her, I tilted my cup in a particular, somewhat stylised way. If I had not tilted it in this way, the waitress would not have realised that my tilt was a request, or indeed an attempt to communicate at all. After all, coffee cups are incidentally tilted all the time. What made my tilt different was the stylised way in which I performed it.

The technical term is ostension: I tilted my coffee cup in an ostensive way. Ostension is the quality that some behaviours have that makes it apparent to the intended audience that the behaviour is intended as an act of communication. Ostension invites the audience to interpret the behaviour as a signal. It says ‘I am trying to communicate with you’, and it asks ‘What am I trying to say?’. In other words, the stylised way in which I tilt my coffee cup tells the waitress that this is not just any old tilt; it is a tilt that has a particular meaning that I want to communicate to her.

In the same way, the act of putting a painting – or, indeed, a urinal – on display tells the viewer that this is not just any old object, but an object that has a particular meaning that I, the artist, want to communicate to the world. In short, putting something in an art gallery is an act of ostension: it declares to the world an intention to communicate. It demands that the audience search for the object’s meaning.

Fountain’s message was one about the nature of art itself. Meta-art, if you like. Gompertz points out that Duchamp’s motivations were “to question the very notion of what constituted a work of art… His position was that if an artist said something was a work of art… then it was a work of art, or at least demanded to be judged as such”. This is precisely the point at the heart of modern communication theory: a signal becomes a signal as soon as it demands to be judged as such. This applies to art as much as it does to any other form of intentional communication. A piece of art becomes a piece of art as soon as it demands to be judged as such. Of course, simply demanding to be judged as art does not make something good art – but it remains art nevertheless.

The principles of relevance

Once an audience has identified a signal as being a signal, they face the challenge of working out what the intended meaning of the signal actually is. This is true even with language: words and sentences are often ambiguous, and have different meanings in different contexts. What meaning does the speaker intend to convey? At least in language the speaker that meaning is usually a specific one. That is less often true with art.

How do we infer the signaller’s intended meaning? A central idea in modern pragmatics is the communicative principle of relevance. It states that when we create a signal, we do so in a way that conveys the signal’s meaning in the most effective way possible. There is also a cognitive principle of relevance, which says that listeners make use of this knowledge to understand us. (There are more technical formulations of both these principles – see Wilson & Sperber, 2004 for the details – but we needn’t enter into them here.) I could have conducted an elaborate mime for my waitress, but why would I do that when a simple tilt would do? In fact, if I had channelled the spirit of Marcel Marceau in my request for more coffee, the waitress would likely have searched for a richer interpretation: he can’t just be requesting more coffee, she would reason, because otherwise he would have done something simpler. He must mean something more than that. Perhaps he is asking me on a date.

I see no reason to think that these principles of relevance don’t also apply to art. In any communicative scenario there are two things that the communicator must make apparent to the audience. The first is their intention to communicate; the second is the meaning they wish to communicate. In language, the first is achieved by opening your mouth, the second by the actual words you use. Just the same, in art the first is achieved by putting the piece on display, and the second by the form of the piece itself.

What is art?

One of my favourite pieces of modern art is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a bronze sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, produced in 1913 and on display at the Tate Modern in London. It is of a weighty human figure from which twists, angles, points and curves protrude from all parts; the effect is one of dynamism, power and fluidity. The figure strides forwards, a willing and able participant in the coming age of speed, technology and industry. This interpretation is the standard one, and like all interpretations of communicative stimuli, it comes in the two stages described above. First the audience must acquiesce to the demand to consider the piece as something with a meaning to be communicated; second they must interpret the sculpture’s particular form.

Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

The intuitive thought is that the difference between art and not-art lies in the second of these two stages: art is anything that we can appreciate and interpret. What Duchamp wanted to say was that actually it lies in the first stage, and I see no reason to disagree. The difference between Unique Forms… and a random piece of bronze I might find at the scrap heap is not the form of the object (after all, what if I found something that had by chance been battered into a very similar shape?), but the fact that it is in an art gallery.

How could Duchamp convey this message through art itself? That is, how could he construct a piece that invites the interpretation that art is whatever is put on display? He needed to focus the viewer’s mind not on the piece itself, but on the act of putting it on display in the first place – in other words, of the artist’s expression of their intention to communicate with the audience. His solution was to take an everyday object, do (almost) nothing to it, and then place it in a gallery. What this says to the audience is: there is meaning in this object, but that meaning does not derive from what I, the artist, have done to create it (because I have not done anything). The audience is thus forced to reason that the piece’s meaning must lie in the other aspect of interpretation, namely the fact that Duchamp has put it in a gallery and hence demanded that it be considered art.

People sometimes suggest that there is art in the beauty of the natural world. Google ‘art or porn?’ if you don’t believe me. But this is wrong: the natural world was not put on display as art, ergo it is not art. (This is not the same thing as documentation of the natural world – the photo, the landscape painting – which can be art.) Food is an interesting case. Food is mostly, normally produced with one or both of two things in mind: fuel, and taste. Since ‘display’ does not feature in this short list, food is not normally art. But sometimes food is produced for the purpose of being looked at and, perhaps, interpreted; some of Heston Blumenthal’s gastronomic creations are the obvious example here.

Is art really only whatever the artist declares is to be? At first blush this sounds like pseudo-intellectual reductionism. But if we accept the premise that art is, among other things, an act of communication between the artist and the audience, then a pragmatic perspective suggests not only that Duchamp’s message is plausible, but that it in fact must be right. The presentation of art is an act of ostension.

10 thoughts on “A pragmatic perspective on the nature of art

  1. If you argue that (apologies for reductionism) “art is communication” then the next question is, ‘what is communicated?’. There’s another perspective on art which makes explicit use of the idea of communication – Tolstoy set out a theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_Art%3F) that art is fundamentally a method of communicating an emotional experience from the creator of the piece, to the reader/listener/viewer/whatever. Has some value I think.

    1. There is no way to determine “what is communicated?” hence the old saying, “Art is in the eye of the beholder.” In communication, if I say, “blah, blah, blah,” what I intend to communicate by that can only be interpreted by the receiver. The advantage is with the artist as to how much information is given in relation to what message is intended to communicate. The creators of the images painted on the walls of caves and catacombs didn’t have to ask, “will the be received correctly in the future?” Their audience was wholly themselves and their social contacts. Therefore some artists die penny-less and unknown only to be “discovered” and relevant later. My point is communication is fluid and shifting.

  2. I really like this idea. It means the lack of patience some people have for a lot of art is probably because, unlike language, it lacks a substantial layer of conventionality. The difficulty many people may have in “getting” art is then analogous to the difficulty one has in interpreting the ostension of someone who speaks another language.

    In other words, the infuriating indeterminacy of many works of art is the same indeterminacy inherent in all linguistic communication (cf. Quine) except with art you don’t get much help from convention. Probably also the reason why people need helpful context (eg. Italian Futurism or whatever) to go with the piece, and why people who know more about art (and therefore the relevant contexts) tend to get more out of it as a medium than people who don’t.

  3. So… By simply arriving at a dance I am taking an ostensive step. But then the meaning of all future steps depends on if I chose balboa, lindy hop or blues and how I stylise or syncopate. Does ‘connection’ fall into this second part or is there a hidden third element to the above (and may I say, very lucidly expressed) concept?

  4. Thanks for the comments all. Very thought provoking they are too.

    Matt – What is communicated? In the specifics, it obviously varies from piece to piece. (But obviously it’s not always clear or apparent. As Rachael points out, the tools at the artist’s disposal are far less specific than those we employ in language. In a way, that’s what makes art so interesting – it’s open to multiple interpretations.) But as for what art communicates more generally – I don’t have a clear view, but I guess my reaction is to wonder whether the question even needs an answer. We use language to express all sorts of things (emotions, thoughts, convictions), and I don’t see why art is any different in that respect. It’s really just a different medium, with different strengths and weaknesses.

    Rachael – Yes, absolutely. Actually, if I’d thought about the informative aspect of art (rather than the communicative one, which I focused on), then that’s pretty much exactly what I’d have said.

    Caroline – First up, nice to hear from you! Somewhat surprisingly, I didn’t even think about dancing when putting this together. Anyway, I’d see it the same as the natural beauty case in the penultimate paragraph. Dancing is not, in and of itself, art (if I dance alone, in my room, I don’t see why that’s art). But if I put my dancing on display, to be viewed as art (for example, in a performance), then it is.

    This does raise an interesting question about the limits of art though. If art is whatever is put on display as art, what constitutes ‘putting it on display’? When the man in the corner shops puts the snacks out on display by the counter – surely that isn’t art? My answer would be: it’s not just putting-it-on-display that matters, but actually putting-it-on-display *as-art* – and only context can determine whether I’ve done that. If I put an object on display in an art gallery, it’s clear that I intend the piece to be understood as art; but if I put it on display in a corner shop, it’s equally clear that art is not my intention. The interesting cases as those that are ambiguous in this respect: the social dance floor being one of those.

  5. I think the idea of art as a form of ostensive communication is quite a sensible and interesting one, and helps to get a better understanding of what art is, essentially, without falling into the traps of relativism, endlessly debating whether a particular piece can be considered as art or not.

    Taking such a view however, also has some interesting consequences for the interpretation of postmodern art, such as Duchamp’s fountain, that you mention in the introduction. I would like to suggest that Duchamp’s fountain actually violates the principle of relevance (at least partially) …to communicate its message.

    Thus, much of classical art has an intention about [something], whereas [something] is something external to the piece, e.g. a still life, a painting of a forrest, etc. Duchamp’s piece however is about art and the relationship of the observer and the piece. Now the way he has decided to communicate this is interesting in its own: He has chosen a loo, an object far, far away from what “classical art” would be about, and has not engaged in modifying it, other than exhibiting it in an exhibition. Thus he has chosen an object that in itself does not communicate anything about something else, or of which he knows that an independent observer would have a hard time figuring out an external meaning. The loo represented does not speak about loos in itself, not even metaphorically.

    What he is doing is essentially the equivalent of pointing into empty space, as a means to point at the pointing itself. The sender (for the sake of simplicity) wants to communicate about the pointing, but instead of pointing at the pointing (e.g., a painting of someone being painted) they have chosen to point at something they know that the observer will not be able to trace very easily, without making assumptions that the sender knows the observer knows that the sender probably would not intend to make. The sender, looking at the pointing, is assumed to figure out that the pointing goes into the empty space and therefore understand that the pointing isn’t about something external, but about the pointing itself.

    As Watzlawick et al. argue in the “Pragmatics…” every communication has a content and relationship aspect, whereas the latter defines the former. By leaving away the content aspect of the message, an ostensive approach in interpreting this piece (“the artist wants to communicate something, what could it be…?”) would then shift towards the message itself that is being communicated, or, as Watzlawick et al. would say, it becomes Meta-communication, communication about communication.

    In my view, that’s an interesting way to look at this piece, and might explain some of the negative reactions towards postmodern art, as outlined in the Guardian article you are referring to, i.e. that many people to not want to commit to the switch from art being about something else, to art being about itself, or the meta level. That interpretation would suggest that postmodern pieces like Duchamp’s are qualitatively different to previous forms of art, by not “pointing” at something else, but by being self-referential.

  6. Christian – thanks for the comment. I basically agree with what you’re saying. Indeed, the meta-artistic nature of modern art was what I was trying to bring attention to.

    The one point where I’d disagree, however, is about the principle of relevance. Speakers cannot violate the principles of relevance even if they want to (the principle of relevance are quite different to Grice’s Cooperative Principle in this respect). Indeed, what I was trying to say in the blog post is that it’s precisely *because of* the principles of relevance that Duchamp was able to articulate his meta-artistic message.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s