When I was in college, I came across the work of Japanese Author Yukio Mishima. He was a brilliant, if conflicted, soul who ultimately committed ritual suicide. There's no point in me trying to encapsulate him in this post - check him out on the web. Certainly one of the more interesting characters you are likely to come across.
For some reason during the Goodman podcast, I recalled that as a boy, Mishima (or a character of his - I'm kind of confused on this point*) sees a picture of a painting of St. Sebastian and experiences his first sexual arousal, which leads to masturbation and awareness of his homosexuality. I cut out the discussion because I couldn't coherently make my point, but I wanted to follow up with a post.
Goodman poses the question 'When is Art?' as opposed to 'What is Art?' The point being that anything can become a work of art or cease to be a work of art, depending on time and circumstances. It's a nifty end-run around aesthetics and, I think, gets at something essential in the 'experience' of art. Instead of creating a mandate that such and such is art, leaving it up to the observer to either acknowledge or shrug, Goodman creates a context where one asks, 'Is this art for me, now? And why?'
A context in which something is judged to be or not be art is a "world" - hence, Ways of Worldmaking. A world is a broad swath of whatever information is necessary to make a determination about whether something counts as art, now. As you can imagine, social and historical factors are huge in any world. If "everyone" says that something is art, you are more likely to think the same. If something has been regarded by others as art for a long period of time, you are more likely to see it as such.
The acquisition or exposure to relevant information is going to determine 'When' something is art for you (the experiencer) and when it isn't. It also is going to determine what the art work is doing for you, now (see this comment by Mark). So by learning about a particular work, you might go from seeing it as silly lines and shapes to a Mondrian, to an exemplification of neoplasticism, to an iconic European painting to dorm room decoration. All about the context and the participation of the observer.
One thing that came out of the discussion was that we all felt Goodman didn't give enough weight to the observer's participation in this process, either individually or collectively, though it seemed to be a major issue that kept coming up. The way in which individuals or groups 'world make' is fascinating and critical to determining when something is art, particularly when worlds collide. I was interested in how one might use this to explore the process of appropriation - the taking over of a word or image or work of art and changing it's symbology for the larger whole. And this is when I thought of Mishima and St. Sebastian.
St. Sebastian was a Christian martyred by the Emperor Diocletian. He is commonly represented as bound to a tree with arrows piercing his mid-section. This framing is certainly romantic and sympathetic: the truth is that he was rescued and healed only later to be clubbed to death and thrown in a sewer. An image of a bloodied and bruised face and body, covered in feces, obviously wouldn't do for an iconographic depiction of a saint.
Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes and plague sufferers. Paintings of him and churches dedicated to him (can't have the latter without the former) were created/erected quite frequently through the middle ages and into the Renaissance. Sebastian is almost always depicted as a pretty youth, nude but for a loin cloth, with fair, smooth skin. Given the ubiquity of his representation and the specific way in which he is typically depicted, it should come as no surprise that he was taken up at some point as a homoerotic icon.
This article from the Independent UK somewhat unsatisfactorily addresses the issue, but does do some fine name dropping in the last couple of paragraphs. You can find the same references with some linkage on this Wikipedia page or this one. A better article on Sebastian's evolution into the "homosexual's saint" can be found here .
So for the sake of argument, let's say that two groups world-make around a work of art. One creates a world where the work exemplifies the sacrifice of the Christ, the strength of Christian love over pagan persecution and perhaps expresses a feeling of tragic loss of youth. The other group creates a world where the work exemplifies a homosexual ideal of male youth, a sado-masochistic impulse and expresses a feeling of longing or desire. What are we to make of such a situation in Goodman's terms?
- The groups will agree that the work is art. There is no "if" - it is art for them both, now. I think this is the first virtue of Goodman's approach: in order to understand what one group or the other is doing (and to agree/disagree with them) you don't have to pick a side on whether an object is or isn't art. It's a divorce from the straitjacket of propositional attribution and forces one into a richer discussion or why and how.
- Even though they might not overtly acknowledge it, the groups would agree on what the work of art is doing from a structural perspective: exemplifying and expressing. The are disagreeing on what is being expressed and exemplified, but not that the work is performing those functions.
- This then leads to the critical point: the variables in the equation are the two groups and their worlds, not the work of art. It isn't about whether the piece is art or whether it is beautiful. Thus the priority of the observer or experiencer in the world making process. Appropriation is a perfect case study to see this.
- Goodman doesn't use the terms "interpretation" or "meaning" in this context (i.e. competing interpretations of the meaning of the work) because if he did, the discussion would eventually devolve into into a question of authority, intent, symbology and maybe genealogy. It would give priority back to the work (or the author of the work, or the materials, symbols, etc.) And it would open the door to a disagreement about propositional attribution or truth value.
- Instead, world making requires explanation, exposition and justification. It requires acknowledgment of the interaction between art and the observer. It promotes dialogue between different groups of observers. And it allows for simultaneous rightness of competing worlds, even when they might appear to be in conflict.
Even though Goodman doesn't really give good examples in the text and only sketches a few criteria for how to adjudicate situations where the disagreement is over whether something is art (now/then), I find the implications of his analysis compelling. Freedom from binary, truth-function bound "interpretation". Acceptance of the plurality and difference of observers' experiences. Acknowledgment that worlds can differ and conflict (subjectivism), but must be justified through social, historical and symbolic mechanisms (not radical relativism).
Goodman's Art World is one of infinite possibility and a plurality of experience that I find attractive. Beyond straight aesthetic experience, acquisition of knowledge about a work of art and/or experience with it or others who experience it will potentially open other worlds to you as an observer and allow you to enrich your own conscious world. It defies a structure of rigid canonical interpretation and encourages constant re-examination of what we think is, was or might be art. And it encourages us to respect history, culture and others - with a critical eye and an understanding that context matters and things can change. Referring back to St. Sebastian: biography, not hagiography.
* The protagonist of Confessions of a Mask (New Directions Paperbook) actually has the experience, but the book was always understood as strongly autobiographical. I also am a bit unclear as I read a biography at the time and watched Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - (The Criterion Collection), which mixes real biography and scenes from his fiction.