Framing and the Ontology of the Art Work: Kendall Walton and Jacques Derrida

In his 1977 paper “Categories of Art” Kendall Walton argues that aesthetic categories like “piano music” or “bust” determine how an audience ascribes aesthetic significance to the non-aesthetic properties of the work such as their shape, matter or sound. Walton calls the perceptible properties that determine whether it belongs to a given category of artwork “standard”. The work’s “variable properties” by contrast are irrelevant to categorical membership and can vary within a category. These fix its distinctive aesthetic or expressive characteristics. Contra-standard properties, finally, are properties possession of which tend to disqualify a work from a category (e.g. being a relief disqualifies a work as a painting, etc.) (339).

mont_sainte-victoire_from_lauves-400

While standard properties may not directly fix the aesthetic properties of a work (what it expresses, resembles, evokes, etc.) they are not aesthetically neutral. They play an organising role in determining what is normal or to be expected of a work of the corresponding category. They inform our expectations and interpretations of the work; thus the way in which its nonaesthetic properties acquire aesthetic significance. We hear a melody in the Adagio Cantabile of Beethoven’s Pathetique as legato or “sung” if exhibits the standard marks of piano performance. A vocal performance played on a sampler with sonic envelope of piano note (sharp attack and quick decay) might be heard as strangely robotic even though the onset and decay of each sung note would be identical in speed (Walton 1977, 350). Aesthetic categories are like frames that encode what is expected of or proper to a work. If Walton is right, all art works must be “framed” in this sense. They must be composed of readable marks which allow us to hear/see, etc. the work as belonging to a relevant category.

Interestingly, Jacques Derrida also considered the role of frames and framing in Kant’s aesthetics in “Parergon”, an essay in The Truth in Painting. Kant thought that aesthetic judgement should not concern itself with irrelevant aspects of a work – an ostentatious gold leaf frame around a delicate watercolour, say. Such finery distracts us from the beautiful form of the work proper. Yet if, with Walton, we understand such “parerga” (outworks, supplements to the main work) as essential to the aesthetic effect of a work they cannot be simply outside the work. The effect of the work proper, depends on this supplement.

The parergon has an ambiguous position according to Derrida. It is necessary for the work to work; yet not part of the work considered as an immediate object of aesthetic judgement. It supplements the work but also supplants it by making its effect depend on something outside of it (See also Roden 2004).

buren les deux plateaux

Walton could reply here that most standard properties unambiguously belong to works but have a different functional role to their “variable properties”. So, one might think that the tension Derrida claims to isolate is not as worrisome as all that.

However, at least some of the properties Walton takes to be standard play a role in the expressive or aesthetic content of a work – the prominent brush strokes on a Cézanne portrait which marks it as a modern reaction to 19th Century academic painting, for example, or the specific timbre (sound quality) of a musical instrument.

Other supposedly standard properties present the opposite problem, being in the social or institutional context of a “work”. They seem too distant from the work as normally conceived, rather than too close. This is evident in 20th Century avant-garde art. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and John Cage’s 4′ 33″ depend on the social staging of the gallery or concert hall respectively for their impact and existence. Much the same can be said of later site-specific art, as in the work of Daniel Buren or the Art and Language Collective.

It is misleading to describe such properties as ‘standard’, then, since their very readability means that they can be iterated and deterritorialized by critical operations, acquiring new functions and stabilities; and that they are generative of the new, as in Cézanne’s reconstructions of volume, colour and surface. Thus the work operates as a productive event composed of nested frames or ‘framings’. Properties only appear standard when that mutant potential becomes repeated widely enough to pass as a social code – but as Derrida would insist, this very repeatability instigates a virtual power of dehiscence, which can explode and derange anywhere.

Standard properties then are a sedimented form of a social and technologically wrought productive imagination, always capable of mutating institutions and perceptions rather than stabilizing them.

So, is there a “thing”, a bundle of properties, form or object that is the true artwork?  If Derrida’s argument goes through, the relationship of ergon (work) and parergon calls this ontology into question. Although aesthetics purports to think about works, this ontology may just run into paradoxes as soon as it tries to identify a reality that, distributed across bodies, machines and institutions, is always irreducible to the time and space of an agent and their world.

Roden, D., 2004. The Subject. Reynolds and Roffe, Understanding Derrida, pp.93-102.

Walton, K. (1977). “Categories of Art”. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 79, No 3 (July. 1970). Pp. 334-367.

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