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What the Cat Brought in: A rejoinder to Stan Mahoney's The Cat is Not a Verb

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Philip Gerner, Jam of your life, 1976, c-print photograph printed from 35mm slide, Flinders University Art Museum 759, courtesy the artist.

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Stan Mahoney’s thoughtful response to my paper Art is Not a Verb begins with a cat’s deposit of the parts of a dismembered mouse on his porch, and ends with the question ‘Is didactic mouse gore art?’ He speculates that I may be ‘okay with this.’

I offer him two responses, turning on which of the two words spelled ‘art’ stands at the end of his question. Between his beginning and his end too many ethereal hares are set running for a corporeal dog to pursue. The ‘ontology of being’ and the ‘phenomenology’ within which he finds himself trapped must await another day. I shall attend only to what the cat brought in.

Art and the work of art

Perhaps I didn’t offer in my lecture a sufficiently lucid account of the difference between the two words, both of which are spelled ‘a-r-t.’ One of them is the name of the (non-particular) class of which (particular) works of art are the members. If this is the word he has  in mind, then the short answer to the question ‘Is this mouse gore a work of art?’ is ‘No.’

A slightly longer and more circumspect answer would go ‘Not necessarily.’ That is to say, there is no specifiable attribute or set of attributes of a candidate object (such as its being beautiful, or being expressive, or being cathartic, or having ‘aesthetic value,’ or whatever) by virtue of which it must be and cannot but be a work of art. Even an object that has as a matter fact prompted the unexpected discovery of a memetic innovation with a potential role in cultural evolution (consistently with my own definition of the other word spelled ‘art’), this will not qualify it as a work of art. The notion that art must be encountered in works of art and can only be encountered in works of art is a self-serving fantasy of the artworld.

I do not mean to say that the post-mortem specimen of Mus musculus that Stan Mahoney brings to our attention is incapable of qualifying as a work of art. The point is that its membership of this class does not turn on its possession of a specifiable attribute or set of attributes. Mahoney himself, as a recognised artist and participant in the artworld, is easily capable of pushing this candidate over the line by offering it in a public exhibition or performance suitably framed or mounted, numbered, catalogued and optimistically priced. Notwithstanding its late arrival on the artworld scene it might even find itself illustrated one day in the ‘art history’  books, knowingly footnoted to Duchamp’s objets trouvés and rendez-vous encounters and perhaps (without benefit of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde) to Gustav Metzger’s fugitive autodestructive pieces from the nineteen-sixties.

This should all be obvious. What’s not so obvious and much more interesting, (and may well be what he really has in mind) can be put in ordinary conversational terms more persuasively than in artspeak. The question to which artists want an answer is not ‘What are the distinctive qualities by virtue of which  the things I make will be recognised as works of art?’ It is ‘How can I put art into a work of art that I am making?’

This is a tediously revenant conundrum that will not go away until the answer is believed. The answer (that everyone seems to find incredible) is simple. It can’t be done. Purposefully putting art into a work of art is not an elusive, recondite, lofty, skill. It is not a skill of any sort. The obstacle to acquiring and exercising such a putative skill is not practical; it is conceptual. Art is something that is found: it is not something that can be purposefully made in the way in which works of art are purposefully made by exercising a range of sophisticated skills of a teachable and learnable sort. It’s a curious fact that before their minds become unhinged by ‘art theory’ everybody understands perfectly well that art and craft are not just different in their degree of difficulty. They are categorically distinct.

Art schools get away with pretending to teach people how to make art by conflating two identically spelled words that ordinary conversationalists, left to their own devices easily keep apart. Everyone knows that the art of healing is not a course on offer in reputable medical schools. Art schools teach students how to make works of art, and this is already a sufficiently demanding—although not impossible—task; especially because of the emergent importance of new skills of conceptual and social engineering over the last hundred years. These are the skills of persuasion that compel the artworld to recognise candidate objects, performances and processes, of more or less unlikely sorts that would once have been dismissed out of hand as ineligible for consideration.

There is a use of the phrase ‘experimental art’ that captures this ambition. Not even in Goya’s sleep of reason would Sir Joshua Reynolds have admitted a rabbit that glows in the dark or a fish sewn onto the artist’s chest into a Royal Academy exhibition. Even accommodating a Gainsborough called for some gritting of the teeth.

This understanding of ‘experimental art’ has almost reached its use-by date; although there is still enough token resistance to keep the game alive. An attempt to have an unemployed steelworker recognised as a work of art and therefore eligible for the Turner Prize failed. More recently the efforts made by Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein to have processes like the Yeomans method of land management recognised as works of art have come closer to success although, pending the verdict of the ‘art history’ books, the jury may still be out. Joe Gibbons will have an opportunity to observe from prison whether his actual bank robbery  makes the grade.

The other question

Let me return to the answer we should give if we are not being asked whether what the cat brought in is a work of art but (in either case) whether we find art in it. To respond with conviction we shall probably need to encounter it for ourselves; although there is undoubtedly a case for taking others’ word for it.

Somewhat differently: there are passages of literature (among which Stan’s description of the object, that is presently available to all of us) that qualify as revelatory. But I don’t want to open up another can of worms. His commentary on the detritus on his porch is unpersuasive. He tells us first that ‘… the cat is teaching this hairless beast the skills and rewards associated with the pursuit of prey;’ suggesting that this understanding of the predator’s motivation rules out artistic purposefulness and (by implication) that we cannot expect to find art in it.

Two things need to be said about this. One is that this fugue of feline psychology is highly speculative, possibly untrue, and certainly not new. The other and more telling consideration is that it doesn’t matter what this animal might be said to have been purposefully intending to do, if it can intelligibly be said to have been purposefully intending to do anything at all. Even if we credit the notionally sapient creature with an ability to make works of art it does not follow that art must be found in its offerings.

This point has not after all been ignored but only held in abeyance, for he goes on to write: ‘Or is that unfair to the cat? The macabre remains are arranged with an eerie kind of—for want of a better word—aesthetic [my italics]’.

A better word, if may make a suggestion, would be an eerie kind of challenge. We are challenged to find in what we are encountering some publicly viable (and thereafter regularly employable) representation of a way of thinking, feeling and acting in the world that had not previously been available within our familiar repertoire. I do not know would it would amount to  for such an epiphany to be of an ‘aesthetic’ sort. Most of my own illuminations are of a moral sort or a cosmological sort or a metaphysical sort, or a political sort, or … . I take it the art of biological inquiry (not the craft of biological inquiry) was instantiated in  Tinbergen’s ‘Aha!’ when his understanding of the sex life of sticklebacks was unexpectedly enhanced by the appearance of a red postal delivery van within sight of his aquarium.

So what’s in it, for the artist?

It isn’t easy to summarise in a few words where these considerations take us. Very roughly: it would be comforting to think that most artists are driven by the perfectly sound intuition that art is the engine of cultural evolution in every institutional domain, and this is why it is so enormously important. But having committed their self-image to the institutional domain of the artworld they find themselves conflicted between two impulses: to drag the artworld along with them like carry-on baggage into the real world, or (if it is recalcitrant) to abandon it to its own mystificatory and occasionally venal antics.

Committing ourselves to art without the complicity of an artworld might seem to be an outrageous ask, until we realise that for the greater part of an intensely artful human history and in every society on earth there has been no artworld. But then again, one might say the same about the whitegoods or the telecommunications industries, without wishing them into oblivion.