- Cavellian Conversation and the Life of Art
The issue of the death or end of art has led me think about its life. Although I will be writing about the life of art, it should be made clear that my use of that phrase is only tangentially related to the issue resurrected by Arthur Danto in his essay "The End of Art."1 In that essay and elsewhere Danto recognized a new period of ahistorical art—an art without a progressive history and relieved of the burden of perpetual self-definition. After the end of art artworks cease to become the carriers of their own history. In a post-historical art world, happily he says, anything can happen. Artworks can engage in ways that are, in a limiting case, uniquely personal and so a work that instigates in this personal manner also may be art. A comparative glance at the art world, say of 1950 and the institutional practices of art today would seem to bear him out.
Less ambitiously, however, this essay attempts to connect what I will call the life of artworks with the idea of conversation, a term of great interest, I want to show, in the writing of Stanley Cavell. It is this way of artworks being alive that is perfectly compatible with its death in the Dantonian sense of the term and perhaps, given the posthistorical world it has left as a residue, even lubricated by it. This essay has two points of embarkation: the act of the ventriloquist where conversational exchange between ventriloquist and dummy enlivens the latter for both the former and an audience. The second is the Wittgensteinian remark, [End Page 460] a question really, suggesting that the sign itself is dead, only in its use does it become alive. The ventriloqual analogy interests me, not because it draws bounds between artworks and non-artworks, but rather because of what I hope it will bring into prominence among artworks—that it will help to explain how some works gain a life in a culture while others are aesthetic dead-ends or mere taxidermies, to repeat a term used by Danto—how some art is resurrected, and some, as they say, stand the test of time. It is part of this story that whatever is needed to say about art in a culture it should include a relationship between persons and things that I dramatically refer to as conversational. And those conversations, by the artist with her own work and those by an audience with the artist's work, lie somewhere at the beginning of its cultural animation. What would follow on this perspective would be the conversations that are generated by artworks among their audience members, sometimes inviting or forcing our return to the works that were their cultural origins.
If Wittgenstein is right that the relationship between meaning and use is, at least in a large number of cases, an intimate one, and if works of art are objects of meaning, then looking at their use may be a way of seeing their life, something like the way Wittgenstein in his later writings came to look at words in their life situations, often bringing them back from what he called metaphysics. Nelson Goodman, I believe, was on to something like this when he suggested in his essay "When Is Art?" that, "Just by virtue of functioning as a symbol in a certain way does an object become, while functioning, a work of art . . . a Rembrandt painting may cease to function as a work of art when used to replace a broken window or as a blanket."2 Although I am suggesting here that we should tend to the ways artworks are used, unlike Goodman, I am not interested in their cessation as artworks. I am hoping to draw out one way artworks function, one way we do art without necessarily making artworks. But I am not here interested in the borders between art and the rest of the world.
The idea of conversation extends or annexes the notion of interpretation, of saying what artworks say, but allowing for a more personal, less rigid domain of discourse that takes as...