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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 20.1 (2006) 42-55

A Pragmatic Approach to the Identity of Works of Art
Julie C. Van Camp
California State University, Long Beach

The "identity" of works of art is what makes two instances or performances the same work. Philosophers have tried to account for identity by appealing to notational systems, production histories, cultural context, or some combination of those factors. None of these approaches has been accepted as adequately accounting for the ways in which identity is actually understood in the art world, by artists, performers, composers, choreographers, audiences, historians, and critics.

I propose that the identity of works of art be understood pragmatically as ways of talking and acting by the various communities of the art world. 1 These are informed by notational systems, production histories, and so forth. But those approaches have been unsatisfactory. 2 A pragmatic approach centers on how identity is understood by various communities through ongoing deliberative and decision-making practices, 3 characterized in turn by rejection of essences and emphasis on pluralism, experience, and community.

I first sketch what I understand by "art world communities" and what it means for those communities to determine the identity of works of art as "ways of talking and acting." I next outline additional elements of this approach to identity, consistent with the twentieth-century tradition of pragmatism. Next I show how a pragmatic approach explains examples in identity, including practices in copyright infringement. I then consider a recent controversy that drew the attention of several overlapping communities in art and the law. Finally, I consider problems and challenges for this approach to identity.

I. Art World Communities

The art world encompasses overlapping communities of audiences, artists, performers, composers, choreographers, critics, historians, theater managers, funding agencies, art law attorneys, art students, and many more. Communities also include groups identified by gender or race, such as a feminist art community or [End Page 42] an African-American art community. One person might belong to several such communities. An African-American female painter might participate on a grant review panel at a foundation, as an audience member of the local performance art showplace, as a practicing painter in a community workshop, and as a part-time educator at the local community college. The ongoing dialogue in each of those settings informs the others because of these multiple memberships in different communities. Shared communications also promote dialogue. A local paper with published reviews might be read by members of several such communities.

Membership in art world communities continuously shifts, as people join or leave various groups, gain new interests, or participate in different capacities. An artist functioning mainly as a performer early in life might later develop a talent for writing and participate actively in critical dialogue, leading to participation in university teaching of criticism and a different community of dialogue with other academics and students.

Ways of talking and acting by these art world communities are the myriad activities that go on every day in these overlapping worlds. Ways of talking include discussions by audience members after the performance, conversations among performing artists and their coaches about how to perform a work, deliberations by review panels at grant-making agencies about funding proposals, and conference discussions of critics and historians about various works. Ways of acting include buying tickets to certain performances and museum shows, purchasing certain works, distributing funds by a grant-making agency to arts programs, researching and writing by historians, critics and other writers, and hiring coaches by a company director to stage a work. 4

These ongoing dialogues need not ignore the language of essentialist approaches to identity. Indeed, those concepts enrich these dialogues by giving us the vocabulary for deliberating issues of identity and reaching consensus at various times. But a pragmatic approach rejects the quest for "the" essence that in all cases trumps other approaches as the "right" answer. I am not suggesting that these community dialogues are merely a technique for finding an essence of the...


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