A pragmatic perspective on the nature of art

by thomscottphillips

Last Saturday’s Guardian contained a lengthy piece promoting a new book on the history of modern art. The author, Will Gompertz, argues that art is what the artist declares it to be. Fountain, the urinal to which Marcel Duchamp did nothing other than sign it (as R. Mutt) before putting it on display, features prominently in Gompertz’s case for this claim about the nature of art.

Duchamp’s Fountain

Postmodern proclamations like this are often greeted with hostility. The idea that art is whatever the artist says it is strikes many as vacuous and self-important: just read the comments section below Gompertz’s article if you have any doubt of that. I’m sure that ignoble motives have sometimes lain behind such claims, but current research in pragmatics and other disciplines that study communication actually gives us good reasons to subscribe to this idea. I want to articulate some of these.


When we communicate, we do more than simply provide a signal for others to interpret. We also make it apparent to our audience that we are trying to communicate with them. Of course, when we talk it is obvious that communication is our goal, but for some other signals it is not always so clear. I was in a coffee shop in Edinburgh yesterday, and I wanted the waitress to top up my drink. To indicate this to her, I tilted my cup in a particular, somewhat stylised way. If I had not tilted it in this way, the waitress would not have realised that my tilt was a request, or indeed an attempt to communicate at all. After all, coffee cups are incidentally tilted all the time. What made my tilt different was the stylised way in which I performed it.

The technical term is ostension: I tilted my coffee cup in an ostensive way. Ostension is the quality that some behaviours have that makes it apparent to the intended audience that the behaviour is intended as an act of communication. Ostension invites the audience to interpret the behaviour as a signal. It says ‘I am trying to communicate with you’, and it asks ‘What am I trying to say?’. In other words, the stylised way in which I tilt my coffee cup tells the waitress that this is not just any old tilt; it is a tilt that has a particular meaning that I want to communicate to her.

In the same way, the act of putting a painting – or, indeed, a urinal – on display tells the viewer that this is not just any old object, but an object that has a particular meaning that I, the artist, want to communicate to the world. In short, putting something in an art gallery is an act of ostension: it declares to the world an intention to communicate. It demands that the audience search for the object’s meaning.

Fountain’s message was one about the nature of art itself. Meta-art, if you like. Gompertz points out that Duchamp’s motivations were “to question the very notion of what constituted a work of art… His position was that if an artist said something was a work of art… then it was a work of art, or at least demanded to be judged as such”. This is precisely the point at the heart of modern communication theory: a signal becomes a signal as soon as it demands to be judged as such. This applies to art as much as it does to any other form of intentional communication. A piece of art becomes a piece of art as soon as it demands to be judged as such. Of course, simply demanding to be judged as art does not make something good art – but it remains art nevertheless.

The principles of relevance

Once an audience has identified a signal as being a signal, they face the challenge of working out what the intended meaning of the signal actually is. This is true even with language: words and sentences are often ambiguous, and have different meanings in different contexts. What meaning does the speaker intend to convey? At least in language the speaker that meaning is usually a specific one. That is less often true with art.

How do we infer the signaller’s intended meaning? A central idea in modern pragmatics is the communicative principle of relevance. It states that when we create a signal, we do so in a way that conveys the signal’s meaning in the most effective way possible. There is also a cognitive principle of relevance, which says that listeners make use of this knowledge to understand us. (There are more technical formulations of both these principles – see Wilson & Sperber, 2004 for the details – but we needn’t enter into them here.) I could have conducted an elaborate mime for my waitress, but why would I do that when a simple tilt would do? In fact, if I had channelled the spirit of Marcel Marceau in my request for more coffee, the waitress would likely have searched for a richer interpretation: he can’t just be requesting more coffee, she would reason, because otherwise he would have done something simpler. He must mean something more than that. Perhaps he is asking me on a date.

I see no reason to think that these principles of relevance don’t also apply to art. In any communicative scenario there are two things that the communicator must make apparent to the audience. The first is their intention to communicate; the second is the meaning they wish to communicate. In language, the first is achieved by opening your mouth, the second by the actual words you use. Just the same, in art the first is achieved by putting the piece on display, and the second by the form of the piece itself.

What is art?

One of my favourite pieces of modern art is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a bronze sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, produced in 1913 and on display at the Tate Modern in London. It is of a weighty human figure from which twists, angles, points and curves protrude from all parts; the effect is one of dynamism, power and fluidity. The figure strides forwards, a willing and able participant in the coming age of speed, technology and industry. This interpretation is the standard one, and like all interpretations of communicative stimuli, it comes in the two stages described above. First the audience must acquiesce to the demand to consider the piece as something with a meaning to be communicated; second they must interpret the sculpture’s particular form.

Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

The intuitive thought is that the difference between art and not-art lies in the second of these two stages: art is anything that we can appreciate and interpret. What Duchamp wanted to say was that actually it lies in the first stage, and I see no reason to disagree. The difference between Unique Forms… and a random piece of bronze I might find at the scrap heap is not the form of the object (after all, what if I found something that had by chance been battered into a very similar shape?), but the fact that it is in an art gallery.

How could Duchamp convey this message through art itself? That is, how could he construct a piece that invites the interpretation that art is whatever is put on display? He needed to focus the viewer’s mind not on the piece itself, but on the act of putting it on display in the first place – in other words, of the artist’s expression of their intention to communicate with the audience. His solution was to take an everyday object, do (almost) nothing to it, and then place it in a gallery. What this says to the audience is: there is meaning in this object, but that meaning does not derive from what I, the artist, have done to create it (because I have not done anything). The audience is thus forced to reason that the piece’s meaning must lie in the other aspect of interpretation, namely the fact that Duchamp has put it in a gallery and hence demanded that it be considered art.

People sometimes suggest that there is art in the beauty of the natural world. Google ‘art or porn?’ if you don’t believe me. But this is wrong: the natural world was not put on display as art, ergo it is not art. (This is not the same thing as documentation of the natural world – the photo, the landscape painting – which can be art.) Food is an interesting case. Food is mostly, normally produced with one or both of two things in mind: fuel, and taste. Since ‘display’ does not feature in this short list, food is not normally art. But sometimes food is produced for the purpose of being looked at and, perhaps, interpreted; some of Heston Blumenthal’s gastronomic creations are the obvious example here.

Is art really only whatever the artist declares is to be? At first blush this sounds like pseudo-intellectual reductionism. But if we accept the premise that art is, among other things, an act of communication between the artist and the audience, then a pragmatic perspective suggests not only that Duchamp’s message is plausible, but that it in fact must be right. The presentation of art is an act of ostension.