It's a Tate but is it art?
by Miguel Dos Santos in Philosophy

Shadow Play: The Sackler Octagon at Tate Britain. By BMiz [CC BY-SA 2.0]

For many people, contemporary art is a strange place where artists are charlatans who take us for fools. But are they really, or should we take them seriously? Miguel Dos Santos tackles the issue.

narrated by Vidish Athavale

music by Addam Farmer, Debbie Miller and Mark Petrie

Miguel Dos Santos

Miguel Dos Santos

Miguel teaches and does research in philosophy at UCL. When he is not trying to solve the problem of what art is and several other philosophical puzzles, he enjoys learning about theoretical physics and how the universe works. No less important, he is a big supporter of Real Madrid.

Once upon a time there was an emperor who was so fond of dressing up that he cared about doing little else. One day, a self-proclaimed artisan arrived in the empire, claiming to have discovered a cloth that was invisible to those who were fools and unfit for their jobs. ‘Hmm, this cloth is just what I needed,’ thought the emperor to himself. ‘If I wore a suit made of this cloth, I would be able to tell the wise men from the fools.’ And after paying several bags of gold for a suit of clothes, the emperor impatiently waited to see it. Fearing to be a fool and unfit to be emperor, however, he requested his most intelligent and qualified servants to check how the artisan’s work was progressing. None could see the cloth but all pretended to be able to, fearing the emperor would think them unqualified.

When the suit of clothes was finally ready, the emperor pretended to be amazed by its beauty and went on a procession to show it off to his people. It was a grand event. People from all over the lands had flocked following the emperor’s invites. Rumours about the magical powers of the emperor’s new clothes had spread quickly. ‘Do you see how the light blues vividly emanate from the cloth?’, asked one citizen to another. The crowd pretended to be amazed by the beauty of the clothes — until a child pointed to the emperor and cried: ‘But he’s got nothing on!’ And out of the blue, everyone started laughing and crying: ‘The emperor’s got no clothes!’

To many people, today’s art is like a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Consider British artist Martin Creed and his installation Work No. 227, which consists merely of an empty room in which lights go on and off at 5-second intervals. Work No. 227 was on display at the 2001 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, a prize which Creed was nominated for and ended up winning. So, not only did Creed exhibit his work at one of the most prestigious art museums in the world, but he also won, in recognition of it, a kind of Nobel Prize in the visual arts for Brits under 50. The tabloids were appalled and so was the general public: how could that possibly be art? In fact, the controversy that has surrounded the Turner Prize is such that even street artist Banksy had his say on the matter, stencilling ‘Mind the Crap’ on the steps of Tate Britain at next year’s exhibition.

Understood as a retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, this tale’s charlatan is Martin Creed, someone who seeks fame and fortune at any cost; the emperor is the all-powerful head of Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota; the magical cloth is Work No. 227, art that is invisible to fools; the emperor’s servants are the judges of the Turner Prize, incapable of questioning Creed’s work out of fear of being perceived as unqualified themselves; and the child is the general public, naively crying ‘But that’s not art!’

Let’s take a step back though. There is no doubt that Work No. 227, valued at around £110,000, is highly regarded in Tate circles, having been recently bought for its collection. But what actually is it that makes Work No. 227 art? This problem is not one that only philosophers, alone in their ivory towers, should care about finding a solution to. Tate is a public institution, an institution whose main sponsor happens to be the British government and hence the UK taxpayer. So let’s ask again: what definition of art could possibly make this piece art?

Nothing more and nothing less than the most influential modern definition of art: the so-called institutional definition. According to the institutional definition, something becomes art in virtue of having art status conferred on it by members of a social institution, the artworld. What makes Work No. 227 art is that representatives of the artworld — in this case, the judges of the Turner Prize — have conferred art status on it by exhibiting it at Tate. Now, whether Work No. 227 is good art or not is a different question, and one that the institutional definition is deliberately silent about. All that the definition tells us is that it is art, whether good or not. The judges of the Turner Prize presumably think that it is good art, but what was puzzling about it in the first place was how it could be art at all — and now we know. Case closed in favour of the judges of the Turner Prize, right?

Well, not quite. The institutional definition faces a serious problem: a dilemma. In philosophy and logic, a dilemma is a problem that concerns a choice between two possibilities and shows that each of them leads to the same bad conclusion. Think about it yourself. Do representatives of the artworld have good reasons to confer art status on Work No. 227? There are only two obvious possibilities: either they do have good reasons or they don’t. Now consider the first possibility, that they have good reasons. If they have good reasons to confer art status on it, then it’s those reasons that ground the claim that it is art. But, in that case, the conferral of art status is irrelevant — it’s the good reasons behind the conferral, not the conferral itself, that make Work No. 227 art. Now consider the second possibility, that they don’t have good reasons to bestow art status on it. If they don’t have good reasons, then we should of course doubt their authority when they tell us that it is art. In this case, the conferral of art status is also irrelevant — it does nothing to convince us that Work No. 227 is art. Therefore, in either scenario, the conferral of art status is irrelevant for whether Work No. 227 is art. Martin Creed’s work is at Tate, but it looks like the emperor is still hanging out with no clothes on.