Monday, February 29, 2016

Art in the Real World

by Tricia Van Dyk

This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.

Lambert Zuidervaart opens his chapter “Fantastic Things: Critical Notes toward a Social Ontology of the Arts” by explaining that what follows is really only half a conversation. The whole conversation would link Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” to Herman Dooyeweerd’s discussion of art. Both were written, as Zuidervaart points out, around the same time. Examining Heidegger’s and Dooyeweerd’s discussions of art from each other’s perspectives would demonstrate what is illuminating and fruitful as well as what is obscuring and reductive about each conception, Zuidervaart suggests. In particular, he wishes “to find a path through Heidegger to a normative but de-mystified conception of artistic truth, and through Dooyeweerd to a social and ontological but de-personalized conception of artistic production” (111). This chapter, first articulated more than 20 years ago, is the Dooyeweerd half of the conversation; for the Heidegger half, readers would need to wait for the 2004 publication of Zuidervaart’s book Artistic Truth.

Thus this chapter could be seen as the foundation that Zuidervaart later builds on in his social ontology of art. In other words, he is working from (and toward) a full and specific understanding of art, but don’t look for that here. His personal life has given him a perhaps unusually comprehensive experience of art, but this chapter is not where he sets out that understanding systematically. Thus in this post, rather than looking for points of theoretical contention, I offer a brief meditation on the conditions of possibility, so to speak, for a normative, down-to-earth social ontology of art.

In this chapter, we find what happens when a deep experience of art meets an inadequate theory of art. The result is not an immediate systematic exposition of an adequate theory, but a place to begin from theoretically that does not betray or reduce what one has already experienced. Thus, Zuidervaart immediately recognizes a tension in Dooyeweerd’s conception of art by where it is placed in A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Rather than putting his treatment of art within his discussion of societal structures in Part II of the third volume of the New Critique, Dooyeweerd uses his account of art (which largely consists of an analysis of a marble statue of Hermes by Praxiteles) as a way to present some of his important categories (subject/object relation within the plastic horizon of experience, enkapsis). He does this by treating art as a thing-structure in Part I. Right away, then, Zuidervaart notices that Dooyeweerd is thinking of works of art more as natural things (like linden trees and rocks) than as part of a historically and socially constituted realm.

Thus, Zuidervaart immediately recognizes a tension in Dooyeweerd’s conception of art by where it is placed in A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.

This placement has led most interpreters to what Zuidervaart calls a “weak and sympathetic” interpretation, suppressing the significance of Dooyeweerd’s discussion of art as such and paying attention only to his use of the sculpture to illustrate his other ideas. Zuidervaart, in contrast, chooses to attempt a “strong and critical” interpretation, considering what Dooyeweerd “actually contributes to a philosophy of the arts and what such a contribution implies for his social ontology” (112).

With his characteristic clarity, Zuidervaart identifies a fourfold reduction in Dooyeweerd’s account. Zuidervaart considers all four of these reductions problematic both in and beyond the realm of philosophy of art. Let’s take a brief look at each reduction in turn.

Reduction of structure to law

The first problem Zuidervaart identifies is Dooyeweerd’s tendency to reduce structure to law. As is usual in problematic philosophical endeavors (as well as the unproblematic ones, if such exist), Dooyeweerd has good reasons for doing this. On the one hand, he’s reacting—as Zuidervaart points out that Kent Zigterman has pointed out—against a “substance” metaphysics that fails to recognize creation’s dependent character. On the other hand, Zuidervaart points out, Dooyeweerd is reacting against geneticist tendencies (such as evolutionism) to reduce structures to processes.

Hermes, attributed to Praxiteles
These reactions, says Zuidervaart, lead Dooyeweerd to advance the two sides of his theory of individuality structures: On the one hand, he says that “thing-reality” is a dynamic, continuous realization of structural principles; and on the other hand, he insists that the structural principles do not depend on the individual things in which they are realized. Zuidervaart sums up: “Hence it is easy for Dooyeweerd to slide from the claim that structural principles do not depend on the genesis of individual entities, to the quite different claim that structural principles do not come into being, change, or perish. … Dooyeweerd tends to treat structures and structural principles as invariant laws, regardless of the specificity, scope, and historical, cultural, or societal uniqueness of the structure in question” (114).

This tendency to reduce structures to laws is problematic when applied to art, since it basically means that Dooyeweerd thinks he can pick any random artwork, paying no attention to its particular structure and context, and pull from it the general norms applicable to all works of art. “As I read it,” says Zuidervaart, “ the whole point of Dooyeweerd’s discussing the Praxiteles sculpture is not to uncover the structure of this particular piece nor even to unearth the sociohistorically embedded structure of marble sculptures, which simply do not occur in many cultures and societies. Instead the point is to identify the laws governing all ‘things qualified by a normative object-function’ (NC 3: 109, WW 3: 77, Dooyeweerd’s emphasis) and, by implication, all works of art” (115).[1]

Reduction of art to artwork

The second problem that Zuidervaart identifies is Dooyeweerd’s reduction of art to artwork. Rather than recognizing that a concept like “artwork” is historically situated, Dooyeweerd treats it as unproblematically ahistorical. Through his discussion of a single sculpture, he seeks to describe a universal structure of reality, rather than a sociohistorically bound category.

Zuidervaart humorously points out the arbitrary nature of Dooyeweerd’s approach with a series of questions. Dooyeweerd, he says, “plunges directly into an analysis of one sculpture (Why analyze a product rather than a process?), identifies it without hesitation as a work of art (Why not identify it as a cultic object that through the years has turned into a cultural commodity?), analyzes its internal structure (Why examine its status as an independent ‘thing’ rather than its societally imbricated uses and purposes?), and draws conclusions about the nature of art in general” (117).

This last move is the one that Zuidervaart identifies as particularly problematic. While admitting that Dooyeweerd did not intend to thoroughly analyze the concept of art, Zuidervaart points out that Dooyeweerd does indeed make large theoretical claims about the nature of art. Thus, in line with the strong and critical reading that he is pursuing, Zuidervaart takes these claims at face value and demonstrates that they are questionable: Like much of modernist aesthetics, Dooyeweerd takes it for granted that “artwork” is central to “art” without noticing that the idea of an artwork assumes a relatively recent, Eurocentric development of categories and institutions.

...Dooyeweerd takes it for granted that “artwork” is central to “art” without noticing that the idea of an artwork assumes a relatively recent, Eurocentric development of categories and institutions.

Reduction of artwork to thing

The third problem that Zuidervaart identifies is Dooyeweerd’s tendency to reduce artwork to thing. Zuidervaart points out that Dooyeweerd’s emphasis on laws and artworks is based on a distinction in his social ontology between things and societal relationships. This distinction gradually became more clear in Dooyeweerd’s thought, so that by the time of the English release of the New Critique, he was clearly stating that a thing can only be a societal object, while a human community can never be a societal object.

Zuidervaart does not find this distinction compelling, since it comes down to a simple differentiation between human and nonhuman and does not explain why things (whether natural or human-made) would all be considered under the single category of thinghood. By basing his account of thinghood on level of subjective functioning, Dooyeweerd sidesteps the question of why the characteristics of things that he describes (such as individuality and independence) also apply to entities that he does not want to consider things (such as human beings).

Zuidervaart identifies three pitfalls in Dooyeweerd’s approach that are noticeable when it comes to his account of art. First, many artworks (particularly performance pieces) lack the relative permanence characteristic of things, and the necessary involvement of human players in these kinds of art seems to call for a category other than thinghood by virtue of Dooyeweerd’s own ontological categories.

Second, Dooyeweerd’s insistence that the artistic radical type be defined in terms of an artwork’s internal structure (in the same way that a natural thing like a tree should not be defined only by the purposes it serves) does not take into account the fact that artworks’ “very existence as artworks depends on the ongoing interactions of human beings in their sociohistorical context and institutional settings” (121).

Third, Dooyeweerd falls prey to “a double reification of art: the treatment of cultural products as ‘things in the narrower sense,’ and the treatment of the artwork proper as an aesthetic-historical structure wedded to a natural thing” (123). He fails to take into account factors like the reality that the permanence which is supposed to characterize the Hermes sculpture as a thing seems to be due to the fact that it is made out of marble rather than that is an artwork, and that a slab of marble is a human product, not simply a natural material.

Reduction of thingly artwork to artist’s aesthetic conception

Finally, a fourth problem: Dooyeweerd’s tendency to reduce the artistic thing to the artist’s conception. Zuidervaart says, “despite Dooyeweerd’s emphasis on the artwork’s objectivity and its material substratum, he tends to reduce the artwork to a reification of the individual artist’s aesthetic fantasy” while at the same time interpolating “an intentional object between the artist’s aesthetic conception and the artwork’s aesthetic object-function” (125).

Finally, a fourth problem: Dooyeweerd’s tendency to reduce the artistic thing to the artist’s conception.

This reduction, says Zuidervaart, is so problematic that we can only scratch the surface of the problems it raises. He proceeds to do so by identifying three difficulties that reinforce the reductions we’ve already summarized. First, while Dooyeweerd’s distinctions among the intentional depictive relation, the opening relation, and the actualization relation in the subject-object relation of cultural things attempt to mitigate his tendency to isolate artworks from their cultural and sociohistorical context, he ends up continuing to turn processes into structures. As Zuidervaart says, “The net effect of applying such distinctions to art, however, is to say: once an artwork, always an artwork, no matter what changes occur in a culture and society. This claim is all the more problematic when one recalls that Hermes, Dooyeweerd’s prime example, was not even created as an aesthetically qualified work of art” (125).

Second, the prominence of the artist’s aesthetic conception in Dooyeweerd’s account fails to recognize the fact that the kind of artist and artwork that he is describing are made possible by the historical development of what we now think of as the category of art, besides the fact that there are many kinds of art besides artworks (such as art events or art actions). This is another point at which Heidegger can fruitfully criticize Dooyeweerd, as Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” makes the point that “neither the artist nor the artwork is the sole origin of the other; instead, art is the origin of both” (125).

Third, Dooyeweerd’s account of how art is made simply does not match reality. Although his buddy Piet van Loo may have sat alone in his studio dreaming up aesthetic conceptions and then expressing them through natural materials (as Zuidervaart mentions in a footnote), there is generally much more to it than that. Zuidervaart points out, “Artists continually interact with other artists and the world around them. Their efforts aim at certain audiences and take into account various conditions of distribution and reception. And much of their ‘aesthetic conception’ arises from listening intently to humanly constructed media that embody specific traditions or anti-traditions and that speak their own language” (126).

To be continued: A theory of art

Zuidervaart concludes the chapter by sketching his own way forward to a theory of art that takes into account the variations in art past and present, as well as the human institutions that make art as we know it possible. This theory is not simply a break from Dooyeweerd’s work; Zuidervaart believes that art can be successfully described in terms of its technical founding function and aesthetic qualifying function, for example. Thinking of art in these terms allows us to think clearly about norms for art, as well as how these norms may be more broadly applicable.

“What Dooyeweerd provides,” says Zuidervaart, “is an insight into the multidimensional and normative character of all those activities, events, processes, intersubjective relations, and products that make up the artistic realm. With suitable revisions and extensions, his account of the work of art can serve the development of a normative and critical social ontology of the arts” (127). For an account of this normative and critical social ontology of the arts, readers are invited to peruse Zuidervaart’s companion volumes on the subject: Artistic Truth and Art in Public.

And indeed, much of the value of Zuidervaart’s strong and critical reading of Dooyeweerd’s account of art, I think, is that he has demonstrated himself willing and able to not only clear away the unstable structure that Dooyeweerd had built, but to choose what was worthwhile in the foundation and build upon it his own, more carefully constructed theory.

A broader implication that could be drawn from this chapter is one that most philosophers could probably stand to be reminded of: When constructing a theory, we should know what we’re talking about—and a broad range of how what we’re talking about shows up in the real world, so as not to base our philosophy too heavily on our own overly limited experience. It is clear from Zuidervaart’s criticisms that most of the difficulties in Dooyeweerd’s conception of art arise from the simple fact that Dooyeweerd was basing his ideas on too limited a range of experience with art.

When constructing a theory, we should know what we’re talking about—and a broad range of how what we’re talking about shows up in the real world, so as not to base our philosophy too heavily on our own overly limited experience.

This is not to say that philosophers must be experts in or have intimate real-world knowledge of everything they want to philosophize about, necessarily. If that were the case, the potential for mutual conversation based on sharing ideas through publication would be sadly limited—although the lamentation surrounding the often-lamented push to publish is, of course, a recognition that starting a conversation by publishing half-baked or parochial ideas is usually a waste of everyone’s time. Also, there is always the potential that if you have a good idea and write about it, somebody might come along and give it a weak and charitable reading that could act as a springboard to their (or someone else’s) perhaps more experienced and systematic thought.

But it’s also good to keep in mind that if you don’t know the extent of what you’re talking about, you lay yourself open to the kind of strong critique Zuidervaart subjects Dooyeweerd to in this chapter. And this—as we can see from the work on a social ontology of the arts that Zuidervaart has done since writing this chapter—can be very valuable, too.


[1] NC = A New Critique of Theoretical Thought; WW= De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee.

Tricia Van Dyk is nearly done being a PhD candidate at the ICS and is grateful to have benefited from Lambert Zuidervaart’s mentorship through her entire MA and PhD programs.

Image used under Creative Commons, from Wikipedia.


  1. Thank you, Tricia. I will be brief (this time). Two things: Recognising that Lambert is working at "critical retrieval" is important, as some have dismissed what he is doing as "revolutionary" rather than "reformational". There is deep insight in what he writes about D's take on art, which leads me to a second point you underscore: philosophy should be rooted in experience. I say this while recalling a conversation I had on the steps of ICS, when I was taken aback by the declaration that "philosophy is not empirical". Of course, the latter term has many inflections, and "empiricistic", philosophy should not be. But the apparent paucity of D's experience of art in his efforts to explain the "essence" of art is emblematic of much speculative philosophising. Philosophy (and all theorising) should be held accountable to everyday experience, a touchstone of reformational philosophy. (Oh, my experience was broadened lingually today by "imbrication"; whether it is also deepened waits to be seen. I doubt I would have many "interlocutors" who would appreciate it.)

  2. Yeah, I give Dooyeweerd a bye for not being the foremost elucidator of the aesthetic mode. To me, he was in the position of presenting a blueprint. His expertise did not extend to each mode. So, I think a generous treatment is in order.

    Ignorance is interesting. It seems the less we know the more we have to say. The more we learn, the more a caution enters and holds the tongue. What is a philosopher to do? For us reformational philosophers, what does it mean to kneel at everyday experience? Should one manually labour before espousing Marxism? Should one create before opining on artistic limits? How does the reformational thinker parse Aristotle's distinction between the theoretical thinker and the practical person of action?

  3. I don't think that the fact that theory is a conceptual distilling of our ordinary interactions in and with the world entails a kind of "method thinking" parallel to "method acting". On the other hand, it does mean that one is responsible to truly attend to those ordinary interactions and to consult with practitioners whether through reading or in conversation etc. It seems to me that Cal Seerveld's superiority over Dooyeweerd as a theorist of aesthetic phenomena is made clear in and through the significant attention his work has received among working artists. He has gone out of his way to be in conversation with art makers of many media. As a result, many recognize themselves and their calling in his writing about what marks the work of their hands and imaginations as aesthetic. It is probably something like this that Doug would think of as a philosopher's debt to ordinary understandings of the world. And it is probably something like this attentiveness, this vicarious experience, that Dooyeweerd lacked and so made for a less helpful voice than might have otherwise been the case. Your reframing of how to think about that voice seems spot on to me though. It also accords I think with Seerveld's contribution to The Legacy of Herman Dooyeweerd.

  4. Tricia: what a welcome reminder the detailed analysis and sustained argument at which Lambert excels! To my way of thinking Dooyeweerd’s theories of modalities, anticipations and retrocipations, individuality structures and enkapsis hold out fertile prospects for structural analysis in the domains of art and art-making. I say this as one who has passed through Mikel Dufrenne’s Phenomenology of Aestheic Experience and the writings of many others, including artists, on art. I think a “caution” should “hold our tongue” when it comes to “reducing” structure to law — seeing universals in particulars, with not enough particulars under the loupe — if “reducing” is the right word. Yet, despite the wayward impulse to construct a structure that has come up in a particular time and place and cultural domain as law, it is still seems productive to ask "what does or should it mean or entail to say or claim that art-making is “gesetzt” or has a “law-side.”

  5. addendum: when talking about structure, I mean that Dooyeweerd’s “modality”-inflected categoriëenlehre, allows for the specification of functional ontologies [plural] of art-making in the modern age and functional ontologies of painting and sculpture in ancient and medieval times or non-western cultures. In functional-ontological terms abstract expressionism, magic realism, and minimalism, for instance, are structurally distinct. The mistake would be to set one or another of these as more or less exemplary in "creation order" terms.

  6. for Lambert: From “Het tijdsprobleem en zijn antinomieen op het immanentiestandpunt,” Philosophia Reformata 1936, it is clear Dooyeweerd doesn’t want to hypostatize the constant structural laws (“de constante structuurwetten”) of temporal reality into timeless ideas or timeless forms of being (“tijdloze Idëeen of tijdeloze wezensvormen”).

    Dooyeweerd speaks of constant transcendental structures (“constante, transcendentale structuren”) that are in the cosmic time horizon itself (“in den kosmischen tijdshorizon zelve zijn”), structures that rather make possible all subjective change in time (“structuren, welke alle subjectieve wisseling en verandering in den tijd eerst mogelijk maken”), but are also only [given] in the temporal structural-coherence of all meaning-aspects together (“maar dan ook slechts in den tijdelijken structuur-samenhang van alle zin-aspecten gezamenlijk”), and never as timeless, isolated “substances” or “forms” (“en nimmer als tijdlooze, in zich afgesloten, "substanties" of "vormen" gegeven zijn”).

    So the question is: what does this not-wanting-to hypostatize structural laws into something timeless entail in terms of your critique, and what does the giveness (“gegeven zijn”) entail for Dooyeweerd, in terms of his “religious groundmotive” of Creation / Fall / Redmption?