Family Resemblances

As we move closer to post-modern thought we find that philosophers, aestheticians and others shift in how to grapple with the “Art Question.” The search for an essential quality that all works of art share and that can thus be used as a benchmark to determine what is art and what is not, seems more and more outdated to thinkers in the 40’s and 50’s, and while the old concepts of universal beauty still dominate in most circles, some people are beginning to question this. Thinkers such as Paul Ziff and Morris Weitz are inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s anti-essentialist ideas, best exemplified in his concept of family resemblances.

Therefore, in order to apply Weitz application of family resemblances to art, we must first explain Wittgenstein’s original concept. Wittgenstein concerned himself with language and the absolutist thought it promotes and is often not questioned. He argues it is impossible to define certain concepts absolutely and vastly enough to cover every single instance of the concept that is being defined. The consequence of this is the use of abstraction which is used to derive essences, but the lack of a single common feature defeats this mode of thinking.

Instead, Wittgenstein proposes an alternative form of thinking, where instead what is attempted is to find similarities between every instance of a concept. To achieve this he uses the concept of “game” to illustrate both the failures and the way out of an essentialist definition.

For example, some types of games include: card games, soccer, tick tac toe, and a child playing with dolls. With these games in mind, lets look at the Merrian-Webster definition of game:

  1. 1a (1)  :  activity engaged in for diversion or amusement :  play  (2)  :  the equipment for a gameb  :  often derisive or mocking jesting :  funsport <make game of a nervous player>

  2. 2a  :  a procedure or strategy for gaining an end :  tacticb  :  an illegal or shady scheme or maneuver :  racket

  3. 3a (1)  :  a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other  (2)  :  a division of a larger contest  (3)  :  the number of points necessary to win  (4)  :  points scored in certain card games (as in all fours) by a player whose cards count up the highest  (5)  :  the manner of playing in a contest  (6)  :  the set of rules governing a game  (7)  :  a particular aspect or phase of play in a game or sport <a football team’s kicking game>b  plural  :  organized athleticsc (1)  :  a field of gainful activity :  line <the newspaper game>  (2)  :  any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle <the dating game> <the game of politics>also  :  the course or period of such an activity <got into aviation early in the game>  (3)  :  area of expertise :  specialty 3 <comedy is not my game>

  4. 4a (1)  :  animals under pursuit or taken in hunting; especially  :  wild animals hunted for sport or food  (2)  :  the flesh of game animalsb  archaic  :  pluckc  :  a target or object especially of ridicule or attack —often used in the phrase fair game

Off hand we can dismiss the second and fourth definitions as they do not refer to the types of games we are talking about, one refers to a criminal activity and the other refers to hunting animals. And so we are left with the following two definitions and their extended clauses.

  • 1a (1)  :  activity engaged in for diversion or amusement :  play  (2)  :  the equipment for a game b  :  often derisive or mocking jesting :  funsport <make game of a nervous player>

  • 3a (1)  :  a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other  (2)  :  a division of a larger contest  (3)  :  the number of points necessary to win  (4)  :  points scored in certain card games (as in all fours) by a player whose cards count up the highest  (5)  :  the manner of playing in a contest  (6)  :  the set of rules governing a game  (7)  :  a particular aspect or phase of play in a game or sport <a football team’s kicking game>b  plural  :  organized athleticsc (1)  :  a field of gainful activity :  line <the newspaper game>  (2)  :  any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle <the dating game> <the game of politics>also  :  the course or period of such an activity <got into aviation early in the game>  (3)  :  area of expertise :  specialty 3 <comedy is not my game>

The first definitions argues it is an “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” and so within in we can fit several of our previous examples within in: card games, soccer, tick tac toe, and a child playing with dolls. Immediately questions arise that complicate the definition and force it to expand into the third part of the definition. One could argue soccer can be practiced not for diversion or amusement as in the case of professional soccer players or professional gamblers. So while we actively refer to a soccer game as a game, it is very probable that certain individuals within the field of professional soccer would balk at the idea of it being a mere diversion or amusement as their livelihoods depend upon it. And so the definition proves inadequate as in different contexts the game of soccer transitions into “a physical or mental competition…” And yet again this complicates the definition even more as one could argue a weightlifting competition matches this definition, and even the first one, yet it is widely accepted that weightlifting is a sport, not a game. These linguistic games (here is that word again) can continue forever and serve to illustrate the fact that there is no essential quality that helps define what is a game. Instead it shows us that our construction of what a game is, hinges on certain similar qualities shared by all activities we consider games.

Wittgenstein calls these similar qualities family resemblances, and explains them in the following way

“I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances“; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.” Philosophical Investigations §65-71

And just like these family resemblances are not shared equally across the board, we can do the same with linguistic families. Lets say for example that we have a family (F) and a certain number of characteristics (a, b, c, d, e, f, g) these can be combined and overlapped in a series of ways, and yet all are members of the family. In graphical form we could graph it in the following way:

F I         a, b, c, d

F II        b, c, d, e

F III      c, d, e , f

F IV      a, c, e, g

While the characteristics between F I and F IV are limited, they are still shared between them and other members of the family and if we were to add a “F V g,” it would still share a family resemblance through the “g” characteristic.

Weitz believed he could apply the same process to art and in such way he could go past definitions as art as a term is an open concept and the very act of defining art constrains creativity. An obvious question arises from this:  Why would a definition limit creativity? The answer is simple, if we define art as paintings, sculptures and illustrations, we limit the avenues of creative expression by excluding anything that does not fall within these categories. In effect we would be excluding performance, theatre, mix media, digital art, and whatever else our successors might think of using to create art.  By creating an open undefined concept, we invite artists to experiment in order to challenge what we think we know about art.

By freeing art of any theoretical limitations, Weitz hopes to create an art world where the artist can create without worrying about whether their creation falls within the accepted forms art might take and instead focus on the creation of original pieces. An example of such freedom can be found in works such as Blendie (2003-2004) by Kelly Dobson or the multiple works of Pippin Barr.

In Dobson’s case, the work of art does not reside in the object (in effect any blender can be modified to perform the exact same actions) but in the communication occurring between human and hardware through wetware and software. If we were to apply a definition that limits art to specific methods of creation, Blendie would struggle to find a fixed position in between performance, sculpture, found object, intervention, interactive art and kinetic art (I might have missed a few adjectives), under Weitz’ interpretation however, Blendie is art. This epistemological freedom allows the work to be taken as is with no demands for it to cover an indefinite checklist in order to be considered art.

Marcel Duchamp, Rotary Glass Plates, 1920.

Marcel Duchamp, Rotary Glass Plates, 1920.

Even more poignantly, Pippin Barr’s work, would commonly be defined as video games, however that is not their sole or defining reason to exist. Barr’s works question the art world at the same time they fit within the ideals of Fluxus and Dada, playful but questioning and critical of both the art world and its rules and of video games themselves. Sometimes it seems like Barr veers away from “fun” on purpose in order to challenge the idea that video games have to be a chase for points or a bodycount. Critics like Jonathan Jones and Sieskel Ebert have constantly come against video games for being interactive works of art and subverting authorial intent. This criticism rings hollow if we take into account the fact that “interactive” art has existed at least since Duchamp’s Rotary Glass Plates (1920) if not way earlier with a work by Parrhasius of Ephesus (5th century B.C.) however none of his work survives to this day. Not only does interactive art already exist before Barr, but the idea of lack of authorial control can be found in Fluxus’ Art Boxes, as well as Marina Abramovics’ Rhythm 0. Instead what those criticisms highlight is the dogmatic effect of definitions, since the object can’t be easily fit within the existing definition, it most probably does not belong in the definition. Weitz’ familiar resemblances theory sidesteps the entire debate by drawing comparisons like I did to preexisting works that share characteristics to Barr’s work.

Unfortunately, not everything is perfect with the theory. Several criticisms exist, that stem from the circular nature of the “definition” of works as art, to the acceptance of way too much into canon and even doubt as to the necessity of being free of limitations or novelty itself.

In terms of naming things as art, the definition allows us to induct new works into canon by comparing them to other similar works, however it does nothing to clarify what art is. If we were to draw this system of family resemblances, what are the Adam and Eve of art, is there a piece of Ur-art that encompasses all art? A form of genetic predecesor that by definition would hold all the characteristics of art seems absurd and poses a philosophical question that we can never find an answer to. Keeping in mind that what contemporary western thought holds as art is definitely not the same as what other contemporary cultures values, or even what renaissance artists would recognize, it is hard to say this theory solves the problem of what is art. It works for now in a limited manner but it definitely would not work in medieval times and it might not work in the future.

As I previously mentioned, the risk with family resemblances involves it allowing too much into the category of art, as anything that shares some qualities could aspire to be called art, all it takes is for someone to make a case for it. A very good example happened a few years ago when Wren Studio a Los Angeles based womenswear brand released the video “First Kiss.”

This video fooled a large amount of people (I include myself) into believing it was a work of art (Lets call this art historical ingenuity and lack of experience) until it was revealed it was a staged shoot.  Until the reveal popular media and some of us were absolutely willing to class it as an artistic creation, after all it ticked a lot of the superficial markers of art. It was only when it was revealed that it was a publicity stunt that it lost the “art aura.” This example highlights how easy it can be to induct and dismiss works under this theory, we can induct it when we believe it is an honest work, yet we dismiss it when it becomes clear it is comercial. So far the distinction is clear, fortunately for us, the world is not so simple. What happens then with something like The Godfather or Citizen Kane exist and are recognized as high achievements in film? Both are honestly artistic pieces of work with thought provoking concepts, and yet exist as mass consumer products. The amount of unfolding necessary to grapple with these works makes Weitz’ interpretation unwieldy to say the least.

Finally regardless of what a definition says or what academia and the art world might believe, unlimited unrestrained freedom might does not guarantee novel art. Outstanding works have been created under truly dictatorial situations, where not only was there a linguistic barrier, but ideological and even physical ones existed. Then we have the issue of novelty, not all great works are novel, and novelty does not signify great work. Therefore the basic justifications for the theory might be irrelevant in the actual world where artist can create either through restriction or liberation, through novelty or refinement of previous forms.

In the end Weitz’ interpretation serves as a middlepoint between the ideas of Collingwood and Bell and the last theory I will mention: the institutional theory.


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