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    Categories, genres and labels, oh my...
Thoughts on Art and categorization from a cognitive linguist.
By Eve Sweetser
III. Prototypes and membership criteria: Why you can't just list necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the category Art.

The Shepard Family: by Mark Wagner
Real human categories are formed around "prototypes." Boundaries are important to human categorization, but much of the real cognitive action is at the center. Judgments about membership are often as much based on perceived similarity to some idea of what a really good member of the set is like, as on careful consideration of precise boundaries. Consider the pet example. Cats and dogs are so central to American experience of pets that it would be really useful to tell the motel owner something about how your exotic pet resembles them, if you want to get the pet into the motel with you. ("My iguana is no bigger than a cat, and likes to sleep all day on a hot rock.")

Some prototypes are based on actual individual salient instances of the category; for example, if you were brought up with a pet iguana, iguanas might well be more central to your pet category than to some other people's — though you'd probably still be aware that that's not true for everyone. Frequently, prototypes are based on information about a range of clear central instances of the category. For example, your prototype of car might include the average size of the central members of the category you had encountered. That might differ significantly depending on whether you're American or European, on what generation you belong to (and therefore when you formed this category), and all kinds of other things. The prototype of the category art, for many Americans, seems centered on painting and sculpture (not pottery, which would rate high in East Asia or in some Native American communities), music (but classical, not folk or pop), and literature (well, the prototypical literature — i.e., poetry and "artistically written" prose fiction). Note that we don't seem to have just one single prototype of art; although if we had to pick the most salient one, it might be the painting one. But it's generally true that there are some central examples we all strongly agree on; the center(s) of the category art is a lot easier to get consensus on than the boundaries.

Categories don't need to have some single invariant set of membership criteria. When you take American college students and ask them (as I often do, in my Cognitive Linguistics class) what the definition of art is, they come up with completely non-intersecting sets of criteria. Some of them hold hard to the view that aesthetic value is crucial; some are more interested in whether the impulse of the creator was personal expression; others are viewer-response theorists, and say art happens only if a response is intended (or even if a response actually happens) in the experiencer. Other relevant criteria include non-functionality (Americans see prototypical art as being non-functional, "just" aesthetic — so pottery and architecture aren't core examples of art), special skills needed for the creation or performance (folk dance is less "artistic" than ballet because it's the kind of thing anyone can do), and of course particular traditional media (painting, music, dance, the written or spoken word, and so on) and culturally-valued settings (museums, concert halls) which are traditional places for experiencer interaction with art. Linked to the special skills requirement, uniqueness or rarity — and direct connection to the person with the special skills — is also important; mass-made objects, even if designed by a really good designer, don't count as being "art." A hand-made original by the same designer might count.

We might add things like elite status; museums seem to be full of painted and woven objects made by elite creators for elite classes, more than they are full of painted and woven objects made by folk for their own everyday use. For some, we might even add spiritual or cultural "value" — if not moral value — as a criterion; others would vigorously deny this. And non-profit status seems to help some, too; the better someone "sells," the less pure we seem to feel the artistic motivation is. (Sure, we are happy to know that Yo-Yo Ma is not starving, and we think he's a truly great artist; but even here, it does help that we know he doesn't make the kind of money that the most successful pop musical stars do.) This is probably related to the non-functional criterion mentioned above: art should be done "just" because it's creative, or beautiful, or thought-provoking, or culturally relevant — not because the artist is paid, or because the experiencer or consumer gets useful things like a building, a blanket, or teapots and cups.

A categorization theorist would say none of these definitions is "wrong." And in fact, the students usually know that they all agree more on the best examples of the category art than on the boundaries of the category, as mentioned above. The Anglo-American prototype of art, one might say, has all (or most of) the features the students bring up; where they vary is in the importance they attach to some of those features, in the absence of others, in establishing category membership at the periphery. Art theorists have been pushing at this category forever in ways which look predictable to a category theorist: objets trouves, especially that famous Duchamp urinal, were put forward precisely to argue for the view that "beauty" and specially skilled creation were not the "essence" of art — rather, art was making people think and react (in this case, making them think about their definition of art). The 20th century was a period of huge rethinking of this category, both on its own and in relation to other categories like craft and design.

Categories are not just "feature-based"; they're strongly interaction-based. Even at what seems like the most basic level of human categorization, categorizing physical objects, human interactional "affordances" are central to how we divide up the world. Someone who didn't know a beanbag chair is meant to be sat on would not categorize it with chairs. Linguists have found that people's use of labels like cup and bowl depend partly on shape and size, but also partly on what the dish in question is being used for (does it hold food or drink?). Calling something a stool or a side-table might depend similarly on whether it is being used for sitting or as a convenient surface for putting objects on. We noted above that this is true of art and literature as well. Things brought into museums and concert halls become art. Things taught in literature classes become literature. Experiencers, and cultural evaluation, are part of the frames of art and literature.

And here's another place to bring up the "imposed" complementarity of genres like romance and fantasy. Each of those genres has not only internal structure, but external affordances for a reader/user community. If the communities are separate and socially differentiated (as they clearly are), then those external affordances and uses of the two genres are separate, no matter how compatible the internal structures of the genre categories may be. This is equally true of physical objects. A bone-china saucer may make a great ash-tray or cat-food dish — it has all the right purely physical affordances; but the owner may not want it to be used for those purposes. The same owner might be equally unwilling to use a cat-food dish as a tea saucer, even if it had been safely through the dishwasher and was shaped appropriately for use as a saucer.
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