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    Categories, genres and labels, oh my...
Thoughts on Art and categorization from a cognitive linguist.
By Eve Sweetser
IV. "Essentially contested" concepts and categories — such as Art — and how category structure affects reasoning about everyday life.

Relative Balance of the Earth: by Mark Wagner
Art is a classic example of another now-recognized phenomenon in category theory — as is clear from my students' discussion, it's a contested category. It is, in fact, an "essentially contested" category; that is, we live with the knowledge that speakers don't agree about this category in really basic ways.

We should be proud of this in one sense; essentially contested categories never happen in unimportant areas of cognition and culture. Contestation of the label art is a tribute to the cultural importance and status of the category. Other cultural institutions reflect this; in the days when the National Endowment for the Arts had money to give, presumably you had to be doing something that counted as art to be funded. A piece of functional pottery which counts as "artistic" costs a lot more money (even in America!) than one which is not "artistic."

Categories are relative to context, not absolute. Just as the same person may be a Liberal in Texas and a Conservative in Berkeley, or (in my case) a Flaming Radical in Texas and a Liberal in Berkeley, so a great many categories are constituted differently depending on context. Tell me that someone is a wife or a husband, and I'll want to know what culture that's in, and what their marriage customs are, before I really know what you mean, even though I'll know that wife and husband probably refer to monogamous heterosexual legally sanctioned sexual relationships. (Here we have translation problems. There are some terms, it seems, in nearly every culture, which refer to such legally sanctioned relationships; and they get translated into English as wife and husband, even if the culture they're being translated from is polygamous, for example.)

Similarly, it's hard to imagine what it really meant to be a Romantic without living in the right part of the 19th century, and rebelling against Rationalism. I recently saw a new comic series called Last Kiss Comics, which is produced by taking 1950's romantic comics (one series was called First Kiss Comics) and putting different words in the speech-bubbles, while preserving the pictures. The 1950's romance genre will obviously never mean quite the same thing to me that it does to someone who lived the 1950's as an adult, as my mother did.

Prototype structure of categories is important in reasoning. Experimental work has found that people reason from knowledge about central (prototypical) members of a category to infer things about more peripheral members, but not the other way around. Here's an example: for most urban Americans, a robin is pretty close to the prototype for the category bird. If you ask such people whether an ibis or an ostrich is likely to catch a disease from a robin, they rate that as more likely than that a robin will catch a disease from an ibis or an ostrich.

Tragically, this kind of reasoning probably played a role in keeping the American public from early response to the dangers of AIDS. If your prototype of human is white and heterosexual, then you subconsciously reason that diseases which afflict white heterosexuals could surely spread to gay people and to African or African-American people — but you don't as readily worry about "gay" or "African" diseases spreading to affect the straight white population. (I won't even go into whether inner-city intravenous-drug users get counted as full human beings, or the assumed connections between race and drug abuse.) In short, the scarily-wrong labeling of AIDS as a "gay" disease or an "African" disease came directly out of general human strategies of category-structure-based reasoning, in combination with some noxious construal of the category human.

Reasoning about art has similar problems. It's a normal situation for there to be community-specific genres of plastic arts, performing arts, literature, you-name-it. Tax money (predictably) supports genres supported by the more powerful sub-communities. Strangely, this support is sometimes given in the apparent belief that classical music (for example) is accessible and relevant to everyone, while bluegrass or Cajun music or punk rock belongs to a sub-group. I'm not trashing classical music here; I not only love it, I feel it's under-supported, like arts in general in this country. I'm just making some observations. The more we question the Canon, the more difficult it is to say what it means to support culturally-meaningful artistic endeavor.
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