Interstitial Arts      
Our Mission Contact Us Support Us
Interstitial Arts  
    Categories, genres and labels, oh my...
Thoughts on Art and categorization from a cognitive linguist.
By Eve Sweetser
V. Why this all matters: (cross)cultural understanding and meaning, in Art and in Life.

Trancemigration: by Mark Wagner
We can't stop categorizing; stereotypes are therefore inevitable. My students are always eager to point out that a lot of the conventional category prototypes are "stereotypes." The uncomfortable moment in the classroom comes when I point out that you can't just ditch stereotypes, throw out all the "bad" categories and somehow keep the "good" ones. Just as harmful or unpleasant mutations (and cancer) are natural and inevitable aspects of the balance between flexibility and rigidity in cell reproduction, similarly it is inevitable that the constant ongoing process of human categorization will result in some harmful categorizations — or old categorizations that were helpful but are really unproductive in a new context. The best we can do is to make ourselves as aware as possible of our category structures, and notice when they are not working productively for us.

Categories are flexible as well as rigid. The fact that we are not making Boolean sets, but fuzzy-bounded, prototype-centered categories, means that mechanisms for change and variation in category structure are built right into our categorization processes. If you get different input (see different cars in your environment, e.g.) you will have a different prototype; and indeed, as the pool of cars you see changes over time, your prototype changes too. (Don't cars from 30 years ago look funny to you now, although if you're old enough to remember them, they didn't look funny then?) If we run into a newly invented kind of object, the fuzziness of the boundaries of old categories may permit us to debate whether it should be included in one of them.

This of course does not mean that humans can't be rigid and unproductive in their use of categories. I began by mentioning some salient cases of rigidity. The basic fact is that we need to categorize everything in order to deal with it. Feeling uncertain about classification, or disagreeing about it, are therefore often uncomfortable situations.

In many cases, there may not be only one "right" categorization in objective terms; but there are much more and less "right" ones in human terms. Sure, just as there's no single right reading of a work of art, there's not necessarily one right categorization either. But there are wrong ones, ones that don't resonate with any aspect of human experience. We'll never have access to objective criteria for categorization, but we do have common access to human neural structure, which is the same kind of neural structure that created the art we're experiencing and categorizing.

I once discussed this issue with a literature teacher who said she had recently been dealing with an intelligent student who claimed that (since modernism was over and postmodernism at hand) any reading was as valid as any other. The teacher felt that this attitude was getting in his way as a reader; he was facilely making up random readings from his own thoughts and interests, without carefully attending to what readings were more plausibly connected to the text. One day in class, she pointed out the window at the empty sky and said, "Look!! There's a big yellow blimp out there!" He replied, dismissively, "No, there's not." She repeated her claim. He got it; and thereafter, he worked harder at his readings and listened better to her criticisms. Literary readings are a lot less simple to judge than claims about whether or not a large yellow object is in direct view or not. But humans don't vary randomly and infinitely in their understanding of texts — though they do vary widely, both within and across cultures. And we should expect some shared ground, since humans make texts, and humans read them (despite all theories about the Death of the Author) knowing that they were made by humans. Martians, or Elves (for all I know) might have very different intentional and interpretive capacities.

I don't mean by this to minimize the importance of cultural variability, or even personal taste, as factors in artistic creation and response. I do mean that when two people A and B are taking part in the same cultural frame, it would simply be silly to ignore the role of that common frame in interpreting what A's art means to B. A and B take it for granted. And on a cross-cultural scale, it would be silly to ignore what we know about universals of human perception, interaction, etc., in examining the limits on variability in artistic response — just as silly as ignoring the role of cultural difference in bringing about variation in response.

More ideas on how this might affect the artistic world? Well, I personally see artistic genres as fuzzy-edged, prototype-structured, and often contested categories: in short, classic examples of human categorization. Knowing that's the case helps keep me from getting into those circular discussions about what really counts as a novel; that's at least some benefit. It also helps me to understand that even the folks involved in those discussions are — in their way — exploring problematic boundaries, even if I think they're wrong that a good solution has to necessarily find a single boundary.

Awareness of this situation also helps one comment on it, manipulate it, and explore it at the meta-level. Consider a piano composition consisting of opening the piano and sitting at it for a measured number of minutes without playing it (an actual, and highly controversial, John Cage piece). This piece may or may not be music: that depends on whose category of music we consult. Further — like the Duchamp urinal — it may or may not be art, depending again on whose category of art we consult; it might rate high in the opinion of those for whom art's most central characteristic is making people think and react in new ways, but low in the view of those who think that music in particular must involve sound, or that art in general should involve special skills like piano-playing. At any rate, it certainly does explore the category music creatively at the meta-level. It toys with audience expectations, and what happens when they are not met. It makes us wonder what musical performance is for, and how much of it is constituted by the sound, as opposed to the context. It may bring musical memories or images to audience members' minds, thus creating musical experiences (perhaps different ones for different audience members) without making physical sounds. It creates social awareness of concert frames for musical performance and how they are constituted. It's clearly not just academic meta-analysis of music; it's more like music-based performance art, perhaps? And so on. It's more interesting to notice all this than to fight over whether it's "really" music, according to different warring definitions of music.

A raised consciousness about category structure, and the basis of human cognition in embodiment, may also be a help in some other standard artistic dilemmas. I can't count the times I've heard painters and musicians say that maybe literature can't transcend cultural boundaries (darn those different languages, and that translation problem!), but painting and sculpture and dance and music are pan-human. The last time I heard this claim, it was phrased as, "when you paint, you paint in Human, not in English or in German." Of course, that claim is far too simplistic. It's not the case that, let's say, a Western European or American can look at a Native Australian painting and automatically "get" what it means to the culture which produced it (though they might indeed find beauty in it), any more than a Native Australian can look at the work in a contemporary New York or London gallery and fully "get" it without having learned something about the relevant artistic culture. In a sense, we can be deluded by the lack of an obvious language barrier into thinking that nonlinguistic art is much more universal than it is — especially if we're part of a dominant culture, and the rest of the world is at least partially tuned to our wavelength (it was a British artist who actually said we paint in Human). But I know how much education it takes to understand a Van Eyck seriously, as a modern viewer; should we assume that all present-day art is so much "easier?"

On the other hand, part of what the artist who said that meant, in context, was that his own art specifically was intended to play with aspects of visual perception — some of which might well be construed as generalizable across cultures, though perhaps not quite as simply as he hoped. (Vision science does seem to indicate that, predictably, the structure of visual perception and much of basic visual categorization is shared cross-culturally.) That kind of generalizability is a relief to think about, if you want to imagine that we can actually (by working at it) experience art coming from other cultures, other places, and other times — or even, perhaps, just from other people in our own culture who have very different points of view from our own. There may be aspects of our already-entrenched category structure that we can successfully exploit, even while also having to learn a lot of new categories to understand a new cultural context. Let's hope this is so, because cultural variation is a slippery slope in art. When August Wilson says that no actor should play a role of a different race than his or her own, we know there are excellent reasons to avoid more white Othellos in blackface; but there's also the troubling feeling that we could extend this ban further to keep ourselves from ever playing (or reading?) Shakespeare or Moliere at all, since we aren't members of the authors' cultures. So, awareness of both the generally human basis and the particular cultural bases for our categories may be a big help in understanding what our art is really doing, and where gaps in cultural understanding are likely to arise.

And ideally, of course, understanding categorization helps one let go of category expectations, or open oneself to a wider range of possibilities, both as a consumer and as a creator of art.
previous page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |5 | 6 | 7 | next page