| Approaches to the Art Media:
Modes of Art Talk, Discourses, and the Construction of Art as an Object
Art Discourses: Words and Things Revisited
One way of viewing the artworld is getting a sense of the totality of discourses used to construct it. Art and the social-economic world around it are continuously being produced in the various ways of making “art talk.” This distributed network system of ways of talking, the various vocabularies, arguments, professional fields, and institutionalized contexts for making statements we can call “artworld discourse.” (Of course, the layers and nodes of artworld discourse are not pure states, but intermingled with other macro-level institutional discourses like journalism, academic theory and scholarship, and the populist language of everyday speech.)
One way of answering the question, “what is art,” is looking at what is constructed in the universe of discourses that forms the artworld. “Art” is the net result of the multiple discourses employed within the artworld for (1) describing, talking and arguing about, and referring to art objects and (2) for “art” as a general name for a category of objects. Artworld discourse, then, is a function of the artworld’s role in defining the cultural category of art and maintaining the art/non-art binary. “Art,” used both as a name or category as well as term for specific objects named or referenced within a set of statements or argument, does not pre-exist its appearance in discourse, but is constituted as such in the multiple tiers, styles, and contexts of artworld discourse. Making statements about art, then, follows the rules for statement-making within the discursive domain of an actual practice (for example, news writing, art history, museum curatorship).
The varieties of artworld discourse are themselves both highly professionalized and normalized (note the professional careers and compartmentalization of each writing sector as a discursive practice), and are embedded in institutions that authorize and transmit them (schools, the press and the sectors of the publishing and media industry, museums, galleries and commercial market contexts). Thus, curatorial, art critical, and art news discourses co-constitute artworks as such in exhibition spaces where culturally determined, institutionally sanctioned spaces present works and objects as art works for a receiving community. What we find at work is the ongoing multiple and simultaneous objectification of works presented and constructed as art works, objects that bear no inherent signs of their function or intention as art, but are constituted as such, through the forces, processes, and activities of objectification in artworld practices.
Consider how art discourses construct "art" as an
object of knowledge and analysis
Foucault taught us that objects of knowledge are constituted through discourse, especially the disciplinary and professional discourses that create and circulate authority over certain domains of knowledge (examples: law, philosophy, history, physics, and here, "art"). Objects of knowledge do not pre-exist the discourses through which they are constructed and can appear to us as objects at all.
Foucault's break-through discovery first appeared in his book Les Mots et Les Choses (literally, "Words and Things" in French; English book title, The Order of Things): "things" as we know them and talk about them do not pre-exist "words," including the rules or grammars we follow in talking about "things." He was describing a form of network or systems theory: there is no "there" "there" outside a network of relationships. For those who know philosophy, this was a post-Kantian move opened up after structural linguistics. Also, following Kant, it was a Copernican revolution in ways of thinking about culture, language, power, and authority.
The cultural category of art is reinforced in several tiers, levels, or layers of publications and domains of discourse, each with an observable set of rules, grammars, and required and excluded vocabularies (for example, newspapers and journalistic art writing follow the rules of journalism and popular media, and exclude theoretical discourses and the terminology of academic theory to maintain the illusion of "art" as being accessible and still transparent to the middle class).
Observe: A network of tiered discourses, recognized hierarchies of styles, vocabularies, rules, “language games”
Some theoretical background:
Foucault on discourse and objects