Hushed Tones: the modern art gallery as intensifier

A colleague and I are giving a paper at Beyond Meaning conference in Athens on the 12th September. The abstract follows.


Art is a complex and difficult field for analysis from other disciplines, and any analysis that straightforwardly identifies art with communication is bound to be rejected. It seems possible, however, to accept that art is intentionally produced and that meaning generation takes place in the knowledge of that attributed intentionality. In that case, it can be considered a good candidate to be addressed using theories of communication that focus on complex inferential processes in the mind of the viewer (as opposed to resting on a simple encoding/decoding model). The attribution of intentionality gives art a meaning beyond the kind of pleasure evoked in experiences of natural beauty. Institutional theories of art such as that of Danto (1983) suggest that institutional sanctioning is the primary condition for the identification of an object as art, and we put forward a charitable justification of such ideas grounded in a cognitivist theory of communication. We intend not to attempt novel interpretations of our own, but to offer an explanation of the mechanics of interpretations as they tend to exist, as Wilson (2011: 74) does for literature.

A challenge posed by modern art, following the shifts in attitudes toward craftsmanship and appropriation that came with the birth of the readymade and conceptual art, is how it is possible to discern art from non-art; a further question is how it is that objects are imbued with the kind of weighty significance that justifies the far-ranging interpretations reached in its scholarship, not to mention its price. Using a cognitivist framework based on relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1996), we propose that gallery spaces function analogously to a linguistic intensifier, such as ‘really’ or ‘very’, and that the art-world framing of an object is instrumental in attributing the intentions that will bring forth appropriate interpretations in a viewer. An attribution of artistic intention prompts the investment of more effort, and so the bringing forth of more complex, effortful and multidimensional interpretations. Galleries, we suggest, justify the effort required to make such an interpretation and further decrease the effort required to produce some interpretations. From this perspective we consider how such framing might be achieved and thus how the profound, ambiguous networks of unresolved possibilities that make up artistic appreciation might be constructed.

This approach deals capably with the use of ritual in art and the repurposing of readymades by Duchamp and Warhol, and offers insight into difficult questions such as the artworld appropriation of outsider making, the problems of migrating Banksy’s street art into the gallery and the fetishisation of the gallery space. In each of these we consider the cultural ramifications of each act and the means by which this is realised in the mind of an individual at a gallery space. We also consider, therefore, how the cultural is grounded in the cognitive needs and tendencies of individual and, conversely, how the cognitive environment of the individual is grounded in their interactions with culture.


Danto, A. C. (1983). The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Reprint edition). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1996). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Wiley.

Wilson, D. (2011). Relevance and the interpretation of literary works. In: Observing linguistic phenomena: A festschrift for Seiji Uchida. pp.3–19.



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