On page 196 of Noel Carroll’s  A Philosophy of Mass Art (published by Oxford University Press) he provides the following definition of mass art:

X is a mass artwork if and only in 1. x is a multiple instance or type artwork, 2. produced and distributed by mass technology, 3. which artwork is intentionally designed to gravitate in its structural choices (for example, its narrative forms, symbolism, intended affect, and even its content) toward choices that promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored (or relatively untutored audiences).

While it is not Carroll’s intention here to define an avant-garde artwork, he gives the following characterizations:

“… it is a necessary condition of being avant-garde that the works in question subvert, or, at least, go beyond conventional expectations and understandings.”(189)

“Moreover, since the requisite background frameworks are not always straightfoward in term of their applicability to a given case, avant-garde artworks are often not readily accessible in the the sense that they are not easily deciphered even for one who has access to relevant background frameworks”(191)

“avant-garde art is esoteric: mass art is exoteric.”(192)

“..avant-garde art is frequently-and perhaps ideal most frequently– a matter of subverting people’s expectations (often through the so-called deconstruction of formulas and conventions), mass art proper is the opposite-a matter of building and reinforcing audience expectations by means of repetition and formula.”(193)

Carroll believes that these two classifications are mutually exclusive; a mass artwork can not, by definition, be an avant-garde artwork. I think this claim is false. I see no reason why a work of art cannot confound viewers, subvert their expectations, and also be easily accessible. In order to show that this claim is false I looked for a counterexample a work that is both avant-garde art and mass art.

I first examined several works that are enlightening, but are not counterexamples.

Consider the following piece by the Korean-American artist Do-Ho Suh, titled Public Figures:

This public artwork, located in Brooklyn, consists of a marble plinth that would normal support a heroic bronze statue. However, Do-Ho Suh decided to leave the top of the plinth unoccupied. He instead created hundreds of bronze cast men and women that support the plinth from underneath. The men and women are actively posed in everyday work clothes and are organized in neat rows.  From far away the work looks like a massive tomb stone, but a closer look is greatly rewarded.

The work fails to be a mass artwork because it is not a multiple instance artwork; it only exists in one geographic location. Supposing that the work was replicated in other locations, I would still argue that each location would be a distinct artwork. The work does use mass technology; the figures are cast, and casting processes are certainly a mass technology. A similar process is used to make something as mass produced as a tooth brush. The reason that I think this is a valuable example to consider is because it is easy to understand and subverts expectations. Most untutored viewers would have no trouble realizing that the work acknowledges the working class, and argues that great public figures are indebted to the the masses. The monument challenges a convention and the expected purpose of monuments. What so interesting about this example is that it is easy to understand precisely because it subverts expectations. Carroll at least implies that challenging conventions and accessibility are antithetical.


Let us next consider a work by Barbara Kruger that served as the cover for W Magazine:

Barbara Kruger is an american conceptual artists who started her career while working for popular magazines. Her work typically features black and white photographs overlaid with red text boxes. In the text boxes are brief ambiguous statements written in a white sans serif font.

This work is clearly mass art; it has multiple instances, uses mass technology, and is structured to be easily understood. The question to ask is whether or not this work is avant-garde. What is special about this case is that the answer likely depends upon who you ask. A tutored art critic could call this work avant-garde while an untutored mass audience member sees it as expected and normal. The work is breaking conventions that you have to study to know about. The reason her work could be considered cutting edge by avant-garde critics is because she appropriated styles from the mass media. Carroll acknowledges that there is a lot of interplay between high art and mass art-  although it is important to note that what is avant-garde to the tutored audience could be old hat to the masses. This shows that rigorously defining what it means for something to be avant-garde is no easy task.

This next work might be a counter example:


The Leak in Your Hometown was created by artist-programmers Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking. The work uses augmented reality, an application for smart-phones. Having never used the software myself I can only offer a second hand description. The basic premise is that if you have this app on your phone, and then point it at a British Petroleum logo, you will see a pipe and smoke superimposed over the logo on your phone screen. The work clearly uses mass technology. It is multiple instance because any bp logo will do- even a printed version or  an image on your computer screen suffices.  The work is easily understandable; while bp has a green environmentally friendly looking logo, it actually probably doesn’t save the rain forests. This work was also created after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Now is this work avant-garde? It certainly challenges technological conventions- in that sense it is very cutting edge. However I don’t think that new media art should be considered avant-garde just because it uses new media. The work does however raise a novel question: where does the artwork exist? Is it the programmers code? Is it in your phone? Or does the work only exist when there happens to be someone looking at the bp logo? This sort of piece interestingly examines the nature of art and reality(or do i mean augmented reality?). While I am not totally convinced that the project is avant-garde, I suspect it might be.

While perusing the internet I think I stumbled upon a more elucidating counterexample. What this example exploits, is that Carroll never precisely establishes what it means for audience members to be tutored or untutored and that he does not acknowledge that a work may in fact be harder to interpret for a tutored audience member than an untutored audience member.

Here is the counterexample: www.acounterexampleexists.com. While the work remains unsigned, I think that you will not be surprised to know that it was created by the author of this essay.

First let’s see if this digital artwork is a mass artwork:

1)x is a multiple instance or type artwork.

Anyone with an internet connection can view the work in multiple distinct geographic locations.

2) produced and distributed by mass technology.

It was made on a computer and distributed via the internet.

3) is intentionally designed to gravitate in its structural choices (for example, its narrative forms, symbolism, intended affect, and even its content) toward choices that promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored (or relatively untutored audiences).

It is a well formed English sentence that an untutored audience can easily understand. The words(content) gravitate towards ones that are most easily understood. Now I do have to qualify by what I mean by understood. The most obvious counter argument would be to claim that the sentence is actually not easily comprehensible; that it is in fact, to most people, unintelligible. But here is where I exploit the fact that Carroll doesn’t, in exact terms, differentiate between what a tutored or untutored audience member might get form the work. An untutored audience member understands the sentence without grasping it’s significance. Consider the Flux Capacitor from the movie Back to the Future. This is a little triangular device that, “makes time travel possible.” I haven’t the wildest idea of what time travel might be, or what in the world a flux capacitor really is- but when I view the movie I have no trouble understanding the statement and explanation. Some one who studies time travel, presuming such a field exists, might grasp the significance of the movie’s notion of time travel and get an inside joke concerning Doc Brown’s flux capacitor.

4) Is the work avant-garde?

First is the website an artwork? On page 141 Carroll references George Dickie’s Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. According to this theory of art, which Carroll supports and is beyond the scope of this discussion, the website is an artwork. However I think most people on the internet would deny the works status as art. Thus it clearly subverts mass expectations. The works significance- which is distinct from its ability to be understood- is also incredibly esoteric. I would be hard pressed to think of an artwork with a more esoteric significance.  Furthermore even someone who is familiar with Carroll’s arguments might have a hard time deciding if the work does what it claims to do. It challenges expectations and is hard to evaluate and thus meets all of Carroll’s characterizations of an avant-garde artwork- which I presume are sufficient.

Like the flux capacitor different audiences will understand the words differently. The loophole that this example has found is that it is avant-garde to the masses because it challenges their notion of what art is, and that it is avant-garde to the tutored audience because they wont know how to evaluate the significance. I am presuming that as long as everyone agrees that the work is avant-garde, even if it challenges different audiences for different reason, we should call that work avant-garde. What cannot be overemphasize in this case is the distinction between understanding something and grasping the significance of something.

To sum it up:

The work is both mass art and avant-garde because tutored and untutored audience will have different reactions to it. The structure and content are intended to be accessible to all viewers. An untutored audience will be challenged as to their notion of what art is.  A tutored, high art, or avant-garde audience will probably except the piece as art but will be confounded by whether or not it achieves what the work itself, and I, claim it achieves. The challenges that I am presenting to Carroll are, to precisely define what it means for something to be avant-garde, to really distinguished what constitutes tutoring, and to be more clear about what makes something accessible.  I am adopting the view that accessibility is synonymous with understandability, if Carroll would like it to imply something stronger than he should say as much.

Note: The proceeding arguments and discussions owe a great deal of credit to Sheila Lintott and my classmates in her philosophy course, Controversies in Art, and are especially indebted to the insights of William Schwaller.


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