Can't keep a Goodman down

Fri 14 Jun 2013 08:47 AM

I've been thinking lately about Nelson Goodman's distinction between autographic and allographic art forms. I'll recap the distinction briefly, then blog something trivial about it!

For autographic forms like painting and print-making, the only way of characterizing what counts as an instance of a particular work is by reference to its history. For example: A painting counts as the work that it is because it was painted thusly by such-and-so painter. A woodcut print counts as the work that it is because it was produced from a particular woodcut block. A sculpture counts as the work that it is because it is chiseled thusly by such-and-so sculptor (for marble statues) or because it is cast from a mold which has the right kind of history (for a bronze statue).

For allographic forms like literature and music, we can specify formally what would count as an instance of a particular works. So there is a sense at least in which we can identify an instance without considering its history. For example: A poem can be characterized by words, punctuation, and line breaks. A traditional musical work can be characterized by notes.

Goodman suggests that all art forms begin as autographic. They can become allographic when a suitable notation is developed. Moreover, he conjectures that this will only happen under specific circumstances. He writes, "Amenability to notation depends upon a precedent practice that develops only if works of the art in question are commonly either ephemeral or not producible by one person."*

So I was reading about Nathan Sawaya's Lego sculptures. They are built out of Lego bricks, and the assembly of Lego bricks is readily expressible in a precise notation.** So, unlike marble or bronze statues, these are allographic works.

Note that the Lego sculptures are neither ephemeral nor are they team projects, making them a counterexample to Goodman's claim (which I quoted above). They are amenable to notation because they use Lego bricks, and Lego bricks are amenable notation because they were originally designed as a childrens' toy.

To gesture at the bigger picture, I think it is helpful to tease apart the autographic/allographic distinction from more specific things Goodman said about it. And I think he was right to draw the distinction.

More on that later. I'll post a draft eventually.

* Languages of Art, pages 121-2

** Some of the sculptures involve Lego bricks scattered about in imprecise ways, and that can't be fully notated. My point only applies to the sculptures in which the bricks are all snapped together.


from: Roth Phillips

Mon 28 Mar 2022 11:31 PM

Harum sed molestias