Interdisciplinary seminar “Works of Art or Mere Real Things? A Multidisciplinary Exploration of Things People Make”

Interdisciplinary seminar of Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts


Works of Art or Mere Real Things?

A Multidisciplinary Exploration of Things People Make


Guest lecturer: Ivan Gaskell, Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies, Bard Graduate Center, New York City; Permanent Fellow, Lichtenberg-Kolleg (Advanced Study Institute), Georg-August University, Göttingen

Dates and time: 4–5 June 2019

Venue: Tallinn University, Uus-Sadama 5, room M234 (4 June)

Estonian Academy of Arts, Põhja-Puiestee 7, room D407/8 (5 June)

Credits: 2 ECTS

Language of the course: English

Hosting institutions: Tallinn University; Estonian Academy of Arts; Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts




The seminar will consist of two parts – a public lecture and a seminar. These two, the lecture, “The Artist’s Mark”, and the seminar, “Mere Real Things – Again”, are conceived of as a single event, though participation in both would not be necessary for either to make sense. I envisage the lecture and seminar being pertinent principally to the concerns of historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and art historians.


My main, interdisciplinary concern is to set out some of the factors involved in working with tangible things of various kinds, whether for historical, philosophical, anthropological, or art historical purposes. The principal puzzle I seek to address is the difference between works of art and what the philosopher Arthur Danto terms “mere real things.” This raises the question of what each might be, and how each might function in various ways at various times in a variety of human societies.


Lecture: “The Artist’s Mark”

4 June 2019, 4–6pm

Tallinn University (Uus-Sadama 5, room M234)

How can anyone tell whether any given thing is or is not an artwork? Since the early twentieth century, some artists have claimed that art is whatever artists make or designate. This lecture demonstrates that such claims are mistaken. To achieve and sustain the use of any given thing as an artwork, the acquiescence of a viable community of appreciators must complement the authority of the artist. Further, gaining and losing artwork status are not symmetrical operations. It is easier for a thing to become an artwork than it is to lose that status, no matter the use to which it is put.


Anyone using tangible things as historical evidence should take into account not only the use of any given thing at any particular time, but the uses to which it has been put over time. A distinction between being an artwork and functioning by convention as an artwork may seem trivial. On the contrary, to acknowledge this difference diminishes the authority that many artists claim.


This lecture refers to the work of the philosophers Simon Blackburn, Arthur C. Danto, George Dickie, and Nelson Goodman; and artists Joseph Beuys, Mike Bidlo, Chris Burden, Michael Craig-Martin, Marcel Duchamp, Tracey Emin, James Harvey, Willem de Kooning, Pietro Lorenzetti, Charles Lutz, Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg, Rembrandt van Rijn, Hercules Segers, Kurt Schwitters, and Andy Warhol.


Seminar: “Mere Real Things – Again”

5 June 2019, 2pm-6pm 

Estonian Academy of Arts (Põhja-Puiestee 7, room D407/8)

In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Arthur Danto makes a distinction between works of art and “mere real things.” In an introduction to the discussion of puzzles about the variable status of artworks and mere real things by philosophers, anthropologists, historians, and art historians, I shall claim that no one discipline holds a monopoly on knowledge claims regarding artworks. Rather, for viable knowledge claims to emerge, collaborations and mutual deference, as appropriate to circumstance, are necessary. My focus is the claim by some art historians to be able to elucidate things other than artworks. I shall throw open for informed discussion whether this is viable, and, if not, why not.


I shall appeal to the work of, among others, art historian Horst Bredekamp; philosophers Nancy Cartwright, Arthur Danto, Richard Eldridge, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Otto Neurath, and Yuriko Saito; anthropologist Tim Ingold; and historian of science, Pamela Smith.


In the seminar, we shall collaboratively map out an exhibition proposal on the topic of drawing distinctions between works of art and mere real things. After the seminar, I suggest that each student should choose a tangible thing they know at first hand—whether an artwork (possibly in one of the local museums) or an ordinary thing in their own possession, for inclusion in the exhibition. They should write and submit a 300-word chat label for their chosen thing for display in the gallery with it. I shall give guidance in the seminar. I can assure you that this is the academic equivalent of writing a haiku. It’s far more difficult to write 300 words than 3,000!


Readings for the seminar

  • Horst Bredekamp, “A Neglected Tradition? Art History as ‘Bildwissenschaft,’” Critical Inquiry 29, 2003, pp. 418-28.
  • Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA and London, 1981), pp. 1-32.
  • Richard Eldridge, Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 1-43.
  • Ivan Gaskell, “Aesthetic Judgment and the Transcultural Apprehension of Material Things,” Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment: Pleasure, Reflection and Accountability, ed. Jennifer McMahon (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 161-179.
  • Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978), pp. 57-70.
  • Tim Ingold, “Materials against Materiality,” Archaeological Dialogues 14, 2007, pp. 1-16.
  • Carolyn Korsmeyer, “Real Old Things,” British Journal of Aesthetics 56, 2016, pp. 219-31.
  • Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 115-34.


All readings are available here (password for the reading materials will be provided upon acceptance).


About guest lecturer

Ivan Gaskell is Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies at Bard Graduate Center, New York City. He was educated at Oxford, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Cambridge, and served at the Warburg Institute, Cambridge University, and Harvard University before moving to Bard Graduate Center in 2012. His transdisciplinary work addresses intersections among history, art history, anthropology, and philosophy. He is the author, co-author, or editor of fourteen books, including Tangible Things: Making History through Objects (2015). He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture, and author of the forthcoming monograph, Paintings and the Past: Philosophy, History, Art (Routledge). Ivan Gaskell has held fellowships at the University of Buenos Aires, the Clark Art Institute (twice), the Center for the Study of World Religions of the Harvard Divinity School, and the Advanced Study Institute of the University of Göttingen, where he was appointed a permanent fellow in 2016.


Requirements for participation

Reading the required texts is the prerequisite for participating in the course.


Interested graduate students can apply for the seminar by filling out the registration form by 15 May 2019 at this link. The maximum number of seminar participants is 25 and students will be notified of their acceptance to attend the course.


2 ECTS credits will be awarded upon attending the lecture, reading the required texts, participating in the seminar and submitting the writing assignment.


Participation in the course is free of charge. Accommodation and travel costs of the students of GSCSA will be reimbursed. If you have registered but are unable to attend you are required to let the organisers know.




The event is supported by the (European Union) European Regional Development Fund (Tallinn University’s ASTRA project, TLU TEE – Tallinn University as a promoter of intelligent lifestyle and Estonian Academy of Arts ASTRA project, EKA LOOVKÄRG).