I don’t know Art, but…

Those who have spent much time at all in art spaces be they galleries, museums or pop-ups, might have stood next to someone and asked these fateful words:

«So, what do you think?»

and heard the following reply:

«I don’t know art, but I know what I like.»

Depending on the intonation, it might mean the speaker condemns it or is cautiously able to find appreciation for it. On rare occasions, this catchphrase is used by those who do not understand the art world and neither want to make a mistake (maybe the art is really great) nor appear rude (because someone listening might just be the artist responsible). Perhaps they are actually having an aesthetic experience, but the speech act in and of itself does not make this clear.

Experience, however, has shown this commonplace to find general usage in cases of intended humor couching negative judgement at the expense of the members of the art world, and this is the connotation that will be treated herein.

This text is an excursion into the underlying meanings of the assertion and the necessary deconstruction of it from the perspective of empiricism using a set of transformations that, in accordance with the correspondence theory of truth, attempts to retain the meaning of the original speech act whilst uncovering the logical structure buried beneath the obvious application of the availability heuristic and blatantly ig·no·min·i·ous superficiality. Ready?

Notation System
In the following analysis, the speech act will be deconstructed using: ( ) to insert words to correct for grammar [ ] to swap existing words to arrive at the interpreted meaning { } to insert missing or implied words

I. Deconstruction

I don’t know art, but I know what I like, is intriguing because it appears to be made from the perspective of empiricism, which means that the speaker believes that knowledge and its classification exists a posteriori. In other words, things can be known to exist as a result of experience with said things. Here, the speaker claims not to have enough experience with art to be knowledgeable about it, yet able to categorize it as something that they are not able to like. Let’s have a closer look.

I.I. Replace Terms with Variables

It is quite clear that the speaker is categorizing their experience, and categories are nothing but classifications of things that share one or more common attributes. In set theory, some thing A is a member of superset B if it can be included in that set. For example, most monkeys are members of the superset animals since animals are classified as living, breathing, consuming and reproducing organisms. A battery-powered toy monkey is NOT an animal, because it does not live, breath or reproduce. As a matter of fact, a battery-powered toy monkey is not a monkey at all, but rather a toy that looks like a monkey.

To properly deconstruct the logic of the speaker’s statement, it can be helpful to make their position more abstract by replacing art and what I like with variables. This enables the deductive analysis of the truth values in the statement by enabling objective detachment.

I don’t know A, but I know B.

I.II. Set Construction

A = “art”
B = “what I like”

This B is a variable that stands in for the set of all things that the speaker likes, of which A is implicitly and categorically denied membership. To be clear, the speaker is comparing sets of things of which they have some degree of knowledge about, one of which could theoretically be a member of the other. If they had absolutely zero knowledge of something, for example A, they would not even be able to pronounce, spell or use the word that A represents: It would not exist for them. This is the first logical fallacy in the statement, but one that will be ignored for the time being.

I.III. Variable Definition

To be fair, most artists (and all art teachers) have anthropocentric problems defining art. However, a curator doesn’t have this ideological problem. For the curator, a work of art is a thing that is presented within the context of an art space, such as that stuff that can be witnessed at an art opening, on a stage, in a museum, on a pedestal in public space, etc. A work of art as it is properly known has a title (that can even be the absence of a title), an author (who may be a number of people or even an algorithm), an epoch within which it was created (to which its internal codification is indebted) and is constructed of ideas (potentially) crafted into stuff that can be experienced by members of a loosely defined audience (that may consist of people unknowledgeable regarding art). To put it simply: Art is a context.

The word art is ultimately only a descriptor for a thing belonging to a superset of things known as art. To be very clear, until a thing is classified as being art, it does not belong to the class of art. It is not good art, it is not a bad art, it is not even likeable art. This linguistic bifurcation may be to blame for a century of misunderstanding.

art = [context that classifies some things as] art

Being in the position to favor something is deeply entrenched in the ability to empathize with ones history of experience. Unfortunately, this “favorship” comes at a price: It is impossible to like something until experience with it has been gained. Knowledge, as opposed to estimation, requires experience. Subsequently, in order for something to be liked, it has to have been qualified via personal or vicarious experience as being good.

what I like = [things that in my experience have been good]

I.IV. Reintroducing the non-verbalized Object

In the situation where this claim is made, a non-verbalized object is implied as the catalyst for the speech act. The speaker is reacting negatively to the mise en scène, which will be interpreted as this object.

(Although) I don’t know {if this C belongs to} A (,)
I know {this C does not belong to B}.
A = [(the) context that classifies some things as] art
B = [things that in my experience have been good]
C = specific thing in the mise en scène

In order to retain stylistically appropriate grammar after reintroducing the object, the sentence’s list structure must be revised by removing but and placing although as an initiating conjunction.

An abstract method of understanding this is that whatever C may in fact be, it is unknown if it can be categorized as A and it is not one of the things that could be categorized as B. At this point, it is important to remember that the direct context of the statement is one that would lead the speaker to believe that C is most likely a thing that should be categorized as A.

I.V. The Verb “Know”

(Although) I (do not) know {if this C belongs to} A (,) I (do) know (that) {this C does not belong to} B.

The contraction of don’t has been changed into do not as a formality and the word do has been introduced to retain parallel structure while remaining within the bounds of formal grammar. This makes it vividly clear that there are sets of things that the speaker has the capability of knowing. In other words: The speaker is capable of possessing knowledge and classifying things.

Although this in and of itself is not proof that the speaker is using empiricism to justify their knowledge or relative lack thereof, it does prove their epistemological faculty of self awareness — or their ability to repeat something they have learned from an authority. Indeed, simply making this statement proves that they are at least subconsciously behaving according to the tenets of empirical knowledge acquisition.

Our job would have been finished long ago if instead of saying «I don’t know art, but I know what I like.», the speaker had simply uttered: «I don’t know enough about art to like it.» Fortunately for this text, they were not that self-aware. However, they were self-aware enough to claim to have absolute and authoritative knowledge of what they like (and find to be good). To be fair, they are probably the only entity in existence (other than the ubiquitous online social network known as Facebook) qualified to make such a claim.

(Although) I (do not) know {if this C belongs to} A (,) I (do) have knowledge {this C does not belong to} B.

Here, know has been transformed into [have knowledge of] in the descendent part of the sentence to make it clear that the speaker is acknowledging the possession of information based upon experience in the a posteriori sense.

II. Evaluation

The following analysis of the statement uses logic and set theory to attempt to prove several theses. This is a legend of symbols, variables and constraints that are used:

:⇔ equivalent to, definition of 
material implication
= operational equivalence
either one or the other but not both (exclusion)
the first symbol properly belongs to the set represented by the second symbol
the first symbol belongs to the set represented by the second symbol
the first symbol does not belong to the set represented by the second symbol
the union of two sets
constructor of relative complements
notation for complements
¬ logical negation
U the universe, which contains nothing more than all sets of
all things
E visceral experience that can be remembered i.e. known
G a quality of a thing that is good
A the context that classifies some things as art
B things that my in experience have been good
C specific thing in the mise en scène
U′ = ∅ the complement of the universe is the empty set

II.I. If it isn’t Good, what is it?

The following proofs seek to logically define that which is good from the perspective of the speaker as opposed to defining that which is liked. This is because in section I.III. what I like was found to be equivalent to things that in my experience have been good.

1. Everything that is good is known.
2. Unless something is known, it cannot be good.
3. Art is not good.
4. This object is not good.
Experience E implies knowledge k of the universe U 
E ⇒ U{k}
∴ ¬E ⇒ U{¬k}
All things in the universe U 
must be either known k or unknown ¬k
U − U{k} = U{¬k}
∴ ( U{k} ⊕ U{¬k} )
∴ ( U{¬k} ∉ U{k} )
∴ ( U{k}′ = U{¬k} )
Good things G must be proper members of 
the set of known things k in the universe U
G ⊆ U{k} ∴ U{k{G}}
This proves Hypothesis 1
Unknown things ¬k cannot be good things G 
because this requires experience E
¬E ⇒ U{¬k} ∉ U{k{G}} ∴ ¬E ∉ U{k{G}}
This proves Hypothesis 2
There exists a class of things A 
that is a proper subset of the universe U
A ⊆ U
No experience E exists to qualify A as being known k
¬E ⇒ U{¬k{A}}
Therefore A cannot be good G 
∴ ¬E ∉ U{k{G}} = ¬E ∈ U{¬k{A}}
This proves Hypothesis 3
There exists a thing C 
that is a proper subset of the universe U
C ⊆ U
As a proper member of the set U, 
C cannot be both known and not known
∵ U{¬k} ∉ U{k} U{C} ⊆ U{¬k} ⊕ U{C} ⊆ U{k}
Either there is experience E with C 
or there is no experience ¬E with C:
If experience E exists to qualify C as not belonging to the set of known things k in the universe U that are good
G E ⇒ C ∉ U{k{G}}
then by definition C cannot be good and as such might belong to A, which proves Hypothesis 4
Furthermore, if the context of the situation implies that C might be a member of the set A 
E ⇒ U{C} ∈ U{¬k{A}} :⇔ U{¬k{A{C}}}
then the solution to Hypothesis 3 counter-intuitively proves Hypothesis 4
However, if experience with C is claimed not to exist ¬E: 
¬E ⇒ U{¬k{C}}
Therefore C cannot be good G
∴ ¬E ∉ U{k{G}} = ¬E ∈ U{¬k{C}}
And this proves Hypothesis 4

II.II. Is “not good” the same as ungood?

  1. Everything that is good is known. This hypothesis could also be written: Only known things can be good. In the logical universe of set theory, a thing can under no circumstances be good unless it is known. It implies that some known things can also be not good, which is in accordance with our expectations of logic and experience with the universe.
  2. Unless something is known, it cannot be good. This is the shocking inverse of Hypothesis 1. The speaker admits that there exist things of which they have no knowledge (such as the context that classifies some things as art). If these unknown things cannot be good, then what are they? Speakers of the English language would assume that the polar opposite of good (i.e. not good) to be bad, whereas adherents to Newspeak would probably find this all too complicated and just say ungood to be done with the matter.
  3. Art is not good. According to the set-theory proofs above, if the speaker does not have knowledge of something, then they cannot find it to be good. Although this technically is not the same as saying Art is bad, for all intents and purposes, it can safely be assumed that the speaker truly believes that Art is not good.
  4. This object is not good. The speaker is not comfortable classifying the object as being a work of art, but for whatever reason this is being said, it is clear that the speaker does not think that it is good. Of the possible ways that this speech act could be evaluated, they all boil down to the same conclusion: Whether or not this object is art is irrelevant. It is simply not good. It could be that there is:
  • a feeling that this object is inherently not good (it is not good via experience)
  • the possibility that this object is art (it can not be good because art is not known)
  • uncertainty as to what this object is (it is not known and cannot be good)

The fourth and final hypothesis ultimately reveals something truly exciting: It is possible to cancel the relevance of art out of the statement. Indeed, the speaker disqualifies themselves from making any type of statement about art whatsoever! Whether or not the implied object belongs to the set of things called art, it is neither good nor liked, and an extrapolation of the truth value underlying the personal beliefs of the speaker as made by this statement can now be summed up rather succinctly: I like what I know.

III. Conclusion

The deconstruction of the sentence: “I don’t know art, but know what I like,” in the previous sections arrived at a fairly complex analytic structure:

(Although) I (do not) know {if this C belongs to} A (,) I (do) have knowledge {this C does not belong to} B.
A = the context that classifies some things as art
B = things that in my experience have been good
C = specific thing in the mise en scène

By replacing the variables with their values:

Although I do not know if this specific thing in the mise en scène belongs to the context that classifies some things as art, I do have knowledge that this specific thing in the mise en scène does not belong to things that in my experience have been good.

A heuristic is a method of making judgements that relies on models of the universe that have been shaped by experience. The availability heuristic is an assistant to memory that is used to make a judgement based upon that which immediately comes to memory. In the case of I like what I know, the availability heuristic would imply that the speaker actually means I like what I can easily remember.

According to the universe of things as defined above, it must be possible for art to be liked — but only if it is known to be good. In order for something to be known, it must be experienced. In order to be remembered, experience of it has to be repetitive, recent or negative. If it is not remembered, then it moves from the universe of the known to the universe of the unknown, and as we have seen, the unknown cannot be good (or liked for that matter).

Although art must be a thing that is knowable and therefore potentially good, it is impossible for the speaker to like this specific thing that other people call art because they have not had enough positive experience with art in general. Indeed, this lack of experience likely fosters an internal negativity bias towards art.

If art must be likeable and yet they do not like art, it suggests that they feel challenged by art such that it presents a hurdle preventing them from feeling knowledgeable about a thing in a way that should generally be possible. Those who do know about art make the speaker feel inferior with their very presence. By claiming to know about other things (which are generally not expanded upon other than being liked), the speaker seeks to marginalize their ignorance by treating the makers of this art as not being clever enough to make something that they as representatives of the lowest common denominator would consider being good, let alone worthy of attention.

This is probably why graffiti on canvas is so easy for the masses to like. Its omnipresent superficiality presents no challenge to the status quo, ultimately co-opting the statement: I like what I know. At this point, it is probably better to nod thoughtfully and slowly return to the bar for a fresh glass of champagne and a handful of salted peanuts. That is the reason why everyone came to the exhibition. Who wants to talk about art, anyway? Boring…

Daniel Caleb Thompson, 39, is a media artist, curator and programmer who based this text upon a statement made by Roger Gifford to art students at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1993. Gifford said that the speaker meant: I don’t know art, but I like what I know. Finding the proof of this statement has been a journey spanning several decades, continents, languages and universities.

Written with StackEdit, gisted with Github.