“Is this art?”

Julia Galef on the pointlessness of the question:

I think “Is this art?” is a great example of what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls a “disguised query.” As Eliezer explains, when we are arguing about how to categorize something, it’s immensely clarifying to ask: Why does it matter? For instance (and this is my example, not Eliezer’s), is a 16-year-old an adult? Well, it depends why you’re asking. You might be asking whether a 16-year-old is capable of bearing children. Or you might be asking whether we should let a 16-year-old make life-changing decisions. In either case, the argument over whether to classify a 16-year old as an adult is beside the point once you recognize why you’re asking. As Eliezer says, “But people often don’t realize that their argument about where to draw a definitional boundary, is really a dispute over whether to infer a characteristic shared by most things inside an empirical cluster.”

So when we ask “is this art?” we can get at the disguised query by following it up with, “Why does it matter?” As far as I can tell, the disguised query in this case is usually “does this deserve to be taken seriously?” which can be translated in practice into, “Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?” And that’s certainly a real, non-semantic debate. But we can have that debate without ever needing to decide whether to apply the label “art” to something — in fact, I think the debate would be much clearer if we left the word “art” out of it altogether.


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