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Alterpieces: Artworks as Shifting Speech Acts



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Dixon, Daisy 


Art viewers and critics talk as if visual artworks say things, express messages, or have meanings. For instance, Picasso’s 'Guernica' has been described as a “generic plea against the barbarity and terror of war”, forming a “powerful anti-war statement”.

One way of understanding meaning in art is to draw analogies with language. My thesis explores how the notion of a speech act – an utterance with a performative aspect – can illuminate art’s power to ‘speak’. In recent years, philosophers of art have explored speech act theory in relation to literary art, though barely at all in relation to visual art. Given the way we talk about painting, sculpture, installation, film, and photography, and given that artists have investigated performativity through their art, this neglect is surprising.

My thesis develops two main arguments. First, artwork meaning is active. I argue that visual artworks, under certain conditions, are speech acts. They have propositional content, and they have a certain force: they can do things such as assert, protest, and criticise – things we would normally do with words. I defend these contested claims against several dissenters, and explore some consequences: in particular, I explore how art can lie, a hitherto neglected question.

Second, artwork meaning is flexible. I argue that what an artwork says and does is affected by the context in which it’s displayed, and in particular, by its curation. As a result, an artwork’s content and force can vary from context to context. This goes against a dominant view in the philosophy of art – what I call ‘Originalism’ – that the meaning of an artwork is fixed by factors which held at the time of the work’s creation, and so cannot change across time. I argue that this is mistaken: artworks can change in meaning. Curatorial factors can affect an artwork’s content and force, and consequently its social effects.

It is known that our verbal speech has the power to oppress and liberate people in a society. My thesis aims to show that art also has this power to shape society; through what it says, and through what it does.





Langton , Rae
Hanson, Louise


philosophy of art, aesthetics, speech act, art, meaning, curator


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
School of Arts and Humanities Full Doctoral Award, University of Cambridge