For session three of Playing with Meaning we further explored some of Arthur Danto's ideas about what art is. In particular we considered his notion that art is about something - contrasting this aspect of his account with George Dickie's Institutional Theory of Art which, in its simplest form stated that a work of art is an artifact some aspects of which have had the status 'candidate for appreciation' conferred upon it. Danto's approach is often confused with Dickie's, but he always distanced himself from the way Dickie approached this question. Dickie was only interested in the term 'art' used in a purely descriptive way (i.e. without implying any evaluation whatsover). Unlike Danto, he had no stipulation that a work of art needed to have a subject whatsoever.
In the Tate Modern galleries we discussed several works which quite clearly had subject matter. For example, Hrair Sarkissian's 'Execution Squares' 2008, described here, large scale photographs of empty squares in Syria where executions have taken place, clearly are about something. Interestingly, despite being photgraphs, the subject matter is as much what is not in front of the lens, as it is what actually is there. We discussed these images as examples of the way in which, as Jean-Paul Sartre noticed, our consciousness of things isn't straightforwardly of what we see - in Sartre's example he goes to a café to meet Pierre, but Pierre isn't there - his entire experience of the café is of absence, of concrete nothingness.... We interpret what these photographs are about in the light of context, knowledge, and appearance. The subject matter of the photograph is not what was in front of the lens when the shutter fell, but rather a contribution of the photographer who used the images to explore a viewpoint on a theme.
You might be interested in this discussion of Thomas Demand's work which picks up on this notion of photgraphs which are about what is not present (though with a further layer of complication in relation to Demand, since what he photographs are carefully constructed trompe l'oeil paper models of reality)
In the room Identity Politics, we looked and at and thought about a range of works, many of which had overt political meanings that we were clearly meant to discern. Others were more open to multiple interpretations. (Frustratingly the Tate Modern website doesn't list any information about the works it is unable to illustrate for copyright reasons, so I can't link to anything useful from that site).