Vladimir Umanets entered the Tate Modern on October 7, 2012 and defaced
Rothko's Black on Maroon, he was
operating, not as an artist or a vandal, but as a Yellowist. Yellowism is
neither art nor anti-art but is instead a supposedly new cultural element that
exists for its own sake and is about nothing but the color yellow. It might
be tempting to write Yellowism and the Rothko defacement off as a mere prank or
as pseudo-intellectual fraud, but I argue that, intentionally or not, the
Yellowists have raised issues salient
to those invested in both the ontology of art and social ontology
more generally. In particular, their
actions highlight issues pertaining to the relationship between stipulation and
ontology. I explore these issues in this
ontology of art, social ontology, yellowism
On October 7, 2012, Vladimir
Umanets (né Wlodzimierz Umaniec)
entered the Tate Modern and defaced Mark Rothko's 1958 Black on
Maroon, sloppily signing the work, dating it, and inscribing the phrase “a
potential piece of Yellowism.” After his
subsequent arrest, Umanets insisted that he was operating as neither artist nor
vandal, but as a Yellowist. Yellowism, we are told, is neither art
nor anti-art, but something else entirely. Marcin Lodyga, Umanets's associate and fellow
Yellowist, described it as “an autonomous phenomenon of contemporary
culture,” distinct from but nonetheless “derived from the visual arts.” As one might predict, the Yellowists have not
found many sympathizers.
Should we regard Yellowism
as a mere fraud? Are Umanets's actions
best regarded as nothing more than vandalism or as vandalism dressed up in
pseudo-intellectualism? Or have these Yellowists,
intentionally or not, raised questions relevant to the interests of
philosophers of art, or even to those of philosophers more generally? My goal here is to make some progress on
breadth for depth, I keep the scope of the discussion narrow. The
concept of Yellowism, the actions of the Yellowists, and the surrounding
controversies all make salient a number of issues well worth discussing. We might ask questions pertaining to the
nature and ethics of vandalism, discuss the impact of Umanets's defacement on
the value (aesthetic, artistic, or otherwise) of Black on Maroon,
inquire into the subject of harm, assess critical and legal responses to the
act, and contest the Yellowists' claims that they are not making
art. There is a lot to explore,
more than can be addressed in this paper.
Instead, I restrict my focus to issues of a more metaphysical nature, in
particular, to the ontological side
It should be emphasized
that, in putting aside discussion of the ethical issues raised by Umanets’s
actions, I do not mean to suggest that those actions are in any way justified by the philosophical
questions to which they might point.
They are, I think, clearly not justified by any such potential
insights. That said, my primary aim here is to examine
the ideas of the Yellowists rather than the problematic and destructive
action through which Umanets drew attention to those ideas.
In Section 2, I examine and
interpret Lodyga and Umanets’s “Manifesto of Yellowism.” In Section 3, I offer critical reflections on
the Yellowists’ own attempts at justifying the defacement of Black on Maroon. In Section 4, I explore a particularly
salient issue raised by Yellowism,
looking closely at the relation between stipulation and ontology. In Section 5, I conclude with remarks on the
potential ontological consequences of affording Yellowism the sort of
attention, perhaps even
enfranchisement, discussed here.
2. The Manifesto of
The ideas central to
Yellowism are contained in Lodyga and Umanets's “Manifesto of Yellowism.” The Manifesto is presented in a manner that
suggests a division into four sections, each of which I discuss below.
Throughout, I remain charitable to the Yellowists, interpreting their
words and actions in a way that takes their intentions seriously. Many
philosophers have been skeptical of too strict an adherence to
such intentionalism; my goal, however, is to show that even within a highly
charitable framework, the claims of the Yellowists remain problematic.
The first section of the
Manifesto contains a single, straightforward but perplexing statement: “Yellowism is not art or anti-art.” Yellowism is therefore not to be understood
as art, nor is it to be understood as an intentional, contrary (or
confrontational) reaction to art.
Yellowists are to be regarded neither as artists nor in opposition to
artists, and the pieces they create are to be classified neither as art works
nor in opposition to art works. While
causally and historically related to art, Yellowism is nonetheless something
genuinely new. To be properly
understood and engaged with, it must be treated as such.
The Manifesto continues:
Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are
not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art
is already art. The context for
Yellowism is nothing but
Yellowism. Pieces of Yellowism are not
visually yellow, however sometimes
can be. In Yellowism the visibility of
yellow is reduced to minimum; yellow
is just the intellectual matter. Every
piece of Yellowism is only about yellow
and nothing more, therefore all pieces of Yellowism are identical in content – all manifestations of Yellowism have the
same sense and meaning and express exactly
the same. In the context of Yellowism,
all interpretations possible in the context
of art, are reduced to one, are equalized, flattened to yellow. Interpreting Yellowism
as art or being about something other than just yellow deprives Yellowism of its only purpose. Yellowism can be presented only in yellowistic chambers.
The penultimate sentence
strengthens the earlier point that, insofar as the only purpose of an instance
of Yellowism is to be a piece of Yellowism, to interpret Yellowism as
art is to do violence to the concept. To
define a piece of Yellowism as an art work, or to interpret it as making a
statement on art or some particular art work, is to misunderstand and
misrepresent the piece.
Though they are not art
works, pieces of Yellowism resemble many art works in that they have content: they are about something. Just as
Picasso's Guernica can be said to be about the horror of aerial
bombardment or Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs can be said to be
about Plato's theory of forms, any piece of Yellowism is about the color yellow and about only
the color yellow. All pieces of
share this particular content: being
exclusively about the color yellow is a necessary condition for
By contrast, the physical properties
of a piece are largely irrelevant to its Yellowistic status. A piece could be yellow but it could also be any other color, insofar as
all that matters for Yellowistic status is what the piece is about, not what it looks like.
Furthermore, a piece could exactly resemble an art work, though
it would likely differ from that art work with respect to aesthetic
properties. A piece that physically
resembles Guernica would not, for example, be disturbing or politically
oriented since the possession of such
properties plausibly depends, at least in part, on content.
Guernica’s possession of such properties depends in part on
the work being about the horror of aerial bombardment; a piece of Yellowism
physically resembling Guernica would merely be about yellow, and
would thereby have no disturbing or politically oriented content with which to
ground the possession of such properties.
Further still, a piece could
exactly resemble an art work both physically and with respect to content, yet still differ aesthetically. If an art work is about yellow, it might
nonetheless manage to be insightful,
clever, innovative, or disturbing,
depending on how that content is portrayed—there are, after all, insightful (clever, etc.) ways of artistically
presenting the content yellow. A
Yellowistic piece, however,
would likely possess none of these properties, as it would be just another standard piece of Yellowism. It is hard to imagine how a piece could
succeed in being insightful, etc., when it has the same content as all
other pieces, and the manner of that content's presentation is irrelevant.
While being about yellow is
necessary for Yellowistic status, it is not sufficient. The manifesto states that pieces of
Yellowism can be presented only
in yellowistic chambers, which means that any object presented outside
such a chamber is not a Yellowistic piece.
Thus, both content and manner of presentation are necessary,and, given
the lack of further specification in the Manifesto, jointly sufficient for
chambers are described next:
An yellowistic chamber is a closed
room that is not an art gallery and, because of
its nature, cannot exist or be presented as an art gallery. An yellowistic chamber serves only to show pieces of Yellowism. Violet walls of an yellowistic chamber are the only neutral background
for pieces of Yellowism.
Extrapolating from this, we
can reach the following analysis: for a space to be a yellowistic chamber, it
must (i) be a closed room, (ii) have violet walls, and (iii) be used for the
sole purpose of displaying pieces of Yellowism.
No yellowistic chamber is an
art gallery, and vice versa
,: art works are not pieces of Yellowism, and displaying an art work in such a a space would be to use that
space for some purpose other than displaying only pieces of Yellowism, thereby
violating (iii). An object's being
presented in such a chamber necessarily precludes that object from concurrently
enjoying art-work status: no objects
outside of yellowistic chambers are yellowistic, and no objects displayed in
them are art works.
The Manifesto concludes with
an illuminating contrast:
There is no evolution of Yellowism, there is only its
expansion. Art is forever developing< <diverse whole> >. Yellowism is forever
expanding< <homogeneous mass> >.
As Morris Weitz conjectured,
art has a “very expansive, adventurous character,” going through “ever-present
changes” and offering us “novel creations.” These features led Weitz to the Wittgensteinian
conclusion that the concept art is an open concept, resisting definition in terms of necessary and
jointly sufficient conditions. Even if
we reject Weitz's conclusion, this expansive, adventurous, and dynamic
character is a datum any theory of art needs to accommodate to be even
Yellowism is of a different character. Rather than being expansive, adventurous, or
dynamic, its character is conservative,
mundane, and static, capable of no real
changes and offering nothing by way of novelty
beyond that of the concept itself.
Working within the Weitzian-Wittgensteinian idiom, the concept Yellowism
is a closed concept, readily
admitting of definition through necessary and jointly sufficient
conditions: an object O is a
piece of Yellowism if and only
if O (i) has a specific content [the color yellow], and (ii) is
properly presented [in a yellowistic chamber].
3. The transfiguration of
Despite his pseudonym being
an anagram of “Im [sic] true vandalism,” Umanets was insistent that his
defacement of Black on Maroon was not
an act of vandalism. “There was a lot of stuff like this before,”
Umanets said, adding that “Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by
him....” So conceived, Umanets's actions are perhaps
of a kind with actions already familiar to the art world.
What Duchamp did with
readymades such as Fountain and Bicycle Wheel was, as Arthur
Danto has put it, to “transfigure the commonplace,” taking objects—urinals,
bicycle wheels, and the like—out of the commonplace realm of mere things and placing them into the extraordinary realm of art. By citing Duchamp as precedent, Umanets suggests that, as a Yellowist, he
should be understood as expanding this familiar process: whereas Duchamp transfigured the commonplace into the extraordinary,
the Yellowists aim to further
transfigure the extraordinary into
It should be emphasized,
however, that in defacing Black on Maroon, Umanets did not succeed in
transfiguring anything. Nor, for that
matter, did he attempt to: all
that was attempted was to point out
that the work could be so transfigured. Even if we grant the legitimacy of Yellowism
as previously described, Black on Maroon remains an art work, albeit a
defaced one. It is not a piece of Yellowism, since it is
not being displayed in a yellowistic chamber nor has it undergone whatever
ritual might be required for its content to be appropriately reassigned. By inscribing the phrase “a potential piece
of Yellowism,” Umanets merely pointed out that, were that object to be
presented in a yellowistic chamber and with whatever content-fixing ritual is
required to make it about yellow, Black
on Maroon would cease to be an art work and become a piece of
Yellowism. Just as Duchamp ushered
commonplace objects through an ontological transfiguration into art works (perhaps)
by simply changing the context of their presentation (and perhaps
assigning content), so too could the Yellowists usher extraordinary
objects, such as Black on Maroon, through a further ontological transfiguration, into pieces of
Yellowism. Why Umanets chose to make
this point by sloppily inscribing a cryptic message on an aesthetically,
artistically, and culturally valuable art work enjoying a seven-figure
appraisal and which took a year and a half and almost $300,000 to restore,
rather than, say, with a sticky note, or simply by pointing and declaring it
so, remains a mystery.
There are, however,
important disanalogies between Duchamp's transfigurations and Umanets's
(potential) transfigurations. Duchamp possessed, in some sense, dominion over the objects he
transfigured and, in cases in which he didn't, such as that of the Woolworth
Building, he is often taken to have failed in his attempt at transfiguration. To my knowledge, Duchamp also never attempted to
transfigure an original art work. The
closest he came was perhaps with L.H.O.O.Q. and L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved,
both of which involved mere copies of the original Mona Lisa, and with the case of the reciprocal
readymade, in which he suggested “[using] a Rembrandt as an ironing board.” The latter, however, remained a mere thought
experiment. A potentially more apt comparison might be with Rauschenberg's Erased
de Kooning Drawing, though, again, Rauschenberg had
obtained de Kooning's permission to alter the work, whereas Umanets received no
such blessing from Rothko.
A more fitting precedent to
Umanets's (potential) transfiguration might be Yuan Cai
and Jian Jun Xi's (collectively known as Mad
for Real) 1999 “Anti-Stuckist” performance piece Two Naked Men Jump
Into Tracey's Bed in which the artists jumped into and wrestled around on
the unmade bed, partially constituting Tracey Emin's
installation, My Bed, despite lacking any permission from Emin to do so. Even here, though, there are potentially relevant disanalogies: Mad for Real caused no costly damage to My
Bed and, more to the point, they aimed only to transfigure an existing art
work into a component of a distinct and further art work. Umanets's (potential)
transfiguration, on the other hand, is categorically different: it is (or would have been) the
transfiguration of an art work into something else entirely, a non-art work
piece of Yellowism.
Umanets's reliance on
Duchamp's precedent, then, can
only be taken so far, since that precedent is, in the above respects, not the precedent the Yellowists
followed. Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Mad for
Real, and others have transfigured objects, sometimes ordinary, sometimes
extraordinary, into art works,
working within the confines of the established concept of art while still pushing the
boundaries of that concept. The Yellowists, by contrast, aim to
transfigure objects, sometimes ordinary, sometimes extraordinary, into pieces of Yellowism, employing
a concept with no establishment or pre-existing culture, convention, or
history, but instead merely stipulated into existence.
4. Ontology and stipulation
Given the amount of
dismissive eye-rolling that often follows descriptions of Yellowism, it is safe
to say that, precedented or not, many are simply unwilling to grant any sort of
legitimacy to this “movement” and would
instead likely write it off as attention-seeking prankery at worst, or
at best as a hackneyed rehash of what Duchamp and others have already done. Even if Umanets were to place Black on
Maroon in a closed, violet room, and declare it to be about yellow, most would likely maintain that he still would fail to create a piece of
Yellowism for the simple reason that there
are no such things as pieces of Yellowism.
I am inclined to agree, at
least in part. Whereas Duchamp succeeded
(the case of the Woolworth Building notwithstanding) in transfiguring the
commonplace into the extraordinary, Umanets failed to point out even a potential transfiguration of the
extraordinary into the Yellowistic. But
it is exactly this failure, I
submit, that makes Yellowism philosophically and ontologically interesting.
To be clear, the ontology
discussed here is not the
fundamental ontology addressed in recent work by many metaphysicians. Rather than inquiring into the nature of the basic building blocks of reality, the
present discussion focuses on the non-fundamental
level of ontology typically of more interest to those concerned with the
ontology of art, and with social ontology more generally. While vastly different enterprises, both
enjoy special significance. Inquiry into
fundamental ontology helps us understand the very basic structure of reality (in Kit Fine's idiom, what really
exists) whereas inquiry into social ontology helps us understand the
properties, natures, and origins of entities and categories such as races, genders, nations,
elections, marriages, and art works, to give just a few
In Section 2, we arrived at
a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for Yellowistic
status: an object O is a piece of
Yellowism if and only if O (i) has a specific content [the color yellow] and (ii) is
properly presented [in a yellowistic chamber].
I submit that even if O meets these conditions, O is still
not a piece of Yellowism. Qualification
as a piece of Yellowism would take something more than just meeting those stipulated conditions: it would require the further fact that piece
of Yellowism is a genuine kind of object.
This “fact,” however, does not obtain.
If piece of Yellowism
were a genuine kind, it would presumably be what we can follow John Searle and
Amie Thomasson in calling an “institutional
kind.” For a purported kind to really be a genuine
institutional kind, it needs more than merely an association with a set of
conditions. Status as a genuine, rather than merely ostensible, institutional kind
further requires some sort of collective
recognition of the purported kind as genuine. Searle illustrates this phenomenon with the
example of money:
...in order that the concept “money” apply to the stuff
in my pocket, it has to be the sort
of thing that people think is money. If
everybody stops believing it is money,
it ceases to function as money, and eventually ceases to be money. … For these sorts of facts, it seems to
be almost a logical truth that you cannot fool all
the people all the time. If everybody
always thinks that this sort of thing is money,
and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody
ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes
for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling,
political offices, and so on.
Searle, institutional kinds are tied up with constitutive rules,
characteristically of the form “X counts as Y in context C.” If Y is a purported institutional
kind, an object O is a Y (in C) only if (i) O
satisfies the conditions for being an X, and (ii) we (in C)
collectively accept the constitutive rule that Xs count as Ys in C. If we do collectively accept this rule, then Y
is a genuine institutional kind; if not, then not. A lack of acceptance precludes the existence
of genuine Ys, even if
there are objects otherwise meeting the conditions for being Xs.
For Thomasson, to be an
instance of an institutional kind K is to satisfy the following
IK-1: Necessarily, for all x, x
is K if and only if there
is a set C of conditions such that
it is collectively accepted that (for all y, if y meets all
conditions in C, then y is K),
and x meets all conditions in C.
From IK-1, we can extract
what it is for a purported kind to be a genuine institutional kind:
IK-2: Necessarily, K is a genuine
institutional kind if and only if there
is a set of conditions C such
that it is collectively accepted that (for all y, if y meets all conditions in C, then y is K).
Continuing with Searle's
example of money, we can determine
that, by IK-2, money is a
genuine institutional kind in virtue of
the fact that there is a set of conditions C such that it is collectively accepted
that (for all y, if y meets all conditions in C, then y
One might worry about the
self-referential nature of these characterizations. After all, for an object to be money it must meet conditions collectively accepted to be such
that meeting them is what it takes for an object to be money. To assuage worries of vicious circularity
here, however, we can replace any reference to the kind in question in its own
conditions by a description of the role entities of that kind play in a
relevant practice. Instead of saying
that something is money just in case it meets certain conditions collectively
accepted to be such that meeting them is what it takes to be money, we can say
that something is money just in case it meets certain conditions collectively
accepted to be such that meeting them is what it takes for an object to be able
to appropriately fulfill this particular function.
The notion of collective
acceptance is crucial to Searle’s and Thomasson's accounts, for it
blocks the proliferation of new institutional kinds by mere stipulation. Were it not for the role of collective
acceptance, it would be too easy to generate new institutional kinds by simply
defining them into existence. All one
would have to do is associate a lexical item that can ostensibly function as a kind term,
grammatically, with any arbitrary set of conditions. As Lynn Baker points out, this is not how we
tend to think that kinds work:
If I saw a piece of driftwood and made up the word
‘bonangle’ on the spot, and thought
to myself, ‘It would be nice if the world contained bonangles; I hereby make that piece of driftwood a bonangle’, I
would not have brought into existence a
new thing, a bonangle; our conventions and practices do not have a place for bonangles. It is not just thinking that brings things
Simply put: the driftwood does not become a bonangle
because there is no collective acceptance of the kind bonangle. Some of us might call the driftwood a
“bonangle,” of course, but it does not thereby become a bonangle.
To drive the point home, we
might repurpose Eli Hirsh's discussion of incars and outcars, which
we can here consider to be (potential) institutional kinds characterized as
An object O is an incar if and only if
O is (i) a part of a car, and (ii) inside of a garage.
An object O is an outcar if and only
if O is (i) a part of a car, and (ii) outside of a garage.
Intuitively, merely defining these terms is not enough to
bring into existence such strange objects, and simply proposing such
definitions does not make it the case that “when a car leaves a garage, an
incar [gradually shrinks] and [vanishes], and [is] replaced by an outcar that
gradually grows.” It seems sensible to
say that, even if we might coin such terms, there are no incars or outcars, because there
is no collective acceptance that meeting such conditions makes an object an
incar or an outcar. So, by the appropriate
substitution of IK-2, neither incar nor outcar is a genuine institutional
kind. When it comes to incars, the first
conjunct of the right side of the bi-conditional in the corresponding
substitution instance of IK-1 fails to be satisfied, so there are no such
things. The same can be said for
things stand in relation to what we collectively accept, no object is
potentially an incar or an outcar. Of
course, facts about what we collective accept are susceptible to change. We do not actually and presently collectively
accept incars and outcars but, as Searle points out, “[one] way to create
institutional facts [or objects] in situations where the institution does not
exist is simply to act as if it exists.” This suggests that, just as certain objects
are money in part because we started collectively acting as if they were money,
those cars now in our garages would
become incars if we were
to collectively act as if they were.
That is, if for whatever reason we were to adjust our practices and
begin to collectively accept that meeting such conditions did grant an object incar status,
then by the appropriate substitution instance of IK-2, incar would
become a genuine institutional kind. By
the corresponding substitution instance of IK-1, then, qualifying objects would
There is a sense, then, in
which certain objects are potentially incars. If, over time, certain facts about what we
collectively accept change, then the currently merely ostensible kinds in
question would develop into genuine institutional kinds, and incars and outcars
would thereby come into existence.
As things actually and
presently stand, piece of Yellowism seems more like incar (or bonangle) than money. Some might choose to use the words ‘piece of Yellowism’,
just as some might choose to use ‘incar’ or ‘bonangle,’ but in doing so they
would simply be introducing new semantic labels for extant objects, a process
which by itself would bring about no ontological
(even social ontological)
shift in any objects. To actually be
a piece of Yellowism (or an incar, etc.), rather than just be called such, not only must the object
meet the conditions discussed earlier, but there must be some collective
acceptance that objects meeting such conditions are pieces of Yellowism (or incars, etc). And, actually and
presently, there simply isn't. To be
clear, I am not offering any precisification of the notion of collective
acceptance. I take it, however, that on any
plausible precisification, sufficiently collective acceptance of the
purported kind piece of Yellowism would take much more than acceptance
just by the current circle of Yellowists (to my knowledge, just Umanets and Lodyga), especially when that
small sum of acceptance is weighed against the forceful lack of acceptance seen in the reactions to Yellowism expressed
by many, perhaps most,
who encounter the concept.
is a sense, then, that the Yellowists, in merely stipulating their definition
of Yellowism, have done nothing to bring such objects, or even
the potential for such objects,
into existence. In this sense, Umanets's
inscription is misleading: Black on
Maroon is not “a
potential piece of Yellowism,” since nothing is. As things actually and presently stand, piece
of Yellowism is not a kind to which any object could belong because it is not a genuine kind at all.
point about creating
institutional objects and kinds by collectively acting as if they exist.
This suggests that, as with incars and perhaps bonangles, if we were to
begin to collectively act, consciously or not, as if piece of Yellowism
were a genuine institutional kind, it would become one and, with that, Black
on Maroon would become a potential piece of
Yellowism. Insofar as the purported kind
piece of Yellowism is a potentially genuine institutional kind,
there is a sense in which Black
on Maroon is, actually and presently, a potential piece of Yellowism: it is a potential instance of a potentially
genuine kind, an (actually and presently) merely ostensible kind which would
become genuine were we to start acting differently. Perhaps, then, the best thing to say is that Black
on Maroon is a potential potential piece of Yellowism.
This latter kind of
potential, the potential for the kind to become legitimate, is realized only
alongside sufficient collective acceptance of the purported kind. Discussions in which Yellowism is
taken seriously (perhaps including this
one) play some role in institutionally legitimizing Yellowism, even if only slightly. Thus, to borrow
and modify another phrase from Danto, we see a potential “philosophical enfranchisement” of Yellowism,
in two senses. First, we see a philosophical enfranchisement
of the Yellowists’ ideas, in that we are attending to philosophical
issues such ideas make salient. Second,
we see a potential philosophical enfranchisement of Yellowism itself
insofar as, by seriously engaging with the concept, we push it ever so
slightly forward toward a legitimacy which, once obtained, comes with
the consequence that Black on Maroon really could become a
potential piece of Yellowism.
5. Ontological consequences
One might argue that, even
if piece of Yellowism were legitimized as a genuine institutional kind, Black
on Maroon would still not
be a potential piece of Yellowism. As we
saw in the Manifesto, an object cannot simultaneously be an art work and enjoy
Yellowistic status. Even if piece of
Yellowism becomes a genuine institutional kind, Black on Maroon will
still fail to be a potential piece of Yellowism for the very reason that it is already an art work.
then the Manifesto of Yellowism seems to contain consequences unforeseen by its authors. Since pieces of Yellowism require yellowistic
chambers, and a room is a yellowistic chamber only if it is used to display only works of Yellowism, then
displaying an art work like Black on Maroon in such a room would negate
its status as a yellowistic chamber, thereby further negating the Yellowistic
status of all of the other pieces on display inside. Even if Yellowism were to become so
enfranchised, we might be able to make use of extant art works as a reliable
sort of Yellowism repellant.
While these claims might
have merit, they also come with the charge that Umanets and Lodyga have
misunderstood the concept that they themselves defined in their Manifesto. As discussed in Section 3, the Yellowists clearly
see themselves as taking objects out
of one category, art work,
and into another, piece
of Yellowism. They take themselves to be transfiguring the extraordinary or,
at least, pointing out a
potential transfiguration. This
potential transfiguration, however, would be trivially impossible on the above
understanding. If we are
comfortable ascribing such a conceptual blunder to the inventors of the concept
itself, our job here may be done, and perhaps, in the end, that is just what we
should do. But again, leaning more toward being overly
charitable rather than not charitable enough, what if we were to attempt to
understand Yellowism in the way its creators most plausibly intended?
understood, Yellowism manages to reach outside of itself.
Put more precisely, say that a kind K is ontologically revisionary just in case (i) being a K is incompatible with being an
instance of a distinct kind K';
and (ii) it is possible for a K'
to become a K. The kind adult is revisionary in that (i) being an adult is
incompatible with being a minor, and (ii) it is possible for a minor to
become an adult. For ontologically
revisionary kinds, the shift from K'-hood to K-hood negates the
object's K'-hood, just as the shift to being an adult negates a person's
status as a minor.
Yellowism is ontologically
revisionary: being a piece of Yellowism
is incompatible with being an art work, and on the Yellowists’ apparent
understanding, it is possible for an artwork to become a piece of
Yellowism. Thus, were Black on Maroon
to become a piece of Yellowism, it would cease to be an art work. If the name 'Black on Maroon'
essentially denotes an art work (perhaps conceived of as an object
constituted by, yet distinct from, the painted canvas), then, in losing
its status as an artwork, that object would fail to survive the transfiguration
into a piece of Yellowism. The canvas
itself would become a piece of Yellowism, assimilated into the “forever
expanding < < homogenous mass > >,” while Black on Maroon would
If we were to collectively
accept the Yellowists’ conditions, thereby granting piece of Yellowism status
as a genuine, albeit ontologically revisionary, institutional kind, we would be
creating new possible contexts in which the art work status of any given art work
could easily be dissolved. Collective
acceptance of Yellowism, then, poses a threat insofar as it has the potential
to lead to the loss of particular art works.
Individual instances of the ontological import of long-standing, highly
engrained conventions—such as art—thus turn out to be quite fragile, capable of
being nullified by the mere collective acceptance of arbitrarily defined
institutional kinds that, in the present sense, manage to reach outside
This observation helps us
understand why the limited collective acceptance of piece of Yellowism
by the Yellowists is not collective enough
for granting institutional legitimacy onto the ostensible kind. When a potential kind K is
ontologically revisionary, assessments of collective acceptance of K
must take into account not only the acceptance of K by those who have
proposed it, but also the extent to which K is collectively
accepted by those who also collectively accept other kinds the instances
of which are in a position to undergo ontological revision should K
become institutionally legitimized. That
is, the Yellowists would be successful only if their ideas became
accepted by the relevant art world public, or alternatively, if that art world
public were to grant them an entitlement to make certain decisions on its
collective behalf, such as the people of the United States have with the U.S.
Mint and decisions regarding certain matters of coinage. As things actually and presently stand
(though still merely contingently), both of these scenarios are far from the
I conclude somewhat
paradoxically: in light of these
potential philosophical enfranchisements of Yellowism, the best defense against
this potentially destructive ontological revision is to simply let the
Yellowists be lost to history. If we are
to discuss them, we ought to remain vigilant in our skepticism.
D. Cray is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at
Grand Valley State University. His
interests include metaphysics, art, and the metaphysics of art.
Published July 7, 2015.
 Umanets, it seems, agrees, having
since apologized for his actions. See Vladimir Umanets, “I regret vandalizing a
Rothko, but I remain committed to Yellowism,” The Guardian, May 15,
2014, accessed June 15, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/15/vandalising-rothko-yellowism-black-on-maroon-tate-modern. See also Adam Sherwin, “Vandalised Rothko
painting back on display at Tate Modern after 18 month repair job,” The
Independent, May 14, 2014, accessed March 16, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/vandalised-rothko-painting-back-on-display-at-tate-modern-after-18month-repair-job-9364049.html.
 The version of the Manifesto
discussed here (© Marcin Lodyga, Vladimir Umanets,
used here by permission; written and edited by Lodyga and Umanets, July 8, 2010
– February 17, 2012) can be found at http://www.thisisyellowism.com, accessed January 24, 2015.
 Thanks to an anonymous referee for
raising the issue of intentionalism. For
a classic discussion of the problems of intentionalism, see W.K. Wimsatt, Jr.
and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), pp.
3-20. For a defense of intentionalism,
see Paisley Livingston, “Intentionalism in Aesthetics,” New Literary History,
29, 4 (1998), 831-846.
 Umanets and
Lodyga, “Manifesto of Yellowism.”
 Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in
Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15, 1 (1956),
 Cf. Arthur Danto, The
Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981). For recent discussion on the metaphysics and
ontological status of such readymades, see Wesley D. Cray, “Conceptual Art,
Ideas, and Ontology,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 72, 3
(2014), 235-245; and Simon J. Evnine, “Ready-Mades: Ontology and Aesthetics,” British Journal
of Aesthetics, 53, 4, 407-423.
 Of course, neither the placement of
a note nor a mere pointing-and-declaring would be likely to generate much
subsequent conversation. For more on the
restoration of the painting, see the aforementioned Guardian article by
Ben Quinn, as well as “Mark Rothko work goes back on display after vandalism,” BBC,
May 13, 2014, accessed March 16, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-27371270. As discussed in this article, the
conservators were not sure that the painting could be restored but,
after experimenting with restoration techniques on a newly created replica, assess
that the restoration went “better than [they] could have hoped at the beginning
of the project.”
 Cf. pp. 150-151 of Robert Stecker,
“Definition of Art,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, ed.
Jerrold Levinson (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2003), pp. 136-154.
See also pp. 416-418 of Jerrold Levinson, “Extending Art Historically,” Journal
of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51, 3 (1993), 411-423; and Section I
of James Carney, “Defining Art Externally,” British Journal of Aesthetics,
34, 2 (1994), 114-123.
suggestion was written sometime between 1911 and 1915 in notes published in
1934 with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box). Thanks to an anonymous referee for reminding
me of this example.
 The Anti-Stuckists were responding
to the Stuckists, who were themselves opposing the advent of performance
art. Thanks to Brock Rough for
highlighting this example.
 See, for example, the reactions in any of the of the news sources cited
 See, for example: Ted Sider, Writing the Book of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kit Fine,
“Tense and Reality,” in Modality and Tense:
Philosophical Papers (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 261-320; and Jonathan Schaffer, “On
What Grounds What,” in Metametaphysics:
New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology, ed. David Manley, David
Chalmers, and Ryan Wasserman, (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 346-383.
 See, in particular, Amie Thomasson,
“Realism and Human Kinds,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 67,
3 (2003), 580-609; 2003; and John Searle, The Construction of Social
Reality (New York: The Free Press,
 It is not clear whether Thomasson
would take the purported kinds under consideration here to be institutional
kinds or what she calls artifactual kinds. Here, I take it to be an
intuitive and plausible assumption that art work and piece of
Yellowism are best treated as (in the latter case, ostensible)
institutional kinds; and certain related kinds, such as painting
or sculpture, are best treated as artifactual kinds. Recognizing that an assumption is not an
argument, however, considerations of space force me to leave further discussion
of this issue to the side for now.
 Searle, The Construction of
Social Reality, p. 32.
 This is a simplified version of
Searle's account. For a full discussion,
see Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, especially Chapters 4
 Thomasson, “Realism and Human
Kinds,” p. 587. Whereas Thomasson named
her principle 'Dependence Principle I', I introduce the name 'IK' for institutional
 Cf. Searle, The Construction of
Social Reality, pp. 52-53.
 Lynn Baker, The Metaphysics of
Everyday Life (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2007), p. 44. See also
Evnine, “Ready-Mades: Ontology and
 These definitions are inspired by
those offered in Eli Hirsh, The Concept of Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 32. For present purposes, I have taken the
liberty to deviate a bit from Hirsh's own definitions. It should be made clear that Hirsh himself
did not intend incar and outcar do denote even potential institutional
kinds; again, the example (or, at least, a similar one) is simply being re-purposed
here. Thanks to an anonymous referee for
calling for clarification here.
 Eli Hirsh, Dividing Reality (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.
 Searle, The Construction of
Social Reality, p. 118.
 What we might say about this issue
would likely vary with cases, and would be as much a matter for anthropology,
history, psychology, and sociology as it is for philosophy. While saying more here would require going
beyond the scope of this paper, more discussion can be found in Searle, The
Construction of Social Reality, as well as Raimo Toumela, The Philosophy
of Social Practices: A Collective
Acceptance View (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Thanks to an anonymous referee here.
 Given the tension in much of what
Umanets has said—being a vandal while taking a
name the anagram of which is “Im [sic] true vandalism,” to take just one
example—it perhaps shouldn't be assumed that even the Yellowists
themselves seriously accept their own notions.
 Again, enfranchisement should
not be taken here to be synonymous with endorsement.
 It might be suggested that Black
on Maroon could be coincident with a distinct piece of Yellowism,
just as a statue might be coincident with a piece of clay. If we accept such a
metaphysical picture, then we might be tempted to say that, in transfiguring Black
on Maroon (were he to actually go ahead and do so), Umanets would not have
any effect on the art work, but would instead be merely generating a new
and distinct but colocated piece of Yellowism. The piece of Yellowism could then be
displayed in a yellowistic chamber without simultaneously displaying the art work. Of course, in adopting such a suggestion, we
would have to have something to say about how one could display one object
without simultaneously displaying an object that it is coincident with. Doing so would also require ascribing to
Umanets a (potential) creation rather than a (potential) transfiguration,
which is seemingly at odds with the Yellowists’ picture.
 This is not to say that Yellowism
would ever plausibly replace art—that is, of course, incredibly unlikely. Instead, the claim of fragility is that the
collective acceptance of piece of Yellowism would put in jeopardy the
art-work status of particular art works in particular contexts.
 Thanks to an anonymous referee for
urging me to consider this latter possibility.
 For helpful feedback and
suggestions, many thanks to two anonymous referees, as well as to Ben Caplan,
Joshua Spencer, and an audience at the meeting of the Society for the
Philosophical Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts at the 2014 Central APA. Special thanks to the students in several
sections of my Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics
courses at the Ohio State University and Grand Valley State University. Thanks also to Marcin Lodyga and Vladimir
Umanets for allowing me to reproduce their Manifesto in full throughout this