About CA
Contact CA

Search Journal

Editorial Board

Permission to Reprint


Site Map


Yellowism and Ontology: A Skeptical Analysis

  Wesley D. Cray

When 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 paper.

ontology, ontology of art, social ontology, yellowism


1. Introduction

On October 7, 2012, Vladimir Umanets ( 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.[1]  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.”[2]  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 these questions. 

Trading 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 of Yellowism.

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.[3]  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 Yellowism

The ideas central to Yellowism are contained in Lodyga and Umanets's “Manifesto of Yellowism.”[4]  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.[5]

The first section of the Manifesto contains a single, straightforward but perplexing statement:  “Yellowism is not art or anti-art.”[6]  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.[7]

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 Yellowism essentially share this particular content:  being exclusively about the color yellow is a necessary condition for Yellowistic status.

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 Yellowistic status.

These Yellowistic 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.[8] 

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> >.[9]

As Morris Weitz conjectured, art has a “very expansive, adventurous character,” going through “ever-present changes” and offering us “novel creations.”[10]  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 minimally adequate.

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 the extraordinary

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.[11]  “There was a lot of stuff like this before,” Umanets said, adding that “Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by him....”[12]  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.[13]  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 the Yellowistic.

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.[14]

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.[15]  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.”[16]   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.[17]  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.[18]  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.[19]  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 examples.

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.”[20]  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.[21]   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.[22]

For 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.[23]

For Thomasson, to be an instance of an institutional kind K is to satisfy the following condition:

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.[24]

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 is money).

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.[25]

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 into existence.[26]

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 follows:

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.[27]

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.”[28]  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 outcars.

Thus, as 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.”[29]  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 become incars.

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.[30]  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.[31]

There 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 nota 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.

Recall, though, Searle's 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.[32]  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.

If so, 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?

So 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 be destroyed.[33]

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 of themselves.[34]

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.[35]  As things actually and presently stand (though still merely contingently), both of these scenarios are far from the case.

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.[36]


Wesley D. Cray

Wesley 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.


[1]  See Umanets’s remarks in Anita Singh, “Man admits defacing Rothko painting but denies vandalism,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2012, accessed June 15, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9593624/Man-admits-defacing-Rothko-painting-but-denies-vandalism.html.

[2]  “Yellowism:  'Neither art, nor anti-art...it is about yellow',” The Telegraph, October 8, 2012, accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9593690/Yellowism-Neither-art-nor-anti-art-.-.-.-it-is-about-yellow.html.

[3]  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.

[4]  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.

[5]  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.

[6]  Umanets and Lodyga, “Manifesto of Yellowism.” 

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15, 1 (1956), 27-35.

[11]  “Rothko vandal arrested over defaced painting,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2012, accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9593690/Yellowism-Neither-art-nor-anti-art-.-.-.-it-is-about-yellow.html.

[12]  Ben Quinn, “Man who defaced Tate Modern's Rothko canvas says he's added value,” The Guardian, October 7, 2012, accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/oct/08/defaced-tate-modern-rothko.

[13]  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.

[14]  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.”

[15]  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.

[16]  This 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.

[17]  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.

[18]  See, for example, the reactions in any of the of the news sources cited here.

[19]  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.

[20]  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, 1995).

[21]  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.

[22]  Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, p. 32.

[23]  This is a simplified version of Searle's account.  For a full discussion, see Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, especially Chapters 4 and 5.

[24]  Thomasson, “Realism and Human Kinds,” p. 587.  Whereas Thomasson named her principle 'Dependence Principle I', I introduce the name 'IK' for institutional kind.

[25]  Cf. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, pp. 52-53.

[26]  Lynn Baker, The Metaphysics of Everyday Life (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 44.  See also Evnine, “Ready-Mades:  Ontology and Aesthetics.”

[27]  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.

[28]  Eli Hirsh, Dividing Reality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 26.

[29]  Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, p. 118.

[30]  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.

[31]  Given the tension in much of what Umanets has saidbeing a vandal while taking a name the anagram of which is “Im [sic] true vandalism,” to take just one exampleit perhaps shouldn't be assumed that even the Yellowists themselves seriously accept their own notions.

[32]  Again, enfranchisement should not be taken here to be synonymous with endorsement.

[33]  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.

[34]  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.

[35]  Thanks to an anonymous referee for urging me to consider this latter possibility.

[36]  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 article.