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Defining Art - Part I

Have you ever been asked to define art? I know the question “What Is Art?” has been asked several times since I’ve been a member here at Deviant Art. It is not an easy question to answer. If you think you have a good answer you might have to think again. Artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol have for the most part stripped traditional definitions of their power to identify art. 


*Notes: Adapted, edited, abridged, copied and mixed together from Stephen Davies’ The Philosophy of Art and Robert Stecker’s Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art.    

Necessary Conditions and Sufficient Conditions

The question, “What is art?” is commonly asked when attempting to find conditions, necessary or sufficient, that make an item an artwork. The goal is normally to find a principle for classifying all artworks together while distinguishing them from all non-artworks. This endeavor is often identified as trying to “define” something: a property (being art, being an artwork, a concept (art, artwork), a word (“art,” “artwork”).

As matter of fact no one to this day has yet written a definition of art that doesn’t have problems with it. Nevertheless, it might be hoped that a philosophically informed approach to art's definition will clarify issues relevant to our understanding of what art is or is not. What I want to do is consider if art can be defined, and review some of the definitions that have been offered. To help us on our way, here is a definition of a definition of art:

[A definition of art should indicate what all and only art has in common and in virtue of which it is art. In other words, a definition should identify the elements that all art must have, such that anything possessing them thereby is art.]

This definition can be expressed in more technical terms, which I now introduce. A necessary condition for something's being an X  is a condition that all Xs  must satisfy. The presence of oxygen is a necessary condition for the occurrence of fire, and being male is a necessary condition for being an uncle. All fires involve the presence of oxygen and all uncles are male. Notice that things other than Xs might satisfy the same condition, however. Not all males are uncles and not all oxygenated environments contain fires.

A sufficient condition for something's being an X is a condition that, when satisfied (guarantees) that what satisfies it is an X. Being a bear is a sufficient condition for being a mammal and being in the United States is a sufficient condition for being in the northern hemisphere. Notice that, though everything meeting a given sufficient condition for being an X thereby is an X, there can be other ways in which different things get to become Xs. Elephants are mammals but not as a result of being bears, and people in Norway are in the northern hemisphere though they are not in the United States. Now, if we specify the necessary condition (or the set of necessary conditions) that is sufficient for something's being an X, we have indicated a combination of conditions such that all and only Xs meet them, which is the hallmark of a definition of X-hood. Monotremes can be defined as members of species of egg-1ayina mammals, since it is both a necessary and sufficient condition for being a monotreme that something belongs to a species with this combination of characteristics.

Having explained the notion of necessary and sufficient conditions and how an appropriate combination of them can be used to select the features that all and only the instances or members of a given kind display, we can now express the earlier definition of a definition of art as follows: a definition of art should identify the necessary condition (or the set of necessary conditions) that is sufficient (guarantees) for something's being art.

Definitions deal with the nature of the concept in question. For example, monotremes are mammals in which the females lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young. Arriving at a definition of art involves considering if it is crucial to art's nature that it must display originality, be created within an institutional context, be pleasurable when contemplated, be expressive of emotion, be perceptually similar to other artworks, and so on. By contrast, the extension of a concept is the class of things that fall under it. All and only spiny anteaters and platypuses are monotremes. Art's extension includes at least some paintings, novels, plays, musical pieces, and sculptures. (Whether quilts and African ceremonial masks qualify for inclusion depends on how the debate outlined in chapter 1 is resolved.) An adequate definition of art must cover everything that falls within art's extension and exclude all that does not. This test is not always easy to apply, however, because we are sometimes uncertain or disagree about whether some particular piece is to be counted as art. At least we can be Sure that a proposed definition fails if it excludes paradigm artworks, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Picasso's painting Guernica, or if it includes paradigm non-artworks, such as the shock absorbers at the back left of my car. (Even if anything could become art, not everything is art at any given time. Among the things that are not art currently are the shock absorbers. )

As just explained, we can be interested in determining art's extension— that is, the list of things that are or have been artworks—in order to test the adequacy of a proposed definition. We can also be interested in mapping what the concept encompasses for other reasons. Indeed, a person can want to get a sense of art's extension, and perhaps to debate the status of controversial borderline cases even if she holds that art cannot be defined.

Following are examples of definitions of art that attempt to pin down its relevant concept or concepts:  

Simple Functionalist Definitions of Art:

Art as Representation

It is sometimes supposed that the earliest definitions of art are to be found in the writings of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. In fact, one won't find, in these writers, a definition of art, in the sense of an item belonging to the fine arts or of art in its current sense, if that departs from the concept of the fine arts. What is true is that they wrote about such things as poetry, painting, music and architecture, which came to be classified as fine arts, and saw some common threads among them that did not apply to other artifacts produced with skill. Plato was very interested in the fact that poetry, like painting, was a representation or imitation  of various objects and features of the world, including human beings and their actions, and that it had a powerful effect on the emotions. Aristotle also emphasized the idea of poetry as imitation and characterized other arts, such as music, in those terms.

This way of thinking of the arts wielded enormous influence in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and so when the concept of the fine arts solidified, the first definitions of art were cast in terms of representation, Of these earlier definitions, Kant's definition is the one that has had truly lasting influence. Fine art, according to Kant, is one of two "aesthetic arts," arts of representation where "the feeling of pleasure and beauty is what is immediately in view and universally recognized for its own sake." Whereas the aim of ‘agreeable’ art is  are the necessary and sufficient as opposed to other things humans make.

Artistic movements such as romanticism, impressionism and art-for-art's-sake in the nineteenth century challenge ideals associated with the exclusive concern with representation and direct attention to other aspects of art for its definition, such as the expression of the artist. The invention of photography challenges the representational ideal in painting, at least if that is regarded as the increasingly accurate, lifelike depiction of what we see. The increasing prestige of purely instrumental music provides at least one clear example of nonrepresentational art. In response to all this, new definitions of art appear, especially, expression theories, formalist theories, and aesthetic theories.

What all these theories have in common with one another, as with representationalism, is that they identify a single valuable property or function of art, and assert that it is this property that qualifies something as art. Such theories dominate the attempt to define art right through the middle of the twentieth century. Although they now no longer  dominate, they are still regularly put forward. Expression, formalist, and aesthetic theories have been the most important and influential examples. Each deserves attention in some detail.

 Art as Expression

The ostensible difference between expression and representation is that while the latter looks outward and attempts to represent nature, society, and human form and action, the former looks inward in an attempt to convey moods, emotions, or attitudes. We seem to find instances of expressive art where representation is de-emphasized or absent. It is very common to think of instrumental music, or at least many pieces of music, in these terms. As the visual arts moved toward greater abstraction, they too often seem to de-emphasize, or abandon, representation for the sake of expression. One can even extend this to literature, which pursued expressivist goals from the advent of romantic poetry through the invention of "stream of consciousness" and other techniques to express interiority. So it might seem that one could find art without representation but not without expression. This might encourage the thought, independently encouraged by various romantic and expressivist movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that even when expression and representation co-occur, the real business of art is expression. One specific proposal to define art in terms of expression defines art primarily as an activity: that of clarifying an emotion, by which is meant identifying the emotion one is feeling not merely as a general type, such as anger or remorse, but with as much particularity as possible. This is not to deny that one can rephrase this definition in terms of a work of art rather than an activity, but this particular version of it believes the work exists primarily in the minds of artist and audience, rather than in one of the more usual artistic media. The job of the medium it to enable the communication of emotion to the audience who share the same emotions.

Expressionist definitions have well-known problems. First, even if expressiveness, in some sense, is a widespread phenomenon in the arts, it is far too narrowly circumscribed by the above version. It prescribes a certain process by which a work of art must come about, whereas it is in fact a contingent matter whether works are created in this way. Not unexpectedly, the definition rules out many items normally accepted as artworks,  including some of the greatest in the western tradition, such as the plays of Shakespeare, which are seen entertainment rather than art. The definition  assumes that the emotion expressed in a work is always the artist's emotion,  but it is not at all clear why a work cannot express, or be expressive of, an emotion not felt by the artist when creating the work. In recent years, the idea that art expresses an actual person's emotion has given way to the idea that art is expressive of emotion in virtue of possessing expressive properties, such as the property of being sad, joyful, or anxious, however those properties are analyzed. Such properties can be perceived in the work and their presence in a work does not require any specific process of creation.

Art as Form

Developing alongside expression theories of art were formalist theories. If one stops thinking that art is all about representation, a natural further thought is that what art is all about is form rather than representational content. This thought gained support from various developments in the arts during the period of high modernism, a long, exciting period roughly between 1880 and 1960. Though many art forms contain modernist masterpieces, the work of painters were the paradigm and inspiration for many of the most influential formalist theories. Cezanne in particular was the darling of the early formalist. Cezanne's paintings contain perfectly traditional representational subjects—landscape, portraiture, still life—but his innovations could be seen as formal with virtually no concern to express anything inner other than Cezanne's eye making features of visual reality salient. These innovations involved the use of a wide-ranging palette, a handling of line, and an interest in the three-dimensional geometry of his subjects, which give his figures a "solidity" not found in his impressionist predecessors, while at the same time "flattening" the planes of the pictorial surface. Taking such formal features as the raison d'etre for these paintings became the typical formalist strategy for understanding the increasingly abstract works of twentieth-century modernism, as well as for reconceiving the history of art.

A formalist attempt to define art faces several initial tasks. They all have to do with figuring out how to deploy the notion of form in a definition. One can't just say art is form or art is what has form, because everything has form in some sense. Thus, the first task is to identify a relevant sense of "form" or, in other words, to identify which properties give a work form in the chosen sense. Second, if objects other than artworks can have form in this same sense, one has to find something special about the way artworks possess such form.

The best known and most explicit formalist definition of art belongs to Clive Bell. According to Bell, art is what has significant form. Significant form is form that imbues what possesses it with a special sort of value that consists in the affect produced in those who perceive it. Bell calls the affect "the aesthetic emotion"; more likely a positive, pleasurable reaction to a perceptual experience. Thus, Bell claims that what is special about form in art is that it is valuable in a special way.

However, Bell's claims about significant form are not very illuminating until we know what he means by form. Being primarily concerned with the visual arts, he sometimes suggests that the building blocks of form are line and color combined in a certain way. But this does not adequately describe his examples, which include St. Sophia (a building), the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, and the masterpieces of Poussin. Perhaps even three-dimensional works such as buildings, bowls, and sculptures in some abstract sense are "built" out of line and color. A more straightforward way to itemize the formal properties of a bowl would be color, three-dimensional shape, and the patterns, if any, that mark its surfaces. Notice that every three-dimensional object has formal properties so characterized, and those that have significant form are a subclass of those that have form. Essentially the same is true in the cases of buildings and sculptures, though these are typically far more complex in having many parts or subforms that interact with each other and with a wider environment. But a similar complexity can be found in many three-dimensional objects both manufactured and natural.

In the case of pictures in general, and paintings in particular, which is the sort of visual art in which Bell was most interested, speaking of form as arising from line and color is, if anything, even less illuminating because all sorts of its properties, including the representational properties, so arise. Further, this definition gives no indication of the complexity of the concept as it applies to a two-dimensional medium capable of depicting three dimensions. The fact is that the form of a painting includes, but is hardly confined to, the two-dimensional array of lines and color patches that mark its surface. Form also includes the way objects, abstractly conceived, are laid out in the represented three-dimensional space of a work and the interaction of these two- and three-dimensional aspects. For example, formalists when discussing particular paintings, often refer to the volume a group of figures fills in the represented three-dimensional space of the picture. They regard this as a formal feature of a painting even though it is part of the representational content and stands in some relation to the two-dimensional design of the picture.

If we can pin down the sense of form as it applies across various art media, can we then go on to assert that something is an artwork just in case it has significant form? Bell's definition hinges not just on his ability to identify form but also significant form, and many have questioned whether he is able to do this in a noncircular fashion. His most explicit attempts on this score are plainly circular or empty involving the interdefinition of two technical terms, significant form being what and only what produces the aesthetic
emotion, and the aesthetic emotion being what is produced by and only by significant form. Others, however, have claimed that a substantive understanding of when form is significant can be recovered from formalist descriptions of artworks purportedly in possession of it.

Even if Bell can successfully identify significant form, his definition is not satisfactory. It misfires in a number of respects that are typical of the simple functionalist approach. First, it rules out the possibility of bad art since significant form is always something to be valued highly. Perhaps there can be degrees of it, but it is not something that can occur to a very small degree unless one can say that a work has negligible significant form. Second, it displays the common vice of picking out one important property for which we value art, while ignoring others at the cost of excluding not just bad works but  many great works.

Aesthetic Definitions

The concept of the aesthetic is both ambiguous and contested. (I plan to explain this more fully in a future journal entry). For the purpose at hand, we can stipulate that the aesthetic refers in one instance to an aesthetic experience valued (valuable) for its own sake that results from close attention to the sensuous features of an object or to an imaginary world it projects. In a second instance it refers to the aesthetic properties of objects;  properties that have inherent value in virtue of the aesthetic experience they afford. Aesthetic interest is an interest in such experiences and properties. Aesthetic definitions—attempts to define art in terms of such experiences, properties, or interest—have been, with only a few exceptions, the definitions of choice among those pursuing the simple functionalist project during the last thirty years. The brief exposition above of definitions of art in terms of representational, expressive, and formal value suggests why this is the case. Each of the previous attempts to define art attempt to do so by picking out a valuable feature of art and claiming that all and only things that have that feature are art works. One of the objections to each of the definitions was that they excluded works of art, and ones possessing considerable value, but not in virtue of the feature preferred by the definition. Hence such definitions are not extensionally adequate.

By contrast, aesthetic definitions seem, at first glance, to be free of this problem. Form and representation can both afford intrinsically valuable experience, and typically, such experience does not exclude one aspect in favor of the other. The same is true for the experience afforded by the expressive properties of works. All such experience can be regarded under the umbrella of aesthetic experience.

Aesthetic definitions of art are numerous and new ones are constantly on offer. I mention here a few of the better known or better constructed definitions.

An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest (Beardsley 1983).

A work of art is an artifact, which under standard conditions provides its percipient with aesthetic experience (Schlesinger 1979).

An "artwork" is any creative arrangement of one or more media whose principal function is to communicate a significant aesthetic object (Lind 1992).

Despite the fact that the notion of the aesthetic better serves the simple functionalist than the notions of representation, expression, or form, such definitions are still far from satisfactory. To bring this out, recall the two basic requirements on the definition of any kind (class, property, or concept) mentioned above; that it provide both necessary and sufficient conditions. To be an artwork, is it truly necessary that it either provide aesthetic experience or even be made with the intention that it satisfy an interest in such experience? Many have thought not. Those who deny it are impressed with art movements like Dadaism, conceptual art, and performance art. These movements are conceived in one way or another, with conveying ideas seemingly stripped of aesthetic interest. Some conceptual works seem to forgo or sideline sensory embodiment entirely.

Can we deploy the notion of the aesthetic to provide a sufficient condition for being an artwork? As the previous paragraph already begins to suggest, any object has the potential be of aesthetic interest, and so providing aesthetic experience is hardly unique to art. For example there are many objects from the natural environment that provide such experiences or possess such properties without the requisite intention to do so. 

Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism

Although aesthetic definitions of art continue to have adherents, the dominant trend since the 1950s has been to reject simple functionalism- as we can call any view that claims that art can be defined in terms of a single function. This rejection began with the more sweeping thought that all attempts to define art are misguided because necessary and sufficient conditions do not exist capable of supporting a real definition of art.

The enterprise of definition is commonly thought to have the goal of describing the essence - the fundamental, distinguishing nature - of what is defined. On this view, an interest in definition involves a commitment to essentialism. Essentialism regards the members of kinds as characterized by an underlying principle or pattern. In the case of natural kinds, the fundamental essence might be structural: gold is the element with an atomic number of 79. When the kinds are organic, the fundamental essence is likely to be bio historical: the gorilla is a species marked by a particular genetic pattern (or micro-structure) and a particular history of descent from evolutionarily earlier organisms. Bio-historical essences tend to be less clear-cut than the structural essences displayed by inorganic natural kinds. Such essences "tolerates" a wider spread of deviations than is customary in inorganic natural kinds. Yet messier are many cultural kinds - such as parking tickets - which often lack a distinctive micro-structural essence and are better characterized in terms of some combination of the intentions with which they are created, the functions they are commonly used to fulfill, their status or location within institutions and practices, and so on. Parking tickets around the world might be made from many different materials and take a wide variety of shapes. What collects them into a kind is an officially designated role they are supposed to play in the distribution of opportunities for access to parking.

One way of thinking about the debate outlined in the previous journal entry is a disagreement about art's essence. According to the view that art is a local invention of eighteenth-century Europe, its essence is purely cultural. According to the alternative, which sees a biological component as shaping and constraining the cultural expressions that art can be given, art has a complex, bio-cultural essence. In this view, art is in part a natural kind, though the forms it takes are more plastic and culturally conditioned than is so for more biologically basic behaviors such as eating, crying, laughing, and sleeping. As such, it is perhaps similar to marriage, cooperation, or language.

About the middle of the twentieth century, a number of philosophers suggested that there is no point in trying to define art. Some denied that art can be defined at all, while others argued that it cannot be defined usefully or informatively. These were not reactions to a rash of new but inadequate definitions. Rather, they reflected a general move against the philosophical project of essentialism. (The definitions of art thus far mentioned above can be considered part of this essentialist project). The first group denied that art has an essence in terms of which it can be defined. They are antiessentialists. The second denied that its essence could be hidden from us, and hence denied also that an account of this essence could be helpful in addressing the philosophical puzzles art and its appreciation seem to prompt. This second group, like the first, opposes the attempt to define art.

Why have philosophers been attracted to anti-essentialism in respect of art? There are several possible reasons. One might be a be a particular wariness  of the idea that culturally constructed "natures" have the stability and clarity that talk of essences sometimes is taken to imply. With particular reference to art, the  bewildering variety of artworks and their revolutionary and provocative character can also undermine faith in the idea that all share a common nature. The avant-garde art of the twentieth century played a significant role in defeating definitions that had prevailed in earlier times, such as the ones mentioned above: representation, expression, and significant form. As well, feminist writers have rightly revealed one motivation for anti-essentialism as coming out of skepticism about the agendas and commitments of proponents of the project of definition. Feminists have rejected essentialism, both in biology and as it is presented in art theory, as attempting spuriously to justify the hegemony of male thought and power. Some other anti-essentialists are also doubtful of what they regard as linear and reductive modes of thought employed by those who propose definitions, and of the assumption that everything under heaven can be explained by cold logic and hard science.

 Part II - The Thinking Behind Recent Attempts To Define Art 


Journal History

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