What Is Art?

Posted at — Apr 27, 2017

Art is often seen as something which is undefinable, as it seems impossible to reconcile architecture with a poem, or a sculpture with a dance, under one universal definition. Because of this, common definitions of art seem so broad that it seems that anything at all can be art. Arthur C. Danto aimed to “find a definition of art everywhere and always true.” Danto spent his life searching for a suitable theory and created many fundamental essays which laid the groundwork for subsequent theories.

The first question which is raised when trying to find any definition is how do we know that there even can be a definition? I propose that we know that there can be a definition of art for many reasons. Firstly, as there is a general consensus in the art community of what is art and what is not, there must be some theory that justifies this. For if there was no theory of art, then the concept of ‘the Arts’ would have no value as it would be an arbitrary grouping. Further, how would artists create something knowing that it would be appreciated as ‘art’. It is for these reasons that the art world must have some underlying principle which they choose pieces by.

Art can be broken down into two properties, the form and the content. The form of the art is its intrinsic qualities, such as colour, visual elements, etc. and is the subject of aesthetic philosophy. The content of the art is the subject and message of the piece, which is the primary subject of contemporary philosophy of art.

Many attempts were made to create an aesthetic definition of the arts. The strongest of these was proposed by Clive Bell. His theory suggests that all works of art have significant form, a feature of the arts’ structure which sensitive critics can detect. This definition ultimately fails as there is no way to prove or disprove this. Additionally, the idea of significant form does not provide much information about what separates art from non-art.

Danto instead focuses on the content of the art and writes:

“To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry - an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history of art: an artworld”

George Dickie comments on this and says that Danto “indicates the institutional nature of art” and builds on this and proposes his ‘Institutional Theory of Art’ which reads as follows:

“(1) An artifact (2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of some institution has conferred the status of the candidate to be art.”

Dickie’s theory is strong as it focuses on nonexhibited properties - thus it can capture art of all forms. Dickie’s use of ‘artifact’ means anything that has been manipulated by a human being. This is anything from creation to altering to simply placing in a gallery. This means that the qualifier is quite vague, but does separate ‘art’ from ‘nature’. The second qualifier relates to the idea that the artworld has to ratify pieces - by showcasing them - to call them art. This is because Dickie feels that art can only be created within Danto’s ‘artworld’ which he develops upon:

“The artworld consists of a bundle of systems … [which] provide the elasticity whereby creativity of even the most radical sort can be accommodated”

Dickie believes that this concept is hard to define as if it were structured then art would not be able to be made as freely. The ‘artworld’ is not an institution, it is a system which has an established practice in which both the audience and the creators play a necessary role. One thing common between all the factions of this ‘artworld’ - theater, literature etc - is that they all provide a way to present art. Every person which identifies as a part of this artworld is a part of it and each person can have multiple roles within it.

Dickie’s theory is very convincing, but it does have flaws. Firstly and most critically, it is a circular argument. If works can only be art if they are thought to be art by an institution, how do we know that the institution is reliable? How does the institution reliably confer the status of ‘art’ onto the piece? This implies that there is some further principle under which works are chosen - for if there is no reason then art is just a trivial set of objects. Dickie defends his theory against this and accepts its circularity but claims it is not “viciously circular”. What he means by this is that it is self referential, but that it is not exclusively self referential - there are multiple intermediary steps between the dependencies. Dickie holds that the definition of the ‘artworld’ as a concept provides useful information which helps elucidate the definition of the arts.

Secondly, this definition of art makes the concept merely another category of items. Art is commonly held to be something of high interest and art pieces are very highly valued. The most expensive auction pieces are works of art. Does this definition not diminish art and devalue it? Why should art be worth more than the time and materials that went into the piece? This leads us to believe that this definition does not capture the full concept of ‘art’.

Additionally, this definition does not add to the discussion of what makes good art. We cannot distinguish masterpieces or an amateur’s first showcase; all art exists on the same level using these qualifiers. But surely they must be separated, as all art could be elevated to be a masterpiece if a gallery chooses to.

It seems clear to say that we primarily judge art subjectively. Even if when we think of art we do think of pieces in galleries, chosen by an artworld, we often have different reactions to pieces than critics. Many balk at minimalism, abstraction and Emin’s bed. Many do not see the appeal of the Mona Lisa or of Cubism. Even more think that they could do Pollock’s drip paintings or Rothko’s colour fields. But these works are all clearly a part of the artworld. From this it is quite easy to see that the people outside the artworld base the things they see as art on their own reactions to the piece. If the institutional theory does not work for people outside of the institution then there surely must be another theory which applies to the general population.

Van Meter Ames proposes a contrary view. He defines art as “what any man makes, which deserves attention, can qualify as art”. Although Ames does not provide a definition for what is deserving of attention, I will attempt to build upon this to create a theory of art. Something which deserves attention is something which is interesting to look at, or in other words, creates a reaction in us. We can therefore formulate a theory of art:

  1. It has been worked on by a human

  2. It creates a reaction in us.

The first qualifier is the same as Dickie’s but the second is completely contrasting. Instead of art being defined by institutions and the people of the artworld, art is instead defined by our sensory experience. These qualifiers can apply to all art, whether traditional or modern. Art is therefore entirely subjective to the audience and what one person sees as beautiful, another could see as bland. This is evident as there is no universal ranking of art and there are countless artistic movements - which thus spawn from the subjectivity of art. This means that each person can compare art and say what is good and what is not, with the evaluation being based upon how large their personal reaction is.

The reaction can be anything from a pure emotion - joy, sorrow, etc - to a contemplation of an idea. Our reaction to the art arises from both the form and the content of the piece, and the context of it.

Something which fails to be art, for example, is a bare landscape or a mountain. Even if this creates a large reaction in us, this fails to be art unless it has been worked on by man - eg Mount Rushmore. If the landscape is captured in some from, a picture or painting, then it is art as it has been seen through the lens of another human.

One piece especially of interest is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” which shocked the art world in 1950. This piece is a porcelain urinal with a fictional signature “R. Mutt 1917” and was hidden from the public for 33 years. The piece changed the landscape of art dramatically and is one of the fundamental pieces of the Dadaist movement, which aims to create irrational art. The piece has since been called the most important piece of art of the 20th century by 500 art experts. Although some philosophers debate whether it is art, Dickie says “There is nothing for us to decide about Fountain … it is a work of art and an important one”.

A contrary view to my own is of Ted Cohen. He states: “it is because [Marcel Duchamp] did “Nude Descending a Staircase” that Duchamp is an artist; it is because he is Duchamp that “Fountain” is not just a misplaced urinal.” This view is based upon the idea that artists are taught the techniques required to create and are the only people qualified to create pieces. Even though the artist did not in fact create the urinal himself, he did create the idea behind the piece.

This view is very plausible as a “misplaced urinal” in an art gallery should not become a defining moment of 20th Century art by itself. It is also evident that art must, by definition, be created by artists. It may seem contrary, but this does support my theory. It is precisely because Duchamp was already an established artist that the piece created such a visceral reaction. The context of Duchamp presenting this creates a reaction in us which is much greater than if someone of the public presented it.

One criticism which I propose of my argument is that it dismisses the idea that there can be true “masterpieces” in the artworld, as art is entirely subjective to each person. But maybe there is no need for masterpieces? After all, there is no way to objectively prove that there are any true works of art for all people. As it is not necessary for such a distinguisher to exist, it cannot be a flaw that this theory does not account for it.

Another stronger criticism of my own considers the use of “human”. Can animals not create art? For example, painting elephants or photo taking monkeys. These are valid criticisms as these pieces create great reactions in us, but are these animals not just the “tools” of people? A monkey cannot have its own camera nor can an elephant paint without being given the tools by a human. Conversely the works are only a byproduct of animals having access to the tools - if you gave a monkey a calculator I’m sure that it could perform sums, but would this action be with purpose? This would merely be a random byproduct of play.

A criticism. raised by a peer, argued that if a leaf is not art and it is placed inside a gallery it is art, but what if we simply build the gallery around the leaf? We have not done anything to alter the leaf, so surely it is not art. But we have changed its context - and that is crucial. The leaf is not in itself art, but the act of building something around it makes us evaluate it in a different context. For the building separates it from the rest of nature and we now can focus solely on the leaf. This then makes the leaf art.

One pressing criticism of this theory is that it favours some art more than others. For example, we have a far greater reaction to £1 million being burnt by the KLF than our subtle, but sublime reaction to the Mona Lisa. The public burning of money is a statement, whereas the face of the Mona Lisa provides mystery. Danto comments on this concept in “The Artworld” and holds the idea that the art of the present “could not have been art 50 years ago” This supports my idea that art is subjective to the current situation and that art can be created and destroyed just by the context of the piece. The Mona Lisa may provide an enigmatic reaction within us, but maybe the act of burning money is more relevant to us now as standards of beauty change and art has become more political.

In my opinion, Professor Dickie has a very cogent theory but I think it suffers from being product of its time. By this I mean that it is hard to create a definition of something which is in the process of being formed. For example, you cannot write a history of a time period before it is over. In the 70s when the theory was created, it makes sense to define art as something which is found in galleries. But with the internet and mass media, art is everywhere. Who is to say that a photograph in an art gallery is more valid than a photograph on Flickr? It is very possible that the theory I propose will be outdated, just as Dickie’s was, with the next movement of art. But, in my opinion, this is the strongest definition that we can currently formulate. So therefore items which are not art are objects which fail to be noticed and things which humanity has not interacted with.


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