Tuesday, March 23, 2010

(AP) On the Importance of Defining Art

See Kenneth Lansing, who argues against Morris Weitz in particular, that we can and must define art. A brief excerpt:

"If art educators teach anything at all, they teach composition, artistic procedures or techniques, and skill building. But how can they justify the teaching of composition or design if there is no specific compositional characteristic that a work of art must possess? How can they justify efforts to develop skill in the handling of the tools and materials of art if such skill does not need to be reflected in works of art? Who is to say what students must know and be able to do in art if the production of art objects doesn't require any particular knowledge or ability?

Consequently, I am compelled to ask why someone doesn't entertain the idea that we may have assigned the term "work of art" unjustifiably to certain things in the past. Or is it "okay" to have thrown that term around carelessly only to discover, years later, that we can't define the nature of its referents because they don't have anything in common?I am also compelled to ask how evaluation in art can be carried out in any logical fashion if we don't know what the subject is or what it requires. To get an idea of how important such a problem is, try applying it to a different discipline. Consider, for example, the fix that teachers of aeronautical engineering would be in if they didn't know what an airplane was."


  1. That's a nice point. Usage of any term is naturally fluid, and its lexical range changes over time, so by that criterion nothing is really ultimately definable. This should not prevent us, however, from either stipulativly defining it for a specified purpose (such as an art history course), or developing and defending a hypothetical definition that excludes certain usages as beyond the pale.

    An aeronautical engineer would be justified, for example, in excluding the balloon-suspended house in the film "Up" from the proper definition of aircraft, as such fantasies, while harmless in their place, would be worse than unhelpful in airplane design.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Some closed concepts ("Euclidean triangle," for example) seem permanently fixed, hence definable (in terms of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions). Art, like most other terms not rooted in axiomatic systems of thought, seems to exhibit the kind of fluidity you describe. So the definition could make reference to a set of basic and necessary conditions -- artifactuality, potentially publicly accessible, etc.) that at least delimits its range -- but the definition, classically speaking, would remain incomplete since it fails to exclude nonart objects from its denotation (toothpicks, for example; i.e., we can never complete the list of nec. + suff. conditions).