Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Definition of Art

Art (dkj) = The suitably technical, creative, and intentional embodiment of aesthetically engaging thought or emotion in any publicly accessible medium.

The definition is intensional, yet wide "open" to all new types and tokens of art (contra Weitz); that is, despite specifying all necessary conditions, it remains both inclusive and expansive. Admittedly, several words and phrases (creative, suitably, aesthetically engaging) require further elaboration.

In its current state, therefore, the definition is silent on qualitative/evaluative issues (good/bad art), and simply distinguishes art from nonart -- unless parsing the vague terms ("suitably," especially) produces levels of merit or kinds of art (fine v. primitive v. decorative, etc.)

There are five necessary and jointly sufficient conditions:

1. The activity is intentional
2. The activity is suitably technically demanding
3. The activity is suitably creative
4. The product exists in a publicly accessible medium
5. The product primarily embodies aesthetically engaging thought or emotion (or some combination of the two)

Comments welcome.



  1. I'm intrigued by your effort to generate a necessary and sufficient intensional definition that nevertheless leaves the extension open. Perhaps this is necessary with an artifactual notion such as art (in contrast with a natural kind like an animal species, where the extension is closed by the species boundary -- in the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the genetic ability to produce fertile offspring). You may have hit upon precisely what it means for a concept to be definable yet open.

    It will be interesting to see what your students can do with potential weasel-words like 'suitably.'

  2. I feel like we need to find a different word for "suitable"...just because it is so ambiguous (and very weaselly, haha), like "fitting" or "accommodating" or something similar.
    By the way, we have never discussed how and why art is supposed to be publicly accessible exactly. Which range of the "public"? To which extent? Etc.

  3. "Fittingly creative" doesn't seem any less vague to me. But maybe there is a better word out there. As far as the public is concerned, while some (Dickie, for instance) imagine a whole set of necessary institutions and relations, I'm thinking more along the lines of Dewey's basic insistance that at least one person "experiences" (as "aesthetic," in his phrase) the work of art. Whether that one person could be the artist him- or herself is an open question.

  4. Anonymous touched upon my primary concerns. You already note that the terms 'suitably' require further clarification so I won't bother with those.
    The last two conditions however beg additional questions.

    Why does the medium have to be publicly accessible? What is the criteria for a medium to be publicly accessible?

    How are you defining aesthetically engaging? Or, for that matter, aesthetically? Is aesthetic engagement a quality of the art or of the observer?

    I also appreciate the open yet definable nature of your definition. It would be extremely interesting to read a fuller articulated article on this topic. Have you considered writing one?

  5. This is just too much fun! There is so much here; but a good place to start, I think, is with a clarification of terms. I do not foresee a problem with the vagueness of “suitably” when applied to types of art; whether decorative or fine, or any other kind of art, it is still art. But, where I do see a problem when using “suitably” is that it connotes subjectivity. Some might consider Pollock’s work “suitably” technically demanding”, or “suitably” creative, while others will deny the fulfillment of necessary conditions (1) and (2). (And the same with Kasimir Malevich’s white paintings, or Robert Rauschenberg’s black canvases.) I think we risk a sort of elitism here when we require (or suggest) that a certain qualified person or persons are needed to make objective judgments for the rest of us.

    By “activity” do you mean the creative act, or the act of presentation—in other words if Pollock tips a can of paint over on a canvas (by accident) and thinks nothing of it—but his dealer visits the studio and decides to present it in a gallery, (and it sells for 2 million) do you consider this piece a work of art? The activity of tipping the paint over was an accident (violating condition 1), but the activity of the presentation has intent (fulfilling condition 1). I think we need to clarify if “activity” means creation, presentation, or something else. (This potential work of “art” also seems to violate (2), (3), and possibly (5).)

    If I place a blindfold on, go outside and take random pictures, and again a dealer sells the work in an art gallery. Does this fulfill conditions (2) and (3)?

    I think we need to challenge necessary conditions (2) and (3), as these seem to be sufficient but not necessary, especially when we examine the current state of affairs in Art. Number (4) is sound. And, , I think might be the only necessary condition for a work to be considered art. But, in order to achieve (4), we need human intent along the way; so, the “activity” of making an object accessible has intent. (I think “activity” needs clarification) So we need (1) as well, but I think only on the condition that the thing or object in question makes its way to an appropriate setting. (Art market, Art Gallery, or Art World,) And I think once the object(s) are made publicly accessible in this type of setting, number (5) is fulfilled by extension of (4) and thereby a product of (4) and not a necessary condition, but a sufficient one. But, because of this (5) might indeed be a necessary condition.

  6. Thanks, Jacob and Keane. I'll need a bit of time to digest fully your concerns -- but in the interim, Keane, with respect to several of the conditions, do you mean necessary but not sufficient? To my mind, they are all necessary, but only jointly sufficient. (A sufficient condition would alone justify the attribution of the term "art.") Perhaps, rather than "sufficient but not necessary," you mean simply not necessary?

  7. Yes, thanks David, I do mean to say that conditions (2) and (3) are not necessary.

  8. You’re right David, I need to clarify the last paragraph of my previous entry.

    I think conditions (1) (4) (5) are “jointly sufficient conditions”.
    Conditions (2) and (3) in my mind, are not necessary.
    Condition (5) is tricky. “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”
    If an object (artwork under consideration) exists in an art gallery, art market, or Artworld (Danto’s coinage here?) does someone need to “aesthetically” engage the object in “thought or emotion” for it to be art? I think so-so(5) is necessary, but not for the object to exist, but for the object to exist as art.

    So, I think conditions (1) (4) and (5) are necessary and jointly sufficient.
    And, conditions (2) and (3) are not necessary.

  9. In response to Brett's question about publicity, I think condition 4 is simply a necessary condition for the actualization (or perhaps testing) of condition 5, maybe more intuitively described as being for an audience (however designated). Embodying aesthetically engaging thought or emotion loses more than a bit of its point without an audience of some sort, even if it's only the artist herself.

    As to the question of whether the artist alone could count as sufficient audience to credit the work as art: artists (and everyone else) embody and are embedded in a social context (linguistic, cultural, nurturant, relational ...) and could not exist without one, so the question so posed presupposes a false, atomist picture of humanity.

  10. Matt: I would distinguish occurant from generative accounts of sociality. As a methodological holist (a socially acceptable term in the US for socialist?), I agree with the embeddedness argument, of course, but still maintain that, after the fact of social determination, an audience of but one may be sufficient for aesthetic engagement.

    Keane: I appreciate your concerns with conditions 2 and 3, and agree that most of the work is done by 1, 2, and 5. I worry that, absent the qualifications of 2 and 3, my definition is too inclusive (rendering mere pleasant experiences of any human artifact works of art). Failing a defense of the definition as it stands (I haven't given up yet!), I can imagine two further possibilities: 1. somehow build into the aesthetic reaction specified in 5 the requisite qualifications; or 2. supplement the radically inclusive account with a series of further distinctions (technically demanding art, primitive art, fine art, craft, etc.)

    Jacob: Yes, writing the full paper is on my list of summer projects.

  11. Fair enough; I by no means mean to reduce the actualized individual to the primordial social slime whence she came. I'm pretty sure, however, that the interplay of a person and her social world is in practice an ongoing process, not shed like a snakeskin once she achieves individuality.

  12. The social slime persists, but individual agents and acts (in the present case, an observer engaging a part of the world aesthetically) are surely one result of social determination. Weasels, snakes, and slime, oh my!

  13. is 3 necessary at all? isn't it almost like saying "art is art"?
    who decides what constitutes as "technically demanding"? the artist, i hope.

  14. "isn't it almost like saying "art is art"?"

    K: only if the terms art and creative are equivalent; and I would aver that they're not. I hope with condition 3 (and 4) to distinguish simple artifacts from art objects.

  15. The idea of excluding conditions (2) and (3), I agree, readily opens up the definition to include “mere pleasant experiences” and literally anything else that might catch our whim, and even seems counter-intuitive. But, I wonder if the inclusion of (2) and (3) might not be as equally accommodating; as any judgments made on artifacts might vary to such a degree that render the requirements ineffective; and unable to circumvent subjectivity. Perhaps there exists an objective means for the determination of what constitutes art that might also allow for the subjective interpretation of particular objects once the objective standards are met.

    So, we might start with an All-Inclusive definition of art; that is not open to subjective inference. Then, once the artifacts are considered art, we can incrementally impose categories and degrees of value. No one will deny (the unfortunate circumstance) that a basketball with a smiley face painted by Jeff Koons (perhaps in a conversation with Hirst) might make its way to Christies Auction House someday.

    I like the idea of both your suggestions of “further possibilities”. But, again, these seem more ideal than practical, and might result in a list of prerequisites before any practical application is undertaken. The problem I foresee with [2] is that the distinctions you mention are easily blurred, and again, succumb to many interpretations. Consider an elaborately carved African ceremonial mask: it is a product of an artisan’s craft, also a primitive object, technically demanding, and might very well be considered fine art. My concern with [1] is that we might end up with a list of “requisite qualifications” that resembles something akin to an amusement park ride. Consider a possible sign at an
    ‘art’ gallery’s entrance.

    1. You must be ‘indifferent’ to the ‘art’ contained within.
    2. You must have an IQ of 140 to understand truly the ‘art’.
    3. You must have a ‘suitable’ knowledge of the history of ‘art’.
    4. You must possess ‘suitable’ skills to know what ‘technically demanding’ means.

    In other words, I worry that we risk alienating some people from the discussion that is art. Also, the problem with any definition that contains requirements is that we might be obligated to go through the history of ‘art’ and remove those objects that no longer qualify. And, according to your initial definition, most Modern ‘art’ might face obscurity.

  16. I think we seek similar ends--to preserve the integrity of masterworks, celebrate skill, creativity, ingenuity, and that works be “suitably technically demanding”. In other words, I want your initial definition to represent accurately a state of affairs. But art in its current state, is inextricably tied to the history and also the philosophy of art; and the gap between a thing’s genuine nature and artificial usage is widening.

    So, what I suggest is that the observation, examination, and appreciation of an artifact be based on what it is, not that it qualifies as art. A painting by Da Vinci, in my mind, is a painting by Da vinci. Though this painting might very well enter the discussion that is art, it does not depend on art for its survival.

  17. Keane: A sign selecting out the aesthetically impaired is good fun. But no worries: the theory of art, unlike many art objects, is not designed for popular consumption -- the appreciation of art, though often difficult, does not rest on a philosophically rigorous understanding of its nature, anymore than an appreciation of everyday experience awaits a course or two in Kantian metaphysics.

  18. That makes a lot of sense; and, I think it helps me to understand your approach. I might be chasing Universals again. Interesting perspective; and given this view, your definition is certainly intriguing.

  19. couldn't you simply leave out the word "suitably" altogether, without having to replace it with anything at all, and in that, have a clearer definition?

  20. Kristina: Good point. I was trying to avoid a predictable challege: any act can be construed as marginally creative (for example, looking at an apple "creates" in me a red sensation). I need to specify some minimal degree of creativity required for art.