Tuesday, March 15, 2011

(AP) My Latest Attempt to Define 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 and classically "closed" (with respect to its conditions of applicability) yet "wide open" to all new types and tokens of art (contra Weitz); that is, although I do specify a small number of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for art, the definition remains both inclusive and expansive (pace Weitz). Admittedly, several words and phrases (creative, suitably, aesthetically engaging) require further elaboration.  That's something I hope to do soon.

In its current state, therefore, the definition is mostly silent on qualitative/evaluative issues (good/bad art), and simply distinguishes art from non-art -- though I suspect that parsing the vague terms ("suitably," especially) will introduce 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. This sounds really good, though as you say parsing some of the terms and qualifiers will take some heavy lifting. I'm particularly interested in the "public medium" condition. I presume you mean that an artwork must be, in principle, accessible to public perception and discourse, not that it actually finds such an audience. That is, if I understand the condition, it would not preclude a hermit artist from making an artwork for the closet and then destroying it before anyone else sees it, as at least before its destruction it did exist in a medium that could in principle have been experienced by a public.

    With regard to the "aesthetically engaging" condition, I wonder if it would be useful to reference some form of historical embeddedness. I know it sounds awfully Hegelian, but it might be a way to ground what counts as engaged in a developmental sense of how sapient beings have come to engage aesthetically.

  2. Yes, I used to say, "potentially publicly accessible medium," but dropped the first qualifier for (misguided?) aesthetic reasons!

    I'm not opposed to locating aesthetics historically; what if I simply say, "this is my attempt to define art as many of us currently understand the word"? Or is that a dodge? (M. Devitt suggests that his account of hypothetical realism is designed only to capture realism-now.)

  3. The “suitably technical” criterion raises my concerns as well. While I believe it is one of the many important criteria on which to evaluate the quality of art, I am not so sure it is a necessary condition for art and artistic expression.

    I am pretty sure you do not mean that the artist must display physical adeptness (i.e. controlled brush strokes or fast fingers) in every case of artistic expression. Rather, you may mean that the artist must have a skill set, even when the art does not require those skills. Such is the case with Cage’s 4’33”, or arguably Pollock’s drip paintings and Picasso’s line drawings. Would these examples not be art if they had not created by esteemed artists?

    I think that a skill set is not required as long as the artist has some means to express intentions physically. The mere act of doing so is an act of creation (although maybe not creative). And anything properly created is perceivable (maybe not publicly accessibly, but the tree falls even when no one is around). The artist must simply intend to create something aesthetically engaging (the degree to which is irrelevant).

    At this point, my definition of art would simply be:
    Art is anything intentionally created to be ascetically engaging.

  4. Cage's 4:33 on my account is certainly not music, but perhaps a marginally interesting performance piece. Rather than switch over to the good art/bad art distinction, I'd prefer at this time simply to allow art to emerge in degrees. I might say, for example, that Cage's piece is only partially artistic. Your words suggest to me a good resting place for non-technical art: creations or artifacts. Even were I to call something merely creative, that alone is insufficient on this view to call it art.

  5. In some sense, all types of things come in degrees. But in which way does art come in degrees? I see a number of possible places:

    1) The artist may or may not have a full artistic insight
    2) The artist may or may not be able to express that insight completely
    3) The artistic insight and its expression may be utterly simplistic or sufficiently complex
    4) The audience may or may not fully apprehend the artistic expression

    Are these the criteria in which art comes in degrees? Given that those are necessary conditions, I’m not sure if it is preferable to say that anything that meets those criteria to any perceivable degree is art (and to judge the aesthetics on those criteria and others), or to say that art itself comes in degrees.

    In my opinion, 4:33 is (performance) art because it meets all of those criteria to some degree. I think you may be inclined to say 4:33 is partially artistic because there is only a marginal and completely uninteresting performance (it is a different conversation whether 4:33 is musical given that the artists produces no intentional sound). It would be silly to buy tickets and travel to see 4:33, since there will be no surprises or anything novel of interest. Nevertheless, Cage has piqued the interests of many people with his marginal performance. Is that not fully artistic?

  6. Well, since this is a new qualification of my definition (thanks to your questioning), I'm not sure. But it seems to me that the claim that art comes in degrees is equivalent to the claim that art's necessary conditions come in degrees. I guess one problem I now stand to inherit is the inclusivist implication that everything that satisfies at least to a minimal degree all of my criteria is (at least minimal) art.

    I agree that 4:33 is a performance. Its status as art will depend on whether, and to what degree it satisfies the criteria I've listed. It will only be "fully" artistic if it satisfies fully all of the criteria.

  7. I would certainly agree that Art is all a matter of levels and degrees. It is a complicated path that you have to follow to end with the conclusion of defining art though; for the two most distracting factors are certainly always muddling with our judgment of the final result. These two factors of course being: 1. if it is indeed art and 2. whether your perception of it is based on your recognition in its quality

    Definitively, I would say that all of the requirements are undeniably fulfilled in the personal original experience of witnessing 4'33, (being careful to note the original reveal of the surprise is at least a small piece of the overall aesthetic derived from the artistic display to any audience member). Thus, though many people were disappointed by the piece's result, it was at least to some degree fulfilling all of the original requirements and remains as art to me.

    As for the conversation of degree's in respect to the definition; I certainly feel that it is important to consider any and all forms of already created, and yet to be created art on scales of continuum's, using the afore mentioned necessities in defining art against the scale of time. For in my opinion, these necessities are in continuous influx based on their time of creation in comparison to what has been created. The primary reason for the continuum factor being that a piece of work may seem significantly less like art to us in this moment than it did to anyone else in their moment; especially to the degree that a requirement may have failed over time (thus resulting in a piece no longer fulfilling at least one of the requirements of art). With this being said, the definition would allow for our hermit in a closet creating art to be a correct statement, in that he himself did experience the art he made in that moment to which we can no longer partake.

  8. i think a better thing to define would be a separation between mediocre art and great, truly moving art. and i would very much like to hear your responses :)

  9. Well, I would immediately state that you have to be careful how you word your question on this front. When considering the differences in good, bad, and "moving" art there are three categories that you are separating into. The reason for being careful when stepping into this conversation on that note though is that "moving" art is something that cannot be quantified on a scale that relates to all people in the same way that aesthetics do in a conversation of good and bad.

    To help simplify my point, a piece of work that is good or bad is one that (at least in my opinion) accurately represents an aesthetic; and the number of people to which that aesthetic is reached helps quantify it's placement in "good or bad art"... being careful to note when this art is important based on a plot in time.

    Where as, a piece of art that is "truly moving" is one that surpasses the simple goal of appealing to your understanding of its aesthetic. In fact it is something that directly relates to a personal emotion for you, where the "moving" sensation you are reacting to is that of feeling a particular relation to the creator that is more unique to your personal past (whether that be past interests, ideas or experiences). Thus is the reason why this cannot be something that all people can experience all at once, for it is the uniqueness that directly appeals to you in this scenario.