Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid?

English: Jerry Holkins (Tycho of Penny Arcade)

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Like most gamers, I am a regular reader of Penny Arcade. In his 12/12/2011 column, Jerry Holkins made some interesting comments about defining art. As a philosophy professor who teaches an aesthetic class every spring semester, I was pleased to see two of my interests merge (like a fireball merging into a pack of gnolls).

Holkins is not a man who minces words or treads lightly across the interwebs. He states quite directly that

I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.  Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art.  I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.  This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake.  The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex..

Being, I suppose, in the intellectual class I naturally take some issue with his remarks.  However, being honest, I must also admit that there is truth in what he says. First, the issue taking.

Having taught aesthetics for quite some time I have read a multitude of attempts to define art. Some of them are, in fact, what could be called stupid. However, there are many that are serious attempts to engage a difficult problem in an intelligent manner. As such, I would not be inclined to call them “stupid” in the usual meaning of the term. For example, Mill might be wrong about art, but his attempt to address the matter hardly seem to be imbecilic. But, to be fair, perhaps Holkins has only read stupid definitions of “art” (perhaps including my own works on the subject). Now to the admittance of truth.

As noted above, I would not be inclined to call all philosophical attempts to define art as “stupid.” However, it seems evident that they have all been less than successful, at least to date. Otherwise, of course, we would already have our correct definition and a just and right sorting out the art from non-art could finally commence.

Holkins goes on to add that

If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack.  But it doesn’t.  It’s entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby.  The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur.  Its effete and its fucking disgusting.

Holkins is right that many attempts to define art aim at excluding things from the realm of art. Or, at the very least, as rejecting certain art as bad art. Tolstoy, to use an obvious example, was rather concerned with distinguishing between what he regarded as real art and what he took to be counterfeit art (in his sense of the term). Mill, however, seemed to be genuinely concerned with avoiding creating a merely academic definition of “art” in his discussion of the matter in the context of poetry. However, even he seemed rather judgmental in his categorizing of novels versus poetry. However, there does seem to be some value in determining what is and what is not art.

As with any difficult activity, it is quite reasonable to enquire why it is worthwhile to take the trouble to try to define “art” or even specific types of art. There are three general reasons to do so.

First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.

To provide a concrete focus for this, I will play the devil’s advocate…or perhaps the philistine’s advocate and present some cases of dubious art.

When I was a graduate student atOhioStateUniversity, I encountered works that seemed to be more the work of clever scam artists than true artists. Once, when I was running, I encountered what appeared to be construction scaffolding. Since it was blocking my running route, I assumed that it had most likely been dragged there by drunken frat boys. I tried to kick the structure over, but it was fortunate it was well enough constructed to stand up to my half-hearted attempt. It turned out that Ohio State had paid to have these wooden structures erected around campus at the direction of an (alleged) artist. In a second encounter, I came across sheets of plywood that had been painted blue. Seeing that they were leaning against trees, I assumed someone had painted them and had set them up to dry-I had done the exact same thing myself when working a summer painting job. But, much to my surprise, it turned out that I had been in the presence of the work of an artist.

In my third encounter, Ohio State had paid another artist to design a pyramid made out of cinder blocks. Once completed by workers, the pyramid was painted white. The local skate punks found the structure ideal for doing skating tricks and one even claimed that he had made something like it back home, only much smaller. This caused him to wonder of he was an artist. After learning that he had not been paid to construct his pyramid, I assured him that he was, in fact, not an artist.

In my fourth encounter, I came across an illuminated fish tank filled with inflated condoms. I assumed this was a prank, but once again I was informed that I had been blessed with an artistic experience.

In my fifth encounter I went to a show on art relating to AIDS. Though AIDS is serious, the art presented seemed much less so. One example I vividly recall is a scene consisting of large sheets of packing Styrofoam “inhabited” by store bought stuffed seal toys. I considered rescuing, in a Green Peace fashion, the seals from their Styrofoam prison but thought that might be inappropriate.

In addition to showing that I am most likely a philistine with no true appreciation of modern art, these cases illustrate the importance of defining art. If my assessment, namely that none of these things counted as art, was correct, then Ohio State had most likely wasted money that could have been used to acquire real art or perhaps to pay graduate students a bit more for their indentured servitude. If my assessment was mistaken, then perhaps it had been money well spent.

Without an adequate definition of art, there would be no rational way to settle this dispute and the alleged artists would not be able to justify their claim to the money. After all, if one expects money for a product or service, it is up to that person to prove that the goods are as claimed. Since this is accepted practice in other sales, there seems no principled reason to grant a special exemption to artists.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that the use of a definition of art would be rather useful to both sides. For the purchaser of art, it can assist in avoiding being ripped off by pseudo-art. For the artist it can provide grounds for proving the worth of her goods.  Without such a basis for rational discussion, there would not be a principle way to settle such matters.

Second, classifying something as art and the creator as an artist gives them both a certain status. Art is typically regarded as having a status that is different from that of non-art and this status often affords art special protection and treatment. Further, artists are often regarded as having a special status that entitles them to special rights or privileges, such as the right to control their work after they have sold it and the view that they should be treated as a cut above the herd. Without an adequate definition of art or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, it would be rather difficult to rationally discuss the matter of the status of an alleged work of art or that of its creator. For example, without a principled way to distinguish art from non art, the claim that an artist has a special right to control her work after it has been sold would be baseless. After all, how would one know whether she was an artist or a mere pretender? How would one know whether her alleged art was art, or merely another commercial product subject to the same consumer whims as a hamburger or a pair of jeans?

Such classifications also have extensive social and political implications, especially in cases involving specific cultures, ethnic groups or genders. For example, to regard the alleged art of a culture as not really being art is to dismiss that aspect of the culture. While it should not be assumed that all such cultural manifestations are art, it would be a mere prejudice to deny such potential art a fair hearing. Without an adequate definition of art, disputes over the true status of the works of a culture, gender or ethnic group become mere expressions of empty opinions. After all, without a basis for settling the disagreement, any position is as well founded as the other-that is to say, not at all. If one person claims that, for example, rap is mere noise and not art, then she is no more wrong or right than a person who asserts that classical music is not art and is also mere noise.

Third, and finally, artists and critics need to know the difference in order to create and judge art-otherwise they would not know what they are doing.

If a person claims to be a critic or an artist then it seems reasonable to expect her to be able to justify her judgments about art. If she can justify them, then she must have standards that she is appealing to-in other words, she must have a definition of art. If she lacks such standards, then her judgments must be unfounded. In this case, there seems to be little reason to listen to her. She might be right, in virtue of some gut feeling or emotional reaction, but she would not be able to provide any reason as to why someone else should believe her. Thus, it would seem that an account of art would be  useful to both the artist and the art critic.

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  1. Mike, I beg to disagree. I don’t think you encountered conceptual art in the right spirit, and what you’re trying to do is post facto justify a closed-minded reaction. I encountered conceptual art for the first time in a very different way. My mother is an artist who had several solo shows in New York in the early days of conceptual art. We would go from gallery to gallery enjoying the sheer visual pleasure of one material or another, or the shock of–who knows–a pile of dirt on an art gallery floor being presented as art. No judgment, no fussing about “is it art?” … we were just open to what was there. We would later take walks in the real world and find that after seeing conceptual art, everything had been transformed. You could see art in a construction site, or in a dirty window, or anywhere. This is still true for me today, decades later–conceptual art enhanced the way I look at the world. This would not have been possible if I’d first had an aesthetics course and agonized over what is and isn’t art.

  2. It may be prudent to distinguish the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic value in art. An extrinsic value in art is relatively easy to define. If a Mozart manuscript auctions for $4.39 million, and a Rodin sells for $18.9 million, then Rodin is more valuable art that Mozart. Someone else has already decided to define these items as art, extrinsically speaking.

    The second approach is to attach intrinsic values to the two artists rather than their art. Many philosophers believe than an artist has intrinsic value. The motivations of artists are presumed to come from within (intrinsecus), and their character traits can be exhibited anywhere, and independent of any environment. In comparing two artists, what decision or action could be made from an answer? The answer itself would be intrinsic knowledge, something Mill did not believe in. Is Mozart better than Rodin is? If there is an answer, it lies in some intrinsic belief, and the answer is useful only for making another intrinsic decision. If I decide, Mozart is better than Rodin is, then the reasons are intrinsic. They do not have to have an extrinsic, altruistic or imperative measure.

    So now, we can to turn to answering the question as to whether the underwear hanging from the trees in the University Quad, or an illuminated fish tank filled with inflated condoms, is art or mischief. To me, it has neither extrinsic nor intrinsic value. Therefore, it is mischief.

    This should assist in setting a better ground for a discussion of the meaning of art. However, some might argue there is an art to being mischievous. What can have intrinsic value? The answer is anything; ancient archeological artifacts or a fresh pot of tea; a nostalgic memento, a pet fish or a star in the sky. That question is easy. The difficult question is “What makes something intrinsic?”

    I cannot agree that a definition of art can be derived from defining what art is not. Intrinsic value must have some substance for comparison. It would seem absurd to say “a bag of doughnut holes” has intrinsic or artistic value.

    The debate on the definition of art hinges on whether knowledge is intrinsic; an unsettled epistemic debate taken up by G.E. Moore.

  3. ‘It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that.’

    Bell, himself, them added to the nonsense. The subject is thoroughly riddled with nonsense. And ‘What is Art?’ is the worst of many bad questions in the field. Concern yourself with it, and you will say nothing useful whilst endangering your ability to appreciate the very thing you seek to define.

  4. I don’t think I was being close minded. When I encountered the object blocking my path, I do admit that I did not think of it as art. I did note that it was well constructed and solid-but I did not see much in the way of aesthetic qualities about it-the same for painted plywood leaning against trees. After all, I have constructed scaffolding and have leaned plywood against trees so the paint can dry faster. If that is art, then I and many others are unrecognized artists. When I encountered the stuff that was supposed to be art, I did make a concerted effort to experience it aesthetically. I did-but my inference was that it was not actually art. Or, if it was art, it was so lacking that I could not call it good art.

    I am open to aesthetic experiences. One of the many benefits of being a runner is that I cover a lot of ground everyday on foot and, thanks to all the adrenalin and oxygen, my perceptions are heightened (well, until I start spacing out). On each run I am often lucky enough to encounter something of beauty, such as spider webs gleaming like spun silver in the air of a new day or an odd symmetry in a cluster of trash pushed together by the waters of a flood. These all possess beauty, but I am not sure if they are art (that seems to require some degree of intentionality).

    I am quite willing to give things that are claimed to be art a fair hearing, just as I give alleged arguments in student’s papers a fair hearing. But, just as some “arguments” are just bullsh@t, some “art” is also just bullsh@t. Of course, some condemnation of art as bullsh@t is also bullsh@t. 🙂

  5. Dennis,

    Good points. It is interesting that the value of art often depends on the artist rather than the art itself. For example, I vaguely remember a case where some work was found in an attic and was believed to be that of a famous artist. However, when it was found out that it was not, it suddenly was decided that it lacked value-though nothing about the art itself had changed. There is also the matter of forgeries.

    Of course, this is mostly about the economic value of the work rather than, perhaps, its aesthetic value.

    I would defend the value of donuts. 🙂

  6. There is a lot of nonsense in the field, so much so that one of my friends in grad school used to joke that the basic assumption of aesthetic reasoning is P & -P.

    While there is the risk that studying the subject can dull one’s appreciation, I have found the opposite to be true-at least in my case. I have found that I can better appreciate works of art and discuss them more intelligently the more that I know about the matter. Perhaps the trick is not letting the nonsense take over.

  7. There are some fine and noble questions in aesthetics. I wouldn’t commit it all to the flames.

    But it seems to me there is a tension between having aesthetic appreciation for, say, an eagle and decidng to explore the value of that experience by performng an autopsy on the bird.

  8. Jim,

    Yes, I would agree that there is tension between experiencing seeing an eagle in flight and then deciding to slice up the unfortunate avian. But, I think that the appreciation of the eagle might be enhanced by learning more about them in ways that do not involve killing them.

  9. Mike,
    It seems you somewhat regularly, in one aspect or another, return to this subject.
    I didn’t read the whole of the above, it would really take me forever, but I have definite thoughts about:
    ‘Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid?’ I wouldn’t use the word “stupid”, maybe just “not worth a damn.” Everyone who wants to give the appearance of being cultured, must like art. It’s demanded of them. So they love art and have magnificent feelings when they see a painting they’re told is a masterpiece, when, in fact, deep feelings, the type almost all of us have felt for one piece of music or another, doesn’t happen with art (visual stuff.) It’s far more an intellectual experience. Note: I’m not saying one can’t feel something looking at a painting, just not a wham-bang type. And now add to this, people who want to buy art and haven’t been overly exposed to it, they need to be told what is worth buying and what isn’t. So, you see, there is a need for a definition of not only what art is, but having established that, which of it is good and bad.
    A personal experience of mine: I wondered how “performance art” sneaked its way into what some people want to consider art. The mystery was solved for me by viewing a video which is clearly art of that type, but also exciting. Tremendous discovery for me. For those who want to see it, and I very highly recommend it:

  10. Ich seh die Kunst, ich seh sie nicht « kulturproktologie - pingback on December 16, 2011 at 2:29 pm
  11. s. wallerstein (amos)

    In the 20th century all of the arts went through a phase in which all the old rules were broken.

    John Cage showed us that 4 minutes of silence were “music”; William Burroughs pasted together random pieces of text to make novels; the surrealists free-associated on a page. There are many other examples.

    All of those movements were revolutionary in their moment and showed us how arbitrary the rules that the “establishment” sets down are.

    “Establishment” goes between quotation marks because the old establishment of the 1950’s and 60’s that the early conceptual artists were rebelling against no longer exists.

    In fact, the visual arts, unlike music and poetry, seem to have not transcended their revolutionary moments.

    After all, if someone played 4 minutes of silence on the piano today as did Cage in the 1950’s, he or she would simply bore today’s public.

    Nevertheless, the visual arts seem to repeat the same pile of dust (in other forms) as did the pioneers of conceptual art 40 years ago or more.

    One big reason for the differences between experimental music/literature and experimental art is that experimental art has become a lucrative business, on which traders speculate and pay very high prices.

    Musicians and poets, in contrast, depend either on the taste of the general public or on university grants, which tend to be quite modest. That is, musicians and poets have to please
    you and me, if they want to eat.

    Visual artists, on the other hand, try to please the market, the market of speculation in art.

    Speculation in art depends, as does speculation in any commodity, not on the value of that commodity, but on what the other guy is willing to pay for it.

    And paradoxically, in spite of the “rebellious” anti-establishment character of experimental art, it is precisely the power elite who buy that art and speculate on its price.

    So art becomes something like hedge funds or sub-prime loans, commodities traded by traders, the only value of which is what someone will pay for it.

  12. Amos,
    Right on!

  13. Gra,

    Some people are deeply moved by visual images. But you do raise an interesting point as to whether or not certain mediums have more emotional impact than others. Investigating this might turn up some interesting things-if only about people. For example, I have heard people claim that scents trigger memories in a powerful way.

    I like to recycle-it is easier than thinking. 😉

  14. Mike,
    Since I like this topic, in all its manifestations, recycle away.
    The comment about visual arts being more (not solely) an intellectual pursuit is mine, as far as I know. When I voice it, I usually get poo-pooed by the listener. I think I have some backing for this argument, e.g. Picasso painted some anti-war pictures, Guernica was one, which never had the impact that he hoped for, and this was generally true of such paintings.

  15. To try to literally define the word ‘art’ seems a bit silly, as it assumes art has an “essence” (i.e. some single property which if absent would rule out its being art).

    All the same, it is an interesting question why we treat some objects as “art” and some as “not art”. Even when objects of art are ugly, they seem to suggest beautiful ideas on the part of the artist (for example, consider Goya’s black paintings, or Banksy). So I’m inclined to include “beauty” in my list of “family resemblances” that contribute to deciding what is and what isn’t “art”.

    Art seems to be recognized by some other animals species such as birds of paradise. For them, the “beauty” seems closely related to the difficulty of creating and maintaining the object of beauty.

  16. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Thanks, Ralph.

    There’s a common sense aesthetics that seems to function with all art forms except contemporary visual arts.

    For example, people will say that they prefer Rembrandt to Rafael and they will give reasons.

    Yesterday my son and I were speaking of Miles Davis and we both agreed that his second quintet is his best. After that, said my son, Miles becomes “too freaky”. That’s a good reason: you can argue with it of course.

    It’s common that people will give reasons why they think that, say, Mario Vargas Llosa’s last novel isn’t his best work, but worth reading or that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom needs editing, but tells a great story and brings up some interesting ethical points about contemporary life.

    That is, people make aesthetic judgments, perhaps not about beauty per se, all the time when they talk about novels, poetry, music and cine. They give reasons why such and such book or poem or piece of music is worth paying attention to.

    Now, maybe I hang out with the wrong type of people, but the people I know are mute when it comes to contemporary art. No one has or ventures an opinion about what is worth paying attention to.

    Some people I know follow the critics and pay attention to what the critics tell them to pay attention to and some people, myself included, don’t attention at all.

    However, no one I know can give their own reasons for paying attention to contemporary art, while all of them are full of their own reasons and opinions about books and music and films.

    That’s symptomatic of something.

  17. s. wallerstein (amos)

    email follow-up

  18. S. Wallerstein,

    My favourite is the Miles Davis First Quintet period. However, it is not necessary to any give any reasons to express this. The reasons are personal, or within.

    Mike LaBossiere’s issue is not about art appreciation. Mike needs an external definition for art, so University boards can decide how apportion limited funds for example.

  19. No definition of “art” will enable us to answer the question “Is it art?” because there is no fact of the matter as to whether something is art (at least not in the controversial cases we’re concerned with). The word is far too vague and subjective in meaning for such facts to exist. If we impose a precise definition on a vague concept, then we will be changing the concept, and so asking a different question.

    First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.

    What really matters is reality, not the words that we use to describe it. What matters here is whether the objectives or needs of the beneficiaries are being served. If we want to discuss how well objectives are being served we need to use words, but we don’t necesssarily need to use the word “art”. We could discuss objectives like producing a sense of aesthetic satisfaction, inspiring creativity, provoking argument, etc.

    That said, people like labels. And for some people it may be an objective that they can feel justified in applying the label “art” to the work. Insofar as we care about satisfying this objective we should choose a work that will attune with most people’s judgement. Give them whatever they will judge to be “art”.

  20. Mike, Suppose you convinced us we do need to define “art”. Is there a definition you think is defensible? I’m having a hard time imagining a definition broad enough to cover all the clear-cut cases of art, yet capable of excluding the stuff you encountered on the OSU campus.

  21. Here’s a thesis: ‘art is craft on presentation, or craft which has been created with the intent to present’. This thesis fails to satisfy either the first or the second of your motivators for defining art (determines exchange value, determines status of persons). But it succeeds in addressing the third (establishing the subject matter). If we thought this thesis was adequate, then it would follow that your first and second motivators were misguided.

    I don’t see the point of trying to define good art for other people, except to let them know more about the kind of person I am.

  22. Art is whatever an artist does.

    Unlike medicine or architecture, which require stringent guidelines and testing for practice, there are no academic requirements to be an artist. A Bachelor of Arts does not make one an artist. Some of the greatest artists have never had formal education.

    Historical argument on the meaning of art has centred on liberal versus totalitarian art. Since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, the meaning of art has often been decided as to whether it would serve the interest of the state. If Mike LaBossiere decides what art suits the interest of the campus, does this make him a dictator, or a professor?

    Another question that needs to be answered, is FSU a liberal arts college? OSU seems to have expunged the word liberal from it curriculum. The FSU historical information says, “By 1897 the institution had evolved into the first liberal arts college in the state…” So, it seems Mike is up against a brick wall in trying to define art other than total liberality.

    This is also connected with the recent trend in changing the role of universities from Art colleges to business colleges, perhaps stemming from impetus of a recent speech of Bill Gates condemning arts in favour of business. Is Bill Gates a dictator for deciding that art does not serve the interest of the state?

    The writing is on the wall:) If there is no definition for art, then Art Colleges will close and be replaced by computer business stations at the Academy of Business.

  23. s. wallerstein (amos)


    If art is whatever an artist does and if there are no formal requirements for becoming an artist, how do you tell an artist from a non-artist?

    What if I say I’m an artist and thus, whatever I do is art?

    Do you accept my self-definition and if not, why?

  24. S. Wallerstein,

    Yes. I would accept your claim to be an artist, the same as if you asserted you were not an artist. In the absence of a definition for an artist, the choice is yours. The issue becomes important to the state when trying to enumerate tax rates, or determining whether the artist is useful to the state. To me, the issue is not important. It is somewhat like trying to tell the difference between a cook and a chef. A chef requires chef papers, but they can both prepare dinner.

    However, I see your point about self-definition. I would object if you called yourself a surgeon, and if you had no medical training.

  25. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I understand your point.

    “Artist” is a word that generally we use with less precision than we do “surgeon” or “jet pilot”.

    In fact, at times we use the word “artist” with a slightly negative connotation: “he’s an artist, don’t lend him money, etc.”

    How about “philosopher”?

    Is “philosopher” similar to “artist” or to “surgeon” or to neither of the above?

    (I’m just asking questions. I have no special point to make.)

  26. S. Wallerstein,
    Every blogger on this site has a different definition for philosopher. Simply put, philosophy is not completely an art, since many of its discussions revolve around science. No special point here.

  27. If boundaries as they are perceived project influence as it is expressed art must always also be art roundly performed in presentation.


  28. S.wallerstein,

    You shouldn’t lend money to philosophers, either. 🙂

    But, seriously, you shouldn’t. I mean, you do raise a interesting point. To follow your point, imagine we were at a party and in the conservation Jen identified herself as a jet pilot, Sam as a surgeon, Ann as an artist, and Pete as a philosopher. We would, of course, have a good idea what Jen and Sam do and we would be rather dismayed if we learned that Jen was flying around without being a professional pilot (with a license) or that Sam was cutting up people and not a med school graduate,etc. But, we would probably not blink if Ann or Pete said they just do what they do with no formal training and we would hardly be shocked if Ann said that her art consisted of slapping fish against her head and Pete said that he is working on a how to book about crystal healing. In short, we don’t really expect much when it comes to being an artist or a philosopher, compared with being a pilot or a surgeon.

  29. Saying “art is whatever an artist does” seems like a rather problematic definition. Laying aside the silly (if an artist makes herself a ham sandwich, is it thus art?), it does seem circular: to know that someone is an artist, we would seem to need to know what art is.

  30. Re: Posted by Mike LaBossiere | December 19, 2011, 2:55 pm
    “…to know that someone is an artist, we would seem to need to know what art is.”

    Is it necessary to know what Eigen values are, to know that someone is a mathematician?

  31. Dennis wrote:

    “Is it necessary to know what Eigen values are, to know that someone is a mathematician?”

    That’s an interesting point. I think you would need to know that that someone knows what eigenvalues are to count him/her as a mathematician. To know that, you would need to know a bit about maths yourself — but not specifically any vector algebra — to be confident he is not an “impostor”.

    Impostors are found wherever titles are honorific. Words like ‘scientist’, ‘charity worker’ and ‘artist’ are honorific terms, so we often find impostors claiming to be that sort of person. For that reason, to judge whether someone really is a scientist, charity worker, artist, etc., you would need to know a bit about science, charity work or art yourself.

  32. My hypothesis of the most precise definition of art we can possible have:

    ‘Art is whatever you think is art’.

    Circular, yes. Subjective, yes. Fairly useless, yes. But, if someone can think of a better definition, well, i’d like to hear it.

  33. Jeremy,
    Impostors are a problem. Only Rembrandt can paint Rembrandt.

  34. Re: Posted by DUNCAN MCKENZIE | December 20, 2011, 3:45 am
    ‘Art is whatever you think is art’.

    I disagree. “Art is whatever an artist does,” means it is the artist who defines the art, not the viewer. The viewer is limited to appreciating the art. Further, the viewer should have no privilege to define art, as it would trespass on the artist’s prerogative.

  35. Why think that is the most precise definition? Various philosophers have been far more precise (they might be totally wrong, but they provide more narrow definitions, thus more precise).

  36. Dennis,

    No, but you’d need to at least have a basic understanding of math-otherwise how would you tell a mathematician from a chemist or a wizard?

  37. Re: Posted by Mike LaBossiere | December 20, 2011, 3:08 pm
    “…how would you tell a mathematician from a chemist or a wizard?”

    They would tell me so. Is this too simple, or am I missing something here?

    If it means to infer someone may fraudulently represent themselves, that is different question from “What is art?” I do realize professors spend time preventing plagiarism on term papers, etc. There is a professional licensing board to make complaints. The health disciplines board, although supposedly looking at examples of malpractice, spend much time examining immigration applications from doctors falsely claiming internship in foreign hospitals. There are lawyers with no law degree, and are not members of a bar association. The issue of professional misconduct may be worth another article.

  38. I don’t think attempts to define art are “stupid,” but I do find them to be a waste of time. All the time is spent trying to decide what it is without actually considering the merits of any particular work of art. We ought to just look at a work of art and ask, “Is it any good? Is it worth my time to consider?” If so, then consider it. Don’t slap an arbitrary label on it (such as “art,” “high art,” “low art,” “kitsch,” “commercial art,” or whatever) in order to show how worth your time it is. WHY is it worth it? What are the good or bad qualities? What does it mean or not mean? This is what matters. What art is or whether something is art doesn’t matter.

  39. Ben,

    There is, as you indicate, some good reasons to ditch the attempt to create a definition that captures all art (which is a meta-aesthetics question) and rather focus on what makes specific types of art good or bad (normative aesthetics). It certainly seems more manageable to discuss what makes a good horror film or what makes a video game’s story line trite and incoherent as opposed to trying to create that big definition.

    But, of course, there is always that impulse to ask “but what does all this art have in common that makes it art?”

  40. Dennis,

    Good points.

    To know that a person who claims to be a mathematician is not a fraud (or just mistaken), you would need to know a bit about math (or at least know someone who knows). Likewise, if someone says that she is an artist and you had doubts, you would need to have an idea about what art is. Otherwise you would not have the means to tell whether she was an artist or misleading you (and perhaps herself).

  41. In another blog site, someone referred to themselves as a “futurist,” another as an “ecologist,” and another as a “curious jerk.” I accept their claims as factual, and with interest. In the oriental cultures, people nod their heads at each other as a sign of honour. Questioning someone’s identity is a serious matter. It is challenging, rude, insulting, and possibly slanderous. Using knowledge to question identity should be limited to certain instances (I have not tried to identify what the instances might be here).

    Hidden identity is not for hiding knowledge, but rather a natural instinct like being a chameleon, or hiding behind a something for protection. A lot of people are challenging. Others collect personal information for the purpose of legal attack, extortion, or sadism. I brought this point once before in the Wikileaks commentary “The unscrupulous will not hesitate to use the Wikileaks for subversive purposes.” For this reason, many people prefer to hide identity information to avert the possibility of damaging challenge. Again, I try to accept that they have reasons for hiding their identity. Perhaps they are hiding their achievements for no other reason than the virtue of humility. We are not all Black Belts.

    I would even suggest reciprocity or a variation on the Golden Rule. Do not give any personal information to anyone who is not prepared to offer personal information. It is useless advice since in much of the world there is a two-class system of unidentified secret police, examining the personal documents and papers of other people.

    Since this discussion is about art, it might be worth mentioning a recent artist Quentin Tarantino who prepared an interesting scene describing identity crisis in the film “Kill Bill Vol 2.” The scene compared the alter-egos of Superman and Clark Kent, and Bruce Wayne and Batman. I can see the reason why Bruce Wayne may want to hide his real identity. But Superman is always Superman, so it was never clear to me why he needs an alter-ego. James Bond 007, secret spy, may fascinate the entertainment world, but the character may have a detrimental influence on the average person’s expectations of personal social presentation. These are questionable motives for hidden identity, and there appears difficulty in translating fictional characters and fictional circumstances into real world situations.

    Although a person may call himself or herself a mathematician, they do not have the exclusive patent on mathematics. Their knowledge is from a shared collection of trial and error methods of computation spanning centuries. Their existence as a mathematician is not one of personal identity, but of shared identity. By this, I mean a similarity to the Buddha’s statement that he has no self.

    Philosophy is the love of wisdom (Socrates). I cannot agree that knowledge is for exposing another person as a fraud.

  42. Why does one need a definition of art?
    1. Property Rights
    2. Status
    3. Art critics would have no justification

    1. Law is an acceptable way to establish property rights. They don’t have to be based off any reasoning. For example, man who claims he’s an artist, creates a work and then negotiates with lawyers and government to determine the manner that others can use his work.

    2. “…I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.”
    It’s the nearly the same answer as before. If an artist wants to be treated in a certain manner he negotiates with others who can do the “treating in a certain manner.”

    3. Art critics don’t have justification, they have an adaptation. They adapt to which works of art are more likely to be popular and then try to provide a different reasoning afterwards. They provide the service of filtering out the art that you dislike / indifferent to which saves time and effort.

    If art can be classified then the following comic must be incorrect. Is it?

  43. I prefer to just not use the word. Art is an exclusionary meme that adds an unnecessary cognitive layer to communication. Composer, painter, dancer etc. would suffice. Categorizing these works and activities under some single aesthetic or expressive term is not useful. It’s limiting.

    Stop using the “A” word.

  44. Stop using the “A” word.

    Indeed, much art is best spelled with a capital F

  45. Dennis and Mike,

    We’re not talking about impostors of the sort that the “authorities” of the discipline they represent would disown. We’re talking about pseudo-scientists (and the artistic equivalent) whose discipline is not what it claims to be.

    For example, phrenologists of the nineteenth century claimed to be scientists, but their discipline used unscientific methods. So it’s no use asking the Royal Society of Phrenologists whether one of its members is a genuine scientist — of course it would say Yes, and the proper answer would be No.

  46. Noting the apparent lack of input from art historians in this discussion, I thought I might provide some words on how we define the term. As pointed out earlier, after the postmodern experiments of conceptual artists during the 60’s and 70’s, no properties can by themselves qualify or disqualify a work as a work of art. So, how do we know then?
    Art is what is considered art by members of the art field (in a bourdian sense), i.e. if fellow artists, critics, art historians, professors at art schools, art foundations and funders respond to a work as a to a work of art, then it is.
    This definition easily excludes a breakfast sandwich by Goya, as well as a board painted blue by anonymous.

    Anyone with us?

  47. Dennis,

    As a reasonably nice person I would not, in a social setting, generally seek to expose someone who claimed to be an artist or a brain surgeon as a fraud. Now, if they tried to sell art or give medical advice to my friends and I suspected fraud, then I would step in.

    The main goal of knowledge is not to expose frauds-I do agree to that.

    Since you mention Socrates, it is interesting to note that in the Ion he seems to expose Ion as something of a fraud. Also, in Book X of the Republic he argues at length about the deception of art (and artists) and its harmful nature. Socrates is also presented in various dialogues exposing people as either frauds or fools. He, of course, claimed that he knew nothing. Naturally, he did not do this from malice, but from a concern that ignorance is the root of evil. That is, he was just trying to help.

  48. Greger,

    I am unwilling to give up the notion that there could be aesthetic properties that make something art or non-art. While there are arguments against this notion, they are not decisive enough to simply reject the notion with such apparent certainty.

    The appeal to experts does have a certain appeal-Hume made that argument in his writings on the paradox of taste. While this does provide something of a solution, the problem Hume ran into still remains: what qualifies a person to be legitimately part of that field? If we specify that they need to be artists or know about art, then we still need to sort out the nature of art.

  49. Art = decorations or declarations that are more or less interesting.

  50. Jeremy B.,

    I would suggest that the arts do contain impostors. For example, just as a person might endeavor to engage in passing counterfeit money or selling magical healing crystals, a person might endeavor to pass off non-art as art in order to make money. To use a specific example, if I tried to charge $5,000 for plywood I painted blue or $3,000 for a fish tank full of condoms, you would sensibly laugh at my foolishness. However, if I can convince some fool into thinking that my painted plywood or fish tank is art, then I could scam them out of their money with this neat deception.

    I have plenty of paint on hand and several square feet of plywood-if that is art, I can open a gallery this week. I could call it “shades of ply: a metaphysical exploration of art.” Who shall sponsor me?

  51. s. wallerstein (amos)

    No one has mentioned this excellent work of theater by Yasmina Reza.

    It seems appropriate to this discussion.

  52. Your plywood concoction would still be art to the person that you “duped” into buying it.

  53. Mike,

    The problem you will face in search of specific aestetic properties is that you won’t find any. Any given act, quality or physical imprint is possible to find (or potentionally find) in works undisputely considered art.

    Then I of course agree on the circular tendency of my previous definition, but the point is that you will have a hard time to find one that include all possible expressions of art, without being too broad and include everything.

    Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, have quite a large oevre defining how a field constitutes itself and how positions are earned through various capitals. The same ways other sub-cultures very well know who are members and what status they posess.

  54. Greger, I don’t like defining art in terms of artists; it’s circular. It’s is precisely the exclusionary aspect that bothers me though I do believe that people who associate with the “in” side for purposes having nothing to do with art are largely to blame for this. Removing the term removes the pretension. Unfortunately, pretension provides a substantial amount of support for the arts and no I can’t quantify or qualify that statement. I hope it’s wrong.

    I haven’t given up on finding a good definition. This essay is one reason that I regained hope:

  55. If the standards for art are subjective, how can something that meets these standards in the individual be wrong in meeting them.
    The question becomes one of the relative nature of artistic taste, no?

  56. Dan,

    I wish you all the best in your quest. Graham’s essay addresses the issue of good/bad art, which is very much a different, but relevant, question. However, he seems to be sound affirmed that Mona Lisa is a work of art.

  57. Mike,
    Thank you for mentioning Socrates discussion of art in the Republic (Book X). When I read the Republic, I focused on the legal and political material, and forgot the discussions on art. This is when we need philosophy professors to remind us.

  58. Dennis,

    I only remember it because I teach the Ion and Book X every spring. 🙂

  59. I don’t think that Art is that hard to define. I think Art is “the expression of a concept and the emotions attached to it, through any kind of physical media, being it temporal or permanent”.

    So, the basic property of Art is the purpose of its maker. If I take a picture of myself, it may not be Art if I did it for, say, an ID card. That same photo may be Art if I did it because I wanted to express something like “the conformity of society”, or whatever. Something is conceptually good or bad art, in my opinion, if it achieves the transmition of those things or not. Technical quality of Art plays a role on this, but it’s just one part, as a minimum of quality can transmit a concept well enough.

    A very polished and photorrealistic picture of an apple would conform more to the classical definition and appreciation of art, but lacks in concept and thought provoking.

    Conceptual art eschews the aesthetical part, and supposedly gives the whole weight of its quality to the concept. Many conceptual artists fail to transmit the message and the emotions attached to it, thus it can be considered “bad art”.

    In general, I consider that art has three main qualities: technical execution, clarity and depth of the concepts portrayed, and originality. I use these three to rate art as good or bad.

  60. The speaker Mike LaBossiere responds to a claim made by a man named Holkins. Holkin states that attempting to define art is “stupid.” LaBoissiere proposes that there is a way to define art and that in doing so society can decipher what true art is and what is an imposter. In context of what Holkin says he takes the word “stupid” and uses it with a different context than what it literally means. In this case Holkin means its mostly illogical rather than “lacking ordinary quickness of mind or dull.” He reasons that art can’t have any sort of sufficient definition because it makes art too mechanical. If art is mechanical then it has boundaries and takes away what makes art truly art.

    LaBossire tells an anecdote of how he was running on Ohio State University’s campus and saw horrific construction scaffolding in which he thought was a prank. He later learned that it was what Ohio State considered it to be artwork. To him these such structures were made by clever scam artists trying to make a quick buck. He states that there was “no true appreciation of modern art” and that his anecdote “illustrates the importance of defining art.” He also believes that “without an adequate definition of art, there would be no rational way to settle this dispute and alleged artists would be to justify their claim to money.” Art can not be rationalized because it has too many irrational and contrasting variables. Also trying to place a definition on art by rationalizing it only places constraints on it because what may qualify as art to one person may not be to another. As a man who has taught aesthetics, LaBossire should understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What may classify as beauty maybe be taboo to another. The Chinese during the Song dynasty used to bound young females feet till they were highly arched and deformed making it painful to walk. This was considered to be beautiful. Just as an individual decides what makes a person pretty or handsome, art also should be characterized in the same manner. Culture, environment, and time all have influence on art. By LaBrossire claiming that bad art is made by people who are in it for the money is making a hasty generalization. Just because it isn’t up to his standards doesn’t mean its bad art.

    In addition, people have to take risks by creating unique are forms. If a universal definition was somehow created it to prevent art scams or defacing modern art, it would place constraints. How can new art be formed if artist have to follow guidelines that are supposed to prevent the destruction of modern art and culture? Part of being creative is not following into the mainstream. Pablo Picasso was able to revolutionize art by stepping out of normal boundaries. He took a risk and created works that explored the world a bit differently. So if rules are placed on artworks so things like what LaBossire saw at Ohio State’s campus were never made how do we as a society know that we aren’t crushing a new revolution in art? Picasso took a risk by producing something that was not the same as the other modern art and what could’ve insulted others who appreciated art. However, by expanding out he was able to start a whole new revolution. We as individuals all have clashing idealisms so we should not attempt to rationalize something like art that is a melting pot of culture, environment, and time. To try and do so is as Holkin said is “stupid”.

  61. “First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.”

    This sentence baffles me and I couldn’t disagree with the premise more.

    People don’t first check to see if something would count as a video game before buying it. They buy it because they think it will be fun.

    Someone considering buying a three-wheeled car (like elio motors or the Morgan 3 wheeler) would not first look up the definition of a car to see if it is worth buying. They see if it fits their needs, desires, and maybe they think it looks cool (art component).

    If anyone is willing to put something on display for the expressed purpose of looking at it and enjoying its aesthetics, then it is art. It may be really shitty art as many of your examples showed, but it is still art. Nothing anybody else thinks matters when you decide if you want to buy a piece of art. There is no such thing as pseudo-art.

    If you are not buying something because you want it or enjoy it but because you want other people to see you as a connoisseur, just stop. What you are buying has absolutely no value to you so don’t pay anything for it.

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