An Acceptable Definition of Art

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An Acceptable Definition of Art


A significant piece of the endeavor toward a true theory of aesthetics has been the identification of a proper definition for the term art. I argue that there are exactly two necessary conditions for an object to be considered art: 1. that it be a creation, and 2. that the creator presents it on virtue either of its form or content or both. After presenting the definition, I respond to possible counterexamples to it—based on those things included as art by the definition as well as those excluded. The definition will be tested with reference to examples of artistic works and the intuitions we hold thereof.

1. Introduction

Clive Bell defines art as that which exemplifies what he calls “significant form.” There is a unique emotion we feel as an audience to a work of art—the “aesthetic emotion”—the stimulus of which is this appearance. In his Art, (1914) in a chapter entitled “The Aesthetic Hypothesis,” Bell explains:

For a discussion of aesthetics, it need be agreed only that forms arranged and combined according to certain unknown and mysterious laws do move us in a particular way, and that it is the business of an artist so to combine and arrange them that they shall move us. These moving combinations and arrangements I have called…“Significant Form.”1 (Bell, p.101)

Thus, what counts as art is, in a quite restrictive sense, a function of which works can be said to incite a common response based on their appearances. It might be said that Bell has provided a proper sort of standard for the aesthetic world. However, the friction caused between Bell’s hypothesis and the intuitive mind is based on what he has left out. Beyond the passion that Bell believes is excited by significant form, the existence of which cannot be denied, in my opinion, in cases such as James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, there exists a feature common to many works of “art” that Bell cannot dismiss in a word: content. Indeed, to Bell, that which may excite or entertain the mind in any way separable from his conception of significant form does not constitute that particular feeling one has during an “aesthetic” experience:

We are all familiar with pictures that interest us and excite our admiration, but do not move us as works of art. To this class belongs what I call “Descriptive Painting”—that is, painting in which forms are used not as objects of emotion, but as means of suggesting emotion or conveying information…They interest us; they may move us too in a hundred different ways, but they do not move us aesthetically. According to my hypothesis they are not works of art.2 (Bell, p.103)

Is it all that controversial, when painted in the best light, that Bell’s assignment of meaning to the term art identifies exactly those works which stimulate aesthetic emotion? We assume not, if aesthetic experience can be limited to an experience of significant form, alone.

I consider another work, Edgar Degas’ Dancers in the Green Room. I am certainly not as excited to view this painting as Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, but why? I know why I like it; I like it for its content. It is a painting of girls stretching, a ballet practice in the background. We might expect a painter to paint a ballet, but Degas has captured a moment before the ballerinas are even practicing. It is so human, so real; it is the world as it appears to all of us, without the glossy finish of good-timing. It is what I would call the form of the painting that I am not fond of. It is dark and drab, and though it has probably faded with time, it is just not that attractive to me. To me, its significance lies entirely in its content. I am not inclined, at this point, to agree with Clive Bell’s artistic theory which defines art as having significant form, something that both of us might even agree that Degas’ painting does not have. I would not view Dancers in the Green Room as a mere “interesting document,” as Bell might call it, and I fail to understand why it should not be considered to be art, nonetheless.

2. An Acceptable Definition of Art

Over the years, artists and aestheticians have articulated a plethora of interesting definitions of art that are, nonetheless, unacceptable for the purposes of aesthetic inquiry. As a definition can never be true or false in the way that most statements can2, it would serve us better to have a definition of art which both art critics and laypersons would agree is inclusive of all creative works that should be considered to be of some kind of aesthetic significance. The careful reader realizes, however, that I have already begun to define art in stating what type of definition would serve us best in its study; I have already assumed that art should be defined necessarily as a creative work. We should agree that when salt beds in the state of Utah force rock through the Earth’s surface and flowing water carves magnificent formations in it, we should not call the end result art. This is not to detract from its beauty; if we were to define art as anything that has beauty, then we should not need an extra term (art) to describe it, we would just refer to such things as “the beautiful.” Moreover, the term “art” is used in artistic discourse almost exclusively when referring to creation. It seems those who would most strenuously object to our exclusion of the rock formations of Utah as art are the ones who would appeal to God as their creator. A history of artistic theory has favored the definition of art that includes “creation.”

Now, since art is something that is created, part of its definition should be expected to depend upon the creator. We should expect, given that a creator is familiar with the purposes of art, that she should be the arbiter of her own creations, and thus, the one who decides whether or not they fall under the category of creations that we define as “art.” The judgment of a creation as an artwork depends upon the intention of the creator to present it as such. This element allows for the type of inclusion that is necessary for an acceptable definition of art as dependent on creation. Art, therefore, is a creation presented by its creator with the intention that it be described, in some meaningful sense of the word, as art.

But what is a meaningful sense of the word “art?” Because art is a creation presented with some intention, it will be useful for us to cite the purposes for which it is typically presented. In other words, we should seek to determine what is intended by the creator in presenting her creation as “art.” It seems that there have been no more than two purposes for which a creation is presented when presented by its creator as art3. Such a creation is either presented, on virtue of its form, to please the senses of its audience4, or it is presented to entertain (in the broadest sense of the word) the minds of the audience in virtue of its content. By this definition, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold was likely presented in virtue of its richness in form, and Degas’ Dancers in the Green Room was likely presented more on virtue of its rich content than on its form, though it was perhaps both; the fact stands independent of whatever judgment I make of the artwork. Also, it is rare that one should find a painting that is presented solely for the sake of either form or content, and much more common are works that are presented for the sake of both, such as (as I have judged it) van Gogh’s The Diggers. However, there are forms of art that seem to be distinctly on one of the fringes. A novel is presented almost exclusively on virtue of its content, (though we may find some pleasure in its appearance), and a musical instrumental is likely presented for the sake of its sound, rather than for what vague content that it could, nonetheless, have.

So, art is a creation presented by its creator to be viewed as art in virtue of its form or content. This last element of the definition suggests, sensibly, that if a creator were to make a spoon whose sole purpose was for eating, and yet attempt to present it as art, then he would simply be mistaken. If he persists, we might explain to the him that the term “art” is defined as a creation presented by its creator with the intention that it be valued for either its form or content or both, and that creations presented with the intention that they be used for some other purpose are typically termed “tools” (or otherwise)5. The creator should admit to a misuse of the term “art,” unless he was mistaken about its purpose, and meant to present it, if only in part, for its form or content. Additionally, there is no reason why a creation might not be created for one or both of the purposes of art, and be created for some other purpose or function as well. A house may be built for the purpose of living in it, and also for its form; these are two distinct identities of the house that have no explicit effect on each other.

There are two objections that might be seen as standing against the adoption of this definition of art, however. The first deals with what might not be considered to be art under the definition. What if, for example, Michelangelo had presented his David as a piece for some use other than form or content? What if Michelangelo were a physician and wished to present the piece as a functional diagram of the male physique, truly devoid of any artistic intent? Yet, we assume, the sculpture would be viewed as equally beautiful, equally aesthetically valuable, and we would still have (or desire to) put it on display in an art museum. Even though we might assume that it is a rare case in which a creation is valued as art by everyone but its creator, and we might say, therefore, that Michelangelo would not have created something like his David without intending it to be viewed on virtue of its form, the fact remains that there is no reason he could not have done just that, creating what we will refer to as David1. As a physician he would have wanted it to be detailed, and he may have simply flipped a coin to decide whether to portray David as someone that most would consider to be beautiful, or as someone that most would consider to be ugly.

Assuming that Michelangelo truly did not wish to present David1 on virtue of its form or content, I still do not believe that our definition is unacceptable, or even undesirable. The example of David1 is analogous, in this case, to that of the Utah rock formations; it might be beautiful, and might be valued for its beauty, but it falls outside of our best definition of art. Our definition describes artworks as being created with the intention that they be viewed in virtue of either their form or content or both, and in this case, David1 has not. However, though it lacks artistic intentions—as in the case of the rock formations of Utah—this does not detract from its beauty. Additionally, all of the statements made about our judgments of Michelangelo’s David1 are true of the rock formations: we view them as equally beautiful, equally aesthetically valuable, and we may put them on display (somewhere) whether we believe that they were created by some creator or not. David1, in this case, we might call a fortunate accident. We might picture it on display in some art museum, with a plaque in front that reads, “Michelangelo’s David1 is not actually a work of art by definition, but has been valued throughout history for its beauty and significance…”

The second objection, as might be expected, deals with some of the things that might be considered to be art under our definition. It seems, for example, that we now have to count two-dollar, department-store “scented candles” as art; they are made for pleasing the senses, and are thus presented by a creator to serve one of the purposes of art. I might be the first to argue that counting such objects as art opposes all of our intuitions; it opposes common sense. If a definition is not something to be proven, it should at the very least be intuitive and practical. If a definition of art should include all creative works that should be considered by critics and laypersons to be of some kind of aesthetic significance, as I have claimed, how can we rest upon a definition that forces us to count two-dollar scented candles as art? We might be able to say that we have not yet provided a means of judging art, and therefore that we can find some reason why scented candles should be considered to be “bad art,” but the point of the objection is not that scented candles are bad art, it is that they should not be considered to be art at all.

But what is the real purpose of the objects we have described? We know that the typical scented candle is made by a company; each individual candle is probably designed by employees sitting in cubicles in an office building. For what purpose do these people create scented candles? Probably, it is to turn a profit, to keep their jobs, or perhaps to get promoted. Of course, we agree that companies must make candles that please the senses of the consumer (audience) to turn a profit, but profit, not pleasure, is the purpose. We might argue that such companies never have pleasure in mind for the sake of pleasure, but even if a scented candle’s purpose is 99% profit and 1% form, then it is only barely art, which is what we might already believe intuitively. We might consider, alternatively, that somewhere there might be a vendor of a completely different sort (likely, a smaller one) selling scented candles simply because people like them. Perhaps this vendor does not really need the money, and for her, the purpose of creating the candles is 99% form and 1% profit. At this point we are more inclined, intuitively, to call the small vendor’s creations art. Our definition agrees with our intuitions.

It may seem, at this point, that I have responded to this second objection in a way that is inconsistent with my statement that a creation can be created for artistic purposes and for one or more other purpose(s) as well. So it should be made clear that when I state the claim that department store candles are most often created for the purpose of turning a profit, this does not necessitate that such candles are not created for artistic purposes as well. It is simply a practical observation cited for the purposes of the response that such candles are probably made for the purpose of turning a profit and not for the sake of form or content. However, as in the case of a house that is created for the purposes of art and living, the separate purposes have no explicit affect on each other (“explicit” being the operative word). We might say that a good architect can successfully juggle multiple purposes of a given house without sacrificing one for another. It might also be the case that some scented candles exist which were created for both artistic and for commercial purposes, but I do not believe that we had such candles in mind when the original “scented candles” objection was made.

3. On Expression and Presentation

A justifiable concern over adopting a definition, however intuitive, is whether the definition conflicts with general consensus-views of the term being defined. If there is another, equally viable and usable meaning for a term then who is to say that one should be considered “the” definition? Consider such a scenario: some person, “artist” or not, in a flood of emotion, expresses herself by splattering paint on a canvas. Form and content in this case are accidental. In this case, we will say that the individual has no concept of artistic theory; her creation is simply an expression of her emotion.6

The question raised relates to a prevalent artistic theory: What of expressionism? Should expression be a third purpose of art? Or have we defined art in such a narrow way that we cannot include works that most would consider to be art? Firstly, I think a note on the semantics of our original definition of art is in order. When we say that art is created for the purposes of form or content, what are we saying? It is the nature of form and content, the way that they have been defined above, that they illicit some kind of experience. In fact, as experiences go, these terms are completely comprehensive. It is a crucial factor in providing a set of limits for a term that nothing constituent to the term be left out. Given that we have defined form as that which pleases the senses, and content as that which entertains the mind, is it possible that we left anything out? We have not—no artistic experience could remain unaccounted for—and expression is left, semantically, as a means of presenting an experience, specifically perhaps, an emotional experience. Thus, expression becomes a means of presenting emotional form or content, or a means to a specific type of art. Form and content, in this case, are not necessarily accidental. Importantly, such an explanation will be possible for other artistic theories just in case they are compatible with our definition of art.7

But form and content are not the only objects of expression. There is still a question as to whether the work in the scenario above is classifiable as art. This question cannot be answered before another fact is known. We must first know if the creator intended to create a work of form or content. It is stated above that in cases of expression, form and content are not necessarily accidental, but they may be. For example, shouting is a means of expression, in the strict sense of the word, but average, every-day shouting is not performed for the sake of form or content (things meant to please or entertain). So, unless an expression is made to be presented on virtue of form or content, then the expression is not art. We can conceive of a scenario in which an individual throws paint against a canvas in, say, anger, with no care whatever about the work being pleasurable to the senses or entertaining to the mind, but such an act would be synonymous with every-day, inartistic shouting. However, we can also conceive of a scenario in which an individual performs the same action, but for the sake of the emotional form or content of the creation. Even if our artist has no concept of artistic theory, by our definition of art, all that is necessary for his work to be classified as art is that he have a concept of pleasure of the senses or entertainment of the mind. If he does not, or even if the work were created in anger (rather than for artistic purposes) as above, then perhaps (if it is worth something) what we have is a fortunate accident, as in the example of Michelangelo’s David1.

4. Conclusion

The fact that all that is necessary for a creation to be classified as art is that the creator has some concept of pleasure of the senses or entertainment of the mind exhibits the inclusiveness of the definition. Some may wonder at this point if there is a more general problem with the definition that remains: Is it not somewhat arbitrary? When can we say, exactly, that a creation is being presented for artistic purposes to some extent? Does it really make sense to speak of a creation’s purposes with reference to percentages? It is true, that the percentages given above are, perhaps, somewhat improper, but they serve simply as an illustration, and the definition is by no means arbitrary. What creation is art may depend entirely on the creator, but the definition is yet determined and objective. We can say that a creation is being presented for artistic purposes to some extent exactly when its creator presents it thusly. The creator is the arbiter of the creation, and this is, perhaps, the most intuitive part of the definition. In philosophy we deal with powers that seem, at times, to be far beyond us, but art is ours. In this sense, my job has been easy: to identify a definition of art that we all may agree that we already believed in prior to its articulation. And we have every right to identify which objects count as art.

1. Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” in The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, edited by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. Copyright 1995 by the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

2. A definition is simply a description of, a meaning of, or a set of limits for a given term. A term may be stated and then explained by its definition (e.g. “A unicorn is defined as a horned horse”), but the definition cannot be true or false, it is just a description of a word. Other statements might be false (e.g. the Earth is more massive than the sun); as long as we agree to the definitions of the terms used in the statement (e.g. the Earth is the planet that we inhabit, the sun is the star the Earth revolves around, mass is…, etc.). This statement can be verified. We may say that the definition, “a unicorn is defined as a winged horse,” is false, but what we mean by this is that we do not typically associate the word “unicorn” with the description “winged horse.” There is no way to “verify” that a description truly corresponds to a word. We may not wish to be unclear by making the statement, “A unicorn is defined as a winged horse” (because others probably assume a different definition of “unicorn”), but the statement is not “false.”

3. This disjunction will, through the course of the essay, be shown to be appropriately comprehensive.

4. If beauty is that which pleases the senses, then form equals beauty. If not, then beauty is not a subject of this essay. Regardless, this essay should not be read as offering a definition of beauty, or as an inquiry into the nature of “beauty.” This is not to say, however, that if beauty extends beyond my definitions of the purposes of art, it should not count as a purpose of art or within the purposes of art. We assume that given a definition of beauty, we would apply it to the purposes of art.

5. See also: Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 1938.

6. Based on a possible counterexample to the definition given by Professor Patricia K. Trentacoste, Oakland University

7. A definition is often presented as constituent to a theory. Expressionist theories of art, for example, might begin by defining art in a number of ways, possibly with the way it is defined in this essay, and then go on to argue about why expression has its significance. If such a thing is possible, then it does not make sense to argue that there is some antinomy between a definition and a theory. In my opinion, it is better that we make a distinction between expressionist theories of art and expressionistic definitions of art (though it might be seen as likely that an expressionist theory of art would always begin with an expressionistic definition of art). The latter may come into dispute with another definition. A definition may be said to disagree with a theory only if the theory includes a contrasting definition, in which case it still makes better sense to compare the respective definitions.

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