Suffocating Art with a Definition

Whether art can be formally defined is a matter of controversy.  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there are two sorts of modern definitions of art. One focuses on art’s “institutional features, emphasizing the way art changes over time, modern works that appear to break radically with all traditional art, and the relational properties of artworks that depend on works’ relations to art history, art genres, etc.”1 The other definition makes use of a “broader, more traditional concept of aesthetic properties that includes more than art-relational ones, and focuses on art’s pan-cultural and trans-historical characteristics.”2 These modern definitions characterize art as having historically contingent cultural features and characteristics with a stable aesthetic core. On the other hand, broad, traditional definitions, characterize art by a single type of property, commonly representational properties, expressive properties, and formal properties.  This has obvious flaws. There are plenty of examples of objects which could fall into any of these property categories, which are understood not to be art. (A recipe is representational but not art, and human gestures are expressional, but not always art.)

Philosophers and artists have many different opinions on what art is. According to Plato, art is representational and a result of divine inspiration. Kant defines art as “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.”3 Gustav Klimt said, “Art is a line around your thoughts.” Claude Monet intended that art does not need to be understood when he said, “Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”  Edward Hopper said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint,” and Paul Klee inputs, “Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.”

There is a lot of skepticism in suppressing art with a definition. Definitions are limited, finite, and binding, all things that could be said art is not. Art is a free form of expression, talent, and inspiration, which would be dulled and suppressed if it had a formal definition looming over it. A common argument against a definition of art is that the phenomena of art is “too diverse to admit of the unification that a satisfactory definition strives for, or that a definition of art, were there to be such a thing, would exert a stifling influence on artistic creativity.” There are so many different mediums of art that finding one overarching definition to accommodate all of the art forms is a nearly impossible task. Additionally, the number and concepts of art forms changes over time. Trying to create a static definition on a dynamic actuality of art is inappropriate and incomplete. For example, many traditional definitions of art that are commonly accepted in philosophical theories have less relevance in artwork today. Traditional definitions often incorporate metaphysis and epistemology that have less applications in modern artwork today.

It can be argued that defining art is philosophically unnecessary. This argument takes the fact that “there is no philosophical consensus about the definition of art as reason to hold that no unitary concept of art exists.” In general, concepts are used for the purpose they serve. But it can be argued that not all concepts of art serve all purposes equally well and so not all art concept should be used for the same purposes. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Art should be defined only if there is a unitary concept of art that serve all art’s various purposes – historical, conventional, aesthetic, appreciative, communicative, and so on.”4 Since there is no universal purpose or use of the concept or art, art should not be defined. Kant goes a step further in saying that art does not have a purpose at all. According to him, art is purposive without purpose or final without end.

1. Adajian, T. (2007, October 23). The Definition of Art. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/.

2. Adajian, T. (2007, October 23). The Definition of Art. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/.

3. Kant, Critique of Judgment, Guyer translation, section 44.

4. Adajian, T. (2007, October 23). The Definition of Art. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/.

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