What is 'Art'?


Staff member
A central question in the philosophy of aesthetics is what we mean by art. What makes something a work of art? Instinctively, it seems fairly clear what we are talking about when we mention art, but can we actually formulate a precise definition? Are there necessary and sufficient conditions that we can point to? Perhaps art is not the kind of thing that can be given such a definition?

Some traditional efforts to define art have included:
  1. Art as imitations of nature
  2. Art as beautiful things
  3. Art as communication of experiences
  4. Art as institutionally or socio/conventionally determined
  5. Art as mere subjective taste
  6. Art as that which resembles a paradigm case
  7. Art as consisting of loosely contributing criteria

Each of these seems to capture some truth about what art is, but all come with their problems too. It's probably why some of the more contemporary approaches, such as Berys Gaut's, have taken to considering art as consisting of looser, contributing characteristics, rather than being something which can be precisely defined.

My view on this matter is that we are approaching this in the wrong way. That art is fundamentally an activity rather than something physical. That what characterises art cannot be found by reference to artworks, but only understood in terms of the practice that creates them.

As a parallel, consider science. It is hard, if not impossible to define science by only looking for features common among the products of science. There is such a vast and varied array of things that any list of criteria would need to be almost as long as the examples. We would always have issues with certain outliers that don't fit neatly. A much better way of conceptually unifying all of these works is through the understanding of their shared origin activity, that process of science which creates them. So too with art, I think this is a better strategy.

Another reason why traditional attribute/characteristic -based definitions will fail for art rests in the fact that art often produces novel things. This 'de novo' quality means that at any given moment, one cannot in principle know what the art of tomorrow will be. The very definition of new is 'as yet not so', and so before the first-ever expression of something, one cannot have its qualities known.
This is again seen in scientific progress, where one cannot presume to know the scope of scientific works before they actually occur. To do so would be foolish prophesy.

Both these activities (science and art) share commonalities by virtue of them involving a creative consciousness. For whatever reason, consciousness exists as a phenomenon, and it seems capable of real creativity. It is able to generate abstract ideas and concepts, encoding them in artefacts of reality. How this actually happens is a great mystery still, but it does happen, and I think clearly it is central to an understanding of what makes art, art.

Given these thoughts, here's my take:

Art or artworks are all artefacts which have the property of being both the product of creativity and also a driver of further creativity.

I see artworks as the physically instantiated fingerprint of creative thought. Because creative thought itself is unpredictable, so too is its fingerprint. (Hence the insurmountable difficulty of applying a conclusive attributal definition to artworks)

Good art has a catalytic property for further creative thought in those who experience or engage with it. I actually think this is a necessary property, owing to the creativity that went into it. That creativity begets creativity. Just like a really good idea or theory, it can cause an explosion of progress. The catalytic magnitude being the objective measure of the piece's ability to facilitate further creativity.

My view of art relates closely to my view of knowledge. I think there is objective value in art. This value is in the conceptual contents of the piece. There is always an idea, or a conjecture of some form inbuilt within a piece of art, an imagination born from the mind of the artist. The artist endows the physical with a signature, encoding it with meaning. The artwork exceeds its medium by the abstract concepts which have been embedded.

Like a good theory, these are not easy or trivial to create. We are problem solvers by nature, pattern recognisers, and I think we have the innate ability to engage with obscurity through imagination and conjecture. Knowledge and meaning are limitless, and we must avoid the prejudice of assuming it can only exist in certain familiar forms such as words or numbers. Just because we cannot put into words something, does not mean it is non-existent.

One final distinction that i think is worth making is between what i call 'art' and 'craft'. Artworks are manifestations of both. Art refers to the endowment of creative meaning, whereas craft refers to the execution of skill in the medium. The craft side of things is similar to eloquence, much like a person who effectively translates their meaning into words on the page.

Those are some of my thoughts on the topic, although not exhaustive!
What are your thoughts on 'Art'?



Jul 31, 2019
Aesthetics isn't my field. Nevertheless, I take a rather conservative view on this; the purpose of art is about creating beauty where none existed before. That requires, at the very least, two things: 1) a guiding concept and 2) it's skillful implementation.

Accordingly, I regard most modern 'art' as degenerate, not only not beautiful, but mostly lacking in any clear or important concept to communicate, and often lacking in any definitive or decisive skills made manifest.

Best wishes, 2RM.
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