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Can art be defined? If so how?
The term 'art' is one laden with connotations and loose associations, and one with a long and varied history, throughout which items as apparently disconnected and dissimilar as the Pyramids at Giza, Matisse's Vase of Sunflowers and Michael Jackson's Off The Wall have all been deemed to warrant application of that particular title. Given this unparalleled breadth of entities for which we expect a single term to account, it is not surprising that a precise definition of 'art' has thus far not been identified. The question of whether art can be defined asks us first to examine what precisely we might mean by 'definition', since, as we shall see later, whether art can be defined relies at least in part upon what we take to mean by a definition, as opposed to a mere 'account'. We should begin by looking at an example of a definition of art from Levinson, which we will see to be incomplete, before moving on to consider a 'cluster account' of art which departs from our original idea of a 'definition', which we will see appears more capable than most definitions of giving an appropriate account of what art is. Given that this is the case, we should then discuss the nature of 'definition' as opposed to merely 'giving an account of' art, and I will conclude that whilst whether art can be 'defined' or not depends merely upon to what extent we consider our original understanding of 'definition' to be adaptable, given that art will not be appropriately defined under that original understanding, the cluster account of art does appear to give a graspable understanding of what we mean by 'art'. We shall take the notion of definition in this essay to mean this: a concept has been defined if it is possible to state conditions for any object or thing that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for that object or thing's inclusion into that concept. An intensional definition of this kind highlights that we are not looking simply to explicate what 'art' as a broad concept is, or to account for its history or origins or social function, but rather to determine the content of the concept itself, and to determine what factors influence whether the term 'art' can be applied to a particular individual item. Thus, importantly, any account of art that does not specify individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for something's being art will not, at this stage at least, be considered a definition. It is this mode of definition that has been the central focus of the majority of attempts to define art. One such attempt has been made by Levinson, revising a theory originally proposed by Dickie and called the 'institutional theory' of art1. Broadly, institutional theories of art assert that artworks are artworks because they occupy a certain place in a particular institution, namely the institution of 'art', or the 'art world'. Levinson's institutional theory retains this central characteristic - that 'arthood' is not an exhibited property of a thing, or something intrinsic to it, but is rather a matter of being appropriately and in the right way associated to prior human activity and thought. Levinson intends to construe the relation to human activity and thought solely in terms of the intention of the individual, where the intention makes reference to the 'history of art' - what art has been - such that what it is for something to be art can be shown by that artwork's reference to the body of previous work unproblematically agreed upon to be art. It seems to be the case that, unlike many other things that habitually surround us, art lacks prior 1 J Levinson, Defining Art Historically, British Journal of Aesthetics vol. 19
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