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The Definition of Art General thoughts 'it is not clear that these words - What is art? - express anything like a single question, to which competing answers are given, or whether philosophers proposing answers are even engaged in the same debate.' Uncontroversial facts that definitions of art must account for: 1) entities endowed with a degree of aesthetic interest exist in all cultures around the world 2) these entities ('artworks') sometimes have non-aesthetic functions, and sometimes do not 3) artworks so endowed with this degree of aesthetic interest form part of a vast and sprawling tradition 4) the history of this tradition is complex, vague and evolving: new genres emerge and fall away, standards of taste develop, understandings of aesthetic properties and experience change 5) institutions exist in some cultures which involve a focus upon artworks that have a high degree of aesthetic interest, but absolutely no practical or functional value or use 6) institutions such as these sometimes classify objects with no apparent aesthetic interest in the same category of aesthetic appeal as those with an acknowledged abundance of aesthetic interest or value. Traditional definitions took art to be defined by one specific property, but these are easily dismissed. Kristeller argues that our understanding of what constitutes art has changed so radically over time, even since the 18 th Century, for example, that there is simply no stable definiendum for any attempt to define art. One of the main problems for definitions of art is that they must make sense of these two facts:
1. art as a body has important culturally and historically contingent features
2. art as a body is also in some sense trans-cultural and trans-historical, pointing toward the direction of a 'stable core' of aesthetic properties. What do we mean by define? For the sake of argument, 'to define concept x is to set necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the inclusion of objects under x'. It is naturally important to the question of how to define art that what we mean by 'definition' is itself relative and open to subjective determination.
Three attempts to account for 'art' as a concept:
1. The Institutional account
2. The Historical account
3. The 'cluster concept' family-resemblance account
1. The Institutional account Institutional theories of art assert that artworks are artworks because they occupy a certain place in the institution of art, and the artworld. Dickie's institutional definition: Dickie's earliest definition was that a work of art is an artefact upon which some person acting on behalf of the 'artworld' has bestowed the status of candidate for appreciation and contemplation. This has been revised and expanded however, to a set of five interlocking definitions: 1) An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art. 2) A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public. 3) A 'public' is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them.
4) The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems. 5) An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public. Thus for Dickie a 'work of art' is an artefact which has had conferred upon it the status of 'candidate for appreciation' by one acting on behalf of the artworld or an object created to be presented to an artworld public. An 'artist' is one who participates with understanding in the creation of a 'work of art' as defined in these terms. The 'artworld' is the historical and social setting constituted by the changing and evolving practices and conventions of art. The definition is unashamedly circular, since Dickie argues that this reflects the nature and purpose of art.
Danto's institutional definition: Danto meant by the term 'artworld' an 'atmosphere of art theory'. For Danto, x is a work of art if: 1) x has a subject 2) x projects some attitude about this subject (has a style) 3) this projection is by means of rhetorical ellipsis which requires the audience to fill in what is missing 4) x requires, as a whole, an art-historical context before it can be interpreted It is this last clause that makes the definition institutional. The account has been criticised for failing to account for music as art. Danto's driving force behind his definition was the belief that a work cannot become art unless there is a place prepared for it within the art world as a result of the prior history of art and art production. Thus historical definitions have as their common feature a recursive, reflexive form: something is only art by virtue of its standing in correct relation to its forebears in the historical context of art - reference, repetition, amplification or repudiation, for example. It is not absolutely clear that all definitions of this type are circular, since there is a distinction between art now and art past. The former is being defined in terms of its relation to the latter (which has already acquired its art-status), but they are not necessarily the same thing! It is, however, the nature of this prior acquisition of 'art status' which is questionable - to be complete, a historical account of this kind requires a separate account of how the first artworks came to be art. Problems
1. Art created outside any 'artworld' institution seems possible, but this definition rules such works out. Is a man painting alone and isolated in his log cabin, uninformed of the notions of 'artworld systems' and 'publics', not capable of creating art?
2. The institutional account is uninformative of the nature of the art-defining relation, since it only defines art in terms of whether it is in some way connected to something that already is art.
3. Some institutional theories (Dickie's first) posit that it is the art-world that must do all the work in specifying in which way an object has to be presented or considered for it to be a work of art, and little or no consideration is given to the notion of appreciation of the artist's intentions - there is no room in institutional theories for what the artist herself must envisage should be done with her work by potential spectators.
4. Institutional theories posit that art must involve a certain 'performance' or outward expression, that is 'done' in relation to a certain institution. Can there not be art which is constituted as such only in the mind of the artist, and upon no-one's behalf but his own?
5. The institutional account seems to exclude from being 'art' those historical artefacts which, whilst originally having practical purpose or at the very least not being intended merely for viewing by a public, but which by virtue of the passage of time and other historical features, we would now want to call art - well-fashioned furniture, for example, or religious iconography.
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