You Call That Art?


  “There is an idea currently circulating that art can be anything whatsoever” (Dace). It would seem humankind has come full circle, from imitation art, to popular modern art that knows no boundaries. Art historians espouse the Imitation Theory of Art as the first concept of good art. Photography made short work of that art theory, and so the evolution of art theory began, each author espousing the validity of their theory.

Sometimes a new expanding art theory encompassed the older theories to include new art conventions, as well as older art forms. The categorization of art styles into relevant art theories provides a good educational and historical back-ground of art, and evolving art theories can be added as new art conventions are developed, thus providing an infinite theorized conception of expanding forms of art.

The question of what art is, however, is beyond explanation by sociological art theory, and it is this question that must be answered if we are to determine whether a thing is, or is not, a work of art, for the decision about whether or not a thing is a work of art can only be made logically if we know what art is.  It is not by chance that we have not discovered the appropriate art theory to explain art, for it is the pursuit of theory itself that contributes to the demise of discovering an appropriate definition of the abstract notion that we call art.

The definition of art requires aesthetic motive, so the artwork itself is secondary in the creation of art, yet it is the internal perception of the artwork, by the public, that is art's primary purpose. The painter who paints a picture, the poet who writes a poem, the modern dancer gyrating on a stage, all of these artists have as a primary purpose something other than the external perception that the art public views as they view the picture, read the poem, or watch the modern dancer. The artist wishes to create a feeling in the viewer, a feeling that lets the public know that this is art. The initial feeling or internal perception of the artist, that causes him or her  to create an artwork, and the internal interpretation of that artwork by the art public, is elusive to definition, nonetheless, this is what must be addressed if we ever wish to find an appropriate definition of art. The sociological art theories espoused by George Dickie and Arthur Danto, provide a framework for art, but not a definition of what art is. The aesthetic definition of art espoused by Monroe Beardsley, though not perfect, is the closest definition to defining art.

Danto, in his essay “The Artworld,”  proposes an interpretation of art that is directly connected to art theories. According to Danto, art would not exist without art theories, “...these days one might not be aware he was on artistic terrain without an artistic theory to tell him so.” (Danto 28). But if art theory allows art, how did the first artwork come about? In the beginning, it would have been impossible for the artist to create an artwork by referring to an art theory since no art theory existed. The sound argument of art first, art theory second, in the first instance of art creation,  is not mentioned by Danto. This initial art experience, in my view, can tell us much about all of later art creation. For example, the first artwork created, originated from a creative idea or feeling in the artist (there was no art theory available).  All artworks begin with a creative idea or feeling in the artist that has nothing to do with art theory. Just as art theory is irrelevant for that first creative spark in the first artwork, so it is irrelevant for all artworks following. There was (and is), something else that connects the commonality of what it is to be human, and be an artist.

This commonality directs our attention to a deeper personal determination of  what art is, which is connected to our individual and unique perceptions of the external world. The external perception of the artwork, manifests an internal positive aesthetic feeling in the viewer of the artwork, thus the creative spark initially within the artist, which drove him to create an artwork, is re-manifested, uniquely, within the viewer of the artwork. This internal perception  is separate from all art theory.

Danto points out the difference between the layperson and the artist when interpreting art. The layperson, not knowing art theory, nor art history, cannot understand the artwork and fails to see it as such. The artist, educated in his domain, understands an object as an artwork, precisely because of his art education. Danto states that if the layperson understood the art theory that the artwork applied to, he would see it as an artwork, rather than an object, and therefore the object would become an artwork. This fact, however, does not define what art is, rather it describes the benefit of an art education.  So the artist and layperson, although they have the same external perception of the object, their respective internal perceptions are different. It is to this elusive internal perception that any definition of art must adhere to. Just as the reader must open himself internally to interpret the poem, so the layperson and artist must open themselves internally to the interpretation of the artwork. Danto fails to address the internal perception of art, rather he depends on sociological art theories to define art. So if a new artist creates a new convention of art, a new art theory must be developed to include the new art convention. This reactionary theoretic conception of art fails to address the creativity of the new artist.

The internal perception of art is also not addressed by George Dickie, who developed the Institutional Theory of Art. This theory connects the artist, subject, artwork, art public, and anything else that is connected with the artwork within a framework of an art system. Dickie says in order to produce an artwork, the artist must first create an artifact that he intends to present to an artworld public. According to Dickie, it is impossible to create an artwork without an artworld public, yet when the artist is creating an artwork, it is an individual endeavour, without public involvement, therefore Dickie's premise that the artwork must be presented to an artworld public is flawed. The artwork public had no involvement in creating the artwork initially, and therefore has no bearing on defining the subject as an artwork or not. An artwork is independent of the art public, because the internal aesthetic perception exists, with or without an art public viewing the artwork. Indeed, an artwork can exist without any person ever viewing it. Perception of the artwork justifies an already existing artwork, however, the justification, cannot make the artwork since it existed before being viewed.

Dickie also maintains that an artifact can be created by simply placing an object in an art institution. In this way, Dickie justifies Duchamp's “Fountain,” as an artwork. The shock value of viewing Duchamp's “Fountain,” in an art gallery, does not make it an artwork. The objection to Duchamp's “Fountain,” is related to the necessary false qualification that the artwork must be presented to an artworld public. Just as the presentment of an artwork to an artworld public is irrelevant, so the placement of an object in an art institution is irrelevant to the definition of art.

Dickie states that outside of the art gallery, Duchamp's “Fountain” would be just a urinal, not an artwork;  however, inside the art gallery, the object (urinal) changes, and becomes a “complex object” that is worthy of being an artwork. The unaltered object, according to Dickie, is “manipulated and used in a certain way” (Dickie 49), just as the painter manipulates paint to make an artwork. Danto's theoretic art concept represent art styles and Dickie's Institution theory combines art styles and places them under an art system. Just as Danto's artworld and its many art theories fail to address the initial creative spark of the artist, Dickie's Institutional theory encompassing the art system, also fails to address the initial creative spark of the artist.

Dickie and Danto connect art and society with the use of art theories, and it is true that society influences the artist (as it influences all of us), but the connection between art and society is flimsy because the artist creates independent of society, thus the existence of so many different art styles. Indeed, the artwork created by an artist is often contrary to social values. The use of any theory to define art is problematic since a theory must be correct or incorrect. An artwork, in my view, cannot be defined as correct or incorrect.

Monroe Beardsley is the only philosopher studied that mentions aesthetics in relation to art. His approach to art is somewhat simpler than either Danto's or Dickie's, and I think is closer to defining what art is. Beardsley stresses one must have an interest first, this allows people to be open to an  experience, which may include feelings, emotions, impulses, desires, beliefs, and thoughts that lift us in a certain way that is hard to describe and especially to  summarize (Beardsley 58). This elusive perception that is hard to summarize is the result of the impact an artwork has on us, and it is what the artist strives to create in the viewer of the artwork. It is a transfer of aesthetics, from the artist to the art public through the artwork.  “It takes on a sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the thing received, an intense affect that is nevertheless detached from practical ends, the exhilarating sense of exercising powers of discovery, integration of the self and its experiences” (Beardsley 58).

The artist who makes an artwork, hopes that other people will have an aesthetic experience, as a result of the viewing of his artwork. The scholarly interpretation of an artwork (such as Danto's art theories), makes the artwork easier to interpret and certainly more interesting, and can help to qualify the artwork, but this is secondary to defining art. The gradation of aesthetic satisfaction will be greater for the educated patron of the arts, but the layperson may also enjoy the same artwork to a lesser degree because of his internal perception of the artwork.

Beardsley's conception of art addresses artistic perception in primitive peoples. “It seems highly probable to me that early human beings developed a capacity for aesthetic experience and a relish for it before they deliberately fashioned objects or actions for the purpose of providing aesthetic experience” (Beardsley 59).  Beardsley draws no conclusion as to whether these cave-drawings are artworks or not (who can know the intention of the caveman), but at least he considers the possibility that they could be artworks. Beardsley's assumption addresses the concept of aesthetic experience before art production, and in terms of Dickie's “similarity art,” establishes the first unique artwork.Beardsley's assumption also addresses the critical spark to create an artwork was initial, before any art theory, thus refuting Danto's art theory concept. The pictographs are considered artworks by many people  in modern society today. Danto does not consider the cave pictographs art, as they do not fit in any art theory, thus cannot be artworks. 

In the same way, a beautiful sunrise cannot be considered an artwork according to Danto or Dickie, since such an event in the external world does not fit in any art theory. In fairness, the aesthetic approach  of Munroe Beardsley also make no allowances for “natural external world event” artworks. All three philosophers constrain art to human production only. Beardsley does, however, briefly address “unintentional  artworks.” The accidental cracked  pottery or spilling of paint can create aesthetic interest as a result of the accidents.

The easy practicality of Beardsley's aesthetic concept of art is refreshing, straight forward, and most importantly, encouraging for an aspiring artist. “As long as something is produced with the aesthetic intention, an artwork is produced” (Beardsley 62). Beardsley's aesthetic definition of art allows him to get closer to answering what is art. His is a non-sociological approach to defining art (as opposed to Dickie and Danto), and therefore allows a creative acceptance of aesthetics.

Both Danto's and Dickie's sociological art theories fall short of an appropriate definition of art, because art is constrained to a modern sociological context.  In my view, any definition of art must encompass the perceptions people (not just the art public), have of the external world, and how these perceptions influence us internally. Beardsley's aesthetic definition will allow a full expansion of art, imperative, if we are to gain a minimal foothold on defining what art is, and questioning whether a thing is or is not a work of art. Danto and Dickies' artn concept also allows an infinite expansion of art conventions, but their expansion is a responsive theoretic one, which only responds to new art after it has been created. Only Beardsley tries to apply an art definition that runs concurrent with the artist as he or she creates an artwork. That unexplainable feeling we have when we are moved by an artwork is the key, the problem is, putting it into words.

Good poets are often asked what inspired them to write a particular poem that moves us, or more importantly, how they write poetry. Because the poem is an artwork that involves language, and the definition of art also involves language, one would think poetry most conducive to art explanation, however, invariably the poet's answers are varied, complex, and more often than not exercises in vagaries of abstract concepts, and therefore difficult to understand.  The initial creative spark seems unexplainable, yet starts the journey to a finished poem.

I have found no satisfactory definition or theory that defines what art is. For me, it is a positive feeling, that makes me think about what it is about a certain perception, that appeals to me. The perception, if it is an artwork, must do more than make me think, it must make me think in such a way that what my senses perceive externally, stimulate me internally in an aesthetically pleasing and/or interesting way.

                                          WORKS CITED

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld.” The Journal of Philosophy 61, (1964): Pages 27-34.

Dickie, George. “The New Institutional Theory of Art.” Proceeding of the 8th                        Wittgenstein Symposium 10 (1983): Pages 47-54.

Beardsley, Monroe C. “An Aesthetic Definition of Art.” What is Art. Ed. Hugh                     Curtler. New York: Haven Publications, 1983. Pages 55-62.

Dace, Martin. “Towards A New Art.” March, 1, 2010.

                                           Copyright: Frank Wayne 

Frank Wayne