One Way of Thinking About the “What is Art?” Question

What is an artist? Someone who makes artworks.

What is an artwork? Something which is for audiences to experience (perceive, receive, evaluate, interpret, regard, etc.).

These might seem to be definitions, but most would find them insufficient, too broad, as will be clearer shortly. However, they do seem to be true, and they give us, if not information, at least a helpful framework for thinking about art.

(The only loaded term I see above is ‘for’. The argument here comes from the notion of ‘private art’, as made e.g. (apparently) not by Emily Dickinson as she was but Emily Dickinson as we imagine her: if one writes for one’s journal, not for the public, is one still writing for an audience? I say yes: a poem (e.g.) is an entity-made-for-an-audience whether or not it is actually shown to this or that audience or not. There are cases where the difference between activities assumed private and activities assumed public is important, but I am not sure that they undermine the idea that art is in some fundamental sense communicative whether it is used to communicate or not. I also don’t accept a universal skepticism about purposes/ends of activity or our ability to perceive them in our activities and their products.)

Here’s a sort of picture:

Art Diagram

On this picture, the artwork is an entity-made-to-be-experienced.

You will find worse definitions of art than this here and there in the literature, but as it stands most people would find this too broad. Some apparent counterexamples would include roller coasters, those little plastic monsters you buy from grocery store vending machines, and (this last example thanks to Noel Carroll’s Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction) neatly manicured suburban lawns, which are prepared in meticulous detail to exacting yet plausibly undefinable formal specifications for an appreciative yet critical audience of neighbor-lawn manicurists. Most of the contested, ‘it-might-be-art’ categories like cuisine, comic books, and pornography all clearly get into the ‘art club’ on this definition.

There is something to the broad category we pick out here, though. Poems, paintings, dances, and Seven Easy Pieces are all entities-made-to-be-experienced; forks, stop signs, airplanes, and my dog are not. (They all can be experienced, and the stop sign arguably requires being experienced as a precondition for communication, but plausibly none of them are ‘for’ being experienced in the way that a painting or poem is.) So it seems at least plausible that there is some broader category here, Experiential Objects say, of which Artworks form a subset.

I can imagine a philosopher of art suggesting that Experiential Objects is the only interesting broad category into which artworks can be lumped, and that our narrower and more precise definitions of ‘art’ are actually no such thing, but rather various views about which types of makings, entities, and experiences count as ‘good’ or ‘valuable’ art, masquerading as theories of art-in-general. Certainly we use ‘art’ both as a descriptive and as an evaluative term in different contexts, and this might serve as a lever for an able art theorist/philosopher to attempt to defend the broader category as the only relevant one at the level of pure description, even while allowing that there might be good reasons to restrict good, important, or valuable art to one or more proper subsets of the Experiential Objects at the level of evaluation.

But this is not what is normally done. Instead, philosophers of art normally look to narrow down on what type of maker, entity, and/or experience count as art. Oversimplifying in the usual ways, representation theories and formalist theories narrow down on the type of entity (one which represents and/or possesses appropriate formal virtues); expression theories adverbialize the whole diagram (expressive making, expressive entities, experiencing-as-expressive), aesthetic experience theories narrow down the type of experience the object is made for, institutional theories contextualize the diagram within a special group of people, and ‘conceptual theories’ (this is a sort of catch-all term, although if you theorize about art academically from the arts and humanities and you are not in a philosophy department you may well hold such a theory – I would put Joseph Kosuth and Thierry de Duve here for example) least suggest that we take the diagram as only signifying ‘art’ when applied at the meta-level, so that a proper work of art is not just made for experience but is ‘about’ making-for-experience, sheds interesting light on it by doing it in a new way or transforming the way we think about how it is done in existing ways.

The suggestion of this post is that this might be a useful framework to think about the ‘what is art’ question in terms of. I have found it so, in any case. If there is a theory of art you like, consider what restrictions it places on the category of Experiential Objects. Why are those worthwhile restrictions to place? Why should we call just this restriction ‘art’, and exclude what lies outside it? What values do we realize in so doing? What light does this restriction shed on the actual history of art? (We don’t necessarily have to universally affirm the objects which are currently thought to belong in that history as artworks, but we do have to account for them in some way – even Tolstoy did that.)

This is not a call for a sort of universal enfranchisement of Experiential Objects in the Artworld. I have no objection to ‘art’ being an essentially normative term and discipline. The philosophical challenge might just be to understand and make a good case for that normative dimension. And the descriptive category of Experiential Objects might make a good background against which to think about which norms might be constitutive of arthood and why.


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