What is Art?

a week ago i started reading on the internet about the definitions of art, mostly john dewey’s Art as Experience, a philosophical outlook. i was curious to hear what my art history professor had to say on the subject. here’s what i emailed him (i have edited it severely):

hey professor rosenberg,

…What makes art ART? how is it defined? how does an individual qualify it? i’ve begun some reading from John Dewey’s Art as Experience and i’m discovering that i don’t really know why something is art while something may not be. for example, how do i explain that bob ross (the joy of painting show on pbs) isn’t necessarily art, while austin collins’s [head of art department] sculptures are?

basically, i’ve learned (to some degree) how to view art, to pull out themes, what i enjoy, but how do i explain to someone what art is?

alas, maybe it is rooted in theme and expression, and craft and aesthetics play
their roles, but it’s a matter of thresholds, i believe, which i guess are measured

can you point me to some books or essays on this subject? and/or, are you willing to respond with your thoughts?

this is what he had to say (with a few typos). the guy rolls out term papers off the top of his head in reply emails. incredible.


You certainly are asking a set of big questions. What follows are simply MY musings on these matters, and as such they have the status of opinion, not fact.

I don’t think that there is any definitive answer as to what constitutes a work of art. In my mind, both the paintings of Bob Ross and the metal sculptures of Austin Collins are art. What makes them so is a combination of intention and reception. Was it the intention of the object’s creator to make a work of art? Did he set out to make something in which aesthetic decisions played a significant, if not necessarily all-consuming role in its final form? Did or does the public approach the object from an aesthetic perspective? Did they or do they tend to evaluate its success or failure primarily, but again not necessarily exclusively, by aesthetic criteria? If the answer to one or the other of these two categories is yes, then I would consider the object to be a work of art.

At the same time, I would be careful not to limit the definition of “art” to objects which are or were meant to be judged exclusively by aesthetic criteria. Altarpieces, for examples, which the casual, secular museum visitor might tend to look at from an almost exclusively aesthetic point of view, were, in their original conception, first and foremost significant religious statements, guides to worship, ritual markers, etc. Whether or not these paintings were allowed to have a public life in the fifteenth or the sixteenth centuries depended as much, if not more, on theological criteria. The “beauty of an altarpiece,” its aesthetic impact, was seen primarily as means of engaging the viewer’s attention, so that more important spiritual work would be accomplished.

In more contemporary terms, I would allow apparently mundane objects which have obvious practical functions, such as teapots, clocks, cars, even bulldozers, to be discussed as works of art to the extent that aesthetic considerations played as a major role in their design. The question of whether or not these objects were mass produced does not effect [sic] their potential status as works of art since we allow mechanically produced multiples, such as prints and photographs, to be classified as works of art. Furthermore, an insistence on some sort of direct intervention by the artist in the production of the object runs into all sort of contemporary definitional difficulties, particularly if one accepts film or computer
generated images as a form of art. At the same time, I do subscribe to one very important definitional limitation: a work of art must be made by a human. Since there must be an element of intentionality and thought behind art, nature (including elephants and monkeys) is incapable of producing it. This does not mean that the natural can not be beautiful, or even that, as happens in photography, for example, the natural cannot be reframed through human intention and made into a work of art. It simply means that unmediated products of nature are not art.

From my perspective, then, the question of whether or not something is art hinges on questions of both origin, intention, and reception. Duchamp’s urinal/fountain and bottle rack, became works of art because he redefined them as such, and the public, in turn, willing to accept his puckish redefinitions, began to look at these objects not simply as practical artefacts, but as pieces of sculpture with formal values, i.e. to seek the aesthetic behind the pragmatic.

One can get into a discussion of the difference between high art and low art, between fine art and kitsch. But these distinctions seems to me to be more relevant to a discussion of the sociology of art, rather than the legitimacy of calling a particular category of object a work of art or not.

A more germane question is whether or not an individual piece by Bob Ross or Austin Collins is an example of good or bad art. Quality is not a simple matter of aesthetic intention or reception. Making qualitative judgements can, of coruse, be quite tricky since one has to decide whether to assert absolute rules, e.g. formal order and coherence, conceptual integrity, originality, etc., which are more or less uniformly applied to objects claiming the status of art regardless of period, scale, or even intention; to adhere to a philosophy of relativism, i.e. allowing every period andevery artist the right to define its own qualitative ground rules, that it’s all a matter of taste; or to choose some sort of middle ground, e.g. establishing rules which work for you but which are open to discussion and revision.

The problem of defining quality is primarily the work of aesthetician, critic, art teacher, and, I suppose, artist himself. I am none of these by profession. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions which I am willing to discuss and defend. It simply means that holding and defending these opinions is not a necessary component of my professional identity. You don’t have to make qualitative judgments in order to be a good art historian; you do to be a good artist and a good art teacher, i.e. you can’t let a student or yourself get away with everything in the name of personal expression.

As for reading suggestions, I really have none to offer. Pretty amazing for an academic.

DanExplanations05/28/03 3 comments


Dad • 06/01/03 11:30 AM:

Wow! Great job in catching your prof’s misuse of the word “effect” and putting [sic] in the reproduced email. I love that. As for art, I agree with most of his lengthy analysis, maybe all of it, altough I’d need more time to think about it. I’m especially intrigued by his artistic bulldozer. The best bulldozer I ever saw was the one I watched covering over our septic tank when I was a boy. We had moved into our suburban Milwaukee house during the winter of 1949-50, and it must have been the spring of 1950 that my dad (as the man of the house, he was naturally in charge of the outside) hired some guy to finish off the landscaping. From a safe distance, I watched this grizzled veteran work the controls of his relatively small, beat up, bulldozer to push loads of light brown, clayish dirt into a small but well-shaped hill on the eastern side of our small ranch home. Whether from a young boy’s awe-induced self-delusion, or from real verifiable facts, or some newly-formed aesthetic sense, I have always remembered the performance of that bulldozer as my benchmark for earth-moving equipment. I have often watched bulldozers through the years (there were always houses going up in our subdivision, from my early childhood until I was into college) and none has every matched the performance of that first dozer from 1950. I don’t now his name, but its operator was a true artist.

Patrick • 06/01/03 12:07 PM:

Actually, I put the “[sic]” in there when I went through and edited Dan’s entry to give it proper line breaks. I go crazy when people just hit one return between their paragraphs, because there is no tab in HTML, so your paragraphs get all jumbled up. That’s my aesthetic sense: in web pages, you have to have a full empty line between paragraphs. I am somewhat dismayed that Dan does not have this same violent, physical reaction against such uglinesses. He’s the designer, you know.

On the subject of art, I’m impressed by the professor’s intelligent argument, but I think what Dan meant, and what we’re most interested in, is the question he leaves unanswered, “What is good art?” I’d like to hear a good treatise on that one.

And if art needs some functionality, well, at least design does, then I’d like to nominate Adi’s pyjamas for a bad-design sanction. They have their button-hole slits horizontal all down the shirt front. What a dumb idea! And there’s no excuse for it either. Everybody knows that shirt button holes go vertically. There’s no room for creativity there! Just do it right!

Dad • 06/01/03 1:59 PM:

Gosh; such vituperation over paragraph spacing. Anyway, my last comment kind of took over and went it’s own way instead of where I originally intended. Maybe that’s also a quality of art, no? (By the way, just noticed that if you mess up the spacing, “of art” becomes “o fart.”)

I think art is a fundamental part of what it is that makes us human. Maybe it’s part of our brain makeup, similar to what some say is our inherent language sense. Ages ago, I can envision the world’s first artist piling up some rocks, or lining up some sticks, or using his finger to make an outline in the sand, and then tapping his buddy on the shoulder and saying, “Ugh”; which in those days meant, “Look what I did.” His buddy then either nodded “Ugh” or looked perplexed and said, “Huh?” Anyway, art was born that day, and has been fruitfully multiplying ever since (with or without government funding).

There is no way of knowing how long it took for the first art critic to evolve, but my guess it that it took many centuries if not millenia. (Or, after about 10 seconds of reflection on the previous comment, I’m inclined to say that maybe it didn’t take any time at all, especially if the first artist was married.) In any event, the critic would have added the concept of good and bad art, but I’m still convinced that what is good or bad in in the eye of the behonder. Cultural consensus has, of course, tended to codify the properties that characterize the good, the bad, and the ugly, but I think this is largely vanity and pomposity. As I said in another comment on something else, art either moves you or it doesn’t, and it’s hard to find art that doesn’t move at least someone.

Finally, and this is for Patrick, if you really cared about the aesthetics of these comments, you’d put in a spell checker.

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

Please capitalize your name properly and use the same information each time you comment. We will not send you spam, and your email address will not be posted.

Remember me?


Related Entries