The Philosophy of Art

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Thomas Aquinas, who expressed it in Latin by the phrase recta ratio factibilium , the right conception or reason or understanding of a thing that is to be made. The essential character of art taken in its complete extension is to instruct us how to make something, so that it is constructed, formed, or arranged, as it ought to be, and thus to secure the perfection or goodness, not of the maker, but of the object itself which he makes.

Art therefore belongs to the practical order in the sense that it instructs us how to make something…. The important point to take from this is that art concerns something made or to be made, and refers specifically to the learned human capacity or skill in being able to do so. The human race requires such skills in order to create the necessary external objects and devices to assist and support a truly human life.

We build shelters, make clothes, prepare our food, make music, tools, weapons, tame other animals, and the like. Although other animals do some of these things, mankind is unique in that we do these things not primarily by instinct, but rather we discover methods for doing them and can transmit the knowledge of these methods to the next generation.

Hence we create various arts: the art of building, cooking, bookbinding, woodworking, etc.

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We should note also that art presumes the social nature of humanity. Not only are the arts handed down from one generation to the next, but they exist in the context of human social life. Even if an isolated individual did discover an art, he could not transmit that art to anyone else, and it would not become part of the patrimony of the human species. From this we can understand that every art is a means for accomplishing some end appropriate to human life.

But in this matter is there an essential difference between the fine arts and those arts called practical or useful? In fact, is it really correct to speak of one class of arts as more practical or useful than the other? If we visit an art museum we will notice that the objects exhibited there that originated before roughly the middle of the eighteenth century were created not to be housed in a museum, but for some purpose considered practical and as part of human social life. Statues and paintings were used in religious worship, both in pre-Christian and Christian ages, or were made to commemorate historic events or to adorn public buildings or monuments.

The same is true of most of the music composed in that time; it was intended as the musical accompaniment of divine worship or dancing or military marching, aspects of everyday life, not for performance at a concert. In other words, what we call the fine arts were not essentially different from the arts usually called practical.


Both kinds had specific roles in social life, and moreover, both tried to incorporate beauty as best as the artist and the nature of his artistic purpose could manage. Every architect, every maker of furniture or swords or goblets was as interested as every composer or painter in incorporating beauty into his artistic creations, even if the latter had more scope for doing so because their particular arts admitted of a wider range of possibilities.

Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics

In fact, the distinction between fine arts and practical arts is largely artificial, in that originally each had not only an obvious practical aim and social purpose, but their creators endeavored to incorporate beauty as far as the respective functions of their arts would allow. If it is correct that there is no hard and fast distinction between the fine arts and other arts, how does beauty relate to the arts then? Despite what has often been said, originally at least, creators of works of fine art did not aim at beauty directly as an abstract quality.

The beauty of music for the sacred liturgy was not the same as the beauty of music for dancing or marching. Each artist aimed at a beauty appropriate to the object to be made. But so did makers of furniture or ceramic jars or carriages. In each case both function and beauty were sought according to the limitations of the art. Thomas Aquinas remarks that while every artist seeks to make his products in the most beautiful way possible, the purpose or use of the object will override an abstract pursuit of beauty,. This is a fundamental principle to understand: in any object of art, while beauty generally is sought, it is at the same time subordinate to the purpose of the object being made.

The composer of music for a liturgical text, for example, must remember that he is writing for an actual religious service, and not make his work over long. An ancient Greek sculptor, carving a statue of a Greek god, would have to consider the size of the temple in which it was to be placed.

The constraints of making art objects which were to be a part of human social existence exercised a discipline on the artist, so that his creative genius had to be harmonized with the intended use of what he was making, as well as with the expectations of his patrons, who had some definite practical aim in mind when they commissioned the work. Against this view: since things do not resemble each other simpliciter , but only in at least one respect or other, the account is either far too inclusive, since everything resembles everything else in some respect or other, or, if the variety of resemblance is specified, tantamount to a definition, since resemblance in that respect will be either a necessary or sufficient condition for being an artwork.

The family resemblance view raises questions, moreover, about the membership and unity of the class of paradigm artworks. If the account lacks an explanation of why some items and not others go on the list of paradigm works, it seems explanatorily deficient. The cluster version of the family resemblance view has been defended by a number of philosophers Bond , Dissanayake , Dutton , Gaut The view typically provides a list of properties, no one of which is a necessary condition for being a work of art, but which are jointly sufficient for being a work of art, and which is such that at least one proper subset thereof is sufficient for being a work of art.

Lists offered vary, but overlap considerably. Here is one, due to Gaut: 1 possessing positive aesthetic properties; 2 being expressive of emotion; 3 being intellectually challenging; 4 being formally complex and coherent; 5 having the capacity to convey complex meanings; 6 exhibiting an individual point of view; 7 being original; 8 being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill; 9 belonging to an established artistic form; 10 being the product of an intention to make a work of art Gaut The cluster account has been criticized on several grounds.

Second, if the list of properties is incomplete, as some cluster theorists hold, then some justification or principle would be needed for extending it. Third, the inclusion of the ninth property on the list, belonging to an established art form , seems to regenerate or duck , rather than answer, the definitional question. Finally, it is worth noting that, although cluster theorists stress what they take to be the motley heterogeneity of the class of artworks, they tend with surprising regularity to tacitly give the aesthetic a special, perhaps unifying, status among the properties they put forward as merely disjunctive.

One cluster theorist, for example, gives a list very similar to the one discussed above it includes representational properties, expressiveness, creativity, exhibiting a high degree of skill, belonging to an established artform , but omits aesthetic properties on the grounds that it is the combination of the other items on the list which, combined in the experience of the work of art, are precisely the aesthetic qualities of the work Dutton Gaut, whose list is cited above, includes aesthetic properties as a separate item on the list, but construes them very narrowly; the difference between these ways of formulating the cluster view appears to be mainly nominal.

Definitions of art attempt to make sense of two different sorts of facts: art has important historically contingent cultural features, as well as trans-historical, pan-cultural characteristics that point in the direction of a relatively stable aesthetic core. Whether the concept of art is precise enough to justify this much confidence about what falls under its extension claim is unclear.

Such classically-flavored definitions take traditional concepts like the aesthetic or allied concepts like the formal, or the expressive as basic, and aim to account for the phenomena by making those concepts harder — for example, by endorsing a concept of the aesthetic rich enough to include non-perceptual properties, or by attempting an integration of those concepts e.

Conventionalist definitions deny that art has essential connection to aesthetic properties, or to formal properties, or to expressive properties, or to any type of property taken by traditional definitions to be essential to art. Conventionalist definitions have been strongly influenced by the emergence, in the twentieth century, of artworks that seem to differ radically from all previous artworks.

Conventionalist definitions have also been strongly influenced by the work of a number of historically-minded philosophers, who have documented the rise and development of modern ideas of the fine arts, the individual arts, the work of art, and the aesthetic Kristeller, Shiner, Carroll, Goehr, Kivy. Conventionalist definitions come in two varieties, institutional and historical. Institutionalist conventionalism, or institutionalism, a synchronic view, typically hold that to be a work of art is to be an artifact of a kind created, by an artist, to be presented to an artworld public Dickie Historical conventionalism, a diachronic view, holds that artworks necessarily stand in an art-historical relation to some set of earlier artworks.

The groundwork for institutional definitions was laid by Arthur Danto, better known to non-philosophers as the long-time influential art critic for the Nation. Clause iv is what makes the definition institutionalist. The view has been criticized for entailing that art criticism written in a highly rhetorical style is art, lacking but requiring an independent account of what makes a context art historical , and for not applying to music.

The most prominent and influential institutionalism is that of George Dickie. According to an early version, a work of art is an artifact upon which some person s acting on behalf of the artworld has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation Dickie Both versions have been widely criticized. Philosophers have objected that art created outside any institution seems possible, although the definition rules it out, and that the artworld, like any institution, seems capable of error. Davies , pp. Early on, Dickie claimed that anyone who sees herself as a member of the artworld is a member of the artworld: if this is true, then unless there are constraints on the kinds of things the artworld can put forward as artworks or candidate artworks, any entity can be an artwork though not all are , which appears overly expansive.

Finally, Matravers has helpfully distinguished strong and weak institutionalism. Strong institutionalism holds that there is some reason that is always the reason the art institution has for saying that something is a work of art. Weak institutionalism holds that, for every work of art, there is some reason or other that the institution has for saying that it is a work of art Matravers Manipulating an artistic vehicle is in turn possible only if the artist consciously operates with reference to shared understandings embodied in the practices of a community of receivers.

The valued functions collective belief in which make an institution an art institution are those spelled out by Gaut in his cluster account see section 3. Some institutional social kinds have this trait: something can fail to be a token of that kind even if there is collective agreement that it counts as a token of that kind.

Suppose someone gives a big cocktail party, to which everyone in Paris invited, and things get so out of hand that the casualty rate is greater than the Battle of Austerlitz. Even if everyone thinks the event was a cocktail party, it is possible contrary to Searle that they are mistaken: it may have been a war or battle. All of them are, or resemble, inductive definitions: they claim that certain entities belong unconditionally to the class of artworks, while others do so because they stand in the appropriate relations thereto.

A second version, historical narrativism, comes in several varieties. On one, a sufficient but not necessary condition for the identification of a candidate as a work of art is the construction of a true historical narrative according to which the candidate was created by an artist in an artistic context with a recognized and live artistic motivation, and as a result of being so created, it resembles at least one acknowledged artwork Carroll On another, more ambitious and overtly nominalistic version of historical narrativism, something is an artwork if and only if 1 there are internal historical relations between it and already established artworks; 2 these relations are correctly identified in a narrative; and 3 that narrative is accepted by the relevant experts.

The experts do not detect that certain entities are artworks; rather, the fact that the experts assert that certain properties are significant in particular cases is constitutive of art Stock The similarity of these views to institutionalism is obvious, and the criticisms offered parallel those urged against institutionalism. First, historical definitions appear to require, but lack, any informative characterization of art traditions art functions, artistic contexts, etc. Correlatively, non-Western art, or alien, autonomous art of any kind appears to pose a problem for historical views: any autonomous art tradition or artworks — terrestrial, extra-terrestrial, or merely possible — causally isolated from our art tradition, is either ruled out by the definition, which seems to be a reductio , or included, which concedes the existence of a supra-historical concept of art.

So, too, there could be entities that for adventitious reasons are not correctly identified in historical narratives, although in actual fact they stand in relations to established artworks that make them correctly describable in narratives of the appropriate sort. Second, historical definitions also require, but do not provide a satisfactory, informative account of the basis case — the first artworks, or ur-artworks, in the case of the intentional-historical definitions, or the first or central art-forms, in the case of historical functionalism. Third, nominalistic historical definitions seem to face a version of the Euthyphro dilemma.

If, on one hand, they include no characterization of what it is to be an expert, and hence no explanation as to why the list of experts contains the people it does, then they imply that what makes things artworks is inexplicable. On the other hand, suppose such definitions provide a substantive account of what it is to be an expert, so that to be an expert is to possess some ability lacked by non-experts taste, say in virtue of the possession of which they are able to discern historical connections between established artworks and candidate artworks.

Defenders of historical definitions have replies. First, as regards autonomous art traditions, it can be held that anything we would recognize as an art tradition or an artistic practice would display aesthetic concerns, because aesthetic concerns have been central from the start, and persisted centrally for thousands of years, in the Western art tradition. Hence it is an historical, not a conceptual truth that anything we recognize as an art practice will centrally involve the aesthetic; it is just that aesthetic concerns that have always dominated our art tradition Levinson But this principle entails, implausibly, that every concept is purely historical.

Suppose that we discovered a new civilization whose inhabitants could predict how the physical world works with great precision, on the basis of a substantial body of empirically acquired knowledge that they had accumulated over centuries. The reason we would credit them with having a scientific tradition might well be that our own scientific tradition has since its inception focused on explaining things. It does not seem to follow that science is a purely historical concept with no essential connection to explanatory aims. Second, as to the first artworks, or the central art-forms or functions, some theorists hold that an account of them can only take the form of an enumeration.

Stecker takes this approach: he says that the account of what makes something a central art form at a given time is, at its core, institutional, and that the central artforms can only be listed Stecker and Whether relocating the list at a different, albeit deeper, level in the definition renders the definition sufficiently informative is an open question. Experts are able, it is said, to create new categories of art. When created, new categories bring with them new universes of discourse. New universes of discourse in turn make reasons available that otherwise would not be available. Traditional definitions take some function s or intended function s to be definitive of artworks.

Here only aesthetic definitions, which connect art essentially with the aesthetic — aesthetic judgments, experience, or properties — will be considered. Different aesthetic definitions incorporate different views of aesthetic properties and judgments. See the entry on aesthetic judgment. As noted above, some philosophers lean heavily on a distinction between aesthetic properties and artistic properties, taking the former to be perceptually striking qualities that can be directly perceived in works, without knowledge of their origin and purpose, and the latter to be relational properties that works possess in virtue of their relations to art history, art genres, etc.

It is also, of course, possible to hold a less restrictive view of aesthetic properties, on which aesthetic properties need not be perceptual; on this broader view, it is unnecessary to deny what it seems pointless to deny, that abstracta like mathematical entities and scientific laws possess aesthetic properties. The latter are ways of being beautiful or ugly; aesthetic in virtue of a special close relation to verdictive judgments, which are subjectively universal.

Other aesthetic definitions build in different accounts of the aesthetic. Or one might define aesthetic properties as those having an evaluative component, whose perception involves the perception of certain formal base properties, such as shape and color De Clercq , and construct an aesthetic definition incorporating that view. Views which combine features of institutional and aesthetic definitions also exist.

Aesthetic definitions have been criticized for being both too narrow and too broad.


Duchamp famously asserted that his urinal, Fountain , was selected for its lack of aesthetic features. Aesthetic definitions are held to be too broad because beautifully designed automobiles, neatly manicured lawns, and products of commercial design are often created with the intention of being objects of aesthetic appreciation, but are not artworks. Moreover, aesthetic views have been held to have trouble making sense of bad art see Dickie ; Davies , p. Finally, more radical doubts about aesthetic definitions center on the intelligibility and usefulness of the aesthetic.

To these criticisms several responses have been offered. First, the less restrictive conception of aesthetic properties mentioned above, on which they may be based on non-perceptual formal properties, can be deployed. Wittgenstein noted that there is nothing to distinguish someone's raising his arm from someone's arm going up, though the distinction between even the simplest action and a mere bodily movement seems fundamental to the way we think of our freedom. Kant sought a criterion for moral action in the fact that it is done from principles rather than simply in conformity with those principles, even though outward behavior might be indistinguishable between the two.

In all these cases one must seek the differences outside the juxtaposed and puzzling examples, and this is no less the case when seeking to account for the differences between works of art and mere real things which happen exactly to resemble them. This problem could have been raised at any time, and not just with the somewhat minimal sorts of works one might suspect the Brillo Boxes to be. It was always conceivable that exact counterparts to the most prized and revered works of art could have come about in ways inconsistent with their being works at all, though no observable differences could be found.

I have imagined cases in which an artist dumps a lot of paint in a centrifuge she then spins, just "to see what happens" - and what happens is that it all splats against the wall in an array of splotches that cannot be told by the unaided eye from The Legend of the True Cross , by Piero della Francesca. Or the forces of nature act through millennnia on a large piece of rock until something not to be told apart from the Apollo Belvedere results.

Nor are these imaginary possibilities restricted to painting, sculpture, and architecture. There are the famous chimpanzees who, typing at random, knocked out all the plays of Shakespeare. But Wordsworth sought to make poetry out of the most commonplace language, while Auden invented a style of reading poetry which was indistinguishable from ordinary talking - so for all anyone could tell, Moliere's M. Jourdain could have been speaking poetry rather than prose all his life. John Cage has made the division between music and noise problematic, leaving it possible that sets of sounds from the street could be music, while other sets which we would spontaneously suppose music happen not to be, just because of the circumstances of their production.

And it takes little effort to imagine a dance in which the dancers do ordinary things in the ordinary ways; a dance could consist in someone sitting reading a book.

The Philosophy of Art | Aesthetics | General Philosophy | Subjects | Wiley

I once saw Baryshnikov break into a football player's run on stage, and I thought it altogether wonderful. True, it may seem difficult to suppose art could have begun with these puzzling works - but it cannot be forgotten that when philosophy first noticed art it was in connection with the possibility of deception. Now the "dreariness of aesthetics" was diagnosed as due to the effort of philosophers to find a definition of art, and a number of philosophical critics, much under the influence of Wittgenstein, contended that such a definition was neither possible nor necessary.

It was not possible because the class of art works seemed radically open, so much so that no set of conditions could be imagined which would be necessary and sufficient for something to be a member. Luckily, there was no need for a definition, since we seem to have had no difficulty in picking out the works of art without benefit of one. And indeed something like this may very well have appeared true until the Warhol boxes came along. For if something is a work of art while something apparently exactly like it is not, it is extremely unlikely we could be certain we could pick the art work out even with a definition.

Perhaps we really have no such skill at all. Still, to the degree that there is a difference, some theory is needed to account for it, and the problem of finding such a theory becomes central and urgent.

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Nor is this merely a matter of abstract concern to philosophers, for it is in response to a question which arose within the world of art itself. Philosophers of the tradition, to the degree that they had thought about art at all, thought chiefly about the art of their own time: Plato, about the illusionistic sculptures of his contemporaries; Kant, about the tasteful objects of the Enlightenment; Nietzsche, about Wagnerian opera; the Wittgensteinians, about the extraordinary proliferation of styles in the twentieth century, when a whole period of art history appeared to last about six months.

But the Warhol boxes, though clearly of their time, raised the most general question about art that can be raised, as though the most radical possibilities had at last been realized. It was, in fact, as though art had brought the question of its own identity to consciousness at last. However this identity is to be articulated, it is clear that it cannot be based upon anything works of art have in common with their counterparts.

One prominent theorist, for example, regards paintings as very complex perceptual objects.

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