How best to define the term “art” is a subject of constant contention; many books and journal articles have been published arguing over even the basics of what we mean by the term “art”.Theodor Adorno claimed in 1969 “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident.”Artists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and programmers all use the notion of art in their respective fields, and give it operational definitions that are not very similar to each other. Further it is clear that even the basic meaning of the term "art" has changed several times over the centuries, and has changed within the 20th century as well.
The main recent sense of the word “art” is roughly as an abbreviation for creative art or “fine art.” Here we mean that skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the “finer” things. Often, if the skill is being used in a functional object, people will consider it a craft instead of art, a suggestion which is highly disputed by many Contemporary Craft thinkers. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way it may be considered design instead of art, or contrariwise these may be defended as art forms, perhaps called applied art. Some thinkers, for instance, have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with the actual function of the object than any clear definitional difference.Art usually implies no function other than to convey or communicate an idea.
Even as late as 1912 it was normal in the West to assume that all art aims at beauty, and thus that anything that wasn't trying to be beautiful couldn't count as art. The cubists, dadaists, Stravinsky, and many later art movements struggled against this conception that beauty was central to the definition of art, with such success that, according to Danto, "Beauty had disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960’s but from the advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well."Perhaps some notion like "expression" (in Croce’s theories) or "counter-environment" (in McLuhan’s theory) can replace the previous role of beauty. Brian Massumi brought back "beauty" into consideration together with "expression".Another concept, as important to the philosophy of art as "beauty," is that of the "sublime," elaborated upon in the twentieth century by the postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard.
Perhaps (as in Kennick's theory) no definition of art is possible anymore. Perhaps art should be thought of as a cluster of related concepts in a Wittgensteinian fashion (as in Weitz or Beuys). Another approach is to say that “art” is basically a sociological category, that whatever art schools and museums and artists define as art is considered art regardless of formal definitions. This "institutional definition of art" (see also Institutional Critique) has been championed by George Dickie. Most people did not consider the depiction of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal to be art until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (respectively) placed them in the context of art (i.e., the art gallery), which then provided the association of these objects with the associations that define art.
Proceduralists often suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it art, not any inherent feature of an object, or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world after its introduction to society at large. Whereas if exactly the same set of words was written by a journalist, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article later, these would not be a poem. Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, claims that what makes something art or not is how it is experienced by its audience, not by the intention of its creator. Functionalists like Monroe Beardsley argue that whether or not a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context; the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context (carrying wine), and an artistic function in another context (helping us to appreciate the beauty of the human figure). '
What should we judge when we judge art?
Art can be difficult at the metaphysical and ontological levels as well as at the value theory level. When we see a performance of Hamlet, how many works of art are we experiencing, and which should we judge? Perhaps there is only one relevant work of art, the whole performance, which many different people have contributed to, and which will exist briefly and then disappear. Perhaps the manuscript by Shakespeare is a distinct work of art from the play by the troupe, which is also distinct from the performance of the play by this troupe on this night, and all three can be judged, but are to be judged by different standards.
Perhaps every person involved should be judged separately on his or her own merits, and each costume or line is its own work of art (with perhaps the director having the job of unifying them all). Similar problems arise for music, film and even painting. Is one to judge the painting itself, the work of the painter, or perhaps the painting in its context of presentation by the museum workers?
These problems have been made even more difficult by the rise of conceptual art since the 1960s. Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes are nearly indistinguishable from actual Brillo boxes at the time. It would be a mistake to praise Warhol for the design of his boxes (which were designed by Steve Harvey), yet the conceptual move of exhibiting these boxes as art in a museum together with other kinds of paintings is Warhol's. Are we judging Warhol’s concept? His execution of the concept in the medium? The curator’s insight in letting Warhol display the boxes? The overall result? Our experience or interpretation of the result? Ontologically, how are we to think of the work of art? Is it a physical object? Several objects? A class of objects? A mental object? A fictional object? An abstract object? An event? Or simply an Act?
What should art be like?
Many goals have been argued for art, and aestheticians often argue that some goal or another is superior in some way. Clement Greenberg, for instance, argued in 1960 that each artistic medium should seek that which makes it unique among the possible mediums and then purify itself of anything other than expression of its own uniqueness as a form. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara on the other hand saw the function of art in 1918 as the destruction of a mad social order. “We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits.”Formal goals, creative goals, self-expression, political goals, spiritual goals, philosophical goals, and even more perceptual or aesthetic goals have all been popular pictures of what art should be like.
The value of art
Tolstoy defined art, and not incidentally characterized its value, this way: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them."
The value of art, then, is one with the value of empathy.
Other possible views are these: Art can act as a means to some special kind of knowledge. Art may give insight into the human condition. Art relates to science and religion. Art serves as a tool of education, or indoctrination, or enculturation. Art makes us more moral. It uplifts us spiritually. Art is politics by other means. Art has the value of allowing catharsis. In any case, the value of art may determine the suitability of an art form. Do they different significantly in their values, or (if not) in their ability to achieve the unitary value of art?
But to approach the question of the value of art systematically, one ought to ask: for whom? For the artist? For the audience? For society at large, and/or for individuals beyond the audience? Is the "value" of art different in each of these different contexts?
Working on the intended value of art tends to help define the relations between art and other acts. Art clearly does have spiritual goals in many contexts, but what exactly is the difference between religious art and religion per se? The truth is complex - Art is both useless in a functional sense and the most important human activity.
It has been said, that a Vogon Starship arriving at the earth and ordering its destruction would ask what use is humanity? The only justification humanity could give would be a Shakespeare play, a Rembrandt or a Bach concerto. These are the things of value which define humanity itself.
The philosopher Denis Dutton identified seven universal signatures in human aesthetics:
1.Expertise or virtuosity. Technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized, and admired.
2.Nonutilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art's sake, and don't demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table.
3.Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.
4.Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.
5.Imitation. With a few important exceptions like music and abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the world.
6.Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.
7.Imagination. Artists and their audiences entertain hypothetical worlds in the theater of the imagination.
It might be objected, however, that there are rather too many exceptions to Dutton's categories. For example, the installations of the contemporary artist Thomas Hirschhorn deliberately eschew technical virtuosity. People can appreciate a Renaissance Madonna for aesthetic reasons, but such objects often had (and sometimes still have) specific devotional functions. 'Rules of composition' that might be read into Duchamp's Fountain or John Cage's 4'33" do not locate the works in a recognizable style (or certainly not a style recognizable at the time of the works' realisation). Moreover, some of Dutton's categories seem too broad: a physicist might entertain hypothetical worlds in his/her imagination in the course of formulating a theory.
Increasingly, academics in both the sciences and the humanities are looking to evolutionary psychology and cognitive science in an effort to understand the connection between psychology and aesthetics. Aside from Dutton, others exploring this realm include Brian Boyd, Noel Carroll, Nancy Easterlin, David Evans, Jonathan Gottschall, Paul Hernadi, Bracha Ettinger, Patrick Hogan, Elaine Scarry, Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Wendy Steiner, Robert Storey, Frederick Turner, and Mark Turner.
Zangwill, Nick. "Aesthetic Judgment", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 02-28-2003/10-22-2007. Retrieved 07-24-2008
Clement Greenberg, “On Modernist Painting”
Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI), NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. ISBN 0-393-31775-7.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment
Consider Clement Greenberg’s arguments in "On Modernist Painting" (1961), reprinted in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of Arts
The visual arts are art forms that create works which are primarily visual in nature, such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, printmaking, modern visual arts (photography, video, and filmmaking), design and crafts. These definitions should not be taken too strictly as many artistic disciplines (performing arts, conceptual art, textile arts) involve aspects of the visual arts as well as arts of other types. Also included within the visual arts are the applied arts such as industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design and decorative art.