Thursday, September 20, 2018

Does Defining Art Make Any Difference?

This post is an updated and expanded form of an essay that I wrote in my college Aesthetics class! I am excited to share some expanded and edited versions of my essays here (since I did spend plenty of time working on them, and I'd hate for them to rot away in my hard drive forever!)

In the history of art, especially more recent history, the question has been raised countless times on what the true definition of art is. Some philosophers believe that anything and everything can be art, while others have more strict guidelines upon which they base their judgment. Many of these more strict interpretations on which art is defined leave out large groups of creations, such as animal art or even readymades such as Duchamp's Fountain. Is it really that important to come up with a universal definition for what we refer to as “art?” Does it matter whether or not there is a universal definition?


The answer is, to be very clear, no. The biggest reason for this is because there are too many variations on attempted definitions, each of which make valid points that are invariably contradicted by another. In trying to create a single definition for something that is reflected differently across countless classes, cultures, ideological groups, sexes, and social situations, art would become nothing more than a pretentiously elite collection of less than 1% of everything that are considered art in any setting.

Dickie's Institutional Theory of Art

If we follow the criteria set by George Dickie in The Institutional Theory of Art, paintings and other media used by animals such as gorillas, chimps, and birds would already be excluded from the conversation unless a human being were to take it and put it out to be displayed. Other common definitions on art would be exclusive of pieces like Duchamp's readymades, digital paintings, abstract art, or even the design of furniture or dishware intended for mass-production.

Not only that, but many postmodern theorists feel that creating a universal definition art would “marginalize artists not in the mainstream of the 'First World' countries.” In other words, inhabitants of countries whose population is poor and has less access to the mechanical and creative innovations of the more rich countries would have less of a chance to be considered an “artist” despite what they may be capable of creating.

The Sentifact Theory

A Bower Bird in his nest, with a prospective mate

The Sentifact Theory is possibly the most lenient and forgiving idea of defining art, with the only criteria being that a piece is “any sentifact that has been intentionally created as a candidate for aesthetic notice by means of a perceptual shift.” Perceptual shift is a device used by our brains to see one thing as another through conscious decision. A common example used to explain perceptual shift is the "Duck-Rabbit" image; depending on how your mind perceives the image you will see either a duck or a rabbit, but you can also choose to switch between perceiving both. This principal applies in more complex ways as well. Instead of simply seeing something for it's face value, we can see it as a work of art by choosing to do so. 


The term “sentifact” includes anything created by a sentient being, as opposed to an “artifact,” which only applies to human creations. This obviously negates and opposes Dickie's artifact-based notions of eligibility for bestowing upon an object the title of “art.” However, does it make sense to negate the intention and choice behind the creations of some non-human animals? An article from BBC entitled "Creativity: The Weird and Wonderful Art of Animals," explores not only the paintings created by some primates, but also some other, less obvious examples. Author Jason G Goldman references the Bower bird, and the elaborate nesting structures males of the species use to attract females. One notation in particular gives some proof of the conscious choice of aesthetic exhibited by these birds:
"The males place each item in their bowers with great precision; if the objects are moved, the birds return them to the original arrangement."
It is concluded that bower-building is " a culturally transmitted creative process where each bird had his or her own individual tastes and preferences, and where each decision is made with intention and care." When non-human animals are, in fact, observed making conscious aesthetic decisions not just in quick choices but also in creations of their own, can this not be considered a form of art?

What About Everything Else?

Yet another belief held by some philosophers is that art is an open concept; in other words, absolutely anything and everything can be art. Under the open concept theory, natural occurrences like a sunset, waves eroding the coast, and lightning striking a tree would be considered art in and of themselves without any need for purpose, intention, or a human bestowing artifactuality on them. This is in discordance with both Dickie's theory and the Sentifact theory.


In the grand scheme of the world, it is futile and pointless to try and create a universally accepted definition for art. There will always be those who disagree with whatever definition is generated, especially with the growing opinion that art is in its most basic form a means of communication and expression. As society and technology evolve so shall the world of “art” expand, despite the many who hold more selective opinions of what constitutes whether something is art. It doesn't make much sense to put a strict definition on an ever-changing field.

Non-Web Sources

Dickie, George. "(Appendix) The Institutional Theory of Art." Beginning Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. Ed. John M. Valentine. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2001. 180-200. Print.

Valentine, John M. Beginning Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2001. PDF. Chapter 1-2

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