A Philosopher's Blog

Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid?

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2011
English: Jerry Holkins (Tycho of Penny Arcade)

Image via Wikipedia

Like most gamers, I am a regular reader of Penny Arcade. In his 12/12/2011 column, Jerry Holkins made some interesting comments about defining art. As a philosophy professor who teaches an aesthetic class every spring semester, I was pleased to see two of my interests merge (like a fireball merging into a pack of gnolls).

Holkins is not a man who minces words or treads lightly across the interwebs. He states quite directly that

I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.  Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art.  I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.  This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake.  The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex..

Being, I suppose, in the intellectual class I naturally take some issue with his remarks.  However, being honest, I must also admit that there is truth in what he says. First, the issue taking.

Having taught aesthetics for quite some time I have read a multitude of attempts to define art. Some of them are, in fact, what could be called stupid. However, there are many that are serious attempts to engage a difficult problem in an intelligent manner. As such, I would not be inclined to call them “stupid” in the usual meaning of the term. For example, Mill might be wrong about art, but his attempt to address the matter hardly seem to be imbecilic. But, to be fair, perhaps Holkins has only read stupid definitions of “art” (perhaps including my own works on the subject). Now to the admittance of truth.

As noted above, I would not be inclined to call all philosophical attempts to define art as “stupid.” However, it seems evident that they have all been less than successful, at least to date. Otherwise, of course, we would already have our correct definition and a just and right sorting out the art from non-art could finally commence.

Holkins goes on to add that

If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack.  But it doesn’t.  It’s entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby.  The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur.  Its effete and its fucking disgusting.

Holkins is right that many attempts to define art aim at excluding things from the realm of art. Or, at the very least, as rejecting certain art as bad art. Tolstoy, to use an obvious example, was rather concerned with distinguishing between what he regarded as real art and what he took to be counterfeit art (in his sense of the term). Mill, however, seemed to be genuinely concerned with avoiding creating a merely academic definition of “art” in his discussion of the matter in the context of poetry. However, even he seemed rather judgmental in his categorizing of novels versus poetry. However, there does seem to be some value in determining what is and what is not art.

As with any difficult activity, it is quite reasonable to enquire why it is worthwhile to take the trouble to try to define “art” or even specific types of art. There are three general reasons to do so.

First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.

To provide a concrete focus for this, I will play the devil’s advocate…or perhaps the philistine’s advocate and present some cases of dubious art.

When I was a graduate student atOhioStateUniversity, I encountered works that seemed to be more the work of clever scam artists than true artists. Once, when I was running, I encountered what appeared to be construction scaffolding. Since it was blocking my running route, I assumed that it had most likely been dragged there by drunken frat boys. I tried to kick the structure over, but it was fortunate it was well enough constructed to stand up to my half-hearted attempt. It turned out that Ohio State had paid to have these wooden structures erected around campus at the direction of an (alleged) artist. In a second encounter, I came across sheets of plywood that had been painted blue. Seeing that they were leaning against trees, I assumed someone had painted them and had set them up to dry-I had done the exact same thing myself when working a summer painting job. But, much to my surprise, it turned out that I had been in the presence of the work of an artist.

In my third encounter, Ohio State had paid another artist to design a pyramid made out of cinder blocks. Once completed by workers, the pyramid was painted white. The local skate punks found the structure ideal for doing skating tricks and one even claimed that he had made something like it back home, only much smaller. This caused him to wonder of he was an artist. After learning that he had not been paid to construct his pyramid, I assured him that he was, in fact, not an artist.

In my fourth encounter, I came across an illuminated fish tank filled with inflated condoms. I assumed this was a prank, but once again I was informed that I had been blessed with an artistic experience.

In my fifth encounter I went to a show on art relating to AIDS. Though AIDS is serious, the art presented seemed much less so. One example I vividly recall is a scene consisting of large sheets of packing Styrofoam “inhabited” by store bought stuffed seal toys. I considered rescuing, in a Green Peace fashion, the seals from their Styrofoam prison but thought that might be inappropriate.

In addition to showing that I am most likely a philistine with no true appreciation of modern art, these cases illustrate the importance of defining art. If my assessment, namely that none of these things counted as art, was correct, then Ohio State had most likely wasted money that could have been used to acquire real art or perhaps to pay graduate students a bit more for their indentured servitude. If my assessment was mistaken, then perhaps it had been money well spent.

Without an adequate definition of art, there would be no rational way to settle this dispute and the alleged artists would not be able to justify their claim to the money. After all, if one expects money for a product or service, it is up to that person to prove that the goods are as claimed. Since this is accepted practice in other sales, there seems no principled reason to grant a special exemption to artists.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that the use of a definition of art would be rather useful to both sides. For the purchaser of art, it can assist in avoiding being ripped off by pseudo-art. For the artist it can provide grounds for proving the worth of her goods.  Without such a basis for rational discussion, there would not be a principle way to settle such matters.

Second, classifying something as art and the creator as an artist gives them both a certain status. Art is typically regarded as having a status that is different from that of non-art and this status often affords art special protection and treatment. Further, artists are often regarded as having a special status that entitles them to special rights or privileges, such as the right to control their work after they have sold it and the view that they should be treated as a cut above the herd. Without an adequate definition of art or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, it would be rather difficult to rationally discuss the matter of the status of an alleged work of art or that of its creator. For example, without a principled way to distinguish art from non art, the claim that an artist has a special right to control her work after it has been sold would be baseless. After all, how would one know whether she was an artist or a mere pretender? How would one know whether her alleged art was art, or merely another commercial product subject to the same consumer whims as a hamburger or a pair of jeans?

Such classifications also have extensive social and political implications, especially in cases involving specific cultures, ethnic groups or genders. For example, to regard the alleged art of a culture as not really being art is to dismiss that aspect of the culture. While it should not be assumed that all such cultural manifestations are art, it would be a mere prejudice to deny such potential art a fair hearing. Without an adequate definition of art, disputes over the true status of the works of a culture, gender or ethnic group become mere expressions of empty opinions. After all, without a basis for settling the disagreement, any position is as well founded as the other-that is to say, not at all. If one person claims that, for example, rap is mere noise and not art, then she is no more wrong or right than a person who asserts that classical music is not art and is also mere noise.

Third, and finally, artists and critics need to know the difference in order to create and judge art-otherwise they would not know what they are doing.

If a person claims to be a critic or an artist then it seems reasonable to expect her to be able to justify her judgments about art. If she can justify them, then she must have standards that she is appealing to-in other words, she must have a definition of art. If she lacks such standards, then her judgments must be unfounded. In this case, there seems to be little reason to listen to her. She might be right, in virtue of some gut feeling or emotional reaction, but she would not be able to provide any reason as to why someone else should believe her. Thus, it would seem that an account of art would be  useful to both the artist and the art critic.



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18 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on December 14, 2011 at 7:57 am

    “First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.”

    Does this mean you need an Ivy League degree before you are allowed to create “real” art? Isn’t this exactly what Holkins is worried about?

    • anon said, on December 14, 2011 at 11:43 am

      No, just that you need one to define something as being art or not.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 14, 2011 at 12:18 pm

        One what? Ivy League graduate?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 14, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      Not at all. You just need to have a reasonable foundation for discerning between art and non-art. Some folks push what strikes me as non-art as art and use the pretensions of superiority to conceal the lack of artistry.

      My main concern is not to bash things that are rather clearly art for not being art but with being able to make a reasonable case that some things that certainly seem to not be art are actually as they appear-not art. As such, I could be seen as being on the side of good sense against the alleged elites.

      • dhammett said, on December 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm

        “what strikes me as non-art”
        The nub of the problem.
        “rather clearly art ”
        “things that certainly seem to not be art”
        Same nub.

        Would something that strikes you as non-art be the same as what strikes an actual artist—one who produces art—as non-art? Might Dali have considered the same works to be non-art as Rembrandt would? Does a Rothko work survive the same standards as one of Bierstadt’s huge canvases? Where might your opinion fall among the opinions of people who actually produce(d) paintings, sculptures, symphonies, etc. that have come to be accepted as real art.

        If real artists wouldn’t be so damn busy producing art (presumably so they can feed themselves and their lovers) perhaps they could devote some spare time to defining art as they see it. Artist do, however, leave us important information in their works. Whose works seemed to most strongly influence the artist? Whose art did the artist himself most strongly influence? Are there defining threads that run through different art forms that can be drawn upon to formulate a working definition of art?

        Personal opinions are relevant. Very few artists (assuming that at some point, before they die or after they die their art is made public) are totally immune to public reactions to their work. In fact, it could probably be argued that an “artist” who cared not one whit about the reactions of others had stepped over the line that separates what he produces from art into the realm of the inane, the banal, or the insane.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm

          Aesthetics is rather like ethics, although some would say that there is less at stake in one than the other.

          As far as art goes, I’m inclined to think that there are paradigm cases that are clearly art (the Mona Lisa, for example) and cases that are clearly not art (when my husky takes a wee on a tree, for example). There are also gray areas that can be rationally discussed.

          I do agree that there are no adequate definitions of “art.” In fact, such a definition might not even be possible (perhaps because we cannot know what art is or perhaps because there is actually no such thing as art for things to be or not be).

          • dhammett said, on December 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm

            If the art is not in the object itself, it must lie somewhere–most likely the mind of the observer.
            Many, even most, may recognize intuitively the art of the Mona Lisa. and Monet’s Water Lilies, but for many the “intuition” must be developed. Van Gogh isn’t the only painter whose mastery wasn’t widely recognized during his lifetime.

            If the word ‘artiness’ were not already defined, I’d coin the word ‘artiness’ to supplement Colbert’s ‘truthiness’. To steal partially from wiki, art would be something that a person claims to ” recognize intuitively “from the gut”. It “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” I believe this gut feeling is common among art experts and casual appreciative observers alike. On a scale that ranges from “pure intellect”(10) to pure “gut”(1), I[d say the true connoisseur exists in the 7-8 range and the casual observer rates a 4 or below. The expert brings more “evidence, logic, intellectual examination,” to the act, but his gut is not a casual bystander. Sorry I can’t be more precise. 😦

            NOTE: If your doggie pees an easily recognizable silhouette of Christ or the Virgin Mary, some might call it art, but even more would hail it as a miracle –as Tebow-like evidence that God exists.Then there’s the pile that I stepped in at dusk on a street in Amsterdam and dragged unwittingly into a hotel lobby. That’s called shit. And I didn’t appreciate it.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 15, 2011 at 11:21 am

              One stock debate in aesthetics is whether or not the properties that make something art are in the object or the beholder (or perhaps both…or neither).

              I’m inclined to steal a bit from Plato and Hume and say that objects have certain qualities that have an effect on us and some of these qualities make an object art. I think, as Hume argued, that people can be in error in their aesthetic judgments (that is, some people have no taste). I must admit that I do not have an adequate theory here.

              Interestingly, my husky peed the outline of Christopher Hitchens. I wonder what that means?

            • dhammett said, on December 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

              Perhaps your husky is the artistically-inclined canine version of the Oscar the hospital cat. . .

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm

              Huskies are natural artists.

            • dhammett said, on December 16, 2011 at 10:33 am


              And natural-born seers, evidently. . . There’s money to be made here, man. You should be able to wring at least 200 pages out of this .A sequel to your first book . Call it “What Isis Knows That You Don’t”.

              You two could do a book tour. Isis could leave a muddy paw-print inside the front cover of each fan’s book. You could add her name—one letter per toe.

              Sorry to hear about the passing of Mr. Hitchens. A moment of silence and all that.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2011 at 11:30 am

              I’m sure it is just a coincidence…

            • dhammett said, on December 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm

              Well, she’s made a believer out of me. . .

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 15, 2011 at 7:08 am

            And you wonder about your ethics students? How can we know evil without first knowing good? How can we know that which is not art without first knowing art?

            • dhammett said, on December 15, 2011 at 9:19 am

              Or vice versa?

  2. Anonymous said, on December 14, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Those are some awesome quotes by Holkins.


  3. Asur said, on December 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    It’s pretty clear that “art” doesn’t exist in the object — objects are just bundles of sensation; if someone tried to claim that specific combinations of sensation were ‘artistic,’ they would fall on their trying to explain why that combination and not another.

    “Art” exists in the beholder — it exists solely in the emotional reaction of the observer to the piece. The stronger the reaction, and the more people who share it, the more something is “art.”

    The Mona Lisa — and every other paradigm case — just happens to be art to us because of our psychology and our culture. There’s no necessity to its status as art, though; change who we are as people, and you can change its status as art.

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