I wrote this essay on the definition of art to enter PLATO’s 2017 Philosophy Essay Contest. I don’t think it’ll win anything, but I’m leaving it here anyways. For reference, the prompt of the contest can be found here. The essay references the prompt occasionally, so I recommend reading it before the essay itself.
Whether being used as a means of remembrance, as in Picasso’s Guernica, or as exploration of concepts, such as Botero’s fascination with volume, or something else entirely, art indubitably has had great presence in society. Movements such as those during the Renaissance have emerged that campaign both to give art respectability through standards and others, such as Dadaism, attempt to liberate it through rejecting standards. However, despite these movements, despite all these standards, art has long escaped satisfiable definition, often leading to the exasperation expressed by Sarah and Mike in the scenario.
Art escapes objective definition because it is subjective, in that the recognition of art is based on an individual’s socio-cultural background, or context. As western philosophers became exposed to new cultures outside of Europe, as society has expanded and evolved, the definition of art has expanded and twisted to conform around what society deems as art. In this way objective definitions of art have been continually predisposed to failure. If humanity encountered an intelligent extraterrestrial species tomorrow, and what society accepts as art suddenly changed due to cultural exchange, no doubt objective theories would spring up that attempt to encompass society’s new expectations.
Art is, however, is not subjective due to the general influences of society. It is possible for multiple people to discuss and realize that their conceptions of what embodies art are quite different, and to end up embroiled in fierce debate. (Once again, Sarah and Mike.) Yet, both of their conceptions of what art is are permissible. Though they both used the same general framework, the same general function, to judge whether an object was a piece of art or not, the background predispositions, biases, and beliefs brought to bear on the judgement process differed, so it is not surprising that the final verdicts differed. Sarah is Sarah, and Mike is Mike. The elusive nature of the definition of art can be explained by knowing that an absolute definition of art is not only impossible, but also wrong.
Art ultimately is used passively to derive, or at least improve the pleasure one possesses. In invoking the word passive, I take it to mean something that is not experienced directly. In using the word direct, I take it to mean that a direct experience is a completely true experience for the individual considering a supposed piece of art. In saying completely true, I mean completely his or her’s; if a painting deliniates a real mountain, than a corresponding completely true experience would be having that person actually see that mountain. This description accounts for mimicry many pieces of art possess, of objects, of concepts, of other forms of art. Art can mimic other objects, or other established forms of art, if it bestows pleasure. Considering a few forms of art reveals this. Poetry, song, and literature often describe real events, but not directly. If a piece depicts a concept which does not exist in reality, as many do, even if the concept’s parts of source from reality, the piece is already passive. Concepts can also be absurd or strange, or even abstract, and have the art which houses those concepts still meet the first requirement for being considered art. Strangeness seems to be the only thing exuded by the looping video, while Sol LeWitt’s work is characterized in a way that seems very abstract. Yet the question of whether they are actually art or not is answered by whether pleasure is derived from it.
Art also must be created by an intelligent being. Nature, no matter how splendid, is not art, unless belief in intelligent design means that nature is in fact the product of intelligence. When Mike disparages the pile of sticks, he claims that he could also create a pile of sticks much like it. If he did, than he would not consider it art. However, it is possible that another person would find concepts within that pile of sticks that brings them pleasure. Hence, to that person, the pile would be art, while to Mike, it would be a pile of sticks. Mike’s claims at most damages the prestige of the supposed art piece: whether it is actually art depends on individual taste. This also means that Mike and Sarah’s displeasure with LeWitt’s work only disqualifies the work as art in their eyes: I might gaze upon the work and applaud it as a piece of art. This also means objects can change from art to not art as new beliefs are formed, much like how new knowledge can result when reality changes.
What affords people pleasure, and what people can derive it from, is wholly dependent on the individual. It is possible for people to agree on what gifts them pleasure, as Sarah and Mike do in acting puzzled about the looping video and the pile of sticks. I am not saying that there are not common sources of pleasure and displeasure. Humanity is, afterall, restricted by the same five senses, similar degrees of intelligence, and generally situated in similar environs. However, closer examination of humanity in detail reveals disparities in this common ground, caused by geographic isolation and a resulting memetic drift. This gives individuals different contexts which afford them the ability to judge what is art and what is not different from each other. Individuals are the ultimate beholders of what constitute art because further division of an individual while retaining some form of consciousness is impossible. A separated half of Mike cannot think; because Mike is dead. In knowing this, it is apparent that Mike is free to believe what he believes, and Sarah is free to believe what she believes.
A thought to consider is that of man-made structures. Roller coasters, ballparks, swimming pools, and the like can all provide people with pleasure, and are manmade. Are they, in fact, art? No, because the pleasure obtained is from direct experience. These objects all provide services that are directly experienced: riding a roller coaster, watching a game, swimming. That is not to say that they cannot be considered art for other reasons. These structures, through diligent architecture, can become aesthetically appealing and evoke a concept which people find pleasurable to look at, thought if that occurs the object has become art not on the basis of its primary intended use but because of appearance.
Dancing, and acting are also two sources of possible objection to this argument. If a piece of art must be passive, in that it represents something indirectly, would the dancer or actor performing a play not be experiencing their dancing or acting directly? The dancer and actor would be experiencing their dancing or acting directly, but not the concepts that their dancing or acting is meant to convey. Dancers often represent objects or abstract ideas with their movements. At least, dancers must represent the music through their dancing. So their dancing is representing a concept passively. In this same way actors are not acting true to themselves, but instead representing the concept that is their role. The character that they play would see not the set of the actor’s play, but the actual setting the play seeks to portray. In this way even the actor experiences the concepts portrayed in the work he or she performs passively.
Another possible objection I will examine comes from a hypothetical situation in which virtual reality and filmmaking have progressed to an extent that it is possible to view extremely lifelike technologically induced dreams. If a documentary producer decided to produce a documentary meant to viewed through VR technology so that the viewer felt as if he or she were actually experiencing the subject of the documentary, and so that the sense-datum received exactly mirrored the sense-datum the person would have received had they actually gone and experienced the subject of the documentary themselves, would they still be experiencing the documentary passively, and what ramifications does this have for documentaries or pieces of art depicting reality in general, if they managed to somehow exactly reproduce the original authentic sense-data? Could this so called documentary be called art? Is film-making not an art? In asking this question, we first assume that the sense data received is exactly the same, and produces the same effects in the person’s mind, in order to allow the transmitted experience to meet the requirements for being direct.
In this case, the ostensible documentary could not be considered art, as it has become direct experience. Though I assumed the existence of reality earlier in this essay, such existence may be an illusion. Sense data is something which people intuitively trust. If the world were an illusion like the Matrix, akin to the world described by Descartes in his evil demon argument, than direct experience would still be possible. Though I assumed physical objects earlier in the essay, this was the purposes of argument. The objects which people judge as art might be just thoughts, or it might be something in the Kant’s noumenal realm: what matters is that the person would receive a precise set of sense data if he or she sensed it. There is a case where this documentary could be considered art: if the director’s cut footage together from multiple experiences. Jumping from experience to experience instantly is impossible, so experiencing a documentary through VR with jumps between experience would provide sense-data impossible to replicate directly, since people cannot teleport. If a documentary producer simply did one long take for his documentary, I question if it can even be called a documentary. It may satisfy the conditions to be a documentary, but even then it cannot be art.
A possible objection hinges on the similar nature of some subjective theories of ethics. In these subjective theories, what is considered right either depends on the context provided by an individual, or the context provided by a community. An example of such a subjective theory is egotism, which considers the ethically right to be the most beneficial action for the individual. In this, however, lies the possibility for a conflict of interest to arise, conflicts like those between co workers trying to claim credit for the same piece of work. Ethics, outside from prescribing what is right, also serve as a means for mediating conflict, and even interaction between individuals. An ethical system which allows two individuals to both be technically correct and hence reside in an ethical gray zone is faulty, having failed one of the functions an ethical system must provide. Why is it, however, that the conceptions of art possessed by people can conflict, without moral consequence?
Conflict between individual definitions of art, or the subjectivity of art itself is allowed because unlike Ethics, art’s purpose does not require universal acknowledgement. If one person considers anime trash, but another considers it god’s gift to earth, the art can still fulfill it’s purpose: to bestow pleasure. Art has no requirement to be universally defined because it fulfills it’s purpose on an individual basis, while Ethics must serve all, in order to mediate conflict.
In conclusion, the definition of art follows a general form, but the pieces identified as art vary from person to person. This is because the things that bring each person pleasure, things to their taste, vary from person to person as well. Art is not art for a person if it cannot bring that person some form of satisfaction or happiness through passive means. You have your art, I have mine.
Adajian, Thomas, “The Definition of Art”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/art-definition/>
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