Abell, Catharine, and . Art: What It Is and Why It Matters

2012, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 85: 671–91

Content: The first three sections of this paper offer a very useful overview of modern definitions of art. Most major types of definitions are introduced and explained in a succinct way, followed by a discussion of selected objections they face. First, Abell introduces functionalism and discusses its problems with extensional adequacy. Second, procedural theories including Dickie’s institutional and Levinson’s historical definitions are discussed, and criticized for their circularity and inability to account for art’s value. Next, Abell considers two mixed theories, formulated by Robert Stecker and David Davies. She shows how they can overcome the difficulties discussed above, but run into their own problems. Finally, Berys Gaut’s cluster account is introduced and criticized for its circularity and difficulties in determining all sufficiency conditions for being an artwork. In the remainder of the paper Abell focuses on developing her own version of the institutional theory.

Comment: This text can provide the students with an overview of modern definitions of art. Theories are presented in a clear, succinct way, with their main features, strengths and weaknesses identified. The selection of objections discussed, however, is not representative – rather it serves the aim of developing Abell’s own definition. The later sections of the text are excellent, but address much more complex issues and are significantly less accessible for undergraduate students. They might be used in Masters level teaching or as advanced further reading on the institutional definition.

Brand, Peg Zeglin, and . Glaring Omissions in Traditional Theories of Art

2000, in Theories of Art Today, ed. by Noel Carroll (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)

Abstract: I investigate the role of feminist theorizing in relation to traditionally-based aesthetics. Feminist artworks have arisen within the context of a patriarchal Artworld dominated for thousands of years by male artists, critics, theorists, and philosophers. I look at the history of that context as it impacts philosophical theorizing by pinpointing the narrow range of the paradigms used in defining “art.” I test the plausibility of Danto’s After the End of Art vision of a post-historical, pluralistic future in which “anything goes,” a future that unfortunately rests upon the same outdated foundation as the concept “art.”.

Comment: This text offers an overview of the feminist critique of the classificatory project. It assumes some basic knowledge and is best used after the main modern theories of art have been introduced. The pointed critique and clearly stated suggestions for constructing unbiased theories, make it excellent at inspiring a critical discussion on the subject of universalism and discrimination in both art practice and theory. Perhaps more importantly, the argument offered and the long lists of female artists and art theorists which support it, can have an empowering and validating role to many female students.

Dissanayake, Ellen, and . Doing Without the Ideology of Art

2011, New Literary History 42: 71–79.

Abstract: My invited comment on Steven Connor’s essay, “Doing Without Art,” proposes that a fuller understanding of the implications of my notion of “making special”—referred to by Connor in his essay as somewhat relevant to his own position—would expand his view of the human art impulse and allay some of his disaffections. Rather than contributing to aesthetic theory, the ideology of art, my work proposes an ethology of art: it suggests why members of the human species, in all times and places, made and otherwise engaged with the arts (plural). An ethology of art requires a new way of regarding its subject, not philosophically as an entity or essential quality but as a behavior, something that people everywhere “do.” What characterizes all instances of “doing with art,” from prehistory to the present, is making something (a rock surface, face or body, implement, sound, space, place, movement, utterance) special. A summary of the development and ramifications of the concept of “making special”—called “artifying” in my most recent work—answers Connor’s three questions and suggests that placing our modern ideology or ideologies of art in the wider and deeper context of artification enables an understanding of the arts as intrinsic and even necessary to human lives everywhere.

Comment: Dissenayake makes her points clear and brief, and uses the opportunity to present the main elements of her evolutionary theory. This makes this paper not only an interesting voice in the scepticism about the definition of art debate, but also an excellent introduction to her wider work. The main question worth discussing in class is: should we replace definitions of art with an ethology of art? It might also be worth asking whether Dissenayake is right to claim that even the assumption that a theory of art is needed at all is elitist.

Eaton, Marcia Muelder, and . A Sustainable Definition of “Art”

2000, in Theories of Art Today, ed. by Noel Carroll (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)

Content: Eaton begins with some remarks on the practical need for classification of art and proceeds to present and improve her definition. Her focus is not on specific properties of artworks, but on the fact that they possess properties which within a given culture are considered worth attending to. The modifications made to the theory follow a realisation of Western-centric bias embedded in the original formulation, and the discussion explicitly aims to work towards a definition which acknowledges the cultural differences in art production and appreciation. Eaton moves on to discuss Danto’s and Cohen’s claims that art cannot be defined and points out some Western-centric aspects of their arguments. The paper ends with an overview of what it is for art and its definition to be sustainable.

Comment: Western-centric bias in art classification is explicitly addressed in the article and efforts are made to account for the cultural variations in attitudes to and classification of art. This can offer a powerful motivation for the students to seek similar biases in other definitions and ask whether they entail a preferential treatment of Western art.

Freeland, Cynthia, and . But is it Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory

2001, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Publisher’s note: From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim–is this really art? In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern often sensational works, back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. She also guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor. It is instructive to recall that Henri Matisse himself was originally derided as a “wild beast.” To horrified critics, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful. And that, writes Freeland, is art.

Comment: Chapters 2,3 and 5 of But is it art? can serve as a good basic introduction to art theory. The book is written in a light, narrative style and does not focus on the details of particular theories; instead, it is arranged in a useful historical narrative which presents theories in their contexts, showing the types of art they were inspired by. This text is best used in introductory teaching, as a background reading, or as a pre-read for higher level courses where it should be followed by more focused and specialised texts.

Lopes, Dominic McIver, and . Beyond Art

2014, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Publisher’s note: This book offers a bold new approach to the philosophy of art. General theories of art don’t work: they can’t deal with problem cases. Instead of trying to define art, we should accept that a work of art is nothing but a work in one of the arts. Lopes’s buck passing theory works well for the avant garde, illuminating its radical provocations.

Comment: Introduction and sections 1-3 are particularly useful in teaching. Lopes looks at the challenges defining art faces and asks what sort of conditions would a definition have to satisfy to be successful and whether a we need a definition of art at all. This is likely to prove quite stimulating, especially considering the focus on hard cases: students often enjoy puzzling over what we should do with controversial works, and are likely to have conflicting intuitions which can lead to a good discussion.

Lopes, Dominic McIver, and . Nobody Needs a Theory of Art

2008, Journal of Philosophy 105(3): 109-127.

Abstract: The question “what is art?” is often said to be venerable and vexing. In fact, the following answer to the question should be obvious: (R) item x is a work of art if and only if x is a work in practice P and P is one of the arts. Yet (R) has appeared so far from obvious that nobody has given it a moment’s thought. The trouble is not that anyone might seriously deny the truth of (R), but rather that they will find it uninformative. After all, the vexing question is pressed upon us by radical changes in art of the avant-garde, and (R) offers no resources to address these changes. With that in mind, here is the case for (R). The challenges posed by the avant-garde are real enough and they need to be addressed, but the vexing question is the wrong question to ask to address them. It does not follow that the question has no good answer. On the contrary, (R) is all the answer we need, if we do not need an answer that addresses the challenges posed by the avant-garde. Moreover, (R) points to a question that we do need answered. So, not only is it true but, in addition, (R) is as informative as we need.

Comment: This text offers a good introduction to contemporary sceptical attitudes towards the classificatory project. The current debate is presented as likely unresolvable and the choice of a theory as largely a matter of opinion. Lopes makes a good case for his title: why should we care about a defining art? The text is full of controversial points and hooks for class discussion.

Lopes, Dominic McIver, and . Art Without “Art”

2007, British Journal of Aesthetics 47(1): 1-15.

Abstract: Some argue that there is no art in some non-Western cultures because members of those cultures have no concept of art. Others argue that members of some non-Western cultures have concepts of art because they have art. Both arguments assume that if there is art in a given culture, then some members of the culture have a concept of art. There are reasons to think that this assumption is false; and if it is false, there are lessons to learn for cross-cultural studies of art both in anthropology and philosophy.

Comment: Lopes’ light and approachable writing style makes this paper very well suited for undergraduate teaching. It is an excellent study in philosophical method: the structure of all arguments is very clear, the challenged premises are individuated and the requirements for challenging them are spelled out in detail. One major advantage of the text is the way in which it exposes the Western-centric biases present in our views on non-Western art. Various problematic historical and current attitudes are mentioned and discussed, including the division between the West and the rest, paternalism, etc.

Lorand, Ruth, and . Classifications and the Philosophical Understanding of Art

2002, Journal of Aesthetic Education 36: 78–96.

Content: Lorand argues against Kivy and others who claim that philosophising about various forms of art needs no theory of art, and suggests that it’s time to resume the inquiry into the nature of art. In fact, any satisfactory theorising about any specific issues (such as characteristics of an art form) must be ‘linked to a higher, more general level that functions as its source for basic suppositions and definitions’ (79, such as a theory of art). Lorand then discusses some reasons why one might renounce the classificatory project, including Weitz’s open concept argument. She introduces a distinction between classificatory definitions and the philosophical question. The former depend on the norms, traditions and beliefs present within a given context, and has been the focus of most theories of art. But it only distracts us from the more worthwhile philosophical question about the (elusive) essence of art. A discussion of the distinction between the classificatory and evaluative uses of ‘art’ follows, with Kant, Mothersill and Dickie at its focus. It leads Lorand to arguing for a ‘Platonic’ approach, one focusing on uncovering art’s essence, without the distraction of classification which can merely uncover ‘current social trends’ (93).

Comment: This text can be useful in three ways. Firstly, it introduces and discusses some anti-essentialist arguments. Secondly, it draws attention to some common characteristics of different definitions – their focus on necessary and sufficient conditions. Finally, it claims that looking for the essence of art is possible and more important from mere classification. All of these can inspire interesting discussions, though it will be worth pointing out that Lorand’s arguments are more controversial than she makes them seem.

Monseré, Annelies, and . Non-Western Art and the Concept of Art: Can Cluster Theories of Art Account for the Universality of Art?

2012, Estetika 49(2): 148-165.

Abstract: This essay seeks to demonstrate that there are no compelling reasons to exclude non-Western artefacts from the domain of art. Any theory of art must therefore account for the universality of the concept of art. It cannot simply start from ‘our’ art traditions and extend these conceptions to other cultures, since this would imply cultural appropriation, nor can it resolve the matter simply by formulating separate criteria for non-Western art, since this would imply that there is no unity in the concept of art. At first sight, cluster theories of art seem capable of accounting for the universality of art since they (can) start from a broad cross-cultural range of artworks and nowhere seem to extend one conception of art to other conceptions. Yet cluster theories remain unsatisfactory, because they can neither avoid misapplication of the proposed criteria, nor clarify the unity in the concept of art.

Comment: Due to the focused character of this paper it is best used as a further reading, or a core reading in courses focusing on cluster theories or non-Western art. The first part offers an interesting discussion of the requirements which a successful theory of art should meet: it should be able to account for the cultural diversity of art. The critique of cluster accounts offered in the second part of the paper focuses on their Western-centric character. It can be useful to discuss whether they could be modified in ways which would allow them to stand against Monseré’s criticism, or whether it is in fact at all possible to formulate a definition which will be flexible enough to account for arts of all cultures, yet general enough to capture ‘art’ as a unified concept.