If I asked you to show me some art, you’d probably be able to do it. You might have some favourite pieces or know something about
the history of art. But if I was an alien from another planet and I asked you to define art – could you do it? Philosophers have been attempting to define art for a long time, and it turns out it’s actually really bloody difficult to do. There are
lots of different types of theories and each one has its own pros and cons. So we’re gonna take a quick whistle-stop tour of some of the options. First up, Essentialism. If you are an essentialist you believe that all art has some feature, call it Feature X.
So the definition of art is just “Everything with Feature X.” And depending on what kind
of essentialist you are you might have different ideas about what that feature is. The trouble is, there’s so many different kinds of art, and people are always making new kinds of it that it might be difficult to find one feature that all artworks have in common. To illustrate this problem I’ve brought along a few examples. So these are some song lyrics in a frame that a friend gave to me because the song has a particular meaning to us. This is a sign that says, “Mike’s “Drive In” Hot Dogs: 5 cents” This is a drawing that someone did in pen of a town in Scotland. This is a painting that I did, actually, it’s a painting of some flowers. And this is a map of my home county that I display on my wall. This is a bull made of glass that I got in Spain. This is a model of a saxophone that somebody – ooo! That somebody made of scrap metal.
Ooh, that’s gonna fall apart… This is a book of poetry that my friend Carly wrote. And this is a copy of Mary Shelly’s “The Last Man.” All of these are very, very different things – so what’s the one feature that they all supposedly have in common? Next up, Functionalism. As you might have guessed from the name – Functionalists think that all art has some function, call it Y, and so the definition of art is just, “Everything that does Y.” And, a little bit like Essentialism, the problem is that art is so varied it might be difficult to find just one function. You’d also have to think about bad art. If it fails to achieve its function, does it still count as art? Changing tack slightly, there’s also Institutional
Theories. These say, surprise surprise, that art is defined by an institution. The most famous example of this theory comes from George Dickie, who said that art is whatever “the artworld” says it
is. That’s why there’s so much variation in art, because the artworld could point to literally anything and go, “Yeah, that counts.” Trouble is though is, who are the artworld? Who are these shadowy figures who get to decide what counts as art? And on what basis do they make their decision? If they have no reasons for picking the things that they do, well then concept of art is kindof arbitrary. Is that a major problem? And if they do have some reasons for their choices well then it’s not their choice that makes it art; it’s whatever it is about the art that
that reason relates to. Then there’s Historical Definitions. People
like Jerrold Levinson, who says that something is art if it fits into a recognised historical artistic tradition. Again though, a little bit like with the Institutional Definitions, how do we decide what counts as an artistic tradition without presupposing
some other definition of art? And what about the first ever works of art? They weren’t part of a historical tradition: they were brand new.
And if we found art that was made by aliens, would it not count as art because it doesn’t fit any recognised earthly historical tradition? Just so we’re clear, nobody’s saying that
any of these problems are impossible to solve. The philosophers who defend these various theories engage with these problems all the time. In fact, the definition of art that I defend is an essentialist one
and I think it works. But if you’re gonna defend any of these theories, these are the questions you need to be answering. And if you’re writing exams or essays on these subjects, these are useful things to bear in mind. And in fact, there’s one other major approach
worth considering, and that’s just giving up. I say giving up, but Anti-Essentialism
is the position that art can’t really be defined using traditional methods, so it’s not so much giving up as rejecting the question. Anti-essentialism was very popular in the late 20th Century. And it took a lot of clues from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein famously examined the concept of ‘games,’ and said there isn’t really one thing that all games have in common. Football, Poker, “Knights of the Old Republic;” these are all games but you’d lose your mind trying to find the common feature.
He said that some games resemble each other, like golf kindof resembles football because they both use a ball. But there isn’t one essential feature of games. So the anti-essentialists said that art
is kindof the same. Some artworks resemble each other, like painting and tattooing
both involve using pigment, but there isn’t one feature that all artworks have in common. There isn’t one unifying thread. It’s more like a web
of family resemblances. Anti-essentialism has fallen out of fashion though because it does have some big problems. First of all, anything resembles anything if you just look hard enough. Like Plutonium resembles Oxygen because they’re both made of atoms. How do you decide which are the important resemblances? And Can you even do that whilst still maintaining as an anti-essentialist that there is no one thing that all art has in common? Also, try this one on for size. A resembles B, and B is a work of art, so A must also be a work of art. OK grand. But how do you know B is a work of art? How did you decide that? You can’t just keep going and say well because it resembles C, which resembles D, which resembles E, and so on forever! Or can you? Uggghhh, so we can’t even give up without encountering problems! Ok Ok, last one, last one. Pluralism: there are lots of different definitions of art, and we dip in and out of them as it suits us. Maybe the
definition of art is a little bit like the definition of the word ‘species.’ When you get right down to it, biologists use different definitions of ‘species’ depending on what field of biology they work in, because it’s actually really difficult to come up with a definition of the word ‘species’ that fits all organisms all the time. But biologists still manage to do their jobs despite that. So maybe the definition of art is similar. This is kindof similar to a thought by the philosopher William Kennick, who said that trying to define art was pretty much a pointless task. We have enough of an idea of what art means to be able to get on with our lives. Like if the art warehouse was burning down, and someone said to you, “Oh my God! Run in and save all the art!” You would know what they meant and you would know what you were supposed to do So, whatever the definition of art “really is” we kinda don’t need to know it. But although that’s a nice idea, when it comes to modern art it might
not actually be true, because in 2004 that actually happened. The Momart Warehouse in London burned down, and if you and I had been there and somebody said, “Run in and save the art!’ we might not have known what we were supposed to get because the Momart warehouse contained all kinds of weird and esoteric art pieces. There’s also that famous tweet that did the rounds ages ago about someone dropping a glove in the Museum of Modern Art and nobody was sure whether or not they were supposed to look at it! And there are lots of modern art pieces where people go, “Mmm, does that really count as art or not? I could have done that!” So there are occasions when having a robust definition of art might be really useful. In this video we’ve covered six different ways of trying to define art: we’ve discussed Essentialism, Functionalism, Definitions, Anti-Essentialism, and Pluralism. And we looked at the pros and cons of each. Patreon.com/Philosophy Tube is where you can help me give away more free education on the Internet; leave me a comment telling me what your favourite theory is, or maybe you can come up with your own. And, as always, don’t forget to subscribe.