What is Art

The problem of finding a definition for what constitutes a piece of art is an ancient one dating back thousands of years. Many ideas for a defining set of necessary and sufficient conditions have come and gone with none being able to encapsulate the common essence any one piece of artwork shares with another in its many forms. However no piece of work really exemplifies this dilemma more so than ‘Fountain’ by Duchamp. At the time the readymade urinal was rejected by ‘the artworld’ as an affront to the very notion of art; however, as we will explore, Fountain can actually be seen to fit very well with two of the more recent attempts to explore the idea of what makes something art and yet it still, in my personal opinion, doesn’t sit right being classified as such. Firstly I will explore Morris Weitz’s attempt to answer the question ‘what is art?’ in relation to Duchamp’s Fountain and then I shall do the same with George Dickie’s attempt before offering some points of contention.

‘My intention is to go beyond these (traditional aesthetic theories) to make a much more fundamental criticism, namely, that aesthetic theory is a logically vain attempt to define what cannot be defined, to state the necessary and sufficient properties of that which has no necessary and sufficient properties, to conceive the concept of art as closed when its very use reveals and demands its openness.’[1]

Here Weitz is explaining how all previous attempts to close the concept of art have been in vain, for the very nature of art is its openness and freedom of expression. This idea relates nicely to Fountain as Weitz is illustrating how such a piece, by way of such openness with regards to the conceptual notion of art, could come to be considered as art. Weitz then goes on say how art only has similarities, like a family, but no common trait i.e. necessary and sufficient conditions:

‘Knowing what art is is not apprehending some manifest or latent essence but being able to recognise, describe, and explain those things we call “art” in virtue of these similarities’. [2]

The basic resemblance between these concepts is thus their open nature. Furthermore Weitz offers another point:

‘I can list some cases and some conditions under which I can apply correctly the concept of art but I cannot list all of them, for the all-important reason that unforeseeable or novel conditions are always forthcoming.’[3]

Duchamp’s Fountain perfectly demonstrates this point as it happened to be, at the time, one of those very novel conditions Weitz was talking about which would then go onto extend the idea of the concept of the word ‘art’ to include things such as readymades.  

Having briefly explored Weitz’s ideas and how Fountain seems to support the notion that art is an open concept with similarities but no general properties, we now will take a look at George Dickie’s argument.

Dickie instead suggests that art can be defined without compromising its open nature:

‘A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).’[4]

The ‘artworld’ is an idea introduced by another philosopher of art, Arthur Danto:

‘To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.’[5] (Danto quoted in Dickie, p.429)

Dickie is saying that for a given artifact to confer the status of ‘a piece of art’ it must come from the established practice of the ‘artworld’. Each of the different genres (within the artworld) and their systems represent a framework for the presenting of particular works of art.[6] Given the great variety of the systems of the artworld it is not surprising that works of art have no exhibited properties in common.[7] However if we step back and view the works in their institutional setting, we will be able to see the essential properties they share.[8]

In addition Dickie argues that members of the artworld have the power to confer the status of art upon an object and make it a ‘candidate for appreciation.’ Again Fountain perfectly demonstrates this point as it exposes this invisible fact about the nature of art which is that it has been borne out of the institutionalised practices of the artworld and had status conferred upon it by a member of the artworld. Hence Fountain seems to support Dickie’s notion that ‘the radical creativity, adventuresomeness, and exuberance of art of which Weitz speaks is possible within the concept of art, even though it is closed by the necessary and sufficient conditions of artifactuality and conferred status’.[9]

So Fountain, as a practical example, seems to show that both theories are right to some extent, even if they undermine the other to a certain extent. However can Fountain itself as a piece of sculpture be truly appreciated without the conceptual trickery Duchamp applied to it?  

Ted Cohen (cited from Dickie) seems to think not: ‘In order for it to be possible for candidacy for appreciation to be conferred on something it must be possible for that thing to be appreciated.’[10]

Cohen claims that Fountain cannot be appreciated and the only point about the piece which can be is Duchamp’s gesture of commentary which is what holds the significance of the piece and not Fountain itself.[11]

Fountain is art for its revolutionary overhaul of the concept of art and not for what it actually is. However, Institutional theory should not be enough to categorise something as art just because it came from the artworld and had status conferred upon it by a member of it. The same goes for Weitz’s openness of expression with regards to art. We need to be more concerned with the intentionality behind a work of art and the reasons why a member of the artworld is putting forward a particular artifact, because those are what make the object art.[12]

If not we risk ending up with an arbitrary collection of objects when what we need is a collection of objects for an arbitrary collection of reasons with each one showing how and why it is worthwhile.[13] Either through pertaining to some of the old attempts at definitions i.e. imitating life or expressing emotion or through carving out a new criterion as to why it should have status conferred on it. Whilst Fountain did do this it was beyond most people.

‘We need to return to a position where people can tell stories about why they’re interested in particular works of art that are convincing in the following respect: they will convince people to spend time engaging with them and get some kind of rich experience out of them.’[14]

For me Fountain does not do this.

Bibliography:

  1. George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009)
  2. Morris Weitz, ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009)
  3. Derek Matravers, ‘The Definition of Art’, in D. Edmonds & N. Warburton ‘Philosophy Bites.’ Oxford: (2010)

[1] Morris Weitz, ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 413.   

[2] Morris Weitz, ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 414.

[3] Morris Weitz, ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 414.

[4] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 431.

[5] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 429.

[6] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 430.

[7] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 430.

[8] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 430.

[9] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 431.

[10] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 433.

[11] George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in S. M. Cahn & A. Meskin (eds.) Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2009), pp. 433.

[12] Derek Matravers, ‘The Definition of Art’, in D. Edmonds & N. Warburton ‘Philosophy Bites.’ Oxford, 2010, pp. 159.

[13] Derek Matravers, ‘The Definition of Art’, in D. Edmonds & N. Warburton ‘Philosophy Bites.’ Oxford, 2010, pp. 161.

[14] Derek Matravers, ‘The Definition of Art’, in D. Edmonds & N. Warburton ‘Philosophy Bites.’ Oxford, 2010, pp. 161.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.