Defining Art (Why Bother?)


Based on my previous discussions, I believe we can safely say the following about art:

  1. There is no objective position from which to evaluate art.
  2. All criteria by which we can evaluate art are imperfect.
  3. There is always interplay between those criteria and personal taste.

You might be wondering:  “If there is no objective position from which to judge art, why bother making aesthetic judgments?  And if our criteria are imperfect, and if it all comes down to personal taste anyway, what is the point of trying to determine which criteria are better than others?”  Maybe you will conclude, as many have, that “anything goes.”

Perhaps you even feel like Stephen’s friend Lynch in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

–If I am to listen to your esthetic philosophy give me at least another cigarette.  I don’t care about it.  I don’t even care about women.  Damn you and damn everything.  I want a job of five hundred a year.  You can’t get me one.–

Well, you might have a point.  But such ennui does not account for the actual relationship between humans and art.  As any observer of human behavior will conclude:

  1. Most people have an idea of what they think art is (a definition).
  2. Most people recognize contexts in which they are expected to determine the artistic worth of an object (an “artworld”).
  3. Most people have a set of criteria (whether they are conscious of it or not) by which they will evaluate an object to determine its artistic worth.

To be sure, most people have favorite films, books, paintings, pieces of music, etc.  Though they might credit these valuations to personal taste, they will, if challenged, attempt to defend their choices using what they believe are generally accepted criteria.  Any trip to the IMDb message boards will confirm as much.  Thus, we must learn to accept that:

  1. Even without an objective position from which to judge art, a person’s individual, subjective appraisal of a work can be interesting and engaging.
  2. Our criteria are imperfect, but this allows for fascinating, lively discussion and debate.
  3. The interplay between criteria and personal taste can be fruitful, even if it is possible to separate them (as I suggest it is).

I guess those are also the reasons why I created this blog in the first place.  And with those reasons in mind, what is a strong working definition of art that we can use for our purposes here (i.e., to engage actively in discussions about art, criticism, and the like)?

Wikipedia defines art as:

[…] the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect.

The Wikipedia entry also cites Britannica Online, which defines art as:

[…] the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.

Indeed, most definitions will sound like these examples.  This is why I always turn to James Joyce’s definition, the one he wrote in a notebook while in Paris on March 27, 1903 (and which he later used in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man):

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end.

Here, we combine “the product or process of deliberately arranging items” with “the use of skill and imagination” to get the simpler phrase “human disposition.”  And “items” that can influence and affect “one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect” become “sensible or intelligible matter.”  Finally, “symbolic significance” and “aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences” are summarized (though cryptically) in the phrase “for an aesthetic end.”

Thus, I feel that Joyce’s definition beautifully captures the significant elements of most other definitions, and yet it is so simple and elegant that most people will probably find it agreeable. The bit about “an aesthetic end,” of course, is where things get tricky and where most debate will arise.

In a future post, I would like to test out this definition and discuss some of Joyce’s own tests from his Paris notebook.  Until then, I’d welcome any thoughts and opinions on what I’ve discussed here and in previous posts.


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