What is art?

written by philosopher & author STEPHEN LAW for liaison gallery

People who deal with art presumably know what art actually is. And yet the question ‘What is art?’ is one we all struggle with – even art experts. Why is that?

Philosophers often think about ‘What is X?’ questions. They ask ‘What is truth?’, ’What is beauty?’, ‘What is justice?’, and ‘What is knowledge?’ In each case they’re after a precise definition that won’t be vulnerable to counterexamples.

Here’s a simple example. In response to the question ‘What is a chair?’ you might say ‘A chair is something designed to be sat on’. But there obvious counterexamples: a bicycle fits our definition, but isn’t a chair. And a conveniently shaped boulder someone puts in the their garden to use as a chair doesn’t fit the definition but is a chair. So our definition can’t be right. You could try tweaking our definition like so: ‘a chair is something with legs that we use to sit on’. That deals with the bicycle saddle counterexample. But it faces new counterexamples. For example, swing chairs lack legs but are chairs.

Frustrated at our inability to pin down precisely what a chair is, you might end up concluding that we don’t know what a chair is. In fact this was exactly the answer the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates drew when it came to questions such as ‘What is beauty?’ and ‘What is justice?’ No one could come up with a definition invulnerable to counter-examples. So, thought Socrates, no one knows what beauty and justice are!

This same frustrating problem crops up with the questions ‘What is art?’ Try defining it. ‘Something made to be beautiful?’ Nope: Tracy Emin’s unmade bed is art but is not beautiful. ‘Something intended to provoke thought?’ Nope. Philosophy is intended to provoke thought, but philosophy is not art. On and on we go, trying to find the recipe that distinguishes the artworks from everything else – that captures the very essence of art – and yet we struggle endlessly. Perhaps, like Socrates, we should conclude that we don’t know what art is? Or that the word’ art is a meaningless term, a bit of gibberish. The art critic Clive Bell famously said:  ‘For either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art’ we gibber.’

Socrates. Image Courtesy: Britannica
'My Bed' 1998 Tracey Emin, Image Courtesy: Tate

So what is this common quality? If it’s there, why can’t we find it?

Here’s a more sophisticated definition of art: art is whatever the art community, or the artist themselves, deem to be art. If Tracy Emin sets up a bed and she and the art world call it art, then it’s art. If someone else does it, it’s just dirty linen. What makes something art is not some feature intrinsic to the object. Two mops and buckets may be absolutely indistinguishable, yet one may be a work of art and the other isn’t depending on who leaves it in a gallery and who calls it art.

But even this more sophisticated definition faces counter-examples. The artist Alfred Wallis painted wonderful costal landscapes and shipping scenes in a naïve way. He did not consider his work art, and neither did anyone else during his lifetime. It was only later that Wallis’s work was discovered and thought to be art. Our more sophisticated theory would say that Wallis’s art wasn’t art until it was later called that, but this seems absurd. Surely it was art all along, and the later discoverers really did discover it was art. They didn’t turn it into art by calling it that.

So how do we solve this puzzle? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein may have the answer. According to Wittgenstein, some concepts are what Wittgenstein calls family resemblance concepts. If you look at the members of a family, they may all resemble each other. Some have the big eyes, some the sticking out ears, some the red hair, some the bushy eyebrows, and so on. However, there need not be one feature they all share. 

Wittgenstein thought the concept game was like this. What is the one thing all games have in common that makes them games? Some are competitive and some not. Some are ball games and some not. Should we insist that there must be one thing common and peculiar to games that makes them games? Wittgenstein’s reply is: no. Game may be a family resemblance concept. There may just be overlapping similarities and differences, rather than a single common factor.


So perhaps art is a family resemblance concept too? Maybe Clive Bell was just wrong when he said:‘For either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art’ we gibber.’ Maybe, in searching for the one common quality shared by all and only the art works, we embarked on a wild goose chase?

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Image Courtesy: ArtReview

Stephen Law is a Philosopher based at Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, and the author of books including The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking.


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