Definitions of Art by Stephen Davies

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Definition and its purpose

There exist one or more “necessary conditions” which have to be present in order for something to be defined. In addition, defining something should not always require extensive practice in that certain area, but rather anyone should be able to easily notice. Definition itself should only contain its surface, not its importance and impact on people.

Early definitions of art

  • A replica of already existing material (Plato 1955)
  • A form of emotional expression (Tolstoy 1995)
  • An intuitive expression (Croce 1920)
  • A significant form (Bell 1914)

However, these earlier definitions of art fail in that mere displays like “holiday snaps” or “advertisement” do succeed in meeting some of the aforementioned criteria, but are still not considered artworks.

Indeed, those features may guide people to grasp the idea of what artworks usually contain, but are not necessarily the “essence” of art.

Is the definition of art impossible?

According to Morris Weitz(1956), “artworks are united by a web of family resemblances, not by the kind of essence sought by a real definition.

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” His claim is that a constantly changing concept cannot be defined since definitions only apply to the immutables. “Cluster” theorists (Gaut 2000, Dutton 2006) propose the “anti-essentialist” view; as long as certain level of criteria is met, one is considered as art. “Prototype” theorists, however, argue otherwise.

Definitions since the 1960s

The essence of art is mostly regarded as “complex relational properties.” There are different variations to this; functionalists believe that art must be able to carry out its ultimate purpose which most commonly is suggested that it should be aesthetically pleasant.

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Proceduralists, on the other hand, focus heavily on the process rather than the outcome. Although these two ideas differ at the core, it does not necessarily mean that one is absolute and the other is not; rather, it is possible that both prerequisites must be met in order for something to become an artwork.

According to the “institutional” requirements stated by George Dickie, an artwork should be, “created by an established artist, presented along with other artworks, and discussed by art historians.” Functionalism struggles in that it is nearly impossible to judge whether a piece fulfills its function successfully or not. Since proceduralism concentrates heavily on the process and formula of the work, it fails in some area where the public or critics are unable to witness the progress of art-making. In other words, not all artists can present their procedure in the Artworld. Plus, the boundary between certain cultural activities and process of art can be ambiguous.

Historical definitions

Arthur C. Danto(1973) has noticed that a piece can only be acknowledged as an artwork if the historical timeline and background which it was created is ready to accept it as art. In other words, time and place are very crucial in creating the appropriate Artworld for the appropriate artwork – art and history are inseparable.

Jerrold Levinson and James D. Carney both seem to agree with that a piece is an art if it is able to link with the preceding pieces historically. Noel Carroll explores further and notices that the past and present work must be accurately interconnected in the art historical context. Here, Davies expands on the idea and calls this, “the Artworld relativity problem.” He tackles the problem of most theorist are too Western centric and even Christian-bound. He criticizes that most “historically reflexive theories” excludes other Artworlds which exist in other cultures.

Supposing that these “historically reflexive theories” do acknowledge the existence of other Artworlds, then these fail to be complete ideologies. The distinguishable boundary between each Artworlds is not clearly stated in historically reflexive theories, and thus it is difficult to prove that a piece and its prior piece have close relations. According to the view that current concept of art emerged only in eighteenth-century Europe (Shiner 2001), this view is incapable of regarding non-Western and other pieces as artworks.

Another approach of viewing what is art is to view the regional concepts as different species within the genus like in biology. The definition of art is a broad subject to deal with, and with all aforementioned theories, we realize that they do not take non-Western and “low” art into account.

Arts versus art?

Noticing that there exist many forms of art like music, dancing, picturing, and others, it would be more convenient to define what categories of artworks there are, rather than defining what art itself is.

Hybrid definitions

Davies comes up with a possible solution to the conflict among multiple theories: the hybrids. This hybrid definition would combine the strength of each theories, such as making connection between functionalism and historical reflexive theory. According to Carroll’s interpretation of Arthur Danto’s opinion, an artwork should consist of two sequences: artwork should be about something and the viewers complete the piece with their own perceptions. Danto’s account resemble the combination of “functionalism, proceduralism, and historical reflexivity” in that he also emphasizes the role of the Artworld the artwork’s initial creation has situated in.

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Definitions of Art by Stephen Davies. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved from

Definitions of Art by Stephen Davies

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