R. Stecker – Is it Reasonable to Attempt to Define Art?

A similar, (…) argument against definition is the inductive argument. (…) [it] claims that this attempt to define art has failed, that attempt has failed, . . . , so the next attempt will probably fail.

* W. Kandinsky – Several circles


11 comments on “R. Stecker – Is it Reasonable to Attempt to Define Art?

  1. Mike says:

    Define – no. Interpret – yes.

  2. Abandon TV says:

    Defining art is like defining food. “Food for the soul” is not a bad definition for art.

    We all have our different tastes, but the moment we, as a society, proclaim “anything can be food / anything can be art” we are inviting disaster.

    One of the marks of a mature and civilised being is being selective about food and rejecting substances which we do not define as food (for example: faeces).

    The same should be true when it comes to art. If we don’t reject *at least* as much as we embrace then we end up with art galleries full of shit. And we end up with a malnourished (or poisoned) culture.


    • it’s very easy to make a definition, still it is impossible to have majority to agree upon it.
      and what’s the difference between not-art and bad-art?

      • Abandon TV says:

        Right! And that consensus aspect the most fascinating and important aspect of it.

        If we can’t always agree on what qualifies as art (or what qualifies as good/ bad art) then does that mean we should simply give up thinking about this subject altogether? Should ‘achieving a consensus’, or ‘avoiding passionate debate’ be the goal here? Is getting into lockstep with everyone around us necessary or desirable?

        I bet the Chinese under communism had pretty uniform views on art. Is that what we want? Remember, this idea that “anything can qualify as art” is not much different to the idea that “only state approved paintings and music can qualify art”. I would argue that this idea that “anything can be art” is a form of censorship, even if it appears on the surface to be the opposite.

        Maybe the *process itself* of thinking and debating “what is art?” is the most important thing, and not some final ‘answer’ – as if there ever could be one.

        I think the WILLINGNESS and EAGERNESS to keep debating and keep drawing lines between art/ not art / good art/ bad art – is like having a strong immune system. Our immune system is not there to achieve ‘health’ and then it can just pack its bags and go on holiday. It’s a never-ending *process*. Our immune system constantly meets ‘stuff’ in our body and asks “Are you of value to this body? Are you friend or foe? Are you poop?” And if the answer is ‘foe’ or ‘poop’ that stuff gets rejected, neutralised and banished and on we go…

        Perhaps our white blood cells don’t always agree on what should and should not be rejected and neutralised. Perhaps they sometimes get it wrong. But imagine if they decided that the solution to this ‘lack of consensus’ was to just stop making any distinctions at all! (cue: a quick death).

        This is what I believe has happened culturally speaking. We have lowered all defences and lost our cultural immune system. We have cultural AIDS, so to speak. Maybe in the past we were too much the other way – too narrow and strict – and maybe we’re just trying to find some sort of balance.

        I do however believe there is evidence of forces at work (ie social engineering) who are trying to encourage us to abandon all value systems and adopt a more ‘anything can be anything’ outlook on life. It feels like we’re being trained to think that making *value judgements* on art is somehow politically incorrect, narrow minded or just irrelevant (old fashioned) and that feels like a stepping stone to the Orwellian/ Huxlian mindset where making *moral judgements* is also regarded as politically incorrect, narrow minded or just irrelevant.

        (“…..Hey, our political rulers are using drones as murder weapons to affect political change which have a 98% civilian murder rate…. and these are being used to fight a war on terrorism which was started by a man in a cave who used drones as murder weapons to affect political change which had a 100% civilian death rate…… but I mustn’t make a moral judgement on this because that would be to ‘impose’ my subjective judgement onto someone else….”)

        If a pile of trash can be ‘art’ then surely mass murder be ‘peace’… slavery can be ‘freedom’…. and stupidity can be ‘genius’?

        D’you see my point?!

        Whether by design or not, art is becoming separated from morality, from empathy, and from humanity. And instead ‘art’ is being increasingly portrayed as just a subset of technology. This is hugely troubling. Tyranny and persecution (such as Nazi germany) do not descend because the public has all decided to become immoral, evil descends whenever the public has been distracted away from making moral judgements for too long, and has just gotten out of practice with making those kinds of judgements.

        Let’s pause and consider that we currently live in an age where Blair and Bush have already been convicted of war crimes under the Geneva Convention for starting a genocidal war based on lies which has slaughtered at least a million innocent men, women, children and babies…… yet walk into any art gallery or listen to contemporary music or watch contemporary dance or theatre and you’ll enter a world of infantile obsessions, silly juxtapositions, mental masturbation and all round narcism. If war and violence ever are used as a subject matter it is usually subverted, treated with irreverence or just made to look cool and sexy. Like the German people, the very idea of actually making a grown up *value judgement* about something real and important is becoming a ‘lost art’.

        Imagine you’re an artist in a studio and you live in a society where the “art vs not art” distinction is healthy, strong and passionate among critics and among the general public. That’s going to drive you to make something pretty damn special, out of fear of ridicule if nothing else! (“What a load of old bollocks!”)

        The same artist living in a society where ‘everything can be art’ is just not going to have that same incentive/ pressure to come up with anything particularly special. They will no doubt be more concerned with standing out from the crowd because now ‘anyone and everyone can be an artist’. So to get noticed in a sea of wanna be artist-celebs they will tend to focus on shock value and anything which stands out from the crowd. As a result they might try to make art which is enormous in physical size, or offensive to the senses or the intellect or morality in some way (‘controversial’), or they might decide to always dress up as a teapot in public etc.

        And this is exactly what we’ve seen happen to the art world over the past few decades.

  3. Rivenrod says:

    If the only question art, a piece of art, an object, raises is “why”, it’s unlikely to be art.

    It’s an opinion, but it has served me well through the years.


    Ps. A huge thank you for reminding me of the clarity and substance of Kandinsky.

  4. nannus says:

    It may be possible to come forward with a definition that covers everything existing so far, but then it is always possible to create something not covered by that definition and call it art. That is the basic principle of creativity: you can always construct your way out of the given theory.
    So since creativity is involved in the creation of art, a complete definition of it is impossible in principle.

    • that’s a major point in all those academic esseys I’ve read, yet there some institutional definitions (like what’s accepted by the museums is art etc) that cope with this particular problem at the same time they are short of other solutions

  5. hiddenangles says:

    The definition of art is so diverse and varied that no particular explanation covers it.Only a general explanation could define it to some point. I remember wikipedia defined it as something that stimulates a sense. But, this too could be said as incorrect since pornography stimulates a sense and it is not considered art. Therefore, at the moment i know no general definiton.

    Maybe art is the act of pouring simple and not-so-interesting everyday life into something significant and interesting. Who knows?

    By the way, i agree with the one who says “Define – no. Interpret – yes.”. It is only through the interpretation which you can know the transcendence you’re looking at. Other than that it looks somehing rock-solid, soul-less.

    • Thanks for your comment. The only reason I’m researching the topic is for the problems with the definition in intellectual property law. I don’t like the idea of limiting but still it’s interesting insight. Scholars agree since the 50s though, that no strict definiton is possible, only ‘kindof’ definiton.

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