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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Can we define art?

Several times a year, my students engage in arguments about the definition of art. Some contend, for example, that art must be aesthetically pleasing, or that untouched nature cannot be art, or that anything at all can be art. Time Warp host Jeff Lieberman recently spoke at our school, igniting the debate once again. Lieberman has created beautiful works of art (in my opinion!) by using high-speed cameras and other technologies to expose beauty in the natural world.

In order to give students a framework for thinking about the definition of art, I usually present this simple diagram. It contains elements that, to some degree or another, many consider important in defining whether, or not, a stimulus is, or is not, art:
 
This diagram satisfies my students for a bit, but they usually want more. Yet even as we investigate how philosophers and artistic authorities have defined art, some remain frustrated. Perhaps the next time this discussion arises, I'll share with them this recent post by philosophy professor Mike LaBossiere. In it, LaBossiere asks, Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid? His response is decidedly "no," and he goes on to provide a number of reasons why we, as a society, need to define art:
First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art....

Second, classifying something as art and the creator as an artist gives them both a certain status....

Third, and finally, artists and critics need to know the difference in order to create and judge art-otherwise they would not know what they are doing.
I don't find his reasons particularly compelling, philosophically. Perhaps my students might have some ideas to add the next time this discussion arises.

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