Theory of art

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At the broadest level, a theory of art aims to shed light on some aspect of the project of defining art or to theorize about the structure of our concept of ‘art’ without providing classical definitions, namely definitions formulated in terms of “necessary and sufficient” conditions.

Aesthetic response

Aesthetic response or functional theories of art are in many ways the most intuitive theories of art. At its base, the term ‘aesthetic’ refers to a type of phenomenal experience and aesthetic definitions identify artworks with artifacts intended to produce aesthetic experiences. Nature can be beautiful and it can produce aesthetic experiences, but nature does not possess the function of producing those experiences. For such a function, an intention is necessary, and thus agency – the artist.

Monroe Beardsley is commonly associated with aesthetic definitions of art. In Beardsley’s words, something is art just in case it is “either an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character or (incidentally) an arrangement belonging to a class or type of arrangements that is typically intended to have this capacity” (1982, 299). Painters arrange “conditions” in the paint/canvas medium, and dancers arrange the “conditions” of their bodily medium, for example. According to Beardsley’s first disjunct, art has an intended aesthetic function, but not all artworks succeed in producing aesthetic experiences whatsoever. The second disjunct allows for artworks that were intended to have this capacity, but failed at it (bad art).

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is the paradigmatic counterexample to aesthetic definitions of art. Such works are said to be counterexamples because they are artworks that don't possess an intended aesthetic function. Beardsley replies that either such works are not art or they are “comments on art” (1983): “To classify them [Fountain and the like] as artworks just because they make comments on art would be to classify a lot of dull and sometimes unintelligible magazine articles and newspaper reviews as artworks” (p.25). This response has been widely considered inadequate (REF). It is either question-begging or it relies on an arbitrary distinction between artworks and commentaries on artworks. A great many art theorists today consider aesthetic definitions of art to be extensionally inadequate, primarily because of artworks in the style of Duchamp[citation needed].


The formalist theory of art asserts that we should focus only on the formal properties of art--the "form" not the "content". Those formal properties might include, for the visual arts, color, shape, and line, and, for the musical arts, rhythm and harmony. Formalists do not deny that works of art might have content, representation, or narrative-rather, they deny that those things are relevant in our appreciation or understanding of art.


The institutional theory of art is a theory about the nature of art that holds that an object can only be(come) art in the context of the institution known as "the artworld".

Addressing the issue of what makes, for example, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" art, or why a pile of Brillo cartons in a supermarket is not art, whereas Andy Warhol's famous Brillo Boxes (a pile of Brillo carton replicas) is, the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote in his 1964 essay "The Artworld":

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.[1]

According to Robert J. Yanal, Danto's essay, in which he coined the term artworld, outlined the first institutional theory of art.

Versions of the institutional theory were formulated more explicitly by George Dickie in his article "Defining Art" (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1969) and his books Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971) and Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974). An early version of Dickie's institutional theory can be summed up in the following definition of work of art from Aesthetics: An Introduction:

A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) on which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.[2]

Dickie has reformulated his theory in several books and articles. Other philosophers of art have criticized his definitions as being circular.[3]


Historical theories of art hold that for something to be art, it must bear some relation to existing works of art. The correct extension of ‘art’ at time t (the present) includes all the works at time t-1 and additionally any works created in the elapsed time. For these additional works to be art, they must be similar or relate to those previously established artworks. Such a definition begs the question of where this inherited status originated. That is why historical definitions of art must also include a disjunct for first art: something is art if it possesses a historical relation to previous artworks, or is first art.

The philosopher primarily associated with the historical definition of art is Jerrold Levinson (1979). For Levinson, "a work of art is a thing intended for regard-as-a-work-of-art: regard in any of the ways works of art existing prior to it have been correctly regarded" (1979, p. 234). Levinson further clarifies that by "intends for" he means: “[M]akes, appropriates or conceives for the purpose of'" (1979, p. 236). Some of these manners for regard (at around the present time) are: to be regarded with full attention, to be regarded contemplatively, to be regarded with special notice to appearance, to be regarded with "emotional openness"(1979, p. 237). If an object isn't intended for regard in any of the established ways, then it isn't art.


Some art theorists have proposed that the attempt to define art must be abandoned and have instead urged an anti-essentialist theory of art. In ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’ (1956), Morris Weitz famously argues that individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions will never be forthcoming for the concept ‘art’ because it is an “open concept”. Weitz describes open concepts as those whose “conditions of application are emendable and corrigible” (1956, p. 31). In the case of borderline cases of art and prima facie counterexamples, open concepts “call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover this, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case and its new property” (p. 31 ital. in original). The question of whether a new artifact is art or not, “is not factual, but rather a decision problem, where the verdict turns on whether or not we enlarge our set of conditions for applying the concept” (p. 32). For Weitz, it is “the very expansive, adventurous character of art, its ever-present changes and novel creations,” which makes the concept impossible to capture in a classical definition (as some static univocal essence).

While anti-essentialism was never formally defeated, it was challenged and the debate over anti-essentialist theories was subsequently swept away by seemingly better essentialist definitions. Commenting after Weitz, Berys Gaut revived anti-essentialism in the philosophy of art with his paper ‘“Art” as a Cluster Concept’ (2000). Cluster concepts are composed of criteria that contribute to art status but are not individually necessary for art status. There is one exception: Artworks are created by agents, and so being an artifact is a necessary property for being an artwork. Gaut (2005) offers a set of ten criteria that contribute to art status:

(i) possessing positive aesthetic qualities (I employ the notion of positive aesthetic qualities here in a narrow sense, comprising beauty and its subspecies);
(ii) being expressive of emotion;
(iii) being intellectually challenging;
(iv) being formally complex and coherent;
(v) having a capacity to convey complex meanings;
(vi) exhibiting an individual point of view;
(vii) being an exercise of creative imagination;
(viii) being an artifact or performance that is the product of a high degree of skill;
(ix) belonging to an established artistic form; and
(x) being the product of an intention to make a work of art. (274)

Satisfying all ten criteria would be sufficient for art, as might any subset formed by nine criteria (this is a consequence of the fact that none of the ten properties is necessary). For example, consider two of Gaut’s criteria: “possessing aesthetic merit” and “being expressive of emotion” (200, p. 28). Neither of these criteria is necessary for art status, but both are parts of subsets of these ten criteria that are sufficient for art status. Gaut’s definition also allows for many subsets with less than nine criteria to be sufficient for art status, which leads to a highly pluralistic theory of art.

Aesthetic creation

Zangwill describes the aesthetic creation theory of art as a theory of “how art comes to be produced” (p. 167) and an “artist-based” theory. Zangwill distinguishes three phases in the production of a work of art:

[F]irst, there is the insight that by creating certain nonaesthetic properties, certain aesthetic properties will be realized; second, there is the intention to realize the aesthetic properties in the nonaesthetic properties, as envisaged in the insight; and, third, there is the more or less successful action of realizing the aesthetic properties in the nonaesthetic properties, an envisaged in the insight and intention. (45)

In the creation of an artwork, the insight plays a causal role in bringing about actions sufficient for realizing particular aesthetic properties. Zangwill doesn’t describe this relation in detail, but only says it is “because of” this insight that the aesthetic properties are created.

Aesthetic properties are instantiated by nonaesthetic properties that “include physical properties, such as shape and size, and secondary qualities, such as colours or sounds.”(37) Zangwill says that aesthetic properties supervene on the nonaesthetic properties: it is because of the particular nonaesthetic properties it has that the work possesses certain aesthetic properties (and not the other way around).


  1. Danto, Arthur (October 1964). "The Artworld". Journal of Philosophy. 61 (19): 571–584. doi:10.2307/2022937.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Dickie, George (1971). Aesthetics, An Introduction. Pegasus. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-672-63500-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. For example, Carroll, Noël (1994). "Identifying Art". In Robert J. Yanal (ed.). Institutions of Art: Reconsiderations of George Dickie's Philosophy. Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-271-01078-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>