Art, Definition and Identification
is an outline of Carroll, Philosophy of Art, Chapter 5
My personal comments are in red, like this, and you can see that they
have a different style of lettering.. They elaborate on Carroll or react
something as art is important, and is possible without being able to
The Neo-Wittgensteinian approach
argues that art cannot be defined, yet it is easy to identify.
this theory, very few things can be defined in terms of necessary and
sufficient conditions. Luckily, most things can still be
identified with great accuracy by those who understand the language
being spoken in relation to the social practices in which that language
The concept of art
CANNOT be defined as philosophers try to define concepts,
because it is an open concept (it involves a concept that evolves as
practices change). Because the practice of art is always open to radical
change, we cannot expect to find sufficient conditions for being an
Method of identification is family resemblance. The
word "game" is a good example of something else that we
identify in this manner. Different cases resemble each other in multiple
ways, yet no ONE way must be common among all cases.
read a short excerpt of what Wittgenstein said.
to define art are misguided. At best, they point out what is important
about a particular kind of art, not all art.
to The Neo-Wittgensteinian Approach
attack on definitions equivocates,
so it proves nothing. The fact that the practice of art can change
("art" as practice) does not prove that the concept of art
changes ("art" as artwork). For example,
religions change, but that doesn't prove that "religion" can't
Also, there are
problems with using family resemblance to identify things. It is
"too slack." Normally, a family is defined by appeal to
genetics, marriage, and other objective relations among individuals. The
mere resemblance of two individuals does not put them in the same family.
If Duchamp's In
Advance of a Broken Arm is art, then every snow shovel seems to
But if only SOME
relationships are relevant, which ones? And won't that give us the
necessary and sufficient conditions we need to define art?
II Contemporary Definitions
Institutional Theory of Art
context is often used as the distinguishing feature that makes a Duchamp
readymade count as an artwork.
Institutional Theory defines art in this way:
x is an artwork (in the classificatory
sense) if and only if (1) x is an artifact (2) upon which someone
acting on behalf of a certain institution (the artworld) confers the
status of candidate for appreciation.
Some kind of PROCEDURE is needed to
confer status. And social standing is required to be in a position to
act on behalf of an institution.
CURATORS, and ART CRITICS are all in a position to confer the proper
status on an artifact.
very elitist and anti-democratic? No, because "anyone can act on
its behalf, if only they acquire some knowledge and understanding."
this knowledge-based status is probably not true of many cultures. The
theory seems to generalize too broadly from modern Western art
Basic objections to The
- The institution is too loose to be
considered an institution.
- The status (e.g. for being an artist)
is "usually self-selective." But that's not how it works
for other institutions. More authority is needed than mere
- "Candidate for appreciation"
is too broad. If ANYTHING can be a candidate, there aren't really
any institutional constraints.
Neolithic tribesman problem: Lone
prehistoric individual who makes a design for personal amusement won't
count as creating art (because there's no institution of the right sort
to fit the definition).
Problem: The definition has to refer to the artworld. So art has been
defined by citing art. Even if it's informative, it's not really a
institutional theory emphasizes that art is a byproduct of human social
nature, and necessarily involves social relationships. J. Levinson takes
the case of the neolithic tribesman as sufficient to reject the
institutional theory in favor of defining art in terms of the maker's
intention to promote visual pleasure. The tribesman did something that
we, today, would regard as an art practice.
something is art if it satisfies one of our "art regards." In
other words, it has some feature that we regard as a feature of art.
approach is a historical definition because what matters is art history:
if something is well-established as an art regard by reference to
anything that is both intended and made relevant by art's history, then
it's art. Basically, we get this definition:
x is an artwork if and only if x is an
object over which someone) (1) has a proprietary right and (2) non-passingly
intends/intended x for regard in any way(s) objects already
counting/counted as "art" are/were standardly regarded (even
if the person did not know that it has
been counted as art for this reason).
Notice that, if we want to say that
something is art, then part (2) of the definition requires our ability
(but not the "artist's" ability) to specify that something else already counts as
"art" (a "previously known artwork") and we can see
why, and we can see that both are intended to be regarded in the same
way. So the drawing that the kindergartner brings
home is a work of art because the child intended it to display the sort
of character that more competent art displays -- yet neither the child
nor the child's teacher nor the child's parent has to think that it is
an artwork. It's an artwork if WE recognize the connection.
There is a
social element to the first part of the definition, because proprietary
rights depend on the society in which one operates. But it seems wrong
to say that one thing is a work of art and another is not because
American property law treats them differently.
That leaves us with the second condition as the main focus. Is
part (2) of the definition sufficient to define art? NO. It is "too
inclusive." Carroll contends that "art regards can pass out of
existence." Failure to admit this would make almost every photo snapshot
a work of art, on the grounds that imitation used to be
an important art regard, anything generated for representational
purposes seems to become an artwork. Almost every videotape, too. And
well-tended lawns! Most houses!
the reference to intentions and replacing it with functionality does not
help much, either, since it is also too inclusive.
III Identifying Art Historically
we have been wrong to think that all our classificatory concepts permit
of "essential definition" in terms of necessary and sufficient
If not, what permits
successful identification of art?
something "like" the historical definition: "by telling a
certain kind of story," in which one shows that the thing
"emerged intelligibly from acknowledged practices via the same kind
of thinking..." We place it in a tradition that makes it
intelligible as art.
assumes that art practices are part of a broader, evolving historical
project that makes sense of what people are doing. Is
it really "evolving," in the real meaning of this term? Or is
it just changing? A historical narrative always assumes that things are
going toward something. Are reactionary artworks not artworks?
linkage is what matters: it is fully SUFFICIENT to do the job we need to
By telling a certain kind of story about x, we show that x emerged intelligibly from acknowledged practices via the same kind of thinking that produced other art; if we can place x in an evolving tradition that makes x intelligible as art, then x is art.
historical narratives, we can explain why something is an artwork
without having to define art. Think of the
parallel case: the definition of "marriage" is socially
contested and debated, yet people still have reasons to get married. I
can explain why marriages happen even if I cannot provide a satisfactory
essential definition of marriage.
rule out all those snapshots and green lawns by pointing out that the
people who produce them do not intend to enter into the ongoing
"conversation" with "living" practices that constitutes art history. Doesn't
this also rule out the lone Neolithic tribesman? Not unless we've said
that historical narrative is the only way -- we might allow that
other criteria might also be sufficient to identify art.
notice the price to be paid in ruling out the snapshots and green lawns:
we must rule that some older purposes are no longer "living"
purposes of the contemporary artworld. But this requires that someone
has something like an institutional status to declare a purpose
What about tribal
art? Why is the functional demon figure an artwork? Because we see that
early artworks in our tradition often had similar functions to the
function of these things in the tribal culture. So historical
analysis has to be supplemented by functional analysis. It appears
that our method for identifying artworks in the later stages of cultural
evolution are different from the methods for identifying them in earlier
Notice, then, that failure
to satisfy a proper historical narrative proves nothing.
The child who has no awareness of art and who makes a drawing (e.g.,
because the kindergarten teacher asks them to draw something) does not
enter into a "living" conversation, yet may produce a drawing that has a
function that art served in an earlier time. Do we grant that the
child's drawing is art, or do we say that it's not art if
the child lives in a society where art no longer aims to
fulfill that function?