Stephen Davies:  Definitions of Art

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Davies. My personal comments are in red. These comments have been added to help students understand Davies's arguments.

The main point of the essay is to review different strategies of definition.

Real or essential definitions provide necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept. For example, we can define "widow" and "chair" with relative ease. A definition tells us why a particular is what it is, but does not itself provide us with practical criteria for determining which particulars will meet the definition.

Early definitions tended to emphasize a single property as the essence of art (e.g., representation, aesthetic interest, and emotional expression) (p. 170). These favored a simple functionalism, proposing ONE function for all art.

It now appears more likely that we seek a "non-perceptible, relational" set of defining properties (p. 171).

Three broad types of  theories now advanced: 

  • Functionalism: art is defined by purpose(s) that make successful art valuable. (A definition of "chair would normally mention that the purpose of a chair is for sitting. And a chair that cannot be sat upon has no value as a chair. So it seems that chairs require a functional definition. Functionalists treat art in the same way.) A unction commonly assigned to art is to provide a satisfying aesthetic experience.

    But it seems false that there is only one such function. (Some of Duchamp's readymades do not seem to function to provide  a satisfying aesthetic experience. They seem more suitable to challenging our assumptions about art's function.)

    If more than one function, what unites them? Many of the functions emphasized in the West are lesser functions of non-Western art. For instance, the spirit figures of Papua New Guinea are meant to communicate with spirits thought to inhabit the world around us. Art dealers and art collectors who do not believe in spirits and who treat these artifacts as functioning to satisfy human aesthetic interest are ignoring their primary function. Treating them as art falsifies what they properly are, which NOT art according to our primary understandings of art as captured by functionalism. Or we will have to assign a function that is so broad and pervasive that works of art will not be the only things captured by our definition.

  • Proceduralism (e.g., George Dickie on the artworld): art is defined by the process by which it attains art status. (A definition of "widow" must mention a husband to death: we must mention the woman's past marital status and how she lost that status, which is a procedural definition. We don't evaluate her status; good and bad marriages are equally able to result in widowhood, which may itself be either a good or bad situation compared to the marriage! Proceduralism about art proceed in the same way.)

    This approach works well to grant art status to Duchamp's various works, but is there really such an institution? If there is, it prohibits the art status of outsider art and non-Western art. Functionalism has no such difficulty.

  • Historicism: the concept of art is itself evolving, and art status requires appropriate connections to previous art. So what is art at one time will not be art at another time. (We count Minnesota State University Moorhead as the same institution as Moorhead Normal School. Yet they are very different in function, scope, size, and so on. But the State University evolved from the Normal School, and seeing this historical evolution is essential to understanding why they are the same institution. But we could not be what we presently are without going through this evolution -- we couldn't' jump right to university status from normal school status. Historicism about art proceeds with a similar assumption about art.)

    The most important figure here is Arthur Danto. 

    But the theory must be supplemented by an explanation of how the FIRST art had that status (since it must lack the requisite historical relationship). 

    A dilemma arises: Either all art is in the same historical tradition (which seems quite doubtful) or the different historical traditions will only share some very general pattern. If the latter, then how is the ART tradition to be distinguished from other social patterns? (How is art special?)

Hybrid Solutions of Danto and Stecker

Danto seems to have moved beyond historicism to a hybrid view. Danto now combines historicism with several other necessary conditions for the status of art. One requirement is “aboutness” (it needs a referential dimension, i.e., it must have some subject, the way that the Mona Lisa takes a certain woman as its subject while Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. seems to take the Mona Lisa as its subject). Another is  “meaning-embodiment.” (It has to project or express some point of view about its subject, as when L.H.O.O.Q. pokes fun at the Mona Lisa.) But there must also be some element of "ellipsis" (the audience needs to "fill in the blank" and engage in interpretation). Finally, this interpretation must be guided by the work's art-historical context. So we have both functional and historical clauses in the definition. 

(But is this correct? Does all instrumental music really have a subject?)

Robert Stecker seeks to avoid the problem with Danto by granting a plurality of functions to recent art. Granting that art has different functions at different times in art history, something is a work of art if it satisfies any ONE of these conditions:

  • It is within one of the central art forms of its time and is actually intended to satisfy a function that art has at that time, 
  • or it is an artifact that achieves excellence in satisfying the function of one of the central art forms of its time.

Notice that the second alternative allows unintended works of art. What makes this a hybrid (and not just a complex, pluralistic functionalism) is Stecker's explicit recognition that art's function keeps evolving. 

But do the hybrid theories really escape the basic Artworld relativity problem of historicism? (p. 177) To the extent that the functionality of most "high" art depends on social relationships peculiar to its time and place of origin, we find only the vaguest commonalities among the diverse social settings involved. The more we want to recognize as art beyond the canon, the less there is that seems relevant to its being art.

Perhaps we have become too tolerant of what counts as a function of art.

            Last updated January 30, 2008