A definition of art

Setting aside, for now, all questions about the need for a definition of art, I’ll note only that there is no point in trying to say what art is.  A definition of art must begin–and maybe it would end–with an account of what art does.

About carterratcliff

I am a poet who writes about art and everything else.
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10 Responses to A definition of art

  1. mike solomon says:

    Been re-reading Harold Rosenberg’s “The De-
    definition of Art”, have we?

    • carterratcliff says:

      If I read Rosenberg’s “The Definition of Art,” it was forty years ago. I focused more on his “American Action Painter” essay. And I should say that, if the choice were between Rosenberg and Greenberg, I would choose Rosenberg. Still, I have always been dubious of his existentialist-tinged drama of authenticity. His struggle was to say what the artist does–or, if you like, how the artist uses the process of art-making to do something along the lines of achieving authentic being, discovering his or her true self, and so on. I’m not especially interested in the artist’s intention. I focus on the work of art as an occasion for interpetation, and so the first thing it does, if it is at all successful, is to engage us, grab our attention. Having done that, it then challenges us to make sense of it–in other words, it gets our intepretative energies going and, at best, it entangles us in such a rich tangle of interpretive possibilities that we become conscious of that richness, of our immersion in it, and, ultimately, of ourselves responding in distinctive ways to a distinctive situation. Each one of us catches at least a glimpse of the particular, contingent individual that he or she is. And if that glimpse has a existententialist tinge–Rosenbergian, Sartrean, or even Merleau-Ponty-esque, so be it . . . I talk at greater length about my idea of the work of art doing things in an essay on Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s “Evidence,” which appeared in the November 2006 issue of Art in America . . .

  2. Actually, there is a considerable history of discussions among philosophers regarding the nature of art , beginning with the ancient Greeks and continuing to the present day. Traditionally, all human activity is divided into two classes, those that seek some advantage (improvement, perfection) to the agent and those that seek such purposes for something other than the agent, such as a building, a painting, a pair of shoes, a vase, a jump shot. The first class is referred to a morality. The second is referred to as art, including the activity of the craftsman as well as the the so-called
    “fine artist,” but with further definition of activities, such as these two, determined by the formal object of each (which might include the methodology as well as the result achieved) . Umberto Eco has written an impressive history of aesthetics, which one might do well to note.

    The impatience of the contemporary (fine) artist with such discussions was justified by Plato in his 17th Epistle (if memory serves) where he says, regarding the nature of the good (the beautiful), “Unlike other studies, there is no way of putting it into words, but after much communion and constant intercourse with the thing itself, a flame is enkindled within the soul, as from a leaping fire, and henceforth nourishes itself.” Far from anti-intellectualism, it can be argued that the ultimate basis of all intellectual activity is founded on such intuitions.

    • carterratcliff says:

      I agree that the nature of art is ultimately beyond words, that what we do manage to say originates in–and rests on–intuitions that resist utterance. Yet, as writers ranging from Eco to Plato and beyond have suggested with their commentary on art and aesthetics, there is some point to talking about these things or trying to talk about them. Talk along these lines focuses our attention, at the very least, and, at best, sharpens our intuitions. So, for example, your comment about the difference between an activity that provides the actor–the agent–with an advantage and activity that doesn’t provide any such advantage is crucial to getting a sense of why anyone would take the trouble to paint something so impractical as a painting. It’s one thing to paint a house, another to apply pigments to a canvas–obviously, but it is not easy to give an account of this obvious difference and the long discussion that contrasts “purposive” and “non-purpose” behavior (to borrow from Kant) helps us get a better grip on it.

  3. Frank Gaard says:

    Romanticism is like a nostalgia for god. Marcel Broodthaers (paraphrased).
    Really art escapes definitions in order to remain a free inquiry. For centuries art was in the service of the church since it’s emancipation from that propaganda work it has become ever more difficult to pin down.And though it can be disconcerting we have a situation now of global diversity and experimentation which has not formed into a dominant style or styles. Indeed the field may take a long while to settle into something coherent and reasonable per definition.We may not live to see the hegemony that we saw in the 1950’s in AE instead a thousand flowers bloom . And what would be gained by a definition? Another theory to be destroyed by the ongoing spectacle of free art outside the temple of words.

    • carterratcliff says:

      Yes, art escapes definitions. In part, this is because art is visual and definitions are verbal and words can never make a tight fit with images. Most art criticism is a kind of pointing, an attempt to focus the reader/viewer’s attention on something that ultimately eludes language. Furthermore, analytical language has an analogous kind of difficulty with rhetorical language, the sort of utterance that conveys meaning with metaphor, allusion, ellipsis, meter, sound–in a word, poetry. Here, too, the critic sooner or later ends up pointing to certain details, turns of phrase and so on, and offering unverifiable speculations about what they might mean–and what the poem, as a succession of turns of phrase, might be getting at. Some find it frustrating that critics can never pin down the meaning of a painting or a poem with any certainty, but, as you imply, the value of art lies in this unaccountability–or, to put it positively–this freedom. What, then, would be gained by a definition of art? Well, if it is the sort of definition offered by the October writers, for example, nothing is gained and much is lost, because they use their definitions to reduce artworks to occasions for the exercise of their authority. In other words, they have no interest in art except as a pretext for their authoritarian pronouncements. It might seem that the alternative is say nothing about art, but this is impossible. We can’t even question the efficacy of language without using language. Nor can art be a part of our lives, an element of our culture, without becoming a topic of discussion. So we have two choices. We can talk about art in a way that focuses on a particular instance and avoids the constricting generalizations imposed by familiar definitions of art. Or we can try to arrive at a definition of art that is, in its way, as open as art itself. What would be the point of that? There may be none but I believe that a good definition of art would be helpful, on occasion, in heightening our sense of what is at stake in art, if only by drawing a contrast between art and non-art. A good definition of art might thus give us a better, more articulate sense of why we care about it and consider it so important. Over the past decade or so, I have been approaching that sort of defintion, or so I believe, and am continuing to think about it. Watch this space.

  4. So, Art is as Art does. That’s all ye know and all ye need to know??

    • carterratcliff says:

      I suppose the choice of “does” over “is” is not crucial from a logical point of view. I mean, if I define a work of art as an artifact in some visual medium that does such-and such, I could just as well say that a work of art is an artifact that does such-and-such. The difference is one of emphasis–in other words–rhetorical. So why do I choose “does” rather than “is”? Because I want my definition of art, whatever shape it takes, to emphasize the viewer’s active engagement with works of art. If we talk about what art is, we run the risk of isolating artworks in an enclosure built of static concepts. Talking about what art does, we are more likely to be conscious of the way an artwork draws us in, prompting a response, an interchange, and this consciousness will intensify the experience. What is at stake here is not the truth of what the work of art is but the fullness of the meaning generated by our interaction with it.

  5. John Rapko says:

    Dear Carter Ratcliff, I only just this last week chanced upon your very interesting blog and Facebook page. As a note to your response to Frank Gaard above, you might be interested in the work of a number of recent and current philosophers of art who are developing an open conception of art and/or the aesthetic: Berys Gaut; Ben Ami-Scharfstein; Dennis Dutton; Nelson Goodman (on the symptoms of the aesthetic); etc. And, as you very likely know, the valuable points you make about verbal description of visual art are similarly made early in Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention.–I very much look forward to reading your promised further thoughts on this.

  6. Richard W Franklin says:

    I’m inclined to like John Dewey’s notion that art is neither the object nor the viewer – but the experience that takes place between the two.

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