The Laws of Nature

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Define "Art"?

Friends, I like a challenge! Our attempt to define art inspired Deborah Stearns to offer some challenging questions, and Egmont suggests that we explore them. I agree. To get the discussion going, I’ll offer a few comments and hope that you’ll chime-in with your ideas as well.

Deborah’s first question: What is the purpose of the definition?
I don't know, but will offer a few possible reasons:
Practitioners of most disciplines work within prescribed parameters. As a professional artist, it’s helpful for me to define how what I produce (art) is different from what a button factory produces. Kenneth M. Lansing, author of Why We Need a Definition of Art published by the National Art Education Association, wrote that art can and must be defined if we are to make any sense out of what we do.

Secondly, definition provides meaning which facilitates communication. All languages have clearly defined words that enable accurate communication. Imagine if I told a man that I produce “art” and he responded, “Art? What’s that?” “Well, sir, there’s no real definition for art, so I guess that what I produce is what everyone produces … it’s ALL art! There’s nothing to separate what I do from what anyone else does.” This seems a bit pointless to me.

Deborah’s second questions: Why is it important that we define art as distinct from non-art?

This distinction was established long ago. The classical definition of art was something produced by highly skilled artisans. Da Vinci and Michelangelo elevated this practice to a more intellectual one. After the Renaissance, the definition of art included an aesthetic component: beauty. It was then that the fine arts were separated from the applied arts (crafts, commercial design, and the decorative arts). Why is this distinction important today? I don’t know.

What are your ideas??


Four Seasons in a Life said...

Our Western culture requires compartmentalization and the creation of infinite lists, which author Umberto Eco wrote of in his third book on art, titled The Infinity of Lists. Without an inventory catalogue we would be lost within chaos that is the storm in a teacup. We must be able to define and categorize to satisfy our need for assembly and order, especially now that art finds itself in a transition that is blurring the boundaries that we have understood for centuries.

Before the twentieth century art was primarily painting, sculpture and jewelry (over simplified for sure), now we have such a large variety of different expressive forms, we find ourselves in even greater need to be able to understand the roots, as modern art becomes more inclusive, tolerating a wider range then ever before, above all, art is becoming more and more personal.

The classical definition of art that you speak of Katharine has changed long ago, beginning with the French Impressionist and contemporary art books reflect this change. The chapters covering a span of no more than seventy years is far greater in order to accommodate the many different styles. This trend will only continue as materials and techniques are merged into new forms.

Even I have succumb to the spell of compartmentalizing when the need to define a series of paintings arose and there was no category to which it would fit perfectly, I blended two different definitions, creating an oxymoron, but it described to a ‘T’ what the art stood for.

Yet as I read once again the post, I begin to observe and ask if there is a difference between what the author Kenneth M. Lansing suggests, that art needs to be defined, with my observations and need to categorize art. Are these the same or two different aspects?

Thank you Katharine for adding my DIRECTORY banner to your blog.

Unknown said...

Hi Egmont – thank you for an substantive comment and for raising a question about the difference between classification and definition. It seems to me that there is a difference. Classification is used to create systematic arrangements in categories that are established through assigning specific criteria. This means that “groups” are created. Definition, on the other hand, is a statement of the meaning of a word in a way that expresses its essential nature (e.g. what makes “it” “it”). So the purpose for both differs: classification is done to create understandable order from a myriad of things and definition is assigned to make clear the meaning of a something. Can a category serve as a definition? Yes, in a way. For instance, the word “car” is a category of objects, but it’s also a word that has a precise definition. Can a definition serve as a category? I can’t think of an instance that isn’t telescopic in some way. So, is defining art the same as classifying art? Hmmmm….

Celeste Bergin said...

This subject seems to be everywhere in my world right now. My work is representational and I hang out with other "traditional" artists. (Translation= the viewer can generally name and identify what we've created). One of the people in our plein air (outdoor painting) group is "world class" (Translation = recognized as a stand out, published, sought after, celebrated, known). When she went to Cooper Union in the 50's she was outcast because her heart was in representational work. The school and the entire country preferred abstract. She soldiered on, despite the pressure to change to "modern" work. It's hard to go against the tide! This perceived distain for traditional work is still very much a factor today 50 years later...Representational art still takes hits, considered plebeian by many critics. Critics "dictate" what sophisticated people "should" display in order to be "correct".

Why define art? I imagine the reason is so we can all make decisions. We can make informed choices about whether or not to follow cultural (and critical) dictates and to further determine where we fit in the world .. to feel the pulse of the world that we live in. Every culture is shaped by the art it created and visa versa.

Representational art fell out of favor in a big way in the 1950's ...but it is making a comeback as evidenced by the interest wherever there is a traditional representational/realist show.

Art is a most personal part of our environment. It influences our mood and when displayed it projects an image of it's owner. We are art and art is us. If you are a bank president who displays grunge art...well, you are an atypical bank president! It is very complex and some people (like Quakers, for example) feel that art is a great that should be avoided as frivolous and self serving. Paradoxically, some days, even though I am an artist...I completely agree with THAT.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea that the definition of art is hard to do and once done, instantly challenged! I like knowing that some artists challenge our way of thinking, pushing the envelope of what art is. I like knowing that others stand up an question the validity, definition, and limits of art.

I like the yin yang relationship of define and challenge art.

Wonderful, insightful post and comments!

Unknown said...

First of all, I love the painting of the mussels at the top of today's post.

I read and appreciated all the posts and want to give my humble opinion on the last question you listed.

Why is the distinction important today? I will follow on Egmont's plotted trail of thought and echo that it helps to simplify our increasingly complicated lives.

Don't we use adjectives to help the listener/reader to quicker understand the subject we're trying to discuss?

Years ago, only a very few privileged people were able to view and much fewer produce fine art.

With the world becoming smaller, thanks to the Internet, people from all corners of the world can be exposed to sights their ancestors could not even imagine.

With the information highway exposing us to billions of new bits of information, we even try to be very specific with our Google search to narrow down the results from several million to hopefully a couple hundred. So, definitions and categorization helps us streamline and understand a thought or message or process visual information quicker.

I want to know who decides what is fine, applied and technical art.

I have been following a medical illustrator's blog. When she draws the same object from a work assignment onto a piece of paper to be matted and framed, does it automatically jump the category from technical to fine art? Can something be both?

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Thanks so much for tackling my questions, Kathy! I'm pleased to be able to offer you a challenge. ;)

I absolutely understand the need to define terms so that we can more effectively communicate and so that we can convey a sense of who we are and what we do. However, given the extensive and vociferous debate about the meaning of the word "art", I'm simply not sure that it does successfully convey meaning. If a mixed-media textile artist who works with twine and found objects tells someone "I make art" but the person hearing that thinks that art involves only paintings and sculpture, there will be a miscommunication. It was interesting, for example, how many of those who commented discussed the intrinsically subjective nature of their definition of art. If the meaning of art is subjective, and hence varied, it isn't clear to me what we gain from using the term or struggling to define it more objectively.

However, if we shift to discussing what we do more specifically, I think there is less confusion and less contested meaning. To say "I'm a landscape painter" or "I made sculptures out of candy wrappers" or "I work with wire to create ethereal scenes that evoke movement" seems much more effective and specific, both as communication, and as a way of making sense out of what we do. So I still don't really know whether there is a significant advantage in defining "art" as the broader category, except (as I noted in my original comment) for the use of "art" as a way of evoking a higher status for one's work.

[As an aside, I think a number of other terms suffer from similar fuzzy boundaries in everyday use -- I don't at all think that artists are the only people who struggle with this type of issue.]

Again, I am trying to approach this issue both from a pragmatic perspective and from the global perspective that Dutton uses. How can we define art in such a way that it encompasses the artistic creations of all cultures (and yet does not include everything under the sun)? While the classical definitions of art, fine art, craft, etc. may be well understood in the Western art tradition (although even here there are significant controversies), I'm not sure how to apply these distinctions globally, in both Western and non-Western cultures. Does the intricate decorative work used in embroidery in many cultures count as craft because it is on a functional item? Would the members of that culture agree? You included an oriental rug in your poll -- if handmade, this takes great skill and artistry, and might involve an original design. Should this not be included in our definition of art? What makes it so different from a tapestry or painting? Would this distinction make sense cross-culturally? I could go on and on.

I don't really have an answer here (although I really enjoy the discussion, regardless). I wonder, though, whether the definitional debates serve as divisive, rather than a way of creating discourse among various types of artists and artisans. One of the things I could potentially like about Dutton's list of criteria is that it could open up discussion of how a particular work fits or doesn't fit the various criteria, without needing to definitively place it in the "art" or "non-art" category.

Thanks again for exploring my question!

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Unknown said...

Hi Celeste - you give us lots to think about! Thanks so much for your comments ... I'll mull them over some more :)

Hi Peggy - I agree. Harnessing creative minds in an agreement over a definition for art is like trying to herd cats. Thanks for your comments!

Hi Sheila - another can of worms! I have no idea how to define the divisions between all the different types of "art." Anyone else? Thanks for commenting - lots of good points.

Hi Deborah - I can see your viewpoint, and agree for the most part. When it comes to making an oriental rug, I guess the amount of artistry depends upon whether or not someone is simply following a pattern and method created by someone else. As you state, the boundaries are fuzzy. And, I agree that being specific is more a more effective way to define what we do. Thanks for your comments!

Hi Pam - like you, I don't care to use any definition as a tool for elitism, and that would never be my intent here. In fact, it often seems a little surreal to say "I'm an artist." People look at me like ... "yeah - another one who thinks she's an artist!" Most of the time I just do my own thing and keep moving on. Blogging is different, since we can more easily share our ideas and consider those of others. It's a good way to figure things out, or at least to realize what we can't know :) Thanks for your comments!

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hw (hallie) farber said...

Great discussion; I have nothing to add. Beautiful triptych.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam ... no worries! I didn't think you were directing that at me :) I just like to clarify my position. Happy painting!

Hi Hallie - thank you! It's oil on canvas.

-Don said...

I am an artist.

I said that as a 4 year old and people seemed to know what I was talking about. I said it as a teenager and people seemed to understand. I said it in college and nobody seemed to understand.

It's so much a part of who I am that I do not know how to define it. I just am.


Unknown said...

Good point, Don! Do you think there's a difference in reaction when a man says "I'm an artist" and when a woman says "I'm an artist"?

-Don said...


I've always felt the same way no matter who said it. If you tell me you're an artist I want to see your work.

But, I have noticed others can allow conceit and bias about gender, race, religion, and so many other factors cloud their judgment on many things in life, including art. Idiots!