Defining art is a task that is both necessary yet inextricably complex. Regarding the former, a definition necessarily functions to dissociate art objects and non-art objects from one another. Defining an entity as “art” is a judgment which essentializes an object or concept into an elementary, binary classification that acts as a foundation to further attempt many meanings that could articulate a definition. This is to say, that to understand what art is, one also needs to understand what it is not. Although, in that there is no general consensus as to what art is, defining art comes to be a subjective matter which designates any definitive meaning to be uniquely particular and thus difficult to equate to a far-reaching generalization. In this sense, any definition of art will always be permeable, intangible, and indefinite. Thus, “art” is a word with abounding definitions that cannot be definitively fixed in the same way, for example, that the definition of the word “shovel” can be reasonably established. Any definition of “art” can be applied essentially or particularly, and subsequently disputed. Anything can be defined as “art,” yet justifying the definition can be problematic and ultimately unsatisfactory. Therefore, the question of definition means that art is both a classification that is easily administered as well as something that is paradoxically ineffable. However, the contentiousness of the question itself elicits its importance.
The importance of defining art has led to a profusion of theories to support particular definitions throughout recorded history. Art has been variously defined as human-made objects or concepts that imitate natural phenomena, communicate information, express emotion, or prompt interpretation to find a meaning in such a way that distinguishes an object, characteristic, or concept from a non-art object, characteristic, or concept. In this fashion, the only essential quality to art is the word, “art.” Thus, theories of art have emerged that are cognizant of this difficulty and have accordingly developed principles that attempt to explain the meaning in and of art. The efforts of all the theoretical pursuits indicate the significance of art’s meaning and have contributed to a body of knowledge that is comprised of many definitions. Clearly, the existence of art theory correlates to a value in seeking to understand what art is and is not. Yet, as to the importance of defining art, the value lies in the question and not definitive answers. There is more value in pursuing an answer with a diversity of questions than arriving at an answer, because questions produce new and divergent ways of understanding a complex concept like art that do not necessarily define art. Consequently, endeavoring to define art is distinctly important, whereas an ultimate definition is less important.
Two strategies emerged in the 20th century to accommodate the radical changes in art and its appreciation. The first derived from the Frankfurt School with the theories of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. This approach argued that art should be understood within the economic and cultural conditions of modern capitalism. The second strategy developed from the theories of Arthur Danto and George Dickie which placed the meaning of an artwork outside the work itself. This approach argued that an artwork’s efficacy as art was no longer inherent to the work of art itself. These two strategies thoroughly altered the way in which art is understood and accordingly provide insight into the question of “what art is.”
In his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin addresses the ways in which mass reproduction of aesthetic works alters the experience and perception of art. However, it is noted that art changes along with cultural changes, and thus functions as a means in which to perceive and understand the wider world. Benjamin writes, “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.” Demonstrating this process, Benjamin uses the term, “aura” to describe the authenticity of an original artwork that is established by way of a ritualistic basis. In this sense, the aura is associated to the cultural context in which the artwork was created. It has a provincial cult value in its extrinsic properties that exist as a part of the aura. With the standardization of mass produced and reproduced artworks, the aura has been disassociated from the work. The original work is now removed from experience, or there is no original at all in the sense that the artwork is designed for mass production, as with the mediums of photography and film. Nonetheless, Benjamin recognizes that these technological adaptations have the means to positively alter the ways in which art is created and appreciated. As a result of this paradigmatic shift, traditions are curbed by experimentation, and art can be widely appreciated through its new availability that can foster conditions for social and political change. Benjamin views these changes as an expansion of the definition and function of art.
Theodor Adorno, in his in his 1967 essay, “Is Art Lighthearted?” focuses on art’s connection to society. Whereas mass production can inspire new ways of understanding art in Benjamin’s perspective, Adorno views mass production as a symptom of capitalism that further displaces individual freedom. Thus, the effects of capitalism suppress “high” or serious art, and substitute readily available, low-quality entertainment for art’s genuine function. This function is liberatory in the sense that the beauty and complexity of art allows for a freedom of consciousness apart from the conditions of reality. Adorno claims that the liberatory value of art is that “it embodies something like freedom in the midst of unfreedom.” This “unfreedom” cultivates various cultural mechanisms, such as entertainment or what Adorno and Max Horkheimer term the “culture industry,” that function to subjugate individual and social freedoms with dull, satiating amusements. Consequently, Adorno advocates for a renewal in artistic originality that moves beyond mind-numbing entertainment, as well as the seriousness and gravity of the human condition, as exemplified in his statement; “it is not possible to write poetry after Auschwitz.” This new artistic originality would uniquely speak to the distinctiveness of human nature in a way that is transcendent of the conditions of reality.
In a wholly different approach from that of Adorno and Benjamin, Arthur Danto emphasizes the importance of theoretical perspectives to inform conceptions of art. In this perspective, documented in his 1964 essay “The Artworld,” works of art are components of a larger “artworld” that ultimately determine art’s status as art. That is to say, it is the context as established by a theory of art that accounts for the aesthetic efficacy of an artwork. In this fashion, the evocative capabilities of a work of art exist outside the object itself and are instead realized conceptually. Danto’s “artworld” is a contextual atmosphere that is informed by theories that account for cultural developments. He proclaims; “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.” Hence, theories of art expand the meaning of art even though the work of art itself undergoes no transformation. The cultural zeitgeist creates the conditions for specific art, insofar as the artist understands the time and place in which their work will be understood as something evocative of a specific cultural meaning. Citing Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box as an exemplary of his theory, Danto affirms “It could not have been art fifty years ago. But then there could not have been, everything being equal, flight insurance in the Middle Ages, or Etruscan typewriter erasers. The world has to be ready for certain things, the artworld no less than the real one.” To this extent, Danto’s theory substantially broadens the explanation of what art is.
In 1984, George Dickie wrote, “The New Institutional Theory of Art” in which he attaches an institutional system to the success or failure of a work of art. Dickie’s theory claims that the overall meaning of an artwork is participatory, in that an artist creates a specific artwork for a specific public, and that this combination entails an institutional network. These institutional factors conceptually formulate the manner in which an art object is determined to be art. This is to say, that an artist produces an artifact that is then received by a knowledgeable institutional public, which may consist of aficionados, scholars, critics, and curators, that then confer the artifact as art. Defining art as art is a classificatory matter, wherein the institutional framework of artist and informed public define art. In this sense, a definition of art is particular to a category, whereas outside of the category the same definition would not be understandable or acceptable as art. Dickie’s theory increases ways in which art can be understood as art, and therefore allows for more definitions of art.