I recently downloaded a podcast of James Grant’s lecture on Defining Art from the Universityof Oxford. The past century has been a tangled knot of philosophies and bristling artists, and I think he did a fine job boiling the subject down into a class period. Grant presented a few theories, but he also discussed the problem of definition as well, a topic many (including myself) overlook. What exactly are we trying to define? I realized that my personal vendetta has been aiming towards an entirely different target than many of the philosophers with which I take issue. Yikes.
So this revelation hit me like a frame smashing to the floor when Grant discussed Beardsley’s definition of Art: “an artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.” Oh, joy!, I thought. Finally a theory that doesn’t seem dismissible within about 30 seconds.
The idea of aesthetic interest is one that aims to provide the viewer with an aesthetic experience (Beardsley doesn’t go into what an aesthetic experience is, and quite frankly, I don’t blame him. Aesthetics is a sore subject from decades of philosophical fist fights). He does include some prominent characteristics of an aesthetic experience (some or all):
- a sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the object
- an intense affect detached from practical ends
- exhilarating sense of exercising powers of discovery and of integration of the self and its experiences.
I will not rush into an in-depth discussion on aesthetics at this point, but let’s just say that I respect this kind of criteria; it rings of truth to my own experiences.
Now, as for aesthetic intention: I really like this maneuver. Note it is not “intention of creating Art”, because that would exclude any pieces created for religious reasons, and I just couldn’t bring myself to accept this. This may also bridge the gap between cultural points of view. The thing may not actually provide an aesthetic experience for one person, but that does not exclude it in the definition if the artist intended it to do so. Of course, this does raise the question of the individual art work’s merit: does the viewer even need to look at the work if the basis of the definition lies in the artist’s intention? Much of integrity of the work itself seems to have been robbed in Beardsly’s definition.
But back to the podcast. Grant proceeds to challenge Beardsley’s definition of definition (what?!). Beardsley’s definition does not “reflect ordinary usage of the word”, which seems to be aim of our inquiry, according to Grant. Instead, Beardsley asks, “what are the noteworthy features to which the word Art draws our attention?” His definition does not expand to accommodate all things that have been fixed in a museum during the last century. Grant labels this an EXPLICATIVE DEFINITION: one that “tries to respect the central cases of the use of a word, but without worrying about the other cases…[it is] a way of coining a new word or assigning a new meaning to the work but one which respects the central cases of the old meaning.” In other words, the definition attempts to use the word in a certain way rather that describe how it is used from day to day.
Grant’s issue with such a definition is that he does not see its justification over the more descriptive one. Well, I can see his point, but I do see justification (at least from an artist’s point of view). The explicative theory attempts to filter a very diluted word. What is the point of Art? How can I be judged? How can I even judge my own work? As an artist, I seek to shoot for the moon, so to say…to create a masterpiece, a timeless work that will live on and positively affect populations cross-cultures for years to come (the idea is almost like one of Aristotle’s Forms). Its perfection is nearly impossible, so standing in front of a work of Art is a rarity. Not impossible, though, because I have stood before several in my lifetime. I glean the most from those works that have reached such a point, or are at least attempting for that target. Having a meaningful “goal” tends to make sense of centuries of art work, and it is a guiding light for all of us muddling through the modern art world. In fact, under such a definition, aspects of a painting work or they do not. They are on board or they’re floating away. One can point to real, observable aspects of a work and discuss; there is a whisper of scientific evaluation. There is solidity here.
Overall, I’m fond of the explicative definition. Adopting the descriptive definition is just inviting chaos. I won’t deny that there, well, needs to be a word for overall creative products, but that word won’t ever find closure. Perhaps it is the difference between lowercase and uppercase words (art and Art)…a general noun and a proper noun.
What the explicative actually describes is the heart of the word, and in such times as these, I think we could use as much guidance as possible.