An attempt at a definition of art

Roman seafood mosaic

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Can we define art?

Wittgenstein famously advised us to abandon any attempts to define art. He said there was too little commonality between various types of art. But maybe he was just too clever for the problem or had spent too long as a professional and admittedly very great philosopher.

Toward a practical and useful definition

I think that for artists a satisfactory definition of art can be reached even if it is not watertight for philosophers.

Art has these three characteristics:

  • It invokes an aesthetic reaction and this is spiritual, since an aesthetic reaction is necessarily in some part spiritual. Aesthetic appreciation may centre on the beauty of the work, though art does not have to be beautiful
  • It embodies some sort of good intention to the human spirit or humanity in general
  • It has no other purpose than to facilitate the above two

Art may also have additional characteristics, which may influence its perceived greatness:

  • An intention of the creator to evoke an appreciation of the skill involved in it’s creation
  • An intention to evoke intellectual stimulation

If art does have a purpose or use, such as furniture, then it belongs to the decorative arts, one of the most impressive branches of the arts and just as capable of evoking aesthetic appreciation.

Art and that which is not art

Recently I was present at a discussion of art at the 2022 Greenbelt Festival where Brian Eno outlined his views on art, religion and science. Art and religion are similar, he theorised, as both are made up by people. Most religious people would disagree with that view of course. Art, Eno believes, claims only to represent the artist’s version of the truth while religion claims to convey a universal truth. Science, Eno added, collects data from observations to impartially assemble a universal truth, but one which is based on demonstrable facts, instead of the acts of faith found in religion.

Please note that this page is, like the general debate about art, a work in progress!


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