AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Hinterland Diary | Main | Does getting them when they're young really work? »

August 20, 2007

Hinterland Diary

John Stoehr

Art is doing philosophy? . . .

An interesting set of ideas about art, its context and its relation to philosophy comes from the American philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. What makes something a work of art is not, says Danto, to be found by looking at its obvious properties. Danto believes that what "makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is."

What are we, however, doing when we ask about the difference between a Brillo box in a supermarket and a Brillo box in an art gallery? Danto's answer is that we are asking a philosophical question. Art now prompts us to do philosophy. Much of art today is about boundary testing of 'art': "Can this object be considered art?", "What is art?" Danto argues that art is doing philosophy; art is collapsing into philosophy.

G.W.F. Hegel in the nineteenth century declared that art would in future no longer be a predominant mode of expression for human beings. Danto seems to agree: Art has nothing left to do. It has run itself out, and has as its only project a philosophical one, the definition of art. And that would much better be left to the philosophers.

From "Aesthetics and Philosophy: A Match Made in Heaven?" by Anja Steinbauer for the September/October 2006 issue of Philosophy Now

Posted by John Stoehr at August 20, 2007 11:50 AM


Count me as a reactionary on the question of "what is art." I think the most modern and up-to-date answer to this question is found, paradoxically, at the very beginnings of Western civilization.

People back then simply did not think of art in the way that we do today. We think of art today as primarily a product -- a painting, a printed poem, etc. We think of art, that is, as a "noun."

But ancient peoples thought of art as a verb -- a skill. Any activity that required a great deal of skill and that obeyed agreed upon rules and principles was considered an art.

Geometry was an art. So was astronomy -- or waging war. Like sculpture and architecture, these activities depended upon skill and learning. People who mastered these skills were artists.

Consequently, it took a long time for ancient Greeks to take poetry and music seriously as "art" in this sense because neither appeared to follow rules. Poetry, for instance, appeared to have much more to do with prophecy than with literary skill.

Eventually, of course, Aristotle invented so many rules for poetry that no one could doubt that poetry was indeed an art.

Ancient thinkers came up with many different ways of classifying the arts. But all these classifications have one thing in common: They do not distinguish fine art from craft. That's a distinction that Europeans began to make around 1500.

I think the ancient definition of "art" as a skill has several advantages that might benefit us today.

First, it neatly does away with Danto's perplexities about how to define art. Something is an art if it can be taught and requires a great deal of skill to master.

Second, if art is a skill then it's possible to judge whether this skill has in fact been mastered. In other words, judgments about art aren't simply subjective and arbitrary.

Third, the conception of "art as a skill" is flexible -- a definite asset in a world filled with so many different kinds of cultures and beliefs. We don't have to worry any more about whether there is such a thing as "high art" or "low art." The only real question is what kinds of activities a given culture considers to be highly skilled. We are free to look instead of merely theorize.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 21, 2007 4:18 PM