Although philosophical definitions can be used for a variety of different things I like to think of them as ideally concerned with arriving at some understanding of the essence of a thing. For example, the definition of art attempts to understand the essence of art. The idea of “essence” is not too popular these days, but it deserves revival with some revisions. There are a number of reasons not to accept eternal unchanging essences, especially of such socially constructed phenomena as art. (Perhaps there are eternal unchanging essences of mathematical entities, such as triangles…I have no views on this.) Yet the search for essences seems to be part of human nature. As I see it, essences exist, but they change historically. One can see them as patterns in or aspects of the experienced world. Essences exist as potentials than can be actualized in various ways. There are various concepts that can be debated over and that have essences. These are called essentially contested concepts. Most concepts debated over by philosophers fall into this category. Essences change over history. The essence of art is one thing at one time and another at another. Moreover, an insight into an essence, for example the essence of art, also contributes to this development. Essences are possibilities which may be actualized in better or worse ways at different times and in different ways. The evolution of the essence of art also closely parallels the evolution of the concept of art, although “concept” focuses on how people think of a thing and “essence” focuses on how it is. For something like art, the concept and the essence are similar since how art is is largely a function of how people think about it -- but they are not necessarily the same. Rather than seeing debates over the essence of art as attempts to resolve debates over classification of controversial cases I see such debates as ones over how one should ideally see art. Such debates involve competing visions of what art is, where it should go, and how it relates and should relate to every other aspect of life. (A debate over an essence is never over what simply is, but also over what it should be. A description of an essence presents an ideal.) Definitions of art provide descriptions of the essence of art. These descriptions are often metaphors or metaphor-like. They should therefore be distinguished from mere classification. If one says that “art is imitation” one is not simply classifying art as a kind of imitation. Rather, to say that art is imitation is to say that the concept of imitation is the key to understanding the essence of art. Definitions of art, I argue, are honorific in the sense that they give us that key. Thus imitations that are not art are not really counterexamples to the claim. Leading current definitions of art offered by philosophers miss the boat because they assume the wrong meta-theory about the purpose of defining art. Previous definitions of art were only wrong insofar as they did not recognize that the essence described is not eternal and unchanging. They did not recognize that they are honorific definitions of art. Rather than provide honorific definitions of art that will fit into the great series of honorific definitions that actually forwarded the history of art, contemporary definitions of art try to stand outside of that history and define as though it had an essence that was eternal and unchanging. I like to think of the question “what is art?” as closely related to the question “who am I, such that I am an artist?” The idea goes back to Plato, who has Socrates asking questions about essences that ultimately lead back to exploration of the self. So the question “what is art?” for the artist (and for the art lover) is much the same as “what is my vision of art?” or “what is my philosophy of art?” And this question is one that, it is hoped, can be answered by way of providing a concept (under a specific understanding or interpretation) that can operate as a key to understanding the essence. Bear in mind that whatever concept (or group of concepts arranged in a sentence) that is so offered will itself be understood in context in terms of a larger elaborated vision. That is, different people can mean different things by saying that “art is imitation” or “art is expression.” The second term in the definition will inevitably have quite a complex meaning if it is to be a key to an entire theory or way of seeing things. A definition of art that fits my meta-theory of defining art is Robert Venturi’s definition of architecture as “decorated shed.” Taken by itself, “architecture is decorated sheds” is not impressive. It only takes on the form of a vision of architecture when we understand what Venturi means by the term “decorated shed.” Moreover, this definition was a powerful one, providing the basis for a revolution in architecture that is still being worked out today. Venturi himself realized however that it was not an eternal and unchanging definition of architecture. (It is arguable that newer definitions of architecture do a better job of defining the essence of architecture now. Other contenders include Eisenman’s deconstructivist definition of architecture as having to do with that which is “between.”)
It is important to realize that this strategy for defining art is not the same as functionalism. A definition of art that gives the essence (or should we say, the emerging essence) of art may well incorporate into it the function of art qua art. It will not incorporate other functions art might serve. Most of the classic definitions of art have been seen, of course, as giving us the function of art. For example the definition of art as mimesis says that the function of art qua art is to imitate. One of the interesting features of proper philosophical definitions of art is that insofar as they present a vision of art they often both exclude certain things from the category of art once previously considered in that category as well as including things not previously included. This is often seen as a drawback of such theories, but it isn’t really. Another thing that happens is that works that might have been seen as on the periphery of art become central, whereas works that were central might become peripheral as part of the new definition of art. The value of this is that it allows for creativity, and for radical readjustment not only of art but of other aspects of culture.