This post will not be an attempt to define art. Based on the theory I am about to propose I do not even think I am in a very good position to provide a definition of art, at least not this year. My theory about defining art is more a theory about philosophy, about philosophical definition in general, with the question "what is art?" being my paradigm of a philosophical question. Although I think that the project of defining art goes well beyond the task of distinguishing art from non-art objects I will begin with the quote from Robert Stecker's Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction (Rowman and Middlefield, 2010.) In the summary of his chapter titled "What is Art?" Stecker says that there are three groups of proposals for distinguishing art from nonart. Begin with the first: "First, simple functionalist proposals identify one valuable property that many artworks share, and claim that this is the defining feature, the essence of art. Whether representation, expression, form, or the aesthetic is put forward as the relevant property, simple functionalism is never able to cover the whole extension of art, struggles to accommodate bad art, and to exclude all instances of nonart." (120) The functionalist theories are the great classical definitions of art, often expressed in terms of "art as" as much as "art is," for example "art as imitation" or "art is expression," or "art as experience." There is the Imitation theory, the Expression theory, the Formalist theory, and so forth. These are traditionally associated with specific philosophers. The usual view of these theories, as expressed in this passage by Stecker is that they are failures. My view of this is very different. It derives from Morris Weitz's famous article of 1956 "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15: 27-35. Everyone in aesthetics remembers Weitz's attack on essentialism and thus on the functionalist theories of art. Few however remember his actual main point, that although a "real" definition of art (i.e. one in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, like the definition of "triangle") will never be forthcoming, theory is still important since the great functionalist definitions of art in the past, when seen as honorific definitions of art, were actually immensely valuable. What makes them valuable is the "debates over the reasons for changing the criteria of the concept of art" i.e. the reasons given for "the chosen or preferred criterion of excellence and evaluation." It is these debates, Weitz argues, that make the history of aesthetics an important study: "The value of each of the theories resides in its attempt to state and to justify certain criteria which are either neglected or distorted by previous theories." He gives, as an example, the Clive Bell/Robert Fry theory that "Art is significant form." He takes this not as a "real" definition of art but as a "redefinition of art in terms of the chosen condition of significant form." The definition is taken by Weitz to have a pragmatic dimension. It is a recommendation for a certain set of actions. It also involves the notion that sometimes that has a current definition can be redefined. This is also neglected in discussions of Weitz. That it is neglected is important since all of aesthetic theory since Weitz's article has been based on a certain reading of Weitz. So to go back and reread Weitz is to reread the last sixty years of aesthetics in the analytic tradition..actually to reread the analytic tradition itself. What does "Art is significant form" mean? It means, "In an age in which literary and representational elements have become paramount in painting, return to the" formalist ones since these are native to painting. Thus, he concludes: "the role of the theory is not to define anything but to use the definitional form, almost epigrammatically, to pinpoint a crucial recommendation to turn our attention once again" to formalist elements. When the great theories of art are taken as honorific definitions Stecker's objections become irrelevant. The objection that there are things that are art that do not serve the essential function proposed simply treats an honorific definition as a real definition. This is also true for the objection that they may include things that are not art but serve a similar function. It is true that the honorific theories do not handle bad art, but that is also a virtue of the theory since it recognizes that the great definitions of art were interested in telling us something essential about the value of art and not simply in telling us how to sort things properly called art from things not properly called art, say in W. E. Kennick's classical example of the warehouse. Honorific definitions of art are therefore relatively immune to counterexamples. You can come up with an example of something most would consider art that has no interesting formal properties, but this is not argument against the idea that one ought to concentrate on making and appreciating art with such properties.
The only problem I can see with Weitz's approach is that he misconceives the nature of essences. If essences are patterns in experience that are real but changing (as I have argued in various writings) then honorific definitions can be paired with them so that the recommendation to focus on this property could be based on the claim that this is the essence as it has emerged at this time in history. An honorific definition can be true in the sense of "true" in which truth is something that emerges historically, something that happens. Honorific definitions of true on the pragmatist theory of truth, which is the one I follow. Thus, on this view, the history of aesthetics is not a history of failure but rather a history of successes in which different honorific definitions are successively offered. Each great theory of art is actually a manifestation of the spirit of its time (in the sense that artists, philosophers, and others in the culture share certain questions and attempt to resolve certain burning issues of the time) and is paired with at least some of the great artworks of the time.
An excellent example of this process working in a practical context and a specific art form is Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's idea that "architecture is a decorated shed." This theory captures the essence of architecture for them at a particular time in history and also exemplifies an entire theory and practice of architecture, i.e. their version of postmodern architecture, one that is not intended just to cover their own buildings but also to reinterpret the best buildings of the past and provide a framework for future architectural work. Great definitions are epigrams of this sort, to use Weitz's term. "Decorated shed" is itself a concentrated metaphor that needs a lot of theoretical and historical knowledge in order to fully understand.
So the future of theory for each person who believes with Socrates that the unexamined life is the only one worth living (i.e. for each human who is a philosopher in the sense of being a lover of wisdom) is to create one's own honorific definition of art, one that gives the function of art now, and also for the future as an object of personal or group vision.
As time goes on, great definitions of art (and of subgroups like architecture) lose their liveliness, richness, and creative force, and need to be replaced by new definitions. They may however be revived a new in a new context, and this is why we have new versions of the expression theory or the imitation theory popping up again in history.
Stecker then gives the second strategy: "Second, there are proposals derived from the view that our classificatory practice is best captured by something other than a definition: by similarity to various paradigms (family resemblance), by clusters of properties forming several sufficient conditions, by prototypes." This is how Weitz's lesson (he used the term "family resemblance") has been interpreted. But, as I have shown, the point is to avoid trying to capture classificatory practices.
However, Weitz was right that paradigms are important. To go back to Clive Bell, he took the paintings of Giotto and Cezanne as his paradigms of art (Giotto representing values to be recovered, Cezanne representing a radical new interpretation of those values, i.e. "significant form" that that gives new life). I argue that these paradigms flesh out the meaning of the metaphor "significant form." They are the practical real-world basis for the honorific definition proffered. By saying that art is essentially significant form Bell is saying (unconsciously, since he did not realize he was offering an honorific definition, unlike Venturi and Brown) that this is the new center of art, and that everything else in art is art to the extent that it shares in this. Unfortunately, Weitz's insight has been taken to mean something very different; that we can only have real definitions as clusters of sufficient conditions. This is a form, I believe, of opting out of the Socratic quest, of not taking a stand, of providing a merely formal solution to the problem of defining art. The question is whether something essentially resembles the paradigms, and if it does it partakes in the creative power of art at that particular moment in this history of spirit.
The third approach to definition mention by Stecker consists of "relational definitions comparing the institutional and historical views" and I will discuss these in some later posts. I'll just say here that the great institutional theories of art were also paired with paradigmatic works, for example Duchamp's Fountain in the case of George Dickie and Warhol's Brillo Boxes in the case of Arthur Danto. So there is reason to believe that these theories too were honorific definitions of art pretending to be real definitions of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.
Stecker concludes that "the concept of art is a vague concept, and this means that any proposed definition either has to capture this vagueness or be considered to some extent an idealization of the actual concept." (121) The concept of art, I argue, is not a vague concept: it is a philosophically contested concept. Any proposed definition that makes the concept vague loses out on the importance Weitz saw for theory in art. Redefinition, which is essential to honorific definitions, is a matter of idealization, to be sure. We create new definitions based on a vision of a fiction (a rich and deep metaphor like "significant form" or "decorated shed") grounded on chosen paradigms and values and expressed in a metaphor ("art is significant form") elaborated by a philosophical narrative and also by practice itself (for example in the work of Venturi and Brown, or any other seminal architectural firm). These fictions, when successful in encouraging creative work, are what make life meaningful.
Unlike Weitz, however, I do not think that new powerful definitions simply recover things that are neglected: rather they are truly creative in addition to this. Architecture as decorated shed was neglected by modernist architecture, but the idea is not just a recovery of something that was always there: it also carries a projection into the future, a vision of what can be, an "idealization" as Stecker put it.
Interested in learning more? See my book: Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Broadview Press, 2012. Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents. You can also buy it fro Broadview.