Thursday, January 8, 2015

What is Art?

I am a subscriber to Philosophy Now magazine. They have invited readers to submit letters of up to 400 words answering the question, "What is Art?"  They may or may not publish my letter, but I am publishing it herewith.

Music, dance, literature, film and the visual arts are each capable of provoking the full range of human responses.  Specific works of art may elicit a sense of wonder or cynicism, hope or despair, adoration or spite.  Other axes provide qualitative polarities.  The work of art may be direct or complex, subtle or explicit, intelligible or obscure.  The subjects and approaches to the creation of art are bounded only by the imagination of the artist.  Consequently, I believe that defining art based upon its representational content is a doomed enterprise.

            A frequent theme in aesthetics is the claim that there is a detachment or distance between works of art and the flow of patterns in everyday life.   Works of art rise like islands from current of more pragmatic concerns.  Kant talked about a detached or special attitude when making judgments about beauty. 

            I prefer a functional account of art.  There is little time to argue in 400 words, so let me lay it out.  When you step out of a river and onto an island, you come to a stop.  Similarly, the special or aesthetic attitude requires one to treat some experience as an end-in-itself.  Art asks us to arrive empty and simply attend to the way in which we experience the work of art.  This aesthetic experience answers the question, “What do I experience in my encounter with this artifact?”  The benefit of reflection should be beyond question in a group of philosophers!

            While a person can have an aesthetic experience of a natural scene, flavor or texture, art is produced.  Art is the intentional communication of an experience as an end-in-itself.  The content of that experience may determine whether the artwork is popular or ridiculed, significant or trivial, but it is art either way. 

            One of the initial reactions to this approach is that it seems overly broad.  An older brother who sneaks up behind his younger sibling and shouts, “Booo!” can be said to be creating art.  But isn’t the difference between this example and a Freddy Krueger movie just one of degree?  On the other hand my approach would exclude visual graphics used in advertising or political propaganda as they are created as a means to an end.

            Furthermore, “Communication” is not the best word for what I have in mind because it implies an unwarranted intentionality about the content represented.  Aesthetic responses are often underdetermined.


Mike Mallory

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