An Old Essay: “Examining the Feasibility of Relational Definitions of Art”

It’s been a while since I’ve written any philosophy. I miss it, and I want to start writing some again. So I decided to get back into the mindset by reading my old undergraduate philosophy essays. Some of them were pretty good. Some of them were pretty bad. In one of them I argued that Leibniz was wrong about something, which resulted in my teacher promptly telling me off for sowing the seeds of such madness. I’m going to post my favorite essays here because I don’t want to lose them when my hard drive buys the farm, and because they deserve to be seen. No one should have to live without reading such important treatises as “Examining the Feasibility of Relational Definitions of Art”, “Outlining and evaluating Mary Midgley’s critique of moral isolationism”, and “How many thinking things are in your chair?”

To be honest, I was hoping to find more examples of my younger self angrily railing against the system – essays with names like “Heart of Darkness: The real truths about the capitalist oligarchy state” and “Why the system is basically bullshit”, but no such luck. Though I did find an essay where I railed against several arguments for the existence of God. Take that, people with deep and personal faith in a higher being!

Anyway, the following is one of my two final-year dissertations, re-jigged with the occasional unnecessary jpeg of irrelevant artworks in order to break up the horrifying wall of text. It’s a very flawed academic essay about aesthetics and it’s 7000 words long, so you can stop reading………………now.

Examining the Feasibility of Relational Definitions of Art

In this essay I will examine our two best relational theories of art, the institutional account and the historical account, and I will argue that neither will do as an account of the nature of art. I will be focusing solely on George Dickie’s institutional definition of art and Jerrold Levinson’s historical definition of art as I take these to be the most plausible versions of each theory. This essay will be separated into two main sections. In the first section I will examine Dickie’s institutional definition of art. This will be divided into several subsections: in the first subsection I will briefly lay out Dickie’s definition, in the second I will raise several problems with his definition, and in the third I will look at how Dickie’s account fails to answer to these problems, and explain where I think this leaves us. I will argue that many of the problems facing Dickie’s account cannot be answered satisfactorily, and that Dickie’s account can only be saved if we can get a historical definition of art to work.

In the second section of this essay I will examine Levinson’s historical definition of art. This, like the first, will be divided into subsections: in the first I will briefly lay out Levinson’s definition, in the second I will raise several problems with his definition, and in the third I will look at the weight of the problems facing Levinson’s account and explain what I think we should take from this. I will argue that Levinson’s definition of art fails to defend itself against several important criticisms, and so cannot be accepted as our definition of art. Throughout the essay I will suggest that an intentional definition of art that makes no reference to historical matters or social institutions is more promising than both Levinson’s and Dickie’s definitions. Due to the limitations of this essay I will not be able to develop this intentional account fully, though I will briefly entertain some of the problems it faces.

Gustav Klimt - Death and Life

1.1 Dickie’s Institutional Definition of Art:

Dickie’s definition of art is explicated at length by Stephen Davies in his book Definitions of Art, and it is Dickie’s most recent definition that we will be engaging with here:

‘(1) an artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of an artwork; (2) a work of art is an artefact of a kind created to be presented to an Artworld public; (3)  a public is a set of persons who are prepared in some degree to understand an object that is presented to them; (4) the Artworld is the totality of all Artworld systems; (5) an Artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an Artworld public.’1

Many things are presented to an Artworld public; a ticket stub for the production of a composer’s new musical work, a leaflet guiding museum visitors around an exhibition, and so on. But this is clearly not what Dickie means. An artwork is specifically presented to an Artworld public as a candidate for appreciation. And, rather than any actual appreciation from the Artworld public, it is the conferring of the status of ‘candidate for appreciation’ that makes something an artwork. So, something can be declared a candidate for appreciation by, say, the artist that created it, and it will still become an artwork, even if it is never actually seen by any other members of the Artworld public.

For Dickie, an artist occupies a certain role in the social institution that is the Artworld, and it is the artist’s position in this social institution that gives the artist the ability to create an artefact and declare it a candidate for appreciation, and so an artwork. However, the artist is not always the one to declare an artefact a candidate for appreciation; the curator of an art gallery may, for instance, do so with some pre-existing artefact, such as a painting created by an animal2. In Dickie’s view anyone can declare something to be an artwork, so long as they have the appropriate authority in the Artworld. Thus, it should be clear that since a certain kind of authority in the Artworld is required to declare something an artwork, someone with no connection to an Artworld could not declare something an artwork as this person lacks the appropriate authority to do so.

Let the Right One In

But what kind of authority are we talking about? It clearly cannot be any kind of formal authority as it is evident that this is not how the Artworld operates under Dickie’s account. Indeed, many artists in the Artworld underwent formal training of some kind, and there are formal institutions throughout the Artworld, but it is certainly not the case that an artist must be recognised by any one of these formal institutions, nor that an artist must undergo any kind of formal training, to be able to create artworks. No, for Dickie the Artworld is an informal social institution, and so lacks any kind of formal structure or hierarchy. There may be formal structures and organisations in place, but they are a part of a larger informal social institution – namely the Artworld. Thus, no one can be said to have any kind of formal authority over the rest of the Artworld. But while the Artworld is an informal social institution, we can still pick out members of the Artworld as occupying certain roles, such as the role of artist.

Furthermore, it should be noted that according to Dickie anyone can be an artist. An artist gains this ‘authority’ merely by having a certain place in the Artworld, and this ‘authority’ is not authority over others, but merely the ability to declare something a candidate for appreciation, and so make something an artwork. Roughly the same could be argued for the authority of curators and the like – their authority is derived from their place in the Artworld, and this authority is merely the ability to declare something an artwork.

This account of authority in the Artworld may sound circular since only those with the appropriate authority can create or designate artworks, but this authority is merely the ability to create or designate artworks. Furthermore, Dickie fails to do anything except hint at exactly who has this authority, and his explanation of this authority by reference to a person’s position in the Artworld may seem unacceptably vague. These are certainly big problems for Dickie’s account, but unfortunately due to the constraints of this essay I will not be able to engage with either problem in any further detail.

Finally, we should note that by making reference to Artworld systems Dickie can allow that the Artworld isn’t simply one big social institution. It seems plausible that the social institutions surrounding music and the social institutions surrounding the visual arts are not at all related; their membership may not overlap to any significant degree, and they may have completely different origins, interests, and standards. But Dickie can simply draw all the Artworld systems together and call this conjunction the Artworld.

Marcel Duchamp - Fountain

1.2 Problems and Responses for Dickie:

Here I will raise several problems facing Dickie’s definition and explain why I think they do much to undermine his account. I will raise three major objections that I find especially powerful: (a) Dickie’s account does not give good grounds for determining what is and what is not an Artworld system (b) Dickie’s account is unable to deal with first art satisfactorily, and (c) Dickie’s account is unable to deal with isolated artists satisfactorily.

(a)Dickie’s account does not give good grounds for determining what is and what is not an Artworld system

As previously mentioned, Dickie allows us to see the Artworld not as one entity, or even a collection of contiguous parts, but rather a collection of Artworld systems that do not necessarily overlap in any way. This is useful, as there does not seem to have to be such an institutional overlap between disparate Artworld systems such as the visual arts, music, and so on. However, in order to determine what is and what is not an artwork we will have to determine what is and what is not an Artworld system.

Before we start with this question, we should note the following: it may turn out that Artworld systems may be better applied to higher or lower level levels of art. By this I mean that we may consider the entire field of visual arts, including all the various strains of painting, illustration, collage, etc., as a single Artworld system, or we may choose to get more or less specific. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider painting an Artworld system and collage a separate one, or perhaps instead we should consider multiple medias of art to be bound together within Artworld systems, meaning that perhaps theatre and film should fall under the same Artworld system because of certain specific similarities. I do not think that exactly where we draw this distinction will affect my argument, as it does not rely on such specifics. Let us though, for the sake of argument, consider the visual arts as a whole to be a single Artworld system, since this seems prima facie to be the most plausible approach to drawing such boundaries.

If we are going to be able to successfully distinguish Artworld systems from non-Artworld systems, and so art from non-art, we need a solid understanding of just what an Artworld system is. Dickie doesn’t give us a solid conception of exactly what makes Artworld systems Artworld systems. Why is the field of visual arts, say, considered an Artworld system and the field of automobile manufacture not considered an Artworld system? Dickie attempts to distinguish art from non-art by appealing to the presence of an Artworld, but he doesn’t give us a satisfactory way of distinguishing what is part of the totality of Artworld systems and what is not.

Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

Here Dickie cannot appeal to some special kind of aesthetic appreciation as this would contradict his view that there is no such thing as a special kind of aesthetic appreciation3. Furthermore, if we made appeal to specific aesthetic appreciation for our distinction between Artworld systems and non-Artworld systems then I do not see how we could avoid collapsing back into a definition of art based solely on art’s intrinsic properties – we would pick out the Artworld by arguing that art itself is independently definable, but then we would lose all need for an Artworld at all.

No, instead Dickie argues quite consistently that all that is meant by appreciation here is ‘something like “in experiencing the qualities of a thing one finds them worthy or valuable”’. But members of the automobile world clearly often experience the qualities of cars and find them worthy or valuable in some way. Furthermore, the automobile world (to give a name to the collection of the world’s car manufacturers, car magazines, conventions, fans, and so on) clearly has some kind of informal institutional system that can be compared to an Artworld system: there are producers of cars, a public who are prepared in some degree to understand an object that is presented to them, and a very real culture of appreciation, criticism, design, etc. that surrounds these things. So, am I arguing that the automobile world is an Artworld system? No, I am not trying to argue in the affirmative or the negative there. I am merely trying to show that there are undeniable similarities between this part of culture and the Artworld. But we don’t have a systematic way of saying that x is an Artworld system, and thus part of the Artworld, but y is not. There are innumerable formal or informal systems that share the same basic structures I mention above, such as the restaurant world, or the pornography world, and we are likely unwilling to accept all of them into the Artworld. But Dickie gives us no way of determining what is and what is not an Artworld system. If artworks must be made within the social institution of an Artworld system, and so the Artworld, then in order to determine what is and what is not an artwork we need to know what an Artworld system is. But we do not have a way of doing this, and though Dickie seems happy enough to keep the idea of the Artworld vague this will not do at all.

Dickie owes us an explanation here. His account rests upon the Artworld: he defines art in terms of the Artworld, and so in order for his account to have any content we need a good understanding of the Artworld. In fact, it should be heavily emphasised that Artworld is a term invented here by Dickie to do the work of his account, and as such must be defined properly, without, of course, relying on a definition of art. Dickie is also obliged to properly define the social roles within the Artworld since these are important to the workings of his account.

The only options that appear to be available to Dickie are (i) argue that all Artworld systems share a specific structure unique to Artworld systems, or (ii) rely on the history of the Artworld to distinguish Artworld systems from non-Artworld systems. The first has a real problem; it seems that Artworld systems are not going to share such a structure. Though there is clearly a structure of artists, galleries, curators, auctioneers, collectors, and critics in the visual arts, little of this carries over to the Artworld system of music, or literature. The Artworld systems have little structurally in common with one another outside of the basic structure of “certain members of the Artworld system making artefacts for the appreciation of  a public”. It would also seem that this point remains true regardless of where we draw the line between Artworld systems.

Possibility (ii), though, is feasible; by appealing to a historical theory of art to fill in the gaps of his institutional theory Dickie can save his definition from outright failure. I will speak more of Dickie’s reliance on a historical theory of art later.


b) Dickie’s account is unable to deal with first art satisfactorily

Dickie requires that an artwork attain its art-status in the folds of the Artworld, but what of works that were created before the forming of the Artworld? Presumably the Artworld did not come into existence before the first work of what could now be considered art (I am being careful here not to beg the question by calling this art. Thus I will borrow the term Ur-art to describe such things, and it should be emphasised that Ur-art is not considered to be art by Dickie’s definition). The first cave paintings certainly arose before the Artworld system of the visual arts formed, and so according to Dickie these cave paintings were not art. However, a similar cave painting made a little later, after the appropriate Artworld system formed, would be considered art, and the original painting could also be declared art at that point by some member of the Artworld. Now, this seems counterintuitive; are we really willing to say that an Artworld formed around and as a direct result of this Ur-art (we surely cannot argue that the Artworld sprung into being ex nihilo) but that Ur-art is not art, at least not until an Artworld is formed? This seems especially counterintuitive – since we can take two physically identical pieces of work, made with the same aesthetic intentions in the mind of the creators, and argue that one is Ur-art and so not art until the inception of the Artworld, but that the other is indeed art from the moment of the artwork’s creation. I argue that it is the intentions of the creator of a work that are art-relevant, not the time of the work’s creation, the time at which we are looking at it, or the context in which it is created, or in which we are looking at it. I will develop this view further throughout the essay.

Dickie could argue here that we are simply begging the question; that his definition states that Ur-art cannot be considered art until the Artworld forms, and we are simply countering that his definition is wrong because Ur-art is art at the time of its creation, which is something that we must prove. He could also argue that two identical pieces of work having different art-statuses is unproblematic, especially when we think of Duchamp’s Readymades. We can compare the urinal that constitutes Duchamp’s Fountain to a regular urinal in the same production line. What makes one art? According to Dickie it is because one was placed by an artist in the Artworld and designated a candidate for appreciation, whilst the other was not. However, this isn’t entirely fair: first of all we can distinguish these two urinals by making reference to the intentions of the artist, that is by relying on an intentional theory that is not also institutional. Furthermore, the criticism of Dickie’s definition above is not simply begging the question against it. It is stating that Dickie’s conclusion seems counterintuitive, and it should be clear that if a definition of art goes against our intuitions a great deal we should be hesitant to endorse it. Imagine a definition of art forces us to declare that none of Beethoven’s musical works are artworks. The proponent could simply say ‘this is what my definition says, you cannot say that this conclusion [that certain paradigm artworks are in fact not art at all] gives you good reason to reject my theory as this would simply be begging the question against the theory’. But a definition here must convince us, and the best way to avoid doing that is to drive us towards conclusions that we cannot accept, or in less severe cases do not want to accept. I argue that Dickie’s definition leads us here to a conclusion that is intuitively problematic. It may be the case that it is not so intuitively problematic to force us to abandon the definition, but it cannot be dismissed as easily as Dickie would like.

To be fair to Dickie, the status of Ur-art is a difficult question for many accounts of art. The fact that Dickie struggles with this obviously problematic question should not be considered a killing blow for his definition. However, it can be seen as adding to the weight of problems with Dickie’s account, and can indeed be used as a reason, if not a definitive reason, to doubt said account.

Jackson Pollock - Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

(c)Dickie’s account is unable to deal with isolated artists satisfactorily

If artists gain their authority from their position in the Artworld then what of artists who are entirely isolated from the Artworld? Let us imagine a person who lives in complete isolation and has done so since a very young age. This person has no connection to other humans and lives on a small island in the middle of the ocean. Imagine also that when this person was left alone to live there a huge selection of art supplies were left with them. This person experiments with a set of acrylic paints and notices their different colours and an appropriate method of their application to certain surfaces. This person then goes out and paints things they see throughout the island. But this person doesn’t simply copy visual experiences – they experiment with different styles of painting that they devise, considering some more or less beautiful than others. Now, is this person isolated from the Artworld? If so, then Dickie would have to state that this person is not producing art, and this would seem very counterintuitive.

Davies takes on this question5 and gives us three possible ways for Dickie to respond: (1) the artist constitutes their own Artworld system, meaning that an Artworld system (and even the Artworld, since there seems to be no reason why an Artworld needs multiple systems) only needs one person to exist and to function, (2) this person is not an artist at all, and what they produce are not artworks, (3) what matters for something’s art-status is that we can view it from the viewpoint of the Artworld, so isolated people can make artworks so long as we view the works from our place in the Artworld.

(1) doesn’t seem to be a viable response, though Davies argues that it is6. He argues that there doesn’t appear to be a reason why a person couldn’t take on most or all the roles of an Artworld, but I’m not sure how this could work. The Artworld, and its constituent Artworld systems, are meant to be social institutions, and I don’t see how we can talk of a social institution with only one member. Davies previously argued that a social role that everyone can fill, potentially simultaneously, seems to be something of an empty concept7, and I would argue that a set of social roles constituting a social institution that can all simultaneously be filled by one person is not in any meaningful way what we would call a social institution. Davies also brings up Kripke’s argument that no socially isolated individual can establish any rules. Now, while this argument is certainly a threat to this first response it is outside the scope of this essay, and so will not be examined in any further detail8.


Dickie can accept (2) and so dismiss the claim of isolated artists and deny them the status of artist entirely. But it seems intuitively obvious that the fictional person I described above is creating art, especially if we imagine this person to have specific intentions concerning the paintings they create, intentions that are similar or identical to the intentions of many artists in the Artworld. Again, note that I raise the possibility of a definition of art resting on an artist’s intentions. Now, Dickie can argue that our intuitions are mistaken here. However, I have already argued above that a definition leading us to uncomfortable conclusions is a good reason to question the feasibility of the definition. It is not as if these definitions are arrived at through careful application of scientific method. We may think it crazy that time is relative, but this is not a good reason to reject Einstein’s general or special theories of relativity. However, Aesthetics is not at all like science: if a definition of art, which is inherently a human concern arrived at by application of thought alone, conflicts with our intuitions then this is good reason to question the definition.

Finally, (3) will not be of much use to us since we can take the argument a step further to remove the power of this response. Suppose that due to some apocalyptic war or disease our hermit is the only person left alive. The Artworld presumably does not continue to exist if all the people within it die off, and so we can ask the question again: is this person an artist who is creating art in isolation from an Artworld? It seems we must choose either (1) or (2) if we are to fully answer the question. I argue that Dickie cannot choose (1) due to the problems with calling a one-person system a social institution. Thus, I think that Dickie is forced, as things are currently, into choosing (2), and (2) is intuitively very problematic. It should also be noted that though such a scenario is obviously very unlikely the goal of a philosophical definition is not simply to capture what happens to be the case, but instead to bind a conceptual domain fully so that it also captures what could be the case.

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

1.3 The State of Dickie’s Institutional Definition:

My second and my third arguments against Dickie’s definition are both intuitively powerful, and together I think they give us good reason to question the feasibility of Dickie’s account. Dickie’s account seem to conflict strongly with what we think should or should not fall under the terms ‘artwork’ and ‘artist’, and so if Dickie cannot get around these criticisms in some other way I have not considered then his account seems very problematic. Furthermore, I think that the first of my above arguments is even more powerful. Dickie doesn’t give us a good way to distinguish Artworld systems from non-Artworld systems, nor does he give us a decent account of the Artworld in general, and so we are unable to distinguish art from non-art. The only way we can salvage Dickie’s theory without abandoning its inherently relational nature would be to let it lean in part upon a historical definition of art in order to properly define the Artworld and Artworld systems. If we make reference to Levinson’s historical definition of art we might be able to fill in the gaps and distinguish between Artworld systems and non-Artworld systems. If we can do this we can then distinguish artworks from non-artworks, provided there are no other problems with his account. I will leave it for the reader to decide whether or not this is tantamount to giving up the institutional theory in favour of a historical theory, but I think it is clear that even if Levinson’s historical definition is able to prop up Dickie’s account the institutional definition of art is in a bad state, due to the problems raised by my second and third points of criticism. It should also be reemphasised that if we alter Dickie’s account so that it relies in part on Levinson’s account then any failure of Levinson’s definition will also weaken Dickie’s.

I think I have shown, however, that an intentional account of art, one relying solely on an artist’s intentions when making an artwork, does not succumb to any of the criticisms I have aimed at Dickie. If we take some types of intentions to be art-relevant then we can account for isolated artists and first art by referring to the intentions of the creators of artefacts that may or may not be considered art. We are also clearly not obliged to define the Artworld, or Artworld systems as these are not necessary for such an account.

Cart Life

2.1 Levinson’s Historical Definition of Art:

In his 1979 article Defining Art Historically Levinson sets out his historical definition of art:

‘ ‘X is an art work at [time] t’ means that ‘X is an object of which it is true at t that some person or persons, having the appropriate proprietary right over X, non-passingly intends (or intended) X for regard-as-a-work-of art, i.e. regard in any way (or ways) in which objects in the extension of ‘art work’ prior to t are or were correctly (or standardly) regarded.’’9

In short, what this means is that something is art iff it was made with the intention that it be regarded in any ways that some previous work of art was correctly regarded. But what do we mean by this? Levinson contends that there are certain correct ways of regarding a specific artwork, though there is likely not one correct set of way of regarding all artworks. Some ways of regarding an artwork are simply not art-relevant; an artwork’s financial value is not, for example, an art-relevant property, and so will not come into play when we are talking of the correct ways to regard a specific artwork qua artworks. Now, in order for something to be art it must be intended for regard in any ways that some previous work of art was correctly regarded, but Levinson accepts that any work of art is likely to be regarded correctly in far more than simply one way; ‘the work’s emotional, formal, and symbolic aspects’10, and other aspects of the work might be relevant, for example. And if some new work (call it work x) is intended for regard in only one or a few of the same ways that a previous work of art (call it work y) is or was correctly regarded then this is not enough for x to be art. Instead x must be intended for regard in a relatively complete set of ways that y was correctly regarded. This condition is necessary because many non-artworks are or were intended to be regarded in at least some of the ways that many artworks are or were intended to be regarded, such as ‘with attention to use of colour’ when we are talking about traffic lights, to name one example11. Levinson doesn’t explain just how close to a complete set of ways we must have, however, which is one of several problems that we will not be dealing with in this essay.

What does Levinson mean by an artist intending an artwork to be regarded in such a way? Must an artist have some specific extant artwork or specific prior artist in mind when they create their own work? Not necessarily, and in fact Levinson lists the three kinds of intention that can lead to the creation of art: (i) the specific art-conscious intention – intending the work to be regarded in a specific way that some specific work of art or class of artworks was correctly regarded, (ii) the non-specific art-conscious intention– intending the work to be regarded in some specific way that any past work of art was correctly regarded, without any specific artworks or classes of artworks in mind, and (iii) the art-unconscious intention – intending the work to be regarded in some specific way characterised in terms of intrinsic features, where this way turns out to be the way some past works of art or classes of artwork have been correctly regarded12. So according to this, one can write a concerto with the intention that it bring joy to the audience as a result of specific aspects of the music, and this may suffice to make the concerto art. It is also clear from the definition that the work does not need to be exhibited to an audience to be an artwork, nor does it have to be a good work of art – one can intend for a work to be regarded in a certain way but fail to live up to this by making a bad piece of art. This is so much the better for Levinson’s definition. It should, however, be noted that there does appear to be a fuzzy line here: at what point, if any, does an artist’s failures make their creation non-art rather than simply bad art? This is an interesting topic, but I will have nothing further to say about it in this essay.

Black on Maroon 1958 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

2.2 Problems and Responses for Levinson:

Here I will raise several problems facing Levinson’s account and explain why I think they do much to undermine his account. I will raise two major objections that I find especially powerful: (a) Levinson’s account is unable to deal with first art satisfactorily, and (b) Levinson’s account is unable to deal with revolutionary art satisfactorily.

(a) Levinson’s account is unable to deal with first art satisfactorily

This problem may be obvious to the reader; if what is art now relies on what was art at some previous time t, then what was art at time t relies on what was art at some previous time t’, and so on and so forth seemingly ad infinitum. Except, of course, we cannot go back infinitely, and we are thus forced to find some first work of art and finish there. According to Levinson, this first art is related to Ur-art, which is the precursors of art, such as the earliest cave paintings. Levinson doesn’t grant Ur-art the status of art. According to Levinson our concept of art is recursive, but this stops at first art. First art is art, but it quite obviously cannot be art under Levinson’s definition: it doesn’t share the appropriate historical relation with previous works of art, as there are no previous works of art. Thus, first art cannot be art, and so nothing can be art, as second art has nothing to latch onto, and so is not art, as is the case with third art, fourth art, and so on.

In the end Levinson simply responds with the following:

‘it looks like an expanded definition of art is needed if both first art and later art are to be comprised, and that will need to be disjunctive in form. It would be that something is art if and only if either (i) it satisfies the basic definition or (ii) it is an instance of first art – that is, one of those things from which all other art, that satisfying the basic definition, springs.’13

But this won’t do at all. Levinson is simply trying to sidestep the issue at hand. He does not give us any way of bringing first art under his definition, but since first art is needed for his definition to work at all he stipulates that something can be art by being first art. This is not the way that definitions should, or quite frankly do work, and it leaves us with the problem: how do we determine what is and what is not first art? If first art is art simply because it is stipulated to be art then we don’t have a systematic way of determining what is first art. What is second art can only be determined systematically by finding out what first art is, and third art can only be picked out by making reference to second art, and so on and so forth. But if we cannot pick out what first art is then we cannot determine what is art at all. Levinson may think it is all well and good to say that first art is art, but he hasn’t given us a good way of determining what kind of things are first art. He states that first art is that which is intended to be regarded in the way Ur-art was correctly regarded, but for this we need to know just what Ur-art is, and for Levinson Ur-art is merely those non-artworks which are the precursors of all artworks. Thus, our definition doesn’t allow us to pick out anything as art that we didn’t already know to be art, as what is art depends on what is first art, and what is first art depends on what is Ur-art, but what is Ur-art seems to depend, under Levinson’s account, on what is art.

Nam June Paik - Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii

Levinson can argue that Ur-art is distinguished by its aesthetic concerns, or the aesthetic intentions of its maker or makers, but will this really do? It seems that many practices and aspects of the lives of early humans, those who were the creators of Ur-art, would have had aesthetic interests, aims, intentions, and so on behind them. To suggest that only what we consider Ur-arts had aesthetic interests or intentions seems simply wrong. Many, perhaps most, do not consider pottery to be art, but early pottery, Ur-pottery seems likely to have been engaged with aesthetics interests and intentions in mind, and the same could likely be said of other human activities, such as early religious rituals. Thus, I do not think we can say that Ur-art is distinct because it had aesthetic interests or intentions behind it, since many aspects of human nature seem to have such aesthetic interests and intentions behind them to some extent or other. And we cannot say that Ur-arts were exclusively aesthetic and non-functional because (a) we simply do not know this (and furthermore it seems likely untrue), and (b) it may be the case that this was true for things such as Ur-pottery. It seems unlikely that the first clay-working was purely for aesthetic reasons, but we cannot rule this possibility out. Furthermore, this relies on an unexplained notion of the aesthetic, and so in order for this response to work we would need to properly define the aesthetic, which would hardly be a trivial feat.

Thus, I think the problem of first art remains. Levinson needs first art for his definition to work, but he has no way of bringing it in under his definition in a non-arbitrary manner. Levinson may argue that he is only trying to give an account of art’s current extension, but it has been made clear that under his account what is art now can only be determined by knowing what was art in the past, and we are unable to do this.

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian

(b) Levinson’s account is unable to deal with revolutionary art satisfactorily

Levinson argues that something has to be intended for regard in the way some previous work of art was correctly regarded, but he also accepts that revolutionary art, such as the Readymades of Duchamp, has art-status. Revolutionary art (which can be defined for our purposes as art that was intended by its maker to be regarded in a way completely distinct from any past correct way of regarding art) attempts to get away from the past ways of approaching and regarding art in order to forge something new. But surely if such art doesn’t share a relatively complete set of ways to be correctly regarded with some previous work of art then Levinson cannot consider it art. This would be very problematic for Levinson’s account, as many works of revolutionary art are considered paradigm cases of art, and thus if we cannot get round this problem then we have very good reason to reject Levinson’s historical definition.

But Levinson argues that revolutionary art can be brought in under his definition. There are two ways he gives of doing this: the first is to argue that in order for revolutionary art to be art its maker must intend for his work to be initially regarded in a way that some previous work or works of art have been regarded. The artist must intend for this way of regarding his or her work to be frustrating and unfulfilling, and intend that the audience then seek out some new way of regarding the work, this being the way of regarding the work the artist had in mind all along. The second is to argue that the work be intended for ‘regard in any way (or ways) in which prior art works are or were correctly (or standardly) regarded, or in some other way in contrast to and against the background of those ways.’14

However, I simply fa to see how the fact that revolutionary art may be intended to initially be seen in a traditional way, that is in very much the wrong way, before its true nature is seen means that it somehow is intended to be regarded in the way that previous works of art were correctly regarded. It is really intended to be regarded in a way wholly divorced from the ways that previous works of art were correctly regarded, and nothing said above changes that. Similarly, the fact that a work is presented in contrast to and against the background of previous ways of regarding art doesn’t mean that the artist doesn’t intend for the work to be regarded in some entirely new way, such as with Duchamp’s Readymades. No, Levinson gives us no reason to think that his definition can actually class revolutionary art as art. Thus, we have very good reason to reject Levinson’s definition; it classes some of our paradigm cases of art as non-art. And in fact his second approach mentioned above merely seems to lean towards some institutional theory of art – revolutionary art is art because it is presented as art in the institutional framework of art. But Levinson goes very much against the institutional theory of art, and even if he didn’t I have already argued that the institutional theory of art cannot be made to work.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Yanqui U.X.O.

2.3 The State of Levinson’s Historical Definition:

Levinson’s definition fails to overcome these two criticisms: neither can it account for first art nor can it account for revolutionary art. The first problem is clearly the most powerful, as it means that nothing can be classified as art non-arbitrarily. The second problem is, however, also important: if a theory of art presents a paradigm case of art to be non-art then we may feel justified in rejecting said theory. Levinson’s theory thus is not feasible. Perhaps it can be salvaged in some unforeseen way, but at the moment it should be classified as a failure.

I think that an intentional definition of art can actually account for these problems better if it makes no reference to history. I have already stated that I think such an approach has no problem in dealing with first art. And if the creator of revolutionary art has the correct set of intentions then what he creates is art, provided we can stipulate what these art-relevant intentions are. If the creator does not have the correct intentions then what he or she creates simply is not art. I do not think this would lead us to an unacceptable number of counterintuitive conclusions, so long as we can give a broad enough explanation of just what kinds of intentions are art-relevant. I think it is clear that the reference to history is what is problematic with Levinson’s account, not his reference to artists’ intentions.

Briefly, it should be noted that there are indeed problems with an intentional definition of art. First, under this account if the creator of an artefact didn’t have the right intentions said artefact could not subsequently be adopted by the art community and so turned into art. This may be counterintuitive for some. Furthermore, there will be the problem of giving a compelling list of the kinds of intentions that are artistic intentions; we are at risk of being either too permissive or too strict. However, in spite of these problems, and perhaps others I have not considered, I think that an intentional definition of art that makes no reference to institutions or history is not only possible, but far more compelling than either Dickie’s or Levinson’s accounts.


3.0 Conclusion:

Dickie’s institutional definition of art, being in my opinion the most plausible institutional definition of art, fails on a number of counts. Furthermore, even if these problems could be overcome it would seem to necessarily lean upon a historical definition of art in order to work. Levinson’s historical definition of art, which is, I think, the most plausible historical definition of art, also fails on a number of counts. Thus, Levinson’s definition currently cannot be made to work, and so not only must we reject it, but we must also reject the possibility that Dickie’s institutional definition can be salvaged. I think that, because of its intuitive pull and because of its ability to overcome the criticisms I have raised against these two relational account, we should focus our efforts on developing a good intentional account of art that does not make reference to social institutions or matters of history.

4.0 References:

1 –Dickie, 1984, The Art Circle, quoted in p.84, Davies, 1991, Cornell University Press

2- p.256, Dickie, Defining Art, in American Philosophical Quarterly , Vol. 6, No. 3, 1969

3- Dickie, Aesthetics: An Introduction, Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1971

4 – p.105, Dickie, Aesthetics: An Introduction, Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1971

5 – p.100-107 Davies, Definitions of Art, Cornell University Press, 1991

6– p.103 Davies, Definitions of Art, Cornell University Press, 1991

7 – p.85 Davies, Definitions of Art, Cornell University Press, 1991

8 – Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Oxford, 1982

9 – Levinson, Defining Art Historically, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 19, no. 3, 1979

10 – p.370 Levinson, The Irreducible Historicality of the Definition of Art, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 42, No. 4, 2002

11 – Levinson, Refining Art Historically, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 1, 1989

12 – Levinson, Defining Art Historically, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 19, no. 3, 1979

13 – p371-372. Levinson, The Irreducible Historicality of Art, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 42, No.4, 2002)

14– p.241  Levinson, Defining Art Historically, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 19, no. 3, 1979

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