Against Definition

So far, no attempt to define art has proved satisfactory. Far from being a meaningless meander, it alerts us to the limitations of most arguments about art. Unconsciously or otherwise, most people when talking about whether something is or is not art, base their argument upon a definition which can be shown to be far too exclusive, inclusive, or both. It starts to seem fundamentally wrong to try and define art by means of a theorem, especially given the forever changing nature of art and what passes as such. ft also means that we must be a little sceptical of writers such as Maskelyne and Sharpe who openly begin their discussions of magic and art on a definition of what art consists of. For the presumptions made by the writers of that time are now clearly inappropriate given the role of art today. Yet we still need to decide whether we can confer art status to magic or any other claimant, for in making that decision, we ascertain how we should respond to it. Should we attempt to interpret the work? Should we explore its aesthetic properties? How much attention should we give it?

It was precisely the rise of the avant-garde, which caused art theory to break with forever trying to come up with a conclusive definition of art. The first major school of thought to form was that of the NeoWittgensteinians, who took art to be an "open concept," in which new conditions and cases will constantly arise, rendering it. according to a frequently-cited Neo-Wittgeristeinian, Morris Weitz, "logically impossible to ensure any set of defining properties." Instead of attempting to reduce art to a theorem, this approach looks for "family resemblances" between accepted, paradigmatic art and the work that is claiming art status. Avoiding the idea of definition, it merely asks us to compare what we are seeing with what we know art to be from previous examples. Therefore if a claimant for art status resembles something previously accepted as art, then we decide that it is indeed art. Even something very new and revolutionary will have recognisable qualities — irony, perhaps — which can be found in previous works.

This may seem a wiser path to take. Rather than limiting ourselves to a condition for art, we engage in an active process of comparison, and judge accordingly. This, I believe, is the key to our problem, but the neo-Wittgensteinian approach is still not quite right. The example of Duchamp's Fountain (the ordinary urinal on display as art) causes problems with the idea of 'family resemblances,' for according to this notion, every other urinal of similar design would be art. It is of course not the urinal itself, but the fact that it is displayed as art, which gives it its value: it makes us question what we are prepared to accept as art and rather importantly (and I shall return to this point), makes us look at urinals a little differently. The fact that this sounds so ridiculous is precisely the point. There is a Further problem, in that the notion of 'family resemblances' presupposes a family: some context, which validates those resemblances and provides a history of features. However, we would not decide whether a child belonged to a family by its features, rather we would notice any physical resemblances once we know the family to which it belongs. In other words, the notion only has relevance if we presuppose that the claimant already belongs to the 'family': i.e. if it is already an artwork. The notion therefore is in danger of circularity: it i.s not quite accurately formulated to provide a satisfactory approach to looking at a work.

But we are close to a reliable mode! for understanding how we decide a piece to be art.

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