Attempting to Define Art

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Definition Essay – Attempting to Define Art

Considering that last semester I took both History of Western Art and, in the philosophy department, Aesthetics, I would have thought that I am now in a better position than I was a year ago to answer the question, “What is art?” Going into the philosophy course I had the idea that art worked as a means of taking abstract values and placing them into concrete form. However, it soon became clear that there were many other praiseworthy things that could be said about art: it can be sublime, making us feel both the overwhelming force of nature and the overcoming strength of our free will (Kant); it bridges the natural and the ideal, allowing man to achieve political freedom
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By this I mean that whatever an artist creates can be judged by some aesthetic standard. The standards can vary across genres and media, differing for representational and abstract art, for painting and for music. There may not be a “Unified Theory of Aesthetics,” but works of art are open to critical assessment.

Unfortunately, the three characteristics I listed are too broad to be satisfying; yet anything I can think to add would be too exclusive. Some art communicates ideas and values, but not all of it. Some art captures beauty, but other art expresses ugliness. Some art doesn’t really communicate and express anything beyond an aesthetically pleasing (whatever that means) use of a medium.

Another possible problem with these general characteristics of art is that they do not exclude the productions of animals. The music of songbirds is not generally considered art to us, but to birds it may be. This is not a minor point: while human art exists in a more complicated social context, our capacity for it is something we evolved. Our complex and varied aesthetics may be the outgrowth of biological urges to produce and receive art, just as the bird’s singing comes from an innate impulse. Philosophers have tended to look to proximate causes of why we produce art (i. e. because we find it beautiful) as opposed
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