Defining Art Author(s): George Dickie Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1969), pp.

253-256 Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of North American Philosophical Publications Stable URL: Accessed: 11/01/2010 13:19
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

University of Illinois Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to American Philosophical Quarterly.

American Volume

Philosophical 6, Number 3, July

Quarterly 1969




that the years it has been argued "work of art" cannot be defined and IN expression Morris Weitz has even argued that being an artifact is not a necessary condition for being a work of art.1 has More however, recently, Joseph Margolis has offered a definition2 and Maurice Mandelbaum made tentative suggestions about defining "art."3 I shall not repeat the well-known argument of of Weitz, whose views I take to be representative those who maintain that "art" cannot be defined, but shall state his main conclusion and comment on one of his arguments. Neither shall I repeat the or Mandelbaum, but I do arguments of Margolis want to note (i) that they agree that artifactuality is a necessary condition of art, and (2) that Mandel? out the significance of the non baum points exhibited characteristics of art for the definition of


when the question of whether "art" can be defined is raised. I maintain use of that the descriptive "work of art" is used to indicate that a thing belongs to a certain category of artifacts. By the way, the sense can be applied to artifacts as well evaluative
as nonartifacts, as when we say, "That painting is

a work

of art." Such


are not



Before going on to discuss the second condition of the definition sense of "art," it of the descriptive will be helpful to distinguish the generic concept of art from the various subconcepts which fall under it. It may very well be the case that all or some of the subconcepts of art, such as novel, tragedy,
ceramics, sculpture, painting, and so on, may lack

main is that there are no conclusion and sufficient conditions for the definition necessary of "art" or for any of the subconcepts of art, such Weitz's
as "novel," have "tragedy," "painting," and so on. All

of these notions
stances Weitz dition

are open

as a





resemblances." con? necessary statements make

rejects artifactuality we of art because sometimes

conditions for their appli? necessary cation as subconcepts and it still be the case that "work of art," which is the genus of all these sub there may concepts, can be defined. For example, not be any characteristics which all tragedies have which would distinguish them from comedies, satyr and the like within the domain of plays, happenings, art. Even if this were the case, in the light of the tragedies and all other works of art foregoing, would have at least one characteristic in common,
namely, some one artifactuality. or more other Perhaps features artifactuality of works and of art

and sufficient

such as "This driftwood is a lovely piece of sculp? ture."4 We do sometimes speak this way of natural objects, but nothing follows from this fact. Weitz is confused because he takes the driftwood remark to be a descriptive statement and it is not. Weitz between an himself, quite correctly, distinguishes
evaluative use and a descriptive use of "work of

them from nonart. If all or some of the distinguish of art cannot be defined and, as I subconcepts think is the case, "art" can be, then Weitz is right
in part. * * *

is understood it art,"5 and once this distinction can be seen that the driftwood remark is an evalu? ation of the driftwood. But it is, of course, the sense of "work of art" which is at issue descriptive

that artifactuality is the genus of art, Assuming the differentia is still lacking. This second condition will be a social property of art. Furthermore, this

1 Morris Weitz, "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 15 (1956), pp. 27-35; in Philosophy Looks at the Arts, ed. by Joseph Margolis a of Defining reprinted (New York, 1962); Paul ZifF, "The Task in Aesthetics and thePhilosophy of Art," Work Levich reprinted ; of Criticism, ed. by Marvin (New York, Kennick, 1963) William "Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake," vol. 66 (1958), pp. 317-334. Mind, 2 The is not satisfactory, see Andrew definition Language of Art and Art Criticism (Detroit, 1965), pp. 37-47. Margolis' however; review in Philosophical Harrison's Books, vol. 7 (1966), p. 19. 3 the Arts," American Philosophical and Generalization "Family Resemblances Concerning Quarterly, vol. 2 (1965), pp. 219-228. 4 Op. cit., p. 57. 5 Ibid., p. f\6.






social propety will,
be a nonexhibited,

relational property.


A work of art in the descriptive sense is (/) an artifact
(2) upon which some society or some sub-group of a

W. E. Kennick contends that such an approach to the definition of "art" is futile. He argues from sealed up such facts as that the ancient Egyptians and sculptures in tombs to the conclusion paintings that "The attempt to define Art in terms of what we do with certain objects is as doomed as any other."6 are with Kennick's There several difficulties sealed the fact that the Egyptians argument. First, in tombs does not and sculptures up paintings entail that they generally regarded them differently from the way in which we regard them. Indeed, have put them there for the dead to they might or simply because to they belonged appreciate,
the dead person, or for some other reason. The

for appreciation. society has conferred the status of candidate of the The definition speaks of the conferring : nothing status of candidate for appreciation is said about actual appreciation and this leaves open the for whatever of works of art which, possibility
reason, are not appreciated. Also, not every aspect

is included in the candidacy for ap? the color of the back of for example, preciation, a painting is not ordinarily an object of appreci? ation. The problem of which aspects of a work of art are to be included within the candidacy for appreci? I have pursued ation is a question which else?
where. 9

of a work

practice does not prove a radical differ? Egyptian ence between their conception of art and ours such that a definition which subsumes both is impossible. there is no need to assume that we and Secondly, the ancient Egyptians (or any other group) share a common conception of art. I would be happy to be able to specify the necessary and sufficient condi? tions for the concept of art which we have (we
present-day we Westerners Americans, since the we present-day Westerners, of the system organization

Just how is the status of candidate for appreci? in an art ation conferred? An artifact's hanging
museum, a performance of art seen never by at a theater, museum but the and the like

are sure signs that the status has been conferred. But
many some works are never reach anyone an walls artist and him?

self. The
a single


therefore, must

be conferrable
as a candidate



for appreciation,
not always,


the artist himself,
someone might

create an


am not of the arts in or about the 18th century?I sure of the exact limits of the "we"). Kennick we are most likely to discover the notwithstanding, differentia of art by considering "what we do with
certain objects," that is, "works of art." But, of

artifact without for appreciation
other so person We easily?

ever considering it as a candidate and the status be conferred by some
But status the can status be conferred with ceremony?the of being married, is not the only

or persons. associate

and ceremony wedding for However, example.



that any given thing course, there is no guarantee we or an ancient Egyptian might possibly do with a work of art will throw light on the concept af art. Not every doing will reveal what is required.
Arthur Danto's stimulating article, "The Art






some I want

status ac?


marriage as two

possible?a can

quired without
is of that, just common-law can

ceremony. What
persons the marriage within status

to suggest
status an for

is helpful here. In speaking of Warhol's world,"7 Brillo Carton and Rauschenberg's Bed, he writes, the "To see something as art requires something of artistic cannot de [s] cry?an eye atmosphere
theory, a knowledge of history of art :an artworld."8



the acquire a system, legal of a candidate

called "the


the system which



non the eye cannot descry is a complicated What of the artifacts in question. exhibited characteristic of which Danto speaks is elusive, The "atmosphere" content. this but it has a substantial Perhaps I shall first content can be captured in a definition. state the definition and then go on to defend it.

arise about this notion A number of questions and perhaps of status of candidate for appreciation can best be clarified by stating the whole matter the them and trying to answer them. Probably kind of appreciation? is: what first question does seem to suggest that Surely the definition there is a special kind of "aesthetic" appreciation. should is not crucial, but something Appreciation

6 Kennick, op. cit., p. 330. 7The vol. 61 (1964), pp. 571-584. Journal of Philosophy, 8 Ibid., p. 580. 9 In American Philosophical and Broadly Quarterly, vol. 5 (1968), pp. my "Art Narrowly Speaking," of art which, the notion of aesthetic object. The although essay is the concept subject of the present from it. aesthetic is distinct object,

71-77, related

I analyze where to the notion of




it to prepare the way for the be said about I have in crucial point. The kind of appreciation the kind characteristic of our mind is simply of paintings, poetry, novels, and the experiences like. This remark seems to collapse the definition into circularity, but it does not because "work of in the art" (the term defined) does not appear
explanation art differ of appreciation, only subconcept terms

"Fountain" in that now famous art christened show. The point is that Duchamp's act took place within a certain institutional setting and that makes all the difference. Our salesman of plumbing sup? did, that is, convert plies could do what Duchamp a urinal into a work of art, but he probably would
not?such weird ideas seem to occur only to artists

appear. Another
so much

from one


is that works


it comedies are very different from tragedies?that seems unlikely that the appreciation characteristic either. of our experience of one kind of work has something the question? raise Duchamp's "ready-mades" in common with the appreciation of characteristic "If urinals, snowshovels, and hatracks can become our experience But of another kind of work. works of art, why can't natural objects such as driftwood become works of art?" and, of course, paintings, poems, and plays are the objects of our and the fact that the objects differ and other natural objects can become driftwood appreciation that the various does not mean works of art if any one of a number of things is considerably differ. if we mean done to them. One thing which would do the trick Indeed, by appreciations the would be to pick it up, take it home, and something like "in experiencing "appreciation" hang or of a thing one finds them worthy it on the wall. Another do qualities thing which would then there is no problem about the the trick would be to pick it up and enter it in valuable," an exhibition. that (I was, by the way, assuming similarity of the various appreciations. It can now be seen that appreciation will not Weitz's sentence about driftwood to a referred serve to pick out the subclass of works of art from in its ordinary situation on a piece of driftwood the class of artifacts?it is too broad: many artifacts beach and untouched by human hand.) This means which are obviously not works of art are appreci? that natural objects which become works of art ated. To pick out the class of works of art one must at acquire their artifactuality (are artifactualized) stress the conferring of the status of candidate rather the same time that the status of candidate for a salesman than for example, is conferred on them. But perhaps a When, appreciation. appreciation his wares before us, of plumbing similar thing ordinarily supplies spreads happens with paintings, he presents them for our appreciation all right, but poems, and such ; they come to exist as artifacts at the presenting is not a conferring of status of the same time that they have conferred on them the status it is simply a placing before us. But what of candidate for candidate, appreciation. course, (Of an artifact is the difference before" and between and being a candidate for "placing being are not the status of candidate?" The differ? the same are two "conferring appreciation thing?they ence is analogous to the difference between my properties of a single thing which may be acquired at the same time.) A somewhat more uttering "I declare this man to be a candidate for complicated case would be an artifact from a and the head of the election board alderman" primitive culture the same sentence while in his which played a role in a religious system and which uttering acting I utter the sentence it has official capacity. When had no artistic function in the sense developed here. no effect because I have not been vested with any Such an artifact might become a work of art in our in this regard. Of course the analogy is culture in a way similar to that in which driftwood authority not a complete in the might of authority one?lines become a work of art. However, such a are by and large explicitly world which becomes a work of art would politico-legal religious object defined and incorporated into law, while lines of be an artifact in two senses, but the driftwood in in the art that something (or something like authority) authority only one. (I am not suggesting world are nowhere codified. The artworld carries cannot be a religious object and work of art at the on its business at the level of customary practice. same are time?there to this counter-instances many Still there is a practice and this defines a social in our own culture.) institution. To return to the plumbing A question which frequently arises in connection line, the salesman's presentation is different from Duchamp's with discussions of the concept of art is "How are similar act of placing a urinal which he we to conceive of paintings done superficially by individuals such

with bizarre senses of humor. Please remember is a work of art, I am when I say "Fountain" it is a good one. And in making this saying remark I am not insinuating that it is a bad

that not last one





as Betsy the chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo?" It all depends on what is done with the paintings. call the objects that I unhesitatingly (Note I am uncertain their about although paintings, status as works of art.) For example, The Field in Chicago Museum Natural History recently some chimpanzee In the case exhibited paintings. of these paintings we must say that they are not if they had been exhibited a works of art. However, few miles away at the Chicago Art Institute they would have been works of art. (If, so to speak, the director of the Art Institute had gone out on a setting. limb.) It all depends on the institutional to consider In concluding, itmay be worthwhile in what ways the definition offered here differs from some traditional definitions, (i) It does not attempt to smuggle a conception of good art into the of "art." (2) It is not, to use Margolis' definition as is the one Margolis cites as term, "overloaded," a horrible example :"Art is a human activity which in a and hereby creates, new reality explores, University

suprarational, symbolically cosmic whole

visional or


and as


metaphoncally,10 a macrocosmic

presents a micro whole."11


to any (3) It does not contain any commitment or unempirical as contrasted metaphysical theory, for example, the view that art is unreal. with, (4) It is broad enough so that those things generally recognized as art can be brought under it without
undue strain, as contrasted with, for example, the

imitation definition which involves enormous strain in trying to show that every work of art is an imitation of something or other. (5) It takes into account (or at least attempts to) the actual practices of the artworld of the past and of the present day. I have been saying may Now what sound like "a work of art is an object of which someone saying, has said, 'I christen this object a work of art'." And I think it is rather like that. So one canmake a work of art out of a sow's ear, but of course that does not mean that it is a silk purse.12

18, of Illinois at Chicago Circle Received March 1968

reads 11

errors here. Margolis are apparently two typographical the word as "metaphonically" text and the original quotes text indicates of the original that it should have been "metaphorically." A reading "metaphoncally." is Art?," is quoted from Erick Kahler's "What in Problems in Aesthetics, ed. by Morris Weitz Op. at., p. 44. The passage (New York, 1959). 12Thanks are due toMonroe Arnold and Maurice Mandelbaum who read Eaton, William Levison, Beardsley, Marcia Hayes, in manuscript and made many this paper helpful suggestions.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful