The Central Question
How to tell an artwork from what is a work of art is not? What is it that makes an object, or a gesture, a work of art? Those questions lie at the core of Philosophy of Art, a major subfield of Aesthetics. Let’s see how they may be answered.
Art, Beauty, and the Pleasure of the Senses
Among the most immediate answers to the questions posed above we find those rooted on the relationship between art and the pleasure of the senses. Whether art has a purpose or not, it seems clear that the goal of art is to elicit an aesthetic experience, that is an experience of beauty. For most of the early scholars in aesthetics, beauty could be experienced only if the senses were appropriately titillated. It may be the shape of a statue, the vividness of the colors, the proportion of the representation, the awe of a story; the paths leading to an aesthetic experience are multifarious, yet all of them have to pass from some form of pleasure associated to the senses. Under this perspective, then, works of art are all and only those objects and events that manage to elicit the senses in a way that is conducive to an aesthetic experience.
With the coming of modern art, however, the idea of art as related to the senses comes apart.
The Institutional Theory of Art
Consider the Brillo Soap Pads Boxes that artist Andy Warhol fabricated, along with some carpenters, in 1964. The boxes looked exactly like those any consumer would have been able to buy in a supermarket; and yet, they were exposed in art exhibits, that is, regarded as art objects. What made Warhol boxes works of art as opposed to those found in supermarkets?
In a well-known 1964 paper, The Artworld, philosopher Arthur Danto incorporated Warhol’s lesson into his understanding of art: "To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld." What Danto had realized was that Warhol’s pieces were a stark counter-example to any theory according to which art has to please the senses in ways that are different from what art is not. The Brillo boxes at the supermarket and those in the museum may in principle elicit the senses in exactly the same manner, and yet they are not regarded as the very same enities. How’s that?
The proposal suggested by Danto, and then refined in subsequent year by a few other authors such as George Dickie, is that art is that which is part of the artworld. That is, art is that which becomes part of a specific societal institution. In order to become an artwork, an object or an event has to come to be recognized as such by those that constitute the artworld: critiques, clients, amateurs, scholars, and artists.
Philosophy of Art
The institutional theory of art spurred a discussion on the nature of art that dominated the field of aesthetics for two or three decades, starting from the middle of the Sixties. The rise of post-modern art offered even more material for discussion and to date the debate in philosophy of art is still vivid and awaiting to be more carefully explored.
Further Online Sources
- The entry on Philosophy of Art at the Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
- The entry on the definition of art at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The American Society for Aesthetics website, containing news and information on the topic.
- The British Society of Aesthetics website, which "aims to promote study, research and discussion of the fine arts and related types of experience from a philosophical, psychological, sociological, historical, critical and educational standpoint."
- The British Journal of Aesthetics, one of the leading journals in the field.
- The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, one of the leading journals in the field.
- A collection of philosophers’ perspectives on the philosophy of art.