Definition Projects in Aesthetics and the Historical Origins of Fine Art

David Clowney
Rowan University


Several authors have argued that the modern system of the arts is a recent western invention, with an ideological function in modern capitalist society. If their view is accepted, definition and conceptual analysis of the modern system’s fundamental categories (Art, the autonomous Aesthetic, and Artistic Freedom) should be replaced by critical analysis of their function in modern society. This, I suggest, is no great loss to philosophers of the arts, who in addition to participating in such critical analysis, have plenty of other interesting work to do in the philosophy of music, dance, image making, and other such universally human activities.

Definition Projects in Aesthetics and the Historical Origins of Fine Art

Over the past decades, several authors have argued that “fine art” (by contrast with such ancient and universal human activities as image making, singing, dancing, decoration and story-telling) is of recent origin; in fact that it originated in the 18th century west (Kristeller 1964, 1990; Bourdieu 1984, 1993; Eagleton 1990; Shiner 2001; Mattick 2003). The key elements of this modern sort of Art are the notions of the Artist as Free and Visionary Genius, the Art Work as valuable for its own sake independently of any use it might have, and the Aesthetic as an autonomous realm of value, perhaps requiring of the art appreciator a certain kind of Disinterested Contemplation. Following Kristeller and Shiner, I will call this set of ideas and practices “the modern system of the arts.” The invention of art in this modern sense coincided with the separation of the Artist from the mere artisan, the Art work from mere entertainment, craftwork, useful object or technical accomplishment, and Art appreciation from the more ordinary pleasures of the senses. By no coincidence, the beginnings of “fine art” parallel the emergence of modern economic and class structures in the 18th century.

Since it began, the modern system of the arts has constantly transformed itself, assimilating more and more practices under the Art umbrella (e.g., some though not all photography, film, design, craftwork, and even some graffiti art). In the process it has begun to shed some of its original defining characteristics (e.g., by treating some crafts as Art in spite of their essential utility—a safe bet now that the ends of utility are served almost exclusively by mass production). In the twentieth century it even attempted to separate itself from its dependence on experiences pleasing (or for that matter shocking) to the senses, so that artists like Marcel Duchamp and Barnett Newman and the conceptual artist Sol Lewitt rejected “aesthetics” as having anything to do with art. Meanwhile the supposed conflict between art and commerce has appeared in fields like popular music and television that were formerly on the commercial side of the divide, so that “alternative” rock musicians and “independent” film-makers insist that they are Artists. The kiss of death, for many in these industries, is the judgment by their fans that they have “gone commercial.” Throughout all of these transformations, the modern system of art has maintained its identity and a good bit of its mystique as an autonomous realm. Mattick points out (2003, pp. 180-181) that many working artists have made their peace with commercial success (and surely many more would welcome the opportunity). But this too is consistent with the relative autonomy of the field of art. Art for Art’s sake remains a powerful ideal.

I will call the view I’ve just described the “historical origins” or (in Larry Shiner’s apt phrase) the Art Divided thesis. It implies that Art as we in the westernized world now think of it is an historically contingent and culturally specific invention, not a human universal. The view does not imply that there are no continuities between the modern sort of art and what preceded it in the west, or what still exists alongside the modern system in non-western traditional cultures. Both the modern system and its predecessors include paintings, sculptures, music, dances, stories and so on. Both include items that embody cultural messages. Both prize the way objects and performances look or feel or sound. But the modern system is also very different from its predecessors and its alternatives. These differences have received little philosophical attention.

I think the historical orgins/Art Divided theory (ADT for short) is correct. It has been well and carefully defended by the authors mentioned at the beginning of this essay, all of whom provide the kind of detailed historical and critical analysis that a good defense of the thesis requires. I will not attempt any further defense here. Rather, I want to explore its implications for definition projects and their relatives in the philosophy of the arts. Accepting this thesis means, I think, that some of those projects should be abandoned, or transformed into projects of historical investigation and critical inquiry. Prominent among projects that fall under this axe are the definition of Art and the Aesthetic, and the doctrine of Aesthetic Disinterest. Other definition projects, by contrast, will be unaffected. The division corresponds to that between the historically contingent elements of the modern notion of art, and those elements of the arts that are more culturally universal.

Attempts to define Art, along with claims that it is not definable, are alive and well in contemporary philosophy, particularly in the field of analytic philosophy. Morris Weitz argued in 1956 that art was constantly developing, so that an essentialist or real definition was impossible, and that the concept of art should be explicated using Wittengenstein’s “family resemblance” approach (Weitz 1956). Not long thereafter, George Dickie sought to expose the attitude of aesthetic detachment as a myth (Dickie 1964). While these were influential papers, and have their recent descendents, they have not put an end to attempts to define art and the aesthetic. Noel Carroll’s Theories of Art Today (Carroll 2000) anthologizes an array of recent efforts at such definitions and some comments on their feasibility. These range from Berys Gaut’s reformulation of the Wittegensteinian approach through Arthur Danto’s essentialist definition, and include definitions by function, definition by connection with historical practice, Dickie’s institutional theory, and other approaches.

What is striking in this recent collection is the absence of serious attention to the historical origins of the modern system of the arts. Gaut mentions Kristeller and an earlier book by Mattick, but draws only the mild conclusion that because art has changed over the years, it is unlikely that a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something’s being art can be provided (Carroll pp. 33-34). Stephen Davies (Carroll 2000, see pp. 201-202) acknowledges that the modern system of fine art had an historical origin, but goes on to class Fine Art as a subset of art in general, something he takes to be universal. Denis Dutton, in the same volume (pp. 217-238), is at pains to show that western and non-western art have enough in common that both should be called art. Even Peg Brand (pp. 175-198), while exposing the “glaring omissions” that a feminist art theory might rectify, and demonstrating the many ways that sexism has structured and pervaded the modern system, only begins to scratch the surface of the structural relationships between art, class, and money that system incorporates. Jerrold Levinson, who is not included in the Carroll anthology, argues for “the irreducible historicality of the concept of art” (Levinson 1979, 2006). Levinson’s approach pays more attention to history than do some others. But like the contributors to Carroll, his emphasis is on continuity rather than discontinuity, and hence his account does not recognize these same features of the modern system as a radical break from the past. In fact it functions quite effectively to gloss over that break, and in the process to create a unified concept of art for our human past and for non-western cultures where there is no good evidence that those people had or have such a concept (in the case of non-western cultures I admit that they now do have it; but I believe it can be shown that they got it from us modern westerners).

In short, I believe, and will now try to show, that the historical origin of the modern system of the arts has profound implications for our understanding of that system’s categories, and the way they function in western and global culture generally, as well as in philosophy.

Implications of the Art Divided thesis (ADT) for the philosophy of the arts

A. Is Art definable?

The short answer is “no”. There is no definition that will work for “art” into the distant past and around the world, because there is no one thing there to define. Defining art within the context of the modern system may be possible, though because of the way that system was constituted (by collecting five “fine” arts together and declaring them of a kind) and because of the ways it has developed since, this enterprise will be problematic. Still, one can give a history of the modern system’s emergence. One can list the arts that were singled out as “fine”, and some characteristics they were thought to have (e.g., appeal to refined taste, connection to beauty or sublimity, separation from utility, and so on). One can describe the changes in the modern system over the past two centuries and more, showing how what it legitimated as art at its inception may be quite different from what it legitimates now. Working only with this data, several of the definitions proposed in the Carroll anthology and elsewhere would still be in the running. The problem comes in extending any of these definitions to the pre-18th century west, or to non-western cultures. In those contexts, ADT implies that there is nothing to define. There is certainly painting and music and those other things on the other side of the divide, but in the sense we are looking for, there is no art.

But perhaps I am jumping to conclusions. Can’t we see the emergence of the modern system of the arts as a kind of cultural maturation, the clear differentiation of a universally human sphere that was once fused with others, but now enjoys the relative autonomy it deserves? There may be an insight contained in this idea. The modern system of the arts has made possible the creation of some works that could not otherwise exist, because they are too specialized for a general audience. It is also true that the assumptions of the modern system have now become more global than merely western. All the same, there are several reasons for thinking that this differentiation/maturation account won’t work. In one way or another, they all make the point that what unifies the modern system, and differentiates it from its predecessors and companions, is its ideological function within capitalist society. What is that function? It is to validate the social and financial arrangements of modern life by showing that they support something free, transcendent, and valuable for its own sake, and that under those arrangements not everything is measured by money and use. I believe the candidates for distinguishing features of Art are better explained by this ideological function than as indicators of an essence.

1) The modern system is inconsistent, in ways that reveal its ideological function. It mystifies more than it clarifies. It claims that art is independent from utility, and most especially from commerce; but it arose as the art market replaced patronage. It is sustained by purchases and contributions by the wealthy and by corporate foundations and museums (those, in other words, who are culturally habituated to appreciate it). It serves to justify the leisure and cultural privilege of wealth by identifying it with a kind of spiritual freedom from mundane matters. The huge market value placed on great works of art should make this clear if nothing else does (Mattick 2003). That something functions as ideology does not mean it is pure ideology, i.e., that ideology is its only function. One can consistently see that the doctrine of art’s autonomy and spirituality has an ideological function, while being profoundly moved by Mark Rothko’s meditation chapel. Art in the modern sense can be a genuine force for freedom and against repression/oppression. It can therefore be used to stand up against ideology. But while art is not pure ideology, its ideological function should make us suspicious of claims that it is free and autonomous. There are far too many non-art reasons for the emergence of the modern system of art. Projecting a “concept” from the modern system onto other times and places looks more like propping up an ideology than like sketching the contours of a human universal.

2) The modern system presupposes that all the fine arts have a common nature, in that they are all forms of Art. This makes it easy for all of them to play a similar ideological role. But it downplays the significant differences between music, painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, dance, fiction, theater, and so on. Arguably the Unity of Art assumption has also shaped those various disciplines in their modern form, so that they have become more like each other because of their presumed common identity. Thus claims about the Unity of Art have become self-fulfilling prophecies, while attention is diverted both from the differences that originally existed between those practices, and from their close relation to other practices now considered not to be Art.

3) The modern system arbitrarily divides Art from craft, but then goes on, in effect, to include certain craftwork as Art after all: it just has to be the kind that is sold for high prices in galleries, rather than the kind made by local artisans and sold for affordable prices at fairs. (See Shiner’s comments on this development in Shiner 2001, pp. 274-278). For example, Fine Art Furniture is, by and large, still useable furniture, and demonstrates a high level of craft skill or it will not sell. The father of the movement, Wendell Castle, has blurred the line between the fine and the useful and commercial even further with his new Wendell Castle collection. For less than his one-of-a-kind pieces cost, one may furnish one’s living or dining room with items to order from this collection. But they are only available in selected galleries.

A few cranky critics may reject any such items as “craft not art”, but their sale in galleries, their exhibition in museums and their collection by wealthy art-buyers makes these claims suspect. Rather it seems correct to say that the modern system now accepts some art works for which a kind of direct utility is a defining quality.

What has not changed through the assimilation of “Fine Crafts” into Art is the ideological function of fine art. To be able to buy such work, to be drawn to it, even to know about it and to be comfortable with its price, is to be part of a globally privileged class. By owning such an item one can simultaneously enjoy something unique and beautiful (or hilarious or shocking or in some other way special) and see oneself as an arts supporter, as someone who resists the mass produced and the commercial and helps to keep alive the handmade and the meaningful. And hence, as Shiner notes, the apparent change has done little to overcome “the polarities of art/craft, mind/body, male/female, white/black” inherent in the modern system” (Shiner 2001, p. 278).

4) The modern system separates art from entertainment, but certain films and graphic novels now garner attention as fine art. As its boundaries shift, the modern system may appear unstable. Its strategy of assimilating “the best” of new arts activities and rejecting their poor cousins seems to be altering its fundamental categories. Yet it persists. I suggest that its stability comes from its social role, not from the consistency of its definitions.

5) The modern system inherently separates Art from the rest of life, so that it cannot readily accommodate the “aesthetic of the everyday” that characterized traditional Japan. Rather it must select out certain products of that aesthetic as art works, and take the rest to be fashion, decoration, or style. Thereby it also distorts our vision, so as to keep us from seeing the arts of traditional cultures on their own terms.

For all of these reasons, I do not believe that the emergence of the modern system of the Arts represents a culmination of universal human arts practice. What has remained most constant in the categories of Art, The Artist and The Aesthetic over the last two hundred years in the west is their ideological function. This they continue to play, and they do it powerfully. Hence, critical rather than essentialist or other formal analysis is likely to shed more light on their nature.

Let me hasten to add that these reasons do not convince me that no good has come of modern western art. On the contrary, the Art for Art’s sake idea has made possible the creation of some amazing works that almost certainly would never have come into existence otherwise. The paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock, the novels of James Joyce, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, the plays of Samuel Becket, the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, and a great many other productions are treasures of humanity. Who would be without them? My intent is not to trash the modern system, but to understand its nature, and to see outside its box.

Stephen Davies acknowledges most of the considerations I’ve just advanced, but considers them irrelevant to his conceptual analysis of art. He argues that “non-Western cultures self-consciously create art with a small a, something that is properly called art for what it shares with our basic concept, though their practice might not be institutionalized and ideologically freighted to the extent that our is” (Carroll 2000 pp. 201-202). One way of understanding Davies’ claim is to see him as accepting an analogy between art in general and some individual art, e.g. music. Art, he may be saying, art with a small a, is a human universal, just like music.

Western music is no doubt institutionalized and ideologically freighted, and it has a western sound. But it still has quite enough in common with what other cultures make that both should be called music. Just so with art (and of course Davies is not talking about art in the restricted sense of visual art—about that I think he would be right—but about art in general, the whole ball of wax). He looks to an original focus on aesthetic qualities for the common feature that picks out this concept.

This, it seems to me, is to miss the whole point of seeing art as ideology, or of noting the historical origin of the modern system of the arts. To call something Art, in the modern system, is to grant it a certain status and potential financial and spiritual value, and to attribute to it certain functions defined by that system. There is no “art with a small a” in that system. A unified category of Art (as opposed to a looser and more open notion of skillful making) did not exist prior to the emergence of the modern system. “Our basic concept” of art just is the concept that has been created through the emergence of the modern system of the arts; therefore attempts to apply it to other cultures or to our own pre-eighteenth century past inevitably result in assimilating those other cultures and times to something that is alien to them. Davies, I think, is wrong. It is not, as he claims, “silly … to suggest that Bach’s music, Michelangelo’s statues and Shakespeare’s plays became art retrospectively” (in Carroll 2000, p. 202). That is exactly what happened. They did not become music or sculpture or theater retrospectively. The history of those concepts and practices has sufficient continuity down through the ages and across cultures to legitimate an approach like that of Davies or for that matter Levinson. Bach, Michelangelo and Shakespeare worked within the context of very sophisticated, long standing and highly developed traditions of their crafts, traditions with which current western musical, sculptural, painterly and dramaturgical practice have significant continuities and which can also be significantly compared with similar traditions in other cultures. These works carried plenty of profound messages of a human relevance beyond their immediate context of origin, so that they continue to move us at the present day. But there was no art for them to be at the time that they were made.

It seems to me that definitions of art, and assumptions that we can talk about “our concept” of art in a neutrally theoretical and cross-culturally relevant way, are among the prominent ways in which the divisions of class, gender, race and wealth that the modern system embodies are mystified and concealed. Of course these same divisions may also be mystified and concealed when comparing traditions of image-making, or the functions of abstraction in Indian tantric art with those in early twentieth century art, or the use of musical modes in Indian ragas and medieval chant. But the problem is more tractable in such contexts, if indeed it turns out to be of more than peripheral importance to the discussion. When it has been dealt with, there is still lots left to talk about. Not so, it seems to me, with the larger category of Art.

The Aesthetic, Aesthetic disinterest, and the Artist

ADT has similar implications for the notions of the aesthetic and the artist. It provides additional reasons for rejecting the special Aesthetic Attitude to those offered some years ago by George Dickie (Dickie 1964). I agree with Dickie that the notion of Aesthetic Disinterest is indeed mystifying in the way he says, and that claims about it may often be eliminable in favor of more prosaic claims about paying close attention to the art-work at hand. Dickie to the contrary notwithstanding, Aesthetic Disinterest remains a powerful category, and The Aesthetic itself even more so, not only in the philosophy of art, but in the arts in the west and in western culture more generally. That the Aesthetic is an autonomous realm, that Aesthetic value is separate from other sorts of value, and that the experience of paying attention to aesthetic objects is of special and deep importance to human beings; these ideas are central to the modern system.

The indefinability of the (autonomous) aesthetic does not automatically follow from the indefinability of Art, for the potential sources for a definition are not the same. With Clive Bell, many readers may claim their own direct experience as support for an opposing view. “[A]ll sensitive people agree that … there is a particular kind of emotion provoked by works of visual art, and that this emotion is provoked by every kind of visual art, by pictures, sculptures, buildings, pots, carvings, textiles, etc., etc… . This emotion is called the aesthetic emotion…” (Bell 1958, p. 416). Kant describes taste as "The ability to judge an object, or a way of presenting it, by means of liking or disliking devoid of all interest." These famous claims of Bell and Kant have been famously disputed by other philosophers of the arts. Does ADT shed any light on these claims?

First, a recap of the data. Plainly we do have experiences of “liking devoid of all interest”, if by that is meant experiences of pure sensory enjoyment, where we are simply "in the moment," appreciating how something looks, sounds, tastes, feels or smells. Certainly, we have experiences of being ravished by beauty, or awestruck by vastness or overwhelming power, of feeling a frisson when reading a poem, or hearing what Sonny Rollins does with a simple melody, or listening to the transition from the “Crucifixus” to the “Resurrexit” in Bach’s B Minor Mass. But the range of such experiences is not coextensive with our experience of artworks. First, as Dewey and many others have pointed out, the range of these experiences is broader: it extends to sense experience more generally. On the other hand, the range of such experiences is also narrower than our experience of art works. The special attention art works demand may appear to be different (for some art) than what pleases or strikes the senses. Is the aesthetic attitude supposed to include appropriate responses (mostly very cerebral ones) to works like Marcel Duchamp's Fountain or his Large Glass? Duchamp went to great lengths to make sure that his work did not appeal to the senses in this way, and sought to liberate art from bondage to the aesthetic. Naturally he rejected the use of the word “aesthetic”. What special attitude might one need in order properly to appreciate the work of this artist? In spite (or because) of his efforts to break downs its rules, Duchamp is a formative figure in modern art. But the category of the aesthetic does not shed much light on his work (unless you simply mean by aesthetic attention, paying special attention to something while considering it to be art).

Furthermore, the isolation of the aesthetic from other sorts of value or experience is notoriously problematic. Limiting attention to the formal and experiential is a good way to miss some crucial facts about the nature and significance of many human activities and artifacts. It impoverishes interpretation. More to the point in the present context, isolating the aesthetic in this way moves any connections between the making, selling, collecting and appreciating of fine art and other interests out of the picture frame, so that they are not seen as having anything to do with the art or the art experience.

I suggest that the unique aesthetic attitude, and the autonomy of aesthetic value, are doctrines that derive their plausibility from the modern system. The work they appear to do can be done just as well, without the confusion, by focusing on the phenomenal or formal properties of something.

The term “Aesthetic” remains useful, however. It still carries much of the meaning of the Greek root from which Alexander Baumgarten derived it, namely “having to do with what pleases or strikes the senses, with the appearance or experienced qualities of a thing.” It is quite serviceable as well in another of its current meanings: “the vision or preferred approach taken by an artist or artisan, or by a group of such people.” In both of these meanings the term can be applied as well outside the modern system of the arts as within that system.

At the same time, the notion of The Aesthetic continues to fulfill its ideological function as specific to the realm of Art, and I believe this is what has allowed it to begin to float free of its original reference to sense experience. In this respect the decision of Duchamp, Barnett Newman, and Arthur Danto to restrict the term to its original usage seems to me salutary. What is problematic is the claim of the autonomy of the aesthetic and of aesthetic judgment, and its connection with freedom, so carefully worked out by Kant and so central to much philosophical aesthetics since. It is this sort of philosophical definition of the aesthetic, and its accompanying doctrine of aesthetic detachment, that smacks of ideology. Accepting the historical origins thesis means, in my view, that it should be abandoned.

The idea of Artistic Freedom has not lost its power either. But claims of various people, especially those in the fields of the mass and popular media, to be Artists should be seen for what they are. Through the categories of art, claims to artistic identity express the longing these individuals share with all of us in the world of modern commerce and mass production to have the benefits of that world while being free of its constraints. But we do not really know how to do this. Poets, painters, song-writers, and film-producers have as much to contribute as does anyone else to our quest to shape a livable future. But I see no reason to think that they have an edge on biologists, schoolteachers, engineers, caregivers or businesspeople in this respect.

Philosophy of the arts after definition projects?

The historical origins of the modern system of the arts, and its function as ideology, give compelling reasons to abandon efforts at defining Art and the aesthetic, and to replace such efforts with historical and critical inquiries about the origins and function of that system. If the conclusions of this paper were to be accepted, much work done in the philosophy of the arts would change. In addition to the definition projects I have mentioned, certain categorization efforts might also evaporate (e.g., attempts to determine whether video games or rap music are art). But it does not seem to me that the field of philosophy of the arts would become any less rich. Critical inquiry into the actual function of the modern system’s categories within western culture, and its global reverberations, is a huge task in itself. Studies of the arts in non-western cultures, and of their transitions into our global present, like those included in the recent wonderful special issue of JAAC (65.1, Winter 2007) and in Davies and Sukla Art and Essence (2003), should be stimulated rather than discouraged by reception of the claims I am making. There is also much more concrete and specific work that has been done and remains to be done in the philosophy of the visual arts, the philosophy of music, the philosophy of literary interpretation, the philosophy of film, and the like. While the concerns expressed in this paper are relevant to such work, they certainly don’t invalidate it. Finally, for those especially drawn to definition projects (as so many of us are!), there would be plenty left to work on. For example, nothing I have said precludes the analysis of “aesthetic” properties like balance, completeness, integrity, grace, beauty, profundity, significance, relevance, expressiveness, weightiness, heaviness, sadness, intensity, coherence, incoherence, edginess, humor, and the like. In short, abandoning the effort to provide abstract definitions of “the concepts” of art and the aesthetic will not leave us unemployed. Rather, in my view, it is likely to make the philosophy of the arts more concrete and more interesting, more socially on target and more connected with the actual practice of painters, musicians, poets, film-makers and others. This trend is already underway; to the extent the argument of this paper is found persuasive, perhaps it will accelerate.


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