Is Art Necessarily Aesthetic?
For quite a long time now, art has played a huge role in discussions of the aesthetic as one of the most important and most frequently used examples of things that exemplify the aesthetic. This is because art is assumed to be inherently aesthetic, and so when you study art – and pretty much any art – you find out something interesting about the aesthetic. Yet, some classifications of art seem to belie this; certain things displayed prominently and hailed as artworks do not seem to have any aesthetic properties at all, or at least are considered to be classic examples of art for things other than the particular aesthetic experience they produce. So, is it the case that artwork inherently by definition has a link to the aesthetic, or can one have art that has no aesthetic value or properties whatsoever? Is the confusion here over what is aesthetic, or over what is art? And which side should we fall on?
This paper will argue that art does indeed have an inherent link to the aesthetic, and that this link is what makes a work of art a work of art, and moreover that it is the evaluation of the aesthetic value of a work of art that makes that work of art valuable as a work of art, even if it does not determine the total value of the work itself. To that end, a definition of art will be sketched out that aligns strongly with Monroe C. Beardsley’s definition of art: that what makes a work of art a work of art is the intention of the artist to produce an aesthetic experience. Additionally, what determines the value of a work of art shall be split out from the definition of art, and shall be based on Malcolm Budd’s view that the value of an artwork is the value of the aesthetic experience produced by that work. While these considerations are separate and separable, they are linked by the fact that each strongly link to the aesthetic. Finally, the elephant in the room – avant-garde, conceptual, and non-perceptual art – shall be addressed, as that is likely the most vexing challenge to any definition of art or its value that is based on the aesthetic.
But first, a brief examination of why art should be considered to have a necessary link to the aesthetic. The main reason that art is so prominent in discussions of the aesthetic in such wide ranging fields as philosophical aesthetics and aesthetic science is the common sense view that art in its purest sense relates importantly and inherently to the aesthetic. When most people think of art and attempt to describe the critically important attributes to art, they tend to leap to attributes that are considered aesthetic. Many will simply stop at “beauty”, and talk about beautiful paintings, music, sculptures, dance routines, and so on. Few tunnel deeper, but when they do they tend to appeal to perceptual and aesthetic features to classify art. And the art forms that most people immediately think of tend to be ones that have strong perceptual features as well; painting, sculpture, music and dance are immediately classified as art, while literature and movies often get some consideration, while things like bowling get none at all. Even some of the traditional middle grounds – ice skating, interior design, and so on – tend to be labelled “artistic” even if people are not quite willing to call their products art. There is a strong aesthetic component to all of these classifications. Art, then, in the common mind, is presumed to have a strong link to the aesthetic.
However, even in this common sense sort of view art is not merely aesthetic. While viewing a landscape in nature is almost always considered aesthetic, it is rarely considered art, even though a painting of that very same landscape usually is. So simply being aesthetic does not make something art; something else is required to make that thing art. Therefore, the common sense notion of art seems to presume that art has some special relation to the aesthetic that makes it art. So, to be art, it must have a link to the aesthetic, but only the right type of link will do.
Can we get some support from something other than common sense? Obviously, as stated above, philosophy of aesthetics and aesthetic science have certainly spent a lot of time focussing on art as examples of the aesthetic that they are trying desperately to understand. However, that art could be such a clear example of anything – particularly across forms – is relatively new. As Dominic McIver Lopes points out (referencing an essay by Paul Kristeller): “The eighteenth century innovation is to group some activities apart from others. For the first time in history, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry are grouped … and also distinguished from the liberal arts, the practical arts, and the sciences.”[Lopes, “Nobody Needs a Theory of Art”, pg 111]. Before this, there simply was not any clear thing that would separate art from everything else, which would certainly include the aesthetic.
However, even then, there was a difference inside those fields. Creating a painting was always seen as being different than painting a wall or a fence. The distinction was perhaps the most clear in writing, where poetry, theatre and literature were always considered to be apart from things like philosophical treatises. The Canterbury Tales, it seems, were always considered to be different in kind from philosophical dialogues. And this does seem to be split on evocative lines; the use of imagery and the evocation of other aesthetic properties seems to be major components of things like the former, while conceptual and explanatory concerns dominated the latter. Ultimately, then, the innovation was simply to notice that things like poetry and paintings were more like each other than they were like treatises and painted walls, and that that similarity is based on the aesthetic. And thus, a theory – and a definition – of art was born.
So, having established at least sufficiently for the sake of argument that there is something importantly and yet also specially aesthetic about art, what is that important yet unique link? Taking a cue from Monroe C. Beardsley, this definition seems to capture it: “An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest” [Beardsley, “An Aesthetic Definition of Art”, pg 58]. The key difference between art and other things that are also aesthetic is that art is inherently, by definition, intentional. It is produced precisely to satisfy the aesthetic interest and produce an aesthetic experience.
Note that while intention itself may not quite be enough, it is broader than might immediately be thought. It is not the case that one must produce a work with the sole intention of producing an aesthetic experience: “… the aesthetic intention need not be the only one, or even the dominant one; it must have been present and at least to some degree effective – that is it played a causal or explanatory role with respect to some features of the work.”[ibid, pg 59]. So an artist need not simply have “Produce an aesthetic experience” in mind when creating an artwork; it is enough that it is among the intentions. However, here it will be suggested that it needs to be more than simply present, but that it must be present for its own sake. The intention must not be instrumental; the “artist” cannot be attempting to make the work aesthetic merely to fulfill another more important purpose; the aesthetic experience must be a goal in and of itself. For example, Beardsley considers forgeries, and admits that for him they count as examples of an appropriate aesthetic intention: “… he will paint with an eye to capturing the peculiar quality of the empty, lonely, ominous space in the Chirico in order to make sure the forgery is good enough as a painting to fool a connoisseur. In that case the forger is producing an artwork.” [ibid, pg 61]. However, this seems odd; why is merely copying an artwork for purely monetary gain an aesthetic enough intention to make the forger an artist? This oddity can be resolved by using a stronger definition of intention than Beardsley that recognizes primary and instrumental intentions. The only reason the forger is attempting to reproduce that experience is to make the painting more convincing as a fake; the aesthetic is only a means to that specific end. Since it is only a means to that greater end – monetary gain – the forger is not an artist, and the copy is not art. However, if someone was copying a Chirico and decided to clean up portions of it or use a newly available shade of one of the colours in it to produce a work that they feel is more indicative of what a Chirico was trying to achieve aesthetically, that would count as an artwork even if they also were trying to create a forgery, because there is an intention there to produce a specific aesthetic experience regardless of its effect on any of the other intentions. In fact, in this case doing that would make it less likely to succeed as a forgery, as a connoisseur could not help but notice the improvement. So at least one primary intention is to produce the aesthetic experience, even if the intention to produce a work for monetary gain is still present, and so only in this case would the forger be producing art.
With intention clarified, Beardsley’s reasoning for the aesthetic component can be examined. He tries to get that link by talking about reception: “But to characterize the specific type of intention needed we must turn to the second central artistic activity, which I have (for want of a better word) called reception.”[ibid, pg 58]. So what is the reception of art? Well, basically, it is what happens when you “view”, in some way, an artwork, which makes it sufficiently broad to be almost useless. In fact, Beardsley describes it thusly: “Sometimes in this receptive interaction we find that our experience … is lifted in a certain way that it is hard to describe and especially to summarize: it takes on a sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the thing received, an intense affect that is nevertheless detached from practical ends … “ [ibid]. But Beardsley does go on to say “Much more ought really be said to fill out this mere sketch …” [ibid], and it certainly does. Since Beardsley is a big supporter of the idea that the aesthetic is tightly tied to the perceptual, this definition does not capture that, nor does it define the aesthetic (perceptual or not). And as such, it is difficult to see how this reception is different than what happens with other things, and so there may be some doubt as to whether other things might count in this special intention as well. However, these are considerations that must be made if seeking to define what it means to be aesthetic, which is not what is at stake here. Ultimately, one can say that the reception must be aesthetic while – at least for the time being – declining to define precisely what it means to be aesthetic.
However, more certainly can be said to support the idea that an intention to the aesthetic – whatever the aesthetic turns out to be – is what makes art art. And the first supporting argument comes from attempting to separate nature from art. Nature is clearly as aesthetic as even the most perfect artwork. Bird songs are as rhythmic, complex and beautiful as the most wonderful flute melody; many landscapes are as colourful and vibrant as the very best paintings. And yet, they are not art. Why, then, are they not art? What is missing from them that they do not rise to the standards to be classified as art? If it is not anything about their aesthetic qualities, then it must be something else. And what seems to be missing from nature is, in fact, intention; while it produces great beauty, it does not actually in any way mean to produce beauty. Beauty just happens. Art, on the other hand, is not nearly so accidental. Beauty in art happens by direct intention, and that, it seems, is the goal of art. We, therefore, seem to recognize that it is intention to produce that aesthetic sense of beauty that makes the difference; nothing else seems to do the job.
A second argument comes from art classes. Everyone in an art class is, by definition, doing art. They are doing art even if their results are not particularly aesthetically pleasing. After all, they are just learning to do art and so will not have pleasing results the first time out. If we are talking about the thing produced by these students, what they are producing does, in fact, seem to count as art. But is it a “work of art”? Well, by Beardsley’s definition, all something needs to be a work of art is to be a product of the process of art. Or, to put it better, all something needs to be a work of art is to be the product of someone who is doing art, which is then someone whose intention is to produce an aesthetic experience. Their works are not things that could be called a “work of art” in the sense that they should be hung on gallery walls and that people should spend thousands of dollars on them, but that is not the sense in which it is used here. So, it counts as a “work of art” in the sense that it is produced by the process of art. But it is not its aesthetic success that makes that determination. So, then, what does make that determination? Their intention to produce a specific aesthetic experience, even though they do not succeed at it. Their being in a class aimed at producing art gives them the intention to produce art, and if art is linked interestingly to the aesthetic then that intention is theirs as well. So, what makes the art from an art class art is the intention to produce art, which is the intention to produce a work with certain aesthetic properties.
Now, an objection can be raised here on the basis of an alternative explanation: the reason that things in art classes are called art and nature is not is not because of intention, but because of the influence of the social world called “the artworld”. Works of art produced in a class are inside the confines of the artworld, and so are classed by art by having that relation. Nature is outside of the artworld, and so the aesthetic experiences it provides are not classed as art. But this has nothing to do with intention per se.
This is not as strong an objection as it might appear. If the definition used by this artworld – whether that is a formal, semi-formal, or informal body – is not to be arbitrary, there must be an identifiable criteria – even if that criteria is loose and ad hoc – that it is using to make these distinctions. That criteria, then, may well be intention, as is argued here. If it is not, then it is that criteria that would have to be advanced and debated to see if it applies, just as other alternative definitions may challenge this definition if they describe art better. So appealing to the artworld seems to lead us into a deeper demand for the criteria the artworld is using. And arguing that art just is what the artworld considers art and so there is not even an ad hoc criteria for making that determination is a very strong claim that would need much support. It is indeed a radical idea that anything that a society considers to be art must therefore be art, and that there is no cause to ever dispute that classification. It may turn out to be true, but that contention is at least as controversial as the idea that it is the intention to produce an aesthetic experience that defines whether or not something counts as art.
A much stronger claim is that this definition is too broad. These may come in multiple forms, but it seems that there is an underlying issue behind many of them, which is the question of whether simply intending to do something – even intending to do art – can ever mean that your product just is what you intended. The definition here is quite clear that merely having the right intention – and, one presumes, making the conscious decision to say “Good enough” – is enough to make a work a work of art. But if one intends to make a minivan, and ends up with something that more closely resembles an armchair, did one actually produce a minivan? It does not seem reasonable to conclude that. So if one intended to produce a specific aesthetic experience, is that enough to allow the work to be classified as a work of art even if one failed miserably at it?
There is a somewhat popular television show called “Canada’s Worst Handyman”, and on one season they were asked to build “eco-sheds”, which essentially were a sort of outdoor clubhouse built from environmentally friendly materials. Since the people on this show were obviously not actually good in any way at doing handy work, the results did not resemble anyone’s idea of what a good eco-shed would be. But how bad would they have to be to not even be considered an eco-shed? If they are standing, is that not enough, even if no one would ever actually want to use them for that purpose? As long as they at least rise to the state of “building” and contain the critical attributes of an eco-shed, it would seem reasonable that they could still be called eco-sheds despite having exceptionally low quality. So, it seems that it is not merely a lack of quality that could make an artwork fail to be one, no simple degree of “badness” that makes this no longer art no matter what the intention. No, it seems that much more must occur to be this, and Beardsley spells this out: “… the only way one can fail to produce an artwork after setting out to produce something capable of satisfying the aesthetic interest is by failing to make the physical object one tries to make (the clay is defective or the temperature of the kiln not right, so the pot falls apart) …” [ibid, pg 62]. This also applies to our minivan and eco-shed examples. If you fail to produce even the type of object that you were trying to produce, and fail to produce an appropriate art work, then the intention does not count; you did not produce a work at all. If you intend to produce a minivan, and instead produce an armchair, you did not produce a minivan; if you intend to produce a painting and instead produce an essay, you did not produce a painting and so did not produce an artwork. This does leave the door open to argue that if one intends to produce a specific aesthetic experience and no experience even remotely like it is produced, that then if their intention is determining factor then that might count as a failure. After all, if they intended to produce a minivan and instead produced something completely different, that is clearly a failure, so why would it not also be a failure if, say, they intended to produce something dark and gloomy and instead produced something vibrant? This may fit into a gray area between a bad job and a job that does not produce the work intended at all. However, it seems clear that with some tweaks this question can be settled by this definition in a reasonable – if possibly controversial – manner, and that a reasonable distinction between “bad art” and “not art” can indeed be drawn. And that is sufficient to blunt this objection.
Another objection that this definition is too broad concerns the aesthetic. Painting someone’s walls, for example, is clearly intentional, and it seems reasonable to say that it is aimed at producing a specific experience in those who view it. By this definition, then, would that not make simple walls art? But that seems absurd; no one would ever consider them art. Therefore, this definition cannot be correct. The answer to this is to look deeper at the intentions involved. When someone paints their walls, are they really trying to produce a specific aesthetic experience as a primary intention? Perhaps not. Perhaps their main intention is to avoid producing a negative aesthetic experience in their viewers, and they are using producing a positive aesthetic experience to do it. It seems quite reasonable to suggest that the primary intention of most people who paint their walls is to avoid having people find them ugly, and they do so by making them look at least moderately pleasing. However, those who are engaging in interior design – whether they be professionals or merely motivated amateurs – do seem to have as a primary intention to produce beauty; it is not enough that it merely not be displeasing for them. Does this make what they produce art? While it may be controversial to call that sort of room design art, it does not seem controversial to call what they do artistic. And if that is the case, then their product may well be called art. At the very least, it is an open question whether or not a room produced with that intention should rightly be called art, and so here the common cases are eliminated from consideration while the cases that seem to fall into gray areas still fall into gray areas under this definition. And so this objection seems to be, at least, neatly sidestepped.
A final objection is that this definition says nothing about whether what is called art should be considered valuable. As has been seen, an artist with a good intention may produce bad art. They may fail to produce a work that produces the experience they intended, and they may be working with an intention to produce an experience that everyone – even they – do not find valuable. Thus, intention does not determine value, and so that is left out of this definition. And this is absolutely correct. One should not use this definition of art to determine if that work should hang in a gallery or be worth thousands of dollars. This just says what counts as a work of art, not whether that work is good, bad, or indifferent. For that, we need a fully fleshed out theory of what does determine the value of a work of art. And that leads to Malcolm Budd.
Since the definition of art does not itself allow for determining whether a work of art is a good or a bad work of art, another process must determine that. This process must ensure that the value of art is linked in some way to the aesthetic and preferably reflect art’s special link to the aesthetic. It would also be nice if it could support the definition of what makes something art, as even though the definition of an artwork and its value are distinct determinations, they should support each other; we should value an artwork for what it is, and what makes an artwork an artwork should be the main consideration in what makes that artwork valuable.
Malcolm Budd outlines such a theory in his paper “Artistic Value”: “My claim is that the value of a work of art as a work of art is intrinsic in the sense that it is (determined by) the intrinsic value of experience the work offers.”[Malcolm Budd, “Artistic Value”, pg 264]. So to determine the value of a work of art as a work of art, one must look at the experience the work offers. And what sort of experience does art offer intrinsically? Well, from the earlier portions of this paper, what should immediately leap to mind is an aesthetic one, and Budd seems to agree: “For you to experience a work with (full) understanding your experience must be imbued with an awareness of (all) the aesthetically relevant properties of the work – the properties that ground the artistic value and that constitute the particular forms of value the work exemplifies.” [ibid, pg 263]. So, for Budd, the experience that an artwork affords as an artwork is tightly tied to the aesthetic, and it is that experience that we are to judge the value of the work of art as a work of art by.
There are a few clarifications that need to be made. The first is that like intentions, a work may have multiple “values”, meaning that there may be multiple things that ultimately contribute to the overall value of the work itself, just as multiple intentions make up the ultimate motivation of a work. However, the value of a work of art as a work of art itself is the value of the aesthetic experience it affords. Also, again just like intentions it is the intrinsic value that determines the value of a work of art as a work of art, not the instrumental value. As Budd notes: “My claim therefore implies that the instrumental value of a work of art, its beneficial or harmful, short- or long-term effects or influence, either on a given person or on people in general – where the effects are consequences of the experience and not elements or aspects of the experience itself – is not the value of the work of art as a work of art.” [ibid, pg 264]. Someone may learn a lot from a work of art, and it may change their lives in interesting ways, but that is not what makes a work of art valuable as a work of art, even if it makes that work overall more valuable to an individual or to society. A work of art, therefore, may have an extremely low or even non-existent aesthetic or artistic value and yet still be considered very valuable as a work, and a work may have a very high artistic value but overall have less value than a work that incorporates more types of value.
Ultimately, the value of a work of art as a work of art and the value of a work of art as a work are separable. Thus, it is not a defence of the artistic value of a work to point out that that work is rightly considered to be valuable; it may well be, but that value is not necessarily reflecting the artistic value of the work. It could also incorporate a cognitive value, or a nostalgic value, or even a monetary value based on supply and demand. Ultimately, if Budd is correct, the artistic value is only one component of the value of a work of art, and judgements of the overall value of a work – even as good or bad – may contain many assessments of value. However, if one wants to judge the value of a work of art as a work of art, one must appeal to the intrinsic value of the experience, and that experience is tightly tied to the aesthetic.
So one main question is left: can anyone be wrong about the artistic value of a piece? Is there an objective or even intersubjective standard for artistic value? Budd thinks there is, and thinks that it is intersubjective. “ … it does not follow from the fact that someone judge a work to have a certain artistic value that it does so, and the fact that I judge a work to have a certain artistic value does not imply that I thereby rule out the possibility that I might be mistaken.”[ibid, pg 269]. Later, Budd comments on intersubjectivity: “… the concept of justifiability intrinsic to the concept of artistic value introduces the ideas of appropriateness and inappropriateness into our understanding of a person’s response to a work of art, and renders the value intersubjective by admitting the possibility of well-founded approval or criticism of a person’s assessment of the artistic value of a work of art.”[ibid, pg 269]. But this is a bit odd. What types of disagreements could we have? On the one hand, the person might not be getting that experience from the artwork, and might be getting a different one entirely. A critic could walk them through the work and even bring in the artist’s intentions, but if at the end of the day all of these things does not produce that experience in them, it is hard to say that that person is wrong in their assessment of the value of that artwork to them. It is not reasonable to say that experiencing or not experiencing something is somehow an error; at the end of the day, we all experience what we experience, no more and no less. One could appeal to the intended experience that the artist meant to convey to try to judge value in these cases, but this then would allow for bad artists to escape their crimes against artistic integrity by falling back on what they wanted to do, not what they actually did do. While, of course, intention is important it cannot be determinate for this reason, and so in such cases there seems to be no way to actually judge the lack of a certain experience as being any sort of error in determining the value of an artwork. And so there cannot be a well-founded criticism here beyond an attempt to increase the understanding in the person to help them have that experience.
The other difference in assessing value comes in when two people have the same experience, but value it differently. For one person, it is the greatest experience ever, and for another it leaves them cold. Presuming in this case that they are indeed having the same experience, how can one have any sort of well-founded approval or criticism of their assessment? Here, all they have is what they personally – and subjectively – value or do not value. It is quite possible for two people to, say, both get the same experience from a baseball game – long bursts of tension and anticipation followed by short bursts of action – and judge baseball as a good or bad game on the basis of whether they like tension or anticipation. If someone does not like vibrance, they will not appreciate a vibrant painting as much as someone who loves vibrance does, and so they will value it differently. Again, there is no reasonable way to adjudicate this; this is literally just personal preference. So, at the end of the day, value does seem more subjective than intersubjective. Once one either establishes that both parties have had the same experience or that they never will, there is no more to say on the matter – and no real way to be mistaken, either.
So, with definition and theory of value established for art, it is time to address the elephant in the room that challenges both the definition of art and the theory of artistic value: conceptual or non-perceptual art. What do we make of art like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, or John Cage’s 4’33? They are, at least currently, considered to be works of art, and even among the most interesting and valuable works in existence. However, it also seems clear that there is limited – if any – intention to produce an aesthetic experience and even if such were present in most cases the actual aesthetic value of the experience they present seems to be quite limited. By the definition and theory of value presented here, then, they would at least be considered to have little value as works of art, and might not even count as works of art. How, then, to settle the controversy over whether these examples of “art” really do count as art?
James Shelley outlines what he thinks are the three main propositions that drive this controversy and three solutions to them. The three propositions are: R – Artworks necessarily have aesthetic properties that are relevant to their appreciation as artworks, S – Aesthetic properties necessarily depend, at least in part, on properties perceived by means of the five senses, and X – There exist artworks that need not be perceived by means of the five senses to be appreciated as artworks. [James Shelley, “The Problem of Non-Perceptual Art”, pg 364]. Shelley outlines three possible ways out: one can affirm R and S and deny X, one can affirm S and X and deny R, and one can affirm R and X and deny S [ibid, pg 364-365]. So, by the first solution, you can agree that art necessarily contains aesthetic properties and that those properties, and then deny that there are any artworks that are non-perceptual; if they depend entirely on non-perceptual properties, they are not art. Shelley points out that advocates for this position include, importantly for our purposes, Monroe Beardsley. The second solution involves denying that art necessarily contains aesthetic properties. The third, which is the one Shelley advocates, accepts that art has aesthetic properties necessarily and yet that there may be art that does not need to be perceived by the five senses, by opening up the definition of aesthetic to include things not so directly dependent on the five senses [ibid, pg 365].
Note that in theory, if we are to follow along with Beardsley, it would seem that our definition and theory of value would force us to advocate the first solution. This is not true. While the definition clearly rejects the second solution – if art is not aesthetic it is not art – it is important to note that all that the previous argumentation has done is establish that art must be aesthetic; it has in no way established what it actually means to be aesthetic. Thus, here these definitions are compatible with both the first and the third solutions, depending on what the definition of the aesthetic turns out to be. Beardsley and Shelley are certainly disagreeing over what the aesthetic means, but they are not disagreeing in a way that impacts the definition; both seem to at least implicitly agree that the aesthetic is important to the definition of art. If Beardsley is right about what it means to be aesthetic, then non-perceptual art will simply not be art, but if Shelley is right and the definition of aesthetic is expanded, then it may well count as art.
This also addresses the underlying complaint: conceptual art seems to provide counter-examples to the aesthetic definition of art. “Since the era of Duchamp’s Fountain, avant-garde artworks have developed to the point of once again challenging the aesthetic theory of art. Counterexamples such as Test Site highlight that more work needs to be done to the non-perceptual aesthetic properties theory in order to preserve the aesthetic theory of art.”[Angharad Shaw, “Can Aesthetic Theories of Art Be Rescued From the Problem of Avant-Garde and Other Non-Peceptual Artworks?”, pg 37]. Here, Shaw introduces a new work of art – Test Site – which seems to challenge even the broader view of the aesthetic that Shelley relies on. The answer here, though, is that if art really is defined by its link to the aesthetic and we cannot extend the definition of the aesthetic to cover avant-garde artwork, these things just are not art. Shaw does not like this answer because “ … it avoids the issue and the need to explain why many people call avant-garde works ‘art’.”[ibid, pg 29]. There are two issues with this dismissal. The first is that Shaw also is required to explain why many people do not consider avant-garde works art, and why there is such a heated debate over whether these things really are art that continues to this day. The second is that the definitions provided here can indeed explain that: those people are conflating another intention or value that art commonly contains with the definitional and value-determining properties that it holds as art. In short, they are just mistaken.
And one way they may be mistaken comes to the fore in cases where those other intentions or valuable properties are in fact critically tied to being in an art context. Fountain, Brillo Box, and 4′ 33 all get their conceptual power from being in an artistic context, from being in art galleries or perform in musical amphitheatres. Fountain is not striking as a commentary on art if it is not displayed in an art gallery. Neither is 4’33 of any interest at all conceptually unless performed in the musical context. But this dependence on a certain context does not, in and of itself, make them art, unless one holds that all art galleries do is display art. However, it seems too limiting to insist that art galleries must only display art. It is a little difficult to display critical essays on art and art history in an art gallery, but there is good reason to think that the history of art and even criticism of art is indeed something that an art gallery has an interest in imparting to its visitors. To the extent that Fountain, Brillo Box, and 4’33 are conceptual commentaries on art or are attempts to express conceptual ideas through the context of art, then they clearly have a place in art galleries and concert halls even if they do not actually count as art. And if they do not have any such conceptual properties and contain no aesthetic intentions and properties, then one must wonder why anyone could call them art, or even valuable.
Shelley’s distinctions, as has been demonstrated, are not as directly relevant as one might think. However, they do still highlight the available options. Recall the underlying presumption of this paper, which is that what makes art art is a special link to the aesthetic. When faced with purported counter-examples, there are three options: 1) Reject the counter-example as not being aesthetic and therefore not being art, 2) Dismiss the idea that what makes art art is a relation to the aesthetic, or 3) Expand the definition of aesthetic to allow for the counter-example to be called aesthetic.
Shelley’s second solution is clearly a solution of the form of 2). And it has issues. The main issue is that if you reject the link to the aesthetic, it becomes quite difficult to see what could possibly count as a definition of art. If it is not a link to the aesthetic, then what properties could we find in common between a simple landscape and Fountain? What makes them both art? Expand the definition too broadly, and everything is art. Expand it too narrowly, and this solution will face the same issues that forced the move to this definition from the aesthetic definition in the first place. And denying that there is any sort of definition is massively problematic, because we really do think there is a way to determine what is or is not art. Additionally, it would have to explain the initial gut reactions by many that these new art pieces/forms do not count as art. It is easy to argue that these gut reactions are based on a rejection due to the lack of the aesthetic, and that later people may be convinced of the – incorrect, under the 1) model – view that these really do count. It is not so easy to go the other way. Unfamiliarity with that sort of art might be one tack, but then one can ask if the properties that art audiences are unfamiliar with are, in fact, unfamiliar to art patrons because they are not properties of art. Ultimately, this is a difficult question for the second solution to answer, but it must do so if it purports to define what it means to be art.
But 3) – or Shelley’s third solution, the one he favours – has issues as well. And, in fact, the same sorts of issues. What reason do we have for thinking that things like wit or daring are, in fact, aesthetic, except for the fact that they appear in things that we call art? On what basis do we expand the definition of aesthetic to include them? To include concepts? How do we include the conceptual in the aesthetic while keeping philosophical treatises out of the aesthetic, and therefore out of art? And if we do not, then where could we possibly stop? Would the aesthetic not then grow to encompass absolutely everything we do, making it a meaningless term? Expanding the term aesthetic just for the sake of including things that some people think are art is not a good idea unless they are actually correct about those things being art.
Additionally, understanding that a work may have different intentions and different valuable properties allows us to sidestep these issues and explain the confusion. It may well be the case that most if not all of the most valuable works of art include more than simple aesthetic properties. They may include conceptual and emotional properties, and may include some of the non-perceptual properties that Shelley identifies. And this may indeed contribute greatly to their value as works of art. But that does not mean that they contribute to their value as works of art. So people may indeed conflate the different sorts of value and the different intentions and attempt to argue that if it has any of those intentions or valuable properties then it must count as art. But this would indeed expand art to a global, all-encompassing and therefore meaningless term and force us to reject the idea that what makes art art is critically associated with a link to the aesthetic. The fear that rejecting them as art would reduce their value is misguided if they are not getting their value from the things that denote artistic value in the first place.
Ultimately, this all comes down to the proposition that art is defined by a necessary and special link to the aesthetic. If this holds – and it seems to – then a definition like Beardsley’s seems to follow, and a theory of the value of art like Budd’s seems to follow as well. By this, then, a work of art that has absolutely no aesthetic properties and is purely conceptual is not art. Fountain seems to fit that bill, and so should not be considered art. 4’33 also seems to fit, and so should also not be considered art. Brillo Box is a gray area; if one of Warhol’s intentions was to bring the aesthetic of the box artwork out in the open, it would fit under the definition of art defended here. But even if none of these count as art, that does not affect their value, nor does it mean that they should be removed from art galleries or an art context. If nothing else, they are about art, even if they are not art themselves, and so maintain their place in the art community. But we should not allow them to impact what we think of as art and especially what we think of as the aesthetic. As long as we are unwilling to abandon the idea that art is necessarily aesthetic, conceptual and non-perceptual art should be rightly seen as things that are at best on the fringes of art, and usually as being outside of art completely. And there is no good reason to abandon that idea.
Beardsley, Monroe C. An Aesthetic Definition of Art. in Curler, Hugh (ed). What is Art? New York: Haven Publications, 1983.
Budd, Malcolm. Artistic Value. in Budd, Malcolm. in Values of Art (shortened version of Chapter 1). London: Penguin, 1995.
Lopes, Dominic McIver. Nobody Needs a Theory of Art. The Journal of Philosophy, CV(3), 109-127.
Shaw, Angharad. Can Aesthetic Theories of Art Be Rescued from the Problem of Avant-Garde and Other Non-Perceptual Artworks? Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics, 4(1), 28-38.
Shelley, James. The Problem of Non-Perceptual Art. British Journal of Aesthetics, 43(4), 363-378.