An Essay on the Definition of Art

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

An Essay on the Definition of Art

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Scott Miller wrote:

The question this brings up for me is, "Do you have a system for figuring out what is or is not good art?" When you say that they [the modernists] are creating art that "just isn't very good," then you are calling their creations art (apparently just a lower form of it). So what do you see as good art? What puts one artist above the line and one artist below?

As is the case in the evaluation of any complex product of human design the reasons why one might evaluate something as good or bad is more than a simple measurement of a single thing (like size, temperature, or time), but a sum of a number of evaluations that aren't just to be summed up in a word or a number. That said, these works are so awful that it's not hard to see why they are bad. Before we get to the particulars of what I am talking about in these particular cases it is important to understand the context in which I make such judgments. I mentioned an FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] I am writing in my last email and I do have a draft of my answer to these question in there, so I'll give you a crack at them below. Let me know what you think ...

What is Art?

A common way of describing a definition is to delimit its genus (the general class of things to which it belongs) and differentia (how this particular class of things differs from the others of its genus). The genus of art is "works of expression". This includes a broad variety of expressive things such as journalism, ordinary speech, temper tantrums, clothing styles, technical manuals, and of course art. The identifying characteristic of expressive works (of all kinds, not just art) is that they convey information by the intentional manipulation of a medium (as opposed to the way we discover information by just observing things directly).

Art comes in several types, most commonly distinguished by the medium in which the artist does his work. Visual images on a surface can be created by painting or drawing. Sculpture is art created by the manipulation of three dimensional shapes in some medium like marble, bronze, glass, clay, or plastic. Music is art created by the manipulation of sound, generating patterns of things like rhythm, melody, harmony, and instrumentation. Literature (including poetry) is art created through the manipulation of words. They all have in common the manipulation of a medium in an artistic way in order to create works that express some idea.

How does art differ from these other kinds of expression? In other words, what is it that painting, sculpture, music, literature, and poetry have in common which is not in common with other kinds of expression? The difference between these classes has to do with the method of expression (as opposed to the content of the expression). Specifically, the way that art accomplishes its expression is through the manipulation of a medium as a selective recreation of some aspect of reality. That is to say that the artist "fictionalizes" reality in order to highlight some idea he thinks is important, and to diminish ones he considers irrelevant to his intended message. The artist's message is paramount in this selection rather than a slavish devotion to describing the concrete state of affairs. This doesn't mean that an artist must not or should not present his subject through use of a highly realistic style (though of course he can do that if he wishes). The artist selects patterns of design or style according to the intended meaning and if he's a good one, based on an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his medium. There are millions of possible styles and compositions that work and millions more possible subjects, subtleties of meaning, and trillions of possible combinations of these, let alone the vast numbers of possible combinations of technique and detail. Despite this vast scope of possible subject, designs, compositions, and styles, the number of possibilities is not infinite. Some things do not fit this definition, and not all accomplish a given goal as well as others.

What Makes Good Art Good and Bad Art Bad?

This is an important question but it is one that requires a bit more general context to answer adequately, and that is the answer to the question "What makes anything good?". My answer is that you can only say that something is good in the context of a purpose that it facilitates or inhibits. For example, you can only say that a hammer, a chair, or a bucket is "good" by reference to the purpose of the thing, in these cases, namely, to pound things, to provide a platform to sit on, or to hold some substance. To understand how the thing is effective at accomplishing the goal it is necessary to understand the features of the thing that make it more or less effective at being that kind of thing. Hammers need to be suited to the size of the person using it and the things being hammered, a heavy head, a strong handle, etc. A good chair needs to be the right size, of sturdy construction, have a comfortable seat, and so on. A good bucket will be free of holes, be easy to carry around, be of sturdy materials, etc. These are appropriate standards because they are the qualities that result in the achievement of the intended goals of the kind of thing it is. We should judge each kind of thing on the basis of its own natural purpose. What I mean by that is that we should not judge chairs on the basis of how well they carry water, hammers on the basis of how comfortable they are to sit on, or buckets based on how well they pound nails into wood. This is not to say that you can't sit on a hammer or pound a nail with a bucket, but that these are not the proper criteria on which to base an evaluation as to whether they are good things of their kind.

Now let's see what this tells us about the visual arts. What is the purpose of art? Some would say that the purpose of art is "anything", "nothing", or "impossible to define", but that's as foolish as claiming that chairs, hammers, or buckets can be used for anything or that they are impossible to define. Art exists in order to express ideas, and it does this through a specific means (means different from those used in journalism, temper tantrums, or exposition) which is to selectively recreate some aspect of reality in order to represent the idea. Some might call this "fictionalizing" or "stylizing". This means that good art (which would include any art whether painting, drawing, sculpture, literature, music, drama or what have you) is any art which is very effective at expressing its idea and accomplishes that expression through the means peculiar to art (but not if it happens some other way, like with a press release). If the expression is weak, vague, unclear, or prone to misinterpretation then it is not an effective means to the goal of expression.

Scoping down a bit to the particulars of drawing and painting, there are thousands of visual, design, and implementation tools that an artist can bring to the task of expressing himself through drawing and painting, and I can't get into each one in depth since that would require a number of books full of analysis to even describe briefly. To generalize, a good painting or drawing has a good compositional design that helps direct the attention of the viewer in ways that advance his expressive purpose. It has the lines, colors, and patterns which were intended by the artist (as opposed to being hampered by the presence of random factors which inhibit the expression), the subject matter should be interesting visually, emotionally, and intellectually in order to catch and hold the attention of the viewer since one can't express anything to someone who is repelled or disinterested. It may use a host of optional techniques to advance its expressive purpose such as illusion, storytelling, familiar objects, selective focus (making more important elements sharper and less important ones more muddled), they might call upon mythic symbolism, effective manipulation of the surface (for example making it smooth, bumpy, catching the light in certain ways, etc.), excellence in reproducing realistic portrayals of things to induce suspension of disbelief, repetition, the generation of sensory pleasure or discontent through colors and patterns (for example, some shapes and patterns are pleasant, some are fuzzy or obscure, and others are unpleasant or upsetting), and any number of other tools which an artist can call upon to generate his desired effect. This isn't some kind of cookie cutter recipe, but like in the case of cookies, although there's no universal recipe, there are a lot of different ones that are known to work. There are more good ones yet to be discovered and some (like chocolate chip) that work and others (like cookies made of rocks or rat poison) that clearly don't.

"But it is impossible to make objective judgments! You are just arrogantly asserting your opinions as fact, aren't you?"

That's more an accusation than a question, but it's one of the more common ones I encounter.

The whole nature of evaluating the goodness or badness of any thing or situation relates to how that thing relates to some purpose or goal. Is a rain storm good or bad? Well, that depends on whether you are a farmer hoping for a drought to break or a backpacker hoping to keep his sleeping bag dry. The goodness or badness isn't somehow an intrinsic property of the thing itself (as if there's drop of goodness or evil somewhere inside the thing), but rather how the properties of the thing relate to some contextual goal against which it is being judged. It is important to note that this is not in any way the same thing as a relativist view of the good. The fact that something impedes or promotes a goal is a matter of objective fact which can be studied and evaluated and there are right and wrong answers to the question. It's not just a matter of subjective opinion, it's a matter of objective fact.

When it comes to man-made objects there are some special considerations that become relevant which make no sense when it comes to natural phenomena. You can't ask a question about the nature of a natural object with regard to their purpose or "goal orientation". A stone is hard not because it seeks to serve some purpose but because that's just how stones are. The moon is grey because of the nature of the materials that make it up, not in order to achieve some goal. By contrast, you can ask such questions about man-made objects and situations. The head of a hammer is hard because it increases the impact of the head when it hits something. A wheel is round so that it will roll smoothly. Most manmade things are created as they are in order to achieve some goal, and to evaluate such things the proper way to do it is by measuring it against that goal. To use Aristotle's example, the reason we have knives is for cutting things. To that end we say that knives are good knives if they facilitate cutting better than others. A strong and sharp blade, a comfortable handle, and so on are key features of a good knife. In some cases a knife might have a special purpose such as cutting fruit, meat, metal, or in fighting with people, and in those cases additional properties might be good criteria for judging the goodness of a knife such as its size (not too big or small for the thing that is intended to be cut), creating a jagged cut or a smooth one (jagged perhaps being better for fighting since it would be more painful but worse for fruit). The point here is that depending on the purpose one intends for some man-made object, different properties might be good or bad even though you can still make generalizations about that class of objects.

Now let's consider how this applies to art. In general the purpose of art is to express ideas, and in particular it is the expression of ideas by the means of selective recreation of aspects of reality (as opposed to other means of expression of ideas like journalism, exposition, lecturing, screaming, etc.). Given that general goal, there are some things you can say about any of the arts (those being drawing/painting, sculpture, music, literature, drama, etc.) with regard to what makes for good art.

One is a set of issues related to the circumstances of its creation. For example, if the artist has excellent control over his medium (you could call it "craftsmanship") his ideas are effectively transferred to the medium. Weak craftsmanship means that the effectiveness of the expression will be undermined.

Another is cultural context, which is how the work relates to the cultural context of the audience. What I mean by this is that a poem written in Chinese is going to be meaningless to most Americans so if you hope to express something to them it would be best to write your poem in English. The same goes for traditional matters of the medium. We should not pretend that the audience has never seen a painting, sculpture, novel, or string quartet before. We should make accurate assumptions about audience understanding and experience in making art for them if our art is to be of maximum efficacy.

Another is sensory accessibility, which has to do with the ability of the audience of the work to apprehend it effectively. A painting too large or too small to see, a symphony too quiet to hear, or a sculpture in a room too dark to see or feel would be ineffective in expressing their artistic ideas.

Another is comprehensibility, which is the property of the work that allows the audience to comprehend the intended expression. A work of art whose comprehension depends on esoteric knowledge (like what the artist had for breakfast for example) can't very effectively express anything to anyone but him. There's nothing inherently wrong with this as long as the artist and his promoters remember who the art is for. A work intended for the comprehension of a single person doesn't belong in a museum. A work exclusively intended for the comprehension of Masai warriors belongs where those people can see it, not in some American museum. It isn't accomplishing its artistic goal anywhere else.

Another general category has to do with pure sensory factors regarding the pleasure or discomfort of experiencing the work. Pleasant colors, somber hues, harmonious sounds, discordant notes, beautiful sculptural materials, and so on can on a very general level imply something about the work that may or may not be compatible with the meaning that is being expressed.

There's also another general issue of "design unity" which allows a work to hang together with a coherent meaning rather than having divergent styles, distractions, and inconsistent meanings. I am sure that you can think of more principles of this general kind.

As we consider specific arts by themselves such as painting, there are several general kinds of issues which lend power to the expression or detract from it. For example, the effective use of composition to highlight important aspects of the work and minimize unimportant ones (and influence the order in which the work is experienced) is a key tool of the artist. Another is the choice of subject as appropriate to the idea being expressed. Another is the effectiveness of the use of color in setting moods, bringing attention to aspects of the painting, and diminishing attention on unimportant parts. Another is the use of illusion to create a sense of reality or unreality of a scene, there are a lot of ways of doing this. There are others specific to painting, but I think you get the idea, and I'm sure you can come up with more yourself for the other arts.

Lastly, we can consider the effectiveness of various properties of a painting with a specific subject in mind and ask whether in a particular case the design, composition, color, brushwork, craftsmanship, selection of subject, etc. effectively accomplish the expressive goal of the work or not. It is hard to make firm generalizations about this because there are so many options to pick from, but on its own terms you can judge how effectively a work pursues its own particular expressive goals using its own particular combination of artistic tools.

This is not just a matter of how you feel about the work or whether you like it (though such emotional reactions are an important indication of if and how an artist is using his medium to express things to you). You need to determine what the expressive goal is (which ideally should be easily determinable by looking at it rather than having to reading a biography of the artist or even the little plaque next to the painting) and then judge how the tools of the medium are used to pursue that goal. Again, this is not a matter of emotional preference, nor arbitrary preference, nor conformance to some kind of formal set of rules, it is a matter of judging the effectiveness of the work through an analysis of how the artistic tools are used. The tools themselves have properties, and therefore there are right and wrong ways to use them and formal methods much of the time provide useful formulas for using them with maximal effectiveness, but that's not anything like claiming that there's some kind of static formula by which an artist can use a cookie cutter to pound out works by just applying a recipe without thinking and judging the consequences. It is also different from the idea that creativity is a matter of ignoring and eliminating considerations regarding the properties of the conceptual and physical tools that create art, the nature of art, the medium in which the art is expressed, and the audience's needs and abilities. Real creativity consists of discovering effective ways of using these tools and the nature of the work in order to achieve the most effective kind of expression.

Alas, the 20th century art world was ruled by people teaching that there are no right and wrong ways to create art, that no art is better or worse than any other, that creativity means ignoring the properties of the medium and the audience and pretending that they either don't exist or can be anything, and that novelty is itself the important goal of art, not the actual artistic expression of ideas. This whole line of thinking is nonsense, and fortunately, the world seems to be slowly turning away from that view. As that trend continues I think we can expect great things to come.

There's one more kind of criteria on which art ought to be judged and that is the nature of the message itself. Some works of art express ideas which are true and others are false. Some promote views which are good and others which are evil. Some tend to enlighten the viewer and others tend to degrade his character or his mind. This evaluation is different from the issue of pure artistic quality, but it is not an irrelevant question, and it is one that generally gets too little attention these days as nihilists seek to eliminate all such evaluations from life. For example, there's something wrong with an otherwise excellent painting that promotes the idea that ignorance is bliss that isn't wrong with an equally excellent painting that promotes the idea that ignorance is a cage.

Brian wrote earlier:

I don't deny that some of these have had some historical significance, but that doesn't mean that they were good or even art. Adolph Hitler was a significant historical figure, but that doesn't mean he was a great statesman.

And Scott responded:

I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but I think Adolph Hitler was a brilliant statesman. He pulled an enormous amount of people into his plan and then got them to stay and do his work. He knew how to deliver information to the masses (much like the artists on your "good art" pages). Let's not deal with the moral issues surrounding him. That has nothing to do with him being good at what he did. Art can be good, regardless of the subject matter.

I think you missed my point. Perhaps Neville Chamberlain would have a better example. He screwed up big time and was therefore of historical significance, but that doesn't mean he was good. There's a difference between being historically significant and being good at your job. For what it's worth, Hitler came to power and killed millions of people, brought untold misery to the world, and reduced his country to a smoking pile of rubble. That's not what I call a great leader, but I wouldn't say that he was not of historical significance.

Regarding the potential of art of various subject matter being good, I certainly agree, and I even have a page on my site of Nazi and Soviet art that is ironically on the same historical line as this analogy too. Some of the Nazi art I show there is actually excellent in a number of respects ... it is well executed, it clearly and powerfully expresses the ideas that they were trying to express, and it was also art in the service of evil, but that doesn't mean that it was bad art. On the other hand, there are also some very poor works exhibited there too. While the ultimate value of the content of the work is a valid basis of evaluation, usually I am talking about bad art purely in the sense of its expressive powers rather than the value of the message expressed or the direct subject.

Brian wrote:

If I try really hard to build an airplane and truly sincerely want to build one does that mean that an airplane is what I will end up with? Will that guarantee that the result will fly? What if I say that I am trying to build an airplane and build a mud pit instead? Can you take my claim of sincerity seriously or call the result of my work an airplane?

And Scott replied:

This thought is interesting. I have to agree with your idea, but I'm looking at this a bit differently.

Is the goal for us to fly or to try to fly? Is seems to me that many of the well-received artists of the past were at the edge of their field. They were trying to find new ways of doing things, not being comfortable with the status quo.

That's fine, I am not opposed at all to change or attempts to come up with new and better ways of doing things, but the modernists were up to something entirely different. They worshipped novelty per se. They would say that if something is new and different then it MUST for that very reason be a good thing regardless whether its expressive power increased or not by the new thing whatever it is. To carry this airplane analogy a little further, if someone invented a helicopter that would be something new and a valuable discovery, but that's not what these 20th century modernists were up to. They weren't developing new and better things, they were creating new and worthless things and claiming that their novelty per se made them great. I very much disagree, especially today when even their silly antics don't even have the virtue of being new anymore.

Scott wrote:

You say they would create a mud pit instead of the airplane you were expecting. I say they were never trying to build a airplane at all. They were looking past the plane to new methods of dealing with the same problem, which is the expression of ideas.

Tell me, what idea does a Rothko painting express? Perhaps you could say it said something degenerate like "Look, I can get people to buy even something contentless like this!" or "This paint is red." or whatever, but who cares? He didn't create a great new way of expressing ideas, he just got away without expressing any and that's a completely different thing.

Scott wrote:

Can I make an airplane with no wings and no source of power and make it out of lead?" is that a brilliant question?

Not particularly. It would be interesting if someone could actually do it, but since they can't it calls into complete irrelevancy.

Scott wrote:

I think that artists like Pollack and Christo are successful because they got that lead plane to fly. That's what makes them special. They did something we could never do.

Actually, it's just the opposite, I scoff at these stunts because I COULD do them with no thinking and no talent. I would consider such a stunt a waste of time and therefore wouldn't do it, but I could come up with a hundred such stupid ideas every day. They don't express anything other than the arrogance and vacuity of the "artist".

Scott wrote:

Let's not count them out just because we didn't think of it first.

I don't count them out because of jealousy. I count them out because they offer nothing of value to me.

-- Brian