December 2004

Editors' Note on "Why We Need a Definition of Art"

In the first incarnation of Aristos, we occasionally reprinted essays and articles we had read elsewhere that gave new voice to our concerns regarding the state of the arts in contemporary culture. Kenneth M. Lansing's "Why We Need a Definition of Art"--originally published by the National Art Education Association--is, fittingly, the first such essay to be offered in the online version of Aristos. Also offered here is a newly published addendum to that essay, and an open letter by Lansing to his fellow art teachers.

A retired professor of art and education, Lansing speaks from long experience in instructing future teachers of the visual arts in our public and private schools, and in museums. His bold admonition that "art can and must be defined if we are to make any sense out of what we do" is therefore aimed at his professional colleagues, as well as at teachers in the classroom and museum educators. Although the definition he offers pertains to visual art, much of what he says applies equally to the wider concept of art (encompassing not only painting and sculpture but also fiction, drama, poetry, music, and dance) and thus has relevance for both the philosophy of art and arts criticism.

That Lansing's clarion call to define art has been virtually ignored by his colleagues since he first sounded it more than thirty years ago in his book Art, Artists, and Art Education, is not surprising. As he himself suggests, it is symptomatic of the general decline in academic and scholarly standards, not to mention those in the art world. As we noted in What Art Is, the virtue of defining one's terms, formerly a commonplace of intellectual discourse, had gone out of fashion by the middle of the twentieth century. By the late 1960s, when Lansing's book was published, art scholars, critics, and would-be artists were under the sway of postmodernism--the fundamental premise of which is that virtually anything is art if the artworld declares it to be so.

However we might differ with aspects of Lansing's discussion, he deserves great credit for his impassioned insistence on the need to define art, and for his boldly candid remarks on the general state of art education. In reprinting his essay and further comments, we hope to bring his perspective the broad attention it merits, and to stimulate discussion of the crucial issues he raises. We invite responses from readers, especially those directly involved in art education.

"Why We Need a Definition of Art" // Addendum // An Open Letter to Colleagues // Further Reading