April 2017

A Cognitive Theory that Challenges
Institutional Definitions of Art

by Michelle Marder Kamhi and Emmanuel Antwi

Thanks to "institutional" definitions, virtually anything can qualify as "art" in today's artworld---to the dismay of many art lovers. The cognitive theory outlined in this paper fundamentally challenges "institutional" assumptions that art is unboundedly open-ended. First formulated by the controversial novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand in the 1960s, the theory has been largely neglected by academic philosophers but was recently recommended on a curriculum diversification reading list published by the American Society for Aesthetics. Adumbrated by both Immanuel Kant and Alexander Baumgarten, the theory offers a view of "fine art" that is compatible with functional distinctions observable in non-European cultures such as those of pre-colonial Africa.

This paper was submitted to the American Society for Aesthetics in consideration for its 2017 Eastern Division meeting in Philadelphia. The only reason given for its rejection was: "We received a remarkable number of submissions this year, and we had to make some truly difficult decisions."


Ideas have consequences. And the consequences of institutional definitions of art are writ large in today's artworld. Virtually anything can now qualify as "art." As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has put it, "If an artist says it's art, it's art."(1) But who qualifies as an artist?

Brillo Boxes width=

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964.

Artists were originally defined as people who make art.(2) And prior to the twentieth century, there was a fairly broad consensus about what qualified as art. Now art is anything made by an artist. Institutional theories offer no standard. For Arthur Danto, an "artist" was anyone whose work was subsumed by the artworld. His seminal 1964 essay "The Artworld" was astonishingly inspired by Andy Warhol's nondescript Brillo Boxes.(3) As he observed, they were "indiscernible" from ordinary supermarket cartons; but they had been exhibited in a New York gallery.

A decade later, Danto frankly acknowledged that his institutional theory was based on "the eviscerated work the artworld now enfranchises."(4) Nonetheless, one eminent aesthetician has claimed that Danto's theory is "arguably the most powerful philosophy of art to be produced in the second half of the twentieth century."(5)

What Danto's theory does not explain, however, is why anyone should accept as "art" everything put forward as such within the artworld. Nor, and more important, does it explain why traditional art such as Giorgione's Tempest or work by the Dutch Masters affected him far more deeply than Warhol's Brillo Boxes--as he once confided in a reply to his critics.(6)

A decade ago, Denis Dutton suggested that too many art theories have focused on accommodating "hard cases" such as Warhol's banalities.(7) We agree. The sounder approach, we hold, is first, to analyze the commonly recognized attributes shared by paradigmatic traditional works of art. And next, to explore why avant-gardists departed from those broad norms, what they were aiming for, and whether they succeeded. Finally, if their inventions have not filled the central cultural role traditionally played by art, we ask, why call them "art"?

The little-known cognitive theory of art we present here in very condensed form was based on such an approach. Largely ignored by academic aestheticians until now, it was recently recommended on an ASA-sponsored reading list.(8) As it happens, its basic principles were formulated by the controversial novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) at nearly the same time as Danto's institutional theory. Unlike that theory, it does explain the peculiar emotional power of traditional art. Further, as we will argue, it has universal relevance. It is as applicable to African culture, both tribal and modern, for example, as it is to acknowledged pre-modernist masterpieces of Western art. Moreover, it fundamentally challenges the validity of institutional theories of art that treat virtually anything as "art." For simplicity, we limit our scope here to the visual arts, though the theory in question is applicable (with modifications dependent on the media) to all the mimetic arts.

The Theory

To begin with, Rand's theory treats as significant the Western distinction between the canonical "fine art" forms (in the visual arts, chiefly painting and sculpture) and the "decorative arts." Far from being an arbitrary invention of 18th-century European culture as Larry Shiner has prominently claimed,(9) the distinction reflects an important functional difference. Moreover, that functional difference is evident in other times and places even when it is not verbally denoted.(10)

Simply stated, the difference is this: Objects of "fine art" serve an exclusively psychological or "spiritual" function, whereas the primary purpose of objects of "decorative art" is practical and physical. Note that we say primary, since such objects--especially those containing figurative or symbolic representations--can also convey meaning. In Rand's view, the psychological function of the major arts traditionally classified as "fine art" (a term she does not use, by the way) is to embody--in readily intelligible and emotionally compelling form--ideas and values of existential import.(11)

As it happens, such a view was adumbrated by Immanuel Kant's concept of "aesthetical Ideas" in the sections of his Critique of Judgement dealing with the fine arts. Contrary to accounts that paint him as a mere formalist, Kant unequivocally related art to the realm of concepts. As he put it, works of art are "representation[s] of the Imagination," which "creat[e] another nature . . . out of the material that actual nature [that is, reality] gives it." Such imaginative representations seek to be "a presentation of concepts," giving them "the appearance of objective reality." As he further explained, "[an] aesthetical Idea is a representation of the Imagination associated with a given concept."(12)

A similarly mimetic and cognitive view had earlier been proposed by philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, who coined the term aesthetics to designate what he considered a new branch of philosophy. Basing his term on the Greek word aisthetikos--meaning "perceptible to the senses"--Baumgarten defined the new field as "the science of perception."(13) More specifically, it pertained to what he termed "sensuous cognition"--that is, knowledge conveyed perceptually through the arts. Thus Baumgarten understood the arts' primary concern to be with conveying meaning--not beauty per se, which became the regrettably skewed focus of most later theories.(14)

Like many writers, in both the East and the West, Baumgarten compared the art of poetry to that of painting. He even quoted the Roman poet Horace's famous phrase ut pictura poesis, meaning "as is painting, so is poetry."(15) Like Horace, Baumgarten recognized that poetry, much like painting, conjures up concrete, vivid images of things and qualities that arouse the emotions. Painting employs visual imagery directly, while poetry uses language to evoke mental images. Baumgarten also understood that emotions, or "affects," play a crucial role in the arts--a key point not touched on by Kant. "A poem which arouses affects," Baumgartgen stated, "is more perfect than one which is full of dead imagery."(16)

As Rand succinctly put it,

Art brings man's concepts [about things of human importance] to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.(17)

Perception of the values implied by a work's imagery in turn elicits an emotional response in the viewer.

Rand, by the way, was entirely unaware that Baumgarten and Kant had tended toward a similar view. But her clearer understanding of how the mind works helps to explain why the "sensuous cognition" Baumgarten referred to can move us so deeply. As neuroscience has shown, emotions are neurally linked to sensory perceptual experience, whereas ideas and values are purely mental abstractions from that experience.(18) Without external embodiment, Rand held, such abstractions remain vaguely unreal, detached from our emotional life. Through the arts' perceptual immediacy, we reintegrate our thoughts and feelings about things that matter most to us, and are thus made more fully conscious of them.(19) As art historian and critic John Canaday aptly stated, works of art are "the tangible expression of the intangible values that men live by."(20) To quote philosopher Ernst Cassirer, "Aesthetics bridges [the] chasm" between vital abstractions and actual particulars.(21)

What are we then to make of "abstract art"? First, we should ask, Why did its inventors abandon imagery? As is well known, they were reacting against the materialism of late-nineteenth-century European culture, which they earnestly desired to transcend. But philosophers have paid too little attention to the inevitable futility of their project, which was based on a naively dualistic metaphysics, completely at odds with human physiology and psychology.(22) At root, the pioneers of "abstract art" believed that the three-dimensional world of material objects is in eternal combat with the spiritual realm. By eliminating all reference to the material world in their art, they aimed to express pure "spirit" and thereby to promote a new era of humanity in which spirituality would obliterate the "base" materiality of the body.

Yet they constantly feared that without imagery their work would be dismissed as merely decorative, rather than deeply meaningful.(23) As indeed it largely was. In defense, they insisted that grasping the meaning of their work required a "higher" form of human consciousness as yet possessed only by artists like themselves, who were purportedly leading the way for the rest of humanity.(24)

As elucidated by the eminent neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, however, human consciousness is fundamentally dependent on sensory contact with the physical world.(25) Moreover, on the sensory level, it occurs in terms of automatically integrated percepts that are charged with vital import. They constitute the neural basis of mental "value systems." Abstract properties such as outline and color, Edelman explains, are normally experienced as attributes of entities in an existential context, not as isolated qualia.(26) It is therefore not surprising that abstract work such as Mondrian's rectilinear patterns--though conceived by him as representing a "higher" reality--have instead been perceived as mere patterns, applied to banal decorative contexts such as fashion design and modernist bathrooms.

Contrary to standard imitation theories, we should emphasize, Rand does not regard mimesis per se as the goal of art, but rather as the indispensable means by which art performs its function. Nor is the cognitive function of artistic imagery simply to convey knowledge in her view. It is instead to bring one's values and view of life more vividly to mind, through the skilled and highly selective representation of significant aspects of reality.

What, then, of postmodernist inventions--from "installation" and "performance" to "conceptual" art--which often employ imagery as well as actual objects? There, too, it is important to examine the stated aims of the inventors. As has been documented at length elsewhere, those unprecedented new genres all began as explicitly anti-art gestures, intended only to subvert and displace both traditional and abstract art, not to improve upon it.(27) With good reason, the art historian and critic Thomas McEvilley characterized the ascendancy of such work in today's artworld as "the triumph of anti-art."(28) Logically speaking, however, anti-art is not art.

Application to African Art

A major reason for rejecting the concept of "fine art" has been the mistaken claim that it is inapplicable to "primitive" art.(29) That claim is based on two misconceptions, however. First, it is due, in part, to mistaking the proper function of fine art in Western culture--an error that we hold is corrected by Rand's theory. Second, it stems from misconceptions regarding the arts of traditional tribal cultures such as those of pre-colonial Africa--misconceptions that no doubt arose, at least in part, because European interest in African tribal art coincided with the modernist movement. In that context, Western artists were more concerned with exploiting "primitive" art for their own expressive and abstract formal ends than with understanding how it functioned in its original context.(30)

Later scholars--from Margaret Trowell and A.A. Gerbrands to Herbert Cole and Doran Ross--showed the error of such modernist thinking, however.(31) By documenting the particular roles played by diverse arts and artifacts, their scholarship points to implicit functional distinctions that are further reflected in the work of subsequent scholars. As has been recently argued, the cross-cultural studies of both Richard L. Anderson and Ellen Dissanayake demonstrate that the major mimetic arts designated as "fine" in European culture (in particular, music, drama, dance, painting, and sculpture) are employed to embody the core beliefs held by the cultural group. In contrast, the "decorative" arts devoted to ornamenting the body or beautifying objects of everyday utility play a more peripheral role.(32) Although neither Anderson nor Dissanyake--nor the tribal cultures they discuss--explicitly recognize that distinction, it is clearly implicit in the cultural functions they describe regarding the various arts and crafts.

Perhaps the clearest expression of such a distinction can be found in Susan Vogel's in-depth study of the art of the Ivory Coast Baule people of West Africa. As she emphasizes, the private devotional sculptures known as "spirit figures" are supremely valued. In contrast with these treasured sculptures, she writes:

Baule artists and householders have created a profusion of useful objects decorated with exceptional care and skill. . . . In Baule life these objects, far more elaborate than the ordinary ones, are amusing, delightful to behold, and, as I was often told, "will make people talk about you" [i.e., confer social prestige], but they are devoid of spiritual power, and Baule people finally consider them trivial.(33)

Vogel aptly characterizes such decorative objects as "beautiful trifles."

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Mother and Child, Kongo (Yombe Group),
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A similar functional distinction can be found in Ghanaian traditional art. Many household items and work implements in traditional Ghanaian culture are imaginatively designed and intricately crafted. Consider this comb, for example, or the much-prized Akan goldweights. But their cultural role is far less significant than that of sculptures such as the Akuba or mother-and-child figures (see example at left)--which embody the central value of fertility and motherhood in the society.(34)

Akuba figures, for example, are traditionally carried in a cloth on the back of Akan women aspiring to become mothers. In Ghana, as in most African cultures, barrenness is woefully regarded. The Akuba form, simple and forceful, is intended both to impart fertility to the woman and to endow the child with beauty conforming to the Akan ideal--an ideal boldly stylized in the flattened oval forehead, small mouth, and ringed neck. In addition, as represented here, Akan women wear beads at the waist to emphasize a narrow waist contrasted with broader hip and buttocks. Thus the work as a whole embodies the crucial value of fecundity, procreation, and continuity of life.

Those values are also represented in the ubiquitous mother-and-child sculptures found in local shrines in traditional Ghanaian culture. A figure of a queen mother seated on a royal Asipim chair, nursing a baby, concretizes the central role of motherhood in the nurturing of life. As such works demonstrate, the value of life and survival is at the heart of traditional African art practice--which flies in the face of the nihilism and anomie of much modern and contemporary art. Even Akan death masks are intended not merely to mourn the dead but to instill their virtues in the minds of the living to emulate.

Many contemporary sculptors and painters in Africa continue to use imagery to represent potent cultural values in a modern context. Ghanaian painter Jeremiah Quarshie's Yellow Is the Colour of Water series, for example, is a boldly conceived tribute to women. His striking portraits of women of various ages and walks of life are set against an unusual backdrop of bright yellow containers that Africans would instantly recognize as the ubiquitous water containers crucial to survival in an area of urgent water shortage. And as they well know, women are the primary water-carriers in African societies.

The work of Chidi Okoye (a Nigerian-born artist now residing in the United States) deals with African subjects and themes in both painting and sculpture--in a more stylized, often gentler vein than Quarshie's stark realism. Motherhood, fatherhood , and family [more] are tenderly depicted in numerous works. Though Okoye's painting style is strongly influenced by modernist abstraction, it rarely loses intelligible contact with reality. His images of music-making and dancing exude a joyous energy.

Another Ghanaian artist of note is Ato Delaquis (b. 1945). While also much influenced by modernist painting, his work is nonetheless deeply rooted in his African context--its brilliant landscape, its troubled past, and its vivid present . His work is highly valued by fellow Ghanaians but little known in the outside world.

In contrast, the Ghanaian-born artist who has attracted the most international attention is one who regrettably reflects confused postmodernist assumptions about the nature of art. He is El Anatsui (b. 1944), who has achieved renown from his base in Nigeria, where he has resided since the 1970s. He considers himself a sculptor. But his signature work belies that term. It consists of drapery-like wall hangings fabricated from discarded liquor-bottle caps, flattened and then joined by metal wires into a large sheet that can be arranged at will by anyone exhibiting it. Their shimmering effect can be visually arresting, but what do they mean? How do they relate to his African experience or cultural values?

The hangings are said by some to resemble kente cloth, the elaborately woven fabric traditionally worn by Akan royalty in Ghana. But kente cloth is, after all, a species of decorative art, whereas Anatsui's work aspires, as "sculpture," to the status of fine art. In purely visual terms, it has been compared to abstract painting. As we have argued, however, abstract work fails to fulfill fine art's function of intelligibly embodying things of human import. A typical postmodernist interpretation claims that Anatsui's hangings are works of "conceptual art" that "interrogate the history of colonialism and draw connections between consumption, waste, and the environment."(35) But such meaning does not emerge from the form of the work itself (as it should do in "fine art"). It instead depends on background knowledge regarding the source of his materials.

Similar postmodernist ideas and practices rule today's artworld establishment, and dominate university art programs, to the dismay of many Ghanaians. A 2016 exhibition sponsored by Emmanuel Antwi's own institution, for example, prompted the following Facebook post by a young Ghanaian artist (with many like-minded comments):

This controversial exhibition and the . . . conceptualism movement emerging out of the art department at [this major Ghanaian university] has engendered . . . heated debate and passionate discussion. . . . Artists in the exhibition collected discarded materials with little or no modification and presented them as art. . . . [At a] Street Art Festival last year in Accra, . . . a recent graduate of [the same university] presented himself nude in a performance art [piece]. . . . [T]his is not our culture; our culture and religious norms frown on such nude exhibitionism as art. . . . Students in our tertiary institutions now are completing school and cannot even draw, let alone, compose an original piece. . . . [W]hat are we bequeathing to the next generation? We are even losing all the basic developmental skills . . . one would need as a solid foundation for growth as an artist.(36)

Ayn Rand's theory of art, we submit, offers a much-needed corrective to such a cultural breakdown.

Michelle Marder Kamhi is an independent scholar and critic; she co-edits Aristos and is co-author of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000). Emmanuel Antwi, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana.


1. Roberta Smith, "It May Be Good But Is It Art?," New York Times, September 4, 1988.

2. The first definition of artist in the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (1971) is "One who practices or is skilled in any art." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines artist as "a: one who professes and practices an imaginative art; b: a person skilled in one of the fine arts." The definition provided for English-language learners is "a person who creates art : a person who is skilled at drawing, painting etc." https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/artist.

3. Arthur Danto, "The Artworld," The Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571-584.

4. Arthur Danto, "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33 (1974): 140.

5. Peter Kivy, "What Really Happened in the Eighteenth Century: The 'Modern System' Re-examined (Again)," British Journal of Aesthetics 52 (2012): 66.

6. "I cannot claim that I love the art that has occasioned my philosophy with anything like the same intensity or in anything like the same way in which, for example, I adore the Dutch masters. Aesthetically, I suppose, I might be willing to trade it all for Giorgione's La Tempesta. But . . . good philosophy is generated by hard cases. And good philosophy of art [is generated] by red monochrome squares and [Warhol's] Brillo Boxes." Arthur Danto, Reply in Danto and His Critics, edited by Mark Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993), 198.

7. Denis Dutton, "A Naturalist Definition of Art," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64 (2006): 367-368.

8. Simon Fokt, "Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (Signet, 1962 [sic])," In What Is Art? A Reading List (ASA Curriculum Diversification Grant Project, American Society for Aesthetics, 2015), 16. (See also Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, "Ayn Rand's Theory of Art: 'Original' and 'Inspiring' Says Academic Philosopher," Aristos, December 2016.) Regarding neglect of Rand's theory, see Kamhi and Torres, "Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art," Journal of Ayn Rand Studies1 (2000):1-46. Of particular interest is the section "Hospers and Rand" (pp. 10-12) about her interaction with academic aesthetician John Hospers.

9. Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

10. See Michelle Marder Kamhi, Who Says That's Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts (New York: Pro Arte Books, 2014), 23-32; and Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 114-117.

11. "To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man's . . . abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes--i.e., in the form of art." Ayn Rand, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," in The Romantic Manifesto, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Signet, 1975), 23. See also "Art and Cognition," ibid., 45, 73.

12. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (1790), translated by J. H. Bernard, excerpted in Kant: Selections, edited by Theodore Meyer Greene (New York: Scribner's, 1957), §49, p. 426.

13. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Reflections on Poetry, translation of Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus (1734) by Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), §116.

14. "In its origins the term [aesthetics] has, of course, nothing to do with 'beauty.'. . . [T]here is no mention of 'beauty' in the Reflections." Translators' Introduction to Baumgarten's Reflections, 4. See also Nicholas Davey's emphasis on Baumgarten's concern with knowledge in A Companion to Aesthetics, edited by David E. Cooper (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), s.v. "Baumgarten, Alexander (Gottlieb)."

15. Baumgarten, Reflections on Poetry, §139; quoting Horace's Ars Poetica.

16. Baumgarten, Reflections on Poetry, §§8-9.

17. Rand, "Psycho-Epistemology of Art," 20.

18. Gerald M. Edelman, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

19. "To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man's metaphysical abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes--i.e., in the form of art." Rand, "Psycho-Epistemology of Art," 23.

20. John Canaday, "The Collector: Origin and Examples of the Species" (New York Times, August 6, 1961), reprinted in Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1962), 181.

21. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, translated by Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton University Press, 1951), 348.

22. See Torres and Kamhi, What Art Is, 134-146.

23. Ibid., 138-139.

24. The primary sources supporting this point are discussed in ibid., 144.

25. Edelman, "The Mechanisms of Consciousness," Chapter 5 of Wider than the Sky, 48-59.

26. Edelman, 135.

27. See Torres and Kamhi, "Postmodernism in the 'Visual Arts,'" Chapter 14 of What Art Is, 262-282 ; and Kamhi, "Anti-Art Is Not Art," Chapter 4 of Who Says That's Art?, 69-96.

28. Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism (Kingston, N.Y.: McPherson, 2005).

29. See, for example, Shiner, Invention of Art, 270.

30. Gerbrands (see note 31), for example, lamented that European artists and art lovers were concerned only with "aesthetic" qualities of work and showed "hardly any interest in [its] content" (135-136).

31. A.A. Gerbrands, Art as an Element of Culture, Especially in Negro-Africa (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1957); Margaret Trowell, Classical African Sculpture (New York: Praeger, 1964); and Herbert M. Cole and Doran H. Ross, The Arts of Ghana (Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1977).

32. Kamhi, Who Says That's Art?, 28-31.

33. Susan Vogel, Baule: African Art, Western Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 270.

34. Regarding the goldweights, African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah has noted that they "quite often" exhibit "amputations and excrescences" that seem "completely to destroy [their] aesthetic unity." Such non-aesthetic features are there, he observes, "because, after all, weight is a weight: and if it doesn't weigh the right amount, it can't serve its function." In the end, the "decorative elegance" of the goldweights was "an ornament, an embellishment, on an object that served a utilitarian function." "The Arts of Africa," New York Review of Books, April 24, 1997; quoted in Torres and Kamhi, What Art Is, 208-209.

35. "El Anatsui" (bio), Jack Shainman Gallery.

36. Mavis Vondee, "An Ensuing Debate on Conceptualism in Contemporary Ghanaian Art," Facebook.