What Art Is Online

[The following summary and excerpts are from What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi (Open Court, 2000). The full text of the chapter is available as a PDF document].

Chapter 6 - The Definition of Art

What is art? Today's artworld holds that virtually anything can be art. In the Introduction to What Art Is we quoted as an example New York Times art critic Roberta Smith's guiding dictum that "If an artist says it's art, it's art." Grace Glueck, another Times critic writing on the "visual arts"--which the artworld regards as encompassing not only traditional and abstract painting and sculpture [more] but also such postmodernist inventions [more] as installation, video, and performance "art"--further explains that something is a work of art if it is "intended as art, presented as such, and . . . judged to be art by those qualified in such matters." The notion that virtually anything can be art is embraced by critics covering the other major art forms as well--namely, music, theater, dance, and the literary arts. Where does this undiscriminating view originate? In mainstream contemporary philosophy--to which Ayn Rand offered a compelling alternative. (In the following brief excerpts from What Art Is, all notes and page citations have been omitted.)

. . . [Ayn] Rand concluded her final essay on the philosophy of art, "Art and Cognition" (1971), with a scathing indictment of contemporary philosophers for having abandoned the attempt to formulate an objective definition of art--that is, a definition in terms of essential, or fundamental, characteristics. Her indictment was entirely justified. By the 1950s, many philosophers had been led to "despair of the possibility of defining 'art.'". . .

Having despaired of identifying any essential attribute by which art might be defined, most contemporary estheticians have embraced open-ended theories regarding its nature. Such theories have in turn generated a profusion of spurious definitions in terms of non-essentials. The most influential of these, the "institutional" definition, was first proposed by George Dickie in 1969. . . .

Just how entrenched anti-essentialism and the assumptions of the institutional theory have become in scholarly and critical circles is evident from an article in the New York Times, in which nearly a score of prominent "art-world participants" answer the fundamental question of esthetics, "What is art?"--as well as the frequently appended question "Who decides?" A typical response is that of [a] professor of art history at Rice University and a contributing editor of Artforum. [He] prefaces his answer by recalling a visit to the Houston "Media Center," where an assortment of laundry hanging from clotheslines attached to posts, "as in a back yard," was immediately recognizable by him as a work of art "because of where it was." He concludes:

It is art if it is called art, written about in an art magazine, exhibited in a museum or bought by a private collector. It seems pretty clear by now that more or less anything can be designated as art. . . .

In so stating, [he] echoes the critical dictum of Roberta Smith, quoted in our Introduction. . . .

Given the overwhelming trend away from essentialist, or analytical, definitions in contemporary philosophy, Rand deserves credit, at the outset, for insisting on the need for such a definition with respect to art. In so doing, she continued an established practice of inestimable value. The virtues of precise definition, and the rules governing its construction, had been a commonplace of intellectual discourse in the first half of the twentieth century. . . .

. . . Rand argues that, though a definition is often said to state the meaning of a word or term, it really identifies "the nature of the [referents] subsumed under a concept." She explains: "A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; a word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its [referents]. It is not words, but concepts that man defines--by specifying [the fundamental attributes of] their referents." The purpose of a definition, she emphasizes, is "to distinguish a concept from all other concepts and thus to keep its [referents] differentiated from all other existents." A useful definition can therefore be based only on a rational system of classification. . . . "When in doubt about the meaning or the definition of a concept," Rand counsels, one should seek the referents that "gave rise to the concept." In the case of art, this means pre-modernist works of painting, sculpture, literature, music, and dance. Since the process of concept-formation itself depends on a recognition of fundamental similarities and differences, a re-examination of these original referents would yield more reliable information than a consideration of avant-garde work. Thus the approach taken by contemporary theorists, who focus on such phenomena as "dadaism, pop art, found art, and happenings," is completely mistaken. . . .

For an analysis of the definition offered by Rand, in relation to the traditional (objective) rules of definition, see What Art Is, pp. 101-108. On Rand's explication of her concept and definition of art, see Chapters 1-4.

Authors' Corrections

Typographical errors mar the sense of key points in the final section of Chapter 6 of What Art Is. Corrections follow:

Page 106 - middle of the page - should read: Her fullest explication of metaphysical value-judgments as they pertain to the arts . . .

Page 107 - line 8 - should read: that she had originally employed the term "values"--though not "fundamental" or "basic" values--in her definition and had then replaced it with "metaphysical value-judgments."

Page 107 - lines 16-17 - delete: not "fundamental" or "basic" values

Page 107 - line 6 from bottom: replace phrase , which includes his deepest values with the words this criterion of importance

Page 107 - line 3 from bottom: include should read exclude

Page 107 - last line: period after sense of life should be a comma

Page 108 - line 6: store should read stores

Page 108 - line 3 from bottom: definition of art) and either of should read definition of art (and either of [In other words, change close parenthesis to open parenthesis.]

Aristos (an online review edited by the authors of What Art Is)

Issues relevant to the definition of art are regularly dealt with in articles and reviews in this online journal.

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