Defining Art

(or: How Philosophers Make Arguments)


Proposal 1.

Art is anything that is beautiful. Examples: Botticelli’s Venus, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Parthenon, Bach’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets.


(Or: Art should be beautiful. Beautiful things are art.)

Def 1.  Art iff Beautiful

1a.  Art à Beauty   (If something is art, then it is beautiful.)

1b.  Beauty à art  (If something is beautiful, then it is art.)


Problems or counter-examples:


Critique of 1a.  Some art is not beautiful.  For example: Damien Hirst’s sliced-up cows and pigs, or Goya’s black paintings, or Durer’s drawing of a stag-beetle.


Defense of 1a:  Maybe we should say that these things really are beautiful, in some special way (they have “obscure beauty.”)


Critique of 1b.  Some beautiful things are not art.  For example: a butterfly, a sunset, a waterfall, or a well-prepared dessert might be beautiful, but they are not art.


Defense of 1b:  Maybe these things are art after all. The works of nature that are beautiful might be God’s handiwork. And the talented pastry cook really is an artist.


Proposal 2.

Art is uplifting. If something is depressing, it is not art.  Examples: Greek statues of Athena and Apollo, Christian hymns, soaring ceilings and domes on mosques, poetry of Wordsworth, etc.


Def.2  Art iff Uplifting

2a.  Art à Uplifting

2b.  Uplifting à Art

Problems for Definition 2


Critique of 2a.  Some art is not uplifting.  For example (again), Goya’s black paintings, or Dante’s Inferno, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, or Shakespeare’s tragedies.


Defense of 2a.  Maybe these things really just are not art.  Or maybe despite dealing with difficult subject matter, they still manage to uplift their audiences.


Critique of 2b.  Some things that are uplifting are not art. For example: religious texts such as the Jewish Scriptures, Koran, Christian Bible, Baghavad-Gita, etc.  Soaring clouds may be uplifting to humans (metaphorically) but they are not art.


Defense of 2b.  Maybe these things are art. Parts of all of the religious texts seem very poetic and full of beautiful language and images.