(Excerpt from Athol Fugard’s play, “Master Harold”…and the boys)
This question spawns other questions of categorization (Is it fine art?) and particularization (What is creativity?), and so on. In other words, any answer leads to more questions, without complete resolution.
Many have concluded simply that art cannot be defined. Modern art philosopher, Morris Weitz, concluded that there is no essence to artwork of itself. He suggested that what makes a work “art” is based upon its resemblance to other works or paradigms that have been decided upon as “art.” He notes that to give an essential definition of “art” would inescapably rule out art-making as a creative activity because future works would be limited to the definition. But isn’t his “resemblance” qualifier just as limiting? And the context that decided prior works to be art hopefully changes so that the conditions that determined “art” at one point are not there at the next. Even “art” that seemingly transcends trendiness, may simply be a persistent trend dependent on enough universal conditions that have not remarkably changed—yet. Just as we think of cave paintings more as artifacts of our early ancestors than as “art,” distant generations living in an entirely different context may one day deem the Mona Lisa a similar curiosity.
Weitz and other anti-essentialism art philosophers dismiss even the act of making as a qualifier, Weitz giving the example that an unaltered piece of driftwood could be considered art if displayed in a gallery. Of course, there is a “making” aspect through the display, which then evokes the “resemblance.”
I reject that art cannot be defined just because we cannot sufficiently articulate a realization that something is “art,” or because doing so would stymie future creativity (there may be no stronger creative force than rebellion). I reject that definitions must be enduring rules rather than temporal ascriptions, so that the Mona Lisa will always be “art” for its time and context. I reject that the definition has to be universally understood or applied, adopting instead a fluid understanding best summarized in the famous legal standard deciding pornography, “you know it when you see it.”
I suggest one basic definition that I believe can withstand the vagaries of changing context and debate concerning what constitutes creative content (for instance, artifactual versus conceptual): Art is the objectification of experience. Art is taking an experience (an emotion, observation, idea, or merely the passage of time) and transposing or relating it in an objective form (a painting, film, novel, musical composition, etc). Accepting this basic definition we accept that art makes an experience sensorially accessible to others in some way. From there we can ask and argue whether it is “good art,” “fine art,” etc. to avoid the inevitable problem that this definition could lead to everything being art. But maybe everything is; as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata admonishes, “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”