The Meaning of ‘Art’

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The question of the meaning of ‘art’ illustrates the deleterious influence of ‘family resemblance’ as a theory of meaning. I have argued elsewhere that there are no ‘family resemblance concepts’, so ‘art’ cannot be such a concept. But the idea of ‘art’ as such a concept pervades the contemporary art scene, and has a real practical effect on what is accepted as ‘art’.

This is not to suggest that the meaning of ‘art’ has thereby changed radically. Rather, many art practitioners are engaged in a form of ‘double-think’ in which they know what art really is, but for ideological or socio-economic reasons, are second-guessing themselves into accepting faux-art as ‘art’.

I think we can identify at least one necessary property of art. Art has to have lasting aesthetic value. By that, I mean that we think it’s worthwhile to contemplate the same work of art not just once or twice, but repeatedly over long periods (ideally, for ever).

Why else would we have the same work of art in our home or a museum for decades? It serves no other purpose than to be contemplated (unless it’s purely decorative, in which case it’s like a flowery curtain, not there to be contemplated but rather, to beautify the place. We don’t exhibit flowery curtains in art museums, unless they’re worth contemplating, of course. And art doesn’t have to be beautiful).

But in virtue of what does a work of art have lasting aesthetic value? Many art critics assume that it is the work of art itself that has the lasting value, but this can’t be true. After all, a painting is just paint on canvas, how fascinating can that possibly be? What’s the point of looking at the same arrangement of paint over and over for decades?

Even if we transfer the locus of value to the idea expressed by the painting, it still falls flat. A painting of an apple just expresses the idea of an apple, not all that interesting even if it’s a moody apple. There’s only so much that can be expressed by a work of art, it’s not enough to warrant lasting aesthetic value.

So I would suggest that the lasting value has to lie elsewhere, in the juxtaposition of the work of art against its surroundings. It is not the expressive richness of the work of art that gives it lasting aesthetic value (some great art is very simple). Rather, it is the fact that the artwork is a fixed point in a lived experience that is otherwise in flux.

That is why we contemplate a work of art, we stop and look (or listen, etc). We don’t just glance in passing, we stop for it. That’s why a Japanese tea ceremony is a work of art, because we stop for that (and not just for the tea). But why stop just to contemplate art?

I think it’s because art reminds us of something valuable, that we constantly forget. That’s why we keep returning to the same work of art, not because it reveals something new each time, but because it reveals the same thing each time. The same thing, that we constantly forget (and here, there are parallels between art and philosophy. I don’t think it’s coincidental that we also stop and contemplate in religious observances).

What absorbs us is not the artwork per se but the fact that it’s somehow anomalous or aberrant, in a way that draws our attention to considerations not directly represented by the work. That is why a simple artwork can be complex. It represents little, but it points to a lot. Its lasting value lies in its power to repeatedly remind us of something that gets lost in the day-to-day, or is suppressed in thought.

If all this is true, then it follows that our lived experience is drawing our attention away from what is really worth focusing on (hence the art). The existence of art testifies to the inauthenticity of our lived experience, the fact that we’re alienated from what really matters.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.