Press "Enter" to skip to content

What is art?

There are many ways of defining art. Hegel sees art as the ‘sensual presentation of the Idea’1. Since Duchamp, art is what the artist says it is.

However, even though some of the theories on what art is might seem contradictory, the truth is that they have a lot in common. To begin with, they are all based on the Western structure of thinking and, in addition, they all lead to the dead ends of either Platonic essentialism or the destruction of art.

Western thinking is based on axioms, ideas that are considered innate or metaphysical abstractions that are the base on which, by the use of reason and logic, the different disciplines of human knowledge are built. These disciplines (science, philosophy, art, history, etc.) are separated to make them manageable. But in reality human knowledge overlaps. This system of knowledge sees the world as something uniform, consistent and systematic. What falls within the system is considered to be ‘reality’, what does not, stays outside and does not exist. Truth is equated to a lack of contradiction.

We base thought on language and language is a human capacity that was developed much later than the senses. Art has prelinguistic and metalinguistic elements that we are not trained to decipher consciously. Obviously art does not exclude thought, concepts, or language, but these are not enough to apprehend a work of art.

Art is a human activity that we have created in our image, as we have done with our gods and our theories. Our definitions of art are also therefore based on the way we think.

One of the pillars of Western thought is Plato’s work, particularly the theories concerning the separation of ideas (of superior value) and matter (of inferior value). This view of the material or physical world as an inferior copy of the ideal world influenced the foundation of monotheistic religions and the separation of body and soul, theory and practice.

Under the influence of Plato and Kant, “philosophical aesthetics supposes that there is a universal unchanging form called ‘Art’, which can be apprehended at any and every time”.2 Plato himself wanted to expel the artists from his ideal republic for being liars.

He said that if the idea was absolute and matter a less valuable representation of the idea, to represent matter was to deviate even further than matter from the original idea. For Plato, to represent the representation of an idea was perverse, because it lured people further away from the truth than they already were. Artists were therefore considered swindlers who confused people. Plato died too soon to experience conceptual art, which might have made him reconsider the exile of artists and maybe even to have given them a place in the aristocracy ruled (of course) by philosophers.

For Kant, the art object ought to have intrinsic beauty, value and significance, which differs from the extrinsic values, such as monetary value or circumstances of production3.

Yet, no object exists outside its social context. Art practice, critique and institutions are social products, they have to be understood in their historical context. This is what the sociological approach to art defends. The main sociological theories are institutional, Marxist, structuralist and post-structuralist.4

Since Duchamp, art is what the artist says is art because of the authority of being an artist. By extension, institutional theory is what the art institutions define as art. In order not to self-implode, this theory requires the condition that the number of people that declare themselves artists and who confer to their work the status of art must be limited. If everyone in the world decided to be an artist and conferred to all their material and intellectual production the status of art, the concept of art would not make sense and would cease to exist. Institutional theory destroys art.

Marxism, taken to its logical conclusion, also implies the end of art, more than its mere revision. Marx himself did not write much about art. For him, a society of free and responsible people would generate its own aesthetic, different from that which we understand as art today. Art as we know it today is, according to Marxism, a false bourgeoise abstraction that should be abandoned. Therefore there cannot be a theory about it.5

Structuralism does not destroy art but it falls into the Platonic trap when it tries to detect reality behind appearances. The universal and atemporal grammar that structuralism tries to find manifested in particular historical cultures is an adaptation of Plato’s theory, in this case in the form of a structure and its manifestation.

On the other hand, post-structuralism not only falls into the Platonic trap, but it also destroys art. Post-structuralism, in theory, gets rid of the structure and proposes freedom and play through the use of deconstruction. If we take this theory to its logical conclusion, there is no incorrect interpretation and no distinction can be required of us. This includes the distinction between art and non-art or the discrimination between what is aesthetically valid and what it is not. To accept this line of thought makes art disappear. If there is no distinction between art and non-art there is no art. Moreover, post-structuralist thinking falls into the Platonic trap as well. The inadequate representation of reality implies that there is a reality.6

Postmodernism, with its proposition that we are free to discover beauty anywhere and not only in the objects traditionally considered art objects, might be the only theory that does not necessarily destroy art and escapes Platonic essentialism. The problem of postmodernism is, however, that it does not exist. It has not yet been realised. The arts world is still predominantly modernist, however much it pretends otherwise. Postmodernism destroys the authority of the arts world.

Even though, despite Kant’s efforts, art objects have no limits, it is true that art needs to separate itself from non-art to continue existing. Art observes its surroundings and in the act of observing separates from it. If art eliminates this distance it cancels itself.

That is why, for any theory of art to exist, it has to be possible to distinguish between what is art and what is not. To distinguish between art and non-art does not need to be an attempt to unveil a metaphysical truth. This does not imply that the distinction can be applied randomly. What is artistically significant needs to be identified, which requires critical judgement.

The problem of defining art is that when we say that something is art, we are at the same time describing it and evaluating it. Art needs to be defined in relative terms and norms need to be established to identify art. These norms can be altered, but only if doing so is an advance. There is little use in trying to discover a concept of art or to try to establish conditions that certain objects and activities need to fulfil to be considered art. What is important about art is not what it is, but the value that it has for us.7

The fact that for thousands of years the majority of cultures have attributed a special value to the activities considered art suggests that certain things that we call art have an enduring value. According to Schopenhauer, what art lets us see and understand about human experience is what gives it significance and value. Works of art are knowledge. According to Collingwood, on the contrary, the value of art resides in expression of feeling and not in a special apprehension of reality.8

Through art we understand beyond thought. Art heightens awareness of the world around us, it advances our understanding of human experience.9

The value of art is in its ability to enrich us as human beings. The value that art has for us derives from the use that we want to give it, that is, its function. If we accept that art is valuable for humanity and we expect it to enrich us as people, does this coincide with the use art has been given through history?


  1. Graham, G. (1997) Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, p. 201.
  2. Ibid, p. 182.
  3. Collins, J. and Mayblin, B.(2000) Introducing Derrida. Cambridge: Icon Books, p. 140.
  4. Graham, G. (1997) Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, p. 185. Sociology of art is a label that Graham uses for the group of theories including Marxist aesthetics, structuralism, critical theory, deconstructionism and postmodernism.
  5. Based on the chapter: ‘Marxism and the sociology of art’. Ibid, p. 185-190.
  6. Based on the chapter: ‘Derrida, deconstruction and postmodernism’. Graham, G. (1997) Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge,, p. 193-198.
  7. Based on the chapter: ‘Normative theory of art’. Graham, G. (1997) Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge,, p. 199-203.
  8. Ibid, p. 202.
  9. Graham asks the question: “Is the function of art that of heightening awareness of the world around us?” in the chapter: ‘Art and understanding’. Ibid, p. 44-65.

What is art? is part of The art of commitment, my Research Paper for the MA in Fine Art that I did at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London in 2007.

All the articles in The art of commitment:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is art?
  3. The function of art through history
  4. The current context
  5. How the current context shapes people
  6. The arts world in the current context
  7. The artist
  8. The art of commitment

Join my mailing list

Comments are closed.

Scroll Up