The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
The above quotation is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of art. It is one of the many definitions and theories written in answer to the question “what is art?” However, that very question implies an inhibited and essentialist answer such as “Art is…” Throughout the centuries philosophers, critics and authors have attempted to edge us ever nearer to the evasive concept that is ‘art’. It is an incredibly difficult concept and practice to theorise and define, especially in the twentieth century, as it is the very essence of art, as with all creative practices, to constantly challenge what has gone before and its pre-conceived definitions. Leo Tolstoy states that:
In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.
This is taken from his iconoclastic collection of essays and polemics on art called ‘What Is Art?’ In this impassioned and powerful work, Tolstoy criticised the elitist art society in the nineteenth century, and rejected the idea that the sole purpose of art should be the creation of something beautiful. This view alone goes against the vague definition of the Oxford Dictionary, and immediately we see the issues with defining art unfold. There are countless theories written by too many people for us to create one definition that is able to be applicable to all art, from all periods. However, many have tried, and this essay will focus on the main philosophies and theories regarding the definition of art, and their criticisms. By looking at the theories in approximately chronological order, we will hopefully be able to see how the definitions of art have changed and evolved over time and what these different theorists focus on. This essay will look at the writing of Clive Bell, George Dickie, Morris Weitz, Ludvig Wittgenstein, Arthur Danto and Garry L. Hagberg.
Arthur Clive Howard Bell, commonly known as Clive Bell, was born in 1881 and died in 1964. He was an English art critic and theorist, and generally associated with the Bloomsbury Group and the concept of formalism in aesthetics. Formalism is, as a general rule, the belief that it is an object’s formal properties that make it ‘art’, or define what aesthetic experience the viewer will have. However, Bell took this to extremes by proposing that nothing other than the formal elements of an object have any relevance whatsoever in regard to its aesthetic value, or whether it is even a piece of art. Indeed he wrote in 1913: ‘To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing but a sense of form...every other sort of representation is...