What is Art?


The more semesters I teach, the more I come across this question from my students, and it seems to be asked mostly by art historians and artists. The fact that students in their sixth semester are asking this question is, if nothing else it is interesting that so far into their career, students are still questioning what constitutes art. And even then, at least in Mexico, they seem to find themselves in one of two sides. One group, adheres to pure aesthetics, i.e. the creation of beauty (as understood by Mexican society) and another that sees in experimentation the true essence of art. Both interpretations however find it hard to justify or embrace artistic expressions that fall outside of the bounds of their respective understanding.

It is difficult to ascertain whether these two ideologies stem from the Mexican education system or if there are other underlying factors involved. What is clear is that some further education onto what constitutes art is required. As an example, proposing to students the concept of new media as an art form is met with disbelief. The idea that art can be created digitally is preposterous, often considered as a cheat or shortcut that requires no skill. This of course is easily dismissed by any artist that has dedicated themselves to creating new media art, and in any case hours put in and techniques used do not guarantee art to be good.

Ii ts for this reason that I have decided to write about what is art. But first it is important to make something clear, as Marcel Duchamp said in 1975:

“What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.”
Marcel Duchamp

This concept is central to any discussion on what constitutes art as it seeks remove from the discussion any subjective judgments on the perceived quality of a work of art as questioning the artistic value of a work of art tends to muddle and derail any debate on the subject.

In broad terms there are four different theories on what makes a particular work art. Clive Bell’s significant form (1914), Robin George Collingwood’s expression of emotion (1938), Morris Weitz’ family resemblances (1967) and George Dickie’s institutional theory (1971). Each one approaches the art question from different angles. Bell focused on the formal qualities of a work, Collingwood meanwhile concerns himself with how effective a work is at transmitting emotion, while Weitz’ draws parallels between different works to try and determine whether a work is art or not through familiar similarities. Finally Dickie’s theory looks at the institutions that surround a work of art as a benchmark for what is art through its acceptance in the system.

Each and every one of these theories have virtues and defects that result in the rejection and acceptance of different artistic products that one of the other theories accepts de facto. In the following 3 texts I will attempt to explain both the different theories as well as how they react to different artistic mediums as well as the limitations inherent in each one.


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