A unified theory of Art

Warning: the following theory and concepts are my own, do not take this as an actual academic theory.

We have now explored the ideas of art as conjunction of shapes, forms and colors that create a distinct and unique aesthetic experience, as the transmission of an specific feeling the artist wishes to convey, as more of a series of common characteristics that are shared by some but not all works of art, but that still mark them as such and as the result of an academic and institutional consensus. To my  (admittedly limited) knowledge, not many attempts have been done in the visual arts to reconcile all these approaches. Authors like Cynthia Freeland and Nigel Warburton both have written books trying to explain what art is, however in the end, both authors make a similar suggestion: Perhaps each individual should create their own definition of art.


This approach whle seductive presents a dilema of sorts. While it is true that taste differs not only from person to person, but from culture to culture as well, the allure of permitting anyone and everyone to determine what constitutes art can cause conflicts. An example of such risks can be seen in the current treatment the fundamentalist group Daesh gives to any form of art not aligned with their ideological mores. By allowing open interpretation of what constitutes art we also allow open interpretation of what is worth protecting. When even works that have been considered art for centuries are put into question or censored like certain conservative groups in Russia are doing with Michelangelo’s David, it becomes evident that other interests might put works of art at risk. And while the David case is definetly an outlier, what happens then when more controversial works such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Kara Walker’s The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995) become targetted by groups that disagree with the artists or their works? All it would take is for an individual or group to be in a position of power in order to banish these works. This is not alarmist rethoric as we have seen it happen in the past and even today.

Therefore I believe it is ncecessary to create at least a semblance of a working definition that could help us define and protect humanity’s artistic heritage. One that allows us to argue cogently with policy makers, politicians and the public at large about what art is and why it must be protected over the ideological or religious beliefs of groups that might seek to erase it.

In order to achieve this we need to create a stronger argument than simply pointing at public recognition (often coming from politically dominant countries) or the idea that everything can be art if it is given a good enough explanation by its creator. At the same time we should not leave the decision in the hands of the artworld, as this often means giving certain institutions, again, in places of power, to determine what is art.

How do we do this while not falling either into anti-intellectualism or elitism? The answer is not simple and often places us in an uncomfortable position as our aesthetic judgements rely on taste and the belief that certain “tastes” are more developed or better than others. To decouple taste from aesthetics is a difficult task and might prove impossible, however I believe the best way to do so is to combine all the previously studied theories. The definition I would then propose would be as follows:

In order for a work to be considered art it should involve a human creative act upon which an individual or group of individuals import significance to it through craft, emotion, aesthetics or ideology.

I believe that through this definition we can circumvent several of the issues that have plagued other definitions, such as authorship issues, intentionality and or technical proficiency.

By making a base requirement of art a human creative act done by individuals, we can offhand reject works by animals or natural forces as they lack the intentionality and consciousness required to create a work of art. This in no way diminishes the claim to sentience of apes and other animals but a recognition that in the wild, the creative drive is focused in the creation of tools useful for survival and not the creation of aesthetic creations. This is important as cases such as Pierre Brassau’s work (a chimpanzee whose “paintings” were used as a rhetoric tool against modernism) are often used to censor or discredit the creations of human artists. By requiring a human hand to be involved we give more significance to the creative act and in a way allows us to argue more efficiently with those that argue that since anything be art, nothing has meaning.

I recognize this problematizes work done by individuals not usually recognized as artists, as we could argue they lacked the intention to create art, however they might regain that status through the last clause that invoques craft, emotion, aesthetics or ideology. By combining these concepts with creativity, we are allowed to cover most of not all works that have been and could be recognized as art in the future.

Lets take as an example two of the most problematic recognized mediums, at least as far as lay people are concerned: Found objects and performance art. Found objects are often criticized as works that take no effort and consist mostly of pretentious artists finding trash and presenting it as works of art. While we won’t delve into the history behind found objects and justifications for their existence, however I will note that historically we have taken commonplace objects and placed them in positions of culture and art, you might be more familiar with their more “dignified” monikers: world art,  and archeological and anthropological artifacts. Found objects continue with this recognition of the artistic and material qualities of objects, only now applied to western artifacts. And herein lies the crux of the issue: without the patina of “the other” and exoticism,  to some people the practice of collecting everyday objects and displaying them as art seems absurd. Artists like Marcel Duchamp have noticed this and raise the issue through their art. So here we have both a creative act as well as imparted significance, thus falling within the scope of our proposed definition. Meanwhile, performance requires even less of an effort to justify, as performance art is highly ritualized, and clearly devised by an artist to communicate with an audience, and thus easily inducted into the definition. These (very) simple examples are meant as a thought exercise and are not meant to be the final word on the effectiveness of this theory.

In conclusion, this theory probably has many gaps I have failed to address, however it is the basic metric I use to determine whether a work qualifies as art or not. I do not intend this to be the final word on aesthetics and it is probable that as time passes on I will adapt the theory, adding and removing clauses or refining it. In the end all I can hope to do is help others understand the difficulties in defining art and a way to at least create a personal definition.

Feature Image by: Dustin Gaffke


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