Three Lectures in Aesthetics

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Three lectures from this semester’s upper-division course in Aesthetics [PHI 320] at Missouri State University.  My topics include: Formalism; Clive Bell; The Wittgenstein-inspired view that ‘art’ cannot be defined; Morris Weitz; Maurice Mandelbaum; Relational Definitions; and The Institutional Theory of Art.

Following the video lecture links are the three sets of lecture notes that accompany the video lectures.


Clive Bell / Formalism

A pattern

With our next theory of art, we should be starting to see a pattern.  We try to define ‘art’ in a way that can accommodate all of the various art forms that exist in our day, only to discover not long after that art history has developed in yet another direction, rendering the definition obsolete.  The emergence of pure or absolute music rendered Representationalism dated, in that there was no plausible sense in which this music is representational.  The Beauty Theory was developed to remedy this problem, but quickly became dated itself with the appearance on the art scene of the “ugly art” of the Romantic period.  Expressivism seemed to correct for this.  But not long after, in the area of painting and sculpture, artists began making things that were largely or entirely abstract and with regard to which the expressivist idea of “communicating emotions” seemed to make little sense and to miss the point.

A Word on Definitions

It is worth saying something at this point regarding definitions, which can function both prescriptively and descriptively.

Take the definition of the word ‘square’, which is “a four-sided figure, with sides of equal length and interior angles of 90 degrees.”  Now, this both describes squares – and only squares – and prescribes the correct use of the word ‘square’.  Apply it to a triangle and you have made a mistake, by definition.

One might say the same thing about ‘art’, and people have done so. ‘Art’ is defined in terms of representation, so anything that is non-representational is not legitimately called “art.”  Or, ‘art’ is defined in terms of expression, so anything that does not express emotions is not legitimately called “art.”  You get the drift.

With each major revolution in art history, there were those who resisted the new developments and who would endeavor to “enforce” the prevailing definition of ‘art’ in a prescriptive fashion.

The trouble, however, is that if the culture, the relevant institutions, and the relevant personnel treat these new forms as art, it is very difficult to counter this by appeal to a definition. With the emergence of abstraction in painting, many of a more conservative bent wanted to deny that abstract paintings were art and might invoke one of the older definitions in order to rule it out.  But what success could they have, if critics were writing about abstract paintings as if they were art, artists were presenting abstract paintings as if they were art, galleries and museums were displaying abstract paintings as if they were art, etc.?  Could the mere brandishing of a definition stop all of that?

The effort to employ any prevailing definition of ‘art’ prescriptively has never prevented or reversed any art historical development.  With regard to this term and its use, then, we will want to think of the different definitions in descriptive but not prescriptive terms.


We don’t go from representational paintings to abstraction in one fell swoop.  It’s not as if on Tuesday, there was this …

… and then on Wednesday, this:

The introduction of abstraction into painting was gradual, with an early example being Paul Cezanne, who introduced cubist elements into landscapes and still life paintings.

The reasons for the move towards abstraction are many, but one significant one was the invention of the camera. With a device that could produce images with unprecedented levels of fidelity and verisimilitude, painters increasingly were inclined to do things through painting that could not be done with a camera.

There also were significant sociocultural reasons for this development, especially the growing alienation between artists and mainstream culture.  The emergence of abstraction in painting coincided with the retreat of artists into so-called “Bohemia.”  We will talk about this in more detail at the end of the course, when we discuss critic Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch” (1939)

At the time Clive Bell wrote his book, Art (1914), abstract art was still struggling for respect.  Beyond presenting a philosophy of art, the book is an impassioned brief on behalf of abstract painting. The rest of this lecture is devoted to giving you a sketch of the philosophy of art that Bell advances and which we will call “Formalism.”

Aesthetic Experience / Significant Form

Bell wants to define ‘art’ in terms of a distinctive experience that it produces.  One of the problems with the earlier Beauty Theory was that there are many things that are beautiful and yet which are not art – some people for example – and so to define ‘art’ in terms of beauty, one would need to specify “artistic beauty,” which would be circular.  [We still wouldn’t know what ‘art’ connoted: ‘Art’ = that which produces an experience of artistic beauty leaves us not knowing what either ‘art’ or ‘artistic’ mean.]

Bell says that ‘art’ is defined in terms of aesthetic experience.  That which produces an aesthetic experience is art.  Of course, this leaves us needing a definition of ‘aesthetic experience’.

At first it appears as if Bell is going to define ‘aesthetic experience’ as the distinctive experience we have of art which is obviously circular.  But he goes beyond that.  Aesthetic experience, according to Bell, is the truly disinterested engagement with a things perceptible features and specifically, with an object’s significant form.

The idea goes something like this: certain arrangements of lines, colors, shapes, etc., when contemplated disinterestedly [more on this in a moment] produce a unique and distinctive form of experience/pleasure that Bell characterizes as aesthetic. Artworks, then, are those things that have significant form, the disinterested engagement with which produces aesthetic experience/pleasure.

By ‘disinterested engagement with’, Bell means perceptual engagement absent any conceptualization.  So, to disinterestedly engage with a chair, would be to experience it just as an arrangement of elements: materials; colors; textures; lines; shapes; etc., but not as a chair.

The reason is as follows. If I experience the chair as a chair, then any positive or negative reactions I have to it will be related to its role and function as a chair.  Is it comfortable? Does it support my back? Etc. But these experiences and valuations are not aesthetic and thus, have nothing to do with art.

I mention the example of a chair because the early 20th century saw the emergence of the Bauhaus, an architectural and interior design movement that attempted to combine the functional with the aesthetic: to make buildings and furnishings that were simultaneously artworks and things to use. So, apropos chairs, here is a classic Bauhaus chair.  I presume you can see how it endeavors to do both things just described and the difference between what Bell would call experiencing it/evaluating it aesthetically [as an artwork], vs. experiencing it/evaluating it functionally [as a chair]. 

The Metaphysical Hypothesis

The last thing to discuss is what Bell calls his “metaphysical hypothesis.”

You might wonder why it is important that we have aesthetic experience and thus, why we have art. In the case of Tolstoy’s theory, the significance of art beyond the personal pleasure it provides is quite clear: art is a crucial element in the creation and maintenance of human society, because it allows us to communicate our emotions to one another. But the kind of experience Bell envisages art as providing is rarefied and abstract, so the question of why it matters is a fair one.

Bell maintains that when we experience something aesthetically, precisely because we attend only to its intrinsic properties and screen out all of the contingent uses, functions, and goods we associate with it, we come the closest we can to experiencing it as a “thing in itself.”  And what this means is, we come closest to experiencing it as it exists in reality.  Art, then, for Bell, is our best way of tapping into the reality that exists independently of our conceptualization of it.

What is the significance of anything as an end in itself? What is that which is left when we have stripped a thing of all its associations…?  What but that which philosophers used to call “the thing in itself” and now call “ultimate reality”? Shall I be altogether fantastic in suggesting…that the significance of the thing in itself is the significance of Reality? [p. 45]


The Crisis Period in the Philosophy of Art / Weitz

In the early-mid 20th century, the philosophy of art underwent a period of crisis.  For several decades, a dominant view in the field was that ‘art’ cannot be defined. In this lecture, I will talk about the various reasons why philosophers of art came to this conclusion, as well as what – if true – its implications are for thinking, talking, and writing about art.

Art-historical developments

One of the modernist spinoffs was a movement known as Dada, from which sprung the first “Readymades”: real world objects that were simply taken from their ordinary, practical contexts and displayed as art.  Most famous was a urinal, taken by the artist Marcel Duchamp from its fixtures, turned upside-down, and displayed as a sculpture, named “Fountain.”  In a similar vein he presented a snow shovel, titled “In advance of a broken arm,” as well as a bicycle wheel, titled “Bicycle wheel.”

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917) (Left)

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel (1913) and In Advance of a Broken Arm (1915) (Right)

Later, in the 1960’s as part of the Pop-Art movement, the artist Andy Warhol made both paintings and sculptures that were conceived and executed as simulacra of ordinary items. Most famously, his Brillo Boxes, which were displayed in the gallery as they might have been displayed in a supermarket or kept in a storeroom. While not Readymades per se – they are not found and appropriated objects, but rather, made of wood and painted – philosophically, they have similar implications.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes (1964)

The problem that these developments posed for philosophers of art was significant and can be expressed in a number of ways:

  1. If anything, with any characteristics can be an artwork, then on what basis could art be distinguished from non-art?
  2. If there can be two things that are perceptually indistinguishable from one another, one of which is art and the other which is not [as in the image below], then it would seem that ‘art’ cannot be defined in terms of a list of characteristics. [This is sometimes referred to as the “problem of indiscernibles.”]

Whichever way you express the problem, it seems to point in the same direction: ‘Art’ cannot be defined.

Developments in the Philosophy of Language

By the mid-20th century, many working in the philosophy of language had raised serious doubts about the traditional understanding of definitions.

On the traditional view, to define a word, ‘S’, is at least to list characteristics that are jointly necessary and sufficient for referring to S’s.  For example:

‘Square’ is defined as a (i) 4-sided figure, with (ii) sides of equal length, and (iii) interior angles of 90 degrees.

(i)-(iii) are jointly necessary and sufficient for being a square.

Ludwig Wittgenstein argued there are many words for which there are no necessary and sufficient conditions.  An example he points to in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) [and which Weitz will take up] is ‘game’:

I mean board-games, card games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say “there must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’, but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them, you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.

The things to which the word ‘game’ refers are related only by criss-crossing, varying degrees of similarity and resemblance.  There are no characteristics that all and only games share in common. Consequently, when something new comes along and there is contention over whether it is a game or not, the only way this can be determined is by a collective judgment on the part of speakers as to whether or not the new thing sufficiently resembles the things that already are considered games.  Concepts like this are often referred to as “open concepts,” whereas a concept like ‘square’ is called a “closed concept.”

Weitz and the Wittgensteinian Philosophers of Art

The aforementioned developments led to the emergence of a group of philosophers of art, influenced by Wittgenstein, who denied that ‘art’ can be defined, suggesting instead that ‘art’ can only be analyzed in terms of its “family resemblances,” by which is meant the sorts of crisscrossing, greater and lesser similarities mentioned above.  There can be no “philosophy of art,” then, but only an analysis of the way in which the word ‘art’ is used at any particular time and place.  I’ll close with several characteristic quotations from Weitz:

Each of the great theories of art … converges on the attempt to state the defining properties of art. Each claims that it is the true theory because it has formulated correctly into a real definition the nature of art; and that the others are false because they have left out some necessary or sufficient property…

If nothing else does, the history of aesthetics itself should give one enormous pause here.  For, in spite of the many theories, we seem no nearer our goal today than we were in Plato’s time.  Each age, each art-movement, each philosophy of art, tries over and over again to establish the stated ideal only to be succeeded by a new, revised theory, rooted, at least in part, in the repudiation of preceding ones. [pp. 191-192]


The problem of the nature of art is like that of the nature of games, at least in these respects. If we actually look and see what it is that we call “art,” we will also find no common properties—only strands of similarities.  Knowing what art is is not apprehending some manifest or latent essence but being able to recognize, describe, and explain those things we call “art” in terms of these similarities. [p. 195]


A concept is open if its conditions of application are emendable and corrigible; i.e. if a situation or case can be imagined or secured which would call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover this, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case and its new property…

“Art,” itself, is an open concept. [p. 195]


Relational Theories / Institutionalism

A New Perspective on the Crisis

As we saw last time, two developments led philosophers of art to think that ‘art’ could not be defined.

  • Art historical developments, broadly speaking, suggested that whatever definition one came up with, history would render it obsolete at some point, when artists developed new forms.
  • The emergence on the scene of the Readymades and later, works like Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, raised what we called the “indiscernibility problem.” That two things can be perceptually indistinguishable from one another and yet, one is art and the other not, suggests that one cannot define ‘art’ in terms of any list of properties. But this is required for a traditional definition.
  • Developments in the philosophy of language suggested that there are many terms in ordinary language that are not definable in terms of a list of properties. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously claimed that ‘game’ is such a term. These became referred to as “open concepts”: terms under which are included things that are only more loosely related – only bear “family resemblances to one another” – to one another. For anything new that comes along, whether or not it falls under the concept will have to be determined by the relevant language community, on the basis of whether it sufficiently resembles the things that already fall under the concept.

In 1965, the philosopher Maurice Mandelbaum published a paper, entitled “Family Resemblances and Generalization concerning the Arts,” in which he argued that the move to open concepts/family resemblances in the case of ‘art’ was too hasty.  Similarly with ‘game’.  Mandelbaum argued that if one considers relational properties rather than perceptible ones, there may be no problem in giving ‘art’ – or ‘game’ – a traditional definition.

Let’s take an example of another common word which one might be tempted to say is an “open concept,” but which actually has a perfectly straightforward, albeit relational, definition.

Consider the word ‘Uncle’ and imagine someone said the following: “Uncles can be fat or thin.  Uncles can be old or young.  Uncles can be nice or mean.  You can have two identical twins, one of whom is an uncle and the other who is not.  Uncles only bear family-resemblances to one another.  Therefore, ‘Uncle’ is an open concept and not definable in the traditional manner.”

What you would say in reply is that ‘Uncle’ has a perfectly simple definition, but it is in terms of a relational property, not a perceptible one: specifically, ‘Uncle’ is defined as “the brother of one of my parents.”

The idea that ‘art’ may have a traditional definition after all, but that it may be in terms of relational properties, gave rise to an entirely new effort on the part of philosopher to define ‘art’, but in this new way.  I refer to this new effort as “The New Wave in the Philosophy of Art.”

The first theory to emerge from this New Wave is the Institutional Theory of Art, as developed, most notably, by Terry Diffey in his paper, “The Republic of Art” (1969) and George Dickie, in his book, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974).

The Institutional Theory of Art

Consider a term like ‘prime minister’. Clearly, it cannot be defined in terms of perceptible qualities.  There are fat, thin, bald, long-haired, nice, mean, etc. prime ministers.  There can be identical twins, one of whom is a prime minister and the other who is not.  Clearly, if ‘prime minister’ admits of a traditional definition, it will be in terms of relational properties.  But which ones?

The property of being a prime minister is a kind of status; one that is granted by certain institutions.  So the definition of ‘prime minister’ will be in terms of a particular status being granted by particular institutions, under particular rules.

The idea behind the Institutional Theory of Art is that ‘art’ is a kind of status that is bestowed on things by the institutions of art or, as they typically refer to them, “the artworld.”

This analysis seems particularly apt if one considers the Readymades. It sure looks as if Duchamp, museum curators, critics, and audiences “made” the non-art urinal into “Fountain” the artwork, simply by bestowing a certain status on that urinal.

The Institutional Theory of Art, however, suffers some serious difficulties. Here are just some of the more potent problems:

  • It is hard to give a rigorous account of the relevant status. What is it to grant X the “art” status.  Is it simply to make it permissible to use the word ‘art’ when talking about X? Is it, as Dickie says, to grant X the status of “candidate for appreciation”? Can’t many things be appreciated that are not art, so wouldn’t this require us to specify a specific kind of “art appreciation” which then would make the definition circular, since “art appreciation” would require its own account? Etc.
  • It seems perfectly reasonable to ask on what grounds does something deserve the status of art? Any answer, however, would take us away from an Institutional account and would make art definable in terms of those deserving qualities.
  • It is difficult to be specific about the nature of the artworld. Institutional theorists describe it as an unofficial network of artists, curators, critics, and audiences, but clearly there is more than this, and drawing any kind of precise circle around the institutions that belong, strictly, to the “artworld” has proven very difficult.
  • The theory may entail a number of weird things if applied to art that is much older than the nineteenth century, prior to which there was no “artworld” as we understand it. The relevant institutions did not exist. Did some other institutions provide the status?  Did the status “art” even exist prior to the modern era? [Our first lecture suggests that it did not.]

The Institutional Theory of Art represents only the first effort at a relational definition of ‘art’.  The theory advanced by Arthur Danto represents probably the best effort in this direction, and it is what we turn to next.


3 responses to “Three Lectures in Aesthetics”

  1. John Rapko

    That’s a terrific overview; the students are fortunate to have you as a teacher and guide.–One tiny correction: Duchamp is always tricky to classify, and the bicycle wheel (1913) slightly precedes Dada.

  2. Yes, the Readymades are typically characterized as a product of Dadaism. It is always a tricky game to try to apply dates to these sorts of movements/developments.

  3. jofrclark

    Fascinating piece!
    Some thoughts …
    Any theory of art begs a theory of mind. If we’re to ask self-reflective questions in terms of thoughts like “what is art” or “what is the meaning of art,” we must understand not only what the experience art is but what the experience of thoughts are and more broadly what constitutes the experience of the human mind.

    – in Representation Theory, how are aesthetic ideas represented in our mind?
    – in Beauty Theory, what constitutes the experience of beauty in our mind?
    – in Tolstoy’s theory of art communicating emotion, what are emotions and what exactly
    do they communicate?
    – in Bell’s theory of “disinterested engagement” of aesthetic forms, what part of the
    mind is disinterested and which part gives certain forms “significant” meaning
    and how? Further, if forms have inherent meaning, then aren’t perceptual forms
    a kind of concept of reality? From whence in our minds come such concepts?
    – in Wittgenstein’s framing of the problem of defining art as a problem with linguistics,
    does this not just mean that the human mind is capable of apprehend meaning
    beyond words. If so, with what aspect of our mind do we apprehend aesthetic
    meaning and what is the nature of such knowing?
    – in Weitz’s view of (intellectual) analysis permitting one to ask only linguistic questions
    about the word “art,” with what part of our mind do we then assess art and what
    is the “language” of such assessment?
    – in Relational Theory, if relation is by definition inclusive of the object and the subject of
    aesthetic assessment, then can a strictly objective assessment be at all
    adequate to define art and isn’t art as much defined by the (mental)
    characteristics of the subject of appreciation?
    – in Institution Theory, if we are in the realm of ration, can an external (objective)
    institution possibly define the personal subjective experience of art?

    I would submit all these theory’s suffer from hyper-intellectualization (except maybe Tolstoy) and evidence a poorly developed theory of emotion as an avenue to knowing.

    – Aesthetics represents in our minds a communicated belief of the feel of things.
    – Beauty represents emotional truth.
    – Emotions communicate value and the inherent leanings it creates within us.
    – What must be disengaged for aesthetic appreciation is the unbiased intellect. The
    forms of aesthetic appreciation reside in the functional architecture of our minds
    in the form of forms (and colors and sounds and feel) that instinctually trigger
    motivations toward spontaneous survivalist behavior.
    – Literal words are the language of intellect and can’t fully capture the feel of things.
    Talking about emotions is radically different than actually having one. As Mark
    Rothko put it when asked to explain the meaning of his abstract color field
    paintings, “Silence is so accurate.” The “language” of art is sensuality,
    circumstance, and symbolism.
    – Art is assessed not through analysis (a breaking up into parts) but intuition (a broad
    overlooking of the pattern of how it all comes together).
    – Art is defined by our relation to the aesthetic object within our current broadly defined
    circumstance. A shovel in our garage has inherently different meaning than a
    shovel in an art museum, especially when you place upon the object the
    circumstantial moniker “In Advance of a Broken Arm.” Objectivity and
    abstraction dements us to aesthetic truth.
    – External institutions don’t contain aesthetic meaning. It resides in our “hearts,”
    our emotional mind and the deep meaning contained therein.