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Abell, Catharine, , . Art: What It Is and Why It Matters
2012, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 85: 671–91.
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Content: The first three sections of this paper offer a very useful overview of modern definitions of art. Most major types of definitions are introduced and explained in a succinct way, followed by a discussion of selected objections they face. First, Abell introduces functionalism and discusses its problems with extensional adequacy. Second, procedural theories including Dickie’s institutional and Levinson’s historical definitions are discussed, and criticized for their circularity and inability to account for art’s value. Next, Abell considers two mixed theories, formulated by Robert Stecker and David Davies. She shows how they can overcome the difficulties discussed above, but run into their own problems. Finally, Berys Gaut’s cluster account is introduced and criticized for its circularity and difficulties in determining all sufficiency conditions for being an artwork. In the remainder of the paper Abell focuses on developing her own version of the institutional theory.

Comment: This text can provide the students with an overview of modern definitions of art. Theories are presented in a clear, succinct way, with their main features, strengths and weaknesses identified. The selection of objections discussed, however, is not representative – rather it serves the aim of developing Abell’s own definition. The later sections of the text are excellent, but address much more complex issues and are significantly less accessible for undergraduate students. They might be used in Masters level teaching or as advanced further reading on the institutional definition.

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Brand, Peg Zeglin, , . Glaring Omissions in Traditional Theories of Art
2000, in Theories of Art Today, ed. by Noel Carroll (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)
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Abstract: I investigate the role of feminist theorizing in relation to traditionally-based aesthetics. Feminist artworks have arisen within the context of a patriarchal Artworld dominated for thousands of years by male artists, critics, theorists, and philosophers. I look at the history of that context as it impacts philosophical theorizing by pinpointing the narrow range of the paradigms used in defining “art.” I test the plausibility of Danto’s After the End of Art vision of a post-historical, pluralistic future in which “anything goes,” a future that unfortunately rests upon the same outdated foundation as the concept “art.”.

Comment: This text offers an overview of the feminist critique of the classificatory project. It assumes some basic knowledge and is best used after the main modern theories of art have been introduced. The pointed critique and clearly stated suggestions for constructing unbiased theories, make it excellent at inspiring a critical discussion on the subject of universalism and discrimination in both art practice and theory. Perhaps more importantly, the argument offered and the long lists of female artists and art theorists which support it, can have an empowering and validating role to many female students.

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Davies, Stephen, Samer Akkach, Meilin Chinn, et. al.. How Do Cross-Cultural Studies Impact Upon the Conventional Definition of Art?
2018, Journal of World Philosophies 3 (1): 93-122
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Abstract: While Stephen Davies argues that a debate on cross-cultural aesthetics is possible if we adopt an attitude of mutual respect and forbearance, his fellow symposiasts shed light upon different aspects which merit a closer scrutiny in such a dialogue. Samer Akkach warns that an inclusivistic embrace of difference runs the risk of collapsing the very difference one sought to understand. Julie Nagam underscores that local knowledge carriers and/or the medium should be involved in such a cross-cultural exploration. Enrico Fongaro searches for a way of experiencing cross-cultural art such that it can lead to a transformative experience Relatedly, Meilin Chinn uses the analogy of friendship to explore the edifying dimension of experiencing an art form. Lastly, John Powell studies whether Dickie’s Institutional Theory can be meaningfully used to identify works of art in Western and non-Western traditions.

Comment: The selection of texts by Davies, Akkach, and Chinn, with a part of Davies’ reply in the end, are particularly interesting. These present an interesting tension, with Akkach and (somewhat less overtly) Chinn, criticising Davies for adopting a Western-centric attitude to studying and conceptualising art of other cultures. It can be useful to consider this in the context of Nikiru Ngzewu, ‘African Art in Deep Time: De-race-ing Aesthetics and De-racializing Visual Art’, asking to what extent the present discussion is similar to her criticism of Vogel and Danto. Given that Davies is offering a reply to the criticisms, this could offer an opportunity for a debate-style class design. The texts, and especially Davies’ reply, invite a further reflection: can one ever understand, conceptualise, or analyse the products (art?) of another culture, without doing so using the conceptual frameworks of one’s own culture in ways that are problematic? If yes, how could this be done? If not, should we just never attempt it? What role do power structures and imbalances play in such attempts?

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Dissanayake, Ellen, , . Doing Without the Ideology of Art
2011, New Literary History 42: 71–79.
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Abstract: My invited comment on Steven Connor’s essay, “Doing Without Art,” proposes that a fuller understanding of the implications of my notion of “making special”—referred to by Connor in his essay as somewhat relevant to his own position—would expand his view of the human art impulse and allay some of his disaffections. Rather than contributing to aesthetic theory, the ideology of art, my work proposes an ethology of art: it suggests why members of the human species, in all times and places, made and otherwise engaged with the arts (plural). An ethology of art requires a new way of regarding its subject, not philosophically as an entity or essential quality but as a behavior, something that people everywhere “do.” What characterizes all instances of “doing with art,” from prehistory to the present, is making something (a rock surface, face or body, implement, sound, space, place, movement, utterance) special. A summary of the development and ramifications of the concept of “making special”—called “artifying” in my most recent work—answers Connor’s three questions and suggests that placing our modern ideology or ideologies of art in the wider and deeper context of artification enables an understanding of the arts as intrinsic and even necessary to human lives everywhere.

Comment: Dissenayake makes her points clear and brief, and uses the opportunity to present the main elements of her evolutionary theory. This makes this paper not only an interesting voice in the scepticism about the definition of art debate, but also an excellent introduction to her wider work. The main question worth discussing in class is: should we replace definitions of art with an ethology of art? It might also be worth asking whether Dissenayake is right to claim that even the assumption that a theory of art is needed at all is elitist.

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Eaton, Marcia Muelder, , . A Sustainable Definition of “Art”
2000, in Theories of Art Today, ed. by Noel Carroll (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)
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Content: Eaton begins with some remarks on the practical need for classification of art and proceeds to present and improve her definition. Her focus is not on specific properties of artworks, but on the fact that they possess properties which within a given culture are considered worth attending to. The modifications made to the theory follow a realisation of Western-centric bias embedded in the original formulation, and the discussion explicitly aims to work towards a definition which acknowledges the cultural differences in art production and appreciation. Eaton moves on to discuss Danto’s and Cohen’s claims that art cannot be defined and points out some Western-centric aspects of their arguments. The paper ends with an overview of what it is for art and its definition to be sustainable.

Comment: Western-centric bias in art classification is explicitly addressed in the article and efforts are made to account for the cultural variations in attitudes to and classification of art. This can offer a powerful motivation for the students to seek similar biases in other definitions and ask whether they entail a preferential treatment of Western art.

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Freeland, Cynthia, , . But is it Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory
2001, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Publisher’s note: From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim–is this really art? In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern often sensational works, back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. She also guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor. It is instructive to recall that Henri Matisse himself was originally derided as a “wild beast.” To horrified critics, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful. And that, writes Freeland, is art.

Comment: Chapters 2,3 and 5 of But is it art? can serve as a good basic introduction to art theory. The book is written in a light, narrative style and does not focus on the details of particular theories; instead, it is arranged in a useful historical narrative which presents theories in their contexts, showing the types of art they were inspired by. This text is best used in introductory teaching, as a background reading, or as a pre-read for higher level courses where it should be followed by more focused and specialised texts.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver, , . Art Without “Art”
2007, British Journal of Aesthetics 47(1): 1-15.
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Abstract: Some argue that there is no art in some non-Western cultures because members of those cultures have no concept of art. Others argue that members of some non-Western cultures have concepts of art because they have art. Both arguments assume that if there is art in a given culture, then some members of the culture have a concept of art. There are reasons to think that this assumption is false; and if it is false, there are lessons to learn for cross-cultural studies of art both in anthropology and philosophy.

Comment: Lopes’ light and approachable writing style makes this paper very well suited for undergraduate teaching. It is an excellent study in philosophical method: the structure of all arguments is very clear, the challenged premises are individuated and the requirements for challenging them are spelled out in detail. One major advantage of the text is the way in which it exposes the Western-centric biases present in our views on non-Western art. Various problematic historical and current attitudes are mentioned and discussed, including the division between the West and the rest, paternalism, etc.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver, , . Beyond Art
2014, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Publisher’s note: This book offers a bold new approach to the philosophy of art. General theories of art don’t work: they can’t deal with problem cases. Instead of trying to define art, we should accept that a work of art is nothing but a work in one of the arts. Lopes’s buck passing theory works well for the avant garde, illuminating its radical provocations.

Comment: Introduction and sections 1-3 are particularly useful in teaching. Lopes looks at the challenges defining art faces and asks what sort of conditions would a definition have to satisfy to be successful and whether a we need a definition of art at all. This is likely to prove quite stimulating, especially considering the focus on hard cases: students often enjoy puzzling over what we should do with controversial works, and are likely to have conflicting intuitions which can lead to a good discussion.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver, , . Nobody Needs a Theory of Art
2008, Journal of Philosophy 105(3): 109-127.
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Abstract: The question “what is art?” is often said to be venerable and vexing. In fact, the following answer to the question should be obvious: (R) item x is a work of art if and only if x is a work in practice P and P is one of the arts. Yet (R) has appeared so far from obvious that nobody has given it a moment’s thought. The trouble is not that anyone might seriously deny the truth of (R), but rather that they will find it uninformative. After all, the vexing question is pressed upon us by radical changes in art of the avant-garde, and (R) offers no resources to address these changes. With that in mind, here is the case for (R). The challenges posed by the avant-garde are real enough and they need to be addressed, but the vexing question is the wrong question to ask to address them. It does not follow that the question has no good answer. On the contrary, (R) is all the answer we need, if we do not need an answer that addresses the challenges posed by the avant-garde. Moreover, (R) points to a question that we do need answered. So, not only is it true but, in addition, (R) is as informative as we need.

Comment: This text offers a good introduction to contemporary sceptical attitudes towards the classificatory project. The current debate is presented as likely unresolvable and the choice of a theory as largely a matter of opinion. Lopes makes a good case for his title: why should we care about a defining art? The text is full of controversial points and hooks for class discussion.

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Lorand, Ruth, , . Classifications and the Philosophical Understanding of Art
2002, Journal of Aesthetic Education 36: 78–96.
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Content: Lorand argues against Kivy and others who claim that philosophising about various forms of art needs no theory of art, and suggests that it’s time to resume the inquiry into the nature of art. In fact, any satisfactory theorising about any specific issues (such as characteristics of an art form) must be ‘linked to a higher, more general level that functions as its source for basic suppositions and definitions’ (79, such as a theory of art). Lorand then discusses some reasons why one might renounce the classificatory project, including Weitz’s open concept argument. She introduces a distinction between classificatory definitions and the philosophical question. The former depend on the norms, traditions and beliefs present within a given context, and has been the focus of most theories of art. But it only distracts us from the more worthwhile philosophical question about the (elusive) essence of art. A discussion of the distinction between the classificatory and evaluative uses of ‘art’ follows, with Kant, Mothersill and Dickie at its focus. It leads Lorand to arguing for a ‘Platonic’ approach, one focusing on uncovering art’s essence, without the distraction of classification which can merely uncover ‘current social trends’ (93).

Comment: This text can be useful in three ways. Firstly, it introduces and discusses some anti-essentialist arguments. Secondly, it draws attention to some common characteristics of different definitions – their focus on necessary and sufficient conditions. Finally, it claims that looking for the essence of art is possible and more important from mere classification. All of these can inspire interesting discussions, though it will be worth pointing out that Lorand’s arguments are more controversial than she makes them seem.

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Monseré, Annelies, , . Non-Western Art and the Concept of Art: Can Cluster Theories of Art Account for the Universality of Art?
2012, Estetika 49(2): 148-165.
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Abstract: This essay seeks to demonstrate that there are no compelling reasons to exclude non-Western artefacts from the domain of art. Any theory of art must therefore account for the universality of the concept of art. It cannot simply start from ‘our’ art traditions and extend these conceptions to other cultures, since this would imply cultural appropriation, nor can it resolve the matter simply by formulating separate criteria for non-Western art, since this would imply that there is no unity in the concept of art. At first sight, cluster theories of art seem capable of accounting for the universality of art since they (can) start from a broad cross-cultural range of artworks and nowhere seem to extend one conception of art to other conceptions. Yet cluster theories remain unsatisfactory, because they can neither avoid misapplication of the proposed criteria, nor clarify the unity in the concept of art.

Comment: Due to the focused character of this paper it is best used as a further reading, or a core reading in courses focusing on cluster theories or non-Western art. The first part offers an interesting discussion of the requirements which a successful theory of art should meet: it should be able to account for the cultural diversity of art. The critique of cluster accounts offered in the second part of the paper focuses on their Western-centric character. It can be useful to discuss whether they could be modified in ways which would allow them to stand against Monseré’s criticism, or whether it is in fact at all possible to formulate a definition which will be flexible enough to account for arts of all cultures, yet general enough to capture ‘art’ as a unified concept.

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Saw, Ruth, , . What Is a “Work of Art”?
1961, Philosophy, 36: 18–29.
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Abstract: This examination of the concept “work of art” has been prompted by the desire to find a starting point for aesthetic inquiry which, to begin with at any rate, will arouse no dispute. A claim for general agreement such as Clive Bell’s: “The starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a pecular emotion”, is countered by I. A. Richards’s “the phantom aesthetic state”, and any attempt to claim “beauty” as the central concept is straightway confused by the varied contexts in which “beauty” and “beautiful” may function. We hear much more often of a beautiful stroke in cricket than in painting, and many of our moral judgments have an aesthetic flavour. An action may be bold, dashing, mean, underhanded, unimaginative, cringing, fine, as well as right or wrong. Aesthetic adjectives and adverbs may occur in any context, and part of our job is to separate out the various uses and establish their inter-relationships.

Comment: The text is written in an approachable and somewhat digressive narrative, which makes it a pleasant read, but might require the lecturer to provide the students with some reading guidance. The classificatory account proposed by Saw is rather general – discussing it might be instructive in helping the students understand what sort of conditions are likely to be successful in a definition. The claim which can inspire most class discussion concerns the distinction between the qualities of works which make them art in the classificatory sense, from the qualities which are subject of appraisal.

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Tillinghast, Lauren, , . Essence and Anti-Essentialism about Art
2004, The British Journal of Aesthetics 44: 167–83.
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Abstract: I argue that clarity about essence provides the tools both to isolate a distinct concept of art and to see why anti-essentialism is a plausible, though incomplete, doctrine about it. While this concept is not the only concept currently expressed by our word ‘art’, it is an interesting, and might be an important, one. One of the challenges it poses to conceptual analysis is to explain what it is to be better than being good of a thing’s kind, where this extra-goodness is neither a trivial fact nor simply a matter of being a good instance of two different kinds of thing. While anti-essentialism seems to be right about what types of analysis will not work for it, this result only deepens the question of what its proper analysis is.

Comment: This text offers a detailed analysis of anti-essentialist claims. It is quite complex and long, which makes it much more suited for Masters level teaching. For use in undergraduate classes, I recommend limiting it to the first two sections which focus on the problems of anti-essentialism. Those problems will likely be the most interesting discussion point for seminars. It will also be useful to talk about the good-guaranteeing sense of art: what is its importance and how do claims made in its context relate to existing definitions of art?

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Werhane, Patricia H., , . Evaluating the Classificatory Process
1979, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 37: 352–54.
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Content: In this short discussion paper, Werhane challenges the distinction between the classificatory and evaluative senses of ‘art’ defended by George Dickie. Many of the criteria which matter in the selective classificatory process are evaluative in nature, and thus even institutional classification of art depends on evaluation. This means that sometimes people whom institutionalists would interpret as using ‘art’ in the evaluative sense (e.g. in saying: ‘this is not art!’), should rather be seen as using it in the classificatory sense, evaluating the classificatory process (e.g. meaning: ‘the process which led to classifying this as art is wrong, because this should not be classified as art’).

Comment: Despite its focus on the institutional definitions of art, this paper can have a wider application to the general discussion on the possibility and appropriateness of separating the classificatory and evaluative uses of the concept ‘art’. This makes it particularly well suited as a further reading in teaching on the proceduralist-functionalist debate (or, since it is very short, an extra required reading).

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