On Philosophy

March 30, 2007

What is Art?

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

People have a strangely hard time defining art, and in separating art from obscenity. I think this comes from conflating, erroneously, the definition of art with some aesthetic standard. In fact there probably is no objective standard for what makes something beautiful or moving; beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, which is just a poetic way of saying that it is subjective. And because it is subjective it is best handled by psychology, which is better prepared to discuss how a person’s unconscious mind moves them to judge something as beautiful than philosophy is.

To explore what matters when judging something to be art or not consider a painting by Picasso, which everyone agrees is art, and an identical painting created by a very unlikely paint spill. Although both have the same aesthetic qualities, since they look identical, the first is art while the second is not. Which reveals that judgments about art involve something about the way the piece was created. I propose that what matters is the intent of the creator. If the creator intends to create a piece that conveys something to the viewer or expresses some idea (or, in other words, if they intend to create art) then what they have created is art (although not necessarily good or successful art). Anything created in another manner, no matter what aesthetic qualities it has, is simply an object, perhaps pleasing to look at, but not art. (This is why beautiful landscapes aren’t themselves art while photographs or paintings of them are; the landscape was not created with the intent to convey anything.)*

Art is not alone in being defined by intent. Whether an action should be punished (is criminal) also depends on intent. This is because the point of punishment is to deter people from doing the wrong thing, and thus there is no point in punishing people who have done the wrong thing without intending to, because it isn’t an effective deterrent. You simply can’t deter people who don’t intend to do the wrong thing from actually doing the wrong thing, because they are already doing their best to avoid it. Of course this fact tends to be obscured by the actual criminal code, which takes intent into account only sporadically, but that just shows that actual criminal codes are imperfect.

Which tells us something about both art and criminal acts, namely that they are things that exist only in virtue of our existence. In a world without people there is neither art nor criminality, not because bad things can’t happen without us, and not because nature can’t be beautiful without us, but because they are ways in which we categorize the products of other people, a categorization not based solely on the result but also on the way the person brought it about.

Which in turn illustrates that our conceptualization of the world is closely connected with our intentional stance towards it, as Dennett would call it. Which is a fancy way of saying that the way we look at the world is colored by how we think other people have and will interact with it. For example, something is seen as dangerous because it is likely to cause harm, a judgment not made solely because of its objective properties, but also on the basis of how we expect other people to interact with it. While such judgments are practically useful, since much of life involves dealing with other people, they are much less useful philosophically, unless we can establish by some other route that intent is relevant. Which is one of the many reasons it is a poor decision to make criminality the basis of morality, because it presupposes that a certain kind of intent matters.

* Of course here I am engaging in the kind conceptual analysis that I hate so much. But in the case of art it doesn’t matter, because art doesn’t really exist. Art is our invention, and so it is wholly defined by our conception of it; our conception of it can’t be in error because there is nothing more to it. Which is not the case when we are dealing with things such as causation, mind, ect.

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