Tradition Definition Essay

Submitted By th13ga
Words: 521
Pages: 3

Traditional definitions, at least as commonly portrayed in contemporary discussions of the definition of art, take artworks to be characterized by a single type of property. The standard candidates are representational properties, expressive properties, and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterized by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive, and formal properties. It is not difficult to find fault with these simple definitions. For example, possessing representational, expressive, and formal properties cannot be sufficient conditions, since, obviously, instructional manuals are representations, but not typically artworks, human faces and gestures have expressive properties without being works of art, and both natural objects and artifacts produced for the homeliest utilitarian purposes have formal properties but are not artworks.

But the ease of these dismissals serves as a reminder of the fact that traditional definitions of art are not self-contained. Each traditional definition stands in (different) close and complicated relationships to its system's other complexly interwoven parts — epistemology, ontology, value theory, philosophy of mind, etc. For this reason, it is both difficult and somewhat misleading to extract them and consider them in isolation. Two examples of historically influential definitions of art offered by great philosophers will suffice to illustrate. First, Plato holds in the Republic and elsewhere that the arts are representational, or mimetic (sometimes translated “imitative”). Artworks are ontologically dependent on, and inferior to, ordinary physical objects, which in turn are ontologically dependent on, and inferior to, what is most real, the non-physical Forms. Grasped perceptually, artworks present only an appearance of an appearance of what is really real. Consequently, artistic experience cannot yield knowledge. Nor do the makers of artworks work from knowledge. Because artworks engage an unstable, lower part of the soul, art should be subservient to moral realities, which, along with truth, are more metaphysically fundamental and hence more humanly important than beauty. Beauty is not, for Plato, the distinctive province of the arts, and in fact his conception of beauty is extremely wide and…