Can Art be Defined?

next    back     back to contents

by John Bourne

In view of the enormous variety of works which are called art, it is tempting to argue that there is very little, if anything, which they all have in common and therefore it is a mistake to search for such a factor.

As Nigel Warburton explains in "Philosophy: The Basics" (P122)
"This has led some philosophers to argue that art cannot be defined at all. They claim that it is a complete mistake to look for a common denominator since there is just too much variety among works of art for a definition which applies to them all to be satisfactory. To back this up they use the idea of a family resemblance, a notion used by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations."
The family resemblance view basically argues that you may look somewhat like your father and that he may in turn look somewhat like his sister but that you may not resemble your father's sister at all. The point is that there can be overlapping resemblances between family members without there being one single common feature which they all share. So, it is argued, it is a mistake to expect any one general definition which will cover all forms of art.
At first sight, the family resemblance view seems plausible. Yet, the example given is misleading because there is in fact a factor which all family members do have in common, their genetic inheritance.This flaw in the argument does not help the credibility of the family resemblance view.

And of course the fact that no generally agreed common factor has yet been found to serve as a definition of all art does not mean there isn't one. It does however signal that this is no easy quest.

next    back     back to contents