What is a Work of Art?


Attempts to classify what makes something count as art are numerous but most traditional distinctions have been eroded. Is art defined by the materials used? or by the use of color? Where does collage fit? Is Chinese calligraphy (which uses pictographs) to be classified as painting? How does sculpture differ from architecture? Both employ mass, shape, line, light, and shadow; you can walk into the sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and apprehend them from the inside. Is a mobile a sculpture? How do we categorize the performing arts? Where are the boundaries between classical ballet and modern dance? between dance and drama? Where does mime fit in? The Japanese Noh drama is music and choreography built around the barest plot; it is so nonliterary that the lines need scarcely be intelligible. How does the cinema fit in to the arts? Like early Elizabethan drama, films were at first considered to be entertainment rather than art.


It is also worth considering that the concept of art is itself not necessarily a universal thing: until the Renaissance, such activities as painting, sculpture, and architecture were usually associated with carpentry and building; Ancient Greece had no art in our sense (the Greek techne, usually translated as “art,” is closer to our “skill” or “craft”), nor did ancient Egypt, nor did medieval Europe.


To begin with, of course, Art is a physical object. It consists of shapes or colors or movements or sounds or other things that stimulate the senses. But whatever the materials, they must be composed or organized or shaped in a special way. Aestheticians and critics speak of such requirements as harmony, balance, contrast, stress, proportion, centrality, theme, development, accent, rhyme, focus, and so on; but none of these is necessary. The essential requisite is that the materials be so formed that they are finally experienced as a unity, whether they extend timelessly through space (as do painting and architecture) or whether they cumulate nonspatially through time (as does music). The frame of a painting, the pedestal of a statue, the proscenium in a theater, the silence that precedes and follows a piece of music, and the space around a cathedral all act to enclose the work of art in what Rilke called a “circle of solitude.” Thus it is experienced as an isolated, unified, instantaneous presence.


Form, also seems to be important. It is perhaps impossible to define but its importance may help to explain why tastes and smells rarely if ever the materials for a work of art? Is it because tastes and smells do not lend themselves to structuring? or because they are received by us chemically? or because they are too closely associated with biological needs? Form of a certain kind, as we will shortly see, is of the essence in the concept of a work of art.


To define the work of art as sensuous materials formed into a unity, however, and to stop at that point, would be to commit the reductive fallacy. The status of “work of art” is not imputed to anything unless that thing is embedded in a certain social context which relates the observer and the artist. This may be illustrated by five quandaries:


1.       Forgeries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced on December 7, 1967, that it had removed from display a bronze horse supposed to have been sculptured about 475 b.c. This “quintessence of the ancient Greek spirit” was suddenly declared a modern fraud, made in 1920. The museum’s Handbook at the time described the horse as summing up “in an eloquent way the achievements of the Greek sculptor in this period,” and added that “the artist’s conception has endowed it with an additional quality which is essentially Greek - a quiet beauty which removes it from the individual to the typical.” Why was this exquisite sculpture, admired for decades by millions, placed in storage? How did it change? Similarly, the fake “Vermeers” painted during the 1930s by Van Meegeren are so good that some art experts continued to maintain that the paintings were authentic even after Van Meegeren announced his hoax. Why were the paintings removed from the galleries? They had delighted many observers. In 1762, James MacPherson published some “translations” from the third-century Gaelic bard Ossian; they were greatly admired by such notable literary figures as Blake, Herder, and Chateaubriand; Goethe wrote, “Homer has been superseded in my heart by the divine Ossian.” But when it was revealed that MacPherson himself had written the poems, no one took any further interest in them. On August 2, 1961, some prankish B.B.C. announcers in London broadcast an “avant-garde composition by Piotr Zak” entitled “Mobile for Tape and Percussion.” The “music” was a random collection of whatever sounds could be made by banging on whatever objects happened then to be in the studio. The problem presented by forgeries in the arts is not that intelligent and responsible critics may be deceived, but rather that whatever interest may be retained in paintings, sculptures, poems, and so on, that are exposed as forgeries, they are no longer accepted as works of art.


2.       Copies. Modern techniques of reproduction are so fine that only the expert can distinguish an original painting from a replica. If the differences are virtually indiscernible, why then do we perceive and appreciate originals and replicas so differently?


3.       Non-persons. Paintings produced by monkeys, or by babies trailing their fingers in water colors, no matter how attractive, are regarded only as curiosities, never as works of art. This poem was written by a computer, does it count:

            While life reached evilly through empty faces

            While space flowed slowly o’er idle bodies

            And stars flowed evilly on vast men

            No passion smiled.

            Not a masterpiece, surely, but one has read worse poetry. It


4.       Intention. Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, asks, “If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art?” What if it is produced idly, or inattentively - while doodling, even while sleepwalking?


5.       Nature. Dewey supposes, in Art As Experience, that a finely wrought object, one whose texture and proportions are highly pleasing in perception, has been believed to be a product of some primitive people. Then there is discovered evidence that proves it to be an accidental natural product. As an external thing, it is now precisely what it was before. Yet at once it ceases to be a work of art and . . . now belongs in a museum of natural history.


Analysis of these five quandaries indicates that nothing is a work of art unless it is deemed to be intentionally formed; that is, that materials (colors or shapes or sounds or whatever) are arranged (or composed or manipulated) into a unity, by a person, for the sake of doing so (regardless of any other motives) and in order to evoke a response to the artist from some other person. Monkeys, babies, and computers are not persons. Neither is nature. Men who hack furiously or inattentively or somnambulistically do not intend to evoke any response. A painting or a poem falsely attributed by its creator to someone else violates the requirement that the work of art be intended by the artist as he himself forms it to evoke your response to him, even if he knows nothing about you, nor you about him. The forger wants you to respond to someone else. (No child ever shows you another’s mudpies.) Every poet wants a publisher, every composer a performance, every actor an audience, every painter a showing. Every artist feels unfulfilled without a perceiver.


Adapted from Reuben Abel’s ‘Man is the Measure’ (Chapter 21)