Defining Art by Tom Brand


Defining art implies language. The art I am attempting to define is two-dimensional painting, which is what I do. Using language to define something that is necessarily visual means abstracting from something that is silent – painting – to another media – language.

Language can help and support the visual arts, which artists are thankful for – when it’s positive – and not so when it is negative.

I would like to quote from John Austin in his famous presidential address to the
Aristotelian Society (“A Plea for Excuses” (1956)):

“Thirdly, and more hopefully, our common stock of words embodies all the distinction men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth making, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonable practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchairs of an afternoon – the most favored alternative method.”
(Thanks to Monroe Beardsley from his book – Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present)

From the above quote, and from what I will say later, the challenge for the reader is to understand and not quibble about meanings and definitions of terms- ad nauseum. When I say “Art”, I am referring to “fine art”, not the popular arts and not crafts. These have their place and I have no argument with them. The serious practitioner of fine art must navigate through quite a thicket of expressions and categorizations. How do I follow the way of true/fine art, and do I even want to go there? (The pay is usually lousy). Why is it that in looking at the artworld today, I see things that wouldn’t answer any definition of art as commonly understood some years ago? I see oddly shaped canvasses laid with one flat color; I see rocks on a varnished floor of a museum; I see amateurish and slap dash, untutored (even) slapping on paint on cotton canvas as if the very fact that it is paint on canvas makes it a work of art. I would suggest that many artists and their representatives in gallery and yes, in museums and art schools, are working without a workable definition, or at the very least, some serious thought as to what constitutes (what defines) a work of art.

We are in a period of underdefintion in the artworld.


As you can see, the smallest area is that of “overdefinition”. This refers to those hypercritical people whose vision of the artworld is very narrow, e.g. those that will only accept the high renaissance period as “true art”. The other extreme, of course, is the larger area of the triangle – “underdefintion”, which unfortunately, I feel is where we are now. This is the crowd (I use this word thoughtfully) that believes that a work of art is art if we simply state that it’s so, without reference to any authority or standard. This is why the area is so large because without a definition, anything can be Art. All worthwhile human endeavors work with a set of standards and/qualifications that define itself. The next time you might need a bridge built or the need for a brain surgeon, I think it is a good idea to check on his/her qualifications according to some rules, models or standards.

There has always been a dialogue between the aesthetics of a work of art and its “message”. At times the message (subject matter) dominates so much so that the work no longer has value as a work of art. If in looking at a work of “art” in an exhibit and you “get” the message in 2 seconds of viewing – something clearly is missing. Telling a story is OK if that is your intent, but to make this story a work of art and to go beyond illustration, due consideration has to be made to the medium and the aesthetic. In looking at the art of the past (standing the test of time) oftentimes what remains of value to us today is those works where the aesthetic has overridden the tale – be it a Greek myth, a religious message, whatever. Let’s beg the question: what do I mean by the aesthetic?

John Dewey mentions a “confusion of categories” and said that “ultimately all confusion of value proceeds from the same source: neglect of the intrinsic value of the medium”.

What I feel is desperately needed today is a tighter definition about what artists are doing or are attempting to do. To tighten a definition of art there is the danger of restricting creativity – or a return to the “Academy”. A thoughtful balance, a narrower focus for creating works of art, I feel is desperately needed. To this end I am submitting the following points to consider:

Consideration of a work of art

1) To appreciate a work of art with any degree of satisfaction, it is necessary for the viewer to have as much direct experience with works of art as possible. If this is not the case, all of the following points are irrelevant.

2) – - -

3) There are no second or third points to consider. This is to emphasize the importance of point 1) above all other points.

The following points are in no particular order, but all are important. (Not every work of art must necessarily answer to all).

4) Complete – the work, with its own internal impetus, runs its course to fulfillment and is complete in itself.

5) Intense – As an attribute that is more felt (by the viewer) than seen.

6) Continuous – each part flows freely without unfilled blanks.

7) Well Executed – faithful to the medium; crafted; well executed.

8) Dominant in Quality – pervading the entirety in spite of variations.

9) Complex – interrelated between its parts: multi-ordinal.

10) Puzzling – the viewer solves the puzzle with consequent pleasure and fulfillment.

11) Referential – to the past history of art through an understanding of composition, color, texture, line, and space etc. This is sometimes called “formal”.

12) Creativity – the art object created is something new – not seen before; something perhaps offering a novel viewpoint. The sum of the work is greater than it’s parts.

As can be seen from the above, art is not a simple activity. One can expand each point above with examples and much more discussion. Dennis Dutton in his book “The Art Instinct” (Bloomsbury Press – 2009) makes similar points, numbering 12, with each point much more amplified.

Fine art has a long and complex history, and we should not expect it to be any different today. Iris Murdoch said “we cannot make the phenomenal world perfectly intelligible or our conduct in it perfectly rational, though the magnetic power of Reason continuously inspires us to try.” She states further that modern artists “favor the merging of art into the continuity of the world or its withdrawal into self-referential autonomous sign-play.” This last phrase seems to sum up the contemporary artworld.

The aesthetician George Dickie has made the point that the Artworld (this is his term) is defined by an amalgam of galleries and their owners, museums, art critics, curators, magazine pundits and others who have taken up the pen to explain and codify what is happening in the arts today. I think this explains the status quo. Too often, artists have joined this “movement”, if I can call it that. The wag says, “Everyone wants to get into the act”. The status quo, almost by definition, is never a creative force. Is this the reason that much of art today is banal and simplistic?


More on Tom Brand here and here.