December 2004

Addendum to "Why We Need a Definition of Art"

by Kenneth M. Lansing

What is a definition?

A definition is simply an attempt to set forth the meaning of a word (or concept). It is an attempt to specify the essential nature or characteristics of something.

Why do teachers of art need a definition of art?

Teachers of art need a definition of the term in order to make sense of what they say, what they do, and how they evaluate work. In other words, they need such a frame of reference to orient/guide their teaching. Indeed, they need it to justify their very presence in the schools.

It might be said that people have taught art for years without benefit of a definition, so why do we need one now?

I believe that teachers have operated on the basis of an implicit definition or a point of view about art, which they have rarely expressed or clearly articulated. Hence, that point of view may not be clear either to them or to their students, and may therefore create much self-contradiction and confusion.

Why have teachers failed to offer a definition of art or a clear explanation of their point of view about the nature of art?

Perhaps they fear that offering a definition or a clear explanation might expose them to criticism or ridicule (ridicule being the favorite weapon of those who do not have a better idea than the one they criticize). It would certainly reveal any inconsistencies in what they say, what they do, and how they evaluate work.

It is common knowledge that candidates for political office are often advised to avoid offering a clear point of view about any contentious issue, lest they give voters or opponents something concrete to object to. Hence, most political candidates speak in vague terms--which allows each listener to read into a speech whatever he or she wants to hear. Is it not likely that the same thing happens in the world of art? Artists or art educators who want to be well received may simply avoid contentious issues such as the nature of art. And if they do choose to speak about the nature of art, they may simply engage in obfuscation.

Is it possible that some people are not really teaching art, although they purport to be doing so?

Of course it's possible. It's even probable. If the profession can't say what art is, anything is possible. That is why I have long urged that we adopt a definition of art. Doing so might also help to enhance respect for the profession, and might even gain credence for speaking of art education as a profession.

Is the avoidance of a definition of art yet another indication of a general decline in academic standards?

Yes, most certainly. Many years ago universities resisted the teaching of studio art in their institutions because, they claimed, it would lead to a lowering of academic standards. At the time, many of us were appalled by such a charge, but after working in higher education for more than thirty years, I have changed my mind.

The decline began in a small way, by the elimination of language requirements, philosophy, the classics, and other academic subjects from art programs. Even in studio courses, there has been a decline in the teaching of art fundamentals such as perspective, anatomy, color theory, the preparation of grounds and glazes, and other technical matters. There has also been an unfortunate reduction in the amount of writing that is required, and in the effort to help students think and write more clearly and logically. Hence, they produce lots of lengthy, meaningless statements--which are nonsense, at worst, or sophistry, at best. On the whole, trying to make sense of written and oral presentations in our profession is like swimming in a sea of molasses.

Finally, we have reached the point where political correctness is the law of the academic community. The avoidance of definitions is part of that mindset in art and art education. Cross the line of what is politically acceptable, and you're an outcast.

Will my definition limit creativity?

Heavens, no! It would exclude as works of art only those images or works that are difficult to perceive or irritating to perception. One could hardly say, therefore, that I have set the bar too high. Moreover, I should emphasize here that the question of whether something qualifies as a work of art is quite apart from the question of whether it is good or bad. Works of art may vary markedly in quality from low to high, and judgments of quality may reasonably differ. But there should be firm agreement regarding what constitutes a work of art. Even then, there will be ample scope for creative freedom.

Think about this for moment: In art as in all areas, we cherish our freedom, and are willing to fight for it. But completely unrestricted freedom to do as we please can lead to chaos. That is why society has adopted laws, definitions, codes of conduct, and other self-limiting devices, which permit us to live civilized lives and to communicate with some degree of reason and understanding. We have done so voluntarily. Those who would like to do away with such voluntary limits on freedom might regret it if their wishes were carried out, for there would then be nothing to protect them from the untrammeled freedom of others.

In short, definitions help us to make sense out of life. I think it was Voltaire who said "I will debate with you on any subject, but first we must agree on terms." Most of the time, when speaking about "art," we have no clear idea what the other person means by that word. Isn't that a problem?

Student teachers sometimes get impatient with talk about theoretical issues such as the nature of art, and they ask me simply to tell them what to do so that they can do it. What does this say about them?

It tells me that they are automatons and not thinkers, and therefore not likely to be good teachers. After all, we want teachers who know what they are doing and why they are doing it.

"Why We Need a Definition of Art" // An Open Letter to My Colleagues // Further Reading // Editors' Note