December 2004

Why We Need a Definition of Art

by Kenneth M. Lansing

More than thirty years ago, I wrote a book called Art, Artists, and Art Education, and I began the book by offering a definition of art. I did so because I felt that any subsequent advice about the teaching of art or about the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to make art should be based upon the nature of the subject. Unfortunately, defining art was not an acceptable approach to art education then, and it still isn't today. It wasn't acceptable because the popular view was, and continues to be, that art cannot be defined. Most artists and art educators hold to this view as some people hold to their religion. Art cannot be defined, they say, because the things we have called art do not all have a distinctive feature in common. If they did, we could say that any new work containing that feature is a work of art, and any work without that feature is not a work of art.

I have never agreed with the popular point of view regarding definitions of art, but I compromised in Art, Artists, and Art Education. I took the view that if a true definition of art were not possible it would still be absolutely essential that instructors employ an "honorific" definition of some sort in their teaching. I offered a more detailed argument in favor of that view in an article that appeared in the Journal of Aesthetic Education.[*] I have received no reaction to that piece since it was published. But why should I be disturbed by the indifference to, or the rejection of, definitions of art in our profession?

The explanation is simple. As things now stand, we can't logically rule out anything as a work of art because the members of our profession, on the whole, cannot say what characterizes a work of art. Hence, we are in no position to set standards for teaching and learning. Yet that is exactly what people in art education are attempting to do. It is a noble undertaking, but I don't see how they can do it in any logical fashion, given the philosophical orientation of the profession. Let me explain a little further.

If art educators teach anything at all, they teach composition, artistic procedures or techniques, and skill building. But how can they justify the teaching of composition or design if there is no specific compositional characteristic that a work of art must possess? How can they justify efforts to develop skill in the handling of the tools and materials of art if such skill does not need to be reflected in works of art? Who is to say what students must know and be able to do in art if the production of art objects doesn't require any particular knowledge or ability?

Consequently, I am compelled to ask why someone doesn't entertain the idea that we may have assigned the term "work of art" unjustifiably to certain things in the past. Or is it "okay" to have thrown that term around carelessly only to discover, years later, that we can't define the nature of its referents because they don't have anything in common?

I am also compelled to ask how evaluation in art can be carried out in any logical fashion if we don't know what the subject is or what it requires. To get an idea of how important such a problem is, try applying it to a different discipline. Consider, for example, the fix that teachers of aeronautical engineering would be in if they didn't know what an airplane was.

Clearly, I believe that art can and must be defined if we are to make any sense of what we do in the classroom. The definition that I recommend is not very different from the one I offered years ago in Art, Artists, and Art Education. Visual art is the skillful presentation of concepts and/or emotions (ideas and feelings) in a form that is structurally (compositionally) satisfying and coherent. Let me explain that definition with a list of comments about the importance of its key words.

I could have used the word beautiful in place of "compositionally satisfying," but I am afraid that referring to beauty might give the reader the impression that the content of a work of art must be beautiful. And I definitely do not want to give that impression. The content involved in the art process and in the resultant work of art can be anything. It can be ugly or unpleasant, just as legitimately as it can be wonderful.

I am fully aware that in the view of artists such as Ben Shahn, whom I greatly admire, form is the shape of content, and form and content cannot be separated. But I disagree. I believe that an observer can pay attention to the way a visual image is organized without being affected by the content of that image. I know, however, that many people have difficulty in separating form from content, and that is one reason for the disagreements we have over what is beautiful and what is not. This problem requires more discussion than I feel I can provide in this short paper, but it should be welcomed in any art classroom.

Obviously, there are other problems with the use of terms such as pleasurable composition and beauty. For example, there are different degrees of pleasure. I think beauty is most closely associated with the highest degree of visual pleasure, so that's another reason I hesitated to use it in my definition. I believe that a visual image need not be pleasurable to the highest degree to be called a work of art. It simply has to be inoffensive to perception. As the degree of pleasure obtained from a composition increases, the quality of the work of art increases.

You have probably noticed that my definition of art connects the skillful process to the finished product called a work of art. That is because I don't believe they can be separated.

As far as I can see, my definition does not exclude much of what we already call works of art. It excludes only those images that are offensive or irritating to perception. It does not exclude content of any kind. But the definition does provide a basis for deciding what to teach, as well as a basis for evaluating the work done by students. For example:

Of course, there are factors other than skill and composition that determine quality in works of art, and such factors also provide guidance in determining what to teach and evaluate. I cannot discuss such matters in this short paper, but I do hope that I have made a case for defining art, and for indicating what characterizes a work of art. If we don't do that, there is really no logical explanation for why we teach anything.

Finally, I would like to call attention to the fact that books, magazines, journals, and conferences in art education have dealt with almost every conceivable topic under the sun. I'm sure these subjects are important, or people wouldn't feel the need to devote time to them. But if life on earth has taught us anything, it is that some things are more important than other things, and surely the nature of art must be the most important subject in the field of art education. If we can't come to some kind of acceptable decision about that, then the rest of the topics we fret about become even less important.

*Note: "Is a Definition of Art Necessary for the Teaching of Art?" Journal of Aesthetic Education, July 1980. In that article I took issue with philosopher Morris Weitz's position that "art" is an open concept, which by its very nature cannot be defined--a position that most of my colleagues now seem to hold. As I explained, an honorific definition of art (as Weitz noted) treats the concept of a work of art as if it were closed, by restricting it to paradigmatic examples, that is, to those objects whose status as works of art has long been agreed upon.

Addendum // An Open Letter to Colleagues // Further Reading // Editors' Note

Kenneth M. Lansing first taught art in the early 1950s on the elementary and secondary levels. He received his doctorate in education in 1956, and subsequently joined the faculty of art and education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he taught from 1956 until his retirement in 1986. In addition to Art, Artists, and Art Education (1971), he is the author of The Elementary Teacher's Art Handbook (1981), and has contributed articles to Art Education, Studies in Art Education (of which he was a past editor for Volumes 3 [1961-62] and 4 [1962-63]), and other professional journals.

"Why We Need a Definition of Art" is a slightly revised version of "A Definition of Art," published as an NAEA Advisory (Summer 2003)--a quarterly publication of single essays by members of the National Art Education Association, of which Professor Lansing is a Distinguished Fellow.