On Defining Art: A Quasi-Definition of Works of Art
“We are not really destroying the object, but just expanding the definition, that’s all,” said Robert Barry. This is, in a nutshell, the whole story of the marvelous adventure that art has turned into ever since the twentieth century—an adventure that is still going on today. The history of the relationship between art and philosophy is almost as old as philosophy itself. Plato, who was one of the first thinkers that addressed the topic, posed the question in the most classical way—that is, by tackling the problem of definition. For better or for worse, the Platonic theory was successful in accomplishing its task for several centuries, until artists showed philosophers that the time had come to reconsider it.
If an artwork can be mistaken for an ordinary object, this means that the conceptualization of the particular domain of reality constituted by works of art poses a real problem. Arthur Danto was led by the will to try and find an answer to such a question, when he reshaped the philosophy of art after Hegel.
Now, if we wish to briefly address the question: “what is art?” I would like to say that, from a philosophical perspective, we may say something about the concept of art by examining the objects included by artists in the domain of such concept. The answer I gave to this question—in a book that tackles the topic in a much more detailed way, entitled The Philosophy of Art: The Question of Definition: From Hegel to Post-Dantian Theories (Bloomsbury, 2013)—is the following:
An artwork is a social object, an artefact, which embodies a representation, in the form of an inscribed trace upon a medium that is not transparent.
Let me try to explain this definition by using a couple of examples. Oftentimes, artists are able to create works whose representational content means something for our mind and for our emotions. This is the reason why artworks can affect our lives more than a well-formulated argument. Evidence of this can be found in Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” (2010), a film with the impressive duration of 24 hours. “The Clock” is a true gem of cinematographic assemblage in which the separation between reality and the worlds of fiction marks the almost absolute erasure of the boundaries of temporality. Time, which is measured and indicated with obsessive constancy throughout the entire film, coincides with that of our lives in an astonishing way. The spectator realizes this immediately—at first with surprise and then with mounting unease combined with authentic enjoyment. Time passes and is measured; it is spoken of and considered throughout the whole of the film, for 24 extraordinary hours. It is measured not only by clocks that capture its rhythm, but also by memory, which travels through Marclay’s excerpts, contextualizes them, and experiences the irony of scenes that belong to a past in black and white, only to open itself to a world of colors. Across time, the answers to some of the most challenging questions are dealt with—some of them, after having been brought up in one scene, are answered in a different one, almost in a new temporal dimension. The medium is never transparent; in fact, we do not watch the kaleidoscopic collage as a collection of images but rather as a revisiting of the history of cinematography and, at the same time, of our memory.
Another useful example can be found in Irene Caesar. She is not an ordinary photographer: she considers herself a provoking artist. In fact, she loves to provoke us in order to test the validity of our ideas; that is, the conceptual structures that allow us to interact with the world. As a result, she requires something very simple of her subjects: that they incarnate a particular idea before the lens, experiencing it and representing it. “Madonna Liberated” (2009), for instance, encompasses all of these dimensions. First and foremost, it cites the grand art of the Cinquecento, along with the countless iconographic representations of the maternity scene. Caesar places a woman before her lens, a mother with her child, who is loved but is also displayed as a symbol. Only, in Caesar’s depiction, such a familiar scene is transformed, as the symbol is female. Christian theology tells us that God is male, tradition tells us that God is male, and Western art has repeated to us for centuries that God is male. And, yet, whatever God may be, God does not fall under a particular gender distinction; to think of God “also” as a woman can only help to liberate us from the crystallization of our personal and cultural schemes. It is on these grounds that Caesar quotes tradition and, by doing so, indicates its weaknesses and shatters them, demonstrating how one of art’s tasks is to call consolidated visions into question.