What is Art—and Why Even Ask?

Long ago, Willem de Kooning and John Cage were sitting in one of the downtown cafeterias that New York artists used to frequent. Throwing a couple of packets of sugar on the table, Cage said, “This could be art.” De Kooning’s reply: “No it couldn’t.” Neither Cage, practitioner of the I Ching, nor de Kooning, academically trained painter, was affected, then or later, by the other’s remarks. Yet I am nagged by the memory of this exchange, for it implies a question: what is art? On the heels of this question comes another: does art need to be defined? For the past decade or so, my answer to the latter question was yes, and I offered a definition of my own.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

In a series of lectures and essays I said that a work of art must be endlessly interpretable. At this point, an alert interlocutor might say, “Lots of things are endlessly interpretable. What about a psyche? What about a society?” Well, neither one of those is a work (despite Jakob Burckhardt’s notion of the Renaissance city-state as a work of art). Nor are they intended to be endlessly interpretable—for that was another criterion of my definition: to count as a work of art, the work in question had to be meant to be whatever it was. Further, it had to be meant to be that way by an individual. Intention would always be in part unconscious and the individual might be a duo, like Gilbert and George, or even a collective, but the maker of the work had to be, in some sense, singular. The main point, however, was that there could be in principle no end to finding meaning in the work. Artworks are inexhaustible.

By contrast—and I realize now that the main point of my definition was to draw this contrast—an illustration is exhaustible. You see what is being illustrated and interpretation comes to an end. Of course, anything from William Blake’s grain of sand to John R. Neill’s image of an emerald sparkling on a turret in the Emerald City can be discussed at great length. But neither a grain of sand nor a picture in a picture book is meant by anyone to be endlessly interpretable. Blake’s poetry, of course, is art by my definition. There is no end to talking about it. The same is not true of Neill’s illustration considered as an illustration. You get the illustrative point, and that is the end of it. Likewise, you get the point of a documentary work and that is the end of it. You get the point of a decorative image or scheme and that is the end of it. Illustration, documentation, decoration are exhaustible. Art is not.

I came up with this definition because I saw the exhaustible taking up space in galleries and museums that should have been occupied by the inexhaustible. Art, as I defined it, was being crowded out and this seemed a shame because I believed and still believe that the interpretation of an artwork becomes, if you stick with it long and passionately enough, self-interpretation. The discovery of meaning in art becomes self-discovery, even self-transformation. But this can happen only if meaning is inexhaustible. I love illustration (especially Arthur Rackham’s pictures for The Wind in the Willows). I fully appreciate the work of powerful documentarians. And we all like whatever decorative scheme suits our taste. Nonetheless, illustration, documentation, and decoration cannot offer what art offers, and it seemed to be important to define art in a way that highlighted its peculiar generosity.

Then, not so long ago, I told George Quasha my definition of art and he was reminded of a course he had taken with an aesthetician named Morris Weitz, who argued that no definition of art is logically defensible. In an essay called “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” Weitz argues that such definitions are always partial, not to say, biased. Rather than establishing the necessary and sufficient traits that would qualify a work as a work of art, they state preferences. Convinced, I realized that, in trying to exclude illustration, documentation, and decoration from the realm of art, I was stacking the deck in favor of the art I preferred—the painting, for example, that Ishmael finds at the Spouter-Inn, in the third chapter of Moby-Dick. This canvas is filled with such “unaccountable masses of shades and shadows” that he sees it at first as an image of “chaos bewitched.” Eventually, he makes out a picture of a whale and a foundering ship—case closed, you might say. Interpretation has reached its conclusion. Then, as you read on, you realize that the meaning of this image of boat and whale sprawls through the immensity of Melville’s novel and beyond, on inexhaustible currents of implication. So, all right, this is the sort of art that I prefer. But I recognize my preference for what it is and no longer advance a definition that would exclude illustration and other kinds of work from art’s realm. What, then, was the point of asking for a definition of art?

Think back to Cage and de Kooning at their cafeteria table. With no hope of agreement, they took delight in proclaiming their differences. Why? As I said, artists’ intentions are at least partially unconscious. With the exception of those happy to settle into a rut, artists try to bring their intentions to light—to clarify and strengthen and, it may be, reinvent them. Coming up against another’s incompatible intentions can speed the process. Awareness of who you are not can help you see who you are—or might become. In an essay called “Essentially Contested Concepts,” the philosopher W. B. Gallie presented art as a prime example (others were democracy and justice). Writing in 1956, he had no idea that the concept of art—and of the artist—would be so vigorously contested that some of his arguments would no longer apply. Yet there is something useful about his idea that certain concepts are not only contestable but, by their nature, endlessly contested. It points to the possibility that our myriad ideas of art owe some of their vigor to the challenges they face. We ask “What is art?” not to settle the question but to force ourselves up against the impossibility of settling it—an impossibility worth noting, as explicitly as we can, for it is what keeps art open and present and therefore alive.


Carter Ratcliff