Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes, the effort I put into writing is unexpectedly well remunerated. A friend of mine, P, has taken seriously my letter on art (here) and has replied with patience and accuracy, raising very constructive objections (if you read German, you find his reply here). I owe him a response, so here it is.

In my letter, I analyzed three common “positive definitions” of art: art as subjective expression, art as the work of genius and art as particular medium for communication. I argued that they all give interesting perspectives, but that they are eventually either too exclusive or too inclusive. Hence, I proposed to apply the term “art” to things and phenomena of which we lack a better definition within a language and a culture. My proposal is that of a “negative definition” for it can be applied only “case-after-case”, by excluding other definitions. As I wrote back then, ≪the term “art” can be used with parsimony as the term to explain something which other terms can’t better explain≫.

As far as I understand his answer, P has objected to three main points:

  1. My negative definition risks to exclude objects of industrial and fashion design too soon from the realm of art;
  2. It doesn’t discriminate between Artist and Artisan, for an artisan is no artist, but she can produce art none the less under the right circumstances;
  3. It doesn’t discriminate between Artist and Work of Art, making the latter dependent on the former, whereas art needn’t always be created by artists and artists needn’t always create art;

He thence concludes that we should reassess the value of “geniality”, which should be placed directly in the work of art, rather than in the artist: “the sometimes paradoxical thought of Art as a work of geniality, that originates beyond itself, that goes beyond its own conceptualization, is the sole, which does justice to these facts”.

I try now to answer his objections and comment on his final account. Starting with 1, I must admit that my definition accounts for non-primarily-useful forms of art. Industrial design would be therefore a “less artistic” form of art than others.

I think I am forced to accept my vulnerability to this point, but not because I couldn’t in principle account for design as a form of art: after all, my definition allows for an inclusive gradualism, and artistic design might even rank pretty high as a form of art in specific cases. The reason why this objection is powerful is that I link my account of art to what a community of speakers thinks and feels, and people often don’t think of design products as “artistic ones”. They would say that a painting or a symphony are artistic, but not the fork they roll up their spaghetti with or the chair they are sitting on when reading this letter. I think this first objection is sound, but I also can live with this vulnerability.

Moving to objection 2, P claims that my definition is unable to distinguish between the production of an artist and the production of an artisan. This is true but, with all due respect, why should I care? According to my definition, insofar as you can better define a product of human craftsmanship without employing the term “art”, it is not necessary to use it. That’s all my negative definition says. It leaves open the possibility that the work of the camera man, or that of the stage technician can flow into a work of art of filmography. Mine is a negative definition of art, it is not concerned with defining what an artist is if not indirectly. I can own the claim that ≪the producer of art be defined as artist≫ sometimes, but I definitely don’t think that my definition implies the “pretention” that this must necessarily be so.

I take objection 3 to be stronger for it straightforwardly targets my attempt to define art. But again, I don’t think that my definition is bound to associating a work of art with complete artistic control of an artist over it. The important point, to me, is to distinguish products of sheer chance or nature from those of human craftsmanship. Once that distinction is made, it is up to a community of speakers to discriminate between what is art and what is not with respect to their shared inclinations.

What about P’s own account, that of the geniality of the work of art? I think that this conclusion is compatible with my negative definition. They both refer to the artistic product: P’s by focusing on a property of it, mine by focusing on a shared linguistic understanding of art. However, I stick with my definition because the concept of geniality is somewhat undefined and mysterious, whereas my negative definition tells you at least when it is the case that you produce art: you do it when all other means of communication and expression are insufficient to tell what you would have told otherwise.

Forever yours,



Author: letterstoishka

Blogging philosophy student. From my busy-bee mode to the daydreaming sloth mode there’s no in-between. Someone mistakes me for a wasp.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s