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About Art - Defining Art.

Updated on March 31, 2013

The Urinal Fountain by Marcel Duchamp in Tate Modern

What really is art? Where is it going?
What really is art? Where is it going? | Source

Some people couldn't care less about art, whilst others devote their entire lives to it. Some even say it's the only thing worth living for, others rarely notice it at all.

But what makes art, art? Is there really a way to know where the line is drawn?

Defining Art

Defining art is difficult and controversial. As a result, there have been numerous theories on how best to define the beast. The major ones are covered in this article and include the following:

  1. Family Resemblance Theory
  2. Significant Form Theory
  3. Idealist Theory
  4. Institutional Theory

1. Family Resemblance Theory

Although everyone in your family is related, they all look very different - others might not be able to tell whether someone is your family member without you informing them.

The same idea can be applied to art, where various forms of art still belong to the 'art family' even though they look entirely different. Sculptures, paintings and poetry are all very different - but they're still all art.

In a family, everyone is connected via their genes or upbringing - but what connects the family of art? What characteristic actually links a sculpture to a painting, and is this link only present in art e.g. you may say that art is beautiful but then we also say that trees and people are beautiful - are they all art too?

2. Significant Form Theory

It used to be thought that true art had a specific quality (called 'significant form' by Clive Bell) that evoked an emotion which could only ever arise from experiencing such true art. Critics therefore, are trained to identify this form in the arts, and it is those uneducated in the field that cannot appreciate 'good art'.

You should note, though, that this theory has been debunked for the following reasons:

  • It is circular, if significant form is defined as something that evokes a feeling and that feeling is something that is brought about by significant form, then there is really no definition for either term and so we cannot use them for any conclusions about art.
  • It's irrevocable *check and learn because any observation would prove the theory correct: whatever the artwork, whether it be a child's hand painting or Vincent van Gough's most popular masterpiece, an art critic can claim that anything he likes has significant form and if someone disagrees then he is clearly not trained enough to see its significant form.

So the trouble with art is that there seems to be no identifiable characteristic that links different art forms. What do sculptures, engravings and music have in common? If we can answer that, then the definition of art will fall into place.

3. The Idealist Theory

This states that the 'art' is not what is produced by an artist, but is actually the idea that he holds in his mind.

The idealist theory differentiates 'art' from 'craft' expressing the idea that anything made with the intention of fulfilling a purpose is craft and not art, and any artwork made with some form of persuasion in mind e.g. religious artwork is less valuable and of lower quality than art that was made purely to express a genuine emotion or idea.

You may have heard of the phrase 'art for art's sake' and this cannot apply more to the Idealist Theory..

The main propagator of the Idealist Theory, R.G. Collingwood, explains that arts and crafts are not mutually exclusive but that no piece of artwork is made only to achieve something else.


  • This theory rules out many things that we call art today e.g. architecture, plays, and portraits that are all created with some sort of purpose (house, entertain, immortalise respectively).

4.The Institutional Theory

This quite convincing theory explains why some things, such as a pile of bricks or the above pictured urinal (called 'fountain'), are given the title 'art' even though they are nothing like anything else we'd ever called art before.

The theory founds itself on the following two points:

  1. 'Art' is just a title given to anything by people of the art world. That means that a museum curator can take any object he likes, place it in an exhibition, and call it art. This 'christening' is all that really makes something art and it is simply because others call something art that makes it art. In essence, we create the idea of art around an object - the object itself would never have been art if no one was there to christen it with that title.
  2. The other less important point is that art has to be handled in some way by humans for use. This can be as simple as taking a piece of bark and putting it in a museum or something more complicated like the processes used to make flour (making flour potential art). In short, purely natural things like trees and oceans are by definition excluded from gaining the title 'art', allowing us to distinguish between naturally beautiful things and what we as humans call 'art'.

For the criticisms and counter arguments of the institutional theory of art see:


Which theory of defining art seems most convincing to you?

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