Why and how should
art be defined broadly but critically?

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Describing art as manufactured forms that primarily involve us in aesthetic aspects of experience suggests that a great variety of objects can be called art. We also often use the word "beautiful" in relation to art.

� Does something have to be beautiful to be called art?
� Does the subject of the work have to be momentous for the work to be important?
� Can works with "ordinary" subjects be important works of art?
� Can works that deviate from representing the natural world be works of art?
� Can works that have no recognizable subject -- nonobjective works -- be considered art?
� What do we respond to if there is nothing to recognize?
� Can works that are designed primarily to sell things be called art?

These are the types of questions that can stimulate us to think productively about the nature of art. One of the most provocative questions we can ask relates to the differences that exist between the many things we may designate as art. Are all works of art equally significant? Even though they may share the potential to involve us in their aesthetic qualities, it would be ridiculous to believe that a beautifully crafted bowl is as important as Michelangelo's David. Why?

This fourteen foot tall marble sculpture, started in 1501 when Michelangelo was 25, stands today in the Academy Gallery in Florence, Italy. David is recognized as one of the great masterpieces in the history of Western Art and as a superb example of works produced during the Italian Renaissance. This sculpture is the artist's interpretation of the heroic biblical tale of the boy, David, slaying the Philistine giant, Goliath. But David transcends both the time in which it was created and the subject it depicts. This extraordinary work of art serves today as a visual metaphor for aspects of character that are greatly valued in human beings: strength, grace and determination as one confronts life's challenges.

There appears to be a need to make some discriminations among works of art. What might some of the distinguishing factors be? Is it just a matter of personal taste? How might we define art broadly but critically? The chart that follows diagrams one way to think about these distinctions.

commercial products

prophetic significance
historical value
social and moral value
innovative significance

The Extent to Which Object/Events Involve Us Aesthetically
Forms that are capable of evoking responses to their aesthetic qualities are represented by the black line. This line is conceived as a continuum that ranges from works that involve us minimally (on the left) to works of art that move us deeply and profoundly. Such works range from current popular forms to recognized masterpieces that have withstood the "test of time." This framework could incorporate many types of manufactured objects from clothing to a particular office building, from monumental sculpture to works such as this simple 1,000 year old Chinese jar.



Glazed Clay Jar,
Song Dynasty (960-1279),
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.






This deceptively simple form achieves its extraordinary beauty through its subtle variations of warm to cool colors and the dynamic contrast between the bulk of the body of the jar and its diminutive handles.

How do we engage in the aesthetic analysis of works of art?
How do we make sense out of works of art? Very often a work's vital statistics (names, dates, styles) and its creator's views (if known) are the only items of information available. Can we only comment about a work's subject and the degree to which it is liked or disliked?

It is as if the question "what does a work of art express" can only be answered by citing its vital statistics, discovering the intentions of the artist or, even more frequently, by leaving it to personal preference; i.e., whatever one believes it expresses.
While these approaches have their merits they also have one great limitation: the expressive import of the work -- its content that involves us most profoundly in its aesthetic character, the primary basis for its emotional appeal -- is seldom investigated.
The most productive response to the question "what does a work of art express" is simply that it expresses itself! The feelings or thoughts evoked as a result of contemplating the work should be based primarily upon what is actually seen in the work; i.e. what belongs to the work, its actual properties.


The sequence of questions should be: what do we actually see? how is what is seen organized? and what emotions and ideas are evoked as a result of what has been observed? In what follows, how these questions can be answered will be demonstrated



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