Since the beginnings of the XX century, with the emergence of new kinds of artistic expression such as conceptual art, video, photography, etc., there has appeared a need for defining what is art and what is not. But the search for that particular definition has proved to be difficult because of one fundamental issue: How to unite in one concept all the artistic ways of expression without ending up with a too vague definition? With the emergence of this problem, there seems to appear an even more basic question: Is it reasonable to search for a definition of art?

A good question. If we go off looking for what all artworks have in common, we may find ourselves baffled. Of course, as many people have pointed out, definitions are generally a lot harder to come by than we naively think. Wittgenstein's example of game is still a good example. Try coming up with a definition that captures all and only the things we call games. Still, it might be possible to say a little more about art. For some time now (at least since 1964) many philosophers have taken a different approach: what makes something a work of art isn't any intrinsic property of the work itself. Roughly and over-simply, an artwork is something that the "artworld" takes to be art. The prototype of this view was introduced by Arthur Danto, who would find the way I've put it far too crude. George Dickie formalized the approach along the lines of the rough formula that I've given.

This approach may sound a little silly at first, but it actually explains a good deal. Although it would be hard to draw the boundaries sharply, there really is a collection of people and institutions who make up what sometimes gets called the artworld. Recognized artists belong, of course, as do critics, curators, galleries, art dealers, art shools, art historians and on and on. As a first stab, we can put it this way: if the members of the artworld recognize something as a work of art, then it is. Marcel Duchamp's 1917 "Fountain", a ready-made urinal was controversial when it was first introduced, but it is now considered by many critics to be one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century. (See this story from the BBC.) Duchamp, of course, was challenging pre-conceived notions of what counts as art, but Fountain gradually became accepted by the artworld, and that, arguably, is what makes it a work of art. (Note, by the way: on this approach there will be plenty of borderline cases.)

Partly in the wake of Duchamp and others with his sensibility, artists have taken it as part of their role to challenge and question the ways we think of art itself. Perhaps paradoxically, when they succeed in bringing the artworld along, their new vision gets absorbed into the practices and traditions of the artworld. So-called "instititutional" and related approaches to defining art may be the best way to account for this. If you want to read more, try looking at this essay by Robert J. Yanal.

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