Defining Art, A Dialogue in Letters. Letter I
You asked me why we need a definition of art. So I thought I would take up the challenge because it is a wonderful question.
My first reaction for why we need to define art is the universal response for why we need to define anything. That is, if we are going to have some “it” out there, then we ought to be able to describe what “it” is. What does it taste like? Sound like? Smell like, feel like, look like? And I want to know, so that I can say what this “it” is. Also, when I go to my dictionary — yes, I still use the kind on the shelf with pages in it — my hope is that there will be a few words there next to the word “art.” The word awakens such zeal in the authors of the Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) that they not only have a few words but in fact offer several pages in the ambitious hope of defining “art.”
So I submit to you my first response to the question: We define art because we need to know what we are all talking about and because we need to talk about it to others who may benefit from some definition, however imprecise and arguable that definition might be. There are certainly plenty of terms out there, terms with which we wrestle from one era to the next. History, humanity, society, and the individual all come to mind as debatable terms – and, incidentally, terms that I would argue have a close connection to art. These terms have both a fluid nature and an immutable one, and so we define them to accommodate both their evolving and their constant natures. As for art and its immutable nature, I would argue that there is some intrinsic impulse to create art and to experience art, and I would further argue that it is a fine thing indeed to try to put some definition to those moments.
With all of that said, the sages of the Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) leave me not fully satisfied, and so I turn back to you for your help and guidance. Your thoughts?