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Defining Art, A Dialogue in Letters. Letter I

Dear Alex,

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.”

You see, I (and apparently the OED as well) have this notion that the great It of art is some very important it, and we need some language to back it up.

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?

Aesthetically yours,


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. As a philosopher, the first thing I notice about the OED definition is that it is circular. It defines art by employing art in the definition (and then curiously leaves out music).

    I think definitions are helpful because evaluting art requires criteria of excellence and definitions can point us to what is worth attending to in developing those criteria.

    I’m looking forward to your discussion.

    • Yes to circularity, but that is often the problem with dictionary definitions. That is, they keep referring to other words in the book until you come back to the place where you started. As for leaving out music, that was more my editorial decision not to put too much in the quote. What is interesting is that the OED puts the visual and plastic arts in a separate definition from the performing and literary arts, using mimesis (imitation) as part of the defining characteristic of visual arts and expression as the defining quality for the other arts.

      I very much agree to your second point. More on that to come.

      –Andrew Swensen


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