Philosophy Bites on ‘art’

It’s fairly well-established that the average person will pay more attention to things they agree with. It’s therefore no surprise that I listened to Philosophy Bites’ discussion on the ‘definition of art’ three times over. The 12-minute podcast asks how the word ‘art’ has been defined throughout history, and doesn’t come to any kind of resolution. In fact, it effectively gives up, calling on philosophers to get more involved in the discussion.

Every suggested definition was, to my mind, comprehensively refuted. Is ‘art’ something we find beautiful? No: much of ‘modernism’ – Duchamp’s urinal, say – couldn’t be called ‘beautiful’. Is it whatever the ‘art world’ calls ‘art’? Maybe, but how do you define the ‘art world’? Even if you come up with such a definition, there must always be a reason for something to be considered ‘art’, so you hit the same old problem. Even if there’s no specific reason that can be applied to all of ‘art’, something has to be arbitrary, be it the ‘art object’ or the reason it’s an ‘art object’. Stalemate.

Isn’t it possible that ‘art’ is a meaningless term? Like trying to define the offspring of a monkey and a spanner – you can play word games forever, but it’s actually an invalid concept. I guess I don’t see what it is that people are trying to explain; where does the concept come from? Is it something they think exists because of Clive Bell’s ‘aesthetic sense’? I suppose I lean towards having a thousand definitions of things that actually exist: ‘things that give people pleasure’, ‘things an individual finds beautiful’, ‘things that fit certain criteria within certain frameworks’ etc.. Trying to amalgamate these into a coherent whole makes no sense to me.

But I can’t see why Philosophy Bites wouldn’t have raised this as a possibility, if it was worth considering. Am I missing something basic and obvious?