Works like ‘le Vide’ by Yves Klein (1959) or Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 79. Some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall.1993’ are effective also because they enact a process of subtraction: an absence in the familiar aspect and setup of the piece of art compels the viewer to rethink her/his notion of the artwork and its constituents, and this shift creates new patters of communication. Both Klein’s and Creed’s works use the frames of meaning of the white-cube, see (8) ‘Inside the White Cube’ by Brian O´Doherty, and the art-world, but they also provide us with a helpful strategy: we can remove the context of the artworld and verify what happens to the artwork. Is it still an artwork? Or does it lose its status?

We also take into account the risk that in the end we are left with a mere object (without any intrinsic value or without any particular status).

Trying to elaborate a definition of what-an-artwork-is by resorting to ‘Philosophy of Art and Art Theories‘ (1-11) is a real headache; moreover, different philosophical approaches (Bell, Dickie, Greenberg, Wolfe, Collingwood, see (7) Davies) and more recent approaches in cognitive science (Changeux, Damasio, Ramachadran, Semir Zeki, see 12-16), seems  provide arguments on both sides unsatisfactory. The inadequacy of the former approaches becomes evident when we try to verify whether they can successfully account for the “conceptual turn” in arts (D.Davies´s (7) and (11)).

On the other hand, the cognitive approach also proves unsatisfactory because its proponents (12-16) developed their researches and experiments without even clarifying what they mean by art. This fact betrays their approximate understanding of a crucial problem: how is it possible to test something scientifically, to establish certain correlations and draw conclusions on what-art-is without even mentioning and carefully weighing the extreme complexity of the definition issue? Nonetheless, the evolutionary and cognitive approach has provided and continues to provide a valuable contribution, and it can yield much more satisfactory results when integrated with the philosophical approach.  Nigel Warburton in his ‘The Art Question’ wrote ”Why do we want or need a definition at all? (…) Here are three possible uses of a definition of art: 1) To help us decide difficult case. 2) To explain retrospectively why what have been called art is art. 3) To tell us which objects in the world are likely to repay specific kinds of close attention.“  This last 3 point can help us to find why can be useful to find a definition, even if Warburton himself believe that the question what art is is unanswerable.

Despite the negative outcome of this comparative verification, the work of different thinkers remains valid and we can still borrow plenty of valuable and helpful concepts from them. I am mainly indebted to N. Goodman, A. Danto, J. Levinson, and David Davies for the concepts that build my theoretical hypothesis.

Following Danto’s analysis, an artwork cannot exist outside the frame of the artworld. We can observe that the artworld as defined by Danto has wide and blurry boundaries. A transfiguration takes place when an object is placed in a context defined by artistic theories: “Art is the kind of thing that depends for its existence upon theories; without theories of art, black paint is just black paint and nothing more. (…) So it is essential to our study that we understand the nature of an art theory, which is so powerful a thing as to detach objects from the real world and make them part of a different world, an art world, a world of interpreted things”. (‘Transfiguration of the Commonplace’, p.135).

Arthur Danto defines the artworld as follows: “the artworld provides the theories of art which all members of the artworld tacitly assume in order for there to be objects considered as art” (see ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy (1964) (…) The artworld does circulate theories about art, and expects members to know them”.

N. Carroll in ‘Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays’ provides a useful interpretation of Danto´s approach:

“Danto never states his definition of art outright. But he does seem to believe that something is a work of art just in case it (1) is about something (2) about which it projects some attitude or point of view (this is what Danto means by the work’s possession of a style) (3) by means of metaphorical ellipses that (4) depend on some enthymematic material from the historic-theoretical art world context (this material is generally what Danto thinks of as art theories), and that (5) engage the audience in interpreting the metaphors elliptically posed by the work in question”. (9)

A worthy opponent of the Institutional Theory of Art is the philosopher J. Levinson with his ‘Music, Art, and Metaphysics’ (3). Although, strangely enough, his work is sometimes akin to Institutional Theory, he clearly departs from it on several points. Dickie´s institutional thesis seems to be the main target of Levinson’s criticism(5) (…). In ‘Music, Art, & Metaphysics’ (3) Levinson states:

“In this essay I would like to begin to develop an alternative to the institutional theory of art, albeit one that is clearly inspired by it. What I will retain from that theory is the crucial idea that artworkhood is not an intrinsic exhibited property of a thing, but rather a matter of being related in the right way to human activity and thought. However, I propose to construe this relation solely in terms of the intention of an independent individual (or individuals)-as opposed to an overt act (that of conferring the status of a candidate for appreciation) performed in an institutional setting constituted by many individuals- where the intention makes reference (either transparently or opaquely) to the history of art (what art has been) as opposed to that murky and somewhat exclusive institution, the artworld. The core of my proposal will be an account of what it is to regard-as-a-work-of-art, an account that gives this an essential historicity. (…) I want to remark on two major difficulties with the institutional theory. (I pass over the oftenmade charges that the theory is uninformative, and that the key notion of “artworld” and “conferral status” are vague and artificial.) The first problem is the implication that art making must involve a certain cultural performance, (…) On the contrary, I would urge that there can be a private, isolated art that is constituted as art in the mind of the artist. (…) The second and main problem I find with the institutional theory is that the artworld must do all the work in specifying the way in which an object has to be presented or treated in order for it to be a work of art, whereas the notion of appreciation (the point of the enterprise) is not specified at all or only in the most general terms”. (‘Defining Art Historically’, pag.4).

Levinson’s contextualism identifies the following constitutive elements: a work of art is an indicated structure (vehicular medium) created by an individual(s), provided with a title, and set in a specific context (art historical context) at a specific time (t). In other words, an artwork must be understood in terms of (1) a historical tradition of regarding artworks in particular ways and (2) the maker’s intention that the product of her making be regarded in one of those ways. (…) To give an extended example of the concept-context of the artwork we can quote Levinson’s (1980) description of the historical-artistic context:

“The total musico-historical context of a composer P at the time t can be said to include at least the following: (a) the whole of cultural, social, and political history prior to t; (b) the whole of musical development up to to t; (c) musical styles prevalent at t; (d) dominant musical influences at t; (e) musical activities of P´s contemporaries at t; (f) P´s apparent style at t; (g) P´s musical repertoire at t; (h) P´s oeuvre at t; (i) musical influences operating on P at t”.

Levinson’s example of the Indian in the Amazon further clarifies his point:

“(…) Consider a solitary Indian along the Amazon who steals off from his non-artistic tribe to arrange coloured stones in a clearing, not outwardly investing them with special position in the world. Might not this also be art? (and note, before any future curator decides that it is?” (from ‘Music, Art, and Metaphysics’).

To further my argument I will now introduce a precious distinction suggested by Gilbert Harman in his “Three Levels of Meaning”. Journal of philosophy, 65, 1968. Harman identifies three different kinds of theories of meaning and points out that theories that wish to explain meaning must clarify on which level of definition they are working.

W. Sellars uses Harman’s classification as an introduction to his ‘Meaning as Functional Classification’ (17_III) (A working paper for the UConn Conference on linguistics):

“Gilbert Harman, in his admirable paper ‘Three Levels of Meaning(…)’ distinguishes three approaches which different groups of philosophers have taken in attempting to clarify what it is for linguistic expression to have meaning. Each of these approaches finds the Ariadne thread to guide us through the labyrinth of semantics in a different function of language. One group takes as its central theme the idea that language is, so to speak, the very medium in which we think, at least at the distinctively human level. Another finds its clue in the fact of communication. Still another focuses its attention on the kinship between such linguistic acts as stating and promising and a broad spectrum of social practices. Harman correctly, in my opinion, points out that viewed as three attempts to answer one and the same question, these strategies involve serious confusions, and that those who take them to be such have inevitably become entangled in fruitless controversies. He also, somewhat generously, I think, recommends that we view them as attempts to answer three different questions and suggests, accordingly, that we refrain from criticizing any one of them for failing to do what can be done only by a theory of meaning of another level”.

Harman thus summarizes his argument:

“In this essay I have distinguished three levels in the theory of meaning corresponding to the meaning of thoughts, the meaning of messages, and the meaning of speech acts. I have argued that distinguishing these levels helps to clarify three well- known approaches to the theory of meaning(…)”.

The 3 levels are defined as follows: Level 1 (the meaning of thoughts): Meaning is “connected with evidence and inference, a function of the place an expression has in one’s ‘conceptual scheme’ or of its role in some inferential language game; he specifies Sellars’ approach:

“the meanings of one’s words are determined by the role of the words in an evidence inference-action game, which includes the influence of observation on thought, the influence of thought on thought in inference, and the influence of thought on action via decision and intention.”

Level 2 (the meaning of messages): Meaning is “a matter of the idea, thought, feeling, or emotion that an expression can be used to communicate”;

Level 3 (the meaning of speech acts): Meaning has “something to do with the speech acts the expression can be used to perform”. In my view, a similar distinction can be applied in order to define the artwork. Harman give an example how to extend the use of his distinction:

“(…) the assumption that the three approaches to the theory of meaning are approaches to the same thing. I suggest that this assumption is false. Theories of meaning may attempt to do any of three different things. One theory might attempt to explain what it is for a thought to be a thought of a certain sort with a given content. Another might attempt to explain what it takes to communicate certain information. A third might offer an account of speech acts. As theories of language, the first would offer an account of the use of language (or other representations) in thinking; the second an account of the use of language in communication; the third, an account of the use of language in certain institutions, rituals, or practices of a group of speakers.”

The distinction is based on different levels of analysis. As a human activity, the process of analysis always includes a private dimension where an individual is confronted with something (a thought, meaning, language, art or other representations), but this confrontation can also be extended to a social level where transmission between people must be possible. The level of analysis can also be situated in different institutions or macro social entities. For each of these 3 levels a different definition can be formulated because, in each case, we are talking about three different things.

An artwork has a first Level of meaning (see ‘Three Level of Meaning‘ by G. Harman, 1968.) insofar as it is an effective example of a patterns of communication not yet assimilated into a standard communication system (compared to the already existent examples). Such a work is able to meta-communicate, i.e. to communicate how humans can communicate something to each other. A good candidate to be a work of art should furnish new or improved ways. A work of art is both a statement about what is involved in the process of communication of conceptual contents and an example of how this communication can take place. The proposition offered by an artwork includes manifest and non-manifest relations and does not need the frame of meaning of the artworld to function or to be effective.

The historical, comparative, and relativistic nature of an artwork (typical of the theories of Level 3 in G. Harman) postulates that the viewer has some knowledge of the history of art and art theories. Only the communities specialized in the arts, it is said, can evaluate work-of-art-candidates in borderline cases.

J. Levinson believes with many others that a definition of what-an-artwork-is is possible and comments thus on the neo-Wittgensteinian approach (‘Music, Art, and Metaphysics’, p 43):

“Wittgenstein’s attack against essentialism, and thus against efforts to give classical analyses of ordinary concepts by displaying their elements and how they are logically put together, has persuaded many philosophers of art, beginning with Morris Weitz and Paul Ziff, to pack up their tents and retreat when faced with matters of definition”.

Weitz’s Open Concept Argument:

“any concept is open if a case can be imagined which would call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover it, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case; all open concepts are indefinable; and there are cases calling for a decision about whether to extend or close the concept of art. Hence art is indefinable” (1956).

From a historical perspective, we can sketch a first distinction between philosophers and thinkers who believe that a definition of art is possible and a second, post-Wittgenstainian group of thinkers who believe that categories such as sport, games, and art are indefinable. The neo-Wittgensteinian approach has achieved great popularity in post- WWII philosophy of art in the aftermath of anti-essentialist theories of language (cf. Gallie 1948; see also Weitz 1956).

For these latter authors, we cannot fulfill the conditions necessary to establish a definition. As Morris Weitz wrote: “art may be an open concept. (…) Faced with the question ‘Is X an artwork?’, what we should do is try to detect strands of resemblance with paradigmatic instances of an artwork. If some significant resemblance to such a paradigmatic case is observed, we can rightly call the object of our scrutiny a work of art. The skeptical warnings here were a useful corrective, but it seems that Wittgensteinians in art, as elsewhere, exaggerate the extent to which cultural concepts fail to have extractable, fairly serviceable, essences. That a concept may change over time is certainly no reason not to try to discern what it basically amounts to at any given time. That a concept may lack strictly necessary and sufficient conditions of application, which is probably the case for all save those explicitly introduced in a formal context, is not reason enough to totally abandon the attempt to theorize in a definitional vein—if seasoned with a grain of salt—as to the nuclear operating conditions of the concept. Surely we can aspire to say more than that a concept is elusive, contextual, or open to the future.”

Over the last 50 years, different attempts at establishing a definition of art have been made, and contemporary definitions of art or artwork can be divided into two major trends: Conventionalist and Non-conventionalist (or functionalist) definitions. The Conventionalist definitions are again of two kinds: Institutional definitions of art and Historical definitions of art.

D. Davies draws a simple distinction between functional and procedural definitions of art: functional definitions try to define artworks in terms of their function (to express emotions or provide aesthetic pleasure, as stated by Bell and Collingwood), whereas procedural theories define art according to the way in which the status of art is attributed (Institutional theories). These distinctions will be useful in what follows. Over the past few years, functionalist theories (mainly aesthetics ones) have lost their influence, while the institutional definition and the historical one have gained more prominence.

In other words, only arts specialists can gauge whether a work is art or not. If this is true, how can an artwork exist independently from the art-world (or better from communities of arts specialists)? The difficulty with this question derives from the circular definition of the artwork proper to Institutional Theories.


For historical references on definition of an artwork:

1) ‘The Definition of Art’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Adajian Thomas, Winter 2012 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

2) For a overview about the Institutional Theory of Art and the Art-world: ‘The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld’, Martin Irvine.

3) ‘Music, Art, & Metaphysics’, J.Levinson.

4) ‘Transfiguration of the Commonplace. For short version here the essay’, A. Danto, 1976.

5) ‘Institutional Theory of Art’, George Dickie, Dickie, 1974.

6) ‘The Art Question’, Nigel Warburton.

7) ‘Art as Performance’, David Davies, Blackwell Publishing.

8) ‘Inside the White Cube’, Brian O´Doherty.

9) ‘Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays’, Noël Carroll.

10) ‘Art After Philosophy’, J. Kosuth.

11) ‘Conceptual Art’, Elisabeth Schellekens.
Read it here

Neuroscience and Art:

12) ‘The Cognitive Science of Art: Ramachandran’s 10 Principles of Art, Principles 1-3’, Ramachadran
‘Evolutionary Origins of art and Aesthetics’, watch the video
‘Mirror neurons’, watch the video

13) ‘L’homme de verite’, Jean Pierre Changeux, 2002, ‘The physiology of truth’, 2004 , CARTA: Evolutionary ‘Origins of Art and Aesthetics: Artistic Creation’, watch the video

14) ‘Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain’, 2005; ‘The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness‘, Harcourt, 1999; ‘Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain’, Pantheon, 2010, Antonio Damasio.
About Damasio
‘Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics: Art, Music, Emotion, Love and Human Evolution’ from The Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny* (CARTA), watch the video;
About Homeostasis

15) Semir Zeki, Neuroesthetics

Splendors and Miseries of the Brain‘, 2008, ‘A Vision of the Brain’, 1993, ‘Inner Vision: an exploration of art and the brain’, 1999.

16) ‘The Quest for Consciousness: a Neurobiological Approach’, C.Koch, Roberts and Co., 2004.

Philosophical Approach:

17) ‘Science and Metaphysics’, W. Sellars.

17_II) ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, W. Sellars.

17_III) ‘Meaning as functional Classification’, Archives of scientific Philosophy, W. Sellars, 1973.

18) ‘Philosophy Of Mind‘, Meaning, Mind, and Language-Learning: A Critical Study Of Wilfrid Sellars, Robert E. Czerny, Willem de Vries, Wilfrid Sellars. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

19) ‘Mind and the World’, McDowell.

20) ‘The third table, dOCUMENTA13’, n°85, G. Harman , Hatje Cantz.

21) ‘Concepts and Objects – The Speculative Turn’, Ray Brassier.
The Speculative Turn (pdf version)

22) ‘Philosophical Investigation’, L. Wittgenstein, Blackwell Publishing.

23) ‘Phenomenologie de la perception’, Merleau-Ponty.


24) ‘Metaphor, Dictionary, and encyclopedia’, Umberto Eco, New Literary History, 1984.

24_II) ‘A Theory of Semiotics’, 1979.

25) ‘Language of Art’, Nelson Goodman, 1976.