Art Conversations: What is Art? Problems of Defining Art

The earliest cries on the aesthetic value of Poleteismo is its position as art. It is the root cause of the controversy and debate when the issue of religious offense was set aside. Various definition of art was propositioned from various sectors, including two of the most popular and opposing editorials–F. Sionil Jose’s Hindsight: The CCP Jesus Christ exhibit: It ain’t art and Raul Pangalagan’s Freedom for the thought we hate. F. Sionil Jose states that, “First, what is art? I go by this simple definition: Being an artist myself although I work with words not with the brush — if I can do it, it is not art. If I were to do the Jesus Christ commentary in oil, I would have used imagination, craftsmanship, and most important — originality. None of these basic qualities are in the CCP exhibit. Our problem as art patrons and viewers is that we have somehow lost the capacity to discern, to criticize, and also to remember. We go back to the yesteryear, the masters we studied in school, the sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, the classical writers as well, Homer, Cervantes all of them. Even without the superior implements and materials today, the many varieties of oils for the painters, and the modern cutting instruments powered by electricity, the artists of the ancient world were able to produce those sculptures and paintings that continue to delight us with their fine detail and their exquisite form. Now, we say that there is a new way of looking at things and I agree, but the old verities remain: that artists are craftsmen, they are a special people, for not everyone can draw, or write” (online). Meanwhile, Raul Pangalagan cite’s that, “The fourth fallacy is that Poleteismo deserves less protection because it is lesser art, a “mere” collage, in contrast to, say, a “real” painting. What is art, after all? If you have to ask, Rambo, you’ll never know. The CCP’s curator selected only well-known artists, and this exhibit has been previously housed at two universities, the Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines” (online). Obviously, each has a position in the artworld enough to enable them to write a these columns. It is recognized by both that to a certain extent, art has to be validated, particularly, by the institution that concerns it. F. Sionil Jose’s position, certainly places himself as an institution that can verify the art as an art, higher than the institution of the CCP, comparing the work to ancient “masters”. Meanwhile, Pangalagan recognizes the CCP as the institution that can show and decide on art, as well as recognizing other institutions–Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines as having the valid voice in granting the label of art.

As demonstrated, one of the key concepts that is brought by the controversy is the very root of artistic and aesthetic discussion–the problem of defining art. The very basic concept that will be discussed in an art class is the definition of art. What is art? Lengthened study on the subject will not bear a specific definition on the matter. Until the present time, there are numerous debates on this issue. It is most beneficial in the matter at hand to go back to the institutional definition of art, especially as espoused by three theoreticians–Morris WeitzGeorge Dickie and William L. Blizek. Though there are various points that they critique on one another, there is a basic principle that is obvious–the definition of art is highly relevant on the institution that it resides in. Aside from the galleries and auction houses that highly contributes to the market of value of art and its place in the art world, it is the academic institution that theorize, research and establish the concept of art. It is upon the book, journals and other writings published by credible writers, academics, critics and historians that largely determine the concept and definition of art.

Morris Weitz in his article The Role of Theory in Aesthetics focuses on the determination of the nature of art elucidated in the definition of it, thus answering the basic question of What is art? The definition is formulated by the identification of the necessary and sufficient properties of art (Weitz 191). He compares the definition of art with games wherein there is no common properties, instead there are strands of similarities. He says, “Knowing what art is not apprehending some manifest or latent essence but being able to recognize, describe, and explain those things we call “art” in virtue of these similarities” (195). Weitz points out that the concept of art is an open concept and its character cannot ensure a solid set of defining properties (195-196). In the study of aesthetics, he says, “To understand the role of aesthetic theory is not to conceive it as definition, logically doomed to failure, but to read it as summaries of seriously made recommendations to attend in certain ways to certain features of art” (198). For Weitz, aesthetics would apply more into the judgement of what makes a work of art good rather than what makes art, in which the exploration would likely not work.

George Dickie on the other hand goes beyond Weitz’s “generalization argument” and “classification argument” and actually gave an institutional definition of art in his article What is Art? An Institutional Analysis (207). He defines an art work as “(1) an artifact (2) a set of aspects of which has had conferred upon it the statues of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the art world)” (212). He also defines the people who belong into that art world, “The core personnel of the art world is loosely organized, but nevertheless related, set of persons including artists (understood to refer to painters, writers, composers), producers, museum directors, museum-goers, reporters for newspapers, critics for publications of all sorts, art historians, art theorists, philosophers of art, and others. These are the people who keep the machinery of the art world working thereby provide for its continuing existence. In addition every person who sees himself as a member of the art world is thereby a member” (212-213). This definition clearly has a renewed interpretation with the online world as anyone can have and does have a voice on the art world and therefore may also declare one’s self as part of it. This is also the main point that William L. Blizek will challenge.

In An Institutional Theory of Art, William L. Blizek challenges Dickie’s concept on the membership int he art world and the role that a person plays in that art world. His main objections are– “(a) It will be difficult to determine which objects in the world are works of art if anyone who ‘sees himself as a member of the art world’ can transform any object into a work of art simply by treating it as a candidate for appreciation” (219) and “(b) Many objects which are not generally considered to be works of art might be included in the realm of art simply because someone had at one time or another conferred upon them the requisite status” (219). This challenge applies especially in today’s scene as the mode of communication rapidly changed. Anyone can post anything, as a comment, critique or otherwise that are immediately viewable to a wide public. It may be open to the criticism or agreement of others. How can the conferring upon an object as an art happen by a member of the art world happen in a communication landscape that opens up the conferment to virtually anyone.

The conferment of the art world into Mideo Cruz as an artist and his work as an artwork in largely verifiable. The audacity of the controversy made the conferment of the object into art is the insistence that if there is a large number of people who declare it as non-art makes the object non-art. More importantly, the struggle of power between institutions, from the religious to the political tries to undermine the role of the artworld in the conferment of the artifact or object into an artwork. As previously cited, at least three art institutions verified Poleteismo as art–the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines. As far as the art institutions are concerned, Poleteismo is art. Can this conferment be undermined by other critics such as F. Sionil Jose, the religious institution and the political institution? Perhaps the conferment of Poleteismo cannot be undermined as an artwork but certainly the threats received including the threats of violence, the removal of funds and the removal of positions was enough to close down the exhibition. The problem is not precisely on the definition of art but the power play between institutions, the art world, unfortunately, having the least power compared to religious and political institutions of the Philippines.

Part II of Art Conversations. I am working on this topic. I am posting it here, hoping for a response from those who wants to engage in this conversation.


6 thoughts on “Art Conversations: What is Art? Problems of Defining Art

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  1. to be honest, i don’t really know anything about Philippines’ art or politics. i am thrilled to have come across this. on whether polestimo is art? on what could be art? i am still confused. on whether to what level one can criticize or reinterpret religion as an artist, that too remains ambiguous depending on the cultural mileu and sensitivity of the circumstances. but, all over, including in India I have seen the declining power of the art world compared to political and religious groups. it is high time, more people realized they are artists and just do their bit. thank you for tagging me. i am looking forward to more of your explorations of art.



    1. This is a very tricky issue. Poleteismo was an installation that used religious figures, but was actually not about religion. It was more of a social critique. It was widely publicized by popular media and enraged various groups, particularly conservative Catholic groups. Eventually, they prematurely closed the exhibition. Yes, you are right, the saddest and most frustrating part about this is the weak participation of the art world in the discourse. It was easily overpowered by politics. I initially wrote about this here: I am posting part by part my initial critical writing on the issue. I am preparing my thesis proposal around this as well. Comments from others, such as yourself is widely appreciated. I hope to talk to you more about art. Hopefully, you can enlighten me on the situation of contemporary art in India, so I can compare it with our situation here in the Phlippines.

      The introductory part of this article is here: and there is more to follow.

      Thank you again Sam, I hope to hear from you again soon.

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