In his Republic, Plato famously asked, “Have the arts severally any other interest to pursue than their own highest perfection?” Many have pondered the question over the millennia since he asked it. Often, the question is rephrased as the statement, “Art has no purpose but its own perfection.” The definition of art has been studied by academics, theologians, and philosophers since humans began representing their hunts on cave walls with ash and ochre. It will continue to be studied and debated as long as humanity exists.
The current primary philosophical definitions of art are Mimesis, Expression, and Form. All three are steeped in history of many great thinkers. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the question, “what is art?” must be defined under these three terms, but these are the main ways aestheticists and philosophers define art.
Mimesis comes from the Ancient Greek word μίμησις, which means “mimic,” or “imitation.” Defining art as mimesis simply means that art is viewed as a representation of something important, beautiful, or meaningful.For most of human history, this was the predominant definition of art. It’s still an important definition of art. Most visual arts still fall under this definition. As a matter of fact, quality of art was judged by how accurately it represented its subject until very recently. Only after the advent of the impressionists in the late 1800s did “good art,” include pieces that weren’t fully faithful to the image they represented.
Art as expression began to gain traction in the romantic period. Romantic artists found the greatest motivation for their art to be the free expression of their emotions. Painter Caspar David Friedrich succinctly summed this up when he said, “the artist’s feeling is his law.” The definition of art as expression grew in favor not just in the visual arts but in poetry, music, literature, and architecture. By the advent of the era of impressionism, expression of the artist’s feelings was readily accepted as a way to define art.
The primary shift in the definition of art as expression was that of perspective. Throughout most of the history of art, “What is Art?” was defined by the person observing it. Adopting the definition of art as expression of the artist’s feeling was a revolution. Artists now the authority to define their own work.
Art as a composition of form comes initially from philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote in his Critique of Judgement “delineations in the… composition… constitute the proper object of the pure judgment of taste.” Broken down into lay terms, Kant said that art is defined by how it’s put together. Its subject or content didn’t really matter. What mattered was that it was aesthetic.
Modern abstract art adopted this definition as artists like Piet Mondriaan and Jackson Pollock eschewed the idea of giving their paintings a subject at all. Mondriaan’s perfectly geometric rectangles and Pollock’s frenetic drips, swirls, and splashes are both stark examples of defining art as pure form. The definition of art as form has also led to the adoption of industrial design as art. A perfect example of this is the automobile collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What to Make of All of This?
The fact of the matter is that the question, What is Art? can have as simple or complex an answer as a piece of art itself. The question of Who defines art have shifted from the observer in Mimesis, to the artists themselves in Expression, to a fusion of both observer and artist in the philosophy of Form. Ultimately, like any other matter of taste, Art is defined subjectively. The oft-repeated cliché beauty is in the eye of the beholder also can apply to art.