Thursday, November 23, 2017

How Encyclopaedias Define Art

Defining art is a complicated task, and it had been handled very differently throughout history. So how do modern online encyclopaedias and dictionaries define it?

Dictionaries are a very good source for general definitions.

In April 2016 I defined art as "any kind of creative production or service" and I still believe that. But this is only my own definition. What I wonder now is: How do people much more intelligent and educated than I define it?

Looking at all definitions of art in history is something for a PhD thesis. So for this short article I decided to roam the depths of free online encyclopaedias and see how they define this term. Is there an encyclopaedia definition personally I would completely agree with?

For the first definition let's start with good old Wikipedia ...

Wikipedia Definition of Art

"Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author's imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power."

Personally I miss the mention of written artworks, of art genres that may address senses like smell, taste and touch and of interactive art forms in the beginning of the article. Yet Wikipedia makes up for this by mentioning the other art genres in a later paragraph:

"Music, theatre, film, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature and other media such as interactive media, are included in a broader definition of art or the arts. Until the 17th century, art referred to any skill or mastery and was not differentiated from crafts or sciences."

There is also a whole article on art genres.

I agree with Wikipedia that artworks are about "expressing the author's imaginative or technical skill". Some artworks are all about imagination while others are only about skill and some are about both. However, I don't agree that art is intended to be appreciated. Sometimes art just comes out by itself without any thought about future appreciation. Yet Wikipedia makes up for this as well in the "Purpose" section of the article. I especially love how it mentions "Experience of the mysterious" as an art purpose as well.

Wikipedia has the "problem" that it has many authors. This is probably the reason why the beginning of the article (where you would expect the most general and precise definition) didn't make me as happy as the rest of the article.

Short Definitions of Art

Not all encyclopaedias deliver a whole article for a definition. In fact, dictionaries are a very good source for general definitions:

"The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.[...]Works produced by human creative skill and imagination.[...]Creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.[...]The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.[...]A skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice."
Oxford Dictionaries:

This is just a couple of sentences divided by examples. Even though they're short, together they give a pretty precise definition. I love how it mentions creativity all the time. However, like with the Wikipedia article (in which Oxford Dictionaries is mentioned as a source), I don't like the "to be appreciated" part. Not every artwork is appreciated, since appreciation is extremely subjective, and not every artwork is created for appreciation (at least, not in the first place).

"[...]skill acquired by experience, study, or observation[...]the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects"
Merriam Webster:

The first definition here surprised me with how general the definition of art can be. It's also interesting how this definition focuses more on skill rather than creativity.

A cached article from Encarta focuses only on visual arts, but it also provides a general definition:

"Art, the product of creative human activity in which materials are shaped or selected to convey an idea, emotion, or visually interesting form. The word art can refer to the visual arts, including painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, decorative arts, crafts, and other visual works that combine materials or forms. We also use the word art in a more general sense to encompass other forms of creative activity, such as dance, drama, and music, or even to describe skill in almost any activity, such as 'the art of bread making' or 'the art of travel.'"

Is it possible to define art in the wider and narrower sense while also giving examples in a shorter way? I don't think so. I love this definition.

Honorable Mentions

I would have loved to include a definition from Encyclopædia Britannica, yet it has only an article on visual arts. However, it has a very lovely article on the philosophy of art that also provides a definition:

"[A]ccording to the simplest and widest definition, art is anything that is human-made. Within the scope of this definition, not only paintings and sculptures but also buildings, furniture, automobiles, cities, and garbage dumps are all works of art: every change that human activity has wrought upon the face of nature is art, be it good or bad, beautiful or ugly, beneficial or destructive."

This is the most general definition of art I've come across so far and I'm glad I found it. I think it stresses one very important aspect often left out in other definitions: Art is human-made. I totally agree with that. Art is made by humans and only for humans. For me personally, art is one of the very few things that distinguish us from animals. And one of the many things that distinguish us from artificial intelligence.

Another article you should read is The Definition of Art by Thomas Adajian. As mentioned above, the definition of art is a very complicated topic. So if you want to dive into it, this is a good page to start. As early as in the very beginning of the article it states three important things:

"The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy. The philosophical usefulness of a definition of art has also been debated."
Adajian, Thomas, "The Definition of Art", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL:

Art Definition by Etymology

One last thing to end the article: All those definitions are great, each in its very own way, but one more possible source for a definition is language itself.

The word "art" came into the English language from Old French and it originates from the Latin word "ars" which means: "art, skill, craft, method, science, knowledge ..." According to Wiktionary, this word stems from the Proto-Indo-European word "hr̥tís" which means "fitting" and in turn stems from the root "her-" which means "to join". So apparently "art" is something that is about joining, combining and compiling, something that consists of fitting parts.

Since this word is not native to the English language, let's look at the German word "Kunst" ("art") that has preserved its Germanic roots. There's even a saying about the etymology: "Kunst kommt von Können." ("Art stems from 'can'.") This is completely true: In its original meaning, the word "Kunst" means that someone can do something, and the German "Kunst" is actually etymologically related to the English "can".

If we go back in time, we also can find the Old English word "list" which meant "art, cunning, guile, craft". This word still exists in German, though the meaning of the German "List" is reduced to "guile". "List", in turn, stems from the Proto-German word "listiz" which was probably formed from the root "lizaną". It means: "to know, to understand". So here art is mostly about knowledge and skill.

I think that etymology defines art in its deepest and most historical core, even though it doesn't really explain it. Anyway, it looks like Wiktionary is a valuable addition to other encyclopaedias and dictionaries.

And now it's your turn. What is your favourite definition of art? What do you agree with and what do you not agree with? Let me know in the comments!

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