Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.

1. The Definition of Art

It was no doubt perverse of me, in the first edition of this book, to carry on about artworks at such length while omitting to provide a definition of art, either as a kind of skill or of activity or of object. I did not want to become enmeshed at length in a question that, however popular at the time (though less so than at present!), did not then convince me of its importance or promise any very satisfactory and agreeable resolution -- as seemed to be suggested by the well-known essays of Paul Ziff and Morris Weitz (see p. 74). I hoped to make do with a substitute general term, aesthetic object," introducing this somewhat arbitrarily for that which is the object of appreciation and of criticism, and hoping to give enough of an account of its intension and scope for the purposes of the book. In my too brief discussion of the term (Chapter 1), I now think I overstated the disadvantages of employing as my most general concept one defined (in part) intentionalistically (see pp. 59-61), and I believe I have now managed -- with the help of judicious critics over the years but also in response to a rising level of philosophical sophistication and discussion in aesthetics -- to achieve a more balanced view. But part of my original unwillingness to begin with a definition of art derived from my conclusion that nothing satisfactory could be done without making use of concepts that would have to come much later in the book -- indeed, in the final chapters -- so that an adequate definition could only be reached at the end, at which point it would not be required for developing the substantive argument. I still think this is right.

My present inclination is to give an answer to the question "What is art?" where this is understood to ask what distinguishes artworks from other things. My answer, in somewhat simplified form, is that an artwork lis an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character -- that is, an object (loosely speaking) in the fashioning of which the intention to enable it to satisfy the aesthetic interest played a significant causal part. Without entering into a proper defense of this proposal (see "Redefining Art''), I append several brief clarificatory comments: evidently, the definition presupposes an account of the aesthetic character of an experience or of the aesthetic interest (see below, Section 10). It does not pretend to correspond to all actual usage among artists and critics, for that would be impossible; but it purports to mark a distinction that is crucial and fundamental for theoretical investigation into the problems of aesthetics. The definition does not run afoul, as might be suspected, of the "intentional fallacy" which, in my understanding of it, has always been applied to the interpretation and evaluation of artworks (see "The Philosophy of Literature"); despite what a few aestheticians have argued, I see nothing wrong in limiting the class of artworks to things that have been intentionally produced -- which, of course, is not to say that everything in them was intended to be in them. Nor does the definition rule out objects in which other intentions besides the aesthetic one have also played a part: religious, political, erotic, magical. To define artworks in this way does not entail either (1) that their aesthetic intentions are in fact fulfilled, or fulfilled to some notable degree, or (2) that other things besides artworks (natural and technological objects) cannot also afford experiences with marked aesthetic character, i.e., cater to the aesthetic interest in some degree.

In the first edition, the term "aesthetic object" was given an open-ended disjunctive extension, as covering anything that is either a musical composition, a painting, a poem, and so forth (see p. 64 and also "The Definitions of the Arts"). Whether or not we may still have need for such a catch-all concept, two consequences of the proposed definition of artworks are (1) that artworks need not belong to recognized types, genres, or media (although novel ones, if successful, are very likely to become the precursors of others that will constitute a category); and (2) that objects belonging to a recognized category of artworks are not necessarily artworks (for example, something composed by a computer may be music but not art). But by and large, unless the course of art history becomes even more wildly erratic than it has recently been, artworks and aesthetic objects, considered in the way I suggest, will tend to be the same.

In response to Michael Hancher's very good critical discussion of some theses in the first edition (see his "Poems versus Trees"), I think I should plead guilty to his charge of "systematically discriminating against natural objects in favor of artificial ones," especially in light of his interesting citation of such books as Walden as examples of aesthetic "nature criticism," quite comparable to art criticism. But I believe we are basically in agreement (1) that nature has aesthetic value (see Section 10 below), sometimes to a considerable degree; and (2) that artworks in general, because of their specialized function, are richer sources of aesthetic value and provide it in a higher order. He attributes their aesthetic superiority to the greater intensity of their human regional qualities (see Section 3 below), which is, he believes, a consequence of their human source, though it must also surely be a consequence of deliberate action.

Like very many aestheticians in recent years, I have given much thought to an important alternative way of conceiving artworks, one proposed, refined, and well defended by George Dickie (see Art and the Aesthetic). But in the last analysis I have not been able to find in this proposal the substantiveness that seems to me to be required of a theoretically significant and empirically applicable concept of art. The central idea, in its original and most influential form, is that certain artifacts in a society have a set of aspects on which some person or persons, acting on behalf of a social institution known as the "artworld" have conferred the status of "candidate for appreciation" (p. 34); these are the artworks in that society. Each of the elements of this definition, carefully crafted as it is, has presented difficulties (see "Is Art Essentially Institutional?''). For me, the most troubling difficulty is that it seems impossible to give any coherent account of what the "artworld" is without saying that it is made up of people associated in some way with artworks -- and this circularity makes the proposed "institutional definition of art" useless to philosophers, art historians, anthropologists, and any others who might have need for a definition of art. It remains true and important to insist, as Dickie has, that artistic practices are institutionalized, and what gets recognized and appreciated as art may depend on a web of social factors. But like several other thinkers, Dickie is concerned to provide a definition of art that will accommodate such notorious puzzles as Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" and objet trouves -- whereas I see them as functioning as statements about art rather than as artworks themselves. (For further critical discussion of Dickie's views see, for example, Anita Silvers, "The Artworld Discarded," and Colin Lyas, "Danto and Dickie on Art.")

Somewhat in the spirit of Dickie, though more radical, is Timothy Binkley's view ("Deciding About Art" and "Piece") that what makes anything -- anything at all that can be thought about or referred to -- an artwork is its being "indexed": that is (roughly), labelled an artwork by an artist. How indexing works and how this can by itself convert, say, a pile of trash or a case of claustrophobia into art has not yet been fully explained, although Binkley seems to have interestingly articulated an assumption widely present among the current avant-garde.

Morris Weitz's original argument that no "real definition" of art (one that would supply the essential, necessary-and-sufficient conditions for being an artwork) can be given, since "the" concept of art is a "family-resemblance" concept, continues to generate intermittent inquiry into the logical character of our supposed common or ordinary concept of art -- often in support of, or in opposition to, Weitz's view. Some of these essays have been illuminating. Maurice Mandelbaum ("Family Resemblances and Generalization Concerning the Arts") effectively counters the arguments that there can be no necessary conditions of art, by suggesting that we admit relational properties; and he tenders to me an invitation -- which I am hereby accepting -- to seek such common properties in "the activity and intention of those who make" artworks (p. 5). Haig Khatchadourian ("Art" and The Concept of Art, Chapter 2) proposes a "Principle of Extension by Resemblance or Analogy," by which the concept of art, kept flexible but still under control, can be extended to novel kinds of object on the ground of significant similarities to acknowledged "paradigm cases." George Schlesinger ("Aesthetic Experience and the Definition of Art") argues that there is a "common denominator" of all artworks, and it is that each is an "artifact which under standard conditions provides its percipients with aesthetic experience" (p. 175). This, I take it, is in the right direction, although his concept of aesthetic experience, I think, requires emendation (see Section 10 below). In an essay that also makes a number of good points about the problem of defining art and about alternative approaches to the problem ("The Essential Nature of Art"), E. J. Bond proposes that an artwork is anything belonging to some art form (e.g.. music, literature); and he presents a careful account of what an art form is. Since the latter account makes important use of the concept of "aesthetic appreciation," Bond's scheme has close affinities with mine -- except, as noted earlier, that mechanically or accidentally produced instances of an artkind would not, on my view, be artworks. In a judicious essay taking off from Dickie's proposal, but rejecting some of its main features ("Defining Art Historically"), Jerrold Levinson argues that a work of art is best defined as a thing "intended for . . . regard in any of the ways works of art existing prior to it have been correctly regarded" (p. 234). This proposal interestingly combines elements of Khatchadourian's approach and mine, and may capture some features of the way the term "work of art" is frequently used and extended to new creations. But if "correctly" means something like "standardly," as he suggests, then the phrase "any of the ways" may turn out to be over-generous (given a lot of bad aesthetic habits!); and if "standardly" is to be useful, restrictions may have to be placed on it -- in which case I suggest a reference to obtaining aesthetic experience in some form (see Section 10 below). Then the historical reference becomes otiose and the definition comes close to matching mine.

It is Arthur Danto ("The Artworld" and two later essays) who has most thoroughly and most influentially argued that the concept of art is essentially tied to historical conditions and to the existence of art theory: it is only through the artworld's acceptance of a theory that a snow-shovel can be constituted as a Duchamp readymade, i.e., an artwork. Danto has not yet made it very clear what counts as a theory, or as acceptance of a theory, on his view; or exactly why, in singing songs or painting masks, people living before the birth of philosophy could not have been creating artworks without knowing they were doing so -- just as they built homes without a school of engineering and made laws without a jurisprudential philosophy. (For further critical discussion of Danto's views see "Is Art Essentially Institutional?", Anita Silvers on "The Artworld Discarded," Colin Lyas on "Danto and Dickie on Art," and Richard Sclafani's questions in "Artworks.") Of course in any society, what gets created, or approved as good art, or exhibited and distributed, largely depends on what those who have control, political or commercial or theological, will allow; and they may have various motives or justifications. So art is inextricably involved in institutions. But to sort out the social problems of art we need, in my opinion, a general account of artistic activity (aesthetically intended arranging) that is logically independent of art theory, tradition, or social institutions.


Beardsley, M. C.
"The Definitions of the Arts." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20 (1961).
"Intentions and Interpretations: A Fallacy Revived." To appear in The Aesthetic Point of View. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
"Is Art Essentially Institutional?" In Lars Aagaard-Mogensen, ed., Culture and Art. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976.
"The Philosophy of Literature." In George Dickie and Richard J. Sclafani, eds., Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977.
"Redefining Art." In The Aesthetic Point of View. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Binkley, Timothy.
"Deciding About Art." In Culture and Art.
"Piece: Contra Aesthetics." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35 (1977).
Bond, E. J.
"The Essential Nature of Art." American Philosophical Quarterly 12 (1975).
Danto, Arthur.
"The Artworld." Journal of Philosophy 63 (1964).
"Artworks and Real Things." Theoria 39 (1973).
"The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33 (1974).
Dickie, George.
Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Hancher, Michael.
"Poems versus Trees: The Aesthetics of Monroe Beardsley." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31 (1972).
Khatchadourian, Haig.
"Art: New Methods, New Criteria." Journal of Aesthetic Education 8 (1974).
The Concept of Art. New York: New York University Press, 1971.
Levison, Jerrold.
"Defining Art Historically." British Journal of Aesthetics 19 (1979).
Lyas, Colin.
"Danto and Dickie on Art." In Culture and Art.
Mandelbaum, Maurice.
"Family Resemblances and Generalization Concerning the Arts." American Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1965).
Schlesinger, George.
"Aesthetic Experience and the Definition of Art." British Journal of Aesthetics 19 (1979).
Sclafani, Richard J.
"Artworks, Art Theory, and the Artworld." Theoria 39 (1973).
Silvers, Anita.
"The Artworld Discarded." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1976).