Essentialism and anti-essentialism in the philosophy of art  

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"What I am arguing, then, is that the very expansive, adventurous character of art, its ever-present changes and novel creations, makes it logically impossible to ensure any set of defining properties. We can, of course, choose to close the concept. But to do this with "art" or "tragedy" or "portraiture," etc., is ludicrous since it forecloses on the very conditions of creativity in the arts." --"The Role of Theory in Aesthetics" (1956) by Morris Weitz

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Essentialism and anti-essentialism in the philosophy of art.

Essentialism in philosophy of art

Folllowing the Platonic methodology, essentialism has been the predominate methodology in philosophy of art, beginning with Plato's definition that "art is imitation." This methodology has been largely popular until the mid-twentieth century with the introduction of anti-essentialism, a movement popularized by Morris Weitz ("The Role of Theory in Aesthetics"), W. E. Kennick ("Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake? ") and Paul Ziff ("The Task of Defining a Work of Art").

Anti-Anti-Essentialism About Art



"The successful specification of the definition of art has so far proven elusive. Discouraged by repeated failed attempts at the definition of art, numerous anti-essentialist philosophers have suggested alternative accounts. Kathleen Stock, for instance, argues that artworks are such only on the basis that art experts say that they are and she further claims that there is no underlying art essence.1 Dominic McIver Lopes suggests that the chances of successfully constructing definitions of the individual arts are better than that of defining art in general, and so he suggests the following alternative to the definition of art: “item x is a work of art if and only if x is a work in activity P and P is one of the arts.”2 The anti-essentialist account that has received the most attention recently is Berys Gaut’s construal of the cluster account of art.3 Gaut claims that “the anti-definitionalist project is grounded… in Wittgenstein’s remarks about family resemblance.”4 Accordingly, Gaut’s Wittgenstein-inspired cluster account consists of a list of criteria that “count toward” art status, none of which are necessary for art, but certain combinations of which are jointly sufficient for art status. If something meets all of the criteria then it definitely is art. Also, anything that is art must meet at least some of the criteria.5 The account allows for certain flexibility: if some new feature becomes recognized as art-making then it could be added to the original list of criteria. In this paper I defend the definitional project by arguing that the strongest anti-essentialist arguments are unsuccessful in ruling out either the possibility or the value of a definition of art. Based on my observations regarding a blind spot in Wittgenstein’s anti-essentialist “look and see” approach, I conclude by suggesting a possible avenue of investigation for essentialism regarding art."

See also

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