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Defining and Redefining Art: Discussion of the Problem


Defining abstract concepts, such as beauty, art, success, family, is often connected with uncertainty and multiplicity of meanings. Different understanding of the people may shape their interpretation in numerous ways. In the case of the concept of art, there are several interrelated definitions of it established by society. Reviewing these meanings and formulating a new definition, summarizing them, seems to be possible. In this essay, it will be argued that art may be defined as a concept and a process of turning non-existence into existence, as well as tangible outcome (although not necessary material product) of it.

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Established Definition

In Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there are five meanings of the term “art” as follows:

  1. Skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.
  2. One of the humanities; a special field of knowledge.
  3. An occupation that requires particular skills.
  4. The use of skills in the production of aesthetical objects.
  5. A skillful plan (archaic definition).
  6. Decorative or illustrative elements in the printed matter (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

As it may be observed, all these meanings are related to some central idea; however, this idea is not clearly defined. To make it more distinct, a dictionary’s section of etymology may be helpful. It is stated, first, that “art” is derived from Latin root art-, ars, traced back to arm – “a human upper limb” (Merriam-Webster. n.d.). Second, it connects “art” to Old English eart, corresponding with est, ert, or is. Thus, the connection with the two qualities becomes evident, e.g., with the idea of creating something and the concept of existence. Altogether, these ideas lead to the argument that “art” represents the process of manifesting unmanifested, embodying something that previously did not exist, be it the creation of the world by God, or humanly artistic activity.

This new definition covers all the meanings mentioned above, summarizing them and representing the underlying root idea. The ability to create required specific skills acquired by experience, study, or observation; these skills may be used to produce aesthetical objects. It can become an occupation and form the field of knowledge (humanities). Thus, all the conventional definitions are individual cases of the broad given definition.

The relevance of the introduced definition is proven by its applicability to all the cases, while each of the established meanings represents just one or more aspects of the concept. For instance, in most cases, the term “art” is used concerning the field of the aesthetic. In this field, the indefinite character of the definition continuously becomes a matter of debate. Fokt (2017) suggests that “art” should be understood as “always relative to a cultural context,” and “no general definition … is possible” (Fokt, 2017, p. 408). Considering the proposed definition, it may be argued that the tendency to exclude something from the list of art objects in favor of others is not relevant. In a broad sense, all the objects, previously non-existing and brought to existence by human action of thought, could be considered art.

It is important to emphasize that not only human action but also thought can enable the process of creation, i.e., making art. The example of it may be ready-made, a genre of modern visual art that interprets everyday objects as pieces of art. French visual artist Marcel Duchamp first used the term when he introduced a men’s urinal placed on its back as his artwork Fountain (1950). This action claimed to demonstrate that every object could be positioned as art if viewed from a different side. The material object has not been created or changed; instead, the very perception of it has been altered.

This example represents the interrelation of the two aspects considered to be present in an art object, namely content, and embodiment. It means that “’art is necessarily about something … and it must be manifested physically” (Gunther, 2016, p. 218). The traditional definition of art implies the assumption that the object may be defined as an artwork if it includes both. However, Duchamp’s ready-made work brings into question established views. Another example of it, an example of which is Kosuth’s installation One and three chairs (1965). It consists of three objects, a manufactured chair, a photograph of a chair, and a copy of the dictionary entry with the description of a chair. None of the objects was created by the creative “skills” of the author; instead, it was conceptual thinking that turned a usual object into artwork.

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To conclude, it may be argued that the proposed definition of art is relevant. It proves its credibility when applied to the analysis of various cases related to the concept of art, including different art objects. The definition may be considered universal as it covers all the instances of art as a manifestation of unmanifested and bringing to existence previously non-existed.


Duchamp, M. (1950). Fountain [installation]. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, United States. Web.

Foot, S. (2017). The cultural definition of art. Metaphilosophy, 48(4), 404–429. Web.

Gunther, Y. H. (2016). What art could be: Tracing the later steps of Danto’s search for a definition. Literature & Aesthetics, 26, 127-138.

Kosuth, J. (1965). One and three chairs [installation]. MoMA, New York, United States. Web.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Art. In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2020, Web.

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