Art is a cultural field of activity in
which people, on the basis of their talents, abilities and
skills, make a serious effort to express their feelings and
thoughts through either a work they have created themselves or
through a performance. If the expression consists in a work
(object, structure) which, after its completion, can be perceived
by other people, this field of activity is called „fine (or
visual) art“; if the expression consists in a performance,
i.e. if it is bound to the physical presence of the artist, it is
called „performing art“.
German: Kunst ist ein kulturelles
Tätigkeitsfeld, in dem Menschen sich aufgrund ihrer
Begabungen, Fähigkeiten und Fertigkeiten ernsthaft
bemühen, ihre Gefühle und Gedanken durch ein selbst
geschaffenes Werk oder durch eine Handlung
auszudrücken. Besteht der Ausdruck in einem Werk
(Gegenstand, Gebilde), das nach seiner Vollendung auch andere
Menschen sinnlich wahrnehmen können, wird dieses
Tätigkeitsfeld "bildende" Kunst genannt; besteht der
Ausdruck in einer Handlung, ist er also an die leibliche
Präsenz des Künstlers gebunden, wird es "darstellende"
French: L'art est un domaine
d'activité culturelle, dans lequel des hommes
sérieusement s'efforcent d'exprimer leurs émotions
et leurs pensées par une création de leurs propres
mains ou par une action, au moyen de leurs talents, leurs
capacités et leurs compétences. Si
l'expression prend la forme d'un objet (œuvre) perceptible
par un public après son achèvement, on parle de
"beaux arts"; si l'expression prend la forme d'une action
nécessitant la présence physique de l'artiste, on
parle d'"art d'interprétation".
This definition of art i a
proposal first put on the Internet in May 2005 (and since then
slightly modified several times), which, as far as I know, has
not yet been put up for discussion in this manner. I am preparing
a more detailed examination of the literature. I published an
essay on "Sport and Art" in September 2007 at the XII.
International CESH Congress in Lorient (France) as a "keynote".
And I gave a lecture on "Works of Fine Arts as Sources for
Sport-Historical Research" in 2016.
In the following - after a preliminary remark on
the word field of "art" - I first give reasons why and how I
define "art", secondly I discuss the limits and benefits of my
proposed definition, and thirdly I explain the elements of my
definition; finally I add a short list of selected
0. A preliminary remark on the word
field of "art"
The field of meaning of "art" is not quite as broad
as that of the German word "Kunst". As far as the word field of
"Kunst" is concerned, I have written something in my German definition of
"Kunst" that does not fit exactly to the English word "art",
as far as I can judge this as a German author. Therefore, I will
refrain from corresponding remarks at this place. Here my English
speaking readers are challenged.
1. Defining „art“ - why
It is difficult to define art. This becomes clear
in many contributions to the problem of definition. Many authors
of art studies (among others Ernst Gombrich) even assume that a
definition of "art" is not at all meaningful, useful. Some
authors (including Christian Demand) consider the intellectual
effort to define "art" to be meaningful, even necessary, but do
not offer their own definition of "art".
In principle, every scientist must have as clear a
concept as possible of the central objects of his science. The
idea that a physicist does not have a precise concept of physics,
a lawyer does not have a precise concept of law, etc., will
probably seem strange to everyone. But exactly this is declared
normal or even normative by many art scientists.
Well, first of all I am not an art scholar, but
rather a sports scientist, but on the one hand I regard myself
more generally as a scholar of culture and society, and on the
other hand I encounter a similar situation in sport science:
there, too, is the same lack of a clear term for the central
object of this science as well as the widespread opinion that
"sport" cannot be defined and therefore needs not even be tried.
I have tried to remedy this lack with my own proposal for a
When I dealt with the topic "Culture of Movement
and Sport in the Visual Arts", I noticed that the situation in
art studies (in Germany, this branch of science is called
"art history", although it is not only about history!) is
very similar to that of sport-science: Here, too, the central
concept of this science is so delimited that "art" can be
understood to mean all kinds of things. Similar to sport-science,
this way a complete arbitrariness and ambiguity in the
art-scientific discourse arise.
Those who do not want to accept this development
(or state of affairs) must face the arduous task of clarifying
the concept of "art" (as the central object of art studies),
determining its scope or limits, and that means defining "art";
and this (working-) definition must be published. This I do
hereby in the hope of a supportive resonance from all those who
strive for clear concepts in cultural studies.
A definition is intended to
determine, specify, delimit the meaning of a term. To clarify
this right at the outset: to understand a definition as a
regulation or the like would be a misunderstanding. Every
thinking person forms his individual opinion and uses words in
his/her own meaning. However, this should not be exaggerated
subjectively or constructivistically. We are social beings,
designed for exchange and understanding with other people, in
science anyway. But if we want to communicate with other people,
who have their own use of words, we must be able to clarify our
use of words, at least if asked.
Moreover, scientists must at least clarify their
central concepts from the outset, without waiting for enquiries.
If art scholars tell each other unasked what they understand by
art, they only do what is necessary; if they fail to do so, it is
a serious obstacle to understanding. In this sense, defining is a
necessary prerequisite for the scientific exchange of knowledge
Now, as is well known, definitions are not
instruments that primarily should or even could change reality;
rather, the main purpose of definitions is to make the found
(objectively given) reality in them clear and distinct.
"Primarily", "main" - with this wording I have already hinted
that in all words, thus also (or even more so) in definitions, an
idea of how reality could be is represented.
With my words (and thus also definitions) at the
one hand I don't pursue only an objectivist ideal (which is not
attainable anyway). At the other hand I don't understand my usage
of words as only subjectivist or constructivist. This means that
I accept the priority indicated above, in which both are
abolished: definitions should bring reality as clearly
and distinctly as possible to the concept and at the same time at
least indicate in all subtlety how reality could be as
There are several modes of definition: Real (or
essential) definition, nominal definition, statement definition,
ostentatious and operational definition. I propose - according to
a philosophical tradition going back to Aristotle - a so-called
real definition. It should define the essence of
the object of a term by indicating the next term level (genus
proximum) and the species-forming difference
(differentia specifica). "Mistakes" can also be made
with a real definition if, for example, it is too narrow or too
wide, contains contradictions, is formulated unclearly, contains
a negative phrasing or even the word to be defined itself
(cf. Regenbogen, Arnim; Uwe Meyer (Eds.) (2013):
Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, founded by F.
Kirchner and C. Michaëlis, continued by J. Hoffmeister,
completely new ed. by A.R. und U.M. Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2013 (=
Philosophische Bibliothek, vol. 500), keyword
If one wants to develop such a definition, as it is
offered in most dictionaries and encyclopaedias, one must first
think about to which category art belongs, which terms are
located on the same level and which is the next higher
category (term level). To assign the term apple to the
category of fruit, for example, would go a step too far, because
pome fruit is the next higher category.
For me, the next higher category for the
term "art" is "activity field". Art is one of many
fields of activity. I have already limited the abundance of
activity fields somewhat by the adjective "cultural". I will
explain the elements of my definition in more detail below.
In the second step, one must name the
"species-forming difference", i.e. what
distinguishes the (cultural) activity field art from other
(cultural) activity fields. This should be formulated as
concisely and clearly as possible, using words or terms that are
as generally understandable as possible.
Some authors conclude from the fundamental
necessity that the terms used here must themselves be redefined,
that such a procedure is ultimately circular, which would be a
serious violation of the rules of definition; therefore, such a
procedure could or should not even be attempted. This objection
is as puristic as it is unfruitful. In my opinion, it is both
sufficient and necessary to accept the circularity that is in
fact logically conceivable as a "blur" in order to gain
a great benefit in conceptual clarity in practice.
It is clear that this definition is equally
subjective, the result of an (my) action and a (my)
decision. This subjectivity is ineluctable.
Others will act and decide differently. Of course, science
consists of dealing with other subjects, their actions and
decisions - with the offer to justify one's own actions and
decisions in a comprehensible way and thus make them
When art scholars (as well as many currently
authoritative sport scientists) argue that "art" cannot be
defined, they refuse to do what (art- and sport-) science is
fundamentally about: communicating with clarified basic concepts;
they thus remain in the unclear everyday language.
All elements of my definition of art are
necessary, and only together are they sufficient. This
means that an activity no longer belongs to the activity field
"art", even if only one of the defining elements is not given.
This is a thought figure that enables clear demarcation, and this
is, after all, the literal sense of defining.
2. Limits and benefits of this
definition of art
My proposed definition differs from the everyday
and colloquial "art" term. In view of the boundless arbitrariness
of the everyday (and unfortunately also scientific) language use,
this seems to me to be an advantage. Above all, the lack of
distinction between "art" and "work of art" or their widespread
equivocation is a major obstacle to exchange in this cultural
field that is important for many (if not all) people, where they
somehow bustle about with interest, whether as observers or
consumers, or as amateur or even professional producers.
My proposal offers a very general linguistic label
for the special character of "art". I hope, however, that I have
grasped the essentials in these few words. The specific
provisions of, for example, "gifts" and "abilities and skills"
can and must be disputed - see also the explanations below!
The general and greatest benefit of such a
clarification of terms arises for the art scholarly discourse:
When art scientists know from each other what they each
understand by "art", they can - especially when they have
different conceptions! - talk to each other in clear awareness of
their differing usage of the central concept of their
Questions of taste, liking or disapproval of works
or performances of art cannot be meaningfully discussed or even
argued about. These subjective judgements of taste are formed
unconsciously and at lightning speed and they are largely beyond
rational control. De gustibus non est disputandum. Here there is
no "right" or "wrong", at best an effort for understanding. I
have therefore completely left this field out of my definition
3. Explanation of the elements of my
definition of "art"
In order to clarify for the hopefully beginning
discussion of my proposal, I will briefly explain below the
elements of my "art" definition:
"Field of activity": This is the
next higher term, the "genus proximum". The fact that
the term "art" to be defined is referred to as a field
of activity is intended to clarify that "art" is an abstract
issue, not an object, state or the like. "Art" is also not a term
for an activity, but a higher-level term for many activities.
Activities such as stone cutting, painting or singing, dancing
etc. can also be everyday activities; then they belong to the
activity field everyday life. My categorical assignment of the
term "art" to "field of activity" clearly separates this
definition from widespread assignments of "art" to "activity" or
even to "object".
Field of activity also means that people are
active here, producing or performing something. The process from
the first idea to the finished work or ( skillfull) performance
can take a long time, from discarding earlier creations over
self-doubt to the willingness to present work or performance to a
(hopefully inclined) public.
The fact that the actors are human beings (e.g. not
animals) seems to me to be self-evident, but probably has to be
emphasised; it will hopefully be made even clearer by the
following explanation of "cultural". For in everyday language,
some animals are assigned activities such as singing, dancing
etc., without in each case being clear that this is only meant
metaphorically. Canvases painted by primates were probably also
considered by so-called experts to be works of human art - no
wonder in view of very questionable principles and standards of
evaluation for "modern" art, one could note a bit "gloating".
Jurists, who traditionally attach great importance
to clarified concepts, have already in some cases had to deal
with the question of what "art" is, of which
the German Grundgesetz, article 5, paragraph 3,
(only) states that it is free. Since the dispute
was usually sparked off by "art" works (!), our highest
judges have - in the absence of clear guidelines from art
scholars - created and defined a concept of art in their
jurisdiction that refers in particular to works as "art"
(or not). My activity-oriented, processual concept of art
differs fundamentally from such object-related (concrete) concept
While according to an object-related
concept of art in view of a work of art (according to the
imprecise use of everyday language) one can ask "is this art?",
with my processual concept of art in view of a work of
art I ask "is this a work of art?", i.e. the result or product of
human artistic activity.
By the way, the concept of art in the Basic Law
(Article 5, paragraph 3) seems to me to be meant - at
least implicitly - with "field of activity" as a generic term
when it says: "Art and science, research and teaching are free.
...“ "Free" (from censorship or other state influence) are
the activity fields listed in this context "art and
science, research and teaching" - and to this extent also the
people working in these activity fields. Their works -
as objects - cannot meaningfully be assigned the
attribute "free". To understand science, research and teaching as
objects or works would certainly not occur to anyone - but why
I have not found this categorical distinction in
art studies. The activity-oriented, processual assignment
of the concept of art proposed by me seems uncommon; to
me it seems fundamental and important.
"cultural": On the basis of
natural circumstances and conditions, which are also changed by
people to an ever-increasing extent, people develop their ways of
life socially / culturally. In the tribal history of homo, the
ability for (self-) reflection is a decisive step towards the
development of communication, language and free, playful
thinking. Only after this step of development can one speak of
"art" (and other cultural fields of activity such as "sport").
Culture is the reflected, conscious shaping of one's own
development, both at the level of the individual human being and
at the level of the human species.
"talents": People are differently
talented; they have - genetically conditioned as well as acquired
through different developmental possibilities in childhood and
youth (or even later) - different possibilities to act in
different fields of activity, including the visual and performing
arts. Especially in art, the partly very complex and thereby
hardly reasonable und difficult to explain character of talents
suggests thinking in terms of "genius" and "ingenious"; however,
this characterises less the active artist than the strong
impression his works or achievements make on others; furthermore,
such thinking can devalue the importance of practise and
diligence (see the next explanation!).
"abilities and skills": The
differently gifted people develop their acting possibilities
partly by themselves, but mainly under the guidance of teachers
and masters. Abilities denote more complex possibilities of
acting; skills are less complex, more craft-like possibilities of
acting. Both can be achieved and increased through learning and
practising, in the field of art mostly with the aim of great
competence or mastery. Artists achieve this goal to a varying
degree, to which outsiders (the public) (can) make judgements and
often have different views.
"serious": Hereby I would like to
suggest that the effort (see next explanation!) aims at
the highest possible perfection. This element, too, is meant to
be grading, stepping. A "real" artist wants to be "taken
seriously" because he or she has made "serious" efforts. However,
there are also people who, out of hobbyism (in the best sense of
the word as amateurs, dilettantes), bustle about in the field of
art, but who, if they are honest, do not see themselves as "real"
artists. The "public", too, probably always checks - at least
inwardly - whether the respective work of art or artistic
performance is really "meant seriously" - of course with
individual results. Such an assessment is predominantly intuitive
and thus difficult to access in a rational discourse.
"effort": By this is meant a
"serious" (see previous explanation!) effort, not just
mere willingness. For some people (artists), this effort can
reach the dimension of existential necessity, for which they are
open for great personal sacrifices. The criterion for artists is
certainly primarily their own idea of what they want and are
able to express and how - depending on the objective
circumstances and possibilities as well as their own abilities
and skills plus something imponderable like "luck" or
"kairos". A further criterion for the artists' constant
striving for perfection and mastery is probably also
their own comparing themselves with other artists and their works
or performances, moreover probably also the processing of foreign
reactions (of the public) to their works or performances.
The will to create or perform something is probably
a fundamental prerequisite for the artist's activity, but it is
not sufficient. The (serious) effort should lead to the best
possible result. Serious and honest artists are their own
harshest critics and, ideally, only secondarily aim for the
applause of others after they themselves are completely satisfied
with their work or performance. In reality, in the often not
ideal case, artists may have to make compromises to earn their
living: Success with the public creates opportunities for
Outsiders (the public) initially judge the artistic
endeavor and its result (the work, the performance) purely
emotionally: I like it or not, I am touched or not. This (ever
individual) evaluation takes place unconsciously and mostly very
quickly; it eludes rational explanation or mediation (this is
expressed by the much quoted "je ne sais quoi": I don't
know what or why). I don't really know why something
touches me emotionally, but I'm usually quickly sure
whether, at least when I like or dislike something very
much. This is not a topic to argue about in a meaningful way.
On this spontaneous emotional basis, a more
intensive occupation with a work of art or an artistic
performance can lead to a differentiated judgement of taste,
which is to a certain extent also determined by knowledge and
experience, and can certainly relativise the initially binary
evaluation of emotions. This stage of judgement can be rationally
conveyed and communicated; about such aspects of taste judgement,
one can certainly argue with others since (aesthetic) knowledge
and experience can be acquired and practised - and taught.
"Expressing feelings and
thoughts": This is the defining element that
distinguishes artistic activity from mere craftsmanship: In art
it is not only about the production of a picture or object or a
(skillfully) presented action, but beyond that and essentially
about expressing something by the work or action, which -
hopefully, but by no means necessarily - is appreciated and
"understood" by other people.
What people want to express in art may be
stimulated from the outside (by commission, promise of payment or
similar), but in the ideal case it comes essentially from within
themselves, from their personality to which they have developed
in connection with their natural and especially socio-cultural
environment: it is their feelings and/or thoughts, their fears or
passions, their dreams or fantasies.
The artistic endeavour for expression is an
emotional matter for the artist. It is therefore useless to
argue about this as a public. You can only try to get an
(own!) idea of what the artist might have wanted to express with
empathy, intuition (intueri, lat. = to look at something
closely). The approach to such an idea via an analysis of
form, style and other elements of art theory may be helpful, but
remains on the mediated, rationalised level.
Thus, the most beautiful result of artistic
expression cannot be understood: that we as the public are (can
be) emotionally touched, moved by art works and