Is Art Open?

Near the middle of last century, a debate ensued on the essentialist nature of art theory: was there an essence (definable qualities) of art? In The role of theory in aesthetics, Morris Weitz (1956) argues that essentialist formulas for elucidating a theory of aesthetics are fundamentally flawed, because in his estimation a theory of art cannot be defined. Art is not a closed concept, so treating it as if it were (by theorizing about necessary and sufficient conditions) is illogical and is a vain pursuit (p. 30). Maurice Mandelbaum (1965), in a piece meant to counter the arguments of Weitz (and other contemporary anti-essentialists), outlines what he thinks are the main points of such anti-essentialist arguments and presents his own essentialist counter-arguments in Family resemblances and generalization concerning the arts.

Because the thrust of Weitz’s argument is based on Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances, Mandelbaum begins his discussion by arguing that in any family resemblances, we are either looking for a common feature or features of the set (which may or may not be visible) to define the “family” which is itself a generalization or essential quality and acts as a kind of implicit aesthetic theory, or we do not know how things are tied together in family resemblances (since things may resemble other things that are not part of the family). Weitz’s argument centers on the dynamic (non-static) nature of the concept of art through time—the concept changes as new art forces reconceptualization of the theory of art to allow for its new foci or forms. But Mandelbaum points out that no argument is given by Weitz to substantiate this claim: it is merely assumed by Weitz and others that this is the case. Future novelty in art may in fact not change the concept of art or its definition. Weitz has not shown that it is logically impossible to allow for both novelty and defining properties, which makes Weitz’s argument unsuccessful. In the end, Mandelbaum thinks the underlying problem behind such an approach comes from the reconceptualization of the tasks of philosophy in the analytic tradition with its emphasis on solving small puzzles of specialists rather than broad theorizing or appealing to matters of fact (p. 151).

How might Weitz respond to Mandelbaum’s criticisms? Weitz might say that historically theories of art have come and gone (or have been reconceptualized) based on novelty of new art forms/foci. If this has actually occurred, his theory accounts for such occurrences and essentialist theories do not. Theories and definitions of art have expanded to fit the new forms (Mandelbaum cannot deny this). The definitions were faulty because the assumption was that art was what it was at any one point in time, and it was not realized that the set of all art was not yet complete (like calling the winner in a presidential election before all of the votes are in). You cannot define an incomplete set (you do not yet know the extent of the content). Mandelbaum might in turn respond that even though it happened that way (theories changed historically with new forms), this was not a logical necessity. Definitions and theories are not required to be prescriptive or authoritarian (p. 149).

Beyond Mandelbaum’s critique, a more fundamental argument might be leveled against the position of Weitz: Weitz begs the question by assuming that the essence of art changes with the times and with people’s theorizing about that essence. Weitz espouses anti-essentialism as part of his argument that is meant to be a proof for anti-essentialism. What I mean is this: an essentialist would hold that art’s essence does not change, even if theories about that essence come and go. They are mere approximations, while the essence is the true nature of the thing (the necessary and sufficient properties that make art art). It is okay for theories to change to incorporate new foci/forms, but the essence is not thereby changed. Weitz claims that new theories and art forms invalidate the idea of an essence, because they show it is an open concept, but this is the very question we are asking: is art an open concept?

Mandelbaum, Maurice. (1965). Family resemblances and generalization concerning the arts. The American Philosophical Quarterly, 2(3).

Weitz, Morris. (1956). The role of theory in aesthetics. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15(1), 27-35.


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