Modernism, Arthur Danto argues in What Art Is posed a fundamental challenge not only to artistic styles but to the very conception of art. As Ian Ground explains in his TLS review of Danto’s book, Danto believed that art as capable of definition even if we have lost the ability to make things that meet that definition: “If art in our culture has come to an end, as Danto once believed, there must at least have been something that it was. Danto’s famous argument from the indiscernibility of identical counterparts begins with the arresting premiss that a pair of objects (say, a painting by Jackson Pollock and the aftermath of a mishap in a paint factory) may be perceptually indistinguishable, and yet one but not the other is a work of art.”

What makes the painting different from the art work is not substance or empirical properties: “Works of art must have properties that are inherently contextual or relational. If this argument is sound, it is natural to expect that the concept of art does have a core, and is capable of definition. Of course, no particular aesthetic or moral or religious content will be part of such a definition: the content of artworks will vary contingently across time and cultures. What then is the core of the concept of art? Danto’s answer was that a something is a work of art if (and only if) it has just such relational and contextual properties: the artwork embodies meaning in the material form of the object. Very often that meaning will be substantial, multi-layered and endlessly interpretable. But, at the limit, an object may come to embody meaning, simply by virtue of being exhibited as an artwork, say, in a gallery.”Art, in Danto’s view, is a concept whose meaning is constructed through a set of institutions that enable it to embody a meaning.

There’s a great deal of virtue in this definition; in fact, it may be the only reasonable non-theological definition of art. But it’s not ultimately satisfying, precisely because it leaves out what is central in theological definitions - human beings, made in the image of an infinitely creative Creator, a God who is not only Father but also eternal Image/Ars and the Breath of eternal Music.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart