Formal Definition of Art
We start from the self-evident truth that not everything is art. Some things are art and some others are not. Understanding art involves identifying its distinctive properties. It necessarily means setting limits beyond which art loses intelligibility. Now, to claim that 'everything is art' or 'art is non-art' is precisely to deny the existence or importance of such properties and limits. But, if these claims were true, the very notion of art itself should never have come to be. In fact, the very statement 'everything is art' would never have been formulated. That the notion of art was ever formed at all is a clear sign, therefore, that such distinctive properties and defining limits originally existed and were of crucial significance. And those who seek to erase these identifying marks or to render them inconsequential fall into self-contradiction. If they are sincere, they should behave like vegetables towards art because merely arguing their case is already a tacit acceptance of the exact opposite of their convictions. Strangely enough, proponents of this pan-artistic theory who should be the first to keep quiet are the loudest in pontificating about art.
Our goal here is to rediscover these essential properties distinctive of art. In doing so, we cannot ignore the fact that the term art has had different meanings. A quick look into history will show that it has been used to designate three elements of art creation. Art can be properly understood as an ability, as an activity and as a product.
An Operative Habit
Traditionally, the word art signified what we understand today as a personal ability or skill to carry out some activity like speaking languages, playing musical instruments, or building pyramids. It is in this general sense that the ancients talked about the art of thinking, the art of warfare, the art of cooking etc. Thomas Aquinas for instance defined logic as the art that directs the reasoning process so that man may attain knowledge of the truth in an orderly way, with ease, and without error. Logic is often referred to as ars artium, 'the art of all other arts' because it is used in every science as well as in every practical endeavor. It is also in this sense that we argued whether painting is or is not a talent or that we defined painting as an art of recreating the image of the visible on a flat surface using pigments.
As we have already seen before, ability is a habit. Habits are stable qualities through which a subject is well or ill-disposed with regard to a perfection that befits its nature (entitative habits, such as health or sickness, beauty or ugliness) or its actions or goal (operative habits, such as virtues or vices, knowledge or intellectual deformation). A skill falls under the category of operative habits which are additional perfections our faculties need to attain their objects adequately.
As an operative habit, art is acquired and cultivated through constant practice. A natural aptitude for speaking, for example, can become, through repetition of acts, the art of oratory with the distinctive marks of a habit or a stable, acquired perfection. Likewise, people devoted to sciences and mathematics where methodical thinking and rigorous demonstrations are the norms have greater chances of developing the art of reasoning.
Because it is a personal habit, art is something subjective. It grows and is cultivated according to the unique dispositions of each individual. But every art also possesses some objective characteristics such as the techniques or methods proper to it. In painting, for instance, forming the image of a shiny vase or of a furry carpet is not all a matter of personal taste or of subjective emotions but also of adherence to a proven formula based on objective knowledge about the properties of pigments.
Moreover, abilities have both manual and intellectual components. Painting, for instance, involves the skill of copying and the skill of composition. The first is largely manual while the second is purely intellectual. Or, playing the piano is not just adroitness of the fingers on the keys but above all a huge memory and a sharp intellect for remembering and processing thousands of notes in the right way and the right sequence.
Art, therefore, is a special kind of human ability. Or, simply, art is a talent.
A Transitive Action
Art may also denote the action or activity that gives rise to the artwork. This is the sense used when we say, for instance, that the art of cooking is enjoyable or the art of painting is an intense emotional experience. But what kind of action is it?
There are two types of actions. Transient actions originate from the agent and affect some external objects by transforming them. Technically, these are simply called actions. They are designated by the Latin verb 'facere' and the English infinitive 'to make.' Slicing cakes, splitting atoms or writing letters are all transient actions. Immanent operations, on the other hand, produce an effect not in some external objects but in the agent itself by perfecting it. In technical terms they are simply called operations. The Latin equivalent is 'agere' while the English is 'to do' or 'to act.' Understanding, loving, listening to music or studying are all immanent operations. These two types of actions are, incidentally, the basis for the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs in grammar.
A transient action flows from the agent to the receiver of the action. It is an activity that springs from one being but affects another. Thus, in the strict sense, it is a perfection of the effect rather than of the cause. In the action of grilling a fish, for instance, the change takes place in the fish, the object of grilling, and not on the person grilling. In contrast, an immanent operation begins and ends in the agent. In every sense, it is a perfection of the agent. Seeing a fish, for example, is an immanent operation because the act of seeing does not transform the fish but only the viewer who is enriched with an increased knowledge on marine life. Every activity characteristic of sensorial and intellectual life is an immanent operation.
Art is primarily a transient action. It is an activity that emerges from the artist, goes out from him and modifies certain raw materials in order to create objects of beauty. Painting is series of actions that transforms a surface and some pigments into image. Sculpture is an activity that imparts a particular form to a block of matter. Music involves producing pleasant sounds.
This does not exclude the fact that art activity may have instances of immanent operations. In painting, for example, the conceptualization of the model may even take longer than the brushwork itself. But, since no amount of mental composition can produce a painting unless pigments are applied on the canvas, painting is classified primarily as a transient action. Similarly, until the musical artist actually starts altering the decibel equilibrium of his environment with his voice and instruments, there can be no music even if mental improvisations abound.
Some are of the opinion that the operational aspect is more essential to art than the transitive aspect. Thus, Michelangelo said that a man paints with his brains and not with his hands. This may be true in the ontological order. But, in the gnoseological order, what is immediately known is the transient activity, and terms are normally attributed to what are known first. Hence, in the order of knowledge, the transient aspect takes priority. Art is more of 'making' than of 'thinking.'
An Aesthetic Product
Art can also designate the product resulting from such transient activity. In fact, art refers chiefly to the final product. The word, art, reminds as more of the Mona Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci, or the La Pieta of Michelangelo, or the 5th Symphony of Beethoven rather than of their working habits and activities.
The interesting question, however, is "What distinguishes an artwork from an ordinary work product'" Both are external effects of a transitive activity. Both are work products. In fact, an ordinary product with no obvious relation to art, like a cup of brewed coffee, may even be praised at times as a work of art especially when it tastes really good. Is there a dividing line between the two?
Our foregoing analysis showed that for a product to be art it must first proceed from the exercise of a special ability or talent. Now, the effect of any talented activity can only be of outstanding and extraordinary quality. The product necessarily bears all the essential perfections proper to it because it is distinctive of talent to always impart everything demanded by the specific nature of its effect. But, anything that possesses all the perfections that correspond to its own nature is called beautiful in the fullest sense. Therefore, a work product is art only if it is beautiful! An ugly product, on the contrary, lacks the perfections due to it; it cannot be art.
Art is then a beautiful product created by man through the exercise of his talent. From this, one can deduce how essential beauty and talent are. Art cannot be understood without them. These two concepts are closely related to one another. Talent implies beauty; beauty presupposes talent. Talent creates beauty; beauty is the proper effect of talent. Moreover, beauty is a natural sign for talent. Certain causes can only be known through their effects; beauty is always an indication of the existence of an underlying talent while ugliness is a clear sign of its absence. Beauty is thus an external expression of talent. Together, they form the true pillars of art. Modernism tries to eliminate them by corrupting their meanings or reducing their importance. But, talent and beauty cannot be dissociated from the concept of art without causing the catastrophic damage Modernism has already inflicted on the world of art.
Analogical Meaning of Art
We have just analyzed three meanings of art. Which is the right one? All of them are valid and correct! Using any to define or describe art is not falling into error. The multiplicity only shows that the concept of art is analogical. It has several meanings that are partly the same and partly different as opposed to univocal concepts which have only one meaning. For instance, in "good beer", "good carrot", "good cat" and "good boy", the analogical concept of 'good' does not mean the same although its four meanings here do have something in common. In contrast, the univocal concept of 'man' has one and only one meaning which refers to a species of animal, the rational animal.
As a talent, art refers to its remote efficient cause, the operative habit that enables our practical intellect to accomplish its object adequately. As a transitive activity, art stands for its proximate efficient cause, the process that immediately transforms the raw material into art. As a final product, art points to the effect of art creation, the aesthetic object formed by the exercise of talent in a transitive activity. But, what is proper of analogical concepts is that there is always a central and primary meaning (principal analogate) upon which the other meanings (secondary analogates) depend. In this case, art is predicated principally to the aesthetic object and by derivation to the transient action and to the talent.
We are now, therefore, in a position to formulate a proper definition of art. It can have three equivalent forms, each one giving special emphasis on a certain aspect. 1) Art is a talent for making beautiful things. 2) Art is the making of beautiful things using one's talent. 3) Art is the beautiful object made with one's talent.
But, what is beauty?