In “Defining Art,” Professor George Dickie takes on the long-running debate as to what precisely justifies referring to a thing or a work as art. Dickie’s strategy in doing this unfolds from his beginning; namely, he chooses to examine existing definitions or concepts, and cull from them what he requires to establish his own. He initially refers to arguments made by Morris Weitz, Joseph Margolis, and Maurice Mandelbaum, chiefly in order to note that he finds their positions largely inapplicable to the question. Dickie observes that there is validity to Weitz’s view that the term, “work of art,” may have either a descriptive or evaluative use, but he tends to discount Weitz as being confused as to the applications of the uses. Similarly, Dickie employs Margolis and Mandelbaum only in an instrumental way, in that he finds their shared view of artifactuality as a condition of art to be worth considering. The beginning of Dickie’s thinking here, however, which briefly touches on the further difficulty in attaching labels to subconcepts of art (as in literature, sculpture, etc.), leads him to assert that Weitz is ultimately correct in his view that there can be no actual definition of art.
Dickie then moves on to more clinically examine how artifactuality and social/relational properties are employed as means of definition. He refers to Kennick’s conclusion, that what is done with art is not helpful in determining artistic worth, as questionable, which reflects the social/relational aspect. Dickie interprets Kennick as meaning that, as the Egyptians buried art, they did not then perceive it as art, which Dickie sees as an unfounded perception. The Egyptians, he argues, may simply have attached different purposes for the art, so the basic conception of the buried work as art is valid. Dickie extrapolates from this to indicate that defining art need not be a function shared by cultures. If conceptions differ, the function or goal may remain the same.
Dickie proceeds to present his own ideas, based in part on Arthur Danto’s thinking. Danto essentially inverts the definition process in claiming that the viewer’s eye discerns artistic elements in the object; it takes in a variety of characteristics that allow the object to be within “artworld” (Dickie 785). Dickie applies this perception in a way enhancing the passivity of the process, as it were. For him, while the status of being an artifact is important in defining an object descriptively as art, what matters more is that, for whatever complicated reasons, the society or societal sub-group has decided to appreciate the object in a way elevating it to the status of art. There is a strong qualification here, however; for Dickie, the object is a candidate for appreciation, rather than assured as attaining such. This then essentially reinforces the traditional ambiguity in determining the identity of art, in that candidacy itself offers a range of status. The painting hanging in the museum achieves the status of definition as art, yet candidacy may exist in the appreciation of a lone individual in possession of a painting unseen by others.
Appreciation itself is then analyzed, and Dickie essentially struggles with a suitable definition of this in itself. Appreciation, as he notes, is aesthetic, and consequently more applicable to art, depending upon the motives of the creator and the viewer; the plumber who installs the urinal is not appreciative of it as art or anticipating such a reaction, yet the same urinal exhibited by Duchamp in a gallery brings with it the expectation of artistic appreciation for it. Dickie further enmeshes himself in discussing appreciative differences between paintings done by chimpanzees and by humans, holding that the site of display greatly indicates degree of appreciation, and thus the likelihood of the work as being art. In concluding, Dickie somewhat attacks a definition of art, admittedly laborious and detailed in defining characteristics, by pointing to it as “overloaded” (787); for Dickie, and returning to the quality of appreciation earlier stressed by him, art exists as such when there is someone to claim it as art. He is careful, however, to not commit himself in any way as to quality being implicit in such a definition. Ultimately, George Dickie winds through many passages here to arrive at a very simple declaration: art is art when it is maintained to be art, and the definition is removed from any judgment as to artistic integrity or value.