Artworks are cultural objects that serve a variety of purposes. They may communicate ideas, such as in politically or spiritually motivated art; create a sense of beauty; explore the nature of perception; or generate strong emotions. They can also develop and contribute to a specific art form, such as paintings or movies. Moreover, they can be ephemeral, such as dance, theatre and musical performances; non-tangible, such as computer generated and conceptual works; or even physical objects that do not conform to artistic conventions, such as architectural renderings and models.
Traditionally, some definitions of art have focused on particular perceptible or functional properties that are shared by all artworks. Proponents of these “functionalist” definitions argue that, for example, paintings are artistic works because they share common formal elements. Other definitions of art focus on the intentions and experiences that artists and their audiences have when interacting with the work. These definitions, which are sometimes called “aesthetic” definitions, have claimed that certain aesthetic judgments, experiences or properties are essential to art.
Still others attempt to explain the nature of art by considering its relationship to other social kinds, such as literature and religion. In this view, art has a special place in culture because it can express a culture’s deepest values, as well as provide a springboard from which other kinds of truth (like metaphysics and epistemology) can be revealed.
More recently, philosophers have questioned the validity of these traditional definitions and theories. A key argument is that they rest on the assumption of an unresolvable conflict between different ways of knowing and that this conflicts are largely epistemic rather than ontological (i.e., the conflict is between a particular view of what knowledge is and the nature of objects).
In addition to these epistemological debates, some art philosophers have taken up a version of Wittgensteinian philosophy, which contends that the concepts that most definitions of art employ are prime examples of language gone on a conceptually confused holiday. For instance, the distinctions between painting and sculpture, drawing and printmaking, figurative and abstract are based on arbitrary dividing lines drawn by art historians long ago, and these divisions do not necessarily capture a real distinction in how the works actually look or feel.
A final category of argument is based on the idea that it is possible to find meaningful similarities between artworks even when they are not identical in material or aesthetic characteristics. For example, a student might compare Jack Simcock’s gloomy Cottage and Figure I to his grimly realistic depictions of working-class Midlands and northern England in the 1960s with the evocative, surreal beauty of the Pre-Columbian bottle in the form of a pig at the Museo del Prado. This sort of comparison, known as provenance research, seeks to determine the life of a work of art by finding out how it was created, what it was used for and where it ended up before entering a museum collection in which it now lives.