An artwork is an object that seems to have aesthetic appeal. Traditionally, the term artwork refers to paintings, sculptures and other objects that are not created for practical purposes (unlike a piece of jewellery or many ceramics). But recently, the idea of what is an artwork has expanded to include digital art, conceptual art, installation art and other forms of new media. Some people also see artistic performances as artworks, such as ballets or concerts.
There are several reasons why artworks have an aesthetic character. One reason is that they produce emotions that are largely independent of the objects’ function or meaning. For example, a great painting might make us feel elated or terrified. Artworks can cause these feelings by triggering our brain’s neural pathways to release certain hormones, like dopamine, that activate our innate reward system. This is the same mechanism that makes us feel good when we finish a difficult homework assignment or work out at the gym.
The second reason is that art often has a social function. For example, a painting might express a political or religious message. This is especially true of modern art. Artworks can also serve a social function in that they bring people together. A famous example is the memorial to the victims of World War I in Paris, which has a powerful emotional impact on visitors.
A third reason why an artwork might have an aesthetic character is that it is intended to be experienced in a particular way. This is the view that influenced Monroe Beardsley, a prominent analytic philosopher of aesthetics. Beardsley argued that art can be understood as a class of experiences that are “complete, unified, intense, and in some sense controlled by the things experienced” (Beardsley 1982, 299). Another famous analytic definition of art is the one put forth by Stanley Fish, which states that a work of art is something that is “aesthetically pleasing”.
It has been argued that these traditional definitions underplay the importance of what makes a thing an artwork. They also have the disadvantage that they do not offer any substantive characterization of what it is to be an expert in the field of art and thus of why experts confer art-status on certain things (Stecker 2005).
More importantly, they leave the task of explaining what exactly makes something an artwork up to the experts themselves. This may be a worthwhile goal in its own right, but it does not fully address the concern that there are some social kinds that have substantial if unknowable unity. Suppose that someone throws a cocktail party, and that the casualty rate is greater than at the Battle of Austerlitz. In that case, it is not clear why this event counts as a cocktail party even though there is collective agreement that it does. Similarly, it is not clear why this painting by Edgar Degas should be considered a work of art.