What is art? Blog Series Part I

I’m going to write a series of posts about the philosophy of art unit I’m doing with sixth grade students this fall. Yesterday was the first session of the unit. We started by listing some of the things the students said they would consider art, which included paintings, sculpture, music, and poetry and also rocks, mountains, clothes and buildings. As the discussion ensued, most of the students wanted to say that anything could be art. We talked a bit about whether the basis for considering a work to be art can be that the artist thinks it is. I gave an example of stacking up dishes after dinner and saying to my sons, “Look at that wonderful work of art.” Would that really be art? Most of the students, at least at first, seemed to want to say, “Yes, if you think it’s art, it is art.” Or that at least by explaining it in a certain way a person could transform almost anything into art. We also talked for a little while about whether art has to be created by human beings.

Next we discussed a puzzle adapted from W.E. Kennick’s Art and Philosophy: Readings in Aesthetics: A famous sculptor buys 120 bricks and, on the floor of a well-known art museum, arranges them in a rectangular pile, 2 bricks high, 6 across, and 10 lengthwise. He labels the work Pile of Bricks. Across town, workers at a construction site take 120 bricks of the very same kind and arrange them the same way, wholly unaware of what has happened in the museum – they are just getting ready to use them. Can the first pile of bricks be a work of art while the second pile is not, even though the two piles are seemingly identical in all observable respects?

Most of the students’ first reaction to this puzzle was to say that both are works of art. But this became more problematic when the students wanted to say that the construction pile would only be a work of art because the sculptor’s pile was one. One student wondered how the same work could be art if something else existed, but otherwise not. Someone suggested that maybe the artist’s intention mattered here. If the workers did not intend their pile to be a work of art, maybe it couldn’t be one. Others said that if other people saw the construction site pile as a work of art, it could be one even if the workers who arranged the bricks didn’t think so.

I asked the students to draw or in some way fashion two pieces of blank paper so that one would be art and one would not be. Some of the students then displayed their work to the class and explained why one work was art and one was not. It was interesting: many students argued that even a work the artist thought was not art could be art — paper folded in a certain way, a line drawn across a page. When someone held up a blank page, though, virtually all the students agreed that this could never be art. No one had worked on it, one student said. The exercise resulted in the students coming up with several ways to distinguish art from non-art: whether there was any effort put into the work, whether the artist intended that the work be a work of art, and whether the work is acknowledged as art in some way.

At the end of the session, we wrote down a list of the students’ questions:

How is art created?
How did art come to be?
Is everything art?
Do opinions about art besides the artist’s opinion matter?
Why do we use the word “art?”