Distinguishing Art from Non Art: Discussion 1, Part 1

Robin Collingwood, Art, Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Today we are going to start an extended conversation about what we might call the problem distinguishing things of the world as art versus things of the world not art. I’ll use “art” and “non art” for convenience. We could also say, art versus everything else.

How do we determine something is art instead of not art? Are there any criteria to help us in this determination? Fortunately many great thinkers have considered the same question. Over the course of a few discussions we will look briefly at various answers to the question, understanding that we can only touch the surface of a very complex discussion.

We will begin with Robin G. Collingwood, 1889–1943 who was a philosopher, archeologist, historian, and aesthetician (someone who studies aesthetic questions). Collingwood will do two things for us: firstly he will provide a starting point for considering art versus non art. Secondly he will provide us with terminology that we can use to analyze arguments as we go forward.

Image for post
(RG. Collingwood, Thoemmes Continuum, copyright free)

First let’s take a brief look at Collingwood’s view of art. To do so, we’ll go back to his book Principles of Art published in 1938 in which he argued that works of art are essentially expressions of emotion. Thus, he is a proponent of what is known as an expressive theory of art. The duty of the artist is to clarify and articulate emotions through works of art.

Collingwood suggested that art may be recognized by applying the following four principles:

1.) In art there is a difference between the actions and the ends. To make this clearer, a baker breaks eggs into a bowl, however the eventual end of the work is a cake. The breaking of eggs is not the cake. There is a distinction between the method or steps, and the eventual end result.

2.) In art there is a difference between planning and execution. For example, a carpenter plans to make a table, and the plans are drawn up. Later the table has to be made out of solid material. The ideation of the table, or the planning of the table ,is different from the making and finishing of the table.

3.) In art there is a difference between raw materials and the finished product. A block of marble is different from a carving of a figure.

4.) Craft itself is not art. Through craft an artist may transform raw materials into art. For example, a company takes wood chips (a raw material) and makes a finished product called Plywood. This Plywood is now a new raw material that may be transformed into a table. Craft brings together various raw materials for the creation of art. In art, ultimately the raw materials should not be displayed or obvious, or detracting. Instead the raw materials should be assimilated into the overall whole quality of the finished art.

Keeping these in mind, we remind ourselves that Collingwood believed a main point of art was the expression of emotion. For Collingwood, art is not simply doing something well, it is not simply craft. Therefore, the standard of art is not art’s resemblance to the real world, does it look just like what one sees, but instead does the art evoke the feeling one experiences when engaging the real world? Collingwood noted that the painter Vincent Van Gogh in painting a portrait “leaves out some things that he sees, modifies others, and introduces some which he not does see in his sitter at all.” Why would Van Gogh do this? Collingwood’s reason is that Van Gogh was striving for the expression of emotion rather than the literal representation.

Interestingly, Collingwood thinks that the artist does not often know what emotion is going to be expressed when working on a piece of art. The emotion is like a secret only to be discovered in or after the making of the art.

Collingwood said that an artist who starts to create may be conscious of “a perturbation or excitement which he feels going on within him, but of whose nature he is ignorant.” The artist in the passion of creating would say something like, “I feel…I don’t know what I feel.” The emotion is overpowering and it’s all the artist can do to get this emotion out.

Once the work is done, the artist is relieved of the burden, freed, Collingwood says. It is as though “a sense of oppression has vanished. His mind is somehow lightened and eased.” Artists feel taken over by emotion, they must express it, and they then get it out of their system. Collingwood then apparently hopes that everyone who looks at the work of art will feel to a similar extent the same emotion to the artist felt as evoked by the work of art.

We can identify lenses that many people lacking a high level education in art use to determine or value art. They often look for emotion saying, “I don’t understand it but it feels to ummm” they can’t quite describe what “ummm” means. Or they say, “The technique is so great it must be great art.” Would they agree that a pianist, never having learned to play, banging the keys while tearing their hair out and bawling at a piano, in other words doing something full of emotion, is art? Probably not. Would they agree a highly crafted garbage can is art? Probably not.

Before we end up, let’s introduce a new term. This is “necessary and sufficient conditions.” Necessary and sufficient conditions are guarantees, musts. Having four sides is a necessary condition for a thing to be a square.

Regarding art versus non art: A necessary condition X must be fulfilled for a thing of the world to be art. If this condition X is not fulfilled then it is impossible for the thing to be art. For Collingwood, a necessary condition for art must that the thing is more than simply the raw material. If the thing is only a raw material, it has not fulfilled the necessary condition to be art.

Now we’ll move on to the sufficient condition. While four sides are necessary for a square, that criterion alone is not sufficient for a thing to be a square. A square must also have four right angles. Think of a square versus a parallelogram.

Regarding Collingwood, it is necessary that raw materials are transformed for a thing to be a work of art, but this for him is not sufficient. Also necessary to art is that the created thing evoke or convey emotion.

As we go through various theories of what differentiates things of the world as art or non art, we will be spending a good deal of time looking for the jointly necessary and sufficient conditions that each theory presupposes. We will look for rules, or criteria, considered necessary for a thing to be a work of art, then we will ask if the rules, or criteria, are sufficient for all things of the world that have been accepted as art. In doing so we will notice two things:

a) we will find that everyone who distinguishes art from non art presents a set of rules, stated or not stated, and

b) we will discover problems in creating sets of rules that include or exclude previous and/or future things of the world accepted as art.

Next, in Discussion 1, part 2, Collingwood and Metaphysics, we will look at presuppositions with the goal of eventually linking them to necessary and sufficient conditions.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store