Study Guide

Wimsatt and Beardsley - What Is Art?

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What Is Art?

The group studied the simple question "What is art?" in the sort of detail that would drive most people to divine madness—but hey, that was this group's life's work. What is art's impact on the human condition? What are an art work's aesthetic characteristics supposed to do? That's what these folks wanted to know.

This group's credo was: "Art only has aesthetic value. If you believe anything else, please close the door behind you on the way out." In alternating weeks, the group focused on music, painting, and literature. Endless sweat and tears were expended in the effort to pin down a conclusive diagram of the "aesthetic experience," but it usually became too muddled by arrows, dotted lines, and sloppy erase marks to be particularly useful.

George Dickie

George was a really swell guy, but, man, did he stir himself some controversy. Now, his provocations did bring much-needed media attention to the group (there's no such thing as bad press, right?), but he was pretty persistent with his institutional theory of art. Rather than see the work of art as something with aesthetic meaning in itself, he said—to paraphrase—"It ain't art until a museum or a university says it is." Not exactly power to the people.

Cleanth Brooks
Resident Contrarian

Sure Cleanth was a squeaky-clean New Critic, but he didn't always sail along with the ideas presented in the group. He really struggled intellectually and personally with the meaning of aesthetic gratification. He never wavered from his deep faith in the almighty role of aesthetic formalism—meaning that you experience a piece of art through direct sensation—for example, by looking at it (if it's a painting) or hearing it (if it's music).

Arthur Danto
Curator and PR Rep

Ah, Art… (That was Arthur's nickname.) Well, Art had a tendency to agree with Dickie, which in turn created tension (they liked to call it "fruitful dialogue"), but he also afforded the art world a heck of a lot of power. He agreed that power and money determine what is art and what is not.

This may sound like intellectual highway robbery to artists who create art and are foolish enough to believe it's art, but it may explain those moments when you are in a famous museum and you see some canvas with one dot on it, and turn to your companion and say, "Why is that art?" or "I could have done that."

Joris-Karl Huysmans

This French novelist was a bit of a wild card. He wrote this great book called Against the Grain (À rebours) about this guy who lived a life of pure aesthetic indulgence, so he just had to be a member of the group. This book set the gold standard for the most self-gratifying protagonist ever.

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