When we begin with aesthetics the first question any theoretically-minded person will be tempted to ask is the ‘What is art?’ question. This sort of question one imagines will lead us to identify the ‘necessary and sufficient’ conditions of art. However, art is not such a factual discipline; indeed, beyond mathematical formulae (the foundation of those who look at art in this manner) it is impossible to see quite where is the factual problem that is solvable in this way (we might think of cognitive psychologists here in the same regard). This is what the philosopher of aesthetics Morris Weitz meant when he said that there is no essential answer, that philosophers are merely approaching art incorrectly, asking the question ‘what is art?’ is itself a flawed and hopeless task, but yet still this temptation remains (it is not only in art that the temptation is found and nor here alone does it cause us problems and confusions). Weitz (influenced by Wittgenstein) wants us rather to consider in what context do we understand and use the concept of art; that is, the question should be rather not ‘what is art?’ but ‘how do we understand and use the term art in language?’
If we are to look at the profusion of art theories that came about during the early 20th century (especially mid-World Wars) that was matched by the amount of art movements, all of them attempted to give an answer to the essence of art. For it was felt that without this answer that we could never get close enough to even understanding what art was, for ‘how can we talk about it, as good or bad, if we cannot give a definite answer of what it comprises of?’ Formalist, Emotionalist, Intuitionist, Organicist, and Voluntarist theories of art all came to give a description of this hidden essence, but although there are still some who hold with a particular theory, for the most part it has been agreed that none of these theories gave a final answer to the question.
Weitz’s claim then is that art cannot be subject to this sort of essential factual definition, as it is an ‘open concept’. Briefly, Weitz believes that art is akin to what Wittgenstein calls ‘family resemblances’, that while we might find some similarities between some examples of art (or games, or what have you) that there is no one unifying ‘something’ that is common to all, but rather similar things or ‘family resemblances’. So, questions like ‘is Finnegans Wake a novel?’ are not factual questions (answerable with a yes or no), but are decision problems. One that is dependent upon a set of conditions, which are always variable (within certain parameters). A concept is an open concept if it is always amenable to change, the concept of art is an adventurous one, as there are always new ideas and movements coming forth (indeed, this might be taken as a defining characteristic, but art is not one thing). Once an art movement becomes ‘closed’ this is normally the death knell of the movement, it is named and constrained, doing this with a wider field, i.e. art, literature, theatre, would be a ridiculous step to deny art its creativity.
What is at stake here is the realisation that there are no necessary and sufficient properties available by a factual analysis but an evaluative decision of not intrinsic but extrinsic or relational properties. However, this takes us from Weitz’s conception and towards that of later philosophers of aesthetics like Stephen Davies, Arthur Danto and George Dickie. To quote Danto from The Artworld, “To see something as art requires… knowledge of the history of art…” This new angle of aesthetics is concerned with the ‘institutional’ nature of art, namely its historical and social properties.
To conclude this short piece on Weitz’s anti-essentialism, I would summarise his main position as against the incorrect use of aesthetic theories. That is, when they are taken literally, i.e. as an attempt to answer conceptual questions (like ‘what is art?’ or ‘is Finnegans Wake a novel?’) in a factual manner, they lead to errors of circularity or, worse, the confining of creativity. Aesthetic theories are not useless however; they are arguments (or recommendations) for looking at a certain criteria of art in a certain way.