How would you define "art"? What makes something a work of art? What are the characteristics of a work of art?

Quick answer:

Art can be defined in many different ways, but one can consider the following characteristics to help determine whether something is art: Art is inherently valuable. Art is a form of sociable communication. Art must be created out of artistic intention. Art may be recognized as art by virtue of participating in the categories people historically associate with art.

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The topic you are engaging in when you ask questions like "What is art?" is a branch of philosophy called Aesthetics, and there is a very broad range of answers to this question, from the ancient to the modern.

One excellent definition of art, written by Emmanuel Kant, is the following:

A kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.

This obviously needs a lot of unpacking, but the main takeaway that Kant brings to the table, and that a lot of thinkers agree with, is that art is valuable as an end unto itself and not for some instrumental reason. To put it another way, art doesn't serve a practical or utilitarian purpose, but instead, the "purpose" of art is art itself. You do not buy a painting, for example, because you believe it will have some sort of practical use, the way one might buy a hammer, for example.

Furthermore, Kant's definition also requires "sociable communication." Kant's position here is that art only has value or meaning in the context of people engaging socially with other people. Art, for Kant, is therefore something kind of like a method of communication—something that conveys that which is true about being human to other human beings in a mentally stimulating way.

But Kant is hardly the only thinker to posit a definition of art. Many modern thinkers assert a Functionalist view, which states that a thing may be considered art if its function or intended function is one that is commonly or historically associated with other things with the same function or intention. To give an example of what this view might mean, consider for a moment the use of a power drill in music. Normally, when a power drill is used, the sound is a necessary by-product of the tool's normal use and would not be considered art. However, power drills have been used numerous times in music (see for example Poundcake by Van Halen), where the sound of the drill is decidedly artistic. The difference here is that the drill's intended function was musical.

There are far too many perspectives on this question to get into here, but it is important to remember that this is far from a solved question, so you have quite a bit of room to synthesize your own out of all the available information. I'll include a link below for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on art as well, which should provide you with more than enough information.

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