Ancient Greeks and the Bonsai Flame Wars
by William F. Hiltz
In the surprisingly vicious world of bonsai flame wars, it began as a relatively mild personal attack:
"It seems that someone who is adamant that bonsai trees are Art, or can attain the status of Art, and who even helped form a website devoted to the Art of Bonsai, can define Bonsai just fine, but has difficulty with the definition of Art."
This gauntlet was thrown down recently at the BonsaiNut Community Forums - "For people who are Nuts about Bonsai." Sides were quickly chosen. Neutral members either logged off yawning or pulled up chairs and popcorn to watch yet another bitter, testosterone-laden melee.
But I love definitions, so I asked the forum then, and I ask you now, to pursue this "Definition of Art" business together with me using classical philosophy, and see if the ancient Greeks can cool the fires of such debates with reason.
Working out definitions fascinates me. Concepts like "Art" are bandied about in our culture with reckless abandon but little clarity. Yet it was the bandying about of similar abstract concepts in Athens over two millennia ago - concepts like Justice, Virtue, Piety - that inspired Socrates and his student Plato to ask clarifying questions that formed the basis for all subsequent Western thought and civilization.
As social animals we need to communicate, to get ideas accurately from our mind into the mind of another. Otherwise a society, whether BonsaiNut Community or ancient Athens, cannot function well. We humans rely heavily on words for communication, so unless a word means exactly the same thing in your mind as it does in mine, then our communication will not be accurate. Someone at BonsaiNut realized this and, however awkwardly, set out to clarify what others mean when they talk about Art, particularly Visual Art like bonsai.
So let's approach a definition of Visual Art together the way Socrates and Plato would have done. We'll also draw on the insights of Plato's student, Aristotle, whose gift for logic gave us practical methods for creating definitions.
Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)
What, exactly, do we mean when we say "Visual Art"?
Socrates and Plato favored "Only-and-Every" definitions. For instance, if we define a chair as an object with four legs, a seat and a back which is used to sit on, then we are saying that "Only" a chair has this set of characteristics, and "Every" chair has these characteristics.
Only-and-Every definitions work well with concrete objects like chairs, but they are hard to get exactly right with abstract concepts like Justice, or Visual Art. Indeed, Plato's Dialogues are largely complex discussions between Socrates and others, trying to get these sorts of words right, and he didn't fully succeed much of the time. Let's see if we can succeed.
By the time I happened upon this BonsaiNut discussion, a few Only-and-Every definitions had been offered, but they were vague, sloppy or idiosyncratic. Clarity and mental discipline were needed, and for that it is always best to turn to Aristotle.
So, with Aristotle in mind, I noticed that the same term - "Visual Art" - was being used to refer to two very different general types of things: artistic activity (something people did) and the creations of that activity (some object people made). This was confusing. I also noticed that attempts to define these objects invariably degenerated into heated, endless arguments over whether such objects must be of a certain quality to be called Art. To bypass these arguments and simplify things, then, let's reserve the term "Visual Art" for an activity, and use the term "Object of Art" for the forms created by that activity, independent of their quality.
We imagine Aristotle smiling with approval at our simplification. A biologist at heart, he developed the discipline of taxonomy for classifying things - animals and plants, for instance - into hierarchies, using categories like genus and species. We've just placed Visual Art into the genus "Activity", the general type of thing it is. Let's further propose that its species, its specific type, is "Human". Visual Art, then, is a human activity. So far so good.
To further define the characteristics of this variety of human activity, to separate it from all other human activities in an Only-and-Every way, let's look next at Aristotle's "Four Causes." He believed we only know something if we know its Causes. There are four such Causes, but only one Cause helps us here:
∙ The Material Cause - what something is made of - is not helpful here, since we are talking about an activity.
∙ The Formal Cause is also unhelpful, since artistic activity has no set form.
∙ The Efficient Cause - what, or who, causes something - does not help the definition except to state the obvious, that the activity of Art is done by artists.
∙ The Final Cause – this is the purpose, the reason why a thing is caused. Can this help us? Let's see.
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787
Is the activity of Visual Art is done for a reason? Yes, it is done for the creation of a visual form. Why is this done? To evoke in viewers an emotional response. ("Craft" seeks only to create utilitarian forms, not forms that evoke emotional responses).
But what sort of emotional response does Visual Art hope to evoke that separates it from other evocative activities, like humor, propaganda, or pornography? The response that Visual Art seeks to evoke is inspirational. It seeks to exalt, to elevate the mind.
Using Aristotle's taxonomy and his Four Causes, then, we arrive at a clear, concise Only-and-Every definition:
Visual Art is a human activity that creates a visual form for the
purpose of evoking an inspiring emotional response in viewers.
The forms created we call Objects of Visual Art.
Socrates and Plato are smiling now too.
Notice that this definition sidesteps the troublesome arguments about whether an Object of Visual Art is "Good Art," or even "Art" at all, that is, whether it is effective at evoking the desired response. That's an interesting discussion, but irrelevant to the definition.
Sadly, many at BonsaiNut weren't smiling at this definition that threatened to end all their bickering, and they rejected or ignored it, and returned to fighting. The Greeks would not have been surprised.
1 Reference: Johnston, Chris. Toward a Definition of Art and Bonsai as Art. October 10, 2007. BonsaiNut Community Forums. (http://bonsainut.com/forums/showthread.php?t=872).
1. Cooper, John M, Ed. Plato: Complete Works. Hackett Publishing Company. 1997.
2. McKeon, Richard, Ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Modern Library. 2001.
Raphael's Plato- The School of Athens (detail) (1509). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. The two-dimensional work of art depicted in this image is in the public domain in the United States and in those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years.
Plato's Symposium- The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide.
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787- This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.