“But is it Art?!” Family resemblance concepts’ (Wittgenstein) explained simply (from my The Philosophy Gym)

9. But is it Art?

From my book The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking.

I mean they’d gone and fucking installed the work without me even being here. That’s just not on. This is my bed. If someone else installs it, it’s just dirty linen. If I do it, it’s art. Tracey Emin (artist), Evening Standard, 12/9/00.

Today it seems almost anything can be classified as a work of art: Damien Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, for example. But what is art, exactly? What is it that Macbeth, a piece of tribal sculpture, The Nutcracker Suite, the roof of the Cistene Chapel and Emin’s bed all have in common? What is the common denominator that makes each one of these things art? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. This chapter explains one of the leading theories, taking in one of Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) most important insights along the way.

What is a work of art?

The scene: an art gallery. Fox, an artist, is peering intently at a Rothko. O’Corky tries to engage him in conversation.

O’Corky. You know, I’m just not sure it’s art.

Fox: Of course it’s art. It’s hanging in an art gallery, isn’t it?

O’Corky: So you know art when you see it, do you?

Fox. I’m an artist myself. I have exhibits in the next gallery.

O’Corky: Well, if you’re an artist yourself, then you if anyone should know what art is.

Fox: I suppose so.

O’Corky: So tell me, what is art?

This deceptively simple-looking question can quickly tie you up in knots. We ordinarily think we know what art is. But do we? In fact we can easily construct counter-examples to most of the more obvious definitions of art. Take Fox’s first attempt, for example:

Fox: It seems to me that what qualifies something as a work of art is the fact that it is designed to be pleasing to our senses, to be beautiful.

O’Corky: That won’t do. Much traditional art is pretty. But there are works of art that are not and were not even intended to be at all beautiful. Take Tracy Emin’s unmade bed over there, for example. It’s not a particularly attractive, is it?

Fox: Well, I suppose not.

O’Corky: Yet you say it’s art, don’t you?

Fox: Er. Yes.

O’Corky: So there you are: it’s not necessary that a work of art be beautiful.

In order to try to deal with O’Corky’s objection, Fox might insist that Emin’s bed is in its own way beautiful. But then pretty much every artifact ends up qualifying as “beautiful” in this weak sense, even my socks. Yet my socks are not a work of art.

Alternatively, Fox might insist that Emin’s bed is not really art, and so doesn’t provide a counter-example to Sam’s definition after all. Certainly many believe there is something of “the Emperor’s new clothes” about the suggestion that an unmade bed might be a work of art. But, we probably ought to be a little wary of such sceptical attitudes. Look back at the history of art and you will find that almost every new development was met with the reactionary claim that “it’s not really art”. That was exactly the attitude of many towards Impressionism, for example.

[[TEXT BOX: THINKING TOOLS: The search for necessary and sufficient conditions.

In pursuing the question “What is art?” we are seeking a certain sort of definition. Here are three examples of the kind of definition I have in mind:

Necessarily: something is a vixen if and only if it’s a female fox

Necessarily: someone is a brother if and only if they are a male sibling

Necessarily: something is a triangle if and only if it’s a three straight-sided plane figure

These are very unusual definitions. Each picks out a feature (or combination of features) that all and only the so-and-sos have, not just in the actual situation, but in any possible situation. For example, in any possible situation all and only the vixens are going to be both female and foxes.

We are pursuing a similar definition of art. We want the following filled out:

Necessarily: something is a work of art if and only if…

It won’t satisfy us, therefore, to explain what a work of art is simply by pointing out a few examples. Nor will it do to pick out some feature or features that works of art happen, merely as a matter of fact, to possess.

We want to know what’s essential. We want to know whatin any possible situation is true of all and only the works of art. To adopt the jargon: We want to identify that feature possession of which is both necessary and sufficient to qualify something as a work of art. I call such definitions philosophical definitions. END OF TEXT BOX.]]]

The method of counterexamples

Fox’s definition of art clearly fails to meet O’Corky’s exacting standards. While it might be true of many works of art that they are beautiful, being beautiful is clearly not a necessary requirement. O’Corky demonstrates this by coming up with a counter-example.

A counter-example to a philosophical definition of X is some actual or possible thing that either: (i) is an example of X but fails to fit the definition, or (ii) fits the definition but is not an example of X. O’Corky criticises Fox’s definition by coming up with a counter-example of the first sort: Tracy Emin’s bed is a piece of art but it’s not beautiful.

Fox has another attempt at producing a philosophical definition of art.

Fox: I think I can do better. Art need not be beautiful. It’s enough that it engage us. A work of art is simply that which is made to entertain us.

O’Corky: You’re wrong, I am afraid. Much that’s designed to entertain is not art. The game of hangman is not art but it engages and entertains. Toys, card games – there are innumerable things that entertain that aren’t art.

O’Corky has again come up with counter-examples. Notice that, this time, his counter-examples are all of the second sort: though they do fit the suggested definition, they aren’t art. Being engaging and entertaining is not sufficient to qualify something as a work of art.

And so the conversation continues. Fox comes up with various definitions of art, including the suggestions that art is, in essence, that which is designed to communicate some emotion, or that which has no purpose. But in each case O’Corky manages to devise a counter-example (you might wish to work out your own counter-examples to these suggestions).

O’Corky: You see. You thought you knew what art is. But you don’t. Not one of your definitions has been correct. In fact neither of us knows what art is!

Fox: I must admit, it’s harder to define “art” than I thought. Still, I’m not sure it follows that we don’t know what art is. After all, we both recognise that these counterexamples to my definitions are good counterexamples. How could we do that if we didn’t know what art is?

This is a good question. On the one hand, our inability to give a philosophical definition of art seems to indicate that we don’t know what art is. Yet, on the other hand, we are able to recognize the failings of the definitions that have been offered. How could we do that if we didn’t know what art is?

Socrates and the method of counter-examples

O’Corky and Fox’s are having a discussion of a fairly common sort. You hear similar conversations at dinner parties and in cafés. Some of the earliest examples are found in the dialogues of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-347 BC). In Plato’s dialogues, a character called Socrates, a real person about whom comparatively little is known and from whom Plato developed many of his own ideas, asks of various individuals, “What is beauty?” “What is justice?” “What is courage?” “What is knowledge” and so on. Socrates was also after philosophical definitions of these things. In each case, despite the fact that those of whom Socrates asks such questions are often supposed to exhibit the quality in question (for example, he asks a soldier what courage is) Socrates always manages to come up with a counter-example to their suggested definition.

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates concludes that while we might think that we know what beauty, justice and courage are, in fact we don’t know. O’Corky, after constructing counter-examples to the definitions that Fox offer him, similarly concludes that neither he nor O’Corky know what art is, despite the fact that Fox is himself an artist.

In fact the history of Western philosophy is in large part constituted by similar dialogues between philosophers pursuing philosophical definitions. A philosopher comes up with a suggestion. A counter-example is produced. Another definition is offered. Another counter-example produced. And so on. In most cases, we have still not succeeded in pinning down what’s essential. The essence of art, beauty, justice and so on is, it seems, highly mysterious, the quest to reveal it producing a kind of mental cramp.

Wittgenstein on Family Resemblance

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein tries to provide some therapy for this cramp. Wittgenstein suggests that the philosophical quest to reveal these hidden essences is actually a wild goose chase.

Take a look at the following faces.


You will notice a “family resemblance”. All the faces resemble each other to a certain extent. Some have the same pointy chin. Some have the wavy eyebrows. Some have the big ears. However, there is no one feature that all the faces have in common. Rather, there’s an overlapping series of similarities that links them together.

Wittgenstein suggests that very many of our concepts are similarly “family resemblance” concepts. He illustrates with the example of a game.

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? ­— Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’— For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared …[T]he result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss—crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.[i]

O’Corky and Fox both assume that there must be one feature that all works of art have in common – that feature that makes them works of art. Many philosophers of art make the same assumption. Here is Clive Bell, for example:

For either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of “works of art” we gibber. …There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist… What is this quality?[ii]

But why assume there must be one such feature? Why assume that, unless there is such a feature, when we speak of “works of art” we must gibber? Perhaps art is also a family resemblance concept. Perhaps there is merely an overlapping pattern of resemblances between works of art, just as in the case of games. Perhaps our inability to pin down the elusive, hidden essence of art is due, not to ignorance on our part, but to the mistaken assumption with which we begin – that there is such an essence. On Wittgenstein’s view, the feeling that we have failed to capture what is essential is produced in by part by the assumption that our ordinary everyday explanations of what we mean by “art” are somehow inadequate, that they fail to penetrate to the essence of the phenomenon. On Wittgenstein’s view, art’s hidden essence is a philosophical illusion.

Of course, it’s not just the common nouns “game” and “art” to which Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance applies. We have seen that a similar sort of intellectual cramp can be produced by asking the questions: “What is knowledge?”, “What is courage?” and “What is justice?”. It’s even possible to produce the cramp by asking the question about ordinary household objects.

Try, for example, to provide a philosophical definition of the noun “chair”. You will find it’s not as easy as you might have thought. There are four legged chairs, three legged chairs, even one legged chairs. There are chairs with backs and chairs without. There are chairs with and without armrests. Some chairs are designed to be sat on, but not all (something might be used as and even properly described as a chair even though it was never designed for that purpose, e.g. we can imagine a cave dweller pointing to a chair-shaped rock and saying, quite correctly, “That’s my chair”). And not everything that’s regularly used for sitting on is a chair (a conveniently situated log might be used that way, for example). So what is a chair? What’s the essential “something” that, necessarily, all and only the chairs have? The answer, perhaps, is that there is no such “something”. Chair is also a family resemblance concept.

Can art be defined by a formula?

Someone might insist that, even if there is no one feature common and peculiar to all works of art, nevertheless we should in principle be able to construct a formula that captures some more complex set of rules determining what is and isn’t art.

Here’s an example of such a formula. Suppose I introduce the term “fubbyloofer” like so:

Necessarily: something is a fubblyloofer if and only if it has at least three of the following six characteristics: wheels, steering wheel, engine, lights, suspension, seats.

Notice there is no feature that all fubbyloofers need have in common.


Still, the conditions under which something qualifies as a fubbyloofer are neatly captured by my formula. Similarly, even if there’s no one feature that all works of art must have in common, shouldn’t we at least be able to a construct a formula that neatly sets out precisely what is meant by “art”? Indeed, until we’re able to produce such a formula, don’t we somehow remain ignorant about what art is?

Not according to Wittgenstein, who again draws our attention back to games.

What does it mean to know what a game is? What does it mean, to know it and not be able to say it? Is this knowledge somehow equivalent to an unformulated definition? So that if it were formulated I should be able to recognise it as the expression of my knowledge? Isn’t my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game; showing how all sorts of other games can be constructed on the analogy of these; saying that I should scarcely include this or this among games; and so on.[iii]

According to Wittgenstein, our ordinary explanations of what we mean by “game” – explanations that involve giving examples, drawing attention to similarities and differences, and so on – already capture precisely what we mean by “game”. The illusion of hidden depths to our language, depths that we must dig down to and formalize if we are truly to understand what “art” means, is generated by a failure to notice how our language actually functions. We don’t usually set up clear rules or boundaries fixing exactly what does and does not fall under a given concept. The practice of using a term like “game” is much more spontaneous and fluid than that. And there can be nothing more to the meaning of a term than is revealed in our ordinary practices of using and explaining its meaning to each other (otherwise how could we succeed in learning this meaning or teaching it to others?).

In short, we already know perfectly well what “game” means. Nothing is hidden. On Wittgenstein’s view, any formula that attempts to capture with more precision what we mean by “game” can only succeed in introducing new boundaries around what we mean by “game”, not reveal existing ones.

And the same, you might argue, is true of “art”, as well as a great many other terms.

The institutional theory

Some philosophers impressed by Wittgenstein’s comments about family resemblance still insist that a philosophical definition of art is possible. They admit that, were one to line up all and only those items that we call art and examine them one by one, one wouldn’t discover a common feature that everything else lacks. But still, art can be defined. According to the institutional theory, just two things are required if something it is to qualify as a work of art.

First, it must be an artifact, an artifact being something that has been worked on. The expression “worked on” is used quite loosely here – merely placing something in an art gallery counts as “working on” it. So a pebble deliberately positioned in an art gallery qualifies as an artifact.

Second, the artifact in question must have had the status of a work of art bestowed upon it by some member of the “artworld”, such as an author, gallery owner, publisher, collector or artist.

The institutional theory has the advantage of explaining why O’Corky and Fox are having difficulty finding that feature which is shared by all and only works of art. What qualifies an artifact as a work of art is not an intrinsic, exhibited feature of the object, but rather the attitude of members of a certain community towards it. What makes all and only these things works of art is not a feature one might discover by closely observing them.

According to the institutional theory, members of the “artworld” have the uncanny ability to make something a work of art just by deeming it to be one. A few years ago a cleaner left her bucket and mop in a modern art gallery. Passers-by took the bucket and mop to be a work of art. They were wrong, of course. But according to the institutional theory, if Tracy Emin had left the bucket and mop there as an exhibit, the passers by would have been right: those cleaning materials would have constituted a work of art. The institutional theory explains why this so. It explains what is otherwise very difficult to explain, namely, why, despite the fact that two mass-produced buckets with mops may be absolutely indistinguishable in every observable respect, one may be a work of art but not the other.


Criticism of the institutional theory

Some philosophers criticise that institutional theory on the grounds that, while it might tell us that members of the arts community bestow upon objects the status of art, it doesn’t explain why they do so. Clearly there are reasons why the status of art is bestowed up some objects but not others, reasons that the artist and other members of the art world can and often do give. The institutional theory fails to mention these reasons. It’s therefore inadequate as a definition of art (one might also add that, if these reasons determine what is and isn’t art, then shouldn’t we aim clearly to specifiy these reasons – wouldn’t that be philosophically far more informative than simply saying, “Art is whatever members of the art world decide to call art”).

Someone might also object that merely placing an object in a gallery does not make it work of art, no matter who places is it there. Even if Tracy Emin did place a bucket and mop in a gallery, these objects would not thereby come to be a work of art.

A defender of the institutional theory may insist that these objections muddle up two quite distinct issues. They may suggest that we need to distinguish art in the “classificatory” sense from art in the “evaluative” sense. Sometimes, by calling something a “work of art”, we don’t just classify at as such, we evaluate it: we are recommending it for appreciation. This evaluative sense is not what the institutional theory is concerned with, however. The first objection is therefore confused: it’s asking for the reasons why we consider this or that worthy of appreciation, but these reasons don’t determine what art is in the classificatory sense.

Arguably, the second objection also involves a muddle: that between art and good art. Perhaps an Emin-exhibited mop would not be good art. That doesn’t entail that it wouldn’t be art.

Another counter-example to the Institutional Theory is provided by the paintings of Alfred Wallis. Wallis painted seascapes in a primitive and haunting style. Wallis did not himself believe that what he was producing was art. But neither did any member of the art world at the time his earliest work was produced. The early pieces were recognised as art only later. But this entails that at the time Wallis produced his first paintings, they weren’t art. They only became art later. But this is counter-intuitive. Surely it’s true to say that what Wallis first produced was art, great art, even at the time he produced it. It simply wasn’t recognised as such.

It seems, then, that even the Institutional Theory won’t do.

The “definition game”

In this chapter we have been playing a famous kind of philosophical “game” – what one might call the definition game. We’ve been hunting for that feature (or combination of features) possession of which is both necessary and sufficient to qualify something as a work of art. Even the institutional theory claims that there is such a feature (it merely denies that it’s an exhibited feature). But perhaps there really is no such feature. Perhaps we have been hunting for what doesn’t exist. One of Wittgenstein’s great contributions to philosophy was to question the assumption that lies behind this millennia-old game.

When next you hear a dinner-part guest playing the definition game with “art” (or any other common noun, for that matter), try a Wittgensteinian approach. Ask him or her why they assume that there must be something that all and only works of art have in common.

What to read next?

For another example of how the definition game is played, try chapter XX “What is Knowledge?” You will find the method of counterexamples is also used repeatedly. Might Wittgenstein’s comments about family resemblance be relevant there too?

In chpt XX “The Meaning Mystery” I explain more of Wittgenstein’s views on meaning.

Further reading

  • Clive Bell, “Significant Form”, which appears as chapter 40 of Nigel Warburton (ed.), Philosophy: Basic Readings (London: Routledge, 1999).
  • Nigel Warburton, The Art Question (London: Routledge, 2002).

[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Part I, §§66-67.

[ii]Clive Bell, “Significant form”, in Nigel Warburton (ed.), Philosophy: Basic Readings (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 373.

[iii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Part I, §75.