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Art & Philosophy

Pact or Artifact?

Greg Stone offers a contractual definition of art, among other artful ideas.

Every painter, gallery viewer, or philosopher probably has his or her own definition of art. Yet so-called ‘hard cases’ abound, which stretch our concept of art. Does it include ‘driftwood art’ plucked from a beach and put on display? Or environmental art, such as Pat Falco’s ‘Cloud Installation, Abstract’, an outdoor sign with arrows pointing upward in an otherwise normal landscape outside a museum? Is it possible to forge a comprehensive definition of art?

I should emphasize to start with that defining art is a different matter than explaining its ontology, that is, from saying what sort of thing a work of art is once it has been designated as art. As Amie Thomasson notes in The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics (p.18): “The ontological question does not ask what conditions anything must satisfy if it is to be a work of art, but rather, of various entities accepted as paradigm works of art of different genres (such as Guernica, Clair de Lune or Emma), it asks: what sort of entity is this?” So, instead of addressing the ‘ontological question’ of shedding light on the attributes accepted works of art possess, let us attempt to delineate the elements they should possess. Existing definitions tend to fall into two categories. Firstly there are procedural or conceptual approaches, essentially stating that ‘Art is X’, where X is a set of characteristics or rules. Then secondly there are functional descriptions, along the lines of ‘Art does Y’, where Y is a list of activities or effects. I will argue, in both a functional and procedural vein that art is a certain type of contract, implied or explicit, built on a transaction or collaboration.

Bureau and Room
Bureau & Room by Kazimir Malevich, 1913

Art as a Pact

Akin to a legal contract, art requires some or all of these elements:

1) An exchange of something of value (lawyers call this the ‘consideration’);

2) Intent on the part of the creator (in most cases);

3) Capacity, in the sense that the art viewer must have ‘taste,’ interest, or at the very least, basic receptivity; and

4) Offer and acceptance (except in cases of a unilateral arrangement).

I’ll explain these fundamentals one by one.

Let’s start with consideration, a technical legal term that has nothing to do with the notion of kindness. It’s the ‘quid’ and ‘quo’ in a quid pro quo.

In a commercial transaction, there are two forms of consideration: the buyer’s payment, on the one hand, and the goods or services proffered by the seller on the other. Applying this framework to art in purely financial terms, the painting, sculpture or poem (etc) serves as the artist’s consideration, and the purchase price is the dealer’s, collector’s or museum’s. She paints: they pay. But the transaction need not be mercantile: money need not change hands. The creator may simply offer an idea or a viewpoint, in exchange for a receptive mind. She captivates the imagination of the viewer, who may receive concepts, impressions or attitudes in a delightful conspiracy that unites artist and audience, interacting like the two hemispheres of a brain in the enjoyment of the experience. With good art, this psychological consideration continues after – perhaps even long after – the spectator has walked out of the museum, left the theater, or put down the book. Great art avoids satiety; it leaves you wanting more.

Art alters the people involved, spawning new interpretations of the product itself, upsetting perceptions, and forging an organic symbiosis. As part of the core of our consideration, we see our own thoughts or emotions reflected in a painting, performance, or novel. We believe that a poet is exposing our own feelings with a clever metaphor. Yet we must do our part too. Our role is to reimagine or even to reconstruct the process. And if art expresses us, not just the artist, then we too are the creators. As the conceptual artist Marina Abramovi ć once told her audience, “This work is as much you as it is me.” There is, after all, then, an artistic ‘we’. Someone might even go so far as to say that the cooperation between creator, work, and viewer in some ways defines art.

So far we‘ve seen consideration from the spectator’s viewpoint, but what does the artist derive from the transaction? Beyond any purely financial reward, her benefits might include the satisfaction in expressing thoughts or feelings in a tangible medium, in the act of creation itself, or in the psychological pleasure of self-actualization in concretizing an idea, whether connected with an audience or not. Should none of these efforts succeed, an inchoate process of sheer creativity alone may suffice as justification for the artist for her efforts.

Now let’s proceed to the second element of the art contract, intent. This may often be central but is not actually necessary. If a creator sets forth a work that turns our preconceptions on end or stupefies us with beauty or insight, clearly we can say she meant to make art. But does the painter have to aspire to create an effect, as opposed to, say, doodling on a sketchpad, before we can call the output ‘artistic’? When Marcel Duchamp signed an everyday urinal ‘R. Mutt’, called it Fountain, and displayed it in a gallery back in 1917, did it automatically become an art object? Or when Frank Stella and Andy Warhol painted over ordinary automobiles for BMW’s ‘Art Cars’ collection, how do we characterize the result? (BMW itself explained it thus: “The original form of the automobile design shines through. The ‘second skin’ of the painting does not dematerialize the car… Despite all the artistry, the automobile is still present” (bmwdrives.com/bmw-artcars.php).) The artistic intention in both Duchamp’s and Stella and Warhol’s cases, in using a car as a canvas or a urinal as a statue, may simply be deciding to be artistic; or even perhaps, merely deciding not to be non-artistic – for instance, to not paint the car in the mechanical manner of someone holding a spray hose in a body shop.

But is it art? Witness this tautological explanation by Frank Stella himself: “The design is made by an artist, so it’s art.” (This was quoted by Calvin Tomkins, ‘Is it Art?’, The New Yorker, March 16, 2009). End of story? Possibly so – provided, I would add, that the intention to create art flows through the object or the event into the world, either for the benefit of the artist, or the audience.

Stella is not alone in offering circular definitions of art. Witness Marcia Muelder Eaton:

“X is a work of art if and only if x is an artifact and x is treated in such a way that someone who is fluent in culture is led to direct attention (perception and/or reflection) to [a] aesthetic properties of x.”
(The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, p.74)

Or George Dickie:

“An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art… A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.”
(Ibid, p.58)

To see that these definitions are at once both tautological and contextual, consider an analogy. What if we were to say – à la Eaton – that an athlete is a soccer player if and only if she plays with a spherical object in a way that soccer fans would recognize were in keeping with the norms of the game? Or – à la Dickie – that a soccer player is a person who is engaged in the practice of playing soccer in front of a group of soccer fans? Either approach could lead to an erroneous conclusion – either that a woman taking practice shots in her backyard was not a soccer player, or that a game performed in front of an audience who were ignorant of the rules would not be a proper form of soccer.

Returning briefly to the ‘hard cases’ of art, note first that philosophers do indeed distinguish artifacts – objects altered by human hands – from natural objects, say the Matterhorn, or a tree. Perhaps then instead of the simple on/off of art/not art, we should think in terms of a hierarchy of increasing effort, yielding increasing ‘artisticness’ from once natural objects? For instance: a) Grabbing a clamshell off the beach; b) Framing it as is and exhibiting it in a gallery or a museum; c) Altering it with paint or integrating it into a larger ‘sculpture’; d) Signing it and selling it; and so on. The crux of the matter here is not whether the creator fully achieved her artistic intention, but whether she intended to create art at all. On the one hand, someone might aver that a clamshell merely is, and that by itself it is a non-artistic, natural object, so that a creator can’t transform it into art merely by displaying it. Yet someone else might reply that the simple act of applying the force of an artist’s mind in this way converts it into a work.

Perhaps an even more difficult question is whether there is or could be such a thing as unintentional art? Here we might turn to Giorgio Vasari, a famous early biographer of Renaissance artists, who in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) tells us that in the late thirteenth century, Pope Benedict IX was searching for talented artists to work in Rome. One of his courtiers visited Florence, where young Giotto was then ensconced, and asked for a sample of the boy’s work. Giotto dipped his brush in red ink and drew a perfect circle freehand, on the spot. The courtier thought Giotto was mocking him, but the artist responded, “It’s more than sufficient.” Indeed it was, for the Pope and his advisors immediately recognized the boy’s genius and brought him to Rome. Even if the famous circle was not intended to be art, we could still classify it as art because Giotto willed it into being as an object.

Let’s turn now to capacity, another essential element in a legal contract. In law, ‘capacity’ generally means that the parties to a contract must be adults of sound mind. In art, capacity implies both some skill or talent on the part of the creator, and some sort of receptivity or open-mindedness on the viewer’s side. These are merely matters of degree, however, and minimal quantities count. We would not presume to say that a painter without the ability to draw (Jackson Pollock is a case in point) – or a blind painter, for that matter – could never be classified as an artist. Similarly, even the most obdurate philistine utterly lacking in sensibility (someone you know may come to mind) may possess some ability to enjoy painting, even if it’s a simple beachscape of the sort sold in souvenir shops at oceanside resorts. One might argue that the act of merely looking at a painting implies a modicum of capacity for the viewer, albeit minute.

Next let’s consider offer and acceptance, also criteria for binding legal contracts. If an artist proffers her work to a gallery, then the matter is relatively straightforward. But even a much more inchoate artistic transaction may involve an ‘offer’. Picking up a brush and trying to express an attitude or an emotion with pigment may suffice as an offer of art, whether or not an audience ever participates. Similarly, any ‘acceptance’ of art need not be fervent. Even a rudimentary meeting of minds may qualify. We might even argue that outright rejection, or even disgust, paradoxically is an ‘acceptance’ which closes the loop of the contract. For instance, witness the reaction of Rudy Giuliani, then-mayor of New York, to the ‘Sensation’ exhibit of young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum at the turn of this century. His Honor was incensed at Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, which depicted a Madonna with an exposed breast made of elephant dung, surrounded by a collage of items that at first look like butterflies but which turn out to be women’s genitalia culled from porn magazines. After the mayor threatened to terminate the museum’s funding, it brought a suit in federal court and won on the grounds of free speech. Giuliani famously retorted, “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!” (Washington Post, September 26, 1999). In his outrage, Giuliani accepted the work as a provocative artifact, and therefore as an art object.

The Lamentation
Proof of Giotto as an artist: look at all those circles The Lamentation, 1305

The Superontology of Art

Leaving aside contract theory, let’s now turn to a related matter, which I call ‘superontology’.

A work of art is an extraordinary entity with tyrannical authority. As any set designer knows, a prop’s apparent presence exceeds the physical space it occupies. A chair in the middle of the room is more inconvenient than it may initially appear, since one tends to walk in a wide arc round it to avoid even the possibility of a collision. This is akin to the emissive presence of art. With psychic attributes spewing forth torrents of significance. The existentialist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) spoke of art as an ‘unconcealment’, where “everything ordinary and usual becomes an un-entity” (‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, 1964, pp.693-694). Heidegger likens the experience to a ‘shining’ as we see ‘‘in the truth of what is’’ (p.665). A fully realized work ventures beyond anything we experience directly or sensually: “Towering-up-within-itself the work discloses a world and keeps this world in a ruling position” (p.671). This disclosure is a supercharged form of consideration that benefits the viewer in untold ways.

This leads us towards a new class of being for art. Another existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), divided matter into three categories: being-in-itself (a non-conscious object like a tree, which simply ‘is’); being-for-itself (a conscious, autonomous entity); and being-for-others (a social or political identity of a conscious being relative to other conscious beings surrounding her). Following this terminology, I would say that art is ‘being-in-itself-for-the-creator-and-the-audience’. In other words, it is an entity that creates worlds for conscious beings. As we soar into the realm of the work, we stop paying attention to the pressure of the museum floor on our feet or the chatter in the room. It’s as if we pass beyond the event horizon of an existential black hole, a point of no return, where viewer, artist, and creation join together as the gravity of the superontological artwork pulls us in. And the strength of the bond is in direct proportion to the quality of the work. Inferior art calls attention to its technique and alienates us from its content. A superior work encloses us, makes us forget the brushstrokes, and forces us to live within the frame. The all-encompassing work seems to restrain all speech and subsume all possible predicates.

Broadway Boogie Woogie
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian, 1942

Metaphors & Arguments

Aristotle stated in his Poetics that the very definition of genius was a gift for metaphor – the ability to see ‘similarity in dissimilars’. But there are at least two kinds of metaphor. Rhetorical metaphor – the most familiar kind – “compresses an idea for the sake of convenience and expands it for the sake of evocation”, for example, ‘dead as a doornail’. Cognitive metaphor, by contrast is used for ‘discovery and learning’. Whether rhetorical or cognitive, effective metaphors are “those that convey information as fast as they are stated… or those that our minds lag just a little bit behind” (‘The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors’, Tihame ́ r Von Ghyczy, Harvard Business Review, November 11, 2003). In the latter case the imagery works just “because its relevance and meaning are not entirely clear. In fact, it should startle and puzzle us.” Nevertheless, the process of making metaphors is downright misleading. For example, when Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Lightning is a yellow Fork from Tables in the sky”, is lighting really a fork? Of course not. Rather, a metaphor is a built-in lie that makes us realize the truth in the comparison.

Indeed, prevarication lies at the root of metaphor, poetry, and semiotics – the study of signs, is highly relevant to art generally and indispensable for painting. The poet Robert Frost said, “poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” Umberto Eco phrased the idea more boldly: “ Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (A Theory of Semiotics, 1979, p.7.)

Lying or not, we might go so far as to say that art conveys significant meaning only if the elements, individually, or in combination, point to something outside themselves. (Here point to is a synonym for indicate, identify, represent, typify, symbolize and so on – any process that adds layers of ideas to the obvious.) We can then say that art at its most powerful is a system of ‘super-signage’. Masterpieces ricochet between the signifier (for instance, an image of a book) and the signified (the concept of a bound collection of pages that one can easily carry), only partially embracing the referent (the actual book on the shelf). The meaning is in the bridge or the equal sign poised between the two sides in the comparison – between the signifier and the signified, between the artistic representation and the idea represented. Indeed, the literal meaning of the Greek word ‘metaphor’ is ‘to carry across or over’ – in essence forming a bridge. The power, or even tyranny, of a work emerges when the signs it uses are conceptually distant from its referents. The longer the journey across the bridge from sign to meaning, the greater the understanding potentially communicated. Conversely, the easier the transit, the less the impact.

Sometimes in modern art this journey evolves into dialectic – intellectual argument – in the form of creators battling with materials, or writers with characters, artists with ideas, melodies with improvisation (preeminently in jazz) – in all cases ideally yielding a third state, of insight. Sometimes this insight is accomplished by technical means. For instance, in his painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) created the hallucinatory effect of moving traffic simply with yellow and gray squares that are equiluminant (of the same level of brightness) with the background – thus confusing the brain’s systems which perceive motion and position. Dialectics in art can also take a conceptual form: as a conflict between aesthetic theory and aesthetic experience; or between the intellectual and the spontaneous; or between the rational and the visionary; or the Apollonian and the Dionysian; or between the objective and the subjective; or even between the outer-directed reflections of consciousness, and inner-directed intuition. For me, the conflict between art and artifice can be seen most poignantly in Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Magician, where the artificial triumphs.

For many artists the dialectic they most want to explore – is man’s battle with the gods, or fundamental forces of life. In Greek mythology the gods were very protective of their powers. Prometheus, a Titan and artist who created man from clay, ran afoul of the gods when he stole fire from them and brought it to Earth for the benefit of mankind. The writer August Strindberg described the artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) as a “sort of [modern day] Titan who, jealous of the Creator, makes in his leisure hours his own little creation… who abjures and defies, preferring to see the heavens red rather than blue with the crowd” (quoted in Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp, 1996, p.89). For that matter, in Genesis, God himself is described as a sort of über-artist who “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” I envision God on his knees here, his face close to the earth, fingers smudged and filthy, grit under his fingernails: a busy sculptor in an outdoor studio. In this colorful tale, God created, literally, a world apart.


I have attempted to demonstrate that art shares fundamental characteristics with legal contracts, and that it centers on an intense and concentrated collaboration between work, viewer, and creator, yielding an imperative entity that rules minds in a tyrannical fashion. It is also a reverberation between signifier and signified, using substitutions that carry over from dissimilar to dissimilar to yield a captivating union of ideas. Art can be inchoate, or created fully as intended. In all these senses, painting is a triumph over nothingness; music is a triumph over silence; film is a triumph over stillness and darkness; sculpture is a triumph over matter; and art in general is a triumph over reality.

© Greg Stone 2021

Greg Stone is a media consultant in the Boston area and the author of Artful Business: 50 Lessons from Creative Geniuses. He gratefully acknowledges the editorial assistance of Frank Flaherty, Rich White, and Jack Stone.

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