Philosophy of Art – What Makes Something a Work of Art

Back when I was in college I took a class called philosophy of art. This led me to write a paper that analyzes what makes something a work of art based on the views of Baudelaire and the anonymous author. Below is this paper. It certainly leaves much to ponder about…

English: Driftwood, at Severn Beach

English: Driftwood, at Severn Beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Artists Joe and Moe take a walk along a beach and find an interesting piece of driftwood. Joe takes a photograph of it, which he submits to an art show under the title of On The Beach. Moe picks up the piece of driftwood and submits the actual thing, which he calls Driftwood to the same art show. The curators of the show are Baudelaire and the anonymous author. They have to decide if these works meet the criteria for being an artwork. Here is their evaluation.


If Baudelaire were to evaluate these two submissions, he would go by what constitutes a work of art and whether what he is looking at fits that definition. To him something is a work of art when it is produced through the use of imagination, fantasy, and dreams. To make his evaluation, he would ask the following question: Did either of the artists use their imagination and the like to produce their work? The answer could vary. Baudelaire’s evaluation depends on how the two submissions were presented and how they were done.

Let’s first examine Moe’s submission Driftwood. If Moe just picked up the piece of driftwood, carried it to the art show, and presented it the way it is then Baudelaire would not consider it a work of art because there is no use of imagination. Plus, he didn’t create this piece of driftwood because it was already in existence. On the other hand, if Moe brought that same piece of driftwood and described it as depicting something, say a bird, then he would be using his imagination and therefore it is a work of art.

Now let’s look at Joe’s submission On The Beach. If Joe just took a straight photograph of the driftwood then he didn’t use his imagination either because to have imagination is to have create something from your head without looking at anything. On the other hand, if Joe changed the position of the camera, and/or the driftwood, or the lighting before taking the photograph, then he used his imagination because he had something in mind; he wanted the photograph to look a certain way. That makes it a work of art.

According to the anonymous author, all works of art must have composition; otherwise they are not really artworks. To have composition is to have order. For photography, merely taking a picture of an object is not a composition, but the positioning of the object in a certain way before taking the photo makes it so. Let’s examine both artists in different scenarios.

If Joe changed the way the driftwood lay on the ground before taking the photo then it is considered artwork. But what if there was no way to change the positioning of the driftwood because it is part of nature? The anonymous author would provide the following answer. We know that nature composes because this fact “is proven by the fact that straight photographs of her have been made, which fulfill all demands of perfect composition.” Since nature does compose and the photographer is able to capture her composition on film, the photo is still a composition, therefore making Joe’s photo of the driftwood a work of art.

Let’s suppose that all Moe did was bring the actual driftwood to the art show. This means that he did not compose it and therefore it is not considered a work of art. But what if the situation was slightly different? What if a similar notion of nature was applied to Moe’s Driftwood? Well, we already know from the previous paragraph that nature composes. So, if we consider that piece of driftwood to be part of nature, then it is itself a work of art because nature composed it.

What does it really mean for an artist to compose something? To compose is “to create with the brain, and bring into concrete existence, through one or other of the physical organs, as by hand.” This is what the anonymous author refers to as the “personal touch”; something that all artworks must posses. So, by evaluating the two submissions the anonymous author would have to see if these two artists really composed and if “personal touch” is present in their work. This is a necessary criterion by which something is judged as being a work of art.

It is obvious that Joe used his hands to transform the driftwood into an image on paper. And so he produced something that wasn’t there before. There is an element of “personal touch” because he used his finger to press a button on the camera, which in turn led to the creation of this image. Then of course this makes the photo an artwork. And if he thought about the way to take the picture then he composed. What he created is art.

What did Moe do then? Moe just took what he found and brought it to the art show. That does not make it an artwork. He didn’t create anything using his brain. Since the driftwood was already in existence, Moe certainly did not create it.

In conclusion, the evaluation of these two submissions by both Baudelaire and the anonymous author depends on the way that these two submissions were produced and presented. Based on these different scenarios each submission is judged in a different way; that is under certain conditions it is considered as a work of art, but under others it is not deemed to be so.


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  1. TheBrit

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