Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books about the definition of art and the contemporary art world, and also talking to a few artists. Many of the books I’ve read recently were meant or recommended as introductions to contemporary art, and some explicitly promised to demystify contemporary art and to explain what it is. And the differing approaches surprised me: it wasn’t just that different authors have different answers, but they seemed to be answering completely different questions. These discussions seem endlessly confusing because not only have people not explained some basic assumptions they’ve made about the scope of the term “art,” it’s hard to even tell that they’re talking about different things. Most authors do not even answer this question: when you say you’re defining “art,” what activities do you consider to be “art”? Are you talking specifically about contemporary art, the arts in general, or something in-between?

I’ve always understood art as a category, and that the “definition of art” delineates what lies in that category. Painting, music, and theatre are art, basketball is not: the purpose of a definition is simply to summarize the former and, in so doing, discriminate them the latter. 20th-century conceptual artists broadened the scope of art so much that seemingly anything can be considered art, if created or viewed in the right context. This view roughly corresponds to the kinds of definitions of art first proposed by Arthur Danto in the 1960’s, who argued that art is anything in a form that has been viewed as art by a consensus of cultural institutions.

In contrast, many non-experts I’ve spoken to define art by some defining attributes, for example, art is expression of emotion (an idea which dates at least to philosopher R. G. Collingwood in the 1930’s). Some writers define art by the activities of the artist: for example, the artist conveys ideas, seeks to push boundaries. These definitions of art don’t really delineate art from non-art; they can’t tell if you if a magazine article or a street protest would be considered art.

Many introductions to contemporary art provide little or no conceptual framework whatsoever. For example, the MOMA’s popular online course “What is Contemporary Art?”, which promises to introduce contemporary art to beginners, surveys a collection of current artists, without any theory or historical context that I could see skimming the course. And I don’t mean theory as in Derrida or Judith Butler, I mean “how do I appreciate this?” and “what makes it significant?” It is art appreciation as language immersion. Which can be effective to a point, but I imagine that most students will still leave rather puzzled.

In short, there are several different things that the question “What is art?” could mean in these books:

Some books attempt a more comprehensive view, e.g., Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art. Then there’s Playing for the Gallery, which is a mish-mash of half-baked answers to all of these questions.

Here are more in-depth reviews and recommendations of the books I read. Some of these books were quite excellent, and a few even made their goals and scope clear from the start.