The Satisfying Nature of Collingwood’s Theory of Art


Numerous philosophers have attempted to lay out cohesive (and some incohesive) definitions of the concept of art. Of the various definitions that have emerged, valid objections have been respectfully posed to each. In this essay I will argue for Collingwood’s theory of art as being the most satisfying and cohesive, effectively making it superior to the definitions of art supposed by Tolstoy, Aristotle, and Beardsley. I will first explicate Collingwood’s theory before responding to some of the discrepancies that emerge amongst Collingwood’s theory and other philosopher’s before going on to address some of the common valid objections to Collingwood’s theory of art.

Collingwood made great distinction between two forms, with works considered crafts being Pseudo-Art, and real art taking the form of Art Proper. For Collingwood, in order to develop an understanding of Art Proper, an understanding of Pseudo-Art must first be garnered (Collingwood 1995, 120). Collingwood’s theory is contingent on the way in which the term art is modernly used and conceptualized. There is a common tendency to refer to instances of craft as art, however a large defining factor of difference for Collingwood is the conscious control and directed action that results in a product that was preconceived (Collingwood 1995, 119). Collingwood distinguishes his theory from the Ancient Greek Philosophers in identifying that the intuitive relation of craft and art largely stems from figures such as Plato who referred to poetry as a craft reflecting a preconceived result and an intended emotional effect utilizing skill (Collingwood 1995, 121). 

Collingwood’s theory draws attention towards the different forms of Pseudo-Art, the distinction between the aims of these forms reflect the wide array of things that the term “Pseudo-Art” encapsulates, additionally the commonalities among the forms develop an understanding of what constitutes Proper Art.  Amusement and magic are outlined as forms of Pseudo-Art that appeal to emotion, with amusement doing so for its own sake and magic doing so for a specific practical aim. Importantly, Pseudo-Arts are for their own sake, in comparison to Art Proper being for the sake of the expression of emotion (Collingwood 1995, 129). When an artist creates a work, it exists solely within their head, even once the work is physically manifested (if it is). As such, art is an imaginary thing existing in the creator and interpreter’s heads; contrastingly, crafts have specific sorts of steps, materials and forms of execution that can be/must be realized in order to create a discernible thing (Collingwood 1995, 121). For example, in craft you can consistently distinguish the literal matter (metal) used in making a horseshoe from the eventual horseshoe itself, however you cannot distinguish the literal matter of some art from its form (Collingwood 1995, 120). 

Art Proper, in contrast to Pseudo-Art, is expressed by Collingwood as being conscious of having an emotion (not the specific emotion), provoked by psychological manners of the artist but carried out in ignorance of the emotion, a process by which Collingwood regarded as expressing oneself. Collingwood states that works of art cannot be works of craft, and what makes something a work of art is not its being a work of craft (Collingwood 1995, 125). Importantly however, Collingwood additionally states that art can contain elements of craft but the important distinction is that the thing that makes that work art is not that it is a craft, but that it occurred with a lack of preconceiving and took place through the expression of oneself (Collingwood 1995, 129). This form of expression is different from simply venting or communicating one’s emotions as in order to do so you must already know how you are feeling in order to generalize it to communicate it to others (Collingwood 1995, 135). When an artist expresses emotion they are not putting it into a box according to Collingwood, but approaching the particular nature of their emotion. An understanding of craft additionally assists in an understanding of Art Proper as the notion of awareness of what you are conceiving is required for craftspeople, and an ignorance to the emotion being expressed is required for artists. 

A troubling aspect that emerges amongst Collingwood’s definition of art, is one faced by Tolstoy’s theories as well. Tolstoy’s theory of art states the distinguishing point for art is the infectious quality of it, its ability to convey lived-through experience of feeling. Tolstoy identified good art by its degree of infectiousness as well as the individuality, clarity, sincerity and quality of feeling (Tolstoy 1995, 518). Furthermore Tolstoy made a similar kind of distinction as Collingwood in defining Art and Counterfeit Art (Tolstoy 1995, 513). The notion of infectiousness speaks to the purpose of art being to communicate a feeling once experienced, with these different qualities reflecting the potential value of the communicative piece. As such, a central objection to both Tolstoy and Collingwood’s theories have been how can you identify valid art. For Collingwood, Art Proper is associated with the psychological process by which an artist gains an understanding through expression, however, it is often not intuitively apparent whether or not this process has occurred for a given work of art. Tolstoy’s theory furthers this inquiry as it gives less weight to the common usage of the word “art” in its definition, instead believing that much of what is intuitively considered art is misguided (Tolstoy 1995, 518). Collingwood’s theory excels in this instance as it would dictate that in troublesome instances of identifying whether or not a work is proper art when the artist’s expressive process is not apparent, a detailed account of the artist’s process would be required to identify whether or not it was proper art. This serves as a satisfying application of the theory as while not necessarily refuting the status of many prominent, or intuitively considered, “art” works, it more so suspends their classification upon consideration of its conception. I find this angle more satisfying than theories such as Tolstoy’s as it gives more weight to the validity of human intuition while additionally desiring more of an artwork than its conveyed communication. 

An additional notion that arises in Tolstoy’s theories that complicates Collingwood’s is the notion of activities such as protests being considered forms of art for Tolstoy (Tolstoy 1995, 517). This is an instance in which Collingwood’s classifications would dictate the more intuitive answer of protests falling under Pseudo-Art rather than Proper Art. The form of expression by which protestors undergo is always based in a preconceived feeling that has been specified. Furthermore, protests generally operate under a preconceived notion of what the audience will consist of, again in contrast to Proper Art. Collingwood would likely identify that protestors are effectively communicating (or “betraying”) their emotions rather than expressing it ignorantly. 

Similarly to Tolstoy’s theory of crafted attentive emotional responses reflecting art, Aristotle saw the tragedy as a craft whereby poets sought to create certain specific emotional responses for the viewer, with the ultimate purpose of improving the viewer’s mental health or well being (Collingwood 1995, 121). These arguments represent the objection to Collingwood’s theory of art of it being too removed from the created emotional responses for the viewer. Collingwood’s theory however holds up amongst these criticisms as both Tolstoy and Aristotle’s theories fit Collingwood’s definition of magic Pseudo-Art. In these instances in which Tolstoy and Aristotle would identify a work of art and Collingwood wouldn’t, it would stem from a work appealing to emotion for a practical aim. Ultimately, magic Pseudo-Art and the other forms of Pseudo-Art for Collingwood reflect different forms of “amusement”, being entirely preconceived, or having a preconceived purpose. 

Philosopher, Monroe Beardsley’s theory of art focused on the notion of aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience was characterized by Beardsley as having features of complexity, unity and intensity (Beardsley 1958, 529), . These characteristics largely took form through the purposeful intention of the artist, maintaining coherence, phenomenal objectiveness and concentration of experience (Beardsley 1958, 529). Within this view, our emotional reaction to a work of art is always shaped by the objective form in the aesthetic emotion. However Beardsley’s argument contained a valid side for subjectivity and objectivity, with objective elements (complexity, unity, intensity) of a given work, allowing for aesthetic experience to be achieved. Beardsley’s argument naturally fits many mediums including film and music, however his requirements for completeness becomes complicated within the fine arts, furthermore it is a common thought among philosophers that the theory fails to account for instances in which narratives do not conclude cohesively. These complications arise from the objection to Collingwood’s work of when and where craft and art can overlap, if ever. Complex works such as novels and films present a challenge to Collingwood’s theory as the preparation (preconceived ideas) and production (execution) of most films and pieces of literature adhere to rules of craft, reflecting a denotation of Pseudo-Art. However, Collingwood makes direct reference to the fact that although art is not craft, some amount of craft can be present in art, so long as the blind expression of emotion is the only real art (Beardsley 1958, 121). It can thus be taken that because of the large amount of planning that goes into these mediums reflect craft rather than art, however these works can still contain small parts of expressiveness. In these instances, It is likely Collingwood would describe the forms as mostly inartistic, while still identifying the expressive nature of whatever minor elements of expression these complex mediums allow for. 

Collingwood’s theory made specific distinction between two central forms, Art Proper, and Pseudo-Art. These distinctions, similar to that of Tolstoy’s, serve as the most satisfying as they give weight to modern conceptualizations of the concept of art, and the intuitive response of humans. Furthermore, by focusing away from intention and preconceived direction, Collingwood’s theory emerges as more reflective of the interpretive experience, one which I am more familiar with. Distinctions between works which theorists such as Beardsley and Tolstoy would consider art and Collingwood would not, allow for a grandiose emphasis to emerge among Collingwood’s theory of art as it offers the most satisfying resolution to a given works classification as craft or art without betraying human intuition. 

Works Cited

Tolstoy, Leo (1995). The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern. New York: McGraw-Hill. (pp. 506-522).

Collingwood, R. G. (1995). The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern. New York: McGraw-Hill (pp. 118-152) 

Beardsley, Monroe. (1958). Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.. (pp. 572-576). 

Parsons, G. (2020) PHL504. Week 5a: Collingwood on Pseudo-Art 

Parsons, G. (2020) PHL504. Week 5b: Collingwood on Art Proper

Parsons, G. (2020) PHL504. Week 5c: Collingwood on the Ontology of Art/Objections

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