The Many Permutations of Art Theory

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In her introduction to Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (public library), Cynthia Freeland explains:
 A theory is more than a definition; it is a framework that supplies an orderly explanation of observed phenomena.  A theory should help things make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon and weighty words.  It should systematically unify and organize a set of observations, building from basic principles.  But the 'data' of art are so varied that is seems daunting to try to unify and explain them.  Many modern artworks challenge us to figure out why, on any theory, they would count as art.  My strategy here is to highlight the rich diversity of art, in order to convey the difficulty of coming up with suitable theories.  Theories have practical consequences, too, guiding us in what we value (or dislike), informing our comprehension, and introducing new generations to our cultural heritage.
Art Theory with a color swatch of the pigment vermillion.

The theories covered in Freeland's book include art as:
ritual
taste and beauty
imitation of nature and human action
reflection of a transcendental quality of God
experience of the sublime
cult of personality
part of history
expression of the life of the community
colonial appropriation
universal language
expression of feeling or emotions
unconscious expression of feeling or emotions
expression of ideas
expansion of perceptual awareness

Incarnate Beauty also features the VSI volumes on beauty and art history.  The Very Short Introduction series is published by Oxford University Press.