The Floating University

Art Now

Aesthetics Across Music, Painting, Architecture, Movies, and More.

LEON BOTSTEIN, Conductor, Leon Levy Professor, President of Bard College

Lesson Overview

It is one of the most debated subjects of all time, and President Botstein of Bard College steps boldly into the fray: What is art? Some might think it doesn't much matter whether or not consensus is achieved on this highly subjective topic, but the definition of art has an enormous impact upon how the arts are — or aren't — funded. The question of what constitutes art spills over into debates about art's value to society –– whether access to the arts is right as basic as education or health care, and whether it should be assessed and supported by government or left to the "invisible hand" of the free market. President Botstein explains why it is essential to ask these questions and offers a sturdy basis for evaluating them. He goes so far as to suggest that engaging with art can give our lives meaning and purpose. 

Art is often dismissed as being purely subjective, but President Botstein argues that there are some commonalities among the diverse products that different people call art. He points out that art-making is uniquely a human activity, that it has its own semantic vocabulary that transcends the limitations of language, that its very existence is meaningless without viewer engagement and response. He argues that the most important thing about art is every person's capacity to make it, and that the body/mind discipline of cultivating your artistic abilities has collateral utility for every aspect of life. By the end of the lecture you will understand why you should actively make art part of your life-long education.


  • Course Pack: Paul Valery, Eupalinos, or, The Architect. 
  • Online: Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art? Link:

Discussion Questions

(1.) Do you have a strong attachment to a movie, TV show, or song that the majority of critics would regard as objectively bad art? If so, why are the critics wrong in this case, or what are they missing? Will history turn against the currently accepted "refined" tastes?

(2.) This lesson has primarily concerned itself with painting, music, film, dance, and architecture. We are experiencing today, however, an unprecedented proliferation of new art forms as young artists use the interactive medium of the internet to invent new kinds of expression. How would one begin to develop a criterion of quality for these new forms? Is a meme a work of art? Likewise, how might the pioneering efforts of digital artists reflect back on traditional art forms in non-superficial ways?

(3.) This lesson has brought up a number of difficult questions, but the one of most practical import for the majority of people is "What role should government play in funding the arts?" Market-oriented democracies let competition decide what art gets created and promoted, but some would say this leaves many sectors of the arts underfunded. Should the American government launch a robust support of the arts? If so, how could the government go about deciding which projects to fund? And where should these funds come from? 

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About Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein is the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College in New York. He became the youngest college president in US history when he took the head post at Franconia College at age 23. Dr. Botstein has published scholarly works in numerous disciplines, including music, education, and culture. Botstein is the author of the popular book Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, in which he lays out a progressive view of education.