The question, "What is Art," is about as old as Artists and Art. The moment someone made a cave painting, someone else has to have said, "But is it Art?" Whatever it is, Art is surely a form of communication in that it has both creator and receiver. Ultimately, both must decide how to measure the "Artness" of something. Here's what I've decided.
One question at a time
There are three questions one might ask about Art:
- "Is it Art?"
- "Is it Good Art?"
- "Do I like it?"
This essay is strictly about the first question. Critical review (whether a piece of Art is good) and taste (whether you like it) are separate matters.
Why Art is hard to define
Art, like Love, is such a fundamental concept that it's easier to describe than define. One can easily point to examples of great Art or Love: the Mona Lisa; Burns & Allen. But definitions require concepts more basic than the thing defined. Just as buildings are defined by bricks, steel and glass; concepts are defined by basic "building block" concepts.
But what is more basic than Art or Love? The many forms of Art, from paintings to movies, show its enormous range and scope. As with Love, the fundamental nature is demonstrated in the variety of ways we express it. Any definition we pick must be equally large in scope.
Finding a definition is complicated by the creator/reviewer duality of Art. An Artist creates Art (that's an easy definition). But Art is created for someone else to perceive. Any definition we pick must consider both creator and reviewer.
One note: It's hard to find a good word that covers readers, viewers and listeners of Art. The word, "receiver", is accurate, but sounds too mechanical. The word, "viewer", covers a lot, but misses listeners and isn't a great fit for readers. Ultimately, "reviewer" seems general enough, and unused enough, to borrow. It retains the suggestion of viewer while opening the scope to other modes.
How I define Art (and Artists)
"Art is the interpretation and expression of the Artist's reality."
Art interprets some aspect of the Artist's reality. The reality may be completely imaginary, partly imaginary or based fully on reality. A novel might have imaginary aliens on an imaginary planet. A photograph of a sunset can be an artistic vision of a real thing. (In many ways, the interpretation is the heart of Art; it is the primary quality criteria.)
Art is the expression of the Artist's interpretation. The expression can take many forms: music, paint, sculpture, cinema, dance, literature. But there is always some mechanism of expression to Art. That expression is the bridge between Artist and Reviewer; it is how the Artist speaks to you.
Artists, true Artists, are those who are driven to express their interpretation of reality. Artists are people who have a need to create Art.
Okay, so there's a definition with some degree of objectivity. Let's take it out for a test drive and see how it performs.
It certainly seems to do well with anything most people would agree is Art. Great paintings, novels and movies all seem to qualify. The best place for a test is the fringe cases.
Is paint thrown a distance onto a canvas Art? How about a painting of a Campbell's soup can? Is a "sculpture" consisting mostly of a urinal with an ironic title Art?
I think the answer lies, to a great extent, in the intent and expression of the Artist. Randomly applied paint can be intentionally selected for its color. And while the application of each color may be random, the overall expression may not be. (Consider Jackson Pollock's work, for example.) Repeatedly applying random splashes may result in something the Artist intends.
Andy Warhol's famous soup can paintings had a specific message; they were intentional statements. The Artist had a perception of his reality, which he expressed using his full command of his tools. Definitely, the soups were Art.
Weird sculptures also can be an interpretive expression of an Artist's reality. A difficult trick here can be determining whether the statement is genuine or banal. The oddness of the medium can distract from the content.
A classic question: to what extent is knowledge of the Artist important? A related question is: what about Art that requires inside knowledge to appreciate? These are questions for another time.
© 2008 Chris from MN