Considering Art

This is not might be could be considered is not can be thought of as is not typical of is definitely not is art.

As an English major, a writer, and someone who has been reading prodigiously for years, the issue of art and what is art is an issue particularly close to my heart. I’ve found, from my own experience, that the field is wide-open. The simplest explanation, I think, is that when an object is meant to inspire thought (or even lack of thought, I guess), that object can be considered an art object. Clearly what that object can be to be an art object is practically limitless. For example, Seoul’s “The Cloud” can be considered art. It is designed to be functional, certainly, but one cannot deny it holds an aesthetic beauty and inspired considerable philosophical thought from some (and thoughtless outrage from others). It can be ridiculously easy to consider just about anything art, from this perspective. A very simplistic tower, in contrast to The Cloud, could inspire thought about austerity or modernity or even man’s inability to copy nature or whatever. In the visual arts, a happy face on a canvas or a single black line or even a blank canvas can be considered art. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t or can’t judge art (“good” art, “bad” art), but that we should keep in mind both what is art and that very frequently, what we consider to be good or bad art is completely arbitrary. Some of the greatest art from the medieval era of painting, for example, was commissioned by nobility and was described by them to the exact detail: because it is strictly commercial and because what we consider to be creativity isn’t of huge importance, do we not consider it art? Do we only consider it art if x number of dollars have gone into its production, or if the artist spent y hours of time? These are all very important questions, and I guess when it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I think restricting what is art is negative and leads to elitism of the worst kind.

Given all this, I was pleased to read Tycho’s take on the thing over at Penny-Arcade:

I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.  Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art.  I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.  This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake.  The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex.

If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack.  But it doesn’t.  Its entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby.  The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur.  Its effete and its fucking disgusting.

I would of course argue that art is a thought-machine, itself. Art is, or should, or can, or might, allow us to view the world from a certain perspective (or no perspective at all). Art is, or can be, or might be, an expression of an idea (that idea, at times, being art). Whether or not that idea is beneficial, or useful, or unique, or anything like that, is a different issue (and perhaps not an issue at all). It becomes so hard to draw a dividing line that it is pointless to do so.

One of the biggest drivers seems to me the intentionality and even authenticity of the piece of art. Regarding authenticity (which itself is such a nebulous term, only by taking it at face value with only the most cursory examination is it useful as an adjective), art that is made  for the express purpose of making money, for example, is not considered art by some. This would, for those that hold that view, exclude such things as Harlequin romances. By that same token, however, do we then exclude movies and video games and TV shows automatically, or do we take it for granted that the creators are simply trying to tell a story rather than make money, whereas pulp novels written a dime a dozen are less about story and more about dollars. But, given that we know in today’s day and age at the very least anything that is created that can be considered art can be commercialised, where can we even begin to draw the line?

Regarding intentionality, what does it matter what the artist thought? I’m an artist in that what I create is intended to have some aesthetic value and is meant to impart some kind of message and impart some kind of thought. An interpretation of how I write, for example, is useful but why I write it, my intentionality, is much less so. My intentionality is useful in terms of my argument, of course, but in terms of any sort of aesthetic appreciation it becomes next to useless. A great example that always comes to mind is one from an English course I took a year or two ago. Reading Edgar Allan Poe, the issue of intentionality popped up (as it did in a discussion on Henry James some weeks earlier). When the professor asked us what we thought the author thought, I stated that I didn’t care what the author thought and that it doesn’t matter what he thought, what matters is what we think his art is expressing. In this sense, the artist is kind of a hero. He, or of course she, has the potential to harness a brilliant idea and spill it out on canvas or paper fresco or .doc, but once they leave the picture, what they thought ceases to be of great import. They can interpret their own art, and we can take that as being important or relevant or helpful (in that they may be an authority and in that any interpretation can be helpful), but we certainly don’t have to take it for gospel.

I think that when philosophy ceases to be useful for mankind and begins to be useful only for philosophy, we may be missing the point. I don’t mean to be like some douchebag first-year philosophy major who walks into a bar and says what… is? like some pocket Rousseau. Sure, what is is an important question if we’re talking about what it is to be sentient, or to think, or to just be. But the goal should be to come up with a practical set of ground rules, or to at least recognize that we don’t have a practical set of ground rules, and what is and isn’t art varies from day-to-day based on current sociopolitical thought, market trends, education levels, and even the weather. More importantly, I think, we should be more mindful and more critical of thought itself. We should assess and evaluate not just what is art, but why it is art and why we think it is art.

But limiting what is art with bullshit elitism is probably not the way to go.


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