Friday, December 28, 2007

What is Art - Part One

Before I start another series of statements about what art is or isn't, I want to mention two more cautions.

Caution #1. There is little firm ground in this debate - whatever I say about art, even if the vast majority of readers would agree, will draw some debate. And the further we get into this conversation the softer and more treacherous the ground will become.

Caution #2. I work this whole argument around in my head in two directions, and arrive at different types of conclusions depending on how I proceed. So I fear this will be a bit like a moebius strip - a thing that seems to have two sides, but you can travel to either side without crossing any real division between them. Be prepared for a clearer but confusing conclusion to all of this. Art can be like "six impossible things before breakfast."

OK - here are the simpler steps.

Art is from Humans
I think most would agree that art is a human endeavor. I know people who would like to treat nature as God's work of art, but even if we all believed in the Creation, it isn't useful to call "everything" art. I think the word is only interesting or useful if it applies to a much smaller set of things, and I believe most would agree that it is meant to apply to things made by humans.

This eliminates all sorts of beautiful or moving things as art (though they might be subjects for art). Sunsets, animals, the night sky, frost patterns on a windowpane, natural landscapes...

But Not ALL from Humans is Art
Are ALL human caused things art? A snore? A footprint? A landfill? A city? I'm deliberately moving from the casual and accidental results of human passage through time and space to more deliberate or intended items. Let's sort these out a bit more.

Art is Deliberate
There is a subset of the things people cause which are made deliberately. They are made with some skill or for some purpose. Archeologists call some of these things "artifacts" which brings together the word art with a Latin root meaning "made." I think it's safe to say art objects are a subset of artifacts. Plainly not all artifacts are art - sheets of plywood, toilet seats, traffic lights... Works of art are a particular kind of deliberately made artifact.

OK - let me point out at least one way we're already in trouble here. Some art leaves no object or tangible "artifact" behind. Some art is act, instead of an object. We'll explore this more later (it gets into all sorts of fascinating questions like "Where is the art in this work?" and "Who is the artist?"). For now, let's pretend the acts have an existence similar to the objects - and for either to be art there is something that distinguishes them from other human created objects or human acts. One separator is that the act/creation is deliberate.

That isn't to say accident or chance can't be employed in the creation of art. Chance and accident are part of the story of many commonly revered artworks, but a human will is engaged in a particular kind of act when creating art. Some modern art shaves that act of will down to an absurd point, to make a point, but I said we'd come to that later - not yet.

So now we have to proceed to what separates art objects from other artifacts (and art acts from other human actions), and here I will run us off a small cliff, and then leave you hanging until the next post. Two more statements.

Art is Not Defined by Its Medium
That is to say you can't tell something is a work of art by looking at what it's made out of. I think most of us would agree that just because something is on a canvas and framed doesn't make it art. Just because it can be written on a musical score and played on a guitar, violin, gamelin, or didgeridoo doesn't make it art. On the flip side, there are works of are that are made with rocks and earth with bulldozers for the primary tool. There are works of art that exist only in the memories carried in oral traditions.

So now we get to the real heart of the matter, I think. Are all books art? Is all poetry art? Is all pottery craft? Is jewelry ever art? Can a quilt be art?

Art is Not Defined by Who Makes It
While Picasso's signature may have become a valuable item, and might even command a tidy sum in an auction, is everything scrawled by Picasso a work of art? I don't think that would make much sense. Is every move of a ballerina art? If she dances to a favorite band while out at a club with friends, is it art? It might be, but not just because she's a ballerina in other venues, though her training in dance might make it more likely to happen.

So what's the difference? If you can't tell it's art by what it's made out of, or how it's framed/staged, or who is doing it, how can you tell? What makes some pottery art and some canvases not? What makes some landscapes art and some poetry not? Why is a dancer's walk to the bus stop not art, while a scrawl of graffiti might be? When is an artist "doing" art? What makes a doer an "artist"?

Again, I would maintain it's not the beauty or "goodness" of the item or the act. Art can be obviously flawed (indeed some deeply moving art is seriously flawed) and it can be disturbingly ugly; craft can be practically perfect and breathtakingly beautiful and still not be art. I intend to discuss examples once I lay down a few more principles.

So what do I think is the difference? That's for the next post.

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