DOG-EARED CORNER - 0.1: DEFINING ART
How do we define art?
An ancient question, indeed. Explored by generations of scholars, philosophers and artists, debated at length by fools and great minds alike. Still unresolved…
Here, in the splashy ramblings of some nobody’s blog the answer will finally be revealed. So … that’s one thing taken care of. You’re welcome, Universe.
Before we get to the answer, I’d like to take a second to specify (and perhaps clarify) exactly what we’re discussing. We’re not talking about what kinds of things can or cannot be called art. To an observer, art is amorphous, ephemeral and, above all, subjective. Enforcing strict definitions to limit what people may call art (i.e. limit how people experience the world) is a strategy to control how they think. Historically, such attempts have been utilized to maintain power over vulnerable groups. (The Nazis, for instance, quite enjoyed telling people what art they should like.) So, that’s not what we’ll be doing here.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize one key fact: art exists. That much we can be almost sure of. Abstract it may be, but like currency, irony and rudeness, we recognize it to be real. It must then have qualities by which we can identify it. And in identifying it, we define it.
But why even bother, you ask? For me, as a creator of art, knowledge of what art is, knowledge of what I’m doing when I create it, is a useful baseline. It informs everything I do after. If I can define art—as a writer—I can extrapolate story. When I know what story is, I can better work out how to make a good one.
Okay, enough preamble! Time for an answer. How do we define art?
Art is willfully COMMUNICATED Experience
(So … um … what does that mean?)
Okay, so it’s like this: art is a form of communication. It’s something you deliberately produce, and when someone observes it—by its own qualities—it causes them to have an internal life event.
Or to clarify a bit further (and make get much, much dryer), let’s break the definition down by keyword:
(WILLFULLY • COMMUNICATED • EXPERIENCE)
Art must be created by someone, with INTENT TO CREATE it. Not that it has to be stilted and pretentious; it could be googly-eyes pasted to a toilet paper roll. It doesn’t even have to resemble what the creator intended, as long as creation itself was intended. (You can’t point at the sun, for instance, and (rightly) call it art. Or as a subtler example: when someone walks through snow to their car, the tracks they make are incidental to their goal. So even if they leave a very pretty trail, without intent to create it, this isn’t art.)
(NOTE: I’m using the term‘create’ pretty loosely here. It doesn’t necessarily have to be physical formation. It could easily mean just displaying something the creator has observed (e.g. photography). What matters is the intent.)
An artistic creator does not direct their energies onto an observer, but into their creation. Likewise, THE OBSERVER’S EXPERIENCE DOESN’T COME FROM THE ARTIST BUT FROM THE WORK ITSELF. Art, like all forms of communication, is delivered upon an intermediate medium. Such a medium can be tangible (like a painting); it can be immaterial (like a song), or even abstract (like a story). Even an actor—whose work is derived wholly from their own body—is not actually the character they’re portraying, and doesn’t interact with the observer as themself; the portrayal itself is their medium.
When you start interacting with your observer, you’re no longer communicating your message to them; you’re enforcing it upon them. A punch to the face, for example, is certainly a willfully delivered experience, but it is not art. The same could potentially be said for a picture of an adorable puppy, or a rape scene in a movie. Independent of how they are presented, such subjects can evoke strong physiological reactions simply because of what they are. These reactions can act as stimuli external to the experience. This is manipulation, and more often than not lays a barrier between the observer and the work. (Did you stumble a little when you read just the word ‘rape’? I usually do. And that’s just the word. Such reactions tend to pull us out of whatever we’re trying to experience.)
(NOTE: Yes, manipulation can be an effective tool in creating art. But it’s hard to pull off, and unless you really know what you’re doing, there’s a pretty good chance it will backfire.)
Art instills a SENSE THAT SOMETHING IS HAPPENING—OR HAS HAPPENED, affecting its audience in a recognizable way. This sense must be significant and wholly derived from the work. (Reading a comic book while receiving great oral sex (as a fairly hyperbolic example) may constitute a wonderful experience, but you can’t (rightly) say it’s a good comic because of the mind-shattering orgasm you had while reading it.)
Also, observation is subjective. A work may offer an experience to everyone who observes it. Or maybe just one person. It could even be just the creator. (If sculptor never shows anyone their work, but they themself appreciates it, it is no less art.)
And so that’s what art is.
Still here? Really? WOW! And you want to read more?! Well OKAY! Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Now I don’t think the following is going to break any moulds, but as long as we’re defining art, let’s go a bit deeper and see if we can break it down a bit. Although there are countless forms art can take (Neo-classical, post-modern, death metal, etc.), as far as I can figure, there are only 3(½)* different kinds. (It should be noted that these are far from mutually exclusive; most art will fall into more than one category. You might even say instead, there are 3(½) qualities art can possess. But I’m not going to here.)
The Three Kinds of Art
Aesthetic art appeals to our senses. It can consist of shapes and colours, sounds, scents and flavours. Even physical touch and altered equilibrium could be considered aesthetic art frameworks. It could be a painting or a tune, a delicious meal or a well-designed roller coaster. It’s made up of patterns that we experience, which kind of just affect us. Our brains just seem to respond when we observe aesthetic art. As such, it tends to appeal to fairly broad audiences.
NOTE: Though aesthetic art, like manipulation, creates a visceral response in its observer, the two must be recognized as distinct. Where the art offers a pattern to inspire an experience in its observer, manipulation forces a pre-decided experience upon them. So, while our response to something like a meal or a roller coaster is certainly physiological (butter tastes good, and sudden descents make your stomach go whoomb), artistic value can be found in how these elements are presented. (The best roller coasters take you on a journey of tension and release; the best foods layer textures, smells and flavours into profound encounters.)
As you’ve no doubt guessed, the experience expressed in emotive art is one of emotion. Because of this, emotive art tends to be more grounded, more specific than aesthetic. It taps into existing knowledge of the world, then projects circumstances and heightened states to draw feelings from an observer. We cry at a love song because we understand love. We’re tense through a thrilling movie because we know what danger is. Emotive art requires imagination and empathy (from both creator and observer).
Far more than the other two, this kind of art expresses the experience of a life event. It causes us to feel how we would expect to feel in a given situation. Done well, it can offer joy, catharsis, fear, outrage, longing, desire—pretty much any emotion we access in life.
Intellectual art is the art of ideas. (Of course.) It is the broadest in form and vaguest in structure, as it exists solely in its patterns of meanings, intended meanings, and the search for meanings within it. Often such art is context driven. It can be a reaction to previous artistic movements, or previous/existing political movements, or to the collective cultural consciousness of its time. As long as it is able to inspire thought in its observers (and doesn’t simply tell them what to think).
By its nature, intellectual art tends to be the most experimental kind. It explores the boundaries of every artistic element (willfulness, communication and experience). Because of this, it also tends to be the most contentious, with many arguing, because a work doesn’t affect them personally—and fails to fit into any perceived traditional artistic category—it can’t really be art. (You’ll recall, I’ve already stated my opinion on such conceits.) And while intellectual art is probably easiest to fake (with many observers looking to see meaning where it may not actually exist), art, it undeniably is.
So Which is Best?
Emotive. Emotive art is best. Hands down.
I bet you thought I was going to hedge with something like, “Each of the three has its merits, but truly great art will have elements of them all…”
And, um … well…
Okay look, emotive art is my favorite. I like it because—as I said—more than the others, it expresses an experience of LIFE, distilling subjective reality into potent—sometimes unreasonably potent—doses. It’s what life would be if it were tailor-designed to be enjoyed by or meaningful to the living. Obviously, it’s the best one.
But of course, aesthetic also has value. More value, you could argue, because its value belongs to itself and nothing else. When aesthetic art is beautiful, it’s not because you see aspects of your life within it, or it re-enforces or challenges your beliefs; it’s simply because that’s what it is. If it fascinates you, it’s for no other reason than it’s fascinating. Its qualities are its own.
And as for intellectual art, few things in the world can offer so great, or so wonderful a challenge. Such art can boggle the mind, offer unsolvable riddles or simply dare its observers to even try and define it.
So sure, you could say each of the three has own merits. And yes, truly great art will have elements of them all. (Consider a beautifully written novel with stunningly poetic language, a powerful story and poignant characters, all layered with compelling ideas, and concepts that challenge your perception of the world. Great art, indeed.)
But, gun to my head, I like emotive.
*Okay, so I mentioned above that there are actually 3(½) kinds of art. By this point I’ve still only given you three. The last only counts as a half because it doesn’t (necessarily) meet all the given criteria. But if you’ve read this far (thank you!) we might as well finish the set.
Cultural relics are like art because we experience them in almost exactly the same way. They evoke an experience in us from nothing more than their cultural significance. Only they don’t require any intent to create. Ancient midden heaps might be considered cultural relic (though they were no more than junk piles in their day. When a US president signs a bill into law, they typically gift the pen to someone because it holds cultural value (not because it’s a particularly nice pen). And I personally, would treasure a moon-rock if I ever got my hands on one, for no other reason than what it represents. Such relics can be willfully created, of course, and have aesthetic, emotive or intellectual art value; they just don’t require it.
Of course, artistic works which by some cultural significance have become relics, tend to possess an extra pull of artistic gravity. So really, that’s the dream.
(And why there’s always a crowd around the Mona Lisa.)