I have recently begun listening to Marc Maron’s smart and funny WTF podcast. Yesterday I heard an episode in which comedian Janeane Garofalo was his guest (also smart and funny). Near the end of the conversation, Garofalo brought up the question, “What is an artist?” Maron responded by saying, “To me, an artist is somebody who has put their craft in place, and uses it to express themselves.” An interesting conversation ensued, which you can listen to here. Their conversation was smart, but also casual, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to respond as though I were debating them. However, I am interested in using Maron’s response as a jumping off point because his idea is one that I run into a lot and seems to be very popular.
I don’t have a problem with Maron’s response as a component of what it can mean for some people to be an artist, but I also know that there are people for whom this description would be limiting. His description seems to imply that the definition of “art” is the product of somebody using anything that could be considered a craft as a means to self-expression. This is a narrow definition. A lot of art is conceived of as a form of imitation or exploration (John Cage, for example, had no interest in the idea of “expression,” but instead was interested in assigning to his ego a passive role in the process of invention).
The dominant view of art for most of our civilization has been that art is a form of imitation, going back at least to Plato (who was against art for this reason: indulging in an imitation of truth impedes the pursuit of real Truth) and Aristotle (he liked art). In this sense, even an emotional response to music is a response to the imitation of emotion in music.
The Western notion that art is a form of self-expression seems to have come about in the 19th century. We see in that era, for various reasons, increased emphasis on aesthetic relativism, and we see the ideas of Immanuel Kant from the previous century influencing artists (such as Beethoven) as the West enters the Romantic era. We also see the introduction of impressionism, which diverged in practice from the idea of imitation and lent itself to an explanation of being expressional (the movement actually termed “expressionism” arises at the end of the 19th century as well). As other art movements came about, new ideas about defining art had to be explored (Clive Bell’s art as significant form, George Dickie’s art as a product of the Art World, et al…).
As with many other concepts that are essentially indefinable and open to the nature/nurture question (justice, beauty, holiness, etc…), “art” is a concept that I view as being defined based on two perspectives on the part of each individual mind. This reference to the individual is important, because part of what makes the concept “art” universally indefinable is that it can only be defined at the level of the individual mind, which itself is in a state of flux. By “define,” I am referring to what the word “art” denotes, and, in a broader sense, that which can be verbally communicated between thinkers. This is distinct from a concept like “truth,” the definition of which can generally be agreed upon as a point of reference for debating the applicability of the concept itself to certain ideas. We are therefore able to argue about what is or is not true, and the relevance of truth as a concept in a certain context, but there are not categories of things that are truth (something that is true – nor collections of things that are true – does not in and of itself provide a definition of “truth;” otherwise, everything that is would be truth itself). There are, however, categories of things that are art, and there are individual examples and collections of examples of which can be said, “This is art.”
As I said, “art” is defined at the level of the individual mind. Essentially, there is my definition of “art,” and there is anyone else’s definition of “art.” These are the two perspectives that I referred to earlier. “Anyone else’s idea of art” represents countless concepts grouped into one, generalized concept. There is also a subset of the individual concept of “art,” which is the collective concept of “art.” [12/25/09 EDIT: I should change “collective” to “collaborative,” because I don’t really believe in a “collective” anything among people except perhaps a collective impetus coming from inescapable attributes of human nature, like hunger; the hunger itself, however, would not be collective.] Note that I don’t consider this collective concept to fall under the “anyone else” perspective. This is because I don’t believe that humanity shares a single mind (which is why I say “anyone else” and not “everyone else”). I believe that the individual minds with the most power impose their individual wills on humanity, thereby creating a false impression that humanity has a single will or mind. Therefore, I view the collective concept of “art” to be the synthesis of two or more individual concepts of “art.” This synthesis will never exactly coincide with the constituent individuals’ concepts of “art,” but it will be distinct from “anyone else’s” concept. My role in such a synthesis would be to contribute my individual concept of art to the collective concept, not to conform to the apparent product of the synthesis itself, because to attempt to adopt the synthesis would be to contibute to its destruction (here we see the beginnings of a paradox, which I’ll avoid going into). At any rate, I’m concerned here with two perspectives that exist within my own mind: my definition, and anyone else’s definition.
Here’s my current definition of “art”:
The deliberate creation, caused manifestation, or assembling of ideas into some combination that results in an object, which is transmitted with the intention to stimulate the intellect and/or emotions of an experiencer.
Key words here are “idea,” “stimulate,” and “intention.” An “idea” can be anything, such as an environment, sound, painting, movement, frame, or context (importantly, itself a combination of ideas). By “stimulate,” I mean something more than “to experience.” By “intention,” I am referring to the idea that an artist intends to create art, intends to stimulate, and is conscious of the activity being engaged in. I am not sure about including “and/or,” because removing the emotional component would seem to make this definition applicable to, for example, an interesting math problem (which I’m sure many enthusiasts would indeed consider an art form of sorts, and one that features an emotional experience). However, there is a difficulty with not having that “or” in there. Consider Igor Stravinsky’s (and others’) ideas about the role of emotion in the creation and experience of music. There are those who would argue that art should be a purely intellectual pursuit. This sort of thinking makes me want to integrate into my definition something to the effect of, “…the creator of such a subject intends that subject to be a work of art.” Or, perhaps I could change the word “subject” to “artwork,” but I worry about creating a tautology that says, “Art is art.” My definition is in progress, but that’s appropriate because my understanding of my experience of art is in progress (or at least in flux), as is my very experience of art. Art itself, of course, is also in a constant state of change.
This change is a very important attribute to keep in mind when defining “art” because it reminds us that before a philosopher or artist can define something as “art,” that something must first be created (even if only in the imagination of the artist). Whoever creates that something, by definition, is an artist.
Moving along, my definition of “art” for anyone who is not me is, “Whatever someone calls art.” If I were to tell someone, “What you have made is not art” or, more importantly, “The thing that you are moved by and are calling art is in fact not art,” I would be presuming that “art” can be defined in the general sense. If it can be defined, then it is not my place to tell someone what is or is not art according to my own definition of “art,” but instead I should be looking to the, let’s say, Absolute Definition of “art” in order to determine what is or is not art. Because there is no Absolute Definition of “art,” I should outwardly accept someone else’s definition of “art” as their own, and, when appropriate, engage in a discussion about the differences between my definition and someone else’s. Inwardly, however, I am not obligated to accept the other person’s definition of “art.” This secret unacceptance may, of course, lead to the sort of contrived tolerance that often arises when one embraces cultural relativism, which I would recognize as being potentially socially problematic, but less so than were I to make a practice of outwardly rejecting others’ definitions of “art.” Also, most importantly, note that this approach doesn’t require that I accept a definition of “art” that excludes works that I consider to be art.
One could argue, then, that this rule of outward acceptance would, in practical terms, render everything to be art. I don’t believe it would, for a number of reasons, though it would arguably make it possible for almost anything to be art, which is, in fact, the current state of things. It is this state that I am attempting to describe.
With this in mind, we see that once those who considered something to be art have ceased to exist, the art itself ceases to be art (perhaps being marginalized into the category of “cultural artifact” depending on the extent to which the artifact’s role has been documented and accepted during its era and subsequent eras), and things that were not art, become art. Consider that the ancient Egyptians had no word for “art,” nor did the contemporary concept of a humanistic aesthetic exist in ancient Egypt as far as we know, yet current museums and the public have no qualms about designating Egyptian statuary, pottery etc… as things to be called “art.”
Another thing I would like to point out is the obstacle one runs into when one’s definition of “art” is really just a definition of “good art.” This starts to get into the area of taste, which I’ll avoid here because taste should not have any place in defining what art is. To ignore this need for neutrality of taste can lead to a fallacy of denotation, which reminds me of a story:
Someone once told me that he loved all music. I put some music on, which, disgusted by what he heard, he ran over to turn off. I said, “I thought you said you love all music.” His response: “Yes, I do, but this is not music.”
A definition of “art” should allow for the experience of two pieces of art that are similar in form to provide significantly distinct experiences. For example, two songs by the same artist might use similar devices and sound quite similar. Both songs are unquestionably examples of music to fans of the artist, but one song might be generally held in high esteem while the other song is generally considered dreadful. If we were to say that an essential feature of the definition of art is “that which moves us,” then only one of these songs would be art (meaning, arguably, that only one of them would be music, for how can something be a form of art, but not be an example of art?).
I’m tempted here to address ideas that I have encountered that are attributed to art philosopher Arthur Danto, famously known for arguing that art has come to an end (following Andy Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Box installation), and that artists have become more concerned with the philosophical question of “What is art?” as opposed to creating art. I will save addressing these ideas until I’ve read more of his work. I’m also still planning to read the book The Art Question by Nigel Warburton (who has a great podcast called Philosophy Bites). I’m very interested in the role of philosophy in art, and would like to see the two camps working together on ideas as opposed to trying to outrun one another (Danto’s claim that artists have become philosophers makes it seem as though he’s trying to level the playing field so that he can assert some kind of authority in the art world; one that is ultimately impotent, however, because it is the artist who creates art, not the philosopher; again, I’ve seen such claims of Danto’s out of context, but will eventually go to the source).
The next topic in this vein that I’d be interested in writing about is taste, especially the question, “Is all taste valid?” I believe that it is.
Note: The two above art pieces are, respectively, Claude Monet’s Sunset, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross).