Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Definition of Art

For millennia, art has been a constant in our ever-changing society - whether a beautiful painting or a moving melody, there has always been a place in the hearts and minds of humanity for a spectacular artwork. But, as our culture marches on through the modern age, even our art begins to change; the word can no longer be simply defined as 'a picture' or 'a musical arrangement'. So what, then, is art? Is photography an art form? Is dance? Architecture? Animation?
It can be all, I say, or it can be none; that much is entirely up to the viewer. But what I am saying here is not that art's definition is entirely up to the viewer, since by that logic anything and everything ever conceived could be art. Merely thinking about it, the idea seems absurd – if there is nothing to establish what can be art and what cannot, then I could quite easily tell you that, say, the fridge in my kitchen is an artistic marvel.

So, then, it seems that at least some basis of the definition of art must be provided, and I would say that there are three major categories that must be fulfilled if something is to be considered an artwork.

Firstly, the creation must be original. A copy of another artwork, as fine as it may look, is just that – a copy.
For example, if one were to take a photograph of the Mona Lisa, that photograph would not itself be art; it would be the original painting itself which would deserve anything evoked by the photograph.

Secondly, there must be an intention to create art. If a young child was told to paint something, they would simply draw lines and spots; no meaning or beauty could be found in them, as the end result would simply be that a mess of paint was transferred from a pastel to a piece of paper. No artistic merit was added in the transferral of that paint; something does not become art simply because it is placed onto paper. Now, one may say that the art is in the form of a child's mind, expressed purely through the painting – but, logically, the paper has nothing to do with the whole affair. If the spirit of the child is what makes the art, then simply say that a child's mind is art in itself – because that is what the viewer of the painting would truly be referring to. And, of course, that mind will have been one shaped by intentions – of the child, of its parents, of its friends and its environment.

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – art must have an impact on the viewer, either as an enjoyable emotion (which does not necessarily have to be positive – for example, feeling moved by a piece of performance art representing a concept would be considered an enjoyable emotion), as something that invokes meaningful thought, or as something that simply appears beautiful.
And, through that definition, it must be remembered that subjectivity still has an important role to play. For example, if an (original, intended) artwork about war caused an introspective emotion in one person, then it would indeed be art to them – on the other hand, a second person may not feel that same emotion, so to them it would not be art. And why would it? For if that piece invoked no real thoughts, emotions, or aesthetic pleasure in a person – if it has no meaning to them – then it is no more art to them than the child's casual scribbles would be.

If something original and intended is capable of evoking those defining feelings in a person – of enjoyable emotion, of meaningful thought, or of beauty – then to that person, that thing is art. Myself, I find a great deal more artistic merit in the soundtracks of Angel Beats or Oblivion than I do in, say, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, or any of the other similar contemporary plays so highly praised by critics. But that is not to say that I am right, and that anybody disagreeing with me is wrong. Rather, I would say that each person has their own ways of interpreting and grading art, and simply that, on a personal level, I much prefer my own choices of art.

In my opinion, art should be considered to be such by nothing but these three categories and the subjectivism of the viewer; all social prejudices, unrelated thoughts, and preconceptions regarding forms of media should not limit what we define as art. Take, for example, Bill Henson's infamous photographs showing naked children. A massive controversy was raised over the 'inappropriate content' of the pictures, but, I ask – why? Nothing about the pictures is inherently inappropriate – it is just that our society (often unnecessarily) links nakedness with sexuality. If there is anything that the controversy has convinced me of, it is only how warped our own society has become by over-sexualisation.
Another question raised about the judging of an artwork is just what qualities of an artwork should be considered. Is it only the finished product? Or is that irrelevant, and are the processes, meanings and stories behind a finished piece the truly important things?

Again, both views can be entirely true or entirely false depending on the context of the question. For example, it would be rather ridiculous to see a beautifully drawn picture of a landscape, and yet disregard it as art – when it clearly can be seen as such – simply because the process was nothing abnormal or artistic in itself.

On the other hand, applying the opposite view in each case – looking at the finished product only – would be just as bad an idea. Here should be considered the Erased de Kooning – the product of a man taking a painting by a famous artist that inspired him, and erasing the previous artwork so that a blank slate was all that remained. To Robert Rauschenberg, the 'artist' of Erased de Kooning, this work represented him being 'reborn', severing ties with the man that inspired him so that he could work entirely without the influence of others. Now, regardless of whether an individual considers this as art, it at least has the potential to be seen as such – the same, however, could not so easily be said if the painting was displayed with no description, and all that the viewer saw and knew was a blank canvas.

Similarly, the painting known as 'Blue Poles' is not the kind that should be judged on by its finished product – which is, to look at it plainly, a bunch of seemingly-haphazard lines and dots. But when one considers how the artwork was made – over the course of weeks, with many different layers contributing to the final effect – then they are able to see that the work should not be judged just as the sum of its parts, but as more of an artistic display of a time period of a few weeks. Both here, and in the case of Erased de Kooning, it is the process and story that make the art, not the finished product.
The same logic applies to an artwork that has a deeper meaning behind it, the example being a simple, generic wallet sitting on a stand. The wallet itself is not art – there are likely many thousands of others, exactly the same – but if the intention was for the wallet to represent the growing presence of mass production and consumerism, then any who agree with that would find it to be a work of art.

Finally, I will state my opinion that official critics of art are by no means a way to judge the quality of an artwork. It is impossible for any human being to remain completely unbiased, regardless of the circumstances – and, since art is always a matter of subjectivity, the critic's bias will always have a bearing on how they consider a piece of art. The reasoning that an art critic gives to state that an artwork is a masterpiece may be the very same reasoning that another uses to decry the piece as an artistic failure, and there's no particular reason for a person to agree with the critic apart from personal tastes.

So, can art be distinctively judged as 'good' or 'bad'? No.

Can it be defined by a rigid statement of 'Media forms A and B are art, while C is not'? No.
But can a basis, a flexible definition, for the word 'art' be made? Can we describe it as more than 'pretty pictures'? Yes; and I would think that the sooner such a thing is done, the sooner we can have a reason to stop the petty quarrelling over differences in taste, and appreciate art for the thing of beauty that it is.

Quote of the Day

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To Save a Life

I have no air; no light and I can hear water around me. I am going to die, I know it. Even though I accept my death is coming I begin to wail. I cry and whine, and as I continue I feel the limited air around me disappearing. This makes me whine louder and louder.

Just when I think the air is all gone, I feel myself being lifted in the air. I try to whine but the air is limited and I am barely alive. I feel someone or something fiddling with the bag right next to my head. All of a sudden I can see light! I have never appreciated it so much. I am so overjoyed I try to jump out of the bag, but two things stand between myself and freedom.

First, I cannot move because of the excruciating pain I feel when I try to. Second, a face looms above me, peering in to my confined and smelly space. I draw back into my bag, scared and curious at the same time. I whine quietly and I hear a voice speaking in a way I had never heard before, "You poor thing. Come on, I'll take you home and see if I can help you."
I realize with a start that the voice is kind and gentle and the peering face is the one talking to me. I whine again to let this man know I trust him. "I know you're sore and tired but you can't go to sleep, you might never wake and that would be such a shame; you're really a very pretty thing." If I could laugh I would, but being so sore, and dogs not being able to the way humans do, I don't. The man must have read the look I gave him cause he chuckled and said, "I know you're probably not feeling pretty at the moment, but clean up the blood, dress the cuts and give you a bath and you would be the most handsome dog around. Maybe a nap would help you too."

Sleep; sounds like a plan. I could sleep and the pain would go… and disappear… I give a faint whine of approval and settle down to sleep. "Not now, you can't go to sleep yet, you might not wake up again". That would be good I think, the pain wouldn't come back and I could sleep… sleep…
All of a sudden a sharp jolt of pain shoots through my leg and interrupts my thoughts. I yelp and growl a bit. "I'm sorry, but I'm sure the bag is uncomfortable, so how about this nice warm blanket right here next to me, eh?" I stop growling as I realize the pain comes from the man picking me up out of the plastic bag that is confining me. He tries again and picks me up out of the bag. This time I only let a little whine escape; the man apologises as he places me on the blanket on the front seat of a car. I lick his hand in thanks as he pulls his hands away from my limp body. I smile weakly and I swear a tear escapes from his eye; he wipes his eye and busies himself making sure I don't move around too much.

He shuts the door gently and then appears on the other side of the car. He hops in and turns on the car; it roars like an angry tiger being denied its food and bursts into life. The man then sets off; driving in the direction I assume his home is.
The next thing I know, I am being carried into a lounge room with a homey and comfortable feel to it. The man sits down and a woman comes into the room drying her hands on a towel. "Oh, the poor thing!" she exclaims at the sight of me. She rushes over and immediately starts to gently wipe blood off my back with the towel in her hands. The man gently sets me down on one of the couches. I whine and she gives me a look of sympathy. I lick her hand, lie down and don't move. "Call the RSPCA, they'll help this poor dog," she says as she strokes my head and continues cleaning. I hear the man leave the room and walk somewhere.

When he comes back he has a phone and a wet towel in his hands. The woman takes the towel with a look of thanks. She continues to clean me while the man presses buttons on the phone and waits.
"Yes hello, I found a dog bagged and in a river and now have him at my home." He waits and then gives the person on the other end an address and hangs up. "They will be here as soon as they can." The woman nods and he helps her wipe me with the towel.

After a while the doorbell sounds and I whine at the sudden loud noise. She makes "shh" noises and he stands up and walks to the door. A woman comes into view and I swear she almost cries at the sight of me. "How long ago did you find him?" she asks, setting her stuff down on the floor and looking at me.
"About half an hour, can you do anything for him?" She shrugs and proceeds to check me over. The woman stops cleaning me and stands beside her husband. The other woman checks me over. I whine when it hurts and everytime I do she looks more depressed. I try to hide the hurt but she knows. She stands up and turns to the couple.

"I'm sorry; he was without care and air for too long…" She stops and wipes her face; "You found him, what do you want done?"

The man looks at his wife and she says, "Put him to sleep, I can't bear to see him suffer." The woman nods and goes to her box; she pulls out a needle and fiddles around with other stuff. She looks at me and rubs something on my side while she holds the needle there. She injects me with something and instantly I feel the pain subsiding. I whine gratefully and close my eyes. Before they close completely I see the wife hug her husband and say, "How could someone do that to an innocent animal?" As I listen I hear her voice drift further and further away and fall into a deep, deep contented sleep…

Monday, June 20, 2011

Quote of the Day

Courage is the discovery that you may not win, and trying when you know you can lose.

An essay on Genre Fiction

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards." When I first read this quote, like most quotes, it went right over my head. However, the more I learned about books, popular tastes and literary history, the more I realized that Fitzgerald hit the nail right on the head. Classics are never recognized as great in their own time.

Let's look at some examples. Charles Dickens, the Shakespeare of the novel, is a prime example of this. Back when he was first published, most critics, if not all, dismissed him as a hack writer interested in nothing more than entertaining the masses. Today, he's studied in school. Raymond Chandler was dismissed as overly violent and lurid. Today, he's considered one of the most important voices in post-World War II American literature. All the critics of the times flaunted "big, important novels" that would "go down in history." Well, guess what? Most of those have been forgotten, and the "crappy genre work" of the time is what is studied in schools today. This is the way it has always been throughout the history of literature, and I see no reason to expect it to change with our generation.

Why is this? Because, usually, the "literary" writers of a time are trying way too hard to be "great writers." Sadly, there are not very many great writers, and there never have been. There are some, like Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Cather, Dickens, etc., but most writers are either merely okay or, at the most, really good. Just as a bad writer can't really become a good one, a good writer cannot become a truly great one. Sadly, a lot of good writers think it's their destiny to be ranked among the greats, when that just ain't ever gonna happen. They try to write something "literary" and fall flat on their faces. "Genre" writers just did what they knew how at the best they could, and they're the ones who wrote the better books and they're the ones who are remembered. I believe this will be the case in the future.

So, you may justifiably ask, "Okay, Charlie, who do you think will be the 'classic' writers of the future?" Oh, good, thank you for asking. Here's just a partial list: Stephen King, Louis L'amour, David Morrell, Robert B. Parker, F. Paul Wilson, Lawrence Block, Neil Gaiman, Ira Levin, Nicholas Sparks, Mickey Spillane, Peter Straub, and so on. I might even go so far as to include comic book writers like Stan Lee and playwrights like Neil Simon. These writers are generally criticized for being "pulpy" and "only interested in entertaining," but you may notice something interesting. NONE of these writers are criticized by other writers. Other professional authors, pretty much as a rule, love these authors. Why? And more to the point, why will these writers be remembered?

Why? Because they show us what writing is really all about, the reason why all of us should be writing. It's not for reviews or money or fame or for bragging rights or anything else like that. It's because writing is supposed to be fun. It's about heart. It's about being alive and creating something and all those other reasons. Consciously "literary" writers are writing for all those wrong reasons that I mentioned earlier, and their books suffer as a result.

Right now, you may (justifiably) be asking, "Okay, okay, so what do you want me to do about it?" I want you to discover genre fiction and its wonders, if you haven't already. I want you to crawl out from literary snobbiness and enter into the wonderful light of entertaining fiction.
Don't be scared. I'll help you step out into the light. I'm going to be providing reading lists for each major genre (with some help from friends). These lists will help you get a footing in each genre and draw arrows to paths that you may want to follow.