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.


  1. I really like the musician, she looks like she is putting a lot of emotion into what she is playing.

  2. I believe video games can be a form of art as well. It might sound outrageous to someone who only knows what they hear in the media about video games. Places where you would hear words like "murder simulators," "sexbox," "Think of the children."

    I'm talking about games like this:

  3. @Ultimaniac

    I agree with you completely. I was always enjoyed games that are considered to be art games. Braid and Company of Myself are two of my favorites. (Although I found Flower just a bit on the bore side :P)

  4. wow i never thought about art that way. I think its all about personal opinions

  5. Wonderful write up. I do not believe art can be art can be definitely judged good or bad.