Art is what who calls what?

What is art? Baby don't ask me, don't ask me, no more...

I actively develop and promote a website for artists. Addressing the question, "What is art?" - or sometimes more precisely - "Is this art?" is a daily occurrence. It is one that, frankly, I try to avoid. Despite my position as a curator of sorts, I know that I am not the arbiter of what is or is not art. But this doesn't mean that I don't wrestle with the question.

I'm not going to try to define art; at least not right now. I am continually struck, however, by its subjective nature. Art is not what is was in the Renaissance, or the late 19th century, or even the 1980s; the boundaries of art are continually being removed or rewritten. It's amazing how changes in technology or society/culture can reshape art, whether with tools like Photoshop, or the underground scene from which Banksy emerged. I can see how, when art "breaks", more often than not, it flourishes.


Seth Godin - By Joi Ito [CC-BY-2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I read a short blurb by Seth Godin that addressed this issue of art, its creation, and its essence. (do yourself a favor and read his blog). Seth, who might be best characterized as a marketing philosopher (or a philosophical marketer), choses not to define art in terms of itself; rather, he frames art (pun intended) in terms of its creator:

"Art is what we call the thing an artist does."

At first this seems, perhaps, to be a self-evident non-observation, conveniently couched in the language of #tweetableQuotes and gift card wisdom. However, as he elaborates, it becomes clear that there is more:

"It's not the medium or the oil or the price or whether it hangs on a wall or you eat it. What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human."

First of all, let's be clear: this sounds really good. It's a compelling, different take on art that strips away its pretension while maintaining its power. By placing the focus on the humanity, ingenuity, and effort of the artist, this definition of art is not bound and tangled by ever-changing trends or the multitude of mediums and forms of artistic expression. It is as applicable to a Byzantine mosaic as to Street Photography on deviantArt. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily entirely right.

My primary concern is that it is too simple, too clean. Truth is rarely that elegant; it's ugly and filled with exceptions (like grammar and quantum mechanics). In a recent episode of RadioLab (as a second favor for yourself, listen to their podcast) Penn Jillette says of magic tricks, "You cannot have a beautiful secret." I think the same is true here; it feels like we may be sacrificing accuracy for the sake of an "aha."

For example, does Seth's definition, to some extent, simply trade one problem for another... passing the buck, as it were, to the inevitable: "Okay... then what is an artist?" To which the answer: "Someone who makes art" is no longer a satisfactory response. And does it make art too subjective, too exclusively focused on the person of the artist? The reflection's concluding lines underscore this singular focus: "Art is not in the eye of the beholder. It's in the soul of the artist." If no one other than the creator could understand, appreciate, or enjoy what they have made, would we still call it art? While I know that my failure to grasp a particular work of art does nothing to depreciate its value or artistic essence, I cannot help but think that expression and communication are fundamental to the definition of art as a whole.

I don't have the answers, and I know it's a lot easier to criticize than to originate ideas. With that in mind I'll share one thought I had while working on this post. Perhaps it would be helpful to define art in terms of what it does to us. Art is that which is created in an attempt to make us feel, experience, contemplate, or become, however briefly, more than, or more deeply human. (By this reasoning, the measure of the quality of art would be the extent to which it succeeds at fulfilling this definition.)

To be honest, this approach too, does not seem to be marked with the ugly grit of truth. I suppose most people looking for the definition of art will just Google it anyways.