Monday, January 14, 2013

What Is Art? (two cents out of a thousand million.)

Some weeks ago, a kneejerk response to MoMA's decision to add video games to its collection prompted several comments. Some concurred and some disputed, but Mr. Pangrac sagaciously opined that partisans on either side were going off half-cocked:

But really, I have long been bothered by any discussion of 'Are video games art' due to the fact that no one ever seems interested in defining what 'Art' is. Like 'Truth' or 'Justice,' it's used as a vague catch-all to describe something that is good and noble, but anything more specific (or specific at all) is always left out of the conversation. Until we have an idea of what 'Art' is, what a work needs to achieve or attempt in order to be considered 'Art,' I find these discussions ultimately meaningless.

Perfect. We can't argue about what does and does not qualify as art when we have only vague and inconsistent notions of what "art" means.

So now we're on the right track. First we will define "art" -- and only when we have agreed upon a set of universally-applicable and unambiguous criteria for what something must do, be, or have in order to qualify as art, we can decide whether Mario and Mass Effect makes the grade. Sounds easy enough, yes?

Unfortunately if it were easy enough there would be no necessity for debate. Our definitions of art are vague because we've failed to draft any better ones, and it isn't as though people haven't been giving the matter any thought.

Rather than submit my own opinions about what art is/isn't and should/shouldn't be, I'll offer a demonstration as to why I'm at such a loss to make any assertions with even the slightest degree of confidence. We'll examine some characteristics that we generally recognize art as possessing, and that might be thought to designate art as such; then we'll look at some of the counterpoints that poke holes in these proposals.

(I do not presume to offer a treatise. This will be half-cocked as any of the IS/ISN'T arguments posted on any number of comments boards. It is only an effort towards corralling my own thoughts on the subject.)

I. Art Is Beautiful.

This should be it. What would be called art must be beautiful. End of discussion. If a person made something beautiful with the intent of making something beautiful, we call the thing he made art. There need not be any other qualifiers.

Problem #1: Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son. Peter Paul Rubens's The Massacre of the Innocents. Anything Andy Warhol ever did. Wolf Eyes. The Rite of Spring. American Psycho. Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning Vietnam War photograph. There are some things which most people would call "art" that do not exude beauty -- their contents are disturbing, they flout aesthetics, they're sometimes just offensive to the senses -- ugly. What if this was the artist's intention? Do we only accept the work of artists whose intention is to present us an idealized (or bleached, or snowjobbed) vision of reality.

Problem #2: Any definition of beauty is subject to cultural bias, and culture (1) differs from one place to another (2) changes over time. What was beautiful to the authors and readers of English poetry in the 17th century seems magniloquent to the 21st century reader. Kabuki is an esteemed art in Japan, but probably looks and sounds ridiculous to the first-time visitor from the West. Shakespeare would have sounded like so much hot air to the austere sensibilities of the Greek tragedians. If Michelangelo had taken his David far enough east, its audience would have viewed it as idolatry rather than art.

Nobody can agree on what is beautiful. If we insist that art is what's beautiful, we ensure that nobody will agree on what is art.

Problem #3: What is beauty anyway? Do we think that discussion will be resolved any more easily?

If we're struggling to define a nebulous concept, what sense does it make to base it in terms of another nebulous concept we struggle to define?

Problem #4: "Well, duh. Everything is beautiful. Everything is art."

Whoa. Who said that? Leave the room, please. You have nothing to contribute to this conversation if you refuse to have it on terra firma.

To paraphrase D.H. Lawrence, people are not sewer pipes. However deliberately or indeliberately, we prefer some things to the exception of others. (We might call the sum of these preferences an identity.) All reality and its contents mights be beautiful in a TRANSCENDENT sense (and let's face it, it is and they are), but if the mass of humanity were intimate with the transcendent, no one would have use for art.

If we want art to mean something, it -- whatever it is -- must be exclusive. To borrow a thought from Pound, we have to treat some (most?) flowers as weeds if we wish to maintain a garden.

II. Art Is Nonutilitarian

We might want to make a distinction between "art" and "design" or "artisanry." The latter two are often artful, but in their ends they diverge from what we would call "fine art." We could limit our definition of art to the things that have no purpose other than to exist and be art. Such a definition would bolster Roger Ebert's assertion that video games are not art.

A meal can be prepared in an artful and exquisite way, but it is not art: it serves the practical purpose of providing sustenance. An ornately-carved chair is beautiful work of craftsmanship, but it is not art: it is built as a piece of furniture, a fixture possessing beauty as a supplement to its function. Design crafts such as web and fashion design would be excluded; although both require and exude artfulness, the end products are essentially tools. Video games would be eschewed for the same reason as board games: however well-designed or artfully crafted, they are first and foremost games to be played.

Problem #1: A painting isn't ever just a painting: it is something that is bought, sold, and hung up as a decoration. It has a function; a purpose towards which people use it. Shall we exclude stained glass because it serves the function of allowing light into a chapel? Do we admit that the relieving of stress is a societal necessity and throw out the theater, music, television, and film because of their utility towards this end?

Problem #2: Fountain.

Any lines we draw between "art" and "not art" on the basis of the object’s utility value must needs be arbitrary and subject to contention and subversion.

III. Art Is Communication

Art is something a person does or makes in order to convey information: ideas, stories, images, feelings, etc. Herman Melville was grappling with some ideas about humanity's relationship with the ineffable and eternal (and also whales) and so he tried to shape them into an articulate message by writing a book called Moby Dick. Whitman wanted to communicate what 19th century America and its people were to him; he wrote Leaves of Grass. Every painter in history's whole procession worked to communicate a vision. Virtually all music is composed for the purpose of conveying a feeling to the listener. Video game designers are more often constructing their games as situations designed to elicit (communicate) particular sensations from the experience.

Art is an act of communication.

Problem #1: This is likely the best criterion we can conceive in that everyone can agree on it. It's also the least effective: it screws on too coarse a filter. This blog post is communication. A dirty limerick written on the back of a cocktail napkin is communication. A brick thrown through a window is communication. A pop-up ad is communication. Inane office memos are communication. An automated Twitter account is communication. A penis drawn in a bathroom stall is communication.

What kinds of communication are art? Is it a question of content or form? Or both?

Backtracking a bit, we might borrow Ezra Pound's definition of beauty: beauty is aptness to purpose. What if we said that art is beauty of (or in) communication?

Idea: Art is a message conveyed through a medium with the maximum felicity afforded by said medium.

Problem: Again we're spinning our wheels. On paper, this might satisfy some people. In practice it only reframes the debate.

When we argue whether video games, hip hop, Fountain, or a work of a new or controversial form qualify as art, what we're really debating is the amount of cultural capital we should afford them.

How important is this object, form, or practice to our culture in the long run? Should it be taught in schools? Does it belong in a museum? Is it worthy of academic scrutiny? Does it deserve NEA grants? Should we assure it a space in the time capsule? Would it be one of the first things we show a visiting alien to communicate what homo sapiens and our civilization are all about?

What we might be debating, and have been debating all along, is the divide between "high" and "low" art. And this once again sets values and virtue as the measurers.

IV. (High) Art Is Enriching

What distinguishes high art from low art must be its values, or the virtue it communicates. High art doesn’t merely entertain, charm, or enliven. High art makes us better people.

Someone once said that artists are the engineers of the human soul. High art appeals to the nobler aspects of human nature; it speaks to our higher faculties.  High art is soul food. High art is the window through which we can glimpse our better selves in a better world.

Problem: "Enrich" is a funny word. By whose standards? What might be seen as enriching to someone from an eastern school of thought might be condemned as anti-intellectual by someone from a western school. Are we enriched by art that appeals to emotion? Are we enriched by art that makes us laugh? Do we praise the art of the ecstatic for the realms to which it transports us, or do we censure it as a detriment to rationalism (as does Plato)?

Can great art only be that which is solemn, baroque, and didactic? Or is the best art that which most titillates us? (In that case we might have to take down all the paintings and replace them with video games and porn.)

"Artists are the engineers of the human soul." The quote is Josef Stalin's. For an illustration of this principle in practice, look at North Korea. Is this what we want from art?

On the other hand: what is soul food? How do we sift the art that elevates from that which merely delights, interests, or entertains?

We're still unable to set down any criteria on these terms because we’re trying to count unquantifiables. It all seems up to interpretation, doesn't it?

V. (High) Art Is What (Some) People Say It Is

It's all opinion. What qualifies as high art depends on what the academics of a given time and place say it is. Or where the whims of the tastemakers and curators are directed. Or what the government insists. Art and its standards are defined by authority.

This definition leaves a bad taste in your mouth, doesn't it?

Would it be any better to democratize it? Let's say there's no such thing as high and low art. All art in and of itself is equal, and the measurer is public opinion. What the public loves best, that is the best art.

Leaving it up to prevailing opinions in the ivory tower might be unappealing, but would it be any better to let the mob decide what speaks for its culture? Are their preferences representative of what we would truly consider the best we have to offer ourselves?

None of this takes us any closer to a definition of art. Do we admit that art is too mutable, too elusive, and too arbitrary a thing to define? If we can't define it, then who the hell are we to talk about it, criticize it, or say what is or isn't?

But that's no less dissatisfying.

VI. Art Is Intuitive

The tool of the artist is his intuition: knowledge unsystematized, irrationality, inspiration. Likewise, it is through intuition that we perceive that thing that makes art what it is. What we see in art, in the best of it, can only be called the sublime. Art -- high art -- conveys something of the sublime.

Problem: We don’t know enough about it (the sublime, or our perception of it, or what causes it) or about ourselves to quantify or account for we perceive it as we do in what we do. Until we can -- let's see how far the physiologists and neurologists can go – we're just left shrugging and saying "I know it when I see it."

We can’t say that high art is that which has the most sublimity or highest concentration of it. That would be absurd.

If anything, by venturing down this route we've only proved that we're trying to objectively resolves something that only exists subjectively. It can't be done. Art is that which has the characteristic we recognize art as having.

If we backpedal to our earlier attempts, we’re stuck admitting that any definition of art will possess so many ramifications, exceptions, and ambiguities as to put the final decision in the hands of authority or consensus. What art is depends entirely on who says what art is (and how many people listen to them).

I suppose this means anyone interested in art is therefore obligated to continue arguing about it ad infinitum.

Unless anyone has a better idea?

My head hurts. For the time being I’m going to smoke and read Euripides. I’m a little ways into Medea and feeling cautiously optimistic about where things seem to be headed.

Edit: oh god


  1. This is distracting me so I am going to comment just so I'll stop reading it! It feels silly to try to figure out what art is, but then again as a creator of art it is even sillier NOT to try and figure out what it is... I guess that's what you're doing when you make art. Or behold it. I know that's not only useless and adds nothing to what you already said in this post, it is also dreadfully trite, awkwardly worded and sounds like the sentiment of a bad slam poem, but I think I will be able to stop thinking about what art is so I can return to writing other stuff now. Except, shit, I'm trapped! I feel like there is a circle that can't be escaped with this discussion, but wouldn't it be really cool to somehow figure out something that is outside of this circle?

    1. Speaking of making art, why you no update blog?

  2. Some thoughts:

    On issue I, I think that your "problem 3" marks the start of the solution to the riddle. We need to identify beauty, but as you say it is in itself an abstract concept that will lead to similar fruitless ends. However, I think we may take a shortcut via the way it affects us: Beauty is something that stir senses and sensibilities (indeed, most classical aesthetic components and techniques have been scientifically proven to be pleasant to human beings for reasons only theorized.) From there, we may retrace a bit and formulate that the pieces you mention which lack an immediate or widely acknowledged "beauty" are still stirring our senses and sensibilities in a way that we may comfortably group them together with beautiful things under the umbrella of "being artistic."

    Suddenly busy. More thoughts will have to wait.

    1. Hmm. Maybe this will eventually shed some light on it?

  3. I have read enough scholarly definitions of "game" to be thoroughly sick of this kind of discussion. From what little math background I have, I'm most satisfied with definitions made to clarify a particular argument (or field of discussion). "If only we could all agree on a universal definition" is unreasonable. It really does come down to "what do I intend", trying to match it as closely with "how do I expect you to interpret it". A society is not one mind, from moment to moment even an individual isn't completely consistent.

    I sense from your edit that you regret writing all that... but I did find it clear and illustrative of the difficulty.

    1. Actually, it was supposed to be a little joke about Medea. It's an old Greek tragedy about a woman who kills her kids to get back at her husband. Tonnes o' fun.

      I don't regret writing it because for the last week my stance on the WHAT IS ART issue has begun shifting towards the "oh the hell with it all" camp.

    2. I don't suppose it's very intellectual or nuanced, but it's a lot less stressful.

  4. For me, I usually just save the term 'Art' for something that either tries to say something and/or evoke a specific mood, or something that has been elevated by society itself. And I still don't think this is a perfect definition.

    For one, it doesn't address the issue of functional art. Architecture, cuisine, and other things are items meant to serve a function (house us, feed us) but which also have quality ranging from 'Subpar' to 'In a league of its own.' Should 'The Best In Its Field' not qualify as a definition of Art?

    I'm sure Roger Ebert and others who don't consider video games to be Art wouldn't argue against, say, the Chrysler building being considered Art, because it's an iconic building design. But is it actually saying anything, or is it just so unique and beautiful that it qualifies as Art?

    Star Wars was only ever meant to entertain and make a few bucks, but it is, by any metric, the preeminent saga of the modern age. It's possible Star Wars is more popular and more influential in our era than the Iliad was in its. And because of its impact on pop culture I would argue that it can be considered Art, as decided by the population at large.

    And again, I don't think Ebert et al would argue against that. They certainly can't deny that the people have accepted and elevated Star Wars to a level of importance that something like the Seventh Seal aimed for from the outset.

    And then there's video games. Always ever meant to be entertainment, a profit-driven industry that, at its bottom line, is only concerned with money. Yet there have been products of the industry that, through process of elimination, have stood out as the best of the medium, not to mention certain titles that have broken out of the video game community and become engrained in pop culture at large (Pac-Man, Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Tomb Raider, Street Fighter, etc.). If only for making a lasting impact in pop culture, we could argue that those titles are Art.

  5. There is also something to say for novelty, or rather innovation and reactionism that contributes towards what constitutes Art; or at least propels it on into different forms and mediums over the course of time thus prompting these questions you're addressing. Because for all the criteria you've given above, and their respective plausibility in their own right, it comes back to the artists, those crafty buggers, who emerge as soon as someone says - 'i dub this art' - and create something completely outlandish - such as an 'impression' painting, a urinal fountain, or a stained glass turd, and say 'no, THIS is art'.
    It then, I suppose, becomes a question of whether the Emperors wearing any clothes, arguments ensue, and I sort of just sit in the middle wondering whether i'm a lowly prole for just not 'getting it' and reading things like this to reconcile that i'm not the only one.