For a while now I’ve been pondering a simple question: how do you define what’s art and what isn’t? It’s not nearly as simple a question as you might think.
My thoughts were inspired by my friend David Loehr (as they so often are), who wrote about the same question on his blog. His post was inspired, in turn, by Seth Godin’s own meditations on the subject. Seth started with a set of three simple rules that, to him, define art:
- Art is made by a human being.
- Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.
- Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording… but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.
David disagreed with Seth; so do I, and in some similar ways… but in some different ways as well. Here’s my take.
First, condition #1: Art is made by a human being. As David points out, art is also, at times, made by other animals. I’m not entirely persuaded of the legitimacy of those claims, but I have enough doubt to let the example stand. I will also add that texts generated by computer algorithms have proven to be entirely indistinguishable from human-made texts in a few instances, which seems to suggest that art might be made by robots, too — if not now, then eventually. David also argues that, say, the subject of an Ansel Adams photograph is art whether Ansel takes his picture or not; I disagree rather strongly — the subject might be beautiful, but it’s the act of Ansel Adams’ framing and shooting and developing the picture that makes it art. Still I feel as if condition #1 has a few weaknesses that have to be addressed.
Then we move on to Godin’s condition #2: Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else. I agree fully with my friend here: this is not correct, merely because there are many artists who create art for no reason other than to create it. I myself make art to have an impact, not only on one other person, but on the world… but this isn’t a necessary condition.
Finally, his condition #3: Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording… but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art. This strikes me as just plain ludicrous, I’m sorry to say… even though I largely try to think of my own art as a gift. Art is sometimes generous, yes… but sometimes it’s angry, and sometimes it’s silly, and sometimes it’s selfish, and sometimes it’s a thousand other things. Furthermore, the word “gift” implies, to me, the transfer of ownership… but ideas are always free. What is unique in art is not only the idea but the particular way in which that idea is encoded (in marble, in lines of dialogue, in notes, and so on).
So… what are the conditions with which I define art? They are as follows:
#1: Art is made by a mind. The mind in question might be human, and might be animal, and might even be artificial… but a mind is what’s required.
#2: Art is largely new. This condition is necessitated by the first. See, if we take the first on its own merits, a mass-produced lamp that looks and works similarly to the existing universe of lamps would nonetheless count as art. The condition of “newness” suggests that art, while it may borrow from prior work, must innovate.
#3: Art conveys meaning. This one is going to be tough for people. I realize that it excludes reams of language poetry, for example. I say it here because I believe it, but I cannot articulate why very easily. I will simply say that art without meaning is indistinguishable from static, at least for me, and leave it at that.
Finally, given that I believe in Occam’s Razor, I feel as if I have to note that my three conditions can, and perhaps should, be combined into one sentence. Here, then, is how I define art:
Art is a largely new thing, made by a mind, that conveys meaning.
How do you define art?