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Defining art, part 1

One of the problems we're facing when discussing art - apart from the limitations of written language and differing perceptions - is that a whole host of discreet but interconnected subjects are put together in one circular discussion.

First of all we have many meanings of the word 'art' here:

  1. Art is music, literature, dance, sculpture, paintings, theatre etc. - what is usually meant when the term is used in everyday conversation, the classical activities and products that are traditionally referred to as art.
  2. Art is something less defined which can be, but is not limited to be, one or more of the above. Maybe this is 'good art'.
  3. Something that is done with higher quality and skill than could be expected.

I'll begin this article with discussing the second, starting with the phrase: "Art is what artists do and someone who's making art is an artist."

Silly as it might sound, that's actually a good starting point. Art is artificial, made. A sunset or a storm can be beautiful, awe-inspiring or frightening, but not art. A written account, a painting, a musical or dance performance telling about these natural phenomena can be art, though. It's created. That's the first step:

Art is created.

So, is a coral reef art, then? Well, would you call them little buggers construction workers, artists, or little buggers? They're not construction workers, they're animals. Neither are they artists. Why? Because art is a human concept. Where other species decorate themselves or nests to attract mates, or construct shelters, they do so for an obvious purpose stemming from instinct and behavioural patterns. Although it has been argued that this is the root of all human endeavours as well, that discussion falls outside the scope of this article, and will be ignored. The second step is:

Art is created by humans.

That's narrowing it down a bit, but also making it harder. Does this mean that footprints in the sand are art? Now we have to look at purposes. Can art be accidental? I don't think so. An accident can inspire an artist, but I can't accept that art just happens. An artist can set up the circumstances to let things "just happen", and this might be art, but it is guided, not accidental. Creation is not an accidental process, but a conscious. Even where chance and accidents have a part in providing ideas and inspiration, the process is a conscious effort. That's the third step, then:

Art is created by humans in a conscious effort.

Tractors, atomic bombs, ties - are those art? I'd have to say no, but now we have to look a bit further afield for our arguments. First of all, there is a difference between creation and manufacturing. The creation is not only putting things together - it is the planning, the design. If you just follow a set of detailed instructions you are manufacturing, not creating, and thus what you are making cannot be art according to our first step. Lets formalise that:

Art is something original created by humans in a conscious effort.

Fair enough, but that leaves the design to be a work of art, doesn't it? Well, lets look at those purposes again. What are we expecting to get when designing those things? Tractors, atomic bombs, ties. But on the other hand, what are we expecting to get when creating art? Art. Clearly, that line of reasoning isn't very useful. What did Wilde say? Art is useless. Does this make sense? Is art something created that serves no purpose? Without a purpose, why is it created by a conscious effort? It would be tempting to say that art is created with no other purpose than to be art, but this still doesn't bring us any closer to a resolution at this point. We will come back to this, however.

How do we differentiate art from other human creations? If it was easily defined by another label we wouldn't be here discussing what art is. A book, song, poem or painting exist as such regardless of whether they are classified as art or not, so maybe art is instead something more intangible? After all, most people find it easier to agree on whether an artefact is a tractor or a brick, than whether half a cow in formaldehyde is art or not.

Here comes the seeming non sequiteur. Art isn't artefacts; we already have names for those - bricks, bombs, books. Art is what is more than the artefact - the value-adding factor.

Intriguing. In this sense, 'art' is an abstract quality, and we realise that this explains why there are so many differing opinions and definitions. Not all are experiencing the same sense of added value when experiencing the same piece of art. This concept is hard to define in words, but I'll try by saying: That is art which gives the person experiencing it more than there is to experience.

So where does this come from, this added value? If is not in the piece of art, then it must be in the person experiencing it. Thus, art is what enables a person to add to the experience. It is not something inherent in the piece of art we experience, it is the quality of letting us increase the impact of the experience ourselves.

I'll make a digression here, if I may.

Many years ago, in the late 80'ies, a Swedish artist called Mikael Rickfors released a song called 'Vingar' (=Wings) which was about freedom. One of the lines was, in translation, "To do what one must is to do what one wants". Now this isn't a particularly new idea, that there's always the choice of consequence, regardless of how pressing the demands. It's at the core of the non-metaphysical free will argument. The idea wasn't new to me, and I had reflected on it many times before. However, this song, for some reason, made the idea come to life for me, it made me fathom the concept and embrace the thought as my own. It helped me grok something that then became central to my personality.

This was an enhanced experience I was taking part in, and adding to from my self. The crux is, then, whether it was original or not. There's an old adage that goes "Every thought, including this thought, has been thought before", and with a sufficiently high level of abstraction and generalisation this is true. Does this mean that the idea of originality is dead, that "there are no new ideas anymore"?

No. The originality does not have to lie in the idea/message/question - in fact, it very rarely does. What you find yourself appreciating is the packaging and the craftsmanship. If a song can give me this enhanced experience by telling an old story in a new way, there is originality in the presentation. I call that art, because it meant something to me, touched me.

Art is something original created by humans in a conscious effort, which lets the consumer partake in and add to an enhanced experience.

The definition is still not complete, though; we still have to include the purpose of art. We might spend a conscious effort on the visual appeal of a video recorder, trying to enhance the experience of using it, but ultimately that is a device for the purpose of recording and playing videos. And a painting might be done with great effort and planning, but which leaves every viewer unaffected. So we need a slight rephrasing:

Art is something original created by humans in a conscious effort, which succeeds in its primary purpose of letting the consumer partake in and add to an enhanced experience.

Okay, that's that, we know what art is, and so it would follow that whoever the human in the definition above is, he or she is an artist. Wouldn't it?

I'll talk about that in the next article.

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