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Defining art, part 2

In the previous article, I came up with a definition of art:

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.

So if we know what art is, then would follow that whoever the human in the definition above is, he or she is an artist. Right?

Well... kinda. Terry Pratchett wrote, in reply to the definition above, that:

Your definition, though, clearly puts the work of art ahead of the artist. In the old medieval Guilds a 'masterpiece' was a very specific thing - it was a work of craft created by a journeyman to demonstrate to the Guild that he was in full command of the skills of the trade and was therefore a 'master'. This is similar. You are saying that the artist becomes an artist because of his or her accomplishment; they have fulfilled the conditions necessary. It is made, the consumer is suitably moved, the creator is an artist.

Yes. It is not something you can declare yourself to be; you have to prove it. But what people seem to forget is that traditionally, you were apprenticed when you were 10-15 years old and had to work hard to learn the craft. Usually, you'd be an apprentice for five to ten years, before you were considered good enough to be unleashed on the unsuspecting society, having done your journeyman piece to prove it.

Then you'd spend another five, ten or fifteen years to become a master. The instant-reward culture emerging in the late 20th century has changed the expectations, though, and few seems to be willing to accept the words of wisdom most journeymen and masters agree on: "The ratio of perspiration versus inspiration is at least ten to one". Instead we have people who never were apprentices calling themselves masters.

Another point worth making, though, is that 'piece made by a master' does not equate 'masterpiece'. Once you've achieved artistdom, it has been acknowledged that you can produce art, not that you always produce art. There is a tendency to leave it there. Acclaimed artist - check. Work = art.

Does that mean, then, that the public acclaim makes an artist, or that a combination of public acclaim at some point and also good 'craft' skills make one an artist?

First of all, public acclaim is a bit of a bugger. Van Gogh never got much, and in the case of Kafka, nobody knew there was anything to acclaim. Ok, so the public acclaim can be posthumous, and that's that sorted.

The public is not the only one to bestow acclaim, though. We also have this strange beast called critical acclaim, a completely separate thing, which presumably means that critics are not members of the public. It's a closed set, as it were, and often their judgements seem to have little to with what the public thinks.

So we don't have to care about critics, then? After all, a critic is self-declared without any requirements for credentials, pretty much in the way of the 'artists' Terry and I are arguing against. Bin 'em all, who needs 'em!

Strangely enough, we then find that Westlife and Barbara Cartland are artists, while Rimsky-Korskakov and Albert Camus aren't. Surely there must be something wrong here, something that's been left out of the equation. Do the critics know something the rest of us don't?

Yes. They have the knowledge needed to judge the quality of the craftsmanship, to analyse allusions and subtext. Of course, there's no guarantee they'll spot something that will resonate with you, specifically - how could they? - but in general they are better equipped at determining whether there is something there, beneath the surface.

Let's return to our noble craftsman. The craftsman writes an interesting, entertaining or exciting story for you to read. The artist picks you up by the scruff of your neck and puts you in it, and after he's done, you carry it with you.

And this sense of participating, of aliveness, lies not solely in the words, the sentences, the paragraphs. It lies within me as well. The artist invites me, and I willingly enter, whereas the craftsman keeps me outside, letting me see, but not touch.

The art not only tells a story, it invites me and encourages me to make it mine. It allows itself to be mixed with my experiences and memories, my knowledge and personality, to produce something that is not only a story, but a story relating to me.

This depth is what a critic is trained to find, and ideally help the rest of us find.

However, what we need to recognise here is that, whatever the critics may say, we have a much greater need for craftsmen than artists. People are storytellers and storylisteners. Entertainment and excitement, dreams fulfilled and fears overcome, outsmart the bad guys, kill the monsters, be a faster draw than Sludge-Eye Jack of Carson City, better at karate than the students at Mojo Dojo, drive the demon out and reclaim the innocent soul of your neighbour's daughter, put a stake through the heart of the Vampire Auditor from IRS Hell, marry the frog princess and live happily ever after! Hooray, hooray!

Where the critics go wrong is when they call this "simple entertainment without deeper meaning" or "mass-produced singalongable music with pretty faces" and then think that these statements matter at all. It is, more often than not, true, I won't deny that. But many critics seem to think that 'entertainment' has no value, that it has no worth, no impact on the sum of human happiness. They're measuring length in litres.

Where the public goes wrong is when they talk about the art establishment as "artsy-fartsy pretentiousness", "meaningless selfcongratulatory backpatting", and "trying to say things nobody cares about in a way nobody understands". I won't say they are wrong, either, but they're measuring volume in meters.

We need to recognise that art and entertainment are not, and have never been, guaranteed to be the same thing. I said we need more craftsmen than artists, and the reason is simply that most people need entertainment more than they need art. It's as simple as that.

Entertainment does not have the purpose of art - to help us see ourselves and our world in another way - but it does have a purpose - to entertain, to excite, to let us dream and escape.

To make good entertainment, you need to be a good craftsman, like Terry Pratchett, Steven Spielberg, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Madonna, or Tom Hanks. They've done their homework, their journeyman pieces has stood up to the examination of the public. What they do is valuable and worthwhile, they give the sustenance we need after having stuffed ourselves with burgers and cola, or sirloin and wine. People need stories, and these are the guys who are good at providing it.

But the critics don't care about that. Not because it's beneath their dignity, but because that's not what they're there for. The critics aren't looking at entertainment, they're looking at art. And here's the rub - there are two kinds of art: The one that sets out to be art, and the one that comes from entertainment.

Oh... Right. But...

Yes. It makes it a bit harder to draw the line then, doesn't it? The public cares about entertainment, the critics about art, but often neither of then seem to be able to acknowledge they can be looking the same thing.

Of course, you can't divide the audience of creative output into critics and public, but for the purpose of this discussion we need these labels and generalisations. As long as we remember that it is a simplification it is all right.

As I've said before, we have this idea of what art is:

And they overlap, of course. Written arts are performed, performed arts are visual etc. But these are the 'classical arts', what you need to know about if you want to pretend to be 'cultured'.

So? Well, you do realise, of course, that a lot of what is commonly known as art just doesn't qualify under my definition? In truth, I could argue that the bulk of what we call classical art is something else: historical documents, manifestations of praise or vanity, or well crafted entertainment.

Many of the works of Rembrandt van Rijn, for instance, are exquisite paintings, amazingly well crafted portraits of long-dead people, but they have nothing to say. That's not art, then.

Well, the second idea of art is artfulness, the perfection of a craft. This is present in all paintings of Rembrandt I have seen. Heck, you can even see it come through in a print, the art cannot be surpressed. If we combine these two, we have what an "artful execution of art". The consummate skill in the crafts associated with classical arts - that's art.

But I also said: "primary purpose of letting the consumer partake in and add to an enhanced experience". So this art is a different beast altogether, which must surely have a message? No it mustn't. The difference lies, perhaps hairsplittingly so, in the, to programmers familiar, question "push or pull". Do you push the data out, or do you pull it in from the other side?

What I've been aiming to describe in these articles is this invitation - please feel welcome to come in and see what I have to offer, try it on for size, take what you can use. For sure, you see a lot of pushing as well, and that's easily recognisable as a message. Pushing can be both attractive and repulsive, but this does not mean that art that doesn't push can't be art. Rembrandt doesn't push, he invites you to see what he saw. To add a bit of metaphysics, he didn't paint people's faces, he painted people. You can see their souls. Which is quite intimidating for an agnostic like myself, I might add.

On the other hand, pushing does not in itself disqualify a work as art. I don't believe that art must be 'pure' and contentless, quite the opposite. If a message is presented in an artful manner, that lets me evaluate and experience it, that's all right with my definition.

This enhanced experience I've talked about can be both pushing - as in the song I mentioned in the first article - and pulling - as in Leonardo's The Last Supper. What they both have in common is that they:

  1. let you in freely,
  2. have something there for you to see.

Of course, you often find something you already know, or already has thought about and rejected. The point is that there is something there, and even if it doesn't offer something you personally will find profound or interesting, you can see it's there. Art is open.

We've got these three kinds of art then - a set of products and activities, a consummate skill, and my newly introduced enhanced experience. Shall we try to reconcile them?

Creating paintings, books, music or films is not enough. Those are the media of the art, but not art. They define the purpose as primary, that's all.

Being really good at creating is not enough. That's the execution of the art crafts, but not art.

The medium and the execution are necessary, but the final leg is the fulfilment of the purpose. So it seems I discountet the circular definition too soon: the purpose of art is to create art. But I believe this is only valid once we have passed all the previous stages, and that succeeding in the primary purpose of offering an enhanced experience is the key.

Artful execution of art in a manner that is open and containing some kind of content that can enhance the experience of the art.

Not really rolling off the tongue, I'm afraid. Feel free to improve. But now, at least, we have something to base our investigation of art, entertainment, and the nature of artists on.

You'll notice that my original definition mentioned of neither medium nor execution. The cynics among you will say that's because I only just thought about them, but the truth is that I find them of lesser importance in the discussion, since those two are familiar.

Now on to subjectivity and evaluation. The first criteria, the medium, is simple enough, and something most could agree on. The second is the execution, and is more arguable. Here you need to be more familiar with techniques and philosophies to evaluate fairly, especially in the case of much of modern and postmodern art. It's not about taste, as yet, since if you are knowledgeable enough you can judge the workmanship by itself. There is also the argument of sufficiency - that it only has to be good enough.

The technique in Munck's The Scream, for instance, is simpler than in da Vinci's The Last Supper, but in both cases it manages to add to the experience. And that, finally, is the difficult bit. Who's to decide whether a piece of work has anything to offer or not?

The job of the critics is to help the rest of us with this. This means that the job isn't without qualifications, after all. We should be able to expect of them that they are knowledgeable enough in the techniques to evaluate that bit.

Again, we're talking about acclaim. First of all, we recall that acclaim can be given on different grounds - entertainment or art. You'll seldom see anything get acclaim for both in the same breath, simply because there are different people giving it. Now, a film like Kieslowsky's Bleu, I found both entertaining and a piece of art, but when I came out of the theatre I said "Wow, that's one good film", which is a bit unclear. Some critics are giving Terry Pratchett acclaim for his books, both for their entertainment value, and their artistic value. This is the exception rather than the rule, though, and you'll often find that in the cold, cruel world out there, they seem to be mutually exclusive.

Terry isn't given much critical acclaim, since he's already got the public. Filmmakers like Jarmusch or Wenders doesn't get public acclaim, since they've already got the critics. Somewhere along the line, the idea that one could appreciate both art and entertainment got lost. Ok, we were supposed to remember that this distinction between public and critical wasn't true, but still...

Now let's review that question again:
Does public acclaim, or a combination of public acclaim at some point and also good 'craft' skills, make one an artist?

The short answer is: I don't know.

If someone makes a piece of art in such a way that I'm touched by the result, then I'd call him or her an artist.

We already have names for the people - singer, writer, poet, composer, musician, dancer, actor. What do we need the term artist for? Either we use it as a name to collect all of these together, in which case Westlife and Barbara Cartland are artists, or we use it as a honorary title, in which we deem, subjectively, that Terry P. and Ludwig van B. are artists.

I'm inclined to the latter, with a bit more generosity, so that it's also open to journeymen and masters working hard to get all the pieces together.

The bottom line is, I guess, that it is largely subjective, but one thing I hope I have shown is that you can't accept someone as an artist on their word, because I'm cynical enough to believe that some people find it more important to be an artist than to actually create art.

You can't proclaim yourself to be an artist. You have to earn it.


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