Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
In this letter I will address the question of art in its most general formulation: “what is art?”
Since I lack the knowledge on the topic of an artist, an art critic, an art historian or a philosopher of art, I will attempt a man-of-the-street approach to it.
I’ve heard many definitions of art in the past. Many think it is a particular way of expressing one’s own subjectivity. Some people think it is the work of genius, namely the creation (or interpretation) of something, which has never been seen or heard before. Some other think it is a particular way of vehiculating messages – political, moral, philosophical, existential, etc.
To a certain extent, I believe that all these definitions are sensible. At the same time, none of them is invulnerable to objections.
Consider the first view I’ve mentioned. If art were to be understood only as the particular expression of one’s own subjectivity, art would hardly send messages about the world as it is often said to do. If all art can do amounts to expressing what one feels or subjectively thinks, there wouldn’t be any such thing as politically or morally loaded art.
The second view, that of genius, faces a direct objection: how can we define what is truly new? If we look closely, we would see that nothing is, for, as David Hume remarkably argued, everything we can imagine is the product of our own experience. If nothing can exceed our experience, then nothing is truly new. But there is indeed innovation in the connections that art originates, so maybe that’s the meaning of the work of genius. However, wouldn’t this view be still too elitist? Wouldn’t we like to grant the status of artist even to minor painters, musicians, poets and movie directors? There seems to be a gradualism in art that the concept of genius is too coarse to notice.
After all, art might be just a way of vehiculating all kinds of messages, so our third view. This view is able to account for both art as subjective expression as well as “art about the world”. Moreover, it blocks the accusation of elitism. However, it remains vulnerable to the all-too-common objection that “everything goes” (in a certain sense, the first view faces the same problem). If art is a way of vehiculating messages, how can we draw the line between art and other more trivial ways of expressing messages such as writing an article, bringing cookies to our neighbor, burning a flag, and so on? The risk is that everything goes, and art would be meaningless. We don’t want art to be meaningless, do we?
Thinking about art provides us with quite a headache. Perhaps it is impossible to give a positive account of art. But maybe a negative is still possible. Instead of thinking what art is, we could ask ourselves what art isn’t. If something can be better defined as a psychological experiment, a treaty about economics or the unintentional effects of a psychotic person provided with paint and brushes, why employ the concept of art then?
I think that the term “art” can be used with parsimony as the term to explain something which other terms can’t better explain. You stumble on your feet and your camera takes by chance an astonishing shot after falling? Well, that’s what it is: a casual event producing something beautiful, but no art is involved. The same can be said about the Niagara falls: they are “by chance” beautiful, but it would be counter intuitive to call them a “work of art”, for no artist was involved in their production.
It is important to point out two consequences of such considerations: 1) contrarily to what many people believe, art is not in the eyes of the observer, but rather in the eyes of a community of observers, who can apply definitions and in general agree about what isn’t art or simply have shared feelings about it; 2) the negative definition of art allows relativism about what art is but, at the same time, helps us find a meaning to it which is quite rigorous, namely that of excluding from the domain of art all that can be better explained by other concepts.
A last thing that I would like to underline, is that this theoretical approach to art has a parallel in practice. Not only it defines art negatively, but it tells also what one is supposed to practically do to “produce art”. Art is something that is originated when all other means of expression are deemed inadequate.
Art is the last possibility for limited beings such as ourselves to express what otherwise would be impossible to express for us. Good art is the only, irreplaceable, remaining way to say something, when all the other attempts have already failed. On the other hand, the easier it is to replace a work of art, the worse it is. Bad art can be much better expressed by better art, an article or nothing.