Columnist for Wednesday, 4/25 - Harlock

Art, Defined

In his column for April 17, jasona wrote the following:

     What defines a chick flick? Lord knows I know one
     when I see one...but since those who define Art have
     already claimed that cheesy answer as their own,
     I've been left struggling for my own.

I'm sure that this statement was not meant as a challenge, but to me it is nothing less than a mighty throwing down of the gauntlet. Oh yes, the statement "I know art when I see it" is, indeed, cheesy. I will expand upon that by saying that it is ignorant, illogical, and an excuse to avoid critical thought. I feel that I must address this issue.

Let us begin with a conventional definition of Art. The Random House Concise Encyclopedia (1996) defines Art as the following: in the broadest sense, all the processes and products of human skill, imagination, and invention; the opposite of nature. As it says, this is a broad definition. And although the encyclopedia is a good one (it not only includes an entry for the Peasant's Revolt, but also entries for two of the major non-noble players in the revolt), this definition is flawed. By this definition, a hammer is a work of Art. However, the addendum the opposite of nature is useful, if we take nature to include instinct, which encompasses our drives for survival and reproduction.

For a more helpful explanation, and the source of the ideas that solidified as my definition of Art, we turn to Oscar Wilde's essay The Decay of Lying. Although the essay is humorous in tone, it includes a number of interesting concepts. Consider the following passage:

     The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the
     things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful
     or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for
     pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies,
     or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it
     is outside the proper sphere of Art. To Art's subject-matter
     we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any
     rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling
     of any kind. It is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us
     that her sorrows are such an admirable motive for a tragedy.

Wilde argues that Art encompasses subject matters that do not impinge on our day-to-day struggles for survival. Art, of course, can have an affect upon us in terms of emotional response, but a work of Art does not help actions driven by our survival instincts. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud proposes a similar definition.

In short, all Art is completely useless. Note that not everything that is useless is Art; but to be a work of Art, a thing must have no practical value. A teapot is not a work of Art. A sterling sliver teapot with an intricately engraved design, an ebony handle, and gold accents is artistic, but it is not a work of art. After all, you can use it to make tea. Fill it with concrete, pound railroad spikes through it, encase it in Lucite, and it becomes Art. Likewise, a sword made of steel might be artistic; a sword made of glass is Art. (Yes, yes, you can certainly utilize a glass sword as a weapon, but you can also bash someone over the head with the Mona Lisa.)

An oft-heard statement, usually in reference to Modern Art, is "That isn't Art! I could draw/sculpt/defecate better than that!" There is no requirement that Art must be appealing, or that a great deal of effort or skill be involved in its creation. And what about the argument that one can create and then sell Art, thus providing them a means of acquiring food, shelter, etcetera? In that way, it's just like any other trade good, such as a gasoline, or nails, or pencils. My response: So what? The point is that you can't do anything with a work of Art. You can hang it on the wall or sit it in a corner, but you can't use it to power your car, or build a house, or write down your own theories of Art. And no, "using it to hide a stain on the floor" doesn't count; again, you are utilizing the piece of Art for the purpose, not using it. By definition, you can't use Art for anything.

With photography, there is a difference between a work of Art and a photo Aunt Agnes took of Uncle Murray by the Eiffel Tower. The former, of course, covers a wide range of topics: a sunset with no particular meaning to you other than "it's pretty"; a random street scene that you thought was interesting; the shadows cast by buildings in the early morning. The latter is akin to photojournalism: you use the photograph to document an event.

As you can clearly see, the rule that all Art is completely useless is an admirably simple and elegant manner in which to define what is and is not Art. It does not presume to judge the quality of Art, but it does allow you to to determine what is Art, what is artistic, and what is a neither. "I know it when I see it" is simply too vague to be useful.


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