In my class “Form and Idea in Media”, we’ve started to tackle the question of “What is art?” This turns out, rather like herding cats or nailing jello to a tree, to be a rather tricky proposition. I supposed we could just bag it all together, but, the professor hectors us, “You want to call yourselves artists. How can you do that if you don’t define the word art?”
It turns of that the philosophy of aesthetics has a long history, from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant to more modern theorists like Walter Benjamin. The writing can be crushingly dense; one of my classmates, checking to see if I’d started the reading asked, “Have you slit your wrists yet?”
There are all manner of different approaches, from the physical: “an artifact set aside for appreciation”, to the emotional: “an exchange of feelings”, to the universal: “a representation of the world that has beauty”, and none of them exactly work. Rather, you find that they all work in some percentage, maybe even a majority of cases, but one can always find exceptions.
Our professor, of course, does not expect a room full of grad students to wrap up this problem for the rest of world in perpetuity, but he is suggesting that as creative artists, we should do ourselves the favor of solving the problem to our own satisfaction.
The definition that works for me is basically two-fold. At it’s most inclusive, almost anything done by humans can be defined as art, if they want to claim it as such (merci, Marcel Duchamp*), but there’s a smaller category that I would call “successful art” that manages to communicate not just emotion, but something of extra-sensory value.
This is not, of course, original with me. I think the first time I came across it in any well-defined (though not in a philosophico-theoretical) sense was in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In it, the bag-lady Trudy, holds up a can of Campbell’s soup and an Andy Warhol painting and asks how you can tell the difference between soup and art? Her answer is goosebumps. And while Andy Warhol doesn’t do it for me personally, Lily Tomlin, who I saw perform the piece live (twice!), certainly did give me goosebumps.
* In my one-act, Cheese, Cubed, I posited that Duchamp’s “Fountain” was merely a practical joke, but that the art world of the moment had no sense of humor and had essentially self-destructed as a result.