What is Art? Time for a New Definition

(previously posted on the Red Dot Blog, December 6, 2010)

Perhaps it is the ultimate expression of hubris: but I find the current definitions of art inadequate, and want to propose a new one.  The standard definitions have diluted art to everything and nothing.  And our reward for our neglect of this important word:  we end up with ads that say, “The fine art of laundry soap.”  If we allow current definitions of art to go unchallenged or remain ambiguous, we run the risk of losing all use of the word.  We need a standard by which to judge art.  Otherwise, we are lost in the morass that is “art” from 1917 forward.

Why 1917?

That is the date that French artist, Marcel Duchamp declared art, “anything the artist touches.”  With his submission of “Fountain,” a urinal turned on its back, to the Society of Independent Artists he changed the very nature of art forever.  The object was rejected, but the concept remains, and confuses us to this day.  If art is anything, and an artist is anyone, than we lose all ability to judge.  A printed Brillo box by Andy Warhol (identical to the commercial version) now sells for millions of dollars.  Cynical is too weak a word.

Help me Merriam

Merriam Webster (online,2010) defines art as: “The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.”  This helps, but avoids the question by using another ambiguous concept: “aesthetic object.”

A New Definition of Art:

Art is an object, made by man, that one interacts with to gain emotional and conceptual experience.

Let’s break this new definition into its parts to better understand it.

Art is an object, made by man…

This is a simple yet important point.  Though nature can give us emotional and conceptual experience – it is not art.  Nature is perfect unto itself, it doesn’t need us to exist.  And when we stop looking at it, it is still nature.  This is not so for art.  Object means anything physical.  Music for example appears at first glance (or listen) to be non-physical, but it absolutely is.  Music is made of vibration, physical disruptions in space.  An object doesn’t have to be permanent to exist.

…that one interacts with…

A forgotten painting shoved into a closet with the door shut, ceases to be art.  It is our interaction with the object that is art, not the object itself.  This sounds simple, but is a difficult concept.  For example, what if I think about a painting I saw in a museum years ago –but was later destroyed in a fire?  If the object is gone, then how can one interact with it?  Time and space are irrelevant in this case.  The object continues to exist in the viewer’s mind.  The interaction can continue as long as the memory lasts.  This is one of the supreme powers of art, why it is so important to us, why a glance can change us.

…to gain emotional and conceptual experience.

When we look at a painting that moves us, or hear music that makes us pause, we are having an emotional, conceptual experience.  We easily understand the emotional part of this definition, but without the conceptual part, any manmade object could be art.  A brand new car gives plenty of emotional reaction, but with few exceptions, should not be called art.  Conceptual experience means an idea, a greater message than the object itself has been conveyed to the viewer, listener, or reader.   When we look at a painting, we take in enormous amounts of information at a moment’s glance.  Space, tension, movement, emotion, place, and color, all conveyed in an instant.  Literature and music take a little longer, but might be sustained longer.  This process is unique to art.

The Lessons of  Cavemen

When we define art for what it truly is, an object that changes us, makes us more human, then we protect it from decay.  Consider what this means and how important it is.  Artists 30,000 years ago crawled into caves and painted beautiful scenes of animals and men.  Yet we can appreciate their art, marvel at it, be changed by it today –150,000 generations removed!  Extraordinary isn’t it.

Jay Magidson
December 6, 2010

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