What is art?
Can we really judge art?
Is critiquing it to miss the point?
These questions and more have plagued the art world from its inception and I am here to answer a couple.
The point I am about to make may have been made by another, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read all or even most fine arts books. What I do know is that in my time as an artist and animator this topic gets brought up and argued relentlessly usually ending on the dissatisfactory Agree to Disagree (TM). The politest way to simply say let's not talk about this anymore, because it certainly doesn’t resolve the debate.
Now in order for any point to be made the pointer and pointee must agree on fundamental groundwork. For instance, if I were to try and prove that 2+2 = 4 we must both agree that numbers exist and on the method that they can be added or subtracted from each other.
For this point to be made we must both agree on what art actually is.
What I will do at the start is make my case for how that can be, and if at the end of that you are not convinced, then my point from there will hold no value. Should such a thing happen I would love for you to tell me why in the comments. Should you agree, I think it will be quite simple to derive all the conclusions I will make on your own, though I will make them anyway.
Here we go.
The word art has unfortunately been muddied by the fine art world, they have put it in the mind of the public that art is only achievable by certain mediums and by certain types of people. It is seen as something that can add color or atmosphere to a home or garden, or something performed by a professional in a professional place and little outside of that.
As the years trudge on we have gotten a little loser with our definitions in the public consciousness, allowing for things like video game music to be considered real music.
However this is misguided, first, we have to truly understand what art actually is.
Art is simply a way to communicate.
Communicate what? Everything.
Think of an infant, the child has thoughts and feelings but no words, how do they then express happiness or displeasure? They laugh, cry and flail their arms, they move in ways that are meant to express feelings, these are the very rough stages of art. The child feels something and does things to express that, if when they cry their mother comes then crying is how mother is called. Should she not come, the craft must be honed, cry louder, harder, longer, yet should that fail, another tactic may be sought out.
As children grow they learn verbal language and for many this will become their first mastered art. Believe it or not, the spoken word is an art, the ability to convey feelings, to convince others, to make them sad, to comfort, growing and learning is how we refine this art. Seeing how words can hurt someone and using them to hurt another or hearing a joke and repeating it to make someone laugh. That is art.
Now think of the spoken word as English (or whatever your native tongue is) and think of painting as a foreign language. Speaking is one way to talk, but painting is another. Feelings of anger or dread can be conveyed in the language of colors or words. One can be specific in the replication of real-life or abstract in a wild use of form and space or a person can speak using hyperbole. Sculpting, song, dance and all the rest are just different ways to share what you feel. Some languages are better for conveying certain ideas than others, but if you are skilled enough you can say whatever you want in any medium.
It’s identical down to how languages like English, Spanish and French use the same letters and have overlapping words, however translating things one for one will lead to misunderstandings. The same is true for art; television shows, books, and movies share a lot in common, but you would not have to look far to see where translating one into the other verbatim doesn’t work. The languages aren’t the exact same. Things that work for pages of a book do not work in a screenplay. You could certainly paint the intended feeling of a two-hour interpretive dance, but if you photo-realistically painted one moment from the entire thing that meaning is likely to be lost. It needs to be translated.
Now with that said, if we agree that art is a language like English or Russian it gets really easy to have the ‘what counts as art, can we judge it and should we’ debate.
My thesis statement is Art is language and language is an art. Everything crafted with intent by mankind is art. (though not exclusively ) And while not every piece of art needs to be critiqued and broken down, at the point where billions of dollars are being made and hours of my time are taken by certain creations such things are a necessity.
Now before one begins the hyperbolic unhelpful rhetoric that is, “If I poop into a toilet is that art?”
The answer is, it can be if your intent when you pooped was to make art, but we are going to set that kind of stuff aside for now.
Knowing art is simply language I believe there is an easy comparison to make that will deal with the many discussions surrounding it.
Art is one of many languages, a way to say something, it is communication.
The most common way people communicate is on social media.
If you have ever been on these types of sites, and if you are reading this I will assume you have, you know that not everything someone says is important, smart or relevant. Sometimes it’s downright stupid.
You can put a pretty background behind it or write it in calligraphy, but a bad take is a bad take. Not everyone should be allowed a platform to speak, not every word said should be heeded, most importantly not every work said even means anything. Covfefe.
Some people just talk because they like the sound of their own voice, others don’t even understand the subject they are tackling and end up adding to the problem. There are liars, "Nice Guys" and racists. All these people talk, yet we have no trouble identifying that they probably shouldn’t.
Which brings us back to art. People have feelings they want to express in words and can’t or merely don’t have an understanding of their mother tongue well enough to make a valid point. The same is true for art. When books and movies trip over their own feet because the author does not properly speak the artistic language they were trying to communicate in we can and should recognize that the art is of poor quality.
The word art is associated with the implication of some level of mastery or success, but art can be bad and pointless. Art can be as useless as your friend’s tweet about their favorite nail polish. It isn’t as simple as categorizing things as ‘masterpieces’ and ‘not art’.
But what about the more abstract arts like interpretive dance?
That’s an easy one, the answer applies to all languages. How well did it convey its message to its audience?
If I do a dance meant to represent my time in college and no one who sees it understands what I was trying to say then it failed as art. It did not communicate what I wanted, I meant to say a ‘Fun’ and I said ‘Blwarg’ I failed at communicating. Now that dance may have been technically skilled and very precise, with jumps and twirls that are hard to pull off, my passion may have even made one person in the audience cry. Doesn’t change the fact that I communicated my point poorly. Now if I wanted to say nothing, just do the language equivalent of scatting then I succeeded and then some. Sort of like how some people say something they intend to be taken seriously but ends up being taken as a joke. They could either try to correct everyone and help their audience try and understand how what they said wasn’t really funny or lean into the fact that it’s a joke now.
Art is simply language and should be treated as such. Let’s say you are watching a movie that isn’t perfect, but lets you understand what the director meant, that either means that their language skills aren’t quite there yet or that you need to learn how to listen. Breakdowns and critiques are how we are able to tell the difference between these two things. Did this person speak eloquently but you are not well versed enough in the language to understand or is the artist the one who needs to work on their craft? If we can sit down and point out where they succeeded or failed we can not only help the artist improve but increase our own artistic literacy. Doing so means that future attempts by the same person or by others who learn from the discourse will have a greater chance of success. That is to say, art critique is as essential as art itself.
Now here is where one may say; okay fine, art is language, but what about a steel beam for a warehouse? Created with intent right? Is that art?
Short answer, absolutely yes.
The more complex version is, like every language not everyone is fit to judge every subject. For instance, if someone were to write a paper on gene sequencing and how it could be done more efficiently, I, as someone with no knowledge of the topic, would be ill-suited to judge it. Not only because I don’t care about it, but it would also bore me and I would come up with a long list of things I would rather do than read it. However, someone in that field may well find it to be the most compelling and well-written paper on the topic ever released. The paper was meant to intrigue those with a knowledge of the material and did so, only someone who understood the complexities of the topic could actually judge how well the paper was written.
Now back to the steel beam.
As someone who collects paintings you may not see any difference between the beams one factory makes and another, but a contractor who you’ve hired to build a museum for all your lovely art does. He says that one company has a technique that makes the metal take up less space in the rafters, is lighter, and holds more weight. Someone at that company studied metal, and wished to create something that was better than what was before, the craft was honed into something that does just that. There is an artistry to building even the most mundane things, communicating care and mastery are always the basis of innovations in common items.
To that one may say, ‘that’s the job, how is that communication’?
The same way telling your boss about a meeting is communication.
Some words are said at work and are about work, some art is created at work and is about work, however, in both cases, there is a difference between those who simply say what they have to and those that take their communication to the next level. The result can be something like being seen as more personable and friendly or creating a better steel beam.
It’s communication either way.
It’s art either way.
Some things are going to be relevant to you some will not, but it does not make them invalid as an art form if they are not, in fact for you. That’s how we got to people debating whether or not video games are art.
And if you’re having trouble seeing it that way, ever approach something like a barricade (in real life or a video game or whatever) and think, ‘Man, they do NOT want anyone getting through.’ Or ever use a trashy piece of office equipment and think, ‘Wow, they did not care if my papers get stapled.’
*Incidentally with a lot of low-end dollar store products you’ll find the communicated message is I DON’T CARE and/or WE ARE TRYING TO SAVE MONEY*
With all that said it gets easy to answer some of the ‘Art’ questions.
If I poop in a toilet is it art? Yes, if you mean it to be, will it be good art or say anything? Not likely, but I’ve seen amazing things made out of weirder stuff. Regardless it WILL communicate something about the artist.
Are video games art? Is the combination of at least five art forms into one thing art? I mean, yes, obviously.
Is porn art? Yes, and just like with language there are words you cannot say at certain times, it’s an art you can’t look at everywhere, there is a time and a place.
What about art for art’s sake? What about it? What about talking just to talk, you might say something insightful or you might freeform rap some fire hot bars, the meaning of the painting doesn’t have to be known before the brush hits the canvas, so to speak.
What if all art is just nonsense to me? Well if you like anything ever made you like a piece of art and are likely still stuck thinking of art as specific categories of things. Data is art, equations are art, it is all in service of saying something. Even if you hate every picture on earth if you like the layout of your OS or the way your phone sounds when it rings there is some art you like.
Do you really think everything made has meaning? Yup, but I don’t think everything made is worth studying or understanding just like I don’t think every word uttered is worth listening to. Think back to Facebook and Twitter if you need help grasping that one.
Thanks for reading, see you next time.