What is Art?
Blake's thoughts on the Matter
I often come across internet forums and people in general discussing the definition of art. It seems that these people tend to fall into two camps. On the one hand, you have people who thinks that anything that the artist defines as art is art. Artists in this camp—like Marcel Duchamp with his urinals that he found, did not build and claimed were art—seem to think that the art is special because the artist is special. And because the artist, with his or her special eye, thinks it is special it becomes so. In their definition, art is a sort title—like a knighthood, bestowed by the royal artist.
The second camp of people in this argument believe that the “specialness” does not come from the artist but from the virtue of the work itself. Just like with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and its undeniable beauty, this school of thought holds that there must be some objective quality within the work, which makes it significant. This can be intricacy, aesthetic, message, perspective, etc... In this definition, art is a standard that artists strive to reach through their created artifacts (paintings, books, movies, etc...). If you make a creative work good enough, in other words, it becomes art.
I see a piece of truth in each of these philosophies. A urinal, just like a hand-painted chapel, can potentially evoke a response from its audience and perform the same artistic function as the chapel in every sense of the word, depending upon the individual viewing the piece. However, I can't deny that there are works, such as the chapel, which are objectively better and closer to “art” than a urinal could ever be. However, they both create more questions than answers to the question of what art is.
If the first school of thought is correct, can any given thing become art no matter how ridiculous? And if the second, does this mean that a urinal bought at a home improvement store reaches the same standard? Are beautiful and touching artifacts created by people who are not artists or by nature, art? And if you craft the most beautiful and touching painting ever created, and then burn it before anyone can see, was it art any more than the novel that remained locked inside someone's head until they died, never written?
The problem with both schools of thought is that they cannot be measured or proven, and require not only a belief in the idea of “specialness” in either the artist or the work, but also that there is a cosmic or universally agreed standard for what defines art and an artist.
Specialness cannot explain why a corporation driven by profit or an artist driven by a Pope's blackmail, can create art that changes people's lives for the better and inspires them to live as many do. I've done enough research on certain influential and undeniably beautiful novels to know that they were not written by any single author but by greedy publishing companies who knew that creating something so beautiful would make them money; and if you don't think that at least some of your favorite shows and movies were created for that reason alone, you're fooling yourself.
Specialness cannot explain any better why two people of similar background and education can see the same piece of art, with one person's life being changed while the other one remains bored with it. There is an objective quality, and one which neither person can deny, but which serves as true and sacred “art” to one person, while being but a simple artifact to another.
I think that while there is a touch of truth in both of these philosophies, art is the moment when a piece of universal human experience, which has been illustrated into an artifact, is witnessed by an audience—no matter how small—and creates an effect within them. If you wrote a story that only one other person bothered to read, but it spoke to them in some intimate way, you have created art. Art is an event that occurs when audience and artifact meet; and if you create your art with attention to detail, quality, and clarity to your audience, the event will have even more power in its purpose. And every improvement and investment into the quality of your work will make it more “art” than it was before.
Ultimately, I think that art is not the artist nor the artifact—as wonderful, beautiful, and essential to the art as these elements may be. Art is what happens when the artifact, so intricately created by the artist, is encountered by another person—giving them a new perspective or causing them to feel something that they did not before. It is not an object, it is not a quality, it is not a label; it is an experience. The experience can be used to inspire people, to share with them, to entertain them, or even to harm them, but it is an experience all the same. It can be high in quality or low in quality, but when your work stirs thoughts or emotions within another person, you have created art.