AIArt InquisitionGeneral ArtVisual Art

Art Inquisition: What IS Art, anyway?

One of our local skeptics’ group members recently created a Facebook post that simply said, “I’m skeptical about art,” with a link to an article entitled “I’m Sick of Pretending: I Don’t ‘Get’ Art.” Within were a plethora of pictures depicting some of the more ridiculous art-y things he’d seen at a recent opening. Collection of found objects? Check. Art of the “my three-year-old could do THAT!” variety? Check. Silly hats? Check. Uncomfortable nudity? Check. Video installation? Check. This guy probably won Modern Art Bingo without even trying.

But this is exactly the type of exhibition that gets pointed at when folks are getting all antsy about what is or is not art. Does it have to be representational or ‘realistic’?  Does it have to be pretty? Does it have to be flat? Part of the problem with deciding what capital-A Art is that it’s like trying to define capital-S Science.

Does it have to impress your parents or your fashionable friends? Is that “painter of light” guy an artist? Are Hummel figurines art? Are prints art? What do we really mean by art?

In one of my sculpture classes, the whole studio was shared by multiple classes. By the end of the semester, there was so much STUFF all over the place that it was well-nigh impossible to tell what was trash and what was someone’s carefully-arranged project. Literal piles of trash were lying around the studio because none of the students wanted to be the one to destroy someone’s work. If you can’t tell whether or not it’s art, is it art?

ArtArtArtArtArtArtArtArt? Art?

Some people think art is only the stuff you’d hang on the walls to show off to guests. Some think that anything you put in a frame is art. Others think it’s not art unless it’s making someone uncomfortable. Still others just say it’s art because they said so. And maybe anything on display in a museum gets the title of Art, regardless of whether we agree with the curators. But what do you think? What is art? Does art need to be defined or have parameters beyond what the creator decides they are? What transforms something from a collection of discarded items into a collector’s piece? Who should get to decide what art is? Do you “get” art? 

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. It used to appear on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET… maybe we’ll just try for Wednesdays this go ’round. Make with the comments!

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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  1. Indeed you did! They got jumbled in the move to the new server, but I shall reproduce them here for your viewing pleasure! (and I’m gonna feel really silly if they reappear as the DNS gets itself settled…)

    Anything that is used to communicate is art. Art doesn’t always have to be good, creative, inspiring, though-provoking, or make you uncomfortable. Math is art. Science is art. Web designs, Twitter posts, and monologues are art. I don’t always understand what others are trying to say, but I do “get” that they are trying to say something.

    1 “What is art?”

    Art is the act of creation with intent to inspire an emotional response.

    2″Does art need to be defined or have parameters beyond what the creator decides they are?”

    Art is the bastion of subjectivity. It’s where personal interpretation is not just possible, but perfectly valid. And as such I’d have to say that it would be hypocritical to define it beyond the subjective opinions of the creator, with a big caveat. (see #4)

    3 “What transforms something from a collection of discarded items into a collector’s piece?”

    Intent on the part of the creator, and someone willing to collect it.

    4 “Who should get to decide what art is?”

    The person creating it *and* the audience partaking of it.

    Again: art is subjective. Because of that it’s perfectly possible for something to both be art and not art at the same time depending on who’s doing the defining. And that’s what I love about it.

    I’m a capital S Skeptic. I use as many epistemological skills as I can from science. I want to know, to the best of our current ability to tell, the objective truth about, well, everything, if I’m being honest about it.

    But art is where I can let that all that slip. It’s where I can ride upon on the storms of my oh so blind and fallible emotions and know that whatever shore I wash up on is one that is right for me.. I love that I can stand upon that strand and shout: “This is right!” in a way that brooks no argument whatsoever. Because art is the one beautiful, shining exception where the subjective is in fact everything.

    Do you “get” art?

    Probably not.

    Art is determined by the viewer, not the artist. Or, put another way: Art is not a category; it is a quality.

    Anything can have an artistic aspect, and if a viewer chooses to notice and respond to it, then for them, in that moment, you can say that it is art. If they instead treat it wholly as a functional object, or a brute physical object, with no aesthetic component, then you can say that it is not art, or (if you prefer) that its artistic quality lies dormant.

    I feel like the modern music world had their own “What is music” debate in the mid-20th century, thanks to John Cage’s radical philosophy, and this is pretty much the general conclusion that settled out of it. Cage’s “Everything we do is music” can be elaborated as “Everything we do can be perceived as musical, if the perceiver decides to hear it as musical.” Likewise the visual aesthetic realm.

    Perhaps I’m misreading your point breadbox, but your definition seems to leave out the creative aspect of art. If art is a quality divorced from the creative act it could be said that a sunset or a waterfall could be art if the viewer chose to see it that way. A notion that I as an atheist reject. If you add the stipulation that art is how the viewer chooses to see human creations, I’d agree with the caveat that the maker of the art is human too and thus can define what is art for themselves too.

    That’s true, it does. (And this is one reason why Cage’s ideas were considered so radical at one time.) Again, it helps to use art as an adjective rather than a noun. A sunset can be “artistic”, or “aesthetic” if you prefer. But yes: art is what a viewer chooses to treat as art. This shouldn’t bother atheists any more or less than theists.

    You’re right that art is typically an attempt to communicate from an artist to a viewer, and this approach sort of ignores or negates that aspect of art. But that aspect becomes problematic at times because it veers into intent-is-magic territory. Leave aside examples from the natural world for now: If I create something without intending to make art, and everyone around me considers it art, then it probably should be called art, despite the absence of any intent to communicate. Likewise, if I create art and nobody else perceives it as artistic at all, then I’d have a hard time arguing that it really is art but everyone else is too blind to notice. Instead, it makes more sense (to my mind) to say that it’s art to me but not to anybody else.

    In short, I feel that even though art *tries* to communicate something from the artist to the viewer, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for art.

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