Hello, again, world! Starting today, I will be writing some longer form posts weekly, to be published Wednesdays at 5PM or damn near it. In these posts, I aim to process and refine my thoughts about the world and get some feedback from my friends, family, colleagues, and the broader interweb community. Topics will vary with my mood, but expect themes of art, philosophy, and current news events to permeate.
To start us off, I’ll offer some small initial musings on the nature of art and the role of the artist. I am very interested to hear what my fellow creative friends have to say about all this, drawing both from your own experiences as well as anything you may have studied formally, so please, don’t be shy!
I have two questions: what is art? and who are artists? (Actually, I may jump to such numerical conclusions too eagerly, as I’m not convinced they aren’t simply two surface variants on the same more general question, the answers to which depend upon each other. We’ll return to this possibility soon.)
But let’s say, for now, our two questions are independent. We’ll start with the first. What is art? I think we have three possible starting points: Either everything is art, nothing is art, or some things are art. We get to define the term any way we like, so any of the above three are possible, but the last seems obviously preferable. Consider the first two. If we define the term so broadly that it encompasses all things, or even all human-made things, then to my mind it loses all meaning. “Art” may as well mean “stuff,” an unnecessary addition that, while not only carrying no new information, also rudely violates our intuitions. “You’re telling me this pile of lumber is art? The tree from which it came was art? The idea ‘Wednesday afternoon’ is art?” Obviously wrong. On the other extreme, if we constrict the definition such that the term refers to no actual things in the world, then I think we again violate our intuitions. “Surely Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Eroica are art! Surely!” So, from the above it seems we should be able to offer a definition of art that divides the world along a clean line, with art on one side and everything else on the other. To put it one final way, for any given thing T, T is either art or not art, but not neither or both. I’m not sure one can coherently disagree with that much, though I’d love to see it tried!
The problem, of course, is the drafting of any particular such definition. I divide definitions into two categories: intrinsic or extrinsic, with an intrinsic definition telling us something absolute about the thing and an extrinsic definition relating the thing to the world. For example, an intrinsic definition of a sphere would be “all points equidistant from a single point in three dimensions,” while an extrinsic definition would be “the geometric shape approximated by baseballs, basketballs, and very recently constructed sno-cones.” Employing this distinction, an intrinsic definition of “art” would give us some sense of a universal essence, shared by all art objects and lacking in all non-art objects. An extrinsic definition of “art” would tell us something about how art interacts with the world. In my experience, extrinsic definitions are easier to come by.
Extrinsic definitions of “art” include: things made by artists. things art collectors purchase. things displayed in art galleries and museums. things written about on art blogs. and so forth. These are helpful only in so far as they help us assemble art objects into a pile for closer inspection. Once gathered, however, we still need to find the common thread that links everything. That common thread will be the intrinsic definition of “art.” I don’t know that that common thread is.
I’ll leave that for now and turn to our second question: who are artists? Again, an extrinsic definition is obvious: people who make art. But I’m not convinced this tells us anything of substance, especially considering that the best I can do for an extrinsic definition of “art” seems to depend upon a workable intrinsic definition of “artist.” And here is my impasse. Identifying art and artists in the world seems to be a fairly easy and intuitive process, but defining either without reference to the other (i.e. offering an intrinsic definition) seems much more complicated. And why should we seek an intrinsic definition of art? Why not be satisfied with a kind of 2nd-order looping definition, connecting art and artists in a closed system? The problem I see is that the system becomes too generalizable and thus translatable onto other analogous but not equivalent pairings of creators and creations. By this I mean, what makes the artist:art pairing different from the engineer:bridge pairing? The difference, if there is one, will tell us something about the intrinsic definition of art.
I’ll leave it at that for tonight (I promised questions, not answers! and anyway I’m about an hour behind my self-imposed deadline). Any thoughts?