Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What is art?

I've talked before about my belief that art is much more important than many "practical" or "scientific" people are likely to say. While the truth of the world, whatever that may be, certainly won't be found in art, people perceive the world in artistic, interpretive ways. Art is reality vis a vis the human. As such, I think art as far as humanity is concerned is at least of equal importance to more abstract, harder sciences like physics and chemistry.

As such, what we call art is pretty important. How do we define art and what makes legitimate art or ersatz art. Indeed, is it even possible to have ersatz art?

I've always felt that art as art is the opposite of poetry. Poetry is eliciting images with words, while art is eliciting words with images. While they could both be considered "art," I don't say a beautiful poem is artistic, I say it's beautifully poetic. Both poetry and art are forms of expression in a totally human way. Truly, art can only be human, since whatever we find communcative does so on an emotional level, and our emotions are an evolutionary construct unique to us. We have no idea what an alien species would consider art because we don't understand their condition.

The art OF something is any non-quantitative analysis of an endeavor. The art of talking/flying/fencing/war. Anything that is quantitative necessarily becomes science or at least science-like.

I don't think there really is such a thing as bad or good art, only what underlies the art can be good or bad. Two books are fundamentally different, it's just that one book can be a hollow, inane story while another can be a complex masterpiece. The underlying message is what matters and how complex and well-communicated it is.

I guess to what degree skill allows the expression of those underlying ideas could be considered to be good or bad art. But that doesn't really make it better "art," it just makes it a better painting, and a good painting can have a great deal of, or next to no, artistic merit.

But the skill with which the former is exercised must always be taken into account, so in that sense, ersatz art can exist. But it's not specifically ersatz in its creation, since its creation might have had no artistic motivation at all. The art may exist in interpretation alone.

For example, I read two abstract poems. Neither is grammatically or syntactically coherent. It's chaos in words. But one is poetry, the other is nonsense. The first was written by a master of the language, who has proven in the past to write beauttifully coherent poetry. The second was garbled nonsense written by someone who doesn't even speak the language. Art and poetry are both expression, and if the artist or poet doesn't have the requisite tools for expression, than it can't be art.

But say I don't know the second poem was written by someone who doesn't know the language. I may read it and find it to be a powerfully moving poem. Even though the end result is the same, I don't think it's art. Art is expression, not interpretation. I can have a moving experience looking at a grand vista, but that's not art. It's not human. If we put the onus on the interpreter, anything can become art and render the label useless.

But back to assertion that art is the usage of imagery to elicit words. I say words as opposed to emotions because our world, truly our very selves, are constructed of words. While happiness and fear are both abstract emotions, we operate on our interpretations of them and application of words as labels to fully define each emotion. For example, fear and elation, physiologically, are very similar. Similar levels of neurotransmitters and hormones, but our interpretations of each emotion are radically different.

It is true there are underlying "truths" behind those words, but we don't operate on those. We operate linguically, with ourselves and with others. I don't deny that a human could operate roughly as a human without language, but the few examples we have of children being raised without langugage to structure their minds and worlds show them to be the proverbial wild children. Language allows us to construct a complex network if beliefs, apply labels, and then integrate new things into that system based on rules assocaited with the labels.

While we have vague emotions that may be difficult to apply words to, I think art's ability to communicate, and how good the art is, must be measured by how well words can be applied to it.

In the Wikipedia entry on art, it says that "a cup, which ostensibly can be used as a container, may be considered art if intended solely as an ornament." I actually think that this restricts art in such an un-needed way. Art is nothing more than communication, and in that sense, any human creation has an artistic element to it because no matter how rigid or objective the creator may try to be, they are still trying to communicate something with the creation.

That cup is artistic because all cups communicate something. For example, the cup on the left. It's highly ornamental. It is artistic. But why is it artistic? What words does it elicit? The closer we can get to a generally accepted set of words, the more effective the art has been at expressing what it's trying to express. I see "luxurious," "leisure," "wealthy," "decadent," "royal," and a multitude of other words. That's how I frame my interpretation of the cup. I use words. And whether I like the cup or not is super-subjective. If I want to feel rich, I may like it. If I hate rich people and listen to lots of Rage Against the Machine, I'd hate the cup, but it can't be denied what the cup communicates. It is, in that sense, perfect art. But it also highlights how incredibly subjective even that is. For example, why does the cup communicate those things? It does so because of a shared history. We all understand decadent European and classical history, which this cup elicits. For someone not aware of that, the cup may still communicate its being expensive, and detailed, and wealthy, but perhaps not the undertones of decadence and royalty, or of classical culture. As our culture becomes more global, the shared artistic language will probably allow greater universality of these artistic concepts.

Now let's look at the cup to the right. No grand details, or metal accents. It literally is just a cup. But think about the designer and what words the cup elicitis. Simplicity. Humbleness. Directness. An almost clinical level of cleanliness. This is the cup of a man who wears a perfectly pressed suit to work every day. That is the cup the designer wanted to make, or else they would have designed it differently. Even something seemingly simple communicates ideas when the human condition is applied to it. As such, there is art in every cup. If a cup is used as an ornament, like in the Wikipedia entry, then whatever artistic quality is in it insofar as it communicates words is added to its quality of being a cup. So its nature as a cup is now used to communicate something artistic in the endeavor. For example, I make a decadent cup like the first example and it communicates ideas like wealth and royalty. I then take those cups and glue them to a female mannequin, now, not only do the cups express wealth, they express being a cup. Now my art can be seen as expressing a woman's need to appear rich and able to entertain. This new usage of its nature as a cup to express art doesn't negate that it has artistic qualities separate from being a cup.

Moreover, my earlier example of a non-speaker using a language to write abstract poetry doesn't apply here. A designed cup must be understood be its designer. It's impossible to have an abstract cup. Because if the artist creates something abstract, like Barbara Hepworth, and I find I am able to use it as a vessel for storing fluid, it doesn't matter because the artist never called it a cup. Just because I can "interpret" it as a cup, as in use it to store fluid, that doesn't mean it's a cup. It can still elicit words. For example, a curvacious abstract piece can appear feminine and human, and elicit words like "sexy," or "relaxed." It's still art. It's just not a cup. And those interpretations requires a more basic understanding of the human condition. It requires an understanding of human form, as opposed to the trappings of more advanced human life, like dishes.

Still, the important factor in all of these is what words the art communicates. If the art can't be broken down into words, its effectiveness as art is limited. That's one of the problems with abstract art, and why we have comical cases of five-year-olds selling paintings for thousands. I'm not saying that there is no artistic merit to the works, it's just that when we obfuscate expression under chaos, it must be tightly controlled to be communicative. Moreover, only very broad concepts can be communicated. You can't hide details in chaos; they get lost.

Art is an expression of the human condition. The human condition is defined by words and labels; It's how we organize our world. Thus, art must be defined by words and labels. And so my defition of art as using visuals to elicit words.

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