What the hell is art?

You would think art would be easy to define but not everything described as art is equal: we cannot put a painting by a sugared-up toddler alongside a Jackson Pollock and judge them by the same criteria. Well, most of us can’t–there will always be those who judge modern art by the ever-popular “Pfft! I could have done that!” standard.

So, what is art? To use a different scenario, why doesn’t a finger painting chimp get the same respect as a so called “artist,” when their output can seem equally as appealing? Why is that canvas with a simple red square in the middle “art” and not just wallpaper*? What is true art and what is truly bullshit?

After a lot of thought, this is the definition of art I have come to stand by: Art is the result of creative intent and foresight used to express an original thought or idea by means of an observable medium.

This definition allows even the most basically-crafted art to retain its validity (even if you find little personal value in it) and why a painting by a chimp is most likely not art. The person who paints a simple red square* (for example) has probably put some thought behind what it meant to do so, while a chimp is (arguably) just slapping paint on a board for the fun of it without any intention to convey an idea. Don’t mistake mindfulness as complexity: if an artist simply says, “I want to splash paint on this thing and sees what it means at the end,” then they’re still making art. The chimp may do the exact same thing, except he/she doesn’t care what it means at the end, and that’s the big difference.

Maybe you find the chimp finger painting beautiful and the simple red square* plain and ugly. That’s fine, as “beauty is in the eyes of beholder,” but the job of art is not to be beautiful. Its job is to portray an idea, even if it’s a repulsive idea. You may judge how effective the artist is at presenting their work, but you cannot dismiss it entirely if the artist has made an honest attempt to do so.

Ultimately, under the criteria I described, it’s not up to an observer to decide what deserves to be art. You can, however, use your opinion along with others to affect just how deeply into the culture the artist’s idea travels–results may vary.

It’s fairly easy to argue that original thought is a rarity in the art world. That said, art can be based on existing ideas but it must contain a new, original idea at its core. (IE Grand Master Flash sampling and cutting up existing music to create something entirely new or Andy Warhol using advertising imagery to challenge conventional thinking).

“It’s just a red square!* I could do that, that took 5 minutes to make, tops!” Maybe so, but the most valuable tool an artist has is not a brush or chisel, but the mind. This is why composition will always be more important than manual dexterity or skill. While talent can get you far, it’s the ability to harness an idea that’s ultimately most valuable. Going back to Warhol: for a while I struggled with the fact that on many occasions he relied on other artists to put brush to canvas in service of his ideas. Initially finding such a thing indefensible, I came to realize it was his ideas that endured, with the display of artistic prowess becoming secondary. Having ‘help’ from others did not devalue his artistic process.

The other side of the coin is nearly as perplexing. What isn’t art? What separates art from commerce?

If you’ve created something and took ownership of it based on someone else’s vision or direction then it’s probably not art–despite having used creative energy to produce it (e.g. a magazine illustration as opposed to a gallery painting). That doesn’t mean that the creative energy poured into a project can’t later come to represent a new idea and rise above “original intent.”

Unfortunately, being sincere and mindful of the artistic process doesn’t mean that your ideas aren’t crap. If you’ve created something as filtered through the lens of it’s appeal to outside individuals then you’ve created a commercial product or entertainment, but PROBABLY not art. I say PROBABLY because that line is blurry at times. Appeal is hard to wrestle, because almost no artist makes something only to please themselves. You can create art within the framework of audience expectations, but that’s hard to pull off while retaining an artistic vision to the end of it all. Truthfully, almost all cinema is created with an audience in mind, but is is how the director presents his idea, how be builds on a script, that separates art from mere entertainment.

It’s the haze between appeal and artistry that creates the most controversy. Popularity is often equated to “selling out,” but that is an unfair and oversimplified conclusion. So, what does it meant to sell out? When you’ve created something as suggested by someone else’s vision and intent and THEN tried to pass it off as a product of your own personal artistic intentions, that’s selling out. When you’ve compromised your ideas at the service of making money or kowtowing to mass appeal, that’s selling out.

In the end, we should worry less about what art is or isn’t and just appreciate those rare moments when we discover something that truly moves us. Embrace how that piece of art makes you feel and champion it for others (and secretly hope they see it the way you do).

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
― Edgar Degas

*Apologies to Kazimir Malevich
(Red Square, 1915)


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