Tuesday, August 24, 2004

What is Art?

What is art?
It is a thing created by a person using a rare, innate, creative talent.
That's all there is to it. If nearly anyone can do it, it is NOT art. If nearly anyone can learn to do it, it is NOT art. If it can be done by following formulas or scientific method, it is NOT art. If only a person born with the rare, innate, creative talent can do it, it is art.

Almost everyone knows this definition intuitively. You can see it in the way people use the word art in sentences like these:
  • blah..blah..blah is more art than science.
  • blah..blah..blah is an art form.
In the movie "Man on Fire" with Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken's character says,
"A man can be an artist in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
All of these uses of the word art imply the same definition given in the one-line definition above.

Art is very much like genius. In fact, art is genius in a creative field. Some people say that it's impossible to define art. That's nonsense. If it couldn't be defined then it would have no value in our language but we use it all the time so it must have some intuitive meaning. Some people say art can be anything and everything but that's also nonsense because that's a non-definition. People use the word art often and we usually know pretty accurately what they mean so clearly the word has some intuitive definition. To say that art can't be defined or that it can be anything and everything is like saying there's no such thing as a genius or everyone is a genius.

Art is the opposite of science. Art is all about creativity and inspiration and talent whereas science is all about formulas and reasoning and logic. Of course, a scientist can use inspiration to invent a formula but he will then write down all the steps and logic and every other scientist will reproduce those steps and achieve the same result. But there is NO formula guaranteed to produce a great painting or photograph or novel or movie or song or acting performance in a movie. To be an artist producing works of art requires a rare, innate creative talent. Period.

Art is NOT the same thing as skill. A skill is something that can be learned by pretty much anyone. Laying bricks is a skill. Welding is a skill. Anyone can learn to do those things. Some learn faster than others but, by and large, anyone can learn to do them. It does NOT require an innate talent to do those things.

Is skill involved in art? It usually is. A painter usually has to develop his skill at painting before we can know that he has talent.

Creating something by way of technical proficiency is NOT necessarily creating art. Technical proficiency means highly skilled and skill is not art. Only something produced by a rare, innate talent is art.

Why does the talent have to be rare? If everyone had the talent to produce sculpture like Micheangelo, then sculpture would not be considered art. That is simply not the meaning of the word art as people use the word.

Does art have to have value? It is not a question of value. Nearly anyone could learn to be a good auto mechanic so fixing cars is not an art form. It is definitely valuable though.

If something is art, does that mean it has to be liked? Absolutely not. Art can be revolting. I've always hated "The Scream" (which was stolen recently) but I recognize that it is art because the artist had a rare talent to capture on canvas the emotion of terror and broadcast it to the viewer with chilling resonance. Few painters could achieve this and it is that rarity of talent that is the essence of the definition of the word art.

How do you define rare? The more rare the talent, the more valuable the art. In general, rare means that not typically everyone has the talent or the ability to learn the talent.

Can something be both a skill and an art? Of course. A writer with rare, innate talent is an artist who produces works of art in the literary field. The rest of us who don't possess a special innate talent for writing are not artists and we do not create works of art. We non-artists try to gain as much skill as possible to do the best job we can but we will never be able to create true works of art because we were not born with the innate talent.

Does the creative talent have to be innate? Not necessarily. If in the future we can inject our brains with talent like in "The Matrix", then we wouldn't have to be born with the talent. But currently, artistic talent is like genius - we are either born with it or not.

Why is being the fastest runner in the world not considered art? Being the fastest runner does require innate talent but it has nothing to do with creativity, therefore it is not art.

Was Einstein an artist? Nope. To begin with, he didn't create anything, he discovered some laws of physics just as Newton didn't create gravity but rather discovered its rules. But to take the point deeper, the scientist applies logic to a problem in a step-by-step formula which can be learned and duplicated. But artistic creativity is about creating something using talent that can NOT be duplicated by following formulas. This is why the best algebra student in the world is not considered an artist - algebra is following formulas and logic, it is not pure unlearnable creative talent.

Is a teacher with a rare talent to inspire students an artist? Our intuition tells us the teacher is not an artist and our intuition is correct. Firstly, the methods and techniques used by the inspirational teacher can be taught to other teachers. Secondly, the inspirational teacher may possess attributes that can not be taught to others that increase her effectiveness such as a soothing voice, great beauty, or even just a great personality. Possessing a quality does not make an artist. For example, a woman so beautiful that she drives men to tears just from looking at her is not an artist. It is the actual use of talent and creativity that makes an artist. Our intuition as to what is art and who is an artist is usually correct (at least among rational people) and that's what this definition of art attempts to capture and crystallize.

Is this definition of art complete? No. It doesn't touch on some of the secondary meanings of the word. For example, a child doing his "art homework" is not necessarily an artist but rather, is a student attempting to exercise his creativity even though he may not have the capacity to create a true work of art. This definition seeks to provide an accurate definition of a "true work of art" and a "true artist".

Why is it important to have a definition for "art"? Because otherwise, a lot of crap is passed off as art. Many years ago in Phoenix, there was a controversial art exhibit. The so-called artist was a photographer who had taken pictures of the deposits in a toilet bowl. Each photo listed what the donor had eaten for the previous days before the picture was snapped. The photos were taken with great technical skill. The exhibit was controversial because many complained that these photos were crap, not art (no pun intended). I saw the "artist" interviewed by the news channel saying that he wanted to get a reaction whether positive or negative and if he could get an emotional reaction with his pictures, then he considered it good art.

How do you argue with this if you can't define art?

Clearly, these photos were not art. Anyone could learn to take technically proficient photos and snap pictures like these. Since anyone could do it, it is NOT art. To say that something is art if it produces an emotional reaction is ridiculous. Anybody could find a cat run over by a car and frame it and hang it on the wall and pretty much guarantee that it would get a strong emotional reaction but few people would be silly enough to call it art.

There is a lot of crap getting passed off these days as art and this is a good example of how incorrect or non existent definitions in language can have an actual effect on society.

[There is another word that has been incorrectly defined and the misunderstanding of this word has resulted in enormous human suffering! That word is "selfish" and you can read more about it here.]

There is another even more important reason to define art - to learn that human reasoning is the proper way to understand anything! Some artists low on the talent totem pole try to say that art can't be defined because a clear definition will deflate the value of their work. These are wannabe artists, not true artists. But the more sinister reason some people try to say art can't be defined (or the equivalent statement that art can be anything and everything) is actually an attack on human reasoning itself. To say that a word we all use in everyday language and of which we all have an intuitive understanding can't be defined is to attack our subconscious understanding that human reasoning is the tool we use to gain knowledge and understanding. Of course, few people wake up in the morning with the conscious goal to attack human reasoning but, by and large, those people who prefer to live in the world of superstition and mysticism and religion are the same people who would tell you that art can't be defined. They have a vested interest in attacking the definition and therefore, convincing you that your ability to reason is not the most powerful tool in your intellectual tool bag. Human reasoning and clear thinking is their nemesis.

Some people tell me that my definition is good but it doesn't provide a formula to determine objectively and absolutely if any particular thing is art or not. They are quite right. This definition is a principle, not an exhaustive formula. A Supreme Court decision is also not an exhaustive formula solving all future issues. But it does lay down the principles upon which future issues will be decided. The definition of art is like the definition of genius - it doesn't tell you exactly how to measure it or at exactly what level it transitions from ordinary to special but it does give you a foundation for understanding it. Without a guiding principle, you can't even begin to talk rationally about whether or not something is art.

So, the next time you hear someone referring to something as more art than science, keep this definition in mind and you'll have a crystal clear understanding of the meaning of that phrase.


At 8/25/2004 02:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Scream is a piece of crap! The "aught" there is in getting other people to think it's anything but silly infantile crap. Everything else you said is right on. Artist is the most overused, and therefore meaningless word in "American" English.

At 7/13/2008 03:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

art is an external expression of an internal thought or feeling. its not always represented the same way it could be on canvas, could be in dance. but the only requirement for true art is passion and u kno that wen something is truly an artwork the art is going to be awesome because the artist expresses exactly how they feel and it won't work if the passion isn't in it. besides wat could be hideous to u may be fabulous to someone else and vice versa.


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