Today has been study day. I am currently studying towards a BA Hons in Humanities with a specialism in creative writing with the Open University. In the first two modules I did with the OU, I blasted (and coasted with some amount of laxidaisicality) through the creative modules. The current one however, does have some actual academic elements to it: Key Questions in Philosophy. I am going to actually have to do some reading!
So I have spent today in the library doing the first week’s reading, which has included a three-hour long interactive presentation entitled ‘What it Art?’ The first part of the module is concerned with truth in fiction, the paradox of painful art and the paradox of fictional emotion. Before I get to all that though, I have to try and define what art it, is in philosophical sense. Here is one attempt I made before doing any of the reading:
Art is the product of a person’s imagination, that has been crafted with skill, passion and often frustration. It is a tangible outlet for that person’s message on a particular topic – religion, war, the state of existence itself – to be showcased to an audience. A piece of art should be something that serves to deliver that message to its intended audience. It is also something that the audience should receive a message from. That is not to say that if the audience perceives a message that differ from that which was intended, it is a bad piece of art. One piece of art, no matter the medium it takes, can say different things to different people at different times – it is dependant on the present mind-set of the person perceiving the art. It could even say different things to the SAME person at different times (I personally have read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 9 times and have taken different things away from it each time.) So a piece of art should be something that attempts to convey a particular message to its audience.
This is something that most of us have probably asked at some point in our lives, probably when face with something like Damien Hirst’s ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ (The Cow in formaldehyde) or Emin’s ‘My Bed.’ These are pieces of art because someone in the art world has told us they are, though if someone came into my bedroom and looked at my unmade bed, with the cups of tea and Keri’s socks everywhere, that would not be art, despite it being essentially the same thing, because there s no-one from the art world calling it art. So is this what makes art? Someone saying it it so?
If I walked up to an object in the street – a lamp post, say – and declared it art, that it stood out from the rows and rows of identical lamp posts, I would be told that it isn’t. There is a distinct inequality there that would almost exclude me from appreciating art.
We could argue against that person from the art world – let’s called her Gemima – that ‘My Bed’ is not art because we have seen true pieces of art ourselves and it bears no resemblance. My Bed could not hold a candle to the most famous piece of art in the world, the Mona Lisa. But again, in trying to define what art is, there are some criteria that the Mona Lisa may not fall into, depending on who you ask.
There is a man called Berys Gaut who suggests there should be a check-list of criteria that builds towards something being called a work of. These word include (but are not limited to): being the product of skill, being the product of a creative imagination, being beautiful, having an individual message. Now there is no doubt that the Mona Lisa is the product of skill, I’m sure we would all agree, but there may be some that would say she is not very beautiful, or it is not very creative. Does this mean it is not art?
Then we have Shakespeare who, in Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2, saying that art should be a mirror to the world (paraphrase), that art should show what is real. Then Aristotle who says art s a representation not of what is, but what could be. Then Tolstoy who said that art should communicate a message in the most sincere manner at the highest possible level.
None of these ways of looking at what art is can reconcile with each other or even themselves. Each one encounters a problem. Art does not always show what is real – reality shows (if you believe they are in anyway an art form) have shown us that. We cannot trust that the artist is really showing us what could come to pass. Not all art work really communicates at the highest level – I do not think it could be said that the Mona Lisa conveys a transcendental message. All of these different models have lead me to my own definition of art:
What is art?
Who knows? Sit down, shut up, look at the pretty thing then get on with the rest of your life.
I’m bound to get an A if I use that in my essay, right?
P. S – While I’m at it, how do we know that when Shakespeare was doing his thing, he was sat there purposefully weaving the messages we perceive through his plays? I think this is how he pitched Macbeth when he came up with the idea:
So there’s this Scottish fella, yeah? He’s got a good job, earns a tidy amount, but his missus just keeps banging on, so he just fucking hacks his boss to death and she shuts up and then…other shit, madness, hijinks! I’ll wing it. Get me another beer, fella!