What IS Art?
I had a couple of hours to kill in the bath and decided to try and answer the unanswerable question – and found out pretty quickly why it’s considered unanswerable. Nonetheless, I came up with my own crude answer, and I’ll try to summarise the key points of my reasoning here.
Disclaimer: I have not read anything at all on the subject. This entire train of thought has probably been conceived of and subsequently debunked a thousand times before! I’m just a kid with some time to kill and a few ideas.
So the first obvious issue to tackle was why something is considered art in the first place. A really broad subject, I know; it’s like that drawing diagram that teaches you how to draw an owl by telling you to draw “a couple of circles. Now draw the rest of the fucking owl.”
At first, I came to the conclusion that art relied on aesthetic intent: that is, art is that which is created with primarily aesthetic purposes. That it was “made to look nice”. But that can’t be right; things like bath bombs are created with aesthetic intent, yet most don’t label them as art. That couldn’t be it. (Bath bombs. Oh I wonder how I came to choose this specific example.)
I then posited the intent to incite emotion as the defining aspect of art: that art is anything created in order to inspire an emotional response. This couldn’t be true either, though; for instance, many people consider nature to be art, yet most of these people do not believe that nature was created by a sentient entity that designed it in an emotionally inspiring way.
You might have noticed that both hypotheses relied on intent, whereas both debunkings rely on interpretation.
And that is what I believe to be one of the most fundamental aspects of art: that it is purely subjective.
Let’s say you’re looking at a light fixture. To anyone else, it is an unimportant chunk of plastic stuck to a wall. But maybe you notice the way the light falls on it, maybe you like the way the brittle plastic contrasts with the subtle wallpaper. Maybe you want to take a photograph.
The point is, to you, it is art. It is beauty. Maybe not to anyone else, but your subjective impression is one of art. Your interpretation is what makes it art.
Perhaps we can now link art to beauty. Not beauty in the dictionary sense, but beauty in the way that pain can be considered beautiful (in a tragic film for instance), in the way that fear and disgust can be considered beautiful, in the way that a spider’s web or a sunset or a stage covered in talcum powder can be beautiful: beauty defined by what the observer enjoys observing. (It’s by no means a complete definition of beauty, but beauty isn’t what I’m trying to define here.)
So art is what you consider beautiful, then? You see the light fixture, you think it is beautiful in some way: to you, it is art. To you. Because again, art is subjective; let’s reverse the scenario.
A famous artist paints an abstract piece. The piece is displayed in a gallery. Hundreds flock to see it; hundreds sense the emotion, the power, the force in the abstract shapes. They nod. They are interpreting the painting as art, each in their own way.
Then there is someone who does not sense the emotion. The painting simply doesn’t resonate with them – it’s just a bunch of colourful splotches. It’s just not their thing. And mentally, they label it as Bad Art. They label it as art because we are all trained to label certain things as Art: paintings, sculptures, music are all designated as Art. But what they really mean by Bad Art is that the painting is not art to them. They don’t interpret it as such.
Does this mean that the painting stops being art? To them, sure. But not to everyone it did resonate with. It became art because the original painter first interpreted it as such; it stops being art when there is nobody who interprets it as such.
All of this leads me to formulate a crude – and highly subjective – definition of art: Something becomes art as soon as it is interpreted as beautiful.
Obviously, this definition is by no means universal. Like I said, art is fundamentally subjective; everyone will have their own personal definition. But from my experience, this definition is general enough to encompass a good deal of people – and whether or not one subscribes to it (or a variant of it) depends on one’s answer to one simple question.
This question is the old and famous If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In this case, the tree is art.
e.g. Would the planet Saturn, for all its stripes and rings, still be beautiful if humanity weren’t around to consider it as such?
And my answer is, no, it wouldn’t. Art is interpretation; without interpretation there is no art. There is no beauty without an eye to behold it. So I, and everyone else who answered no, in some way subscribes to some variant of the above definition.
Then there are those who say yes. Who say that beautiful things are beautiful whether or not a mind capable of perceiving beauty observes its existence.
They’ll need different definitions. Beauty is, after all, entirely up for interpretation.
(PS Kudos to my mom for taking notes while I summarised my reasoning out loud. Not many moms would be willing to do that.)