Friday, September 9, 2011

Towards a Better Definition of Art

Toward a Better Definition of Art

I’d like to make the argument here in favor of the idea that art should be understood as an attribute of a thing rather than as a thing.  My contention is that because an attribute is not a product, in an art culture  driven primarily by market forces thingness wins out.  The noun “art” has entirely eclipsed its adjectival form meaning "artful," particularly at the higher economic layers of the art world, and this eclipse has hollowed our culture. 

I would like to propose a new definition of art, which may at first seem inadequate, simplistic, and childish. But give me a little to time to flesh it out, and show why I think it is the most flexible, useful, and democratic one possible. The definition is this: art is something that is done well.

Is that all art is? Not a sublime experience? Not a cultural value? Not even at least “something that is done very, very well?” It seems like such a puny and bland definition, I think, because I have removed from it the quality that is more usefully contained in the word “importance.” In fact I think it is the conflating of these two ideas - “something done well” with “something important”- that causes much of the confusion and anger, especially over the past century, among art lovers and art mockers alike. I define something done well as tending toward having beauty, while something important will tend toward having value. Occasionally something done well also becomes important, and therefore valuable, and it is this combination that the public thinks of as the noun called art. The malign marketing genius of our era is the bypassing of art itself in the fabrication of artistic importance, while retaining and exploiting the name, the noun, of “art.”

If art is indeed better understood as a thing rather than an attribute, what kind of “thing” is it? Is it a kind of magic that infuses an object? Or perhaps a thing that has a mystical significance for anyone who is “in the know?” Or perhaps it’s an alchemy that occurs when just the right combination of physical and thought ingredients are placed together, by an artist attuned to some secret channel?

I find these the only sorts of descriptions that are up to the task of explaining what confronts us in many contemporary art contexts. The jargon-filled wall text, and presence in a gallery, are often the sole indicators for the lay-person that he or she should recognize what is being exhibited as an esthetic or intellectual experience at all. What is on exhibit can be anything, and any attributes or qualities of that thing are simply supposed to be infused with art, like a dry sponge cake soaked in liquor. Attempts to categorize and evaluate independent elements for actual "artfulness" are looked upon with scorn. The contemporary art establishment argument that "it looks easy, but it's really not" is the traditional way of quashing legitimate suspicions as to the location of any artfulness that would qualify the work as art. In the contemporary art context, an industry-sanctioned artist (or gallery or museum) has a more or less unquestioned right to pronounce any object or act to “be” a thing called art, independent of any of its attributes or lack thereof.

How convenient for the art world!
Yet, oddly, to a great extent art-as-a-noun is satisfying to both the general and the elite art public. People are not overly taxed by the experience of this sort of “art,” and can indulge in a little pseudo-religious tingle when told that everything in a high-end gallery or museum with a label “is” art. The relatively recent growth of this belief is illustrated by the fact that art (at the highest price points) has been for many recent decades arguably the most lucrative speculative product available- a fact not the case in the centuries preceding 1950. Every time the wealthy invest, of course, they solidify the values of the objects as things called art for the believers, and increase the stranglehold of the word “art” as a noun on the culture. Everyone is happy; money is made, “culture” is produced on a prodigious scale, because anything can be magically transformed into art (and wealth) by a mere word from the right authority. But the culture is slowly hollowed out, as the things people are told about culture become more disconnected from what they see and feel.

But let’s step back for a moment and take an example to begin to illustrate the usefulness of separating the concept of “art” from the concept of “importance.” My contention is that any act that is performed with a greater than average quality, that is to say, “artfully done,” is art. I consider that my friend, who for some peculiar reason has a way of tying his shoes that is fascinating to watch, is a shoe-tying artist. Why is he not celebrated and put in a museum, after all he is perhaps in the top one percent of shoe-tyers? Because what he does, and the category he does it in, is simply not that important to very many people. A few lucky people may notice and enjoy his particularly rhythmic and graceful way with shoelaces. Yet perhaps because the act isn’t inherently complex enough to carry much information, it probably won't have a noticeable impact on the culture, no matter how well it is done. The fact that he performs a specific act well makes him an artist- just not a culturally important one.

This kind of democratization of art is a good cause morally and a healthy one culturally. Without being overly saccharin about it, everyone indeed can potentially be an artist, as long as we don’t demand that art be conflated with cultural importance and financial value. If we keep artfulness distinct from importance, any person has the potential to bring meaning, beauty, and pleasure to their life by doing something well, and being justified in calling themselves an artist even of a small kind. Not everyone will, or must, but they could.

The average person’s artistic actions may also be understood as the building blocks of the more complex creations that ultimately do deserve the moniker of “important.” In the democratic art world arising from our definition there is no qualitative difference between simple small artful actions and those that make up good or even great art actions and creations. A masterpiece may be defined by emergent qualities, cultural shockwaves, and chain-reactions that immensely amplify the effect of a complex group of artful actions. Yet at base, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling are made of the same words and grammar and color and structure that any of us may employ, and the knowledge of this commonality is precisely what makes them magical.

Let me be clear: I’m not writing a screed against conceptual art, or installation, or video art, or anything in particular. I don’t propose this only as a partisan of painting, but as a fan of clarity, pleasure, and satisfaction. For me the whole human project of life is the separation, categorization, and organization of the primordial soup of experience, in order to make meaning out of it. Biology works this way, against entropy and the collapse of categories and systems, and the resulting human consciousness depends upon a similar logic in culture, if it is to remain vital and to grow. An intellect must be permitted to look at an object and ask: what categories do the artful elements belong to? Yet in the present culture and art marketplace this act is a revolutionary act that is punished with mockery and banishment.

What is real meaning? It is meaning that is at least palpable to a community of people before marketing, before explanation, before the intervention of experts whose conflicts of interest ought to be obvious. Anyone familiar with the last decades of the American and British art scene knows the guilty shiver of excitement when something seemingly worthless is bought for an astronomical sum or anointed with a coveted prize. The actual qualities, or attributes, of such an object are instantly encased in an unbreakable capsule of perceived value: it has become a “thing” of value, and of cultural meaning, by virtue of external fiat. There is no point in examining it for any particular elements or attributes, as they have all been fused together as one inviolate unit endorsed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Art.

As an example, let us deconstruct the experience of looking at a Jeff Koons ceramic sculpture. Where is the artfulness located? We might start by de-coupling the craft of the fabricators who sculpt, glaze, and fire the ceramic from the experience of his piece more generally, and judge how the overall effect would change if that part was crafted without any art (i.e., not well). The difference in the effect is precisely the fabricators’ contribution to the overall art experience. We might more usefully contemplate each contribution to the experience if we put them in categories: The fabricators are the sculptors, Jeff Koons is an idea man and producer/promoter- and perhaps a great artist at that craft. We don’t need to take anything away from Mr. Koons, while we surely could credit the fabricators more. We can do this by allowing them to remain in their categories.

They are categories that are as distinct from one another as Lucien Freud is distinct from the promoter of the boy-band Menudo. That is not to say they share nothing; yet few who ever attended a concert by Menudo would have sat without complaint if they were instead treated to a show of Lucien Freud paintings. So why do we, at least potentially more sophisticated perceivers, mutely accept when our esthetic categories are intentionally trampled? Because we have been taught that trampling categories is in itself an art event- an event of importance that we may not question unless we are cretins and anti-art. For me, however, categories are the friend of logic and meaning, and the enemy of marketing.
What I am arguing is not that great art is simple and everyone is equally capable of sensing, analyzing, or making it; each of us will have different levels of capacity for understanding and creating. My estimation of the level of relative skill of my friend’s shoe-tying is limited by the breadth of my experience; if you have an exhaustive knowledge of the subject, you may find him decidedly less impressive. The contention is that art will not be any poorer, its analysis any less rich, if we begin to describe the effect of an art object or event in terms of the art (the “thing done well”) in each part of the whole. What we do when we categorize for ourselves the location of the art (of “what is done well”) is to reclaim for ourselves the right to control our own experience, so as not to be duped or deprived of real and nourishing pleasures. A really meaningful experience of art would become easier for all of us to have, and to discuss, and harder for the marketplace to simulate.

Another instance: an occurrence that is perhaps one of the formative cases in our modern art-historical memory: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” exhibited at the 1917 Armory Show in New York. It consisted of a urinal turned 90 degrees and signed “R. Mutt.” Perhaps the act of putting the urinal in the gallery actually changed the esthetic content of the object? The art history I learned said that it did- that the great philosophical coup of Duchamp was to assert his authority as the artist, as a magician waves his wand, nominating something into the realm of art by “giving it a new thought.” Now this is a very, very helpful assertion for the art dealer, as well as for the university professor, whose contribution to the status quo I write about elsewhere, and for whom “new thoughts” are bread and butter.

It is certainly true that moving something into a palace or a dump or a museum may affect our perception of it. The Museum (or gallery or dealer), however, would like us to believe that it has the power to anoint objects it embraces as art. Yet if we deploy our simple, new definition here, we may reply that the only art a museum can make is what it is capable of “doing well.” As what a museum is most skilled at doing is conferring importance, what the museum (or gallery or dealer) adds to an object is mostly just that: a sense of importance.
This is the key transposition that I think has confounded even the best of us: the feeling of conferred importance has become, through bombardment of countless iterations of the Marcel Duchamp experiment, the experience that people understand as the feeling of art. Museums, galleries, and artists have begun producing objects and events that are designed to refer to other similar objects and experiences within the contemporary art canon, with the goal that they will appear to be influential among their peers, and therefore relevant and important. They call what they are doing “making art,” because it sounds silly to admit what they are really trying to do, which is to bypass art and make something that is simply “important”. But one cannot make an object that is artistically important before it is art, and then call it art because it sounds better. It would be like trying to make “delicious” ice cream before making ice cream, or filling the bestseller shelf in a bookstore with dictionaries.

Museums, galleries and dealers today often purvey manufactured, artificial, conferred “importance” as a stand-in for art. They offer the public an experience of importance as it is defined in the self-referential and labyrinthine art world. This experience is then called “art” to disguise what is essentially a balance sheet tied up in a bow. People are offered the word “art” in place of the experience of art; the blunt noun “Art” in place of the subtle adjective “artful,” and much of the time they seem to accept it, consume it, and unaccountably to be satisfied with it.

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