What is Art?
Well the first criterion seems to be that it is something that is created, that is, a human made it. If you’re standing in a field looking at a beautiful sunset, that’s not Art, but if you take a photo, that could be photographic art, or if you paint a picture, that could be visual art, or if you can paint it with music, (the Sunset Symphony?), that is also Art. So it really is as Shakespeare said, holding a “mirror up to nature”, what is in the mirror is artificial, not “real”. It has to be something made by a human…is this enough?
What about computer generated art? It is not devoid of human creativity, because the code is written by a human, and there is even beauty in code, the cleverness of the solution to the problem in the real world, the neatness and tidiness of the layout, the clean lines of formatting, and excellent clear comments. Of course, only the initiated can appreciate such qualities, but this is also true of Art in general. You need to have some mastery of the English language to appreciate Shakespeare or Yeats or Joyce or Bono… “And it’s true we are immune/When fact is fiction and TV reality” (U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday).
Is it Art if the critics have to tell us it’s Art? Well if not the critics, at least someone who knows? Unless we know ourselves, that is, if we have made some effort to learn about the context of the art or the artist’s world. So another criterion: some effort is required to appreciate the work. It might not be much of an effort, it might be subtle, but it’s not a passive act. You read, you listen, you watch, and you hear or see at some level other than the merely physical. Or is this true? Speaking of the ballet dancer Ivan Vasiliev, Mark Monahon states:
You don’t need to know anything about ballet to find yourself gawping in disbelief at his technical brilliance….nor does it take an expert to recognise the charisma, virility and no-holds-barred drama that he brings to the stage.
Vasiliev himself suggests “If it’s Art, it must be crazy”, well we know a few artists have been at least a little crazy, and not just chopping off an ear crazy. So do we need to let our own crazy out in order to appreciate art? Must we let our logical sides go just enough and allow ourselves be transported in some way? Is this the core of the question, there is some experience of Beauty in a crafted form? Even the ballet dancer is crafting a form until there is no gap between the dancer and the dance, and his flights lift us out of our minds (crazy).
If I draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, I’m a vandal, but if an artist such as Marcel Duchamp draws (ever so well) on the lady, it is art (a layer of Art over Art?). Is it Art because the creator is an artist? Who defines who is an artist? Is George Bush an artist? Even if he was really, would we allow him to be? If Salvador Dali ran for president, and won, he would still be an artist, just as W.B Yeats remained a poet after becoming a senator. But if you make your reputation first in a non-artistic field…then do we have our doubts or is it that we can’t re-define the person? If a renowned surgeon turned to painting, would we accept him or her as an artist, assuming all other boxes were ticked? It seems it depends on what you’ve done in the past…in the Ireland where I grew up, you couldn’t call yourself a writer until you were a long time dead.