The rules and language of art, once elucidated, bring a clarity of mind to the practice of the enterprise, but not necessarily its purpose. If ‘art is all about how we handle the facts’, then the questions that belong to art, those which concern each individual work of art, remain: why are we handling the facts in such and such a way? We piece together answers, but seek a guiding principle which will let us stab straight to the heart of reasons.
A stumbling block along the way is the fact that the ‘how’ of art isn’t all that well-defined, either. I’ve also said before that “there’s lots that’s about doing, but art is about doing;” this is a borderline aphorism (like most of what I say) that could tell many people different things (if anything at all): perhaps it means that art characterizes actions, seeking to draw attention to their problems or virtues; or, more vaguely, that art is related to doing in that it is best understood by the audience as a form of communication about some action; or that art is fundamentally critique of praxis, theoria, or poeisis, which would almost be like saying that art always has an actor, a personality behind the paint beyond the artist, either explicit, characterized, or anthropomorphized into existence.
We want precision or didacticism in a definition, something that gives the reader a handle on this fundamentally unlimited practice, but where are we going to find it? This is a problem people have grappled with for years, that generally anything can be art, and art can do or be used for anything, but we don’t call everything art because somehow that would be wrong, and the term is meaningful because of the unnamed rules that govern its use.
Art is ill-defined because it does a million different things. And our use of the term ‘art’ isn’t any more coherent: we say ‘art’ to mean ‘benchmark’, that a creation has a technical fluency that makes it significant and meaningful; we say ‘art’ to refer to objects and ideas; we say ‘art’ to refer to criticism of objects and ideas; we say art to refer to the significant and the insignificance we choose to focus on. Art, as a word, looks to be overreaching and dada-esque: it’s this powerfully important assemblage we have rules for using in conversation, but the explanation for it is basically equivalent to throwing your hands up in the air and shouting out, “Arbitrary!”
The good news is that the arbitrariness we see in attempts to talk about art as a whole can disappear when we think with specificity about art, about particular artworks and their particular contexts or framings, though we sometimes must work excruciatingly hard to get the information that drives it away and leaves meaning in the wake of whimsy. And there, we find an actual answer: the function of art lies in contextualization, or must be dependent upon the way you frame the ‘work’, because good art is art that connects overwhelmingly, pushing up against the ‘why’s of an indelible, sometimes uncountable number of actions.
It would then be more correct to define art as a perspective, an unflappable interest in facts and values and arrangements and patterns and relations and the meticulousness here within this box we create for looking at.
This is what I mean when I say about, or handle; art is literally around and within the subject or its manipulation. Art is about presenting context, from the very smallest scrapes of horsehair across canvas being used to define a wisp of hair characteristic of women in the Edo period of Japan, to the pinnacle of the flame of the Statue of Liberty’s torch representing the savvy of American achievement.
It all is meant to play into the context, and makes it more meaningful, which is why technical proficiency can indicate artistic purpose and meaning. This structure lends itself to use as a means of communication & criticism, and is likely infinitely extensible.
I could probably get away with using my old definition to conclude this essay (I mean, essays on the nature of art aren't particularly risky in the first place) but this new one shall suffice:
Art is the care of context.
Originally published at mark-ik.tumblr.com.