Can it be “art” if it’s made with a robot’s help?

I make and sell wooden topographic maps of counties, states, countries, parks, continents, you name it. I make my maps by first building a 3d model using data from the US Geological Survey and a few pieces of software, then cut them on a computer controlled router before hand sanding and oiling them.

Much of the reason I do this (beyond loving maps) is for the business lessons, and figuring out how to sell these maps has been a big focus for me lately. I did a couple of local craft fairs this past holiday season with good results, so I’ve been researching and looking at events to do in 2018.

In doing so, I’ve found myself pondering a question: is what I do “art”? Is it “fine art”? Is it “craft”?

In the context of art fairs or retailers, it doesn’t really matter if I think I make art or not. I can ask the organizers of a particular event, or apply and see if the jury accepts me, and then I’d know if that particular set of people consider what I do to be art. I’m unlikely to change the mind of an organizer, and I frankly don’t have much interest in trying. Still, it’s an interesting question in the broader sense: can something be art if a “robot” does some of the work?

My robot assistant

The “it’s art” case is pretty simple: it’s a form of creative expression, requiring skill and imagination. There are creative choices to be made about scale, exaggeration, cutting strategy, wood selection, etc. There’s skill required to operate the machine and significant hand work to finish a map.

The “it’s not art” case is even simpler: it can’t be art because a robot does “all the work” and you make many similar maps.

For the “it’s not art” camp, there’s clearly a spectrum of technological assistance that they’ll accept. Almost all modern photographers use digital tools in the course of their work and produce many identical prints, and most people would consider them in the “art” category, so touching a computer isn’t disqualifying. Almost every fine furniture maker uses jointers, planers, table saws, and other power tools in the course of their work, so it’s not the use of mechanized assistance that pushes something into the non-art category.

So what’s the defining characteristic? I’ve been thinking about this question for weeks now as I’ve considered applying for “art” shows, and I’ve come to a satisfying conclusion: I don’t know and I don’t care if what I do is “art”. I love the work that I’m producing and lots of other people do too, and that’s enough for me. I especially don’t care if someone else thinks what I do is art; if they choose to label it instead of engage with it, that’s their loss.

I’m still not sure if I should be applying to fine art fairs, but my uncertainty is just a business question — will I sell enough to the audience a given event attracts to be worth the time and treasure required? If I decide it’s worth it and apply and get rejected because it’s not art in the eyes of the jury, that’s fine. That’s probably not a crowd I want to spend time with.

I’m done wondering if I belong somewhere because what I do might not be art. I’ll just be over here making great maps.