The Collector
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The Collector

How to Define Art?

On stained glass windows and Socrates.

‘The Skeleton Painter’ by James Ensor

Of all the questions that bring most pleasure to reflect on, and to do so with good company, the question of what exactly art is lays at the forefront of my thought. And, when I think about definitions, I reflexively think of two philosophers, Socrates and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Interestingly, Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language was at odds with Socrates’ method of definition. Wittgenstein believed that the meaning of a term depended on its contextual ‘language game’, and that we shouldn’t think of language as existing in a perfect, philosophically pristine Platonic realm. On the other hand, old-fashioned Socrates did not concern himself that much with the words of our language– the meanings of which, according to Wittgenstein, are determined by their use within a particular language game– but with the nature of the thing itself. Socrates did not ask what the words justice, love, and wisdom meant. Rather, he wanted to know what the essential qualities of justice, love, and wisdom were.

Though I can’t really say much on which method of definition is better, I do know that contemporary philosophy has moved towards Wittgenstein’s. I have my own problems with the idea that there is such a thing as justice, whatever it may be, outside of language. However, I think there is some usefulness in using Socratic definitions. They may not be able to tell us how something is used linguistically, but perhaps how it ought to.

I have thought about the question at hand for a really long time and here, laid out, is what I have been able to discern about art so far. However, this may not be an attempt to reign what art is in its vague, relativistic use of the word into a Socratic definition, as much as it may be more of a restructuring or formalization of a group of ideas to fit into a cohesive linguistic unit.

To begin with, it is worth noting that I believe that aesthetic value and art are not the same thing. Something can be beautiful, such as a sunset, without us considering it to be art. Likewise, I do not believe that meaningfulness and art are interchangeable. What I mean is that, for example, though we might find personal meaning in, say, a rock or a paper bag, we do not think of them as being necessarily artistic. I wanted to get these two exclusions out of the way first because I think they will clear the way forward and dispense with a lot of the smoke and mirrors around defining art.

The other fundamental point, I think, is that art necessitates an artist. In other words, it can not be accidental or entirely random. If a tree falls and forms an aesthetically pleasing and perhaps meaningful form, it is not art. It was not created. Similarly, a stain of ketchup, a fallen drink, or the stars are not, per my definition, art. They can be beautiful. They can be meaningful. However, they are not made and therefore they are not art.

I am tempted to think of art in a similar way in which Immanuel Kant thought of morality. That is to say that it is intention and agency that determine artistry, just as ‘autonomy’ (of the Greek self ‘autos’ and law ‘nomos’) determines the moral quality of an action for Kant. Though an accidental or random event may create a more aesthetically valuable object than a mediocre artist could, the randomly created object is not art.

However, if it is agency and intention that determine artistry, then we have to reckon with some of the common attributions of artistry that seem to undermine our definition. For example, would you say that a corporate ID picture is art? Perhaps that is too simple. Would you say that a commissioned painted portrait is art? After all, the artist did not choose the subject matter, but they were employed, as the photographer is employed by the corporation, to utilize their skills to make a profitable product. If the portrait is not art, then that is all very well. However, if we are willing to say that it is not, then we have to ask ourselves, what about the Sistine Chapel?

The Sistine Chapel

The vault of the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Julius II to be painted by Michelangelo in 1508. Though it is likely that he wanted to paint the chapel, and that he was invested in the themes and subject matters of the piece, we can fathom a world where Michelangelo took on the job for the sake of fame, or money, or under threat. If the painting was not produced completely autonomously, and was rather a commissioned work valued by the employer not for the autonomous artistic process, but rather by the outcome, then how can we say Michelangelo’s masterpiece is art?

How is the Sistine chapel different from the corporate portrait? I think that part of the answer can be found in the way we think about art as a word. Though it is a noun, as in this is art, we also say that something is a work of art. In other words, pieces of art are the result of art itself. Art, the verb, then is a process and art, the noun, is the expression of such. It is useful to think of it this way, for example, because it settles the dispute of deciding what forms of expression can be counted as art. It turns out, then, that anything can be a piece of art as long as it is a work of art.

So far, this all may have sounded redundant and like I am stressing the same point multiple times. Thus is the tedious work of setting definitions. However, we have now arrived to the real crux of our linguistic exploration:

What qualifies a process as being art?

So far, I have established certain qualities of the process of art. We know, for example that it is an intentional process. Again, doing art requires an artist. However, do we know it has to be autonomous, and, if not, then is a corporate ID portrait art?

Taking up the challenge of the Sistine Chapel’s nebulous agency, I think that it is useless to think that freedom to choose the subject of the art is necessary for that to be artistic. We do not choose our lives, or were we live, or when we live– these are the things that inform our art, after all. True, a modern amateur artist may have more freedom than a renaissance painter whose work depends on the patronage of the rich and powerful who may have very specific subject matters in hand. However, art, it seems to me, is not always about choosing the subject, but rather about a process of transformation.

I’ve mentioned before a lecture I took once on “Dante and Gothic architecture.” It was then that the lecturer made an analogy between Christian ethics and a stained glass window. Christians hope to perfect something natural– which can be flawed and sinful, per dogma– and turn it through prayer and faith into something other-worldly. The stained glass window parallels that process by taking natural light and converting it into something ‘divine’– something more.

Wilfredor, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Inadvertently, my lecturer gave us an excellent image with which to talk about the process of art. An artist takes something in reality, and, intentionally, transforms it into something else. However, the depicted end result does not have to be a novel or a never-seen-before alien wonder– after all, there is such thing as realism in art. Instead, however, it is the process of making art that we acknowledge as the divine transmutation. When we do art, we are playing with the substance of reality itself.

My definition is not complete, though. Because, engineers, for example, take raw materials and make it into something else like bridges and engines. It seems to me that the real essence of art is aesthetics and, though I am contradicting myself here, the subject.

All art is about humans– even barren landscapes. All art is about the human perspective, and human emotions, and humans in general! No art could be done without us. Though we can teach a robot to design and engineer a piece of machinery, no robot can ever produce a work of art (not, at least, with our established definition). Because, no robot can appreciate artistry like we can. We feel not only what the end product signifies, but every stroke, and every note, and every word and the care put into each– what we really love is the architecture of a living, breathing mind that is immortalized, in part, through the work of art.

Care and thoughtfulness are lifeblood of the artistic process, and the quality of each informs the quality of the artwork. Artists care about proportion, and rhythm, and lines, if only to break each convention; for to care about proportion does not mean the same thing as being proportionate, but rather sometimes breaking the rules of proportion for the sake of aesthetic. Not all art is ‘classically’ beautiful, but all art is thoughtful of these things, and no art is lazy.

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