What We Mean When We Say “Art”

This is the fourth post in a series on the limits of art as a term.
Part One is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here.

So. When we say art, and we are not referring simply to paintings and sculptures and stuff, we usually mean one of the following things.

1. Art is something that takes skill to make or execute well

When Julia Child wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she probably meant that French cooking was an art in the pre-Renaissance sense: pies and crepes as “well-crafted functional objects.” We all need food (which the functional part), but it takes an accomplished chef to make truly great food (which is the part that makes it art).

But contemporary readers tend to understand this usage as a metaphor, and indeed, Child herself might have meant it as one. It’s not that French cooking is an art, this argument goes, but rather that if you’re sufficiently good at French cooking, the results can be like art.

2. Art is something that seeks meaning and explores the human condition and does nothing else

When we say that French cooking is like art, but not actually art, this is the kind of art we’re saying it’s like. As discussed in a previous post, this is an extraordinarily and pointlessly restrictive definition.

It also makes very little internal sense. Operating on this definition, we often try to separate art from entertainment, despite the great number of things that explore the human condition while simultaneously entertaining us, from the Shakespeare canon to The Colbert Report. A skilled writer can find time for high-minded ruminations on morality and numerous dick jokes.

We could say that some entertainments contain art, or that they contain art-moments, but at that point entertainment and art are officially intermixed anyway. It’s too late to take the chocolate out of the milk–and what would be the point of doing so, anyway?

3. Art is something that well-educated people respect, and that people of good taste enjoy

I have several friends who become angry when they see conceptual art of pretty much any kind, and I suspect that their anger stems from this definition. They always want to say “That’s not art!” or “You’re telling me this is art?” because they have internalized the idea that art means something they have to respect (which is a hard sell where stolen urinals are concerned, which was sort of Marcel Duchamp’s point).

As I’ve said before, this makes it impossible to talk about bad art, dumb art, art that tries and fails, or art that you can understand and even respect without liking. If only the really successful attempts get to be included in the conversation, then we miss out on a whole lot of really interesting work, and that’s a shame.

4. Art is something that is meaningful and important without being enjoyable

This is appreciating art as a synonym for eating your vegetables, and the arts as a blanket term for those entertainments that we should probably keep around even if no one really finds them entertaining.

It’s this definition that leads people to sit quietly with their hands folded at the opera, nodding off occasionally and glaring at anyone with the audacity to applaud too often–despite the fact that opera was as rowdy and lowbrow a popular art-form as any in its heyday. The more you respect opera, the less you expect to enjoy opera.

And in galleries, when visitors encounter visual art that is overtly playful, or layered with historical meaning, or salacious and moronic, they tend to regard it all with the same sort of uniform, glassy-eyed seriousness. Nothing sufficiently respected has the opportunity to mean much of anything.

So enough with all the stultifying respect already.

Art has to be something that we all have permission to love, hate, kinda-like, kinda-dislike, laugh at, cry over, intellectualize, or engage viscerally on a case-by-case basis, or else there’s very little point in talking about it.

What I’m trying to ask is whether the word art is really worth hanging onto, given all of the above. It’s a term that means at least five different things, none of them all that useful, most of them highly problematic, and at least one of them actually nonsensical.

But even so, I think we’re sort of stuck with the word, at least for the moment–and in my next post, I’ll discuss how running an online art gallery has lead me to that conclusion. If we can understand what makes the word necessary right now, we can better address the goal of making it less necessary in the future.

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